World famous in Whanganui

Whanganui people have consistently punched above their weight to become famous in their fields ... inventors, politicians, editors, sports people, chefs and more. Reporter JOHN MASLIN profiles them in our World Famous in Whanganui summer series.


The hanging of Whanganui farmer Walter James Bolton at Mt Eden Prison on February 18, 1957 was the last execution in New Zealand before the country abolished capital punishment four years later.


There have been claims made the abolition was due partly to the circumstances surrounding Bolton's case.

After the hanging a newspaper story claimed the execution had gone horribly wrong. Rather than having his neck broken the instant the trapdoor opened, Bolton, allegedly, slowly strangled to death. Bolton was born in Wanganui and grew up in nearby Mangamahu. He married Beatrice Mabel Jones in 1913, but Beatrice died on July 1956 after a long and debilitating illness. An autopsy found traces of arsenic in her body, and a police investigation was launched. Bolton was formally charged with her murder in September that year.

The prosecution claimed that Bolton was having an affair with Beatrice's sister, Florence, who had moved in to help look after Beatrice, and that Bolton had poisoned his wife with arsenic he possessed for use on his farm. It also alleged that he and Florence had destroyed Beatrice's diary.

Bolton's defence argued that Beatrice could have been poisoned accidentally, by arsenic entering the water supply. Water on the Bolton's farm was tested and found to contain arsenic, and traces of arsenic were also found in Bolton and one of his daughters.

Despite this evidence, a jury found Bolton guilty and he was sentenced to death.