A skill to die for

Last updated 11:58 16/01/2013
UNMASKED: In this, the only known photograph of hangman Tom Long, he takes his ease on a Masterton sheep station where he was working in the years after the Picton execution.

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Almost 136 years ago to the day a New Zealand town rebelled against a hanging and for a while there was no executioner, no rope supplier, no carpenter, and no officiators - until along came a jolly swagman, writes Mervyn Dykes.

On the face of it Tom Long was a cheerful rascal, but he had a deadly skill that set him apart from most other men.

He liked his drink - like many an Irishman before him - and had numerous brushes with the law for drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, and vagrancy, but that wasn't what made him special.

What he was really good at was making nooses and tying knots, a talent that saw him end up serving the same law he often flouted.

He arrived in Picton mysteriously on January 25, 1877, did what he was asked to do, and left just as quietly after ending a standoff that had divided the town for weeks.

He wasn't "outed" for his work in Picton until 1901, but by then he was recognised as an official hangman who carried out 15 executions in this country. Among them was Minnie Dean, the notorious "baby farmer" and the only woman to ever receive the death penalty in New Zealand.

But capital punishment doesn't amount to much if you can't find anyone to administer it and any would-be hangman is run out of town.

That's what happened in Picton 136 years ago after William Henry Woodgate was convicted of murder - the smothering of a newborn child.

Evidence against him was largely circumstantial, and so many in the community were fiercely opposed to seeing him hang that a general spirit of non-co-operation prevailed.

The debate raged throughout New Zealand and, even in the Manawatu-Whanganui area, newspaper columns were full of the case and the "What about Woodgate" buzz was heard in the streets.

At one point in the sorry saga, Woodgate was brought to the brink of the drop, only to be stood down at the last minute.

The Manawatu Times reported that "every arrangement had been made for the execution" on the chosen day, including the condemned man receiving the sacrament with Archdeacon Butt and the Rev Mr Ronaldson present.

However, matters were halted when it was discovered that stand-in hangman, Samuel Chandler, whose day job was chimney sweep, had been run out of town.

With Woodgate continuing to maintain his innocence, and the sheriff and the jailer refusing to carry out the sentence - even if it meant resigning - the telegraph was used until midnight in an attempt to obtain a hangman from Wellington. The inmates of prisons were canvassed, but they too refused to perform the service.

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In Whanganui, "two worthies" offered to become hangmen and inquired about rates of pay. The Wanganui Chronicle reported wryly that, "We were not before aware that we possessed talent of such a high order in our community".

Woodgate's sorry saga had its beginning at the idyllic Queen Charlotte Sound where he lived with his young nieces. The Press reported court evidence that he had "criminal intercourse" with them, the result of which was the birth of illegitimate children.

"On the last confinement of one of the females, the prisoner was present, and told the mother he had smothered the child," said the paper. "The mother never saw the infant, but the sister, who was in an adjoining room at the time of the birth, heard the child cry. The body was never found and the only evidence of the crime having been committed, was the statement of the prisoner to the mother of the child that he had smothered it."

The defence presented two main arguments. Firstly, it was claimed there was no proof that the child had been born alive. Secondly, it was said to be "not legal evidence" to use the confession of the prisoner without corroborative testimony by other witnesses.

However, Woodgate was found guilty by the jury and condemned to death.

On January 24, the Marlborough Express reported that the sheriff had been able to "make final arrangements" for the condemned man only the day before.

"The scaffold was erected by Mr James Gorrie of Blenheim, cooper, who was applied to inconsequence of the refusal of all the carpenters in Picton to do the work. The unfortunate chimney sweep Samuel Chandler had caught the morning train to Picton but no-one would give him accommodation and none of the publicans would serve him drink.

"He was literally driven out of the town and returned to Blenheim in the afternoon."

Similarly, rope suitable for a hanging was suddenly unobtainable in Picton and the police had to send to Blenheim.

At the same time, said the Marlborough Express, "a large number" of people had signed a petition calling for the commutation of Woodgate's sentence. In the same article the newspaper condemned those in Picton who "put every hindrance in the way of the sentence being carried out".

The execution was adjourned while the search for a hangman was resumed and for a while the people of Picton must have thought they had won. But the end came without warning in the early hours of January 25.

The precursor was the arrival of the vessel Hinemoa carrying a single passenger accompanied by a "Detective Farrell". Later it would be claimed that the entire crew were members of the armed constabulary and that the captain was an inspector.

The mystery man was escorted to Picton Prison. The execution took place and he was escorted out a rear door and back to the Hinemoa, which departed immediately.

For Woodgate, the first warning came at 4am when Ronaldson came to his cell and told him his time had come. Ronaldson stayed with Woodgate until 6.20am when a procession formed from the condemned man's cell to the scaffold.

Offered the chance to say some last words, Woodgate thanked the jail officials for their kindness to him and added "I thank you all very much indeed and I die in peace with all men. I have nothing more to say."

Observers reported that he seemed a little affected, but mounted the steps with a firm tread.

The mysterious hangman adjusted Woodgate's cap and said, "Goodbye old fellow. I wish you a pleasant journey. You're only going a few days before us. Perhaps I might follow you tomorrow or the next day myself."

He again adjusted the rope and said, "Well, how do you feel; is it comfortable or is it too tight?"

"No," said Woodgate.

"Well, goodbye," said the hangman. "I wish you a pleasant journey." At the same time he kicked the bolt with his foot and the drop fell.

Woodgate died without a struggle. The hangman then turned to address the witnesses.

"Well, gentlemen, are you satisfied?" There was no response, so he asked again. "Are you satisfied that I have done my duty?"

This time, they agreed and he departed with his escort.

On February 7, the Marlborough Express declared that the man who hanged Woodgate was a swagman who came to Blenheim "from the south" and offered his services.

"He stated he had been in the navy as a seaman, and boasted of having served as an artilleryman at the time of the Indian Mutiny when he ‘slung them up in dozens'."

Nothing more was heard of him after the Picton episode apart from a cryptic mention in the Wairarapa Standard.

"We hear that the hangman who recently executed Woodgate has arrived in the Wairarapa and is looking for a job. We are thankful to say that there are not many who want hanging in this district, though possibly one or two individuals might be strung up with advantage."

Tom Long did find work there on a sheep station and during the next few years spent much of his time living up the Whanganui River. He died on December 15, 1905, in an accident while felling bush at Kauangaroa east of Whanganui.

Hanging was New Zealand's favoured form of execution, and the death penalty could be sought for murder, treason, and piracy. The first person executed in this country was a young Maori man named Maketu at Auckland in 1842. The last was Walter Bolton who was hanged in Mt Eden prison in 1957. In all, 83 verified executions have taken place in New Zealand.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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