WANGANUI, MANAWATU. On the 18th of February 1957, the eighty fifth, and last person was executed in NZ. A man, a farmer from the district of Wanganui in the Manawatu. One newspaper described the events that unfolded. On the scaffold, a rope was placed around his neck. When the trap door snapped open beneath him. He dropped, surviving the fall. Sickening the small audience of reporters, clergy and prison warders, many vomited. The man continued to hang, writhing while he slowly strangled to death.
Visit www.truecrimenz.com for additional information on this case. Including a transcript of this episode, with supporting pictures, sources, and credits.
Written, hosted and edited by Sirius Rust
“Day of Chaos”, “Drone in D”, “Echoes of Time”, “Eternal Hope”, “Ghost Story”, “Interloper”, “Sad Trio”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but we make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.
In 1941, a Labour Party government abolished the death penalty. To that point, NZ was responsible for ‘officially’ executing seventy six men, and one woman. Up to that point in NZ, in accordance with English law, the death penalty was mandtory for acts of treason, piracy and murder. All death row inmates had their sentences commuted to life in prison.
In 1950, a recently elected National Party, restored the death penalty. In the years between 1950 to 1956, an additional seven people were hanged at Mt. Eden Prison in Auckland, bringing the total headcount to eighty four.
On the 18th of February 1957, the eighty fifth, and last person was executed in NZ. A man, a farmer from the district of Whanganui in the Manawatu. One newspaper described the events that unfolded. On the scaffold, a rope was placed around his neck. When the trap door snapped open beneath him. He dropped, surviving the fall. Sickening the small audience of reporters, clergy and prison warders, many vomited. The man continued to hang, writhing while he slowly strangled to death.
EARLY LIFE OF THE BOLTONS
Walter James Bolton was born on 13th of August 1888 in Mangamahu, about 50km outside of Wanganui proper. Attending school, he became known as ‘Jim’. When he reached standard four, aged 10, he started working on a farm, soon getting promoted to fencer and then eventually, a farm contract worker. Jim had found his vocation; farming.
In 1913, at 25 years old, Jim Bolton married Beatrice Mabel Jones. Their ceremony was in Wanganui, where they now lived. Beatrice was one of four daughters to the Jones’. The others; Lilith, Evelyn and Florence.
In 1919, Lilith passed away from unknown reasons, but dying at such a young age implies it was unnatural. She left behind a 5 week old daughter, Leonie, who was then brought up by her Lilith’s younger sister Florence; who’s husband had died in active service during the First World War. Florence later married William Doughty, a construction labourer. Florence and Beatrice were always close and only became closer when their only remaining sister, Evelyn died in 1949 and when Florence’s second husband, William died of a heart attack in 1953.
Jim dealt with his own hardship in his family. In 1921, his brother, Thomas described as “feeble minded and unable to care for himself”. He was admitted to Porirua Mental Hospital, later he was moved full time to the historic Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital, closed in 1999 and current site of the famous haunted attraction, Spookers. Thomas Bolton would later be moved again to Auckland Mental Hospital, formally named Auckland Lunatic Asylum, and the current site of the Mt. Albert campus of Unitec; a polytechnic college. The hospital continued to be Thomas’ residence, until his death in March 1934.
More tragedy was on the horizon for Jim, and the Boltons. In 1926, Jim’s sister Florence was admitted to Porirua Mental Hospital, suffering from chronic schizophrenia. With her condition apparently declining. Florence Bolton was later transferred to Kingseat, where she remained for the rest of her life.
As the years unfolded, the Boltons household grew. The couple produced six children together. Two daughters; Grace and Cecil Constance. And four sons; James, Francis, Allan and Ian.
In 1924, Beatrice was diagnosed with diabetes and had to maintain a strict diet. She then developed a persistent skin irritation known as pruritus. The pruritus caused Beatrice to have trouble sleeping at night, she was prescribed a sleeping tonic. This was the beginning of what would become a slow deterioration of health for Beatrice.
Walter James Bolton was hired to manage a farm property dubbed ‘Rusthall’ in 1928, on No. 2 Line, near Fordell; about 8km outside of Wanganui. The Boltons packed their belongings and moved into the farmhouse on the property. Where they remained for the next two decades.
