After suffering repeated assaults by her husband, Elizabeth Grace Donaldson was said to have murdered him by stabbing his throat with a long bread knife.

Or did he fall onto the knife, as she claimed?

Alfred George Donaldson's abuse of his 37-year-old wife came to a head at 10pm on Sunday, December 13, 1931.

The Great Depression had begun and Alf Donaldson, 42, was an unemployed building-site scaffolder who had been doing relief work. He and his wife quarrelled often and she talked of leaving him, although she would later profess to have loved him greatly.

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Elizabeth's teenage son from a previous marriage and her 70-year-old mother Amelia Kerr lived with the couple at 10 Dublin St, Whanganui although the son was away on holiday. Today, the house, which would have been just metres from the Whanganui River, has gone, replaced by commercial buildings.

Before his death, Alf had been out all day. Elizabeth and her mother had been to an open-air band concert and when they came home Elizabeth asked a neighbour if she had seen Alf.

Elizabeth appeared angry and said Alf was going to be "in for it" when he got home, the neighbour would later say in court. The neighbour added that she had previously seen Elizabeth at home crying, with her face swollen, bruises on her thighs and marks around her throat.

At her Supreme Court trial, Elizabeth took the witness stand to challenge the charge that she had murdered Alf. Describing his abuse, she said he had struck, kicked and choked her, and hit her with a piece of lead, a poker and a broom.

The judge, Justice Henry Ostler, interrupted to say this line of evidence was irrelevant, because no matter how bad the man's character, it was no excuse for his wife to stick a knife into his neck.

Elizabeth said that when Alf came home - on the night of his death - she asked where he had been all day. In reply he struck her, knocking her to the floor. He kicked her on the thigh, hit her with a shovel and punched her arm.

She suffered bruising that a prison doctor said, in later evidence, was consistent with her description of the attack.

Elizabeth said Alf threatened her, saying, "I'll do for you", and picking up a knife. But he dropped the knife and ran out the back door.

Elizabeth took the knife and went to shut the door to keep him out. It was dark and, with the hand in which she held the knife, she tried to bolt the door, when Alf burst in and ran into the blade.

It went into his neck about 3.8cm, cutting the jugular vein.

Alf staggered out the front door, cried "God, get a doctor" and collapsed in a flower bed. A doctor was called, but it was too late. Alf had bled profusely and died.

Elizabeth was heard to tell her mother: "Wash that knife."


New Zealand Herald report, December 14, 1931. Source / Herald archives

At the trial doctors disagreed over how the fatal wound was caused - whether Elizabeth had thrust the knife into Alf's neck, or he fell or stumbled onto it. Two said the force could have come from Alf's falling, while a third said that was impossible.

Justice Henry Ostler said the Whanganui murder accused's history of abuse by her husband was no excuse for her to stick a knife into his neck.
Justice Henry Ostler said the Whanganui murder accused's history of abuse by her husband was no excuse for her to stick a knife into his neck.

Ostler told the jury they could convict Elizabeth of murder or manslaughter, or acquit her, adding that there was insufficient evidence for a murder conviction.

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The jury took an hour to acquit her, the Horowhenua Chronicle reported.

"The verdict was applauded by a crowded gallery, but the applause was quickly checked by court orderlies."