Walter Bolton, a 68-year-old Whanganui farmer, was the last person to be executed in New Zealand. After a controversial trial he was convicted of murdering his wife, Beatrice, and was hanged at Mount Eden prison. Bolton’s execution raised the usual questions about the death penalty. Some people believed that capital punishment was legalised murder and that it was morally wrong to take a human life in this way. Others opposed capital punishment on religious grounds or because judicial mistakes could be made.
Traces of arsenic had been found in Beatrice’s tea. Over the best part of a year she had consumed enough to kill her. Water on the Boltons’ farm was found to contain arsenic, traces of which were also found in Walter and one of his daughters. The defence argued that sheep dip had inadvertently got into the farm’ s water supply.
The prosecution’s case was strengthened by evidence that Bolton had admitted to having had an affair with his wife’s sister, Florence. The idea that Beatrice’s death was a result of accidental poisoning lost credibility. After deliberating for two hours and 10 minutes, the jury returned a guilty verdict. When the judge asked the defendant if there was any reason he shouldn’t pronounce the death sentence, Bolton replied, ‘I plead not guilty, sir.’
A newspaper story later claimed that Bolton’s execution had gone horribly wrong. This highlighted another concern of opponents of the death penalty – that executions were inhumane. Rather than having his neck broken the instant the trapdoor opened, Bolton allegedly suffocated slowly. The botched nature of Bolton’s execution and lingering doubts over his guilt fuelled the debate surrounding capital punishment in New Zealand.
The death penalty for murder was abolished in New Zealand in 1961.
Image: Mount Eden Prison (Wikipedia )