WHANGANUI, MANAWATU. On the 27th of February 1883 something was found on the beach near the Whanganui river mouth that wasn’t the usual river byproducts. A telegraph linesperson, Arthur Fitchett was working along the beach when he discovered something that would shock and horrify the small township — the deceased corpse of a four-year-old girl.
The story that unfolded became one of the darkest and most complicated crimes in the annals of Whanganui’s short history. This is the tale of the strange case of child slaughter.
Visit www.truecrimenz.com for additional information on this case. Including a transcript of this episode, with supporting pictures, sources, and credits.
Hosted by Jessica Rust
Written and edited by Sirius Rust
Music sourced from:
“Sorry, I Meant to Say That You Are Eating A Cheeseburger”, “Why Has the Radio Stopped Playing”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“Day of Chaos”, “Gathering Darkness”, “Ghost Processional (digitally processed)”, “Private Reflection”, “Senbazuru”, “Thunderbird”, “When The Wind Blows”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0
The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but I make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.
Hello friends, before we begin today’s episode we will address the disappearance of the last episode, part one of Jane Furlong. We had used a book as a source in the podcast and used many quotes and diary entries from it. We were contacted by the author who expressed concern we used too many without proper accreditation, so we decided to take it down and cancel the second part.
Sorry for any disappointment, we will say that lessons were learnt as we navigate this new world and as we move forward.
Thank you for your patience.
Case 20: Phoebe Veitch (WHANGANUI CHRONICLES – PART I)
According to Maori legend before the founding of Aotearoa, the demi-god Maui, along with his brothers set off on a fishing expedition. Maui and his brothers paddled in their waka out to the deepest part of the pacific ocean. Maui cast out a fish hook made from his grandmother’s jawbone. The hook sunk to the bottom of the ocean. After some time, the hook fastened to something. Maui hauled up his catch, what he pulled up became known as Te Ika-a-Maui (the fish of Maui), what we know today as the North Island of Aotearoa.
After pulling up his massive haul, Maui prayed to the Maori primordial sky father, Ranginui. Ranginui responded with two tear drops that landed on the North Island. One of the tear drops became NZ’s longest river — the Waikato, the other tear drop fell on the lower part of the island and became the Whanganui River.
Whanganui, which translates in English to big bay or big harbour, carried spiritual significance to the native Maori. The 290km river was seen as a sacred ancestor to the Maori people, evidenced by the Maori proverb ‘Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au’ (I am the river. The river is me). Many Whanganui iwi (tribes) populated the banks of the Whanganui river and the waterway served as an important communication route to the central north tribes.
The Whanganui river and its plentiful resources became an ideal spot for European settlers after the founding of New Zealand. In 1840, acting on behalf of the colonist NZ Company, Edward Gibbon Wakefield negotiated the sale of 40,000 acres of the land in the area surrounding the mouth of the Whanganui river. A town was established dubbed Petre, after Lord Petre, a director of the colonist NZ company.
The first settlers from Scotland, England and Ireland arrived in 1841. Tensions between the river valley Maori and the Petre settlers led to the installation of a military garrison in the mid-1840s. Petre saw minor conflicts with upper river Maori for the next couple of decades. In 1856, the township of Petre was officially renamed to Wanganui.
During the 1860s in a response to the NZ Government’s military actions against North Island Maori, a new syncretic religion was gaining popularity in the Taranaki region. Led by the prophet Te Ua Haumene — the religion was dubbed Pai Marire. The religion was built upon the belief that the Pai Marire followers were ‘Chosen People’ destined (with divine aid) to drive the English back into the sea and regain control over their hereditary land.
In May of 1864, a message was sent down river that a Pai-marire war party was travelling down river intending to drive the Whanganui settlers ‘back into the sea’. The response from the lower river Maori was a refusal to let the war party pass, “If you attempt to force your way down the river… we shall fight you on Moutoa [Island]”. The lower river Maori were loyal to Europe and believed the war party’s actions would compromise the mana (or spiritual power) of the river.