On 2 December 1954, Beatrice called her doctor complaining about mid-abdominal pains and violent attacks of indigestion, with pain radiating to her back. The doctors initially thought it could be her gallbladder, but an x ray showed no trace of gallstones. She suffered from another attack three months later, this time vomiting for “a considerable time”.
For the next ten months, Beatrice would routinely suffer from these violent fits of vomiting and diarrhea. The doctors could not solve the mystery; the catalyst of her suffering. It was decided to remove her gallbladder. Two months later, in January of 1956, the symptoms were back and Beatrice continued to violently purge.
Beatrice’s health continued to decline. She was admitted to hospital on January the 11th, 1956. Once in the hospital, her condition improved, no more vomiting occurred. She was then moved to Braemar Hospital in Hamilton; a private hospital, which was paid for at Walter’s expense.
On 2 June 1956, well enough to leave the hospital, Beatrice was brought to 7 Kepa Street, Wanganui East; the residence of her sister Florence. Assisting Beatrice in to the house, holding one arm each was Florence and her husband Jim. Within half an hour, Beatrice complained of feeling sick and later vomited.
Her condition then deteriorated further over the succeeding month. On the 10th of July 1956, Beatrice Bolton fell into a coma was admitted urgently to Wanganui Hospital. Unable to rally to any extent. 1am, the next day, Beatrice died.
This left the doctors with a problem; a conundrum about what to write on the death certificate. They asked Jim Bolton if he would consent to a post mortem examination. After a conference with Florence and others from Beatrice’s family. Walter Bolton told the doctor, he had spent something like £500 on private medical care, trying to determine what was wrong with his wife. For his own peace of mind, he wished to uncover the mystery. Proving the old saying about curiosity and cats to be true. For the 66 year old, blind in one eye farmer, this decision later proved fateful.
On July 12th 1956, Wanganui Police were contacted. They were informed that arsenic was found inside Beatrice Bolton’s organs. Detective Sergeant Burton Bevege was sent out to investigate. He visited the deceased’s husband Walter James Bolton, and her sister, Florence Doughty at 7 Kepa Street. Bolton told the Detective that he spent his life savings to get his wife well.
Jim then escorted Detective Bevege through his farm Rusthall, looking for any signs of arsenic. The detective found a packet of ‘young’s improved Sheep Dip’ powder in the tool shed, when he turned it over the label read ‘Arsenic – Poison’. The detective asked why it was opened. Jim replied that he had given to his grandson to put on possum skins.
A couple of weeks later, Detective James Murray was dispatched from Police Headquarters in Wellington, he was to go to Wanganui and take charge of the case. The next day, the two detectives cleared out the medicines at Rusthall and confiscated the sheep dip. The detectives asked Jim if his wife kept a diary. He replied “Not to my knowledge. Diaries are dangerous things if they fall into the hands of the wrong people. The boss might get hold of it.”
Later that day, the two detectives visited 7 Kepa Street to ask Beatrice’s sister Florence some questions about the diary. They knocked on the door, Jim Bolton answered the door, he claimed Florence couldn’t come to the door as she wasn’t feeling well. Police were interested in her diary because they had caught wind from one of the Bolton’s daughters in law, that Beatrice had written an entry, with lines saying “Now I understand what one means by saying they are broken hearted”.
Two weeks later, the Detectives visited Jim Bolton with a more pressing tone. When asked about the diary this time, Jim suggested that someone must have taken it away from the house, or that his wife may have burnt it. When asked how he would explain how arsenic ended up in his wife’s organs, he replied that he thought his wife wouldn’t take it herself; he didn’t think she commited suicide via arsenic. Nor did he think that her sister Florence Doughty had anything to do with the poisoning. The detective pointed out that only left him. Jim Bolton once again claimed that he spent his life savings on helping his wife, why would he kill her, and how?
The how, the detectives already had a theory. In their discussions with Florence Doughty, they discovered a common link in every instance of Beatrice’s attacks of vomiting, Tea. Tea that was made and served to her by Jim. Walter confirmed that this was true, but only because he would make her tea everyday, commonly, more than once. They theorised that using the sheep dip powder found in the farm; Jim was lacing her tea with the poison. The police pointed out that in the time that Beatrice was in hospital, she did not vomit once. On her return to 7 Kepa Street, according to her sister Florence, after drinking with what he described as ‘queer’ tasting tea, she began vomiting again. Jim denied Beatrice had anything to eat or drink before she began vomiting that day.
