When skilled axeman Edward Tarrant was tried for murder, his victim's skull was presented in court as an exhibit.

Another exhibit was the axe alleged to be the murder weapon.

James Flood had been practically decapitated by two heavy blows to the back of the head with a sharp axe, according to medical evidence.

Before that, he was hit on the side of the head with the back of the axe.

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Tarrant, a heavily indebted 60-year-old wood merchant, had crept into the living room of Flood's small Picton cottage by an unlocked door.

Pathologist Dr P. P. Lynch said Flood, 76, would probably have been sitting with his head in his hands when Tarrant bashed him with the back of the axe. Flood would have fallen to the floor unconscious.

"... my theory is that the murderer then became alarmed, as he [Flood] lay on the floor, and struck two swift blows at this neck with the axe, which must have been very sharp and heavy."

The victim was practically decapitated by each blow, either of which would have caused instant death, the pathologist said.

Another doctor, E. W. Smyth, said a violent blow to the back of Flood's head was struck by a left-hander.

Flood was killed on November 3, 1931 and his body was found 48 hours later when a policeman, acting on neighbours' concerns, broke into his home through a window. It wasn't until the following June that Tarrant was arrested.

At around the time of the arrest, Flood's body was exhumed for Lynch's examination and he produced the skull in evidence.

Flood had farmed at Port Underwood, the Herald said, and was from a well-known Marlborough family which had made its home there in the whaling days.

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Robbery was the alleged motive for his killing.

New Zealand Herald report of the hanging of Edward Tarrant in March 1933 for the murder of James Flood at Picton. Source: NZ Herald, National Library
New Zealand Herald report of the hanging of Edward Tarrant in March 1933 for the murder of James Flood at Picton. Source: NZ Herald, National Library

Retired, thrifty and living alone in Picton, Flood was known to carry up to £1000 (around $108,000 in today's money) in a fat wad of notes in a wallet in a special pocket in his jacket. He received payments from fixed bank deposits in cash.

In 1931 the Great Depression was hurting New Zealanders and Tarrant was in serious financial difficulty. He had been sued several times and he was behind with his rent.

But after November 3, his fortunes seemed to improve. He paid his landlord's agent, Jabez Blizzard, £21 and promised to pay the balance in monthly instalments. He began paying other debts and began using £10 and £20 notes - large sums at the time - for small purchases at local shops.

The notes Tarrant handed out were greasy and stained in a similar manner to documents of Flood's. A bank teller gave evidence that Flood drew interest in notes of big denominations similar to those recovered from Blenheim tradesmen who had accepted them in payment from Tarrant.

On hearing of Flood's death, Tarrant fronted up to the police and said he had borrowed £30 from Flood. When later questioned about his spending after November 3, he said it was from money he had saved. But the story changed and he said he had found the money in a wallet under a hedge.

Tarrant's lawyer, Evan Parry, said the accused admitted he initially tried to mislead the police about his possession of the money from the wallet, until he was "bowled out", when he told the truth - that he had found it.

When a detective searched his home, Tarrant showed his abilities wielding an axe.

"In the backyard accused demonstrated his skill in splitting a block of wood with one blow with an axe," according to a Herald report of Detective Sergeant Jarrold's court testimony.

"He did this in a left-handed manner and said he could split a 6-foot length just as easy. The axe had a very sharp edge."

Parry said there was no evidence that an axe had been used in the murder and, if one had been used, there was no evidence the axe belonged to Tarrant.

The Supreme Court jury, however, found Tarrant guilty and the judge, Justice Blair, delivered the mandatory death sentence.

Tarrant appealed, unsuccessfully. He was hanged at Wellington's Mt Crawford jail in March 1933.