The two adversaries met on the small island of Moutua the next day, the 14th of May 1864. Hundreds of spectators stood on the banks of the river waiting for the conflict to unfold. 120 men from the Pai Marire war party decamped from their waka, they lined up and performed a war dance (haka) before moving towards the thick bush in the middle of the island.
Soon after, a volley of bullets came from the thick bush directed at the war party. The Maori loyal to the Queen ambushed the war party, a thick cloud of smoke filled the island from the firing muskets as the two parties waged war. After thirty minutes, once the smoke cleared — the Pai Marire war party had retreated, having lost over 50 casualties.
The brave Maori who risked their lives to save the town of Whanganui did much to win favour with the European (pakeha) settlers, the Wellington government even erected a statue to commemorate the event. The statue was of a weeping woman, grieving the violence that occurred that fateful day and the brave 15 Maori and one European who perished protecting the town from “fanaticism and barbarism”. The statue was unveiled on the 26th of December 1865 in a park now renamed Moutoa Gardens.
The event solidified the importance of the Whanganui river to the recently arrived European settlers and brought the two people from the opposite sides of the world closer together. For this reason, among countless others, the Whanganui river holds special significance to the history of Whanganui.
However, the tales from Wanganui and its famous river don’t always end with cheering crowds and a statue. Sometimes its history is more sordid than that, more complicated — more murderous.
On the 26th of February 1883, the town of Whanganui was experiencing heavy rainfall, due to this the Whanganui river was flooding — flowing faster and heavier than usual. During times of heavy storm weather, it wasn’t unusual for vegetation and farm life to get caught in the wild weather and end up being swept out to the ocean.
However, the next day, once the weather had abated — something was found on the beach near the river mouth that wasn’t the usual river byproducts. A telegraph linesperson, Arthur Fitchett was working along the beach when he discovered something that would shock and horrify the small township — the deceased corpse of a four-year-old girl.
The story that unfolded became one of the darkest and most complicated crimes in the annals of Whanganui’s short history. This is the tale of the strange case of child slaughter.
Phoebe Harper was born sometime in the year 1860. Not much is known about Phoebe’s formative years, including where she was born and what her upbringing was like. We do know that by 1874, Phoebe was living in the South Island city of Nelson and working as a cook in her uncle’s hotel.
By the end of 1874, at only 14-years-old, Phoebe found herself pregnant with a child. Details on who the father was or the circumstances of the conception are unknown. Phoebe spoke about the pregnancy and subsequent child at a later date, saying the child was the outcome of meeting a man who would give her money and take her for long walks. She summed up the experience later as, “a misfortune”.
The child was born and christened Herbert. Phoebe and Herbert moved to the small town of Fielding in the Manawatu region. About a year passed before Phoebe met the man who would become her husband, Robert Veitch. Twelve months before their marriage Phoebe gave birth to her second child, a daughter– the father being Robert Veitch.
In 1879, three months after Phoebe’s marriage to Robert, she gave birth to her third child — Phoebe Veitch, who became known as ‘Flossy’. Strangely, Flossy’s father was not Robert Veitch. Phoebe claimed she had met Flossy’s father while she was in Nelson, she remembered his name as Sam Timaru and he was either from Fiji, India or Scotland, she claimed the man was of mixed race which led people around Nelson to refer to the man as ‘Darky Sam’.
According to Phoebe, Sam came to visit her in Feilding one day in early 1879 and asked Phoebe to engage in sexual relations with him for the massive sum of £5 (equivilent to around $840 in today’s currency). The result of this meeting led to Phoebe falling ‘in the family way’ to Sam Timaru.
However, Phoebe’s husband Robert never asked about the identity of Flossy’s father even though she looked nothing like him and was clearly of mixed racial heritage.
Over the next couple of years, Robert and Phoebe played family and raised the young children. Unfortunately, Robert’s business fell on hard times and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The day after the bankruptcy court appearance, Robert got up early — around 4am and said to Phoebe that he would be back before breakfast. When breakfast rolled around, Robert never appeared. In fact, Phoebe never saw him again — what became of Robert Veitch is unknown.
