The slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary in the United States last week brought up some uncomfortable memories for a small town in the western Bay of Plenty. Charles Anderson recounts the little-known story of New Zealand's only school shooting.
There were cherry blossoms in the valley that day. They would have only a short period in bloom before their flowers fell off. They would have a short life and a quick death before the season began again.
Back then, in 1923, they always reminded an 8-year-old Joan Dobson of summer. Now they reminded her of something else. The blossoms came into use when the town needed decorations for a procession of people that snaked 500 metres down the dust road sandwiched between the sides of the Karangahake Gorge.
They were still in bloom several days after that when Waikino School was burned down. But it would be a year later until they came back - when residents passed each other in the street but did not speak about why that school, which had stood alone atop a slope 100 metres above the Ohinemuri River, was shifted further down the hill.
October 19, 1923, was a Friday. School began at nine and would end at three. Joan and her two siblings made their way to class, scrambling up the winding boulder-strewn track that led to the schoolhouse - a white 20-square-metre structure built 15 years earlier. On warm, sunny days like that day they would have views right across the valley to the Owharoa Falls in the south and Mt Karangahake to the west.
Since the Victoria Battery was opened 30 years earlier, Waikino had sprung up into a profitable town that ran to the near-constant thud of mined gold ore being pulverised into a saleable metal. It had the largest quartz-crushing plant for gold extraction in Australasia, capable of crushing more than 812 tonnes of ore a day into the consistency of sand. It was a sound Joan enjoyed when she became older and began heading out to the best dance hall this side of Auckland. The thud was so loud that her parents would seldom hear her come home.
But as an 8-year-old, the challenge was getting to school on time. The headmaster, Robert Reid, though innovative with his teaching, was absolute about attendance. Several years earlier, a truancy officer had visited a local wood salesman, John Higgins, and slapped him with a fine for keeping his children home to work on his property.
Higgins had moved into the area 15 years previous after emigrating from Canada. He leased a plot of land and lived in a tent for a year while he built his house out of ponga. Then his chickens started dying. He blamed the neighbours.
His fences started to be cut and cattle would cross over on to his land to graze on his grass. He blamed his neighbours.
His workmates began to tease him as he spouted conspiracies about an ongoing personal persecution. "Mad John," they called him. Then, two mornings before that bloody Friday, he found his mare dead in a paddock.
Two days later he loaded his cart, now pulled with only one horse, with wood and called for his son to walk beside him. He started for town. In his belt, Higgins carried with him a Colt automatic pistol and a package wrapped in newsprint.
Katie McGarry, then 13, walked the same road as Higgins and often passed him in the mornings. Sometimes he would offer her and her family rides to school in the cart. However, today, when she saw him coming towards them, she thought he looked white.
"He was different somehow," she said in the 1980s. But still Higgins asked Katie how her mother, recently gone to hospital, was faring. He asked if she wanted a ride. Katie declined but called out goodbye as he rode off into town. Higgins did not turn around.
He rode the cart by the Waikino Tavern, which was then closed because of a dry vote, and stopped by the post office, where he told his son to drop the wood.
"Why here?" his son asked.
"I don't know, just tip it."
"Who is the wood for?"
"It's not for any particular person," Higgins said. "Just leave it here. I'm going to see another man now."
'I'M HERE FOR REVENGE'
Reid, known by his initials RTR, had been the headmaster of the school for the past eight years. That morning he had taken his two older children to school with him along with Pax - his brown and white setter, who spent his days lazing in the yard.
The school roll was called and Joan and her sister, Ruth, dutifully replied to their names.
Despite their teacher Miss Kendon's best intentions, the pair were already preparing for morning break, which was about 20 minutes away. The clock hit 10 minutes past 10 when Pax began to bark.
The dog had never made such a sound at school before - only occasionally knocking over a smaller student by mistake. Reid rose from his desk and went outside to see Higgins, six feet tall with tanned skin and a small moustache, walking up to the school.
The visitor did not seem to register the headmaster. He continued past him before murmuring: "I'm here for revenge."
Joan looked out the glass window of her classroom door and saw Higgins standing with Reid in the corridor. Before long, the pair had disappeared into the headmaster's study.
Reid closed the door, turned and saw Higgins standing before him with a pistol pointed at his stomach. He was rambling about being persecuted and about his animals.
Reid, unsure of what he wanted, suggested the pair go to the post office to call Sergeant O'Grady at Waihi police station to talk it over.
"You must be dense if you don't know what I am here for," Higgins responded. "I have come here to die but I'm not afraid to stand before my God."
Reid suggested that, if he wanted to shoot someone, he should go down to the battery and shoot the men he was accusing of hounding him.
Higgins looked at his watch.
"I'm wasting my time," he said.
"You'll have to shoot me before the children," Reid replied.
