This story of murder and theft involves the innocent occupants of a motor-car as the victims. They were travelling in the course of their employment in a vehicle singled out by a ruthless, armed, highwayman on a lonely stretch of road on New Zealand’s West Coast with just one plan – to get rich quick.
Prelude to a Crime
You won’t find the name Frederick William Eggers in any World War One records. He was supposed to leave New Zealand for active duty at the front but at the last minute he skipped ship. While he was called a deserter, this label was probably inaccurate because, in the extraordinary circumstances in Wellington in October 1914, he was set to go off to war without having been enlisted without rank and position.
The Charming Frederick Eggers
Eggers’ story begins when he turned up at Addington Military Camp near Christchurch in 1914 where he sought out representatives of the Canterbury Regiment who were preparing to proceed overseas on active service.
The well-dressed and confidently-spoken 32 year old endeared himself to top officers of the Regiment, having told them he had travelled from Westland at his own expense to enrol. Eggers was enlisted, but apparently all usual processes, including swearing-in, were not carried out. He travelled with the Battalion to Wellington where the troops were delayed almost a month awaiting their transport ships.
This was time enough for Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Macbean Stewart, Officer Commanding the Canterbury Infantry Battalion, to get to know Eggers, to recognise his attributes and appoint him as his “batman” or servant. But there was a hitch… Eggers could not be taken on because, officially, there was no vacancy. For 3 weeks Eggers proved he was an ideal servant to Colonel Stewart, winning his frankest admiration, an observation the Colonel frequently conveyed in letters home to his wife. Colonel Stewart and Major Albert Loach (second in command of the Battalion) hatched a plan enabling Eggers to be issued a full uniform kit and to sail with the troops to the front. Once in Egypt the Officers would have authority to appoint him Batman. Eggers apparently agreed. But at the last minute he asked for shore leave.
The ship “Athenic” was in final preparations on the eve of departure so no one was allowed ashore. But Colonels Stewart and Russell and Major Loach, all captive to Egger’s charm, made arrangements for special dispensation.
Eggers Jumps Ship
He went ashore and it was the last they saw of him… the troopships left next day without Eggers.
He did, however leave behind his personal kitbag on the ship and in it was found a pair of revolvers. It was strictly against Orders for “other ranks” to have personal firearms. The breach was technical… Eggers was not around to face charges and the revolvers were confiscated. They were immediately placed into service because there was a shortage of side-arms at this stage of the War. Notwithstanding the illegality of the firearms, Lt Colonel Stewart later received a pleading letter from Eggers seeking forgiveness, saying he had served a term of imprisonment on Somes Island for deserting (this was a lie) and adding a “cool request” as Stewart put it, “… for the return of my revolvers which are “keepsakes”.
(Lt Col Stewart was killed in action on Gallipoli on Walker’s ridge at the Dardanelles on or about Anzac Day 1915)
AKA (Also Known As)
During this time Eggers had been using an alias from time to time, William McMahon, the surname of a woman he had been keeping company with in Christchurch. He used the name McMahon over the years, an alternative to his real name when circumstances suited. He also told folks that he was not a New Zealand National but born in Western Australia (later proven) with family roots in the United States and in Germany (unproven). He told anyone that asked that he was a travelling salesman for farming equipment – milking machines and the like – and that he was also looking to buy and sell land, thus he spent a lot of time on business on the West Coast. What he did not reveal was his past conviction in Australia for forgery and its 2 year jail sentence. But this was a mere bagatelle for what followed in 1917.
Newspaper reports and evidence given in Court enable the facts to be pieced together. Together they prove Egger’s/McMahon’s involvement… except for one crucial matter: positive identification of the man at the centre of the crime.
The man with the alias had been seen on the West Coast over several years, apparently he had a thriving business selling agricultural machinery and had more recently branched into land speculation. He “cased the joint” regarding the fortnightly delivery of the State Mines payroll from Greymouth to the coal-mines near Runanga.
October 25th 1917 was payday but there was a delay picking up the payroll from the bank in Greymouth. Curiously on that day a farmer spotted a large log placed across the road near “The Camp” about 4 miles (6km) from Greymouth. No one else seemed to be about so, alone, he managed to wrestle the log off the carriageway into roadside bush. There appeared no explanation as to how the log got there. By the time the delayed payroll car arrived at “The Camp” the road was clear… the car carried on to make its delivery.