To support herself and her three children, Phoebe began work as a domestic servant — she worked doing ‘laundry work’ and repairing damaged clothing. In the years subsequent, life would only become harder for Phoebe and her family, Phoebe developed a disfiguring disease, thought to be a lupus rash which ended up devouring part of her face and eventually took her nose. The illness was eventually identified as the sexually transmitted disease syphilis, the disease not only disfigured Phoebe’s face but also affected her ability to speak and hear.
The meager income as a domestic servant did not pay all the bills and Phoebe worked primarily as a prostitute to make ends meet. This actuality led Phoebe to become somewhat of a social outcast in the small town of Feilding. Wishing for her past to be mysterious once more, in early February of 1883, Phoebe moved to the town of Whanganui with her three children — including her now four-year-old daughter ‘Flossy’.
Phoebe and her family lived in Whanganui for a couple of weeks until tragedy struck. The body of a four-year-old girl was discovered dead on the beach near the river mouth on the 27th of February 1883.
The town of Whanganui was small with a ‘pakeha’ population of around 1,000 people. The little girl was quickly identified as ‘Flossy’ Veitch by Doctor Earle who enacted the post mortem. He knew ‘Flossy’ and her mother Phoebe from his time treating the older Veitch for 6 to 9 months when she was suffering from ‘lupus’.
Dr Earle discovered that Flossy had drowned in the river as opposed to already being dead when she entered the water, however he noted she was well dressed and well nourished. There was also much debate over the child’s racial makeup, the Wanganui Chronicle reported later, “The skin of the body was rather contracted, which implied that the body was alive when immersed. The shape of the face and the colour of the skin led witness[es] to think it was of Chinese blood, but the skin might not have been such a colour in life. The father of the child might not have been a Chinaman, but might have been himself a half-breed”.
The investigation into what had happened to the young girl was headed up by Whanganui detective Inspector James. Inspector James visited Phoebe at her Niblett Street property. Phoebe answered the door and Inspector James asked where her youngest daughter was. Phoebe relayed to the detective that the previous evening (the 26th of February 1883) around 7.30pm, she was on the Whanganui Wharf with young ‘Flossy’ when she suddenly fell overboard into the flowing Whanganui River. She added that she didn’t call for assistance because, “there was no one about”.
Phoebe then asked if the child had been found. Phoebe was informed by detectives that ‘Flossy’ was found on the beach near the river mouth this morning. Phoebe was then taken to Forder’s Hotel where the four-year-old’s body was now located to identify the remains. When Phoebe saw the body of Flossy, she suddenly burst into tears — confirming that the girl was her daughter Flossy Veitch.
Phoebe was arrested and charged with filicide, the act of killing one’s own child. While in lockup, Phoebe’s story changed regarding what happened on the evening of 26th of February. She now claimed that she was taking a walk along the river with Flossy and Flossy’s biological father Sam Timaru. Sam was trying to convince Phoebe to give up Flossy but she refused to do so. When Phoebe refused, Sam took matters into his own hands and threw the four-year-old Flossy off the wharf and into the river before threatening to kill Phoebe if she said anything.
A manhunt was on to locate Sam Timaru. The detectives found locating the man troublesome due to Phoebe’s vague details on the man. Phoebe said that Sam was now going by Frank and he was half-caste from Fiji or India but he was also a Scotsman. She said at one time he had “a black wig and curly whiskers” but later said “his hair was cut close”.
A special notice was placed in the police gazette instructing every police officer to use efforts to discover the “coloured man named Sam Timaru”. Police discovered that there was some evidence to support Sam Timaru existing, they were able to uncover information that a Sam Timaru who worked at the Customhouse Hotel as a cook around five years ago (where he met Phoebe Veitch) was last heard of five months prior in September of 1882 when he was working as a cook on a ship in Napier.
Police found around twleve men who could’ve fit the description of Sam Timaru working as a cooks around Napier, Nelson and Whanganui and furthermore those men all said they knew of ‘Darky Sam’ but now nolonger knew of his whereabouts.
