The Old High Court - Dark Times

The Old High Court building opened in 1881.  From 1881 until 1961 when capital punishment (the death penalty) was abolished there were seven trials where the defendant was convicted of murder and was subsequently executed. 

The following accounts of these crimes and the use of the death penalty make for disturbing reading. Please take care of yourself.  If you find these accounts upsetting don’t continue to read about them. 

1897     Etienne Jean Brocher (aka Stephen Bosher)
              Justice Edwards

Brocher was living in Petone in a bigamous relationship.  He was convicted of the murder of Joseph and Emma Jones of Petone who owned a small shop near where Brocher lived.  The trial was conducted over several months with a number of adjournments.

The Evening Post reported that -
“In many respects the case is one of the most remarkable in the annals of crime in this country.  The evidence was not only purely circumstantial but for months it was to all appearances of so inconclusive a kind that the opinion was commonly held that the case against the man must fail.  And when the Grand Jury found a true bill it was freely stated that a mistake had been made, and the weight of evidence could not be sufficient to ensure conviction, though obviously the evidence that guided the Grand Jury could only be known to themselves and the Law Officers of the Crown.  But when the prisoner was arraigned and the mass of evidence came to be slowly dovetailed, and all the damning circumstances of time and place assumed the aspect of complete structure, excepting as to the period – the time within which it was proved the murders must have been committed – it began to be realised by those who were present that the man who had committed this awful crime was in the toils and the law would be avenged.”  (24 March 1897) 

Brocher was found guilty and was executed on 21 April 1897. 

1898     Frank Philpott
              Justice Edwards

Ernest Hawthorne aged 21, disappeared from his bush camp on 7 September 1897 and his body was later found buried in a shallow grave in the bush at Silverstream.  He had been shot by his own gun.  His mate Frank Philpott, alias Halcyon Maida Stanhope, a bootmaker by trade, was charged with the murder.  The Crown Prosecutor asserted that Philpott’s motive for the killing was that Hawthorne was known to have 27 sovereigns on his person when he died.  The trial was made more sensational for the general public by the actions of the defence counsel who was frequently rebuked by the Judge for his fierce outburst.  When Jellicoe accused the Crown Prosecutor of scoffing at his questions, Justice Edwards struck the desk in fury and told him “you are trifling with the court, sir.”

Philpott was found guilty and died on the scaffold on 23 March 1898. 

1905     James William Ellis  
             alias John McKenzie
Justice Denniston

In 1905 James William Ellis appeared charged with murder.  He had appeared in the same courtroom 13 years earlier in 1882 charged with the rape of an 11-year-old girl.  He had been found guilty of that crime and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and 2 floggings of 30 lashes each.  Considered a ‘special class’ prisoner (well behaved) he obtained a full remission of his sentence and was released in 1891 having served 9 years and received the flogging as sentenced.

In 1904, Ellis was in the Wairarapa working with a group scrub cutting.  He was treated badly and left the group making threats against his boss Leonard Collinson.  Sometime later in an isolated area of bush Collinson was shot and died.  Ellis was the suspect.  For 10 months he evaded arrest but was finally located in a shepherd’s hut.  The jury deliberated for two hours returning with a guilty verdict recommending mercy on the ground of great provocation. No mercy was shown, and Ellis was hung on 28 February 1905. 

1923     John Tuhi
Justice Chapman

“The trial of the young Maori, John Tuhi, on a charge of murdering his employer, Herbert Henry Knight, at Johnsonville, on or about 17th October last” was held in the Old High Court in March 1923. Evidence heard in the trial included evidence of the post-mortem examination of the deceased and blood stain evidence from Frederick Armitage, Government Bacteriologist at Auckland.

It was suggested by several parties that Tuhi was not responsible for his actions.  There were two petitions suggesting he was deficient mentality.  Tuhi was assessed by the Inspector General of Mental Hospitals along with the doctor in charge of the Porirua Asylum.  They both found there was no grounds for suggesting Tuhi was not responsible for his actions.  Both petitions and the report were laid before the Governor General and the Cabinet.

The death sentence was upheld and Tuhi was hung on 19 April 1923. 