The log was a deliberate obstruction. Eggers had placed it across the road at right angles which would force the car to stop so he could rob the payroll. But the car’s late start upset his plans, unnerving him and, anyway, the well-meaning, helpful, farmer had ended any chance of carrying out the hold-up.
Eggers carefully planned the robbery. He occupied a vacant cottage near “The Camp”. He carefully selected the site of the planned hold-up in the section of the Greymouth to Runanga Road where the bush encroached right to the roadside. This was “The Camp”. Cashing in on the cover of thick vegetation, he made a roadside dugout where he could be concealed while lying in wait for the payroll car. Some distance in from the road he found rising ground where he made a lookout. This vantage point allowed him to see approaching cars for some 900 yards (1km), and he carefully timed how long it took before vehicles reached “the Camp”. This would allow him enough time to see the oncoming payroll car, run back to the road, place an obstruction and then lie concealed in the dugout until the car turned up at the barricade at “The Camp”.
November 9th, 1917
Eggers triggered his get-rich-quick plans for the morning of November 9th 1917.
In Greymouth that day the payroll car was outside the bank, right on schedule at 9am. In the car was the driver John Coulthard, paymaster William Hall and Isaac James (mines manager). Hall, as was customary, carried a Mines-issue .38 revolver. The car departed for the mines immediately the big leather bag containing the payroll, thousands of pounds in cash, was aboard.
Not long later Eggers could see the car approaching from his lookout. He made his move back to the road, to place an obstruction and to lie in wait. This time the barrier he erected was not a log, but a box and a ladder taken from the nearby cottage he had been occupying. Once again, the barrier was placed at right angles across the road.
Approaching “The Camp” driver John Coulthard saw the obstruction across the road but could not brake in time, the car crashing into the barricade and bringing it to a stop. Whereupon a masked man leapt out of a roadside dugout in the bushes, a revolver in each hand, shouting “Hands Up!”. The gunman fired off a few rounds to show he meant business: this was robbery and he was intent on stealing the payroll. More shots, and Coulthard and Hall were shot at short range. John Coulthard received a bullet to the heart and died minutes later.
William Hall managed to fire off a few rounds from his revolver in defence. He lay injured in the road. Isaac James was shot in the leg, immobilised. The robber snatched the bag and made off into the bush. The alarm was given by a father and son, cycling along the road at the time who had witnessed the hold-up.
A doctor and police rushed to the site, followed by many townsfolk who, hearing about the tragedy, wanted to view the scene for themselves.
A Manhunt for the Murderer
Word reached the mines of the tragedy of Coulthard’s death and the injuries to the 2 other mines staff when the Company’s payroll car was held-up. Miners suspended all work in honour of their colleague who had died while on company business.
Many… some hundreds… volunteered to join large search parties to look for the gunman in surrounding bush and countryside. No trace was found.
Police reinforced their efforts on the Coast and in Christchurch, where they guessed the wanted man might turn up sooner or later. All trains were watched and there were extensive inquiries on the Coast about people’s movements, about the contents of the payroll and how the bank had made up the consignment in banknotes. Evidence was gathered about Coulthard’s fatal injuries and doctors gave reports about the others’ condition. Police gathered .32 bullets from the deceased’s body, from those injured and from the inside of the car.
The tragedy deepened with news of William Hall’s death 6 weeks after the hold-up.
A Man of Interest
Meanwhile, enquiries in Christchurch revealed Eggers, known as McMahon, had recently arrived from the Coast and was on the detectives’ list to interview about the hold-up.
He was known to be in Christchurch on the night of 15th November 1917, seen having dinner in the Empire Hotel with a woman. Two plain-clothes detectives intercepted him on the street as he left the hotel and took him to the police station. Detective-Sergeant Connolly and Detective Abbott questioned the man, who said his name was William McMahon. He had a bag with him.
“What’s inside?” asked the detectives.
“Nothing of importance,” the man replied.
Detective Abbot said “…let me open it…”
McMahon said he would.
Both policemen reacted instantly when McMahon reached inside, obviously grappling for something. The policemen forced his hand out of the bag and found that he had been attempting to grab a Colt .32 automatic revolver.