The trial for Phoebe Veitch for the murder of her four-year-old daughter Phoebe ‘Flossy’ Veitch commenced on the 30th of April 1883. A full courtroom listened intently, after presenting the circumstances of finding Flossy’s body on the beach to the jury, the prosecution called witness and Phoebe’s neighbour Eliza Blight to the stand.
Eliza explained to the court that Phoebe Veitch had told her on the 26th of February (the day Flossy had died) that Flossy was going to be sent away to stay with an aunt in Feilding, who was in turn going to take Flossy to Christchurch.
Eliza continued explaining that when she saw Phoebe that evening, Flossy was already gone. Eliza testified, “[Phoebe] had run from Aramoho, and who looked very much excited, came to [my] house and said that she had taken the child to Aramoho and had handed it over to the aunt”.
The next day, before Flossy’s body was found, Phoebe arrived at Eliza’s house, “[she] said that she had dreamt that the child was drowned and picked up on the beach dead. She added that the people who had taken the child were very likely to drown it, in order to have revenge on her, because the woman at Christchurch, who was going to take the child, ought to have had her husband, and , if she got a chance, would be revenged”.
Eliza concluded saying that Phoebe never said the Aunt’s name, nor did she name the person in Christchurch who was going to take revenge on the child — Eliza said Phoebe only referred to her as “a dark lady”.
Next, Inspector James took the stand for the prosecution, he relayed for the jury the circumstances of Phoebe’s changing story, going from Flossy accidentally falling into the river to Flossy being thrown into the river by her biological father. Her biological father, who after much searching, police couldn’t find any evidence he was ever in Whanganui. Police even wheeled in a random ‘coloured’ man off the street to pretend to be Sam Timaru to see if Phoebe would try and pin the crime on him, but after a few short, awkward moments where Phoebe stared blankly at the man — the police escorted the man back out.
Later that day, the Chief Justice (His Honor) summed up the case for the jury, as reported in the Wanganui Chronicle, “His Honor pointed out that it was quite competent for the jury to believe part and reject the remainder, after taking into consideration the circumstances in connection with it. His Honor said that it was also for the jury to say whether, as the great number of facts (either not material or only remotely material) in the statement were proved to be correct it was a fair inference that those given by her as to the drowning of the child were correct also. With regard to the conduct of the police, it was no doubt their duty to have endeavoured to discover the man, but a jury would probably say that, where a child was last seen in the custody of the mother, it was for that mother to give some reasonable explanation of how that child ceased to be in her possession. If the explanation were not reasonable, the jury would probably infer that she had something to do with the manner in which the child came to its end. No doubt the onus was thrown on the prosecution to show that the statement was not reasonable, and it was for the jury to say, upon the whole, whether the account was reasonable on the face of it; whether the police had succeeded in displacing such account; and whether the prisoner ought to be held guilty because the police had not succeeded in finding the man”.
After two hours, the Chief Justice concluded his summing up. The jury was sent away to consider a verdict at 10pm. An hour and fifteen minutes later the jury reappeared, they shuffled back into the courtroom to a packed, yet dead silent public gallery, “Guilty, with a recommendation to mercy”. Phoebe Veitch apparently remained “impassive and collected as ever”.
It was at this moment, just before the Chief Justice was about to pass down the mandatory sentence of death on Phoebe Veitch for the crime she was found guilty of when her lawyer revealed another twist. Phoebe’s lawyer Mr Fitzherbert told the Justice that he could not sentence Phoebe to death because she was… pregnant, “I apprehend, Your Honor, that the proper plan is for the prisoner to make a statement of her pregnancy when she is called on to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon her”.
English law meant that if a woman was with child she could not be put to death until the baby was given birth to. However you do have to then prove the woman was in fact pregnant. This was performed by a jury of matrons (or ‘respectful, married women’). However, at this time it was too late in the day to call in the matrons so the Chief Justice passed the sentence of death anyway, with the caveat that if Phoebe was pregnant — the hanging would have to wait.
