Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ménage à Murder

In 1886, a murder most foul gripped Victorian New Zealand.
Irishman John Caffrey (36), Henry Penn (24) and Lizzie Graham (19) – a.k.a. Grace Graham, Grace Reid, Grace Palmer, Grace Cleary, Sarah Cleary and Zara White! – had left Auckland in a stolen cutter Sovereign of the Seas. They were crossing the 55 miles to Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf, to kidnap Elizabeth Anne Taylor. Their plan was for the four of them to sail to a deserted South Pacific tropical island and live in an idyllic love paradise. Sovereign of the Seas had enough supplies for a year.
However they'd somehow overlooked an awkward three-cornered obstacle: namely that John Caffrey and Henry Penn were lovers, and Lizzie and Penn were also lovers…but Lizzie despised John.
To cloud matters more, their kidnapping target – Elizabeth – had been John Caffrey's fiancée, but had broken off the engagement a few years earlier, moved to Great Barrier Island and married Fred Seymour in 1885.
There were "scenes of roistering conviviality in the small cabin on the eve of her departure from Auckland" as the three got drunk. They all fell asleep during the voyage the next day and the vessel ran aground on Rangitoto Island! After taking a day to refloat her, they reached Tryphena Harbour, Great Barrier in the early hours of 20th.June 1886, today in history.
Caffrey and Penn burst into the home of Lancashire settler Robert Taylor at gunpoint, demanding to know where his daughter Elizabeth was. In a struggle, Taylor was shot four times, the fatal bullet hitting him in his head. His two daughters had fled into the night and his wife tried to follow, but was ordered to stop or be killed. She told them Elizabeth was at the Seymour house across the bay...
Caffrey and Penn ran back to the Sovereign, intending to fetch Elizabeth, but the wind was against them. Instead they chased a boat that was racing to Auckland to report the murder. This outran them, so they headed out into the Pacific, aiming for Chile. They even flew their own pirate flag, made by Lizzie from several pieces of black satin. Behind them, a large search mobilised: a £200 reward resulted in several frenzied wild goose chases.
But escape was not to be. Caffrey had no navigation charts and only a compass to guide him. The little vessel wandered around the Pacific, slammed by a series of severe storms. Water ran out. Dissent set in. Penn and Lizzie slept with loaded pistols at hand, scared of Caffrey's darkening mood. Fearing for their lives, the three put a message in a bottle – which was washed overboard.
After three miserable months Sovereign eventually reached Australia and was scuttled. Once ashore, the men quarreled over Lizzie, to the point of preparing to duel…until she pointed a gun at Caffrey and threatened to shoot him first. Wreckage of their vessel was found at Port Macquarie on 25th Sept.1886 and identified: they were captured within weeks. "So ended the most determined flight from justice ever made by NZ criminals, and one of the most remarkable sea voyages ever in the Tasman or the Pacific."
Returning to Auckland in chains, the men were charged with murder while Lizzie faced a charge of being an accessory. Penn, trying to save his mistress from the hangman, said that while he and Caffrey were hunting for Elizabeth, Lizzie was on Sovereign, where he claimed she was held against her will. He said she was neither aware of the kidnapping nor a party to the murder. She in turn claimed Caffrey had drunk a whole bottle of rum en route to the island, and blamed the murder on his drunken state. Penn claimed when they went to Taylor's home, they meant no harm and did not shoot Taylor.
Auckland Supreme Court
Caffrey said nothing.
Auckland and the whole country was abuzz. The Supreme Court trial in Jan.1887 was described as "sensational". Elizabeth testified that John had threatened to come seeking her with a "ring or a revolver". Under oath, Lizzie revealed she'd heard Caffrey repeatedly planning Taylor's murder and their escape – thus contradicting her earlier statements in the lower Court. A reporter described Lizzie (known to be a slattern) as "of the lowest character… and desirous of clearing herself and her paramour Penn" by pinning all responsibility on Caffrey.
The day after the trial began, their message in a bottle was found on a beach in Northland…
When it was obvious both men were facing the gallows, a petition gathered signatures around Auckland in Caffrey's defence. Meanwhile one of the jurors felt "they ought not to hang two men for one murder", and proposed to draw lots to choose one for the noose! But later that day, both men confessed: Penn that he fired the final head shot, and Caffrey that he shot Taylor in the body at least once.
Mt Eden prison today
John Caffrey and Henry Penn died together on 21st.Feb.1887, a "bright and gladsome" morning at Mount Eden Prison. NZ was unable to find an executioner in time, so New South Wales' hangman 'Noosey Bob' was sent over from Australia to do the job. Just before he performed his duties, Penn and Caffrey kissed one final time...their bodies now lie in unmarked graves at Waikumete Cemetery.
A few months later, the owners of the wrecked Sovereign of the Seas unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament for £500 compensation, claiming the police were remiss "in not sending a steamer in pursuit of the cutter".
And what became of Lizzie/Grace/Sarah? She was discharged after turning Queen's evidence, but in Feb.1914 a woman called Grace Palmer was sentenced to six months' jail in Sydney, Australia, for having "insufficient means of support". She was named as the woman in the Great Barrier murder trial 27 years earlier and police said she'd been in trouble ever since.
And finally it was reported in Sydney on 26th.March 1920 that "the death of Zara White...removes the last of three concerned in the Great Barrier murder of 1886. She was hardly ever out of jail with a record of nearly 200 convictions for drunkenness, riotous behaviour and other offences. She was known as the 'New Zealand Terror' and had ten aliases." Zara? Sarah? Lizzie? Grace? She died of heart failure due to alcoholism, aged about 53.
Caffrey and Penn's unmarked graves, Waikumete Cemetery,
shaded by a tree [image from Stuff.co.nz]


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a rollicking read!