Murder, Escapade and Intrigue in Early Auckland

Events in Auckland in the mid-1880s provided conspiracy and intrigue such as the Colony had never seen. The ingredients included a jilted lover, a planned kidnap, murder, theft of a ship and her cargo, a touch of piracy and a getaway across the high seas. It centered on two men who, like the women involved, were well acquainted with the seedy and criminal side of Auckland. Add to this mix a brace of revolvers, desperate fugitives and a hunt for them  on both sides of the Tasman and it’s a scenario of a stranger-than-fiction story which kept newspaper readers intrigued for more than 6 months from June 1886.

Jilted in Love

But the story begins about 6 years before, about 1880, when John Caffrey was friendly with Elizabeth Ann Taylor. He was a ship’s captain plying the New Zealand coast and he took every opportunity to visit her at the family home on Great Barrier Island. He was smitten. After some three years they were engaged to be married, but after 6 months or so she rejected her fiancé, wanting nothing more to do with him. John Caffrey was distraught, deeply regretted the jilt, believing her father, Robert Taylor, had warned her off. Perhaps Elizabeth called off the relationship when she suspected Caffrey had homosexual or bisexual tendencies.

John Caffrey continued to voyage along New Zealand’s coast and began liaisons with several other women in Auckland, mixing with some of the city’s better known prostitutes. But he had not forgotten the real love of his life, Elizabeth Taylor. When it was announced that she was to be married to Frederick Seymour it was the last straw for Caffrey – he could see there was now little further chance with the one he wanted. He made threats against her father, Robert, continuing the vendetta against him. “I will murder him… it will be a ring or a revolver”. While these threats forced the wedding to be postponed, no one thought Caffrey would actually harm Robert Taylor.

The couple eventually married and went to live with the Taylor family as farming settlers on Great Barrier Island, some 90 km north-east of Auckland.

Change of Life

At first Caffrey carried on as master of the cutter “Sovereign of the Seas” much to the satisfaction of her owners, Henderson and Spraggon. But management noticed he was drinking more, that he was keeping bad company while in port and not paying attention to business. In May 1886 he untypically missed a monthly payment to the owners under the contract they had with him. When tackled about this he said he would make good next month, he had a voyage booked to Great Barrier and would settle then.

Changes in Caffrey’s personal and business life resulted from churning, persistent, resentment at the loss of Elizabeth Taylor. He still blamed “Old Tusky”, as called her father, and more and more he believed that, given half a chance, Elizabeth would leave her husband for the life she must much prefer – with him.

Getting her back preyed on his mind night and day. It made him moody and affected his judgement. She lived on Great Barrier Island. He had a ship. What was wanted was a plan to pick her up, whisk her away and share a new life together.

John Caffrey was of Irish descent,  and arrived in Auckland in 1849 as an infant with his parents Francis and Alice: part of the Royal New Zealand Fencible Corps, retired soldiers who enlisted in the United Kingdom as a military reserve to act as a ‘defence force’ for the protection of the early settlers in the fledgling town. They were among the first “settlers”: the families got free passage to New Zealand and on arrival were provided with a 2-roomed cottage on an acre of land which was gifted if they saw out the 7 year tenure. John was aged 4 when his father committed suicide in February 185, leaving his mother to bring up John and his siblings.

John Caffrey 1880s
Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

In 1887 a reporter described him as “muscular, of medium height, rather stoutly built, rugged, with a sandy complexion. His hair was a light brown colour and he usually sported a scraggy goatee beard and moustache. He had a star tattooed on his right forearm and an anchor on his left. Some descriptions have him as “seaman”: his experience obviously led him to progress to his own commands: master on “Waiotahi”, the schooner “Mary” and then the cutter “Sovereign of the Seas”.

It is likely he was in an intimate relationship with Henry Albert Penn.

Hatching a Plan

Caffrey as master of the cutter, “Sovereign of the Seas”, had the vessel at his disposal. She was 31 tons on the register, ship-shape, recently rebuilt, re-equipped and fitted with new sails at a cost to her owners of £500. She was quick in the water, regularly winning the prize for the fastest cutter at Auckland Anniversary Day regattas.

“Sovereign of the Seas” in Auckland Harbour 1886
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19021115-1255-2

The round-trip to Great Barrier in May 1886 was conveniently timed to study the island and to survey, particularly, Tryphena near where the Taylor family and Elizabeth and Frederick Seymour lived. Caffrey took Henry Penn as crew-member who was accompanied by his girlfriend, Grace Graham. The trip took two weeks: once back in Auckland Caffrey used the information gathered to get real serious about his plan (or was it a dream?), to return to Great Barrier, to pick up (kidnap?) Elizabeth and sail away to the chosen destination, South America. Caffrey wove Henry Penn and Grace Graham into the scheme: he told them that there was no doubt that Elizabeth would willingly take the opportunity to leave her husband and family, making it a foursome aboard the ship for the getaway overseas. Henry and Grace agreed to accompany Caffrey. Plans were, meantime, to be kept secret.

Henry Albert Penn, also known as Louie Anderson, was aged 24 years, son of Charles and Mrs Penn of Milford Street (now Melford Street) Ponsonby. Charles Penn, formerly of Thames, was a draper by occupation, a salesman with outfitters W. G. Allen in Victoria Arcade Building, City. His son, Henry, followed in the same trade, a married man with 2 children.

Henry Albert Penn
Auckland War Memorial Museum Collections Tamaki Paenga Hira

He met Grace Graham in January 1886 and despite her prostitution became infatuated, giving up his wife for her. The passion was returned by Grace and they both professed their fondness for each other. A reporter of the time said “Penn was aged about 24, of medium height, with light hair, a fair complexion, rounded features and a small moustache. There was a daredevil glint in his eyes that belied the tranquillity of his expression”. It is likely he was in an intimate relationship with John Caffrey.

Grace Graham was one of several aliases she was known by. Her real name was Grace Elizabeth Cleary but at various times also called herself Grace Reid, Lizzie Graham, Sarah Geary and Zara or Sarah White. From Gisborne, she was about 17 years old when she met up with Caffrey and Penn, said to be a good-looking young woman and dissolute… she kept company with those working in brothels. She gave her address as “the Brick House staying with Julia Wilson”. The “Brick House” became a brothel run by “Black Julia”, real name Julia Curtis alias Julia Wilson, a well-known Madam of the time. She moved activities into “the Brick House” after a notorious whore-house in Rokeby Street (now Waverley Street) burned down.

A woman from the Bay of Plenty, Mrs Reid, claimed she was Grace’s mother and said the girl’s father had died before she was born. Mrs Reid also reckoned Caffrey and Penn first met Grace at Great Barrier Island while Grace was on the island looking for her step-father who had eloped. But it’s more than likely that Henry Penn met Grace while frequenting the “Brick House” and similar dodgy hang-outs in Auckland.

Grace was Henry Penn’s girlfriend despite, or as well as, his relationship with John Caffrey.

Back in Auckland Caffrey went to Chapman’s, stationers, to buy a chart showing South America. He wanted details of Valparaiso, and while studying the chart in-depth told the shopkeeper that he’d been there, that it was a good port, and he could find his way in the dark. Caffrey purchased one of Imray’s charts for 12s 6d.

James Imray’s company started out as a chart-maker in 1818
Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson Ltd

Supplies for the proposed long voyage posed no problem. The next local trip for “Sovereign of the Seas” was to deliver about 4 tonnes of goods, mostly food and groceries, to a gum-diggers’ camp in the North. Walker Gum Company had ordered the stores for its employees… the company would be responsible for payment. Local suppliers and the Hellaby Meat Company delivered the freight to the ship mid-June, received and signed-for by Henry Penn.

R and W Hellaby began business in Auckland in 1873
N Z Herald 1882 – Papers Past National Library of New Zealand

A friend delivered an additional fresh water canister to the ship which now had sufficient stores, as somebody observed, “for many months at sea”.

There was another visitor to see Caffrey that afternoon, the cutter’s owner. In Caffrey’s absence Henry Penn took the message from him – “tell Caffrey that while his account remains unpaid he’s not to sail… tell him that… be sure to tell him he can’t leave port ‘til he settles up, and that’s an order!”