With a good enough theory on how, the police began working on finding evidence of why. If Walter James Bolton was responsible for poisoning his wife. Why did he want her dead?
A breakthrough came on the 5th of September 1956. A detective working on the case interviewed Grace Cook, the Bolton’s eldest daughter. She told the detective that about a month after her mother’s death, on the 18 of August she was staying with her father at Rusthall. When her father, Jim walked into the kitchen she thought she heard him say, “I suppose your aunt and I have done it between us”. Grace, confused asked, “Done what? I do not understand.” Jim replied, “About your mother”. Uncomfortable, Grace asked no further questions. She added that during that same stay, her father gave her an envelope containing £50, which felt like she was “being bought”.
Other strange behaviour she noted included Jim drinking heavily which was unusual. He also apparently became very agitated at the mention of his wife’s death. To the point where he was prescribed sleeping medication from a doctor.
The next day, the police visited Florence Doughty. This lengthy interview was fruitful for the detectives in search of their why. Florence had some things she needed to get off her chest. She admitted Beatrice’s diary was at 7 Kepa Street, but at the request of Walter Bolton, after the police asked about its whereabouts, she had burned it.
The question inevitably became once more, why? The motivation for both of them, soon became clear. She confessed, “After my husband died on the 6th of July 1953, I had my niece and her family stopping with me for some 18 months and after they left Mr. Bolton used to visit me. Mr Bolton told me how he used to like me and he used to give me gifts. About 12 months before his wife died he visited me at my home on one evening and he persuaded me to be intimate with him. We had sexual intercrouse together on a few occasions over a few months, and I then came to my senses and asked Jim to leave me alone and let us just be good friends. From then on he did not have sexual intercourse with me. In reference to gifts from Mr. Bolton. He has given me money and gifts which would amount to possibly £250. Mr Bolton paid me £50 towards a combination range in about early 1955 and was purchased from Mr Bert Cox, Hardware Merchant, Aramoho. He also gave me £20 towards buying of a new carpet from the Wanganui East Furniture factory on my birthday on the 9th of April 1955. There was also a big plumbing bill with Wadey Brothers for £90 about November 1954. On this occasion there was two accounts and Mr Bolton paid most of the bills. In between times he and his wife have given me money as they knew I was always hard up for money, but he has not give me money for some months and not since Mrs Bolton went into Hospital. I never told Mrs Bolton about the money he had given me because he asked me not to. There was never any upsets with my sister and myself and she had no knowledge that Mr Bolton had been intimate with me. The only reason I weakened to him was probably due to the fact that I was very lonely after my husband died”.
Walter was then called into the sitting room, joining Florence. When Detective’s confronted him with this new insight, he confirmed it. Florence said to Jim, “I only wanted your friendship – you should not have dragged me down like this.” To which Jim replied, “What of it? We are only human. Well, I suppose I could have gone up the street and got what I wanted.”
With this new revelation, the why was answered, at least in the mind of the detectives. Looking back at the evidence they already had gathered, the detectives thought they had a case against Walter James Bolton. As Sherwood Young writes in the book ‘Guilty on the Gallows’, summing up the Crown’s case, “In his final report on the analysis of Mrs Bolton’s body specimens, [a pathologist] said he had recovered 94mg (approximately one and a half grains) of arsenic. The police, in their consideration of the evidence in mid-September, believed that the poison had first been administered about the same time as Bolton began his relationship with his sister-in-law. They considered the fact that Bolton was in the habit of making his wife cups of tea. Each time she suffered one of her violent vomiting attacks, he was either present with her or in the vicinity. On some occasions he had been the only person present. Mrs Doughty had a freehold house, and Bolton may have already started to ‘move in’, in his own mind, even before his wife’s death, by helping to improve the property. With all these factors in mind, Sub-inspector Murray and Detective Sergeant Bevege went to the farm again on Saturday 22 September, where they arrested Walter James Bolton at 9.20am on a charge of murdering his wife at Wanganui on 11 July 1956”. Jim Bolton’s only comment, a meek and passive “Oh, yes”.
Walter James Bolton’s trial began on the 26th of November 1956, at the Wanganui Supreme Court. The defense argued that the evidence presented by the Crown does not prove homicidal intent. Their theory of how Beatrice got arsenic poisoning was as follows. The sheep dip pit leached arsenic into the water supply. The sheep dip pit containing 15,000 litres of contaminated water was emptied on a small embankment which connects to a fresh water spring that the Bolton’s used as drinking water. Causing small amounts of arsenic poisoning over a long period of time and because of Beatrice’s already weakened state, she was affected the greatest.