“You were going to shoot us!” cried Connolly. “Hold him!” he shouted to his colleague, Abbot.
They found the revolver was loaded and that the bag also contained about 100 loose revolver cartridges and almost £100 in bank notes, all in neat bundles. Detectives Connolly and Abbot realised they had in front of them the most wanted man in New Zealand at the time.
Eggers, alias McMahon, Arrested
The detectives believed they had grounds to arrest Eggers in connection with a daylight robbery near Runanga on the West Coast. They charged him and put him a cell, then hastened back to the Empire Hotel where they found his lady friend, divorcee Miss Elizabeth McMahon. They escorted her to Gloucester Street, to the room in a boarding-house house where she lived, shared with Eggers when he was in town. It was there that detectives found more than £3,500 in a leather bag, compelling evidence that they had successfully cracked the week-old case involving loss of life and theft of a big payroll. The money was just £100 short of the total stolen in the payroll heist and was still in bundles, as had been described by tellers from the Greymouth bank who had prepared the cash.
It did not take long to check out the numbers on the notes: they tallied with those issued by the bank for the Mines payroll.
Eggers was charged with the murder of John Coulthard who died at the scene, the attempted murder of William Hall, the attempted murder of Isaac James and theft of £3659 16s 9d, the property of the New Zealand Government.
Detectives Connolly and Abbot were later to reveal that when they first interviewed the man they knew as McMahon he was regarded merely as a suspect. It was not until the revolver, together with the money, was found in his bag, that they knew they had their man: their deduction reinforced when, a short time later, they found the large sum in Egger’s girlfriend’s room.
Eggers pleaded not guilty when the trial opened in Christchurch. It lasted 4 days with the Crown, summing up, saying “Eggers did it!”. But the matter of positive identification of the masked gunman at the scene remained. The Crown said it had provided sufficient collaborative evidence to counter the fact that no one had positively identified the gunman.
The Defence maintained that identification was crucial and whether Eggers acted alone or, as he had suggested, there was someone else present who fired the fatal shots.
His Honour, Mr Justice Chapman, summing up, pointed out that Eggers business on the Coast was vague, yet the accused seemed minutely familiar with the layout of the land and bush near where the hold-up occurred. Moreover, His Honour pointed out, Eggers had offered no explanation about the large sum of money in his possession and the fact that ammunition found in the accused’s bag was identical to that taken from wounds of those who suffered on that day near Runanga.
The jury retired about half past six on the evening of the fourth day of the trial and returned a little more than 2 hours later with a “Guilty” verdict.
The Judge immediately undertook his responsibility, “…the only option I have at law”… he said and pronounced the death sentence. Frederick William Eggers, also known as William McMahon, was hanged at Lyttelton Prison just after 8am on 5th March 1918, but not before he wrote an 85 page submission to the Minister of Justice which included his claim of innocence because the shots had been fired by someone else whom, he said, had been paid £500 for the deed.
Within weeks of the execution the Truth newspaper campaigned for the release of Egger’s 85 page submission, “…given the public interest which may lead to wrong beliefs…” Truth also advocated publication of a transcript of the condemned man’s lengthy speech from the scaffold immediately before he died. “This”, the newspaper said, “would clear up why Egger requested his lady friend, Elizabeth McMahon, to smuggle strychnine poison into Lyttelton Jail”. And publication might elucidate another matter doing the rounds… “that someone invested in, and supplied, an elaborate coffin in which to bury Eggers. The fact was”, Truth said, “it was a casket procured, as usual in these cases, by the gaoler and paid for by the State”.
Another controversy surrounded whether Eggers had ever been a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, given his brief stint in the Canterbury Battalion at Addington Camp and in Wellington while awaiting transport to the front. The generally agreed reason he was not listed by Army Records Office was that his joining was not exactly a regular recruitment, based on Eggers’ captivating charm influencing very senior officers. Though he was enlisted and in uniform, due process had not been followed. He was not, technically, a sworn soldier and hence not included in Defence official records.
The tragedy, now just a hundred years ago, is remembered by a memorial to the two who died, John Coulthard and William Hall, an obelisk subscribed by miners and townspeople and erected in June 1921 near “the Camp” where they were fatally shot.
RCC December 2017
Papers Past – National Library of New Zealand