Plans Revealed

Despite Caffrey urging secrecy about the voyage, the trio found it hard to keep their mouths closed.  Caffrey himself confided in several friends whom he saw in Auckland streets. He met Agnes Austin in Grey Street (now Greys Avenue) on the evening of 17th June and he said he was “going away to the Barrier at twelve o’clock that night”. He told her he was not coming back, but gave her no reason for this. “I’m off to America”, but he did not say why he was going there. Then Agnes Austin saw Henry Penn in Queen Street and he also said he was going away that night, but did not say where. Agnes probably knew better than to ask. Agnes Austin could never be regarded as reliable and honest, nor a good witness: her many convictions for dishonesty and drunkenness reflected her character.

Agnes Austin She first came to the Court’s notice in June 1886 when police applied to remove her 3 children from the “squalid life” living in destitution in a brothel off Grey Street (now Greys Avenue). Police said the place was “a den of thieves, resorted to by persons of the worst class in the city who had no means of subsistence”. The Magistrate ordered Agnes’s son be sent to the Kohimarama School, and the two daughters to the Home at Kent Street, Surrey Hills, (now Maidstone Road, Grey Lynn), and to be brought up in the faith of the Church of England.

Now without any responsibility towards her children, the 20- something-year-old Austin became a recidivist offender, mainly for drunkenness but associated charges she faced included using obscene language, resisting a constable and assault. She was also found guilty of theft and several times faced the court accused of living without means of support. She was invariably sentenced to jail, sometimes with hard labour. Between stints in jail she continued frequenting brothels.

In August 1886 the Court had sentenced her to Auckland’s “Lock Hospital” (where sexually transmitted diseases were treated) but she escaped with 5 others. Agnes was caught and sentenced to a further month… in jail.

By November 1886 she appeared again on drunkenness charges, giving her address as care of Mrs Davy of the Salvation Army in Mt Roskill. This indicates she was in rehabilitation… but not for long. Her offending continued over many years. He daughter, also Agnes Austin, alias Agnes Thompson, followed in her mother’s alcoholism from a young age.

Caffrey was also indiscreet that same evening, June 15th, when he met another woman, Jane McManus, but he did not tell her he was going to America. She slept on the cutter one night while final preparations were being made for the voyage – she thought to Great Barrier Island – and declined Caffrey’s invitation to accompany him on the trip.

Jane McManus was well-known to Auckland police for her drunkenness and prostitution in what newspapers often referred to as “the city’s demi-mode”. In 1881 “a young girl”, McManus, as police described her, was charged with vagrancy, picked up drunk in a brothel. She must have been well under 20 years of age.  Arepeat offender, in July 1886 she appeared in Court alongside her sister and 4 others, ranging in age from 11 years to early 20s charged with vagrancy. They had been caught in a raid of Mr McDonald’s fruit shop in Victoria Street West where police had long suspected illegal goings-on. Jane McManus got the blame, perhaps erroneously, when a man walked into the police station, asked to make a statement and, once inside the office, deposited an infant child on the doorstep, then bolted. The child cried out, alerting police, who at once dashed downstairs in pursuit of the man who was caught in Chancery Lane. “The baby belongs to Jane McManus,” he said, “she left it on my bed but I am unable and unwilling to look after the child”. The infant was handed over to the care of the Hospital and Charitable Aid Board. Jane McManus’s last recorded conviction was in 1905: she died in October 1919.

Penn and Graham continued their indiscretions while they were at Dennis Rubie’s Oyster Saloon in Little Queen Street (later Swanson Street). They told the waiter who served them that it was the last time he would be seeing them for a long time… they planned to leave town for good.

Caffrey told other friends he met on that night, 17th June, that he was all set for a voyage. To some he confided the destination, to others he said nothing about where the ship would be heading. To one or two, including several men-friends who visited “Sovereign of the Seas” for late-night drinks, he revealed the reason for going to Great Barrier: to uplift Elizabeth Seymour and, if necessary to give her father a hard time. Henry Penn and Grace Graham were already aboard sharing the rum and whisky bottle.

The visitors went ashore sometime around 11 o’clock and, soon after, “Sovereign of the Seas” weighed anchor, her sails were hauled and she headed out of the harbour: Caffrey – Master, Henry – Mate and Grace – crew. With them was Caffrey’s Newfoundland dog. Destination: South America via Great Barrier Island. The ship had a compass but no other navigational aids apart from the chart, “Approaches to Valparaiso Harbour”.

On the Rocks

But it was nothing to do with a lack of navigational aids that led to the cutter endangered before she had left harbour. Caffrey and Penn were to take turns on watch. Penn and Graham were asleep with Caffrey at the wheel. He was suffering ill-effects of the late-night drinking and also fell asleep. “Sovereign of the Seas” found her own way with wind and tide until just on daybreak when, around 6 o’clock, she crashed into the rocks of Rangitoto Island’s rugged coastline. The impact was such it hurled Penn out of his bunk and certainly woke up the helmsman. The vessel was stuck hard and fast… on a falling tide. Caffrey’s mission seemed to have come to a very premature end. The more so when he spotted what he thought was the police cutter bearing down on their plight. He shouted out “Jesus Christ, Henry, it’s the Bobbies, it’s the police boat!” Both men realised they were on a vessel whose owners had expressly forbidden that it put to sea.

It was at this moment that for the first time it was revealed that Caffrey had revolvers aboard the ship. With one firearm in each hand – loaded he told Penn – he appeared on deck ready to have it out with the police if they attempted to board “Sovereign of the Seas”. But the cutter, not the police at all, ignored them and continued into the Hauraki Gulf.

The vessel on the rocks did, however, attract attention of quarrymen on Rangitoto Island: Fred Somers and his men came back that evening at high tide to help shove the cutter off, to see if she could be re-floated. The ship came free and appeared undamaged which was a miracle given the sharp, jagged, volcanic rocks she so violently crashed on to. Underway again towards Great Barrier Island, Grace Graham was completing a flag, something Caffrey had asked her to make. She had sacrificed a black dress to cut out the shape and now she was putting the finishing touches, hemming and sewing a small white cross in one of its corners.

The flag, Caffrey said, “would be raised to the masthead to show my mission on the Barrier had been accomplished”.

At Great Barrier Island

En route to Great Barrier Caffrey gathered up the revolvers, loaded them and one by one fired them into the air, emptying all chambers of each, to ensure they were working. The cutter arrived at the island off Tryphena late in the day, anchored near another cutter, “Tairua”, both just out of sight of settlers’ houses. Despite blustery weather the sails were lowered, not stowed. “Why’s that?” asked Grace. Caffrey replied “for a quick getaway”.  Grace had finished her handiwork on the flag and that night she overheard Caffrey and Penn discussing final plans to go ashore next day to pick up Elizabeth.

Just after daybreak Caffrey and Penn put on their belts and sheaths with sailor’s knives. They pocketed the revolvers and equipped themselves with a rope “…in case old man Taylor has to be restrained, tied up”.

A cutter in the Hauraki Gulf about the same time
Auckland Museum Collections

They rowed ashore. Caffrey knew the Taylor house across the bay from Tryphena because he had visited several times while courting Elizabeth. But it was their recce of the area a fortnight before that proved so valuable – they knew Sandy Bay, they had chosen the best place to land the dinghy, they had picked out a hill from which to observe the Taylors’ property and figured the best route for an unobserved approach to the house.

Tryphena Bay, Great Barrier Island 1880s
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-18990120-1-2

Now the two were ready to put their plans into action: final steps towards uplifting Elizabeth Seymour, nee Taylor, had begun. At last Caffrey would be with the one he loved.

It must have occurred to them, and Grace, that if Elizabeth was unwilling to accompany Caffrey it would be kidnapping-under-arms… and that there was considerable risk that it all might go wrong, with much more serious consequences. And whether he returned to the cutter with or without Elizabeth, had Caffrey planned, all along, to get back at her father… after all, he still believed the old man’s intervention led to the engaged couple’s break-up.

