Maungatapu murders, 1866

Page 6 – The executions

The executions, 5 October 1866

Members of the Nelson Volunteers surrounded the gaol on the morning of the execution to ensure that 'good order was maintained' by the public. Before bounding up the scaffold steps, Burgess declared that 'he had no more fear of death than he had of going to a wedding'. He selected the central noose and kissed it as 'a prelude to heaven'. Kelly had to be carried up, while Levy calmly protested his innocence. There was a delay while the three condemned men made their final statements. Kelly was still speaking when – just before 8.30 a.m. – the hangman drew the bolt that opened the trapdoor. A black flag was raised to indicate that the executions had been carried out.

While both Burgess and Levy appeared to die instantly, Kelly was not so fortunate. The hangman had to jump to the ground and swing on Kelly's legs until his 'struggles ceased'. After 30 minutes – the time required by law – the bodies were taken down and a coroner's examination was carried out. There was considerable debate in Victorian medical circles as to whether those executed by hanging died of strangulation or ‘spinal dislocation’. Two doctors dissected the necks of the executed men and, finding the spinal columns intact, declared the cause of death to be strangulation.

Moulds for casts of the three heads were taken as a contribution to phrenology, a then-popular discipline that would eventually be dismissed as pseudo-science. Adherents of phrenology claimed that personal characteristics could be determined from the shape of an individual's head. The Nelson Examiner described the faces of Burgess and Levy as bearing a 'placid expression’, while Kelly’s ‘was disturbed a little, as he was speaking when the drop fell'. On the basis of 'bumps and fissures' in his skull, Kelly was judged to have been ‘excitable, covetous, full of plots, schemes, inventions and intrigues’ – as well as ‘totally unreliable and thoroughly absorbed in self when once his mind has given way to the solicitations of his excessive destructiveness and acquisitiveness’.

The bodies were buried in the prison yard.

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'The executions', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Aug-2015