60th anniversay of New Zealand's last hanging

Walter Bolton was the last man to be hung in New Zealand before capital punishment was repealed.
Andrew Gorrie

Walter Bolton was the last man to be hung in New Zealand before capital punishment was repealed.

The trap door opened. His body fell. 

On this day 60 years ago, Whanganui farmer Walter James Bolton became the last person in New Zealand to be hanged after being found guilty of murdering his wife of 43 years, Beatrice Bolton, by poisoning her with arsenic.

Bolton, 68, was hanged at the gallows in Auckland Prison, now known as Mt Eden Prison, at 6.30pm for the part he played in the crime. 

Stuff reports show the prosecution alleged Bolton killed Beatrice because he was in love with another woman - his sister-in-law Florence Doughty - with whom he had a sexual affair.

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Lawyers for the Crown claimed Bolton had concocted a potion of arsenic from sheep dip and laced his wife's tea with it on several occasions, requiring hospital treatment, before killing her with a large dose on July 11, 1956.

His execution was made controversial by the suggestion that his wife had not been murdered at all.

Bolton and his wife were married for 43 years and had six children and a relatively close relationship, journalist Bernie Steeds wrote in an article on the couple.

In the 15 months before she died, her mystery illness was never diagnosed, but an autopsy identified arsenic as the cause.

It was suggested Bolton had put the poison in her cups of tea, though no trace of the poison was ever found.

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Steeds said sheep dip may have found its way into the house's spring and Bolton also had traces of arsenic in his hair and fingernails.

Active people get rid of arsenic more quickly, and Beatrice had been unwell, and had rested a lot before the poisoning was alleged to have begun, he said. 

But an all-male jury in Bolton's hometown found him guilty, and despite his claims of innocence, he lost his Court of Appeal case.

In a book written by Sherwood Young, Guilty On The Gallows, a police officer who attended Bolton's execution was interviewed.

Only 20 at the time, the officer described what it was like. 

"When the sheriff gave the signal, the hangman moved the lever. There was a loud metallic clang as the trap door opened. Bolton disappeared from sight behind the tarpaulin.

"A prison warden released the rope while I supported the body. It looked about seven feet long, hanging there. The toes were almost touching the ground. The tongue was out of his mouth. When the rope was removed it slurped back into his mouth.

"I will never forget this experience." 

Other stories later claimed Bolton's execution had gone horribly wrong.

Rather than having his neck broken the instant the trapdoor opened, they alleged Bolton slowly strangled to death.

Fifty-three men and one woman were executed in New Zealand between 1842 and 1957. The death penalty was abolished in 1941, reinstated in 1950, and then abolished again in 1989.

 - Stuff

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