Shots Fired

Caffrey and Penn made their observations of the Taylor’s house, then picked their way towards it. Caffrey waited behind. Penn approached, the door was answered by Mrs Esther Taylor and Penn told her he was from the “Teviot” in the harbour and he’d like to buy some butter for the “Tairua”. Invited in, Penn found her husband, Robert Taylor, was dressing a mutton beast in the dining room accompanied by their teenage son Lincoln. Suddenly Caffrey excitedly rushed into the house, brandishing a revolver in each hand. “Hands up, Taylor!” he shouted. Penn also drew his firearm. Caffrey demanded to see Elizabeth, “…where is she? I have come for her, she is coming with me!”. Mrs Taylor shouted “the girls aren’t here”. In the bedroom Elizabeth, hearing the commotion escaped with her baby and siblings through a window and ran off to hide in nearby scrub. Mr Taylor’s pleadings, “don’t shoot”, went unheeded, two shots were fired. Lincoln escaped into one bedroom, Mr Taylor ran into another, slamming and locking the door behind him. But burly Caffrey easily smashed the bolt on the door, half-entered the room where there was a struggle in the doorway, Penn joining in. Several more shots were fired at close quarters and the old man slumped to the floor. Mrs Taylor, having seen her husband shot, begged for her life and ran out of the house, followed by Penn, who got her cornered in the stockyard. “Tell us where the girls are!” he demanded, “are they hidden under the bed?” Mrs Taylor repeated that she didn’t know where they were. Penn kept his revolver trained on the woman until eventually Caffrey came out of the house, his hands and clothes blood-stained, and intervened: “leave her, let’s go, let’s get out of here”. Mrs Taylor cried out “Oh, Johnny, what have you done?” Caffrey replied “I have done it now!”

 On the Run

The two made for the dinghy at Sandy Bay. The tide had, meantime, come in and they had to wade out into the bay to get the boat, almost beyond their reach. The water was up to Penn’s waist, and he dragged the boat towards the shore to pick up Caffrey.  Penn remarked about the blood they had on their hands and sleeves as the result of the struggle, and they washed them clean as best they could in the salt water. “Better not let Grace see this, best not tell her want happened ashore”, one of them remarked. They rowed out to “Sovereign of the Seas”.  “I’ve lost a revolver, it’s still in the house” Penn told Caffrey.

Penn left an American Bulldog 5-shot Revolver at the scene,
one chamber recently fired, four bullets loaded

But there was no going back for it. Once alongside the cutter they were assisted aboard by Grace. She must have immediately known there’d been violence ashore when she saw bloodstains on their clothing and remarked on it. “Oh, what have you done?” she asked Caffrey. “I have put the bloody old curse out of the road,” he replied. “Was Henry involved?” she asked. “I told him to shoot, but like a bloody fool he fired at a picture on the wall”.

The trio prepared to depart in haste. All available sails were set, Caffrey at the wheel as “Sovereign of the Seas” cleared Tryphena bay. Once they passed the vessel “Tairua” Caffrey hoisted the black flag to the masthead. Clear of the island he shaped a west-bound course, figuring that if they sailed far enough they must sooner or later come across South America’s long coastline. There was one other chore he had prepared for. He had purchased black paint and brushes in Auckland and now the three disguised the vessel. Her white top-sides were painted black and her name at the stern was painted out, all but five letters: she became “Reign”. With only a compass, and no sextant or other aids, navigation was up to Caffrey’s experience and best judgement. They were making their getaway… without Elizabeth, but with even more purpose, on the run after murder on Great Barrier Island.

The Follow-up

Mrs Taylor had remained in the stockyards until she was sure Caffrey and Penn were gone. At last she ventured to the house and found her husband just inside the bedroom, slumped in a sitting position against the wall. From the blood she could see his head injuries were serious and on further examination she found he was dead. She called out to Elizabeth, her sisters and Lincoln and they came in from their hiding places. Without further ado Mrs Taylor got them all into a small boat and rowed across the bay to Tryphena settlement where she raised the alarm with the Postmaster.

The Post Office and Postmaster’s cottage, Tryphena
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990120-2-4

News quickly spread and locals gathered immediately, armed with shotguns and rifles. They were ready to deal to Caffrey and Penn should they come across them.

First word of the crime reached Auckland on Sunday June 20th after Frederick Seymour went from Tryphena to Coromandel, possibly aboard “Tairua”, where he sent a telegram to authorities in Auckland. Details were also sent to the New Zealand Herald from its “Tryphena Correspondent”.  This prompted a police and medical team to be sent to Great Barrier next day on “Rowena”. A cutter, with armed personnel, was also despatched to search Great Barrier and nearby islands for “Sovereign of the Seas”. A land search for Caffrey and Penn was mounted within days in West Auckland after a settler reported seeing two men answering the description of the wanted men. Search parties looked through Waitakere Ranges and as far north as Helensville. But senior police suspected this was a wild goose chase and soon called it off: their decision vindicated when two men came forward to give their identity. They were not, of course, the suspects. There were several other “false alarms” of reported sightings. A gum-digger at Swanson, suspected of being Caffrey, got caught in the net: when police checked him out he was arrested on several charges, crimes allegedly committed in New Plymouth.

Newspapers throughout New Zealand published detailed descriptions of the two wanted men… and mentioned the girl Graham was with them, “…a native of Gisborne and only 16 years of age”.

Meanwhile on Great Barrier Island police, led by Inspector James Tuohy, gathered statements and seized evidence, including the revolver recovered from the bedroom. Surveyors made a detailed plan of the house and surrounds while Dr Henry Walker examined the body inside and out and wrote up copious notes.  Once he had finished, John Taylor was buried near the house. Tuohy and party returned to Auckland to further their investigation, focussing on what they could find out had occurred before “Sovereign of the Seas” left port… and to await developments. Tuohy also made sure counterparts in Australia and in Pacific Islands were advised to be on the look-out for the cutter and the three fugitives.

James Joseph Tuohy was an Irishman born in County Clare 1839 who, after arriving in New Zealand, joined the Constabulary and served in isolated Southland stations such Winton and Riverton before being promoted to detective in Invercargill and then Dunedin. He was posted to Auckland as senior detective where he soon showed perseverance and diligence when dealing with difficult and clue-less crimes. Notably in 1886 he arrested Walter Maxwell, alias Brookes, who arrived in Auckland having allegedly murdered his man-friend, Charles Preller, in America. Maxwell had left the body in a travelling trunk in a hotel room before travelling to Auckland, belatedly discovered by a maid.

James Tuohy and family
Manawatu District Libraries

Tuohy was a natural to lead the investigation into the fugitives who committed murder on Great Barrier Island before escaping on the high seas. Not long after this successful case was concluded it is said (newspaper columnist) that he fell out with his superior and was demoted to constable, to serve in the Manawatu: his brilliance lost from the mainstream. But more considered accounts say Tuohy was caught up in a review which found that Auckland detection did not measure up. He was displaced by those considered better for the task.

While quickly and successfully turning his hand to rural crime, Tuohy was, however, unable to solve the bulk mysterious disappearance of 494 sheep from a farm in neighbouring Taranaki. He was put in charge of the Feilding Police after the retirement of Constable Meehan in March 1890, then appointed Bailiff a month later and Inspector for Feilding in January 1892. He was made Resident Clerk of the Court in July 1895. He died suddenly in Westport in 1903… some newspapers lamenting the loss of the “Father of New Zealand Police”.

A colleague of Tuohy’s, the equally well-known Inspector Pardy, was reported in the “Rangitikei Advocate” as saying that Tuohy, having been a detective, “has a tolerably wide acquaintance with the criminal class”, and this was never so true when he unhesitatingly called elements of Auckland’s underworld to give evidence at trials, some for capital offences, to support (bolster?) the prosecution’s case at Caffrey’s and Penn’s murder trial.

All At Sea

Within a few days the “Sovereign of the Seas” ran into a fierce storm the likes of which Caffrey, the master mariner, had never experienced. The ship was at the mercy of the wind and the crashing waves which at times broke right over her. For Caffrey there was a very lucky escape from death. At the height of the gale the main boom suddenly jibed, and in swinging, caught him and jammed him down to the top of the companion way. Just as the boom was crushing his breast the sail took the strain off the boom, and released him. He was saved but suffered the effects of this accident for a long time. When asked, Caffrey reckoned this took place off the Bay of Plenty but he probably didn’t know. In other respects, despite the atrocious weather, Caffrey said the cutter held up very well: “she behaved splendidly”.

He still had the South American coast as his destination but time and again the ship was beaten to the northward by adverse winds, and then once reaching the Sou’east trades the ship was apparently carried still further North.  For weeks they sailed without sighting land. The cutter got up into the tropics, and there the heat was fearful. Weeks went by and while they had plenty of food – the stolen cargo which was intended for the gum-diggers – they had run out of fresh water. With no rain day after day for weeks, they were desperate for liquids so Caffrey shot his dog and they took turns to drink the blood. Some accounts say the dog went mad in the tropical sun and Caffrey considered it humane to put the animal down. The deed having been done, it rained next day. “Providence”, said Caffrey and they spread blankets to catch and preserve the water, and so refilled their casks.

Without proper navigational aids Caffrey did not know where they were. “Reign” sailed on with still no sighting of land. The long voyage meant the trio became weary, wary and suspicious of each other. Penn and Graham always went on watch together: they no longer trusted Caffrey thinking he might take the opportunity to dispose of those who knew of his crimes. The two avoided being on deck alone or near the railings and slept with revolvers under their pillows.


And then, after three months at sea they sighted land. It was October 1886. Caffrey thought they had found South America but it turned out to be the New South Wales coast of Australia, near Newcastle. Caffrey did not know exactly where they were, he set a course to the south and then recognised Sydney Heads, a port he had previously visited. Quickly putting about to get out of civilisation (and probable capture), he headed the cutter northwards and next day found Crescent Head, near Port Macquarrie, an isolated, quiet and peaceful-looking place, a suitable land-fall for criminals on the run.

The trio went ashore, made shelter and fetched the remaining stores to establish a camp. Food was augmented with fresh meat when Graham shot rabbits and opossums for the pot.

Once all useful stores and items had been fetched ashore there are differences about what exactly happened to “Sovereign of the Seas”. One version says Caffrey scuttled her in the bay the day after they arrived. Another story reckoned Caffrey beached the cutter, it got away and was dashed to pieces on rocks nearby Crescent Head.

Despite the end of their ordeals at sea there was still tension between the trio as they figured out what their next steps would be. The three bickered and argued about what would be best for them. After 10 days Caffrey wanted to leave camp, taking the girl with him but she and Penn would not agree. Resorting to the revolvers from the cutter the men decided to settle their differences in a duel. But Grace Graham would have none of it and, seizing another firearm, stood between them threatening to shoot Caffrey if he fired at Penn. Caffrey reluctantly saw he was beaten, prepared a pack and walked off into the bush. He headed north and eventually found work on a gang constructing a bridge.

That left the two, equally reluctant to continue living in the bush-camp.

First Clues

Wreckage from the “Sovereign of the Seas” was washed along the coast, suggesting the cutter broke up rather than being scuttled. Or it may have broken up having been sent to the rocky bottom. Beachcombers spotted the stern timbers with the name of the vessel painted out, just ‘reign’ remaining clear. When this was handed into police they had their first clue of the whereabouts of Caffrey, Penn and Graham. They were not in South America, after all, but had made it to Australia. All police stations along the east coast were alerted.


There was plenty of opinion around Auckland about what had become of the cutter and her three occupants. Master mariners said the fierce storms that raged for nearly a week after the “Sovereign of the Seas” left Great Barrier would have finished her. She would have been swamped and gone down taking Caffrey, Penn and the woman to their doom.

Experts had their doubts about the reported sighting of a strange craft off the Australian coast in August 1886 or of wreckage found about the same time. The signalman at Port Macquarrie also reported seeing a “strange cutter” which added to speculation, discounted somewhat by a “firm” sighting of Caffrey near Sydney and another report that he was seen on a train in Gippsland, Victoria.

Word reached Auckland on 29th September 1866 that the wreckage found near Port Macquarrie bore the name “Sovereign of the Seas”, the first indication that the hunt was narrowing for the three connected with the Great Barrier Island murder some three months before.

On October 1st the New Zealand Herald reported… “Nothing further has transpired respecting the reported wreck of the cutter “Sovereign of the Seas” on the Australian coast, other than that published yesterday. The subject of her wreck was the theme of general conversation in nautical circles during yesterday, and the general opinion was that the vessel had been wrecked, and all on board drowned”.

The Arrests

First Class Mounted Constable, Sergeant Eden May, formerly a policeman in New Zealand, now stationed at Bellingen, decided to go one better than just keeping a local look-out for the fugitives. Disguised as a swagman and with a broken down old horse he hit the road. On the third day he came across a man answering Caffrey’s description. He chummed up with the man who said his name was Joe Adams, and they agreed, fellow swaggies, to walk to the Clarence River where they could get work as cane-cutters. They travelled together for about 12 kms. May was well-armed and had his handcuffs with him. He was aware that Caffrey probably had a revolver in his shirt so he kept a sharp look-out. Eventually on October 6th at Fernmount, on the Bellinger River, May came clean, saying he was a policeman and was looking for a man wanted for murder in Auckland, New Zealand. “And I think you are John Caffrey”, he added, quickly covering him with his revolver. Caffrey was handcuffed and he was taken into custody. The prisoner denied he was Caffrey, insisting he was Joe Adams, an Australian roustabout who had never been to New Zealand. Although the description generally fitted, including pierced ears, Caffrey had more tattoos than Auckland police had listed. But once a photo arrived from Sydney, there was little doubt about the identity of their prisoner. It had more or less already been confirmed when a search of his pack revealed a revolver and a black flag (spoken about by Auckland police and mentioned in news reports). The flag was henceforth described by police in evidence as “a piratical flag”.

Asked the whereabouts of the other two who had accompanied him, Caffrey gave them a chance. He told police that “Sovereign of the Seas” had been leaking, sinking, so the trio had to make for the shore the best way they could. “I succeeded in landing some things and then went back to the vessel for Penn and the woman. It was dark, the dinghy capsized on the way in, throwing us into the surf. I was washed ashore, but Penn and the woman drowned and I never caught sight of them again. I searched next day or two but could find no trace of them. That was three or four weeks ago”.

News of the drownings was conveyed to Sydney, picked up by the Press and published in Auckland. Penn’s family was shaken, but it was not unexpected. Penn’s father said he had a vision, a premonition, that his son was dead and had told his family so.

Before being taken to Sydney Caffrey told May “If I had known you were a constable before you surprised me, I would have shot you like a dog. I had resolved not to be taken alive!”

Within days, police at Kempsey had confirmed what they had suspected all along: that Penn and Graham had not drowned, that Caffrey’s story was untrue.

In fact, about the time Caffrey was arrested the pair had left their seaside camp on foot and had covered about 10 kms when they were intercepted by Senor Constable McClelland near Kempsey. There was no mistaking the pair’s identity: they were arrested, they admitted who they were, and taken into custody.

For all three fugitives their escape from justice had ended: game over after 4 months on the run. They were held in custody in Sydney awaiting formal paperwork to be placed before a local magistrate so that arrangements could be made for their extradition to Auckland.

News of their capture was trumpeted in every New Zealand newspaper. Police, who must have been preparing paperwork for just this eventuality, were immediately dispatched to Sydney on the Union Steamship Company’s “Waihora”. If legal processes were successful they would be bringing the prisoners back to Auckland on the ship’s return voyage.

Sergeant May and Senior Constable McClelland shared the reward of £200 which had been offered for the capture of the fugitives.

Before the Court

On 21st October 1886 the trio appeared for the extradition hearing before Magistrate Addison in Sydney’s Water Police Court. Detective Tuohy from Auckland was present and he gave Mr Addison formal information and a complaint in the form of an affidavit that he, Tuohy, had sworn as a member of Auckland’s Armed Constabulary before Hugh Garden Seth Smith, one of Her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace in and for the colony of New Zealand. It stated  that Tuohy suspected the two men had murdered Robert Taylor on Great Barrier Island on June 19th 1886 and that the woman was an accessory to this, in that she “…feloniously did receive, harbour, and maintain John Caffrey and Henry Albert Penn”.

The court was packed, such was public curiosity, locals keen to get a glimpse of the prisoners whose story about the murder and the getaway had appeared generously in the Press. Here’s how “Sydney Evening Post” described their appearances. “Their irons were taken off at the Courtroom entrance. Penn entered first, and was ushered into the dock, followed by Caffrey. Both were quite composed, and nodded familiarly to some friends. The girl Graham wore a black silk velvet blouse with a brown dress, and a straw hat trimmed with blue ribbons, and seemed quite unconcerned, smiling frequently, and not at all disconcerted. Caffrey stood with his arms folded wearing a dark coat and a white cotton shirt”.

Magistrate Addison found that the application was in order and approved extradition: the three were remanded in custody and, when arrangements were complete, Sydney’s jailer was to give up the trio to the New Zealand authorities for transfer to Auckland in order to face trial there.

Caffrey, Penn and Graham didn’t have to wait long. Arrangements were already in place: passage was booked on the “Waihora” that night and her crew had prepared the necessary confined cabins below-decks. On the afternoon of 21st October, within hours of their court appearance, the three ran the gauntlet of many spectators around the wharf gates. The police van was driven along the cleared quay right up to the gangway where all three boarded the “Waihora” under close guard and with their hands and feet chained. Their custodians for the voyage were Detective Tuohy and Constables Macky and Carroll, of Auckland, plus an ex-member of the constabulary. Graham was shown to quarters at the stern while the men were taken to the mail room, a secure and spacious compartment situated ‘tween decks of the fore-hold, which had been specially fitted with several bunks. There the pair was securely lodged, to remain until the arrival of the steamer in Auckland. “Waihora” cleared Sydney Heads early evening, 21st October 1887.

“Waihora”. National Galleries, Scotland

 Extradition: Aboard “Waihora

At least one newspaper reporter travelled on the voyage and afterwards gave graphic descriptions of security arrangements, meals, and prisoners’ pastimes to while away the few days it took to reach Auckland. For the men, meals were served in a small compartment just outside the mailroom, the same food served to steerage passengers. Ringbolts had been secured to the floor of the mailroom “in case the prisoners got restive”, despite their manacles and chains. Graham was served food from the saloon and allowed to exercise, escorted, on deck. On the first day both Caffrey and Penn had their hands freed and played card games, Euchre, for most of the day. The four players comprised Caffrey, Penn, another prisoner, Forsyth who was being extradited for fraud, and one of their escorts, the retired constable. But this was to be the exception: the trio’s wrist manacles were not removed again for the rest of the voyage. Inventively, they still found a way to play Euchre in handcuffs. “The whole of the spacious ‘tween decks had been kept free of cargo” one report noted, “available for such exercise as the prisoners could take, always under strict supervision. The hatches were kept open throughout the voyage, and there was abundant ventilation”.

Meanwhile Graham “passed much of the time reading and was in all ways treated well. She talked freely whenever she had the chance. She seems rather proud of the part she has taken in the recent affair and of the public notoriety it will surely bring”. Graham told of the trio’s getaway from Great Barrier Island and the months aboard the cutter, their landing and camp on the New South Wales coast and capture.

Caffrey also gave a detailed account of events during the months at sea and then the four weeks or so ashore on the New South Wales coast.

The differences between the two versions were noticeable, with obviously some embroidering. Graham seemed to protect Penn’s interests and at one stage she said that she could live happily with Penn… in fact she was sure she would because “he’ll face only a short sentence for his part in events at Tryphena”. Newspapers gave chapter and verse, every detail that had been told aboard “Waihora”, but publications were noticeably careful not to go into matters that had occurred on Great Barrier Island, probably for fear of upsetting a fair trial.

Preparations in Auckland    

In the 4 months that Caffrey, Penn and Graham had been on New Zealand’s “most wanted list”, Detective Tuohy and his colleagues had plenty of time to gather evidence against the suspects, to consider the strength of their case and decide the best approach when prosecuting the three at trial. Police had taken statements from Elizabeth Seymour and members of the Taylor family. Detectives had spoken to those who were among the last in contact with the accused, or who were on the cutter, immediately before her stealthy departure on the night of June 17th 1886.

Tuohy’s net stretched out among those from the seedy side of life in Auckland: people he was usually interviewing with a view to arresting them. But on this occasion he was looking for those who could be called as witnesses for the prosecution. He spoke to Agnes Austin and Jane McManus and told them, that once the miscreants were caught – and he had no doubt that sooner or later they would be – that they would be required to testify. They got the “don’t leave town” message.

What of the woman Graham? Tuohy had eye-witness accounts that Caffrey and Penn were in the Taylor farmhouse, armed, and after a short struggle fired shots resulting in Robert Taylor’s death. From all Tuohy had heard it was clear that Graham had not been ashore with the pair, remaining aboard the cutter. At best she was an accessory in that, knowing murder had taken place, she assisted the perpetrators to escape.

Tuohy knew Graham was part of, or very close to, Auckland’s “seedy set” and that she, too, might be beneficial to the prosecution’s case.

Matters became clearer when, on October 12th, (between Graham’s arrest at Kempsey and her departure from Sydney for New Zealand) it was announced by newspapers that authorities in Wellington had decided not to press charges against her: “she may be required”, they said, “to give evidence against the murderers”.  It was decided, however, to include the woman as an accessory to murder in the extradition papers to ensure she remained locked up in Sydney and that she returned to Auckland. Tuohy’s plan for the prosecution was coming together.

Arrival in Auckland

“Waihora” was going to be late arriving in Auckland. She was due on Tuesday afternoon, 26th October, but at 5pm on Monday afternoon she was stuck of North Cape in very dense fog. The Three Kings Islands had not been sighted so as a precaution the engines were stopped and the “Waihora” lay-to until four o’clock on Tuesday morning when the fog lifted and the steamer resumed her way, having lost 11 hours.

This delay disappointed hundreds of people who had waited on Auckland waterfront hoping to catch a glimpse of the prisoners as they disembarked and were taken away. Notwithstanding the hour, 1am when “Waihora” arrived alongside, a number had waited in the hope of seeing the prisoners. But they were disappointed. Police had carefully arranged a number of cabs to take the trio – and Forsyth – plus their escorts, to the lockup. The well-managed operation overseen by Superintendent Thomson was quickly completed, the cab drivers whipping their horses into a good pace to clear the wharves… and away.

Penn’s father was on the wharf and as his son was being disembarked he had just enough time to say “Never mind, my boy, we’ve got Napier to defend you”, referring to one of Auckland’s well-known lawyers. Penn senior fainted not long afterwards, collapsing on the wharf, overcome with emotion.

At the police guardroom the three were charged in similar terms to the extradition document, including Graham – under her real name Grace Cleary – for being an accessory to murder. Reporters who witnessed formalities said “Penn looked round on those present with a defiant air, but the girl smiled and nodded to some of the policemen whom she knew, and appeared little affected by her position”.

Arrangements were already in hand for their accommodation in the lock-up. Inspector Thomson ordered their leg restraints removed, but it was found impossible. Sydney jailers, well- versed in the security of prisoners in that convict colony, had riveted the irons. The three had to remain in their chains until next morning when a blacksmith visited the jail with the necessary tools.

Another Charge Laid…

The Taylor family sought to have legal representation at the Court hearings because of their intimate connection with the case. Police and Justice officials denied the application. Further requests were made by Mr Brassey, Taylors’ lawyer, but to no avail. If the Prosecution needed assistance, he was told, Superintendent Thomson might make a request, but no such approach was intended.

Taylor family members, adamant they should have someone with a watching brief on their behalf considered their options.

Their solution lay in another charge being laid. Samuel Taylor, acting under Mr. Brassey’s advice, went to the Police Court to submit documents that charged John Caffrey with murder. This would enable Mr Brassey to attend hearings. The New Zealand Herald opined that “…it seems somewhat absurd that this squabble should have arisen over the conduct of the inquiry, and that a second information for murder should have been laid by a private person when the Crown was ready and prepared to proceed with the prosecution”.

… And Another Charge Dropped

Before the preliminary hearing began in the Police Court, early November, several legal objections were raised, and another about the prisoners remaining in handcuffs. Matters were settled by the bench, Mr. Seth Smith, R.M., and Mr. Moody, J.P, (Mr Smith, it may be recalled, had taken Detective Tuohy’s affidavit for the application to extradite the trio). Mr Brassey then addressed the Court saying that the Taylor family had told him they no longer required representation, and he was withdrawing.  Mr. Napier appeared for the prisoner Penn, Mr. Palmer for the prisoner Caffrey, and Mr. Hudson Williamson prosecuted for the Crown.