The Crown argued that evidence showed Beatrice received a large dose of arsenic the day before she died. Tests of the water proved it was contaminated by arsenic but the Crown argued the level was too low to cause death. This proved, in their opinion, it couldn’t be accidental.
The Crown argued that Walter murdered Beatrice so his affair with Florence could continue. In regards to the motive, the question Bolton’s defense counsel asked the jury in their summing up of the evidence was, “Can you believe this was sufficient motive for what the Crown says is a vile murder?”. To which the Crown retorted with in their address to the jury, “What greater motive is there but sex?”.
After nine days. On the 5th of December, at 3.20pm, the jury retired. Two hours and ten minutes passed. The jury reappeared. They found Walter James Bolton guilty of murder. When asked by Justice Gresson if he had any reason a sentence of death be passed on him. Walter replied subdued, “I plead not guilty sir.”
Walter James Bolton was moved to Mt Eden Gaol. As a sidebar, this would be the same time Juliet Hulme was serving her time in Mt Eden. See Case 1 of this podcast for more information on her.
On 1st of February 1957. The Court of Appeal delivered its finding that Walter Bolton had been properly convicted. Although still maintaining his innocence, Jim had no further options to prove his innocence to the court. His execution was set for 4pm on the 18th of February 1957.
4pm. 18 February 1957. An apparently heavily sedated Jim Bolton was read his Last Rites by a local clergyman. Reports of what happened next vary wildly, including the one that opened the podcast. About the hangman botching the execution. This story origins seem to stem from an article written almost 30 years after the event. Where the writer obtained these details are difficult to understand. Nevertheless, this has become the most commonly told version of the events.
Bill Brien, in 1957 was 20 years old. A fresh faced police constable, working at the Mt Eden Police Station. He claimed to be present for the execution, and Bill certainly disagreed with botched hanging account. In 1997, Bill recalled the events that transpired that day from his perspective, “On 18 February 1957 I was on the afternoon shift, which comprised the watch-house keeper, another constable and myself as the beat constable. Sergeant Ted Carter was also there. He said to me, ‘You’ve drawn the short straw. You’re going to an execution.’ Sub-Inspector Mal Parker, Sergeant Carter and I went to Mount Eden Prison. Parker stayed outside the prison, and said ‘You won’t feel like any tea.’ Sergeant Carter and I met prison Superintendent Haywood and a party of officials inside. Our job was to ensure the formalities of the property sheet and a Public Trust document were attended to. We went to the condemned cell, where Bolton was there with his daughter. He signed the two documents and said ‘Is this it then?’. There was a carpet between the cell and the compound, where I could see the scaffold, with a railways tarpaulin covering the area beneath it. On the tarpaulin was a message ‘NZ Railways offer a reward of £5 for the return of this tarpaulin’. We arrived early, and the trapdoor was tested before the execution. Other officials spoke to Bolton after us. People I recall being present were the sheriff, the superintendent, the prison doctor, a chaplain, an Auckland lawyer, Bill Cullen from Truth newspaper, Detective Sergeant Tom Irving and senior prison officer Dan Cavanagh. When the time came, Bolton came out of the cell. He was wearing a loose penal institution garment, some sort of leggings and footwear similar to moccasins, with the restraining clothing holding his arms across the front. A prison officer was on either side of him. The hangman was at the scaffold. He was not recognisable that night, because of his clothing. Once on the scaffold, there was some difficulty getting Bolton’s feet in the right position over the trap. After the noose was put around his neck, a white cloth hood was put over his head. When the sheriff gave the signal, the hangman moved the lever. The trap hinges squeaked and there was a loud metallic clang as the trap door opened. Bolton disappeared from sight behind the tarpaulin. We had to wait for a while in the superintendent’s office. I had my first sip of whisky that night. A bottle of Black Label whisky was produced for us. I did not see any beer. Normally you couldn’t get whisky for love nor money. There was talk about earlier hangings during this time. After this wait, we went with the prison doctor, who had to certify death. A prison warder released the rope while I supported the body. The body looked about seven feet long, hanging there. The toes were almost touching the ground. The neck had been stretched considerably, while the tongue was out of the mouth and looked to be about nine inches long. The cloth had gone right up the side of the head, and head been damaged where the knot thad ripped part of the ear off. The neck was a mess. When the rope was removed, the tongue slurped back into the mouth. The inquest was held in the prison superintendent’s office, with the body in the next room. The undertaker took the body away in the dark in an old station wagon that didn’t look like a hearse. Bolton’s body was buried at Wanganui. I will never forget this experience. I am not for or against capital punishment, as long as I don’t have to see them executed.”
