Snow family triple murder explored in 'The Axeman's Accomplice'

Papakura Historical Society president Terry Carson with his new book, The Axeman's Accomplice.
Nigel Moffiet

Papakura Historical Society president Terry Carson with his new book, The Axeman's Accomplice.

A gruesome triple murder, resulting in one of New Zealand's first hangings, is being re-examined by a south Auckland historian.

The 1847 killings of naval Lieutenant Robert Snow, his wife Hannah and their 6-year-old daughter Mary, are detailed in Papakura Historical Society president Terry Carson's new book, The Axeman's Accomplice.

Joseph Burns, who was convicted of the murders, was paraded down Auckland's Queen St, seated in his coffin, and taken by boat across the harbour to be hanged on Devonport waterfront, close to the site of the killings.

The Devonport plaque marking the execution spot of Snow family murderer Joseph Burns.

The Devonport plaque marking the execution spot of Snow family murderer Joseph Burns.

Burns, who intended to steal money from the family, confessed to the crime and became the first European to be judicially executed in New Zealand on June 17, 1848.

The book focuses on the role of Burns' mistress, Margaret Reardon, who was also convicted for the murders.

She was sent to Tasmania, becoming the first and only woman in the country to receive a sentence of transportation.

Her role in the crime has raised many questions over the years, Carson says.

"There had been recent suggestions that Margaret Reardon was a battered woman and everything she did was in fear of Burns … the male dominated Victorian legal system had punished her for being the unmarried mistress of a murderer.

"I was more interested in trying to clear up inconsistencies in the story … and try and work out what her actual role had been," he says.

The case also resulted in a number of false accusations as the bodies had been mutilated to cast suspicion.

Ad Feedback

"The mutilations to the bodies were almost certainly a deliberate attempt by Burns to suggest cannibalism was involved and to throw suspicion on Maori. This caused great anxiety in Auckland at the time," Carson says.

Carson, who retired as a lawyer in 2003, says he's always had a "keen interest in New Zealand's colonial history".

He spent three-and-a-half years researching and writing the book using newspaper reports, correspondence, official records, legal depositions, original witness statements and confessions.

The the book is an attempt to clear up "inaccuracies and a few myths" and is the first full length examination of the murders, he says.

The Axeman's Accomplice, retails for $25 on alibipress.co.nz. 

 - Stuff

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback