The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (October 2, 1933)
Famous New Zealand Trials
The Trial Of Samuel John Thorne.
The telephone bell rang out in the bedroom of Detective-Sergeant James Cummings as he lay fast asleep in bed. It was just before 1 a.m. on the 25th August, 1920. At once he woke up and sprang to answer the insistent call. “Sergeant Cowan speaking: Is that Detective-Sergeant Cummings?” “Yes, Cowan, what on earth are you ringing me at this hour for?” “There's been a murder down at Pukekawa. I tried to get in touch with the Superintendent, but can't raise him.” Then followed a few details of the murder, and Sergeant Cowan rang off. Detective-Sergeant Cummings then rang up District Superintendent Wright. Within half an hour the Detective-Sergeant and Detective McHugh were speeding along country lanes towards Pukekawa. The roads were bad, full of ruts and holes which had been caused by the heavy winter rain.
By 7 a.m. the motor car stopped at the farm of Mr. Sydney Seymour Eyre, at Pukekawa. The place was already under police supervision.
The story then told was that Mr. Eyre and his wife, who lived with their family in a small cottage, had retired to bed soon after 9 p.m. Mrs. Eyre had been roused by the warning barks of a dog, which she silenced by crying out to it. Then, as she was settling down to sleep again, there was a deafening explosion in the room, and she sprang to her feet. Immediately after the explosion, she heard heavy and hurried footsteps moving away. Then she lit a match and saw, to her horror, the body of her husband, dead, with the top of his head blown off. With the cry of “Dad! Dad!” she fled from the room; the children were already awake. Shutting the door, behind which was the body of their murdered father, the poor woman sent her two sons for help to her neighbour Mr. Goode. Mr. Goode, unable to ring the police at Pukekohe, ran with the boys to the Post Office, and then managed to reach the police at Pukekohe by telephone. The police sent on the message which brought Detective-Sergeant Cummings and his assistant to the tragic scene.
Dawn was just breaking clear as Detective-Sergeant Cummings reached the Eyre's homestead.
Mr. Eyre was a farmer of many years’ experience. From a bare and uncultivated tract of land he had, with the help of his wife, after years of careful farming, produced a highly cultivated and valuable farm. It lay in the hamlet of Pukekawa, about fifty-four miles from Auckland. At that time Pukekawa was a typical tiny township consisting of a Post Office, a store, and a few buildings. About eighteen miles further on lies the farming district of Glen Murray, where James Murray owned a farm, for whom had worked since 11th July, the prisoner, Thorne.
Being overwrought with the terrible experience, Mrs. Eyre was unable to make a connected statement to the Detective-Sergeant on his arrival. Upon entering the bedroom, the Detective-Sergeant saw that the deceased was lying on a single bed, under the window, the head of page 33 the bed being in line with the edge of the window. The window was open for a distance of 2ft. 3in. from the bottom. Eyre lay in bed and apparently had not moved. Bedclothes covered his body up to his head. His face was about a foot from the window sill. On the opposite side of the room was a double bed, on which Mrs. Eyre had slept. Upon this bed and in other parts of the room gruesome stains were seen which to some extent indicated the direction from which the shot had come.
One of the sounds which Mrs. Eyre had noted after the tragedy was the sound of a horse cantering over the bridge at the back of the farm. After Detective-Sergeant Cummings had made a careful scrutiny of the bedroom he had a few words with Mrs. Eyre, and then, with some other members of the police force, walked to the bridge, about 150 yards from the house. Near to the bridge he saw a post. About this post he noticed signs of recent horse hoof marks. Down on his knees the detective went and carefully examined the hoof marks. He noticed some singular characteristics, and he measured them carefully. Then he noticed that the hoof marks which he had seen went to and from the bridge. They were made by the same hoofs. Near the bridge, where the ground was softer, it was noticed that four horses had passed by, but on following the freshest of the marks it was found they led them towards Tuakau, which was the direction in which lay Glen Murray.
Following the tracks, too, it was noticeable that the horse had the habit of overstepping considerably. In order that the best of the hoof-marks should be preserved the detectives covered them with wooden boxes. The boxes were subsequently removed, and the shoes taken by the detectives were compared with the impression.
On looking into the bedroom from the outside it was impossible to see the body of the deceased as it lay on the bed. By standing, however, in a gap made between some planks lying horizontal and forming part of the outside wall, the body could be seen easily enough.
At this juncture statements were taken from all the Eyre family except from Mrs. Eyre, who was too distressed at the time to give a complete narrative. However, she did so later. There were neighbours, too, from whom statements were taken, and some openly said they strongly suspected that the murderer was Thorne.
Thorne was well known to the Eyre's, for he had worked for some years on the Eyre farm. In the year 1917, Eyre, who suffered from diabetes, went to Canada on a health recruiting voyage. There he enlisted, and served with the Canadian Army in the Great War. In order to run the farm while he was away, Mrs. Eyre engaged help. She engaged several hands before she employed Thorne. Thorne came in October, 1918, and stayed on until July, 1920. He remained on the farm for about a year after Eyre returned from the War, leaving about five weeks before the murder.