ABOLISHING THE DEATH PENALTY
A post mortem was enacted on Walter James Bolton corpse. They discovered something interesting. Jim Bolton also tested positive for arsenic poisoning. Giving more weight to the theory that the poison may have entered the water supply. The unearthing of this new information. Lead many in late 50s NZ to become dubious to the finality of the death penalty, and ponder: What if we got it wrong? The man who hung that February evening, what if he was innocent
A Labour Party government returned to office in late 1957 and, the following year, made the death penalty inoperative. When the National Party returned to power in 1960 and in 1961, Parliament debated an amendment to the Crimes Act, abolishment of the death penalty. Walter Nash, leader of the Labour opposition said in an argument for abolishing the death penalty, “I affirm that a person who was hanged for murder was not in my mind guilty. It happened not so long ago and is inside the experience of everyone in this House.” In the same debate another Labour MP Fred Hackett said, “The Government of the day, or possibly the Minister of Justice, orphaned the children of a family by hanging a man, and it is very doubtful today whether he was guilty of the crime.”
The amendment was passed in 1961. Abolishing the death penalty for everything except treason. Then in 1989, the NZ government passed the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act. Removing the death penalty as an instrument of justice.
In 1988, a man claiming to be Walter Bolton’s son splashed red paint over the front of parliament doors. When confronted why he was doing it, he said:
He called himself James Bolton, but officially he was Peter Waller. Peter says he was adopted out by the Bolton’s shortly before Beatrice’s death. There is no record of any of this happening. In the 1997 documentary series Epitaph, Peter explains how he stumbled upon this information, during a nightmare he had:
As hard as this story may be to believe, Peter Waller’s intentions seem pure, as well as reflecting what a sizeable percent of NZers have come to believe, an innocent man was executed in 1957. He attempted to petition the government for a posthumous pardon to clear Walter’s name. His application was denied.
When the documentary is reaching its climax, Peter and the host, Paul Gittens visit Walter James Bolton’s gravestone in Wanganui’s Aramoho Cemetery:
The case of Walter Bolton has remained within the public consciousness for similar reasons Minnie Dean’s case continues to entice curious minds. In both cases, the accused maintained their innocence to the moment of perishing. This has led many to investigate the cases in the subsequent years. Unearthing new information. The death penalty will forever be a devisive issue.
The definitive finality of the event, ultimately leads to the question. How much trust do we have that the courts get it right every time. How much faith do you have that, of the 85 people sent to the gallows over the 110 years the death penalty was active in NZ, could any have been exonerated by new, not yet discovered evidence?
Of those 84 men, and one woman hanged, even only one was innocent, would that make the government personnel involved guilty of murder? If so, the mandatory punishment for such a crime, pre-1961, would ironically be death by hanging.
Murderpedia, Walter James BOLTON, http://murderpedia.org/male.B/b/bolton-walter-james.htm
Wikipedia, Walter James Bolton, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_James_Bolton
NZ History, The Death Penalty, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/the-death-penalty/the-last-execution
Investigate, Walter Bolton, http://folksong.org.nz/puketapu/Bolton.pdf
NZ Herald, Doubt over guilt left hanging, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10469726
NZ Herald, World Famous in Whanganui: Walter Bolton – last man hanged, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/wanganui-chronicle/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503426&objectid=11984007
Stuff.co.nz, 60th anniversary of New Zealand’s last hanging, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/89509362/60th-anniversay-of-new-zealands-last-hanging
Executed Today, 1957: Walter James Bolton, the last hanged in New Zealand, http://www.executedtoday.com/2011/02/18/1957-walter-james-bolton-the-last-hanged-in-new-zealand/
Sherwood Young, Guilty on the Gallows, 1998
Doc Savage, Rope of Shame, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWQN6Uljhtg
Epitaph, Last Man Hanged, https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/epitaph-last-man-hanged-1997