Case 24: The Invercargill Tragedy

INVERCARGILL, SOUTHLAND. Wednesday, 8th of April 1908. 10.45am. Archibald McLean, a city missionary, left his house on Crinan Street in Invercargill, Southland to start the day. His eyes wandered toward his neighbours property, the Baxters. Something caught his interest, the Baxter property, occupied by husband and wife James and Elizabeth Baxter and their five children, was eerily quiet. Something odd for the usually bustling household.

Archibald, out of curiosity, crept over to the Baxter residence and peeked through the front window. It was the bedroom of two of the Baxter boys. The two young boys lay seemingly peacefully in their double bed. However, a sinking feeling came over Archibald when he peered up at the pillows and saw an abundance of blood. Archibald ran for the nearest telephone to call for police.

Visit www.truecrimenz.com for more information on this case including sources and credits.

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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.

Case 24: ‘The Invercargill Tragedy’

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WARNING:

The following content details a grizzly massacre and contains descriptions of violence against children.

Please consider your own mental wellbeing before listening.

——

INTRODUCTION

Wednesday, 8th of April 1908. 10.45am. Archibald McLean, a city missionary, left his house on Crinan Street in Invercargill, Southland to start the day. His eyes wandered toward his neighbours property, the Baxters. Something caught his interest, the Baxter property, occupied by husband and wife James and Elizabeth Baxter and their five children, was eerily quiet. Something odd for the usually bustling household.

Archibald, out of curiosity, crept over to the Baxter residence and peeked through the front window. It was the bedroom of two of the Baxter boys. The two young boys lay seemingly peacefully in their double bed. However, a sinking feeling came over Archibald when he peered up at the pillows and saw an abundance of blood. Archibald ran for the nearest telephone to call for police.

Police arrived ten minutes later and they entered the Baxter property with Archibald via the front window. The men performed welfare checks on the two boys, they had wounds from some sort of blunt weapon on their skull and were unresponsive. The men then checked the next bedroom to find two further children unresponsive with head wounds.

The police and Archibald then moved on to the master bedroom. There, they found the mother of the household, Elizabeth Baxter. She was also suffering from gaping head wounds from a blunt object, her face was covered in blood and she seemed unresponsive. The men slowly entered the room to investigate when suddenly Elizabeth raised herself from her slumber, turned to the men and said “what has happened?”, before sinking back into unconsciousness.

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JAMES REID BAXTER

James Reid Baxter was born sometime in 1864 in England. Little is known about James’ early life, including who his family was, what his childhood was like or when he came to New Zealand. What we do know is that he married his wife Elizabeth Baxter sometime before 1897.

Eleven years later in March of 1908, the Baxter family were residing in the South Island of New Zealand in the small town of Invercargill. By this time the union had produced five children. The Baxter’s oldest was their daughter 11-year-old Phyllis, followed by the four boys — 9-year-old Basil, 4-year-old Roy, 2-year-old Ronald and a newborn son John. By all reports, the Baxter family was a happy one and James was kind to his family. No fights or arguments were observed by relatives or friends of the family.

The Baxter family had been living in Invercargill for the past eleven months. James was a seedsman and had established a plant nursery in the small town; and was reportedly making comfortable money from it. One newspaper described the business as “necessarily small, but so far as is known it was promising well”.

However, the past year had not been kind to James’ health. Over the past twelve months a now 43-year-old James suffered through a battle with influenza and British cholera. In late March of 1908, James was in the nearby town of Bluff when he reportedly fell off a rock which created two ‘rather nasty wounds’, one on his arm, the other on his head. James reportedly didn’t seek medical attention for these injuries.

Over the next couple of weeks, Jame’s injuries only got worse — as apparently did his mental state. An employee of James described his mood during this time as ‘low’ and said he was in a ‘weak state’. Adding that he was very quiet and seemed depressed. 

Margaret McRobie was another person who noticed Jame’s mood change. Margaret was a close friend of the Baxter family, and she had helped James’ wife Elizabeth through a recent battle with illness. She once described James as a kind man, now, she said that James would frequently spend all day in bed, often complaining of head pain and would eat very little. James even stole a bottle of laudanum (an opioid) off her and wouldn’t give it back. Margaret said later that during this time, she saw the beginnings of insanity in James Reid Baxter.

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THE MASSACRE

On Saturday, the 4th of April 1908, James Reid Baxter travelled to Smith and Laing, an ironmongers (hardware store). There, he purchased a 22-bore Remington rifle. However, two days later he returned it complaining it was too small for shooting rabbits. James then purchased a 12-gauge shotgun.

On the night of the 7th of April 1908, a Tuesday, the Baxter family seemingly went to bed like any other night. The two oldest boys, 9-year-old Basil and 4-year-old Roy retired to the front bedroom and fell asleep on the double bed. In the bedroom behind them, the oldest 11-year-old Phyllis slept, sharing the room with her two-year-old brother Ronald. In the room across the hall was the master bedroom, inside husband and wife James and Elizabeth lay — finally, next to them in a cot, 6-week-old John lay peacefully asleep.

During the night, seemingly sometime after midnight, James Reid Baxter awoke from his slumber. Dressed in pyjamas, socks, a coat and a vest. He armed himself with a 30 inch long iron stove scraper and a light. It is unknown what order he committed the acts in, but nevertheless, James entered the two bedrooms of his oldest children and swung the weapon at their skulls. Killing three in the process, and rendering his oldest Phyllis — unconscious.

