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 'good order was maintained' by the public. Burgess declared that 'he had no more fear of death than he had of going to a wedding,' before bounding up the scaffold steps. He selected the central noose and kissed it as 'a prelude to heaven'. Kelly had to be carried up. Levy calmly protested his innocence. There was a delay of 30 minutes while the three condemned men made their final statements. Kelly was still speaking when the hangman drew the bolt that opened the trapdoor shortly before 8.30am. A black flag was raised to indicate that the executions had been carried out.

While both Burgess and Levy appeared to die instantly the same could not be said of the unfortunate Kelly. 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 had been 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 then taken. This was done in a bid to support the theories of phrenology, a popular discipline of the period, eventually dismissed as pseudo-science. Phrenology claimed that personal characteristics could be determined by examining the shape of an individual's head. The Nelson Examiner described the faces of Burgess and Levy as bearing a 'placid expression’ while that of Kelly ‘was disturbed a little, as he was speaking when the drop fell'. The Nelson Examiner also described some of the findings of the phrenologists tests. Kelly's character, based solely on the readings of 'bumps and fissures' in his skull, was ‘excitable, covetous, full of plots, schemes, inventions and intrigues’. Furthermore, he was ‘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 then buried in the prison yard.

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'The executions', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012