1923     Daniel Cooper “The Newlands Sensation”, “A baby farmer”
           Justice Chapman

Daniel Cooper was arrested at his office on Lambton Quay where he practiced as a ‘health specialist’ and was charged with performing illegal abortions.  A young woman named Mary McLeod then came forward claiming Cooper had taken her new-born illegitimate child which she had not seen since.

During the subsequent investigation the police dug up the bodies of three infants in the Coopers’ garden in Newlands. Daniel Cooper and his wife were formally charged with the murder of Margaret McLeod on 17 January 1923.  During the trial which opened on 14 May evidence was produced as to the alleged adoption of other infants by the accused and about the dead bodies of other infants buried on the property.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty for Daniel Cooper, but his wife was acquitted.  The counsel for Cooper then appealed on the grounds that the evidence as to the other infants was wrongly admitted.  Chief Justice Stout dismissed the application. 

Cooper was executed on 16 June 1923. 

1931     George Errol Coats
Justice Blair

In 1931, 17-year-old Phyllis Symons left her parents’ home to live with a relief worker, George Errol Coats, in an Adelaide Road rooming house.  Sometime later her parents were given a suicide note that was claimed to be written by Phyllis, by a man who had received it from Coats.  The police were called in.

Coats was a relief worker working on the Mount Victoria Tunnel excavations and Detective Murray was convinced that the body of Phyllis Symons who was pregnant would be found there, especially as Coats had been seen digging there the night she went missing.

Two thousand tons of soil was shifted by a large party of police and forty relief workers in the search for her body.  After five days of digging, it was uncovered.  The pathologist Dr P Lynch deduced that the girl had knelt beside the grave with a scarf tied over her head and had been hit on the head several times. 

At his trial Coats claimed he had taken Phyllis to the landfill where he had gone to relieve himself.  When he came back to her, he found her by a rock and thought she must have fallen on it.  He was scared, so he buried the body.

The defence brought forward medical evidence and the trial was very much a battle between these doctors and the pathologist. 

Coats was found guilty as was executed on 17 December 1931. 

1933     George Edward James
Chief Justice Myers

On 30 June 1933 the accused George Edward James (a 57-year-old engine driver) was rescued from the harbour at Thorndon.  He was rescued from drowning and taken to the hospital. Later that day the body of Cecilia Smith the woman he had been living with was found in their flat. 

The accused had been seen leaving the flat with a four-year-old boy called Noel.  He was the son of Cecilia Smith who was a widow.  The boy was heard to say to the accused “Are we going for a ride on the bike, daddy?”  The accused was then seen riding his bike toward Kilbirnie with the boy on the bike with him.  The body of Noel was found at Point Halswell.  It was believed that the accused had either, hit him on the back of the head with a rock or thrown him onto the rocks stunning him, then placed the boy in a depression between the rocks where he drowned.  The accused was not charged with the death of Noel and there was no discussion in the media as to why he was never charged for the death of Noel.

George James gave evidence on his own account and claimed that there was no fight between Cecilia and him and that it had been an accident with a knife that had caused her fatal injuries.  A tenant of the building where they lived had given evidence that there had been an argument, he had heard screams and Cecilia call out “Oh George, go for the doctor, I’m done.”  Curiously the person hearing this did not intervene or call the police.

The jury returned a guilty verdict and James was executed on 15 December 1933. 

Flogging (Corporal Punishment)   


Source –

Flogging was a sentence where a prisoner was struck with the cat of nine tails across his bare back for an allotted number of strokes.  It was used in addition to a prison sentence as a punishment for certain crimes, in particular sexual crimes.  There are examples of cases heard in the Old High Court where the accused received a sentence that included flogging.  James Ellis, mentioned above, received a sentence of 12 years imprisonment and 2 floggings of 30 lashes each when convicted of rape.

The last flogging took place in 1935 and it was abolished as a sentence in 1941.


These accounts have been taken from the media reports written at the time of the trials rather than the court records.  There may be some inaccuracies. The intention is to offer an insight into each case.

Information sheet Old High Court - dark times (PDF, 210 KB)