Confession of Burgess - Maungatapu murders

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Mark Twain's commentary on the confession

'That dark episode [the Maungatapu murders] is the one large event in the history of Nelson. The fame of it traveled far. Burgess made a confession. It is a remarkable paper. For brevity, succinctness, and concentration, it is perhaps without its peer in the literature of murder. There are no waste words in it; there is no obtrusion of matter not pertinent to the occasion, nor any departure from the dispassionate tone proper to a formal business statement—for that is what it is: a business statement of a murder, by the chief engineer of it, or superintendent, or foreman, or whatever one may prefer to call him...

"We were getting impatient, when we saw four men and a pack-horse coming. I left my cover and had a look at the men, for Levy had told me that Mathieu was a small man and wore a large beard, and that it was a chestnut horse. I said, 'Here they come.' They were then a good distance away; I took the caps off my gun, and put fresh ones on. I said, 'You keep where you are, I'll put them up, and you give me your gun while you tie them.' It was arranged as I have described. The men came; they arrived within about fifteen yards when I stepped up and said, 'Stand! bail up!' That means all of them to get together. I made them fall back on the upper side of the road with their faces up the range, and Sullivan brought me his gun, and then tied their hands behind them. The horse was very quiet all the time, he did not move. When they were all tied, Sullivan took the horse up the hill, and put him in the bush; he cut the rope and let the swags' — [A "swag" is a kit, a pack, small baggage.] — fall on the ground, and then came to me. We then marched the men down the incline to the creek; the water at this time barely running. Up this creek we took the men; we went, I daresay, five or six hundred yards up it, which took us nearly half-an-hour to accomplish. Then we turned to the right up the range; we went, I daresay, one hundred and fifty yards from the creek, and there we sat down with the men. I said to Sullivan, 'Put down your gun and search these men,' which he did. I asked them their several names; they told me. I asked them if they were expected at Nelson. They said, 'No.' If such their lives would have been spared. In money we took £60 odd. I said, 'Is this all you have? You had better tell me.' Sullivan said, 'Here is a bag of gold.' I said, 'What's on that pack-horse? Is there any gold?' when Kempthorne said, 'Yes, my gold is in the portmanteau, and I trust you will not take it all.' 'Well,' I said, 'we must take you away one at a time, because the range is steep just here, and then we will let you go.' They said, 'All right,' most cheerfully. We tied their feet, and took Dudley with us; we went about sixty yards with him. This was through a scrub. It was arranged the night previously that it would be best to choke them, in case the report of the arms might be heard from the road, and if they were missed they never would be found. So we tied a handkerchief over his eyes, when Sullivan took the sash off his waist, put it round his neck, and so strangled him. Sullivan, after I had killed the old laboring man, found fault with the way he was choked. He said, 'The next we do I'll show you my way.' I said, 'I have never done such a thing before. I have shot a man, but never choked one.' We returned to the others, when Kempthorne said, 'What noise was that?' I said it was caused by breaking through the scrub. This was taking too much time, so it was agreed to shoot them. With that I said, 'We'll take you no further, but separate you, and then loose one of you, and he can relieve the others.' So with that, Sullivan took De Pontius to the left of where Kempthorne was sitting. I took Mathieu to the right. I tied a strap round his legs, and shot him with a revolver. He yelled, I ran from him with my gun in my hand, I sighted Kempthorne, who had risen to his feet. I presented the gun, and shot him behind the right ear; his life's blood welled from him, and he died instantaneously. Sullivan had shot De Pontius in the meantime, and then came to me. I said, 'Look to Mathieu,' indicating the spot where he lay. He shortly returned and said, 'I had to "chiv" that fellow, he was not dead,' a cant word, meaning that he had to stab him. Returning to the road we passed where De Pontius lay and was dead. Sullivan said, 'This is the digger, the others were all storekeepers; this is the digger, let's cover him up, for should the others be found, they'll think he done it and sloped,' meaning he had gone. So with that we threw all the stones on him, and then left him. This bloody work took nearly an hour and a half from the time we stopped the men."'

'Anyone who reads that confession will think that the man who wrote it was destitute of emotions, destitute of feeling. That is partly true. As regarded others he was plainly without feeling—utterly cold and pitiless; but as regarded himself the case was different. While he cared nothing for the future of the murdered men, he cared a great deal for his own. It makes one's flesh creep to read the introduction to his confession. The judge on the bench characterized it as "scandalously blasphemous," and it certainly reads so, but Burgess meant no blasphemy. He was merely a brute, and whatever he said or wrote was sure to expose the fact. His redemption was a very real thing to him, and he was as jubilantly happy on the gallows as ever was Christian martyr at the stake. We dwellers in this world are strangely made, and mysteriously circumstanced. We have to suppose that the murdered men are lost, and that Burgess is saved; but we cannot suppress our natural regrets:

"Written in my dungeon drear this 7th of August, in the year of Grace, 1866. To God be ascribed all power and glory in subduing the rebellious spirit of a most guilty wretch, who has been brought, through the instrumentality of a faithful follower of Christ, to see his wretched and guilty state, inasmuch as hitherto he has led an awful and wretched life, and through the assurance of this faithful soldier of Christ, he has been led and also believes that Christ will yet receive and cleanse him from all his deep-dyed and bloody sins. I lie under the imputation which says, 'Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.' On this promise I rely."'

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