On the go and no time to finish that story right now? Your News is the place for you to save content to read later from any device. Register with us and content you save will appear here so you can access them to read later.
Wanganui farmer Walter Bolton became the last man to be hanged in New Zealand when he was taken to the scaffold on this day 60 years ago. Steve Braunias reports.
They came for him at the close of day and hanged him at 6.30pm in a narrow little exercise yard in Mt Eden prison. It was a Monday. The weather was good, and the last of the summer sales included a special on hats for ladies. Invaders from Mars was screening at the Mayfair cinema on Queen St, and the Civic had Love Me Tender, the first Elvis movie.
Walter "Jim" Bolton, a 68-year-old farmer from Wanganui, climbed up on to a steel scaffold; it made a loud clang when the trap door opened. He wore a white hood and one of the fussy rituals of execution in New Zealand was that the hood was pulled off the body, taken to the prison laundry, washed, and folded, ready for the next hanging.
No one ever wore it again. Today marks the cheerless anniversary of the last man hanged in New Zealand, 60 years ago on February 18, 1957.
Bolton was sentenced to death immediately after a jury found him guilty of poisoning his wife. His method, as outlined by prosecution at the nine-day trial in Wanganui, was steady and diabolical: according to a police pathologist, Bolton measured out her death with teaspoons, stirring arsenic into her cups of tea for 17 months.
During that time, Beatrice Bolton suffered regular bouts of intense vomiting, and was taken to public as well as private hospitals. Surgeons removed her gall bladder. It was found to be healthy. Her vomiting resumed and was relentless. She was dehydrated, and also suffered attacks of diarrhoea. The one time she seemed to improve was when she convalesced at her daughter's home in Bulls. Back at her own house, a villa behind a picket fence on a farm property with the grim name of Rusthall, she promptly fell ill again.
The court was told that the final, fatal dose of arsenic was put in her tea on July 10, 1956. A doctor gave her morphine, and she was rushed to hospital. She was on death's door; the door opened, and she died not long after midnight. She was 66. The post-mortem discovered arsenic in her organs, hair, and nails.
Police went to the farm. They noticed a packet of Young's Improved Sheep Dip powder on a shelf in the shed. The label advised that it contained arsenic.
For such an apparently meticulous and patient killer, hovering like an angel of death over the teapot for well over a year, it was a careless place to leave what was essentially the murder weapon. Bolton denied the charges. When hanging judge Justice Gresson passed the death sentence and asked Bolton what he had to say, he replied, for the record, "I plead not guilty sir".
Poison and adultery, sheep dip and tea leaves: it was New Zealand gothic, set on an isolated farm and ending in a narrow brick yard on the east wing of Mt Eden prison. But was it justice? Speculation that Bolton was an innocent man has floated around now and again over the years, although the prosecution case was strong.
Former chief inspector Sherwood Young outlined a thorough police investigation in his chapter on Bolton in his excellent 1998 book, Guilty on the Gallows.
Exhibit A was the sheep dip powder, and there was testimony that Beatrice had said, on one occasion, "This tea tastes queer." Bolton made his wife her cup of tea every morning and sometimes at night. Damningly, his own daughter told the court that he'd just about confessed to the murder when he said to her that he "might have to do a stretch".
There was motive: Bolton had been having an affair with his wife's sister, Florence. It ended on January 1956, by her account, and they'd slept together only three times, but police believed that Bolton wanted his wife dead so he could be with Florence. It was an unlikely late-life passion. A paparazzi of the time photographed a nice old dear with thick ankles creaking out of a car as she arrived in court; according to the Epitaph TV programme on the Bolton case, Florence was unable to talk above a whisper when she appeared as a witness, and a clerk had to repeat what she said so the jury could hear.