The charges against the two men were then formally read in the packed courtroom. John Caffrey’s and Henry Penn’s family and friends were present and Mrs Reid, Grace Graham’s mother, was sitting in the front row of the gallery – it would be her listening post during all the proceedings that followed. The air inside the place was suffocating, the courtroom contained as many people as police would generously allow: business people, mothers with babes-in-arms, lawyers and the curious. Members of the Taylor family were also present. Newspaper reports said Caffrey and Penn “looked better than on their previous appearance: Penn had lost his defiant look”. Graham, now correctly named as Sarah Elizabeth Cleary, was present throughout. Once the prosecution had set out the case against Caffrey and Penn, Cleary was charged with being an accessory to murder.

One of the witnesses called by the Prosecution was 20 year old Agnes Austin who could confirm she met Caffrey the night he sailed from Auckland and the brief conversation they had. Austin had given her address as “staying with Mrs Davey at the Salvation Army in Mt Roskill”, but mentioned that she had since left the institution. (This was probably true because within days of appearing in the witness box, she had returned to the Court, but this time in the dock to answer a charge of drunkenness).

It was then that Prosecutor Mr Williamson said he was making an application… “I am asking to withdraw the charge against the girl”.

Tuohy’s plan, that Cleary would be freed and give evidence for the Crown, was at last fulfilled.

But Williamson did not leave it at that. “I’m sorry to withdraw the charge because I know that as soon as she is discharged she’ll return to her evil courses. Miss Davey (of the Salvation Army) has offered to take charge of her tonight, but she has refused to go. I am asking the Court to caution her, that although she is now discharged, if she returns to her former life, she will still be under the surveillance of the police”. Mr Napier, representing Penn (Cleary’s boyfriend) said while he didn’t oppose withdrawing the charge, “it was clear, anyway, that at no stage the Crown had intention of pressing this charge against her, the Prosecution merely keeping her in custody to get her statement. But I do object most strongly about Mr Williamson’s remarks about her character!” Cleary was then formally discharged, and left the Court with her solicitor. The two men were committed to take their trials at the next criminal sittings of the Supreme Court on the charge of Murder.

The Trial

This began the Supreme Court, Auckland, on 18th January 1887, true bills having earlier being returned by the Grand Jury. (In these times each case intended for the Supreme Court was “tested” by a Grand Jury before allowed to proceed). Mr Justice Ward presided.

Supreme Court, Auckland
Hand-painted carte de visite print, Auckland Museum Collections

Judge Dudley Ward All but forgotten these days, Charles Robert Dudley Ward was a household name in New Zealand in the mid-to-late 1800s, a well-known lawyer and then Judge of New Zealand’s Supreme Court. He was strong man: tall and sturdily built. In his younger days he took law in the UK, migrated to New Zealand and briefly diverted to politics as an MP. Reverting to law he soon became a circuit judge, riding horse-back to minister in North Island courthouses. Ward was appointed Acting Supreme Court Judge on four occasions and it was while he was sitting in Auckland that he oversaw the Taylor Murder Trial.

Judge C. R. Dudley Ward
NZETC Victoria University

Ward and his wife lived in Christchurch, she a suffragist and leading light in the temperance organisation. For all that, Ward was often labelled “a womaniser”: it was known he had a mistress in Dunedin whom he married some years after his wife’s death.

In a packed courtroom, the charges against the two were read separately: “that you, on the 19th of June, 1886, did feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought, kill and murder Robert Taylor”. Mr. Williamson was the Crown Prosecutor assisted by Mr. Glover, while Mr. Napier appeared for Penn and Mr. J. O’Meagher, with Mr. Jackson Palmer, for Caffrey. Newspaper reports of the hearing say that “…much time was taken up empanelling a jury, owing to the large number of challenges. Both prisoners pleaded “not guilty” to the charge in strong, direct voices and looked decidedly better in health and personal appearance than on the hearing of the charge against them in the Police Court. They closely scrutinised each juror as he was called”.

Before the case proceeded Mr Napier addressed the Court. “I object to one of the jurymen whom someone has said expressed opinions about the case, and I do not wish him to continue on the jury”. The judge said he did not see how he could assist Mr. Napier under these circumstances. “You should have challenged at the proper time”.

(Much of the evidence given at the trial forms the basis of this account).

The surveyor produced plans of the Taylor house, the doctor gave his opinion about the cause of death and each member of the Taylor family gave their testimony about what happened that morning when Caffrey and Penn visited their house at Sandy Bay. The anchor witness was senior detective Tuohy… and yes, as he had planned, both the ladies of ill-repute, Agnes Austin and Jane McManus, gave their evidence about their last conversations with Caffrey and Penn before the cutter sailed, and McManus’s stay with Caffrey on the ship the night before. The owners of the “Sovereign of the Seas” attested barratry… the meaning in Admiralty Law is “misconduct by the crew of a ship resulting in its damage, or of its cargo”… since they had forbidden Caffrey to leave port. Then Sarah Elizabeth Cleary / Grace Graham gave her evidence at length: the Prosecution’s witness. She shielded her boyfriend, Penn, from blame wherever she could, saying she had only vague knowledge of what Caffrey’s intentions were once on the island. Penn, reciprocating, was to say that the girl was held on the cutter against her will and that she didn’t know, or realise kidnapping, or worse, was planned. She had not been part of Caffrey’s scheming. After she gave her testimony she sat in the public gallery, signalling and engaging with Penn in the dock. The Judge soon put a stop to this: he ordered her from the Courtroom.  Elizabeth Seymour gave evidence, probably the most telling of which was how the jilted Caffrey had threatened her: “I will come seeking you with a ring or a revolver”.

The Trial Concludes

The trial lasted 5 days, the fifth day was a Saturday: proceedings would not end until late afternoon. Caffrey’s lawyer had presented his defence the day before, it was now Mr Napier’s turn to address the court on behalf of Penn. Like Caffrey’s lawyer, he did not call any defence witnesses. The prosecution followed with a plea to the jurymen that in making their judgement they should “follow the evidence, forget vengeance and deliver justice”. His Honour the Judge, Dudley Ward, then summed up saying “a more foul and cruel murder than this has never stained the annals of the colony.  The Crown has made much that, acting on certain motives, the prisoners had a plan… to secure Elizabeth Seymour… which had failed. The proof of this depends entirely upon the exceedingly dubious evidence of the girl Grace Graham and from what we know of her character, you can place no reliance whatever on her evidence. No doubt she has endeavoured to exculpate Penn. In their defence each prisoner has done his best to throw the guilt upon the other, and I am drawing your attention to the statements made by counsel on behalf of each prisoner. But if it’s proven that the shot was fired by one or the other, and they were shown to be aiding and abetting each other, it will be your duty to find them both guilty of murder”.

The jury retired and took an hour and twenty minutes before returning to announce it had found both men guilty.

The foreman then surprised everyone in the courtroom when he added a rider that the jury “recommends mercy be shown towards the two prisoners”.

The Judge asked both Caffrey and Penn if they knew of any reason why sentence should not be passed and both accepted the invitation to briefly address the Court.

The Judge, ignoring the jury’s plea for mercy, donned the black cap and sentenced the two to death by hanging.


The New Zealand Herald reported that “the unexpected and foolish plea for mercy” reflected difficulties in the jury room to get a unanimous verdict. One juryman was holding out. “He seems to have taken a very strange notion of his duties. He argued that both Caffrey and Penn did not commit the murder, and that therefore one of them should have a chance for his life. Possibly the best way, he said, would be for the accused to draw lots who should be hanged”. This loner went on to ask, according to the Herald, “why two men should be hanged when only one had been killed, and when only one could have fired the fatal shot? And it has not been made clear to us as to who killed Taylor”.  This juryman thus continued to argue for more than an hour. Other members of the jury, weary of the case, eager to get to their homes on Saturday night, frightened that if they did not bring in a verdict they would be sequestered again, were weak enough to agree to the compromise that both prisoners should be recommended to mercy”. That was the compromise that ended the jury deliberations and the foreman duly announced the rider.

The Sentence – Death by Hanging

There were several appeals seeking the death sentence to be set aside. Friends got up a petition on behalf of Caffrey and an individual lodged one for Penn.

On February 8th it was announced by the Minister of Justice, Hon. William Larnach, that the hangings would be carried out. He said he had looked over all the papers seeking the sentences to be commuted and he had read the report of the learned Judge who presided at the trial along with the reports of Ministers forwarded from Wellington. “There are no grounds for appeal and, exercising the prerogative of the Crown, His Excellency the Governor has decided that the law must be allowed to take its course. The prisoners will be executed on Monday, the 21st”.