Following these statements, and after observing the facts of the crime, the detective force were able to limit the murder to a person who (1) must have known the place intimately and the habits of the family; (2) was a man probably with a motive; (3) a man who possessed and could use a shot-gun; (4) a man who possessed a rare type of ammunition; and (5) someone who sought perhaps to be able to rely on Mrs. Eyre's silence.
Now, with the suspicions of the neighbours and the facts known of Thorne, he was brought within some at least of the requirements.
There was, therefore, a reason to believe that when Detective-Sergeant Cummings, and Sergeants Cowan and Thompson set out for Glen Murray they were likely to meet the murderer. They left accordingly for Glen Murray, arriving at 8.45 p.m., quietly walked into Thorne's hut, and the Detective-Sergeant woke him up. Thorne sat up, and seeing page 34 page 35 someone he knew, said: “Good evening, Mr. Cowan.” There was not a sign of surprise, much less of fear. Then he made a bad mistake. Detective Cummings said: “Mr. Eyre, for whom you were working was shot by some person last night.” Instead of expressing a decent horror or surprise, Thorne merely replied interrogatively: “Yes.” In reply to further questions he said he was last at the Eyres “last Sunday week.” He said he got on all right with the Eyre family except with the deceased, with whom he had had some difference. The detectives then examined Thorne's shot gun. It had been recently cleaned in one barrel. “When was this cleaned?” he was asked. He replied: “I cleaned it yesterday or to-day.” Cummings replied: “When did you clean it; you ought to know?” Thorne repeated, “yesterday or to-day.” There was a smell of fresh powder about the gun, and in answer to a further question, Thorne said: “I may have used it since I came over here, or I may not. I have used it at the whare near the house, shooting rabbits. I have fired it twice.”
What stupid answers! And he was dealing with one of the foremost detectives in the Force, who could not have failed to have come to the conclusion that the murderer was before him. If that were so, the rest of their enquiries would be for the purpose of transforming the suspicion into proof.
Just before the party left the whare Cummings told Thorne he had heard that he and Mrs. Eyre had been intimate. Again, Thorne made a curious reply. He said: “Who told you?” The detective answered by asking another question: “Where were you last night?” Again came a curious reply: “Oh, well, I am going to say I was not out.” The detective pursued the matter by saying: “The position is this: what we want to know is, were you in or not?” Thorne asked: “Did anyone see me out?” The detective said he had been told that he had been out. After a few more words, Thorne said Mr. Granville had left shortly after 5 p.m., and that no one else had been to see him. The others then walked over to Granville's cottage, and Cummings took a statement from Thorne. In it he detailed his movements on the Monday night. The detective told him he had not set out his movements on the Tuesday night, the night of the murder. Again came the curious expression: “Oh, well, I am going to say I was not out.”
The party stayed overnight at that farming outpost, and next morning, they inspected the horses. Mr. Granville told Thorne to bring up all the horses. The detectives then began the examination of the horses’ hoofs. First, they examined a horse called “Dick.” Then they examined “Major,” a few others, and finally “Mickey.” The shoes of this horse were taken off and measured. The measurements corresponded exactly with those of the impressions already observed, the shoes having the unusual characteristics seen in the impressions. The detective turned to Thorne, and remarked, significantly: “These shoes correspond with the prints in the road leading past Eyre's place and over the bridge.” Thorne turned pale, and did not answer. Then Thorne's saddle was placed on “Mickey's” back. The saddle was a complete fit, the girth needing no adjustment. The saddle was then placed over the cover, which was on the animal. The cover had been slipped up to provide for the fitting of the saddle. There was a saddle mark on the cover, which mark fitted Thorne's saddle. When his attention was drawn to this he said nothing, and walked away.
Shortly after, the party left Glen Murray. Thorne accompanied them, arranging to call on Detective Cummings on the following Friday. Meantime “Mickey's” shoes were compared with the impressions on the ground at the Eyre's. They agreed precisely. The next day “Mickey” was tried out, and was found to overstep, as was indicated by the impressions on the road.
Thorne did not keep his appointment, but he was seen the following week, on the 2nd September. The detectives knew their man, and did not make a premature arrest. They anticipated he would make a certain visit to someone whom he knew well. He did so, and the result of his conversation with that man was the subject of conversation between Detective Cummings and Thorne on the 4th September. The detective said: “It has come to my knowledge that you have stated to two men in Tuakau that if you were arrested for the murder of Mr. Eyre you would pull someone else into it. Will you tell me who that person is?” Thorne replied: “No, I won't tell you who that is.” Later, he agreed that he did not mean Mrs. Eyre or any member of her family, and he agreed that the murder must have been done by someone with a knowledge of the house and family.