"You leave me no choice," Higgins said. "If you will have it, then take it."
He squeezed the trigger and a bullet shot through Reid's right shoulder and into his jaw.
The headmaster tried to shout a warning as Higgins made his way out of the door. But he couldn't make a sound. Blood was filling his throat.
Joan heard a bang, like a blackboard hitting the floor, but the class did not take any notice. Miss Kendon went to the door and found Higgins.
He moved past her and fired two shots into the classroom. Joan saw the action but still, no-one seemed to know what was going on. "It was just too difficult to even comprehend," she said.
Then Higgins turned, crossed the corridor and entered the other classroom. He seemed to be looking for particular victims, recounted Crown prosecutor Sir Vincent Meredith. Slates, hats and books scattered across the floor and children clambered to escape. Some tried to jump out windows. Some hid behind their desks, others tried to hide in cupboards.
Joan passed her headmaster slouched in the doorway of his office. All he could do was wave his arm toward the door.
Katie heard a bang but did not see the gun. She stood up to run but couldn't. She looked down to see her stockings stained red with blood.
'YOU WON'T HURT ME, WILL YOU MR HIGGINS?'
Kelvyn McLean, 13, sat at his desk. As Higgins approached him, the boy pleaded with him. He knew the attacker.
"You won't hurt me will you, Mr Higgins? Remember I used to help you with your firewood."
The first shot pierced his left leg. Kelvyn sprawled across his desk. He called out for his mother. A second shot was fired into his body.
The teachers had ushered the children to the bottom of the school grounds and told them to go home and tell their parents what had happened. Joan and her siblings headed for their grandmother, who could not believe them. But soon all the neighbours were gathering at a nearby crossroads. When the Stewart family arrived and asked where their son Charles was, nobody knew.
Back at the school, miners from the battery arrived. Some were armed with pea shooters, others had spades.
"What the hell do you want?" Higgins yelled from a window.
"If you don't come down, we will burn the school down," one of the miners shouted.
"Well then, let her go."
Sergeant O'Grady and Constable Olsen from Waihi arrived soon after. They told Higgins to throw the weapon out the window. Instead, he started firing.
The men edged closer to the school and arrived near the study door where Higgins had barricaded himself in. One of the miners smashed in the study door and created a crack to peer through.
Higgins had pulled Reid, who was seemingly lifeless on the ground, into his cupboard and covered him in paper. He was talking about burning the place down.
Constable Olsen pointed his revolver though the split. Higgins spun around and fired a shot at him, striking him in the groin.
Moments later, O'Grady bashed in the door and found Higgins without his gun but with a knife in his hand.
"It's all done," Higgins said. He had thrown his gun out the window.
Police handcuffed him and brought him back through the throng of civilians who had gathered. As he was led out, one miner lunged and punched Higgins in the face. They took him outside and pushed him into a waiting police car.
Inside, doctors found Reid still alive. Blood-soaked and in shock, but alive. Among the litter of .32-calibre shells on the ground, an officer found a detonator with a length of fuse attached to a package wrapped in newspaper. Inside were three sticks of the explosive gelignite - enough to destroy the entire school.
Higgins spent the night in the Waihi police cells and appeared in court the next day. A few hours later he was on a train bound for Mt Eden jail in Auckland.
The two dead boys, Kelvyn and Charles, were buried in Waihi cemetery on Sunday. Joan and her grandmother spent hours making wreaths out of cherry blossoms. There were so many they almost hid the caskets completely. The procession through Waikino, led by two hearses, was half a kilometre long.
The next week a meeting was held to protest an Education Board decision to keep the school open. Children would be taught in the town hall while it was being cleaned.
Later that evening it was the battery workers who first saw the glow on the hill. The flames, fanned by a light breeze was consuming the schoolhouse. By 9pm, it was almost completely destroyed. It was obvious the fire was deliberate. But no-one ever spoke and no charges were ever laid.
Almost 90 years on, though, local Bev Stubbs thinks she knows who did it. It was someone close to the tragedy. Someone who lost their child that day. But she won't say who. There is still a pain in Waikino that exists to this day. There were some things, she said, that you keep quiet about.
John Higgins was charged in the Auckland Supreme Court with two counts of murder and sentenced to death. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. He died in Avondale Mental Hospital in 1938. Robert Reid never taught again. He retired to Auckland and died at the age of 92. The four children who were injured recovered but Katie McGarry walked with a limp for the rest of her life; she died in 1987. Whenever Joan Taylor (nee Dobson) sees a cherry blossom she still thinks of that Sunday in 1923.
This article was compiled from newspaper reports, court records, judge's notes, interviews including with Joan Taylor, one of the last remaining survivors and secondary sources, including an unpublished report by Graham Robb, who interviewed several locals involved in the incident.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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