Phoebe was asked if she wanted to say anything to which she replied, “I have nothing to say”. The Chief Justice then passed his sentence, “I think it unnecessary to say anything to the prisoner, as it seems she cannot very well hear. I may say that the jury have arrived at the only conclusion to which upon the evidence, they could have arrived. The sentence of the Court is that you, Phoebe Veitch, be taken from here to the place whence you came, and from there to the place of execution and there be hanged by the neck until you are dead. Remove the prisoner, and let her be brought up to-morrow at the 10 o’clock for the investigation of her pregnancy”.
10am the next day, twelve matrons arrived at the courthouse to determine whether there was any truth to the rumours of Phoebe Veitch’s fourth pregnancy. After about five minutes, the door opened and the matrons asked for medical assistance as they could not work out whether she was pregnant.
A male medical expert was brought in, he was apparently not much help either — the door opened once more, this time asking for blankets. However, after many hours, the matrons came to a conclusion and asked the Chief Justice to clear the courtroom. The matrons approached the bench and whispered, yes she is pregnant.
Almost a month later, on the 25th of May 1883, Phoebe’s sentence was commuted to life in prison which she would serve in Terrace Gaol in Wellington.
Five months later, Phoebe gave birth in prison to a baby boy, Robert. The baby was quickly removed from her and ‘farmed out’ to one of the local foster homes known colloquially as ‘baby farms’.
Phoebe Veitch spent only eight years of her life sentence in prison. Passing away in 1891 from her long battles with various illnesses — she was only 30-years-old.
The tragic tale of Flossy and Phoebe Veitch has left us with many questions to ponder — most notably, if Phoebe did commit the crime, what was her motivation for committing the act of filicide? Many agree the Phoebe’s arduous social and family circumstances may have led to some sort of ‘maternal madness’.
Phoebe’s dire financial situation and with the knowledge of another child ‘on the way’, led logical thinking to ‘snap’ inside her mind and led to the murder of her four-year-old child to find any sort of reprieve from her financial torment.
Historian Dorothy Pilkington who wrote about the case of Phoebe Veitch looked for some positive to come from the sad story and pondered that perhaps today’s modern welfare system may have been that reprieve that Phoebe may have needed, “I would like to think that [had Phoebe lived today] her life would be different – that New Zealand’s social welfare system would have given her the hand up she so badly needed. But I just don’t know if it would have worked like that. In these days… it would not have been as easy for her husband to just walk out and disappear…”
The river that flows through the land known as Whanganui holds many secrets, this is part one of a three part look into crime in Whanganui. Join us next time as we jump forward into the 20th century and look into crime in the ‘River City’ from the 1900s.
Wikipedia, Phoebe Veitch, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoebe_Veitch
Murderpedia, Phoebe Veitch, https://murderpedia.org/female.V/v/veitch-phoebe.htm
NZ History, Downloads and podcasts, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/handsonhistory/downloads-and-podcasts
Stuff.co.nz, Two women with the same surname, two very different lives, https://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/lifestyle/94657645/two-women-with-the-same-surname-two-very-different-lives
Papers Past, The Child Murder Case, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WC18830501.2.12
Visit Whanganui, History of Whanganui, https://www.visitwhanganui.nz/history-of-whanganui/
Te Ara, Whanganui region, https://teara.govt.nz/en/whanganui-region/print
Wikipedia, Whanganui River, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whanganui_River
NZ History, War in Whanganui, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/wanganui-war/background
Wikipedia, Whanganui, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whanganui
Wikipedia, Pai Marire, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pai_M%C4%81rire
Te Ara, Story: Whanganui tribes, https://teara.govt.nz/en/whanganui-tribes
Victoria: University of Wellington, The New Zealand Wars: A History Of The Maori Campaigns And The Pioneering Period: Volume II: The Hauhau Wars, (1864–72), http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cow02NewZ-c3.html
Te Ara, Story: Whenua – how the land was shaped, https://teara.govt.nz/en/whenua-how-the-land-was-shaped/page-2
Mayo Clinic, Syphilis, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/syphilis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351756