Lack of evidence

Last updated 12:00 09/01/2013
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LONG GONE: The boarding house and bakery in Woodville.

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More than 130 years ago, Woodville was rocked by a ghastly murder mystery that was never solved, writes Mervyn Dykes.

George Ollandt and Harry Thompson were mates and were described by others as treating each other like brothers.

They had a German heritage in common. Ollandt came to New Zealand in 1875 from Hamburg and Thompson was born of German parents in Australia. They met while working in 70 Mile Bush and began saving their money for a joint venture - a boarding house and bakery in the main street of Woodville opposite Murphy's Hotel, then the only public house in town.

Ollandt would run the boarding house business while Thompson - a journeyman baker - looked after the rest. All seemed well.

But just two years later, Ollandt was slashed to death with a billhook in the bush and Thompson (sometimes known as Hans Thomson or Thomsen) faced trial for his mate's murder. The hearing was held in Napier where Thompson was acquitted by a jury that described the evidence against him as circumstantial and said it would be more comfortable with a Scottish verdict of "not proven".

What went wrong? When did things go sour for the two friends? Although several trial witnesses described the men as still getting on well together, there were signs of strain, according to others.

Susan Davey told the Coroner's inquest that when she had lived in the house "some time ago", the men had appeared to be friendly. However, this had changed by the time she visited the house later.

"George was engaged in washing up and asked the prisoner to assist in wiping. He refused, saying he had something else to do. This led to some angry words. George told me he regretted ever having anything to do with the prisoner [Thompson] or the place.

"The prisoner was at this time standing with his back to the fire and face toward me. He said ‘You need not regret it long, you b....' He clenched his fists and looked something dreadful, as if he meant to do something wrong. I can never get that look from before my eyes . . . I shall never forget it as long as I live."

Later, she asked Thompson if he and Ollandt often had words. He replied: "If we do, I always have my own way in the end."

The fateful day, Thursday, November 22, 1877, began like any other. The men staying at the house were called to breakfast by George Ollandt and afterward read newspapers or settled up their bills.

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Samuel Henry Kemp said he left the house and visited Monteith's Store. When he returned about 1pm, Thompson gave him lunch and he heard him say to a visitor that Ollandt had gone into the bush to cut palings. At 2pm Thompson said Ollandt hadn't come home because he had taken some tea with him.

During the day Kemp heard Thompson field inquiries about Ollandt from several other visitors, including Reuben Collins who came to the house with a load of bricks and asked for help unloading them.

When he inquired for Ollandt, Thompson said he was in the bush. Collins went out and "cooeed" for him, but could not get an answer.

That night, when Kemp asked about Ollandt again, Thompson said he had perhaps gone to the settlement further along the road.

The next morning at breakfast when Kemp asked about the missing man, Thompson said he might have gone off the track and become lost in the bush. He said he would go and look for his partner if he didn't return soon, and eventually he did go to make a search.

After the residents had eaten breakfast a party of six men arrived from the town, saying they meant to search for Ollandt too.

"I went with them to where the palings were being split," said Kemp. There was no sign of Ollandt.

At one point the men wanted to go in a particular direction, said witness John James Murphy, a publican, but Thompson replied, "No, come this way and perhaps we will find his tracks."

Murphy, who didn't believe it was possible to get lost in that part of the bush, said he couldn't see any tracks.

"Oh yes," said Thompson. "Here's one. I know that is the mark of George's boot."

The men split up to cover more ground and after searching for about two hours Kemp heard someone shouting about 11am, "Here's a horrible sight."

He went towards the spot and saw Thompson pointing at something. "I still could not see the body from where [Thompson] was standing," he said. "I exclaimed ‘Where is it?' [Thompson] pointed toward the corpse, but I still could not see it. I was standing about 60 feet from the corpse. It was quite impossible for anyone to see a body lying on the ground at that distance, even though a quantity of the supplejacks had been cut away . . . I was about 15 feet off when I first noticed the corpse. I had to go closer than that before I could see the head.

"The corpse was awfully cut about the head. The two jaws were separated by a blow in the mouth, the nose was partly cut off, one temple was cut and one eye seemed as if it had been dragged out of his head." Already the body was considerably flyblown.

Earlier, the searchers had found a broken maul where Ollandt had been working and they supposed he had taken a billhook to cut a new handle. However, the billhook could not be found.

Then, on Saturday morning, Thompson told Constable Farmer he had found it.

Farmer: "I said, ‘Where?' He pointed to the top of the oven where I saw it lying. I am sure it cannot have been there on the previous day, as I looked very carefully and could not have missed it."

Assisted by Constable Gillespie from Palmerston North, Farmer examined the whole house and found a bag and some towels spotted with blood. In Ollandt's room they discovered several clothing items that had been torn, as if someone had been struggling.

Ollandt was arrested and brought to trial in Napier where the jury took only 20 minutes to bring in the acquittal.

However, that was not the last chapter in the story. Two years later, in January 1879, a fierce bush fire wiped clean the area where Ollandt's body had been found and also destroyed the boarding house, and both passed into history.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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