Annie and Rosamond Smyth, the victims of a serial killer, lay dead in their Salvation Army home for 13 days before being found, despite at least two visitors passing through.

Based on the confession of convicted murdered Leo Silvester Hannan 20 years later, the Smyths were the first of his four victims.

The killings of the Smyths and an elderly man, all in the east coast North Island town of Wairoa in the 1940s, were unsolved crimes, despite enormous investigations by the police.

The Salvation Army hall in Wairoa, where Annie and Rosamond Smyth were murdered in 1942.
The Salvation Army hall in Wairoa, where Annie and Rosamond Smyth were murdered in 1942.

Brigadier Annie Smyth, 62, and her sister Rosamond, 74, had their home in the town's Salvation Army hall.

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Annie, an ardent evangelist, had spent much of her adult life as a missionary in Japan and she had an affection for the country and its people. That and her domineering manner made enemies of some when New Zealand was at war with Japan.

At the sisters' Wellington funeral, the Salvation Army Commissioner J. Evan Smith said it appeared a vindictive person had resented Annie's denunciation of sin. She was well known for attacking evil and could even be considered a Christian martyr.

Rosamond, Smith said, was kind, unassuming and gracious.

Both were found dead from multiple head injuries inflicted with an axe and, in the case of Rosamond, who died in the bedroom, with an iron fire poker.

The police believed they were killed on August 8, 1942. They were found by a neighbour on August 21.

At the inquest, it was revealed two visitors had been at the house, both on August 9. One was a woman who passed through the Smyths' kitchen, not noticing the body of Annie lying dead in a damaged Morris chair. The visitor went into the hall to pray.

The other visitor was an 8-year-old girl who had been playing with other children nearby. She entered the house, saw Annie, and carried on playing, throwing pillows out a window to children who threw them back. She told neither playmates nor her parents of the grisly find, because she was too frightened.

Both women's clothing was disordered in a way that suggested a sexual motive, but there was no evidence of rape or even indecent assault. Nor did robbery appear to be the motive, as money was found in both sisters' possessions.

Herbert William Brunton outside his hut in Wairoa, where he was killed in 1948.
Herbert William Brunton outside his hut in Wairoa, where he was killed in 1948.

Herbert William Brunton

More than six years later, the axe killer struck again. Herbert William "Bunny" Brunton, 69, was killed at his hut near the Wairoa railway station, where he lived alone.

A former railway guard, he had been long separated from his wife. Neighbours and friends said he was kindly, retiring and a reliable worker who had no enemies they knew of.

Brunton's body was found, by a neighbour, propped against the bed, with deep head wounds inflicted by at least six blows with an axe.

The neighbour, who was deaf, reported that on the night before he found Brunton's body, a person who shone a torch in his window asked if there were any women in the house. When told there weren't any, the intruder asked who lived in the house occupied by Brunton, before leaving.

The police took fingerprints from more than 5000 people in their unsuccessful hunt for Brunton's killer. At his hut, a bloody fingerprint was found on the back of the door. Officers believed it was the killer's.

A granddaughter of Brunton's, Roselind Brunton, born in 1960, told the Herald the killing wasn't discussed when she was growing up.

"My father didn't talk about it."

Asked about the effect of the killing on the wider family, she said: "I think it was a big shock because in those days we didn't have many murders."

Frederick Andrew Stade

In September 1950, a night watchman was attacked with an iron bar and killed at the Wellington railway station.

The Johnsonville train had left at 1.18am. Minutes later, cries were heard and the battered body of Frederick Andrew Stade, 54, was found face down in a pool of blood.

Stade was strongly built, but had a limp from a railway injury. A decorated World War I soldier with a tough, workplace demeanour described as "sergeant-major-like", he had been seen in an altercation with a man who wanted to use the staff toilets because the public toilets were closed for the night.

NZ Herald reports on Leo Silvester Hannan's murder of Frederick Andrew Stade in 1950. Source: Herald archives
NZ Herald reports on Leo Silvester Hannan's murder of Frederick Andrew Stade in 1950. Source: Herald archives

Leo Silvester Hannan, labourer, aged 50, was in police custody before daylight. He had spots of blood on his face, left hand and shoes and there was a 12mm piece of human flesh above the right cuff of the trousers.

Asked about the blood, Hannan told the police: "I had a bleeding nose. It bled for four days."

Stade was bashed with a 60cm length of galvanised iron pipe with a T-section piece at one end. The T-section was found with Stade's body. The long piece was retrieved from the harbour near the station.

Annie Smyth in Salvation Army uniform, circa 1938. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Annie Smyth in Salvation Army uniform, circa 1938. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

In sentencing Hannan, Chief Justice Sir Humphrey O'Leary said it had been "a particularly cruel, vicious killing".

In the mid-1950s Hannan won some brief freedom, escaping from prison in Auckland while working in the prison quarry.

Leo Silvester Hannan outside the Wellington Courthouse in 1950 beside a constable and followed by a detective. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Leo Silvester Hannan outside the Wellington Courthouse in 1950 beside a constable and followed by a detective. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The lawyer

Hannan was represented by the lawyer and author George Israel Joseph.

In his 1982 book on unsolved murders, Joseph wrote of a confession to him by unnamed client "X" who was convicted of having "murdered a caretaker" with "a heavy spanner, retrieved soon after the crime from the city harbour".

X had many previous convictions for theft, burglary and violence and had spent years in prison. Born to a good family that had abandoned him in his youth, he was of low intellect, lonely and friendless.

The client was diagnosed with terminal cancer. About three months before he died in October 1962, he was visited by Joseph.

"I've done some bloody awful things in my life," X told Joseph. "The cops don't know the half of it."

"Remember the Salvation Army Sallies in Wairoa? … I did that one.

"I was working on a farm about 20 miles from Wairoa. I used to drink at the pub on Saturdays. The big Sally [Annie] used to come into the bar and tell us we were all going to the devil, that we ought to give up the booze. We all laughed at the old bitch.

"One of the blokes at the bar said the Sally had lots of dough. He said there was a silly sister who got a pension and cashed it and didn't spend a copper. So one night, I made up my mind that I'd pay a visit and see if it was true. I chopped the two old girls up, but I couldn't find any dough."

Joseph asked why he pulled down their pants.

"Thought I'd make it look like attempted rape in case the cops got onto me. They knew my style wasn't rape."

Did X kill Brunton too?

"Yes. They reckoned he had dough. All I got was a half-full bottle of gin."

The Youngs

Sherwood Young, who retired as a sworn policeman in 1999, had risen to the rank of Chief Inspector. He also writes police and crime history and is the grandson of former Police Commissioner Bruce Young who, as a senior detective had led the Smyths and Brunton investigations.

After reading of X's confessions, Sherwood Young phoned Joseph to ask the prisoner's identity. It was Hannan.

"He gave me the name and that he confessed to killing the Smyth sisters and Brunton. He wanted to get it off his chest before he died," Young told the Herald.

"There was no question of confidentiality involved at that time. He was never charged. There wasn't enough evidence … He was already doing time for murder.

"I followed up his convictions and he was out of prison at the times these murders took place."

Young wrote the confessions into a biographical article on Annie Smyth, in which he said the murderer's occupations had included bushman and bootmaker.

"Hannan had lived an itinerant life in various parts of the lower North Island between Wellington and Taumarunui, but had spent much of the 1940s in prison."

Young told the Herald he doubted any follow-up comparisons had been done between Hannan and the suspect fingerprint at Brunton's hut.

Timetable of death

• 1942 - Annie and Rosamond Smyth killed in Wairoa

• 1948 - Herbert William Brunton killed in Wairoa

• 1950 - Frederick Andrew Stade killed in Wellington

• 1950 - Leo Silvester Hannan convicted of Stade's murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

• 1962 - Hannan, diagnosed with terminal cancer, told his lawyer, George Israel Joseph, that he killed the Smyths and Brunton

• 1962 - Hannan died

• 1982 - Joseph publishes the confessions in a book, but doesn't name Hannan, calling him client X. Some time after the book is published, Joseph discloses to police officer Sherwood Young that client X was Hannan

• 1989 - Joseph died