James then crept into the master bedroom. He bashed his wife in the head multiple times with the iron scraper. Once James thought she was dead, he turned his attention to the 6-week-old baby John. James struck the infant John in the temple with the scraper once, before leaving the room.

James retrieved his shotgun and retreated to the bathroom; locking the door. He filled the bath with water, sat on the edge, placed the shotgun in his mouth and… pulled the trigger. What was once James’ head splattered throughout the room and his lifeless corpse fell back into the water. 

When his body was discovered later that morning, the top of James’ head was completely removed; leaving only the mouth, moustache and lower jaw behind. James’ watch found in his vest pocket had stopped at 2.50am.

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AFTERMATH

When police arrived later that morning, they found three members of the family, 37-year-old Elizabeth, 11-year-old Phyllis and 6-week-old John still alive. They were all rushed to hospital. However, two days later, Elizabeth Baxter passed away from her injuries. 

On the 11th of April 1908, the Evening Post wrote about the conditions of the two remaining survivors, “Of the two survivors of the Baxter family, the baby is weaker, and sinking. Phyllis is conscious, but has no knowledge of recent events. She is paralysed on one side, and complains of pains in the head”.

One day later, six-week-old John Baxter died from his injuries. Then on the 22nd of April 1908 the Evening Post reported, “This Day. Phyllis Baxter, the last surviving victim of the recent tragedy, died this morning from the injuries to her head. She was conscious almost to the last, and frequently enquired from the nurses regarding her mother”.

An inquest into the tragedy was held on the 13th of April 1908. A Doctor Ewart spoke at the inquest about the possibility that James was suffering from some sort of insanity, “insane people are liable to impulses which may sometimes be of such force as to be irresistible. There may or may not be signs of intellectual aberration. The chief feature of the disorder is an impulse to destroy, and it may not be controlled by the person”.

The jury agreed, and found that James Reid Baxter was suffering from ‘impulsive insanity’ when he committed the massacre and “that the other victims met their death at his hands while he was so suffering”. 

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ILLNESS

Many questions linger that surround this case that we can only surmise, chiefly, what motivated James Reid Baxter? Was he suffering from some sort of undiagnosed mental illness? What role did his head injury play in his ‘impulsive insanity’?

There is some evidence to support the theory he may have had a mental disorder. A Danish study in 2014 found that after suffering from a traumatic head injury, such as a concussion or skull fracture. You are 65% more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, 59% more likely to be diagnosed with depression and 28% more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Furthermore, Danish scientists found that the greatest risk of developing these mental disorders is within the first year of the injury. 

This is due to a number of reasons. Head trauma can cause the brain to inflame, increasing the risk of psychological symptoms. Head injuries can also destroy areas of the brain which can lead to the development of a mental disorder. In some cases the neurotransmitters that communicate with various parts of the nervous system can be affected. This disrupted balance can also lead to mental disorders.

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CONCLUSION

What was wandering through James Reid Baxter’s troubled mind in the early morning hours of the 8th of April 1908, we will never know. Nevertheless, the day James Reid Baxter committed suicide, he took six members of his family with him, his wife 37-year-old Elizabeth Baxter, 11-year-old Phyllis Baxter, 9-year-old Basil Baxter, 4-year-old Roy Baxter, 2-year-old Ronald Baxter and 6-week-old John Baxter. 

This whole event has been somewhat forgotten in the history of NZ, as the horror of the situation was metaphorically ‘swept under the rug’. There was never a funeral for the victims of ‘The Invercargill Tragedy’ and they were eventually buried in an unmarked plot in the Invercargill Eastern Cemetery. Curiously, buried along with them, you will find the man who took their lives, 43-year-old James Reid Baxter. 

The Tuapeka Times did their best to conclude this horrific saga on the 25th of April 1908: 

“With the death of little Phyllis Baxter at Invercargill the curtain fell on the grimmest domestic tragedy ever chronicled in the annals of the Dominion. On April 8 James Reid Baxter, by an act of delirium which spread horror and pity through the land, smote his own home with emptiness and offered to his own lips the same cup of death”.

‘The Invercargill Tragedy’, and James Reid Baxter’s apparent lack of motive makes this a difficult story to conclude. How do you find meaning in something so meaningless?

——

SOURCES

Articles
Wikipedia, Invercargill Tragedy, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invercargill_Tragedy
Papers Past, Waikato Argus, 14 April 1908, Page 2, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WAIGUS19080414.2.8
Papers Past, Evening Post, 11 April 1908, Page 6, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19080411.2.64
Papers Past, Evening Post, 22 April 1908, Page 7, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19080422.2.67
Papers Past, Evening Post, 9 April 1908, Page 2, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19080409.2.3
Papers Past, Evening Post, 14 April 1908, Page 3, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19080414.2.26
Papers Past, Hawera & Normanby Star, 14 April 1908, Page 5, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/HNS19080414.2.25
Papers Past, Tuapeka Times, 25 April 1908, Page 3, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TT19080425.2.10
Papers Past, Wairarapa Daily Times, 9 April 1908, Page 5, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WDT19080409.2.25
Papers Past, Tuapeka Times, 11 April 1908, Page 3, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TT19080411.2.12
Papers Past, Otago Witness, 15 April 1908, Page 52, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/OW19080415.2.255
The Discordian, Invercargill’s Forgotten Horror, https://xxdiscordxx.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/invercargills-forgotten-horror/
Fandom, James Reid Baxter, https://amok.fandom.com/wiki/James_Reid_Baxter
ScienceNordic, Head injury can cause mental illness, https://sciencenordic.com/biology-denmark-depression/head-injury-can-cause-mental-illness/1395035

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