The gallows and apparatus were shipped from Wellington to Mt Eden Prison and the services of the Colonial Hangman, Hugh Howard Lewis, had been engaged.

Mt Eden Prison 1880s
James D Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-155

On the eve of their date with the hangman both condemned men made voluntary statements witnessed by prison officials. Caffrey admitted his share of the blame and said “Taylor and Penn were wrestling with each other in the No. 2 bedroom near the door.  I saw Penn with his revolver to Taylor’s head, and he fired. Taylor fell and as he fell I saw the black mark on his head where the bullet struck”

Penn said “…with regard to Caffrey’s statement, that there was a struggle between me and Taylor before I fired the last shot, there was a slight struggle. He attempted to clutch the revolver from my hand”.

The New Zealand Herald reported …“Caffrey was so pleased with Penn’s frankness that he shook his hand and said, ‘Now that you have told me the truth like a man, I am ready to go to the scaffold with you’. Both men broke down and cried together, becoming from that moment reconciled… fast friends facing the gallows together”.

Henry Howard Heyman, alias Heymans, alias Lewis This colourful character, who had a good few aliases, deserves a few words. Better known as “Lewis the hangman” he was sometimes described in the 1860’s as the “Colonial Hangman” and was engaged by the Government to officiate at the execution of Caffrey and Penn in Mt Eden Prison. He was no stranger to police and the justice system for other reasons.

In June 1882 he forged signatures on several cheques, was caught and tried at the Supreme Court in Auckland. He was sentenced to three years in jail on each charge, the sentences to be served concurrently.

In August 1884 Lewis was again before the Court. This seems impossible given his 3 year sentence for forgery. But Lewis was charged with a breach of the Prison Act, caught entering Mt Pleasant Jail in Wellington with items hidden in his clothing which he intended to give to inmates. When his record was considered by the judge it was noted that he had been convicted and jailed for forgery, but he had a portion of that sentence commuted having accepted the office of hangman, duties he had already carried out 6 times. Lewis was sentenced to one month’s jail with hard labour on the attempted smuggling charge.

In late 1884 Lewis was locked up again, charged with inciting a man to kill, as well as burglary. One of his criminal acquaintances, Pekamu Apurone, told police that the two had planned a raid on a jeweller’s shop and that Lewis had suggested that Apurone should “do away with” the jeweller and his wife, allowing the two intruders free reign to rob the place. The court threw out the case on the incite-to-kill charge, but the burglary charge remained. Lewis was jointly charged with Apurone, for burglarising the offices of the Brunner Coal Company on Customhouse Quay. The magistrate dismissed the charge against Lewis. The irony of the whole episode then emerged: Apurone, who had initiated the incite-to-kill allegations, was found guilty of breaking and entering and jailed for 5 years: Lewis was a free man!

In January 1885, New Zealand Times reported that “Lewis considered it prudent to seek fresh fields: he’s now In Christchurch, where he’s serving in the Salvation Army with the rank of Lieutenant. It is to be hoped that this public functionary will stick to his colours and endeavour to become a useful member of society”.

About this time Lewis’s other names became apparent. When travelling to and from appointments to carry out his hangman’s duties he always booked passage hidden behind a false name, preferring not to give himself away: he found not everyone agreed with the public service he provided. It also became obvious that his real surname, Heymanson, was often shortened to Heyman.

Towards the end of 1886, with the arrest in Australia of Caffrey, Penn and Graham, authorities in Wellington began to plan for the likelihood that the three would be sentenced to capital punishment and a hangman would be required. Henry Howard Lewis offered and was engaged.

Some reports mention a second hangman known as “Nosey Bob” from Sydney was contracted to help Lewis with the hanging of Caffrey and Penn.

Robert Rice Howard, “Nosey Bob”. Howard had been a well-patronised cab driver until his horse kicked out, hitting him in the face and destroying his nose – hence his nickname. No longer popular among his clients because of his disfigurement, he took the job as New South Wales fulltime hangman, possibly the most unpopular position in Sydney. He lived at Bondi Beach with his wife in lonely circumstances, stigmatised by his job.

Robert ”Nosey Bob” Howard, the State’s first fulltime hangman

Lewis definitely oversaw the Caffrey/Penn hangings… and mention that he left afterwards to go to Australia may have been mistaken for the Australian helper returning home with his £40 fee.   On the other hand Henry Howard Lewis/ Heyman/ Heymanson may have gone to Australia immediately after the hangings because his name does not crop up again in New Zealand reports.

The Hangings

The two condemned men received visits at Mt Eden Prison from family, friends and clergy in the last few days before their scheduled execution. The gallows had been erected in the jail’s exercise yard and carefully tested. It was a new contraption which Lewis found needed adjustment before he was satisfied. He had given a reassurance that the condemned would be hanged in the most efficient manner, trying to cool concerns that all had not gone well at recent executions. Lewis had officiated at the hanging in the same prison of convicted murderer Winiata in 1882 which was bungled when it was obvious that death had not been instantaneous. Lewis had to intervene, tugging at the man’s legs to try to complete strangulation. More recently, in January 1887 – just a month before Caffrey’s and Penn’s hanging – it was revealed that executions in Sydney had been mis-managed by Robert “Nosey Bob” Howard. Four teenagers, convicted of rape, faced the gallows but Howard miscalculated the depth of the drop and had not adjusted the nooses properly. Only one youth died immediately: doctors said the others survived for up to 10 minutes. So Lewis’s promise of sudden death was reassuring.

Just after 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday 21st February 1887 as the prison bell rang out, the hangman witnessed the procession approaching the platform. Reporters present said Caffrey and Penn walked calmly and deliberately across the prison yard and up the scaffold’s ten steps where Lewis awaited, his face thinly disguised in a black crepe cover. Caffrey and Penn leaned into each other and kissed following which Lewis put white hoods on the pair and adjusted the nooses. A clergyman recited prayers and “…as he concluded the two men recited lines of the hymn, ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul’ when suddenly the drop fell, and the startling simultaneous thud of both ropes, which had a drop of eight feet, electrified those present, and all was over,” the Herald reported. “There was not the slightest vibration of either rope, and, with a feeling of satisfaction, all present saw that death in each instance had been instantaneous”. Doctors later pronounced the two dead, an immediate inquest was held which found they died according to law. Their bodies were handed over to the undertaker for burial at Waikumete Cemetery, the funerals delayed after a newspaper mentioned the time and place of the graveside services… postponement designed to avoid sightseers, etc at the cemetery.


The Aftermath

Caffrey and Penn

They were buried in the Anglican section at Waikumete Cemetery. It was custom at the time to bury hanged persons within the confines of Mt Eden Prison but relatives successfully requested release of the bodies. The graves, near each other in the Anglican section in one of the higher sections of the cemetery, remain unmarked.

Caffrey and Penn’s unmarked graves lie under a spreading tree

Grace Elizabeth Cleary

Grace, and all her aliases, was soon back in the courtroom again, but this time she was in the dock charged with drunkenness in a public place. She became a regular “customer” in the cells, taken in as the result of over-indulging in liquor, having insufficient means of support, disorderly behaviour, using obscene language, and “that being a common prostitute she acted in a riotous manner”. She often appeared with others, “good-time girls”, members of Auckland’s seedy set that hung about Rokeby Street and Victoria Street. Short jail terms were usually imposed.

An episode in 1890 was typical. The New Zealand Herald: “About noon yesterday a disturbance took place in Customs Street in consequence of the conduct of some larrikins and females of low repute. Police arrested a woman named Elizabeth Grace Cleary, otherwise known as Grace Graham. She was dressed in a man’s clothing, and was in company with various sailors and larrikins. The woman used most disgusting language while on the way to the station. She appeared at the Police Court this morning, and was sentenced to three months in jail with hard labour”.

She went to Sydney in mid-1891 and, her behaviour recurring, she was soon before Sydney Courts. In August 1892, for instance, she was charged with being a rogue and a vagabond, a typical charge used by police in an attempt to “clean up” prostitution. She got 14 days in jail.