At the Police Station, he was confronted with Mrs. Eyre, and at his request he had a talk with her alone. He told her that he did not suggest that she or her boys had had anything to do with the murder. He then asked why Mrs. Eyre thought he had done the deed. She replied: “Circumstances.” “What circumstances?” he queried. She said: “The person who did it must have known the position of the bed and the run of the place.” He said: “As sure as I am here I never did it.” Mrs. Eyre said: “If you are innocent, I am sorry for you.” The rest of the conversation was not very material, but he understood that Mrs. Eyre had revealed the fact that she had been intimate with Thorne, and that Thorne had revealed a savage hatred of Eyre when she welcomed her husband back again from the War, and began to repel Thorne. As Thorne truthfully put it to her: “Your statement has put me in a tight corner, and I will have a hard job to get out of it.”page 36
On the 11th September Detective-Sergeant Cummings arrested Thorne, and charged him with having murdered Eyre. “Right oh,” was Thorne's only reply to this grave charge.
There were two trials, the second one being rendered necessary because the first jury disagreed.
The decisive trial began before the Hon. Mr. Justice F. R. Chapman and a common jury. The trial lasted from the 29th November to 3rd December, 1920. The Crown was represented by Mr. J. C. Martin and Mr. R. P. Hunt, Thorne being represented by Mr. R. A. Singer, Mr. O. E. Stout, and Mr. W. J. Gatenby. Mr. F. D. McLiver had a watching brief for Mrs. Eyre.
The trial was full of sensation and interest. The pathetic, almost noble figure of Mrs. Eyre must have made a strong impression on the jury. Her confession of her relations with the prisoner, his insane jealousy of her husband, and his threat that if she did not continue to submit to his will he would reveal her moral lapse to her husband, must have done irreparable damage to any chance Thorne had of eluding justice. On account of his blackguardly threats she confessed she developed for the prisoner an absolute abhorrence.
She admitted, too, that shortly before Thorne finally left Eyre's farm he had said to her (of her husband), “Wouldn't you be happier if he were dead?”
Young Phil Eyre, a boy of sixteen years of age, gave his evidence in what appears to have been a manly and constrained manner. He bore out much of what his mother had said. Then a police sergeant told how he had found some shot pellets in the deceased's room. The cartridge wads were found and produced by the witness. The make of the cartridge was No. 7 Peter's ballistite, and some of this rather uncommon kind of ammunition had been found in the possession of the prisoner. One detective told how he had searched over a radius of twenty miles from Eyre's farm for persons possessing this particular kind of ammunition, and found only one person, other than Thorne, to possess it, and he was shown to have had nothing to do with the murder. One of the police witnesses also examined every horse within a large area, and said there was no shoe but “Mickey's” to fit the impressions left at Eyre's farm.
Another matter to which importance was attached at the trial was the fact that the dog that barked as the murderer approached, was Thorne's dog, and it was suggested that it ceased barking as soon as it recognised that the visitor was his old master. When Thorne had left Eyre's farm he had taken this dog away with him, but it had returned on its own account. It was there on the night of the murder.
The excitement of the inquiry was most intense, and the metropolitan papers had the district well covered by their enterprising reporters. One of the reporters was a not unimportant witness. He met Thorne at the Tuakau Hotel, when Thorne made the statement of dragging someone else into the matter if he were charged. This reporter swore to being present when the following conversation took place between Thorne and one Taylor. After having two drinks with Thorne, the latter said: “What do you think is going to happen, Bill?” Taylor replied: “I'm damned if I know, Sam, but I think that the police are bound to get someone over it.” Whereat Thorne exclaimed “If they get me I'll drag someone else into it There is someone nearer the rope's end that they think they are.” Taylor admonished his friend thus: “I wouldn't say that if I were you, Sam. You know if you are innocent or guilty But you want to be very careful what you say. This was surely a remarkable statement for Thorne to make if he were entirely innocent.
When the evidence for the Crown was completed, Mr. Singer announced that he did not propose to call evidence. In his most eloquent address in presentation of Thorne's defence, he relied on his analysis of the evidence, and the submissions that he made. His speech displayed consummate skill. He warned the jury of the dangers and weaknesses of circumstantial evidence. Suspicion and probability, he pointed out, were not enough. Even if “Mickey” wer at the farm on the night of the crime, someone other than Thorne may yet have done the deed. He used these words: “No man dare say it is impossible that someone other than the accused committed this crime. Upon that matter I challenge you, and say that not one of you dare on your oath and conscience say, even assuming what I have assumed for the purpose of these remarks, that you are going to consign that man to his doom, knowing that no one else but he could have committed this crime.” He told them that the onus of proof rested on the Crown. He challenged the proof that the evidence proved that a No. 7 Peter's cartridge had been used. He contrasted hoof prints with fingerprints, and shewed wherein the former were utterly unreliable. How could it be said those hoof prints were made on the night of the murder?
Towards the end of this address, in commenting on Thorne's threat to bring someone else into the crime, Mr. Singer suggested that Mrs. Eyre may have been meant, and that she indeed may have committed the crime. Counsel traversed the whole of the evidence as effectively as it could have been done. For nearly three hours he strove to convince the jury that the case had not been established.
Mr. Justice Chapman then reviewed the evidence in a summing up that must have told heavily against the accused. His review of the facts, though fair, must indeed have been deadly, the proof that had been adduced being so formidable. This crime, he said, was not the work of a stranger to the Eyre menage, and he reminded page 37 the jury that the prisoner agreed that this was so. He shewed that there were then very few persons who could have done the deed. Really, it seemed, only