In 1897 Cleary was back in Auckland and in April was charged with drunkenness: she was fined. Next month she was accused of pick-pocketing, stealing a silver watch, a silver chain, a greenstone pendant, and £9 in money. The following month she was charged with having no lawful visible means of support and was sentenced to three months’ jail with hard labour.

She must have returned to Sydney because in June 1903 she was spotted in Goulburn Street by the Observer’s correspondent “… I recognised a stout, slatternly woman of dissipated appearance as Grace Graham, once a good-looking girl…”

She was back in Sydney Court in November 1905 charged as Grace Palmer, though everyone knew who she was. She begged for a chance to go back to New Zealand. “She comes here occasionally”, the Public Prosecutor told the Magistrate, “so there may be some truth in her statement that she wishes to go back to New Zealand.” “I want to join my husband,” explained the accused, “he’s a greaser on a boat”. “I believe that’s correct,” said the Prosecutor, and on the understanding that she would proceed to New Zealand she was released.

Grace Cleary did not go back to New Zealand… to stay, anyway. In 1920 it’s evident she changed her name once again to Zara, or Sarah, White. This is the name that in March 1920 was used to announce her death while serving a sentence in Sydney’s Long Bay Reformatory for Women.

The newspapers reminded their readers in great detail that, when a girl, she had a role in the Great Barrier Island murder and escapade, going on to say, “…a handsome woman in her young days, she led a dissolute-life. Courageous, resourceful, and cool, she will be remembered by those acquainted with the details of the tragedy for the part she played while the murder was being committed, during the hazardous voyage from New Zealand to Australia, and subsequently when she, gun in hand, faced Caffrey on the beach at Crescent Heads, when he was about to fight a revolver duel with Penn”.

Syndicated newspaper reports continued: “…in Sydney, White became well-known to the police.  She was hardly out of jail during the past 30 years, and had a record of nearly 200 convictions for drunkenness, riotous behaviour, and other offences. She was known as the “New Zealand Terror,” and had 10 aliases”.

“It was strangely in accord with White’s almost lifetime of gaol that she should die in a cell,” continued the report. “On March 12 she was taken to the reformatory, and died later on the same day of heart failure brought about by alcoholism. On arrival at the facility White said she would like to share a cell with another prisoner. The request was granted. A little later the cellmate called an attendant, and when the door was opened, White was found lying in a faint. The jail doctor was sent for, but she died before he arrived”.

Grace Elizabeth Cleary, alias Grace Graham, alias Lizzie Graham, alias Grace Palmer, alias Sarah White alias Zara White, etc, etc, was dead at 52 years of age. Her death signalled the end of the crew of the “Sovereign of the Seas” and the adventure and infamy she was embroiled in.

Julia Curtis

Grace’s friend “Black Julia”, Julia Curtis alias Julia Wilson, was variously described in connection with her numerous court appearances (either as the accused or a witness) as “a young female half-caste”, “a lady of colour” and “a dark woman and prostitute”. Sometimes police charged her with keeping a brothel, other times for selling liquor on unlicensed premises.

Back in Auckland, she appeared on what would be her last of the “sly grogging” charges in July 1899. Police said beer was being sold on her premises in Rokeby Street. She was found not guilty – the Judge said there was inconclusive evidence that she knew others in the house were selling liquor. It was during this hearing that it was revealed that she was ailing, with fulltime care ordered by a doctor. Her colourful heydays, her illicit businesses, which stretched from the late 1870s to 1900, ended with her death at her Rokeby Street residence in February, 1900, aged 45.

The Thames Star newspaper noted that ”The funeral of Julia Curtis, well-known to Thames-ites, who died on Monday, took place this afternoon. About a dozen carriages followed the remains, while a large number of women congregated at the house (in Rokeby Street) prior to the procession commencing”. She was survived by two sons. Her resting place is Purewa Cemetery, Auckland.

Henderson and Spraggon

The Cutter’s owners were a well-established boat-building, slip-way and shipping company: a household name on Auckland’s waterfront in their day. They received insurance on their lost vessel “Sovereign of the Seas”. South British Insurance Company decided that, even though Caffrey effectively stole the cutter, it ought to pay out under the policy. Henderson and Spraggon received £80 under the policy, nowhere near the vessel’s value.

The owners sought further restitution and petitioned Parliament for compensation from the Crown. “If the authorities had immediately begun a prompt and proper search for ‘Sovereign of the Seas’” their claim stated, “there was every likelihood she would have been found and we wouldn’t have incurred the loss”. Their plea was unsuccessful.

Henderson and Spraggon suffered further misadventure… several of their coastal ships came to grief in storms, others ran aground or took fire at sea, and then in 1897 their premises in Customs Street, Auckland, were destroyed in a blaze. The company was formed by the partners after Adam Henderson returned from serving at the front in the Waikato Wars. Partner Tom Spraggon, foreman for nearly 50 years, always said that his favourite among the many trading vessels operated by the firm was the “Sovereign of the Seas”. She was built by George Sharpe at Matakana and she set records between coastal ports and accepted challenges… one resulted in a £50 prize when, in a race to Tiritiri Island and back in 1869, she beat “Alarm” by a good margin. Some £800 was placed in bets.

The company traded until about 1915.

“Sovereign of the Seas” lived on, as a scale-model, which turned up at an exhibition in Newmarket late in 1887. “A bit out of place, given its history, in the festivities of the day” was the reporter’s comment in the Observer newspaper.


The Versions and a Caveat

Much was written at the time, and since, about the events surrounding Robert Taylor’s death on Great Barrier Island. Either through mistake, forgetfulness with the passage of time, hyperbole or carelessness, writers have created different versions of the story.

These have included where the black “pirate” flag came from. Some say dress material was purchased in Auckland to make the pennant while others say Grace Cleary sacrificed a black frock, cutting it up in the shape of the flag, then hemming it.

Another erroneous yarn had it that Elizabeth  Seymour was, indeed, kidnapped on Great Barrier and sailed aboard “Sovereign of the Seas”, and then she was juxtaposed with Grace Cleary and all her adventures. Newspapers later corrected this.

There are discrepancies about some of the events at sea and what exactly happened when the trio made landfall near Crescent Heads, NSW, to set up camp.

These variables, and others (particularly those given in evidence), are understandable. Grace Cleary who gave Queen’s evidence was, latterly, protecting her boyfriend Henry Penn, with whom, she told friends, she would later settle down with once he had served “a short jail term for his part”. The trial Judge warned the jury that “…her evidence is neither here nor there…”. He said proof of what was planned on Great Barrier “…depends entirely upon the exceedingly dubious evidence of the girl Grace Graham: from what we know of her character we can place no reliance whatever on her evidence. No doubt she had endeavoured to exculpate Penn”.

Tuohy and the prosecution must have wondered whether they got value for their investment when they withdrew the serious charge of being an accessory to murder in exchange for Grace Graham turning Queen’s witness against the two men. The Government obviously thought it had been short-changed. It declined to pay her witness’s fees.

Other witnesses, dubious characters subpoenaed from Auckland’s twilight society, may have embroidered their evidence, the narrative, to please the police and the prosecution: their life-style of inevitable offending, could always do with a little “goodwill” and “credit” with the city’s lawmen.

Then the two miscreants, Caffrey and Penn. They changed their stories about many aspects of events, especially in their own self-defence when relating the sequence that the shots were fired in the Taylor farmhouse. Perhaps the truth surfaced only in their statements on the eve of their execution.

My final word is a caveat to say that, given these variables, I may not have everything in this narrative 100 per cent correct, but I have attempted to draw together with accuracy and objectivity the many threads of what I find a fantastic episode of early Auckland… fantastic in the true sense of the word.



Papers Past: National Library of New Zealand – New Zealander, Observer, New Zealand Herald, Auckland Star, Thames Star, Thames Advertiser, Poverty Bay Herald, West Coast Times, Westport Times, Press, Otago Daily Times, N.Z. Truth, Sydney Evening News.

Sydney Sun.

Trove, National Library of Australia.

“The Colonial Frontier Tamed : New Zealand policing in transition, 1867-1886 – Richard S. Hill, GP Books, c1989.

“The Iron Hand in the Velvet Glove: the modernisation of policing in New Zealand, 1886-1917” – Richard S. Hill, Dunmore Press in association with the New Zealand Police and with the assistance of Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1995. accessed 5.03.2019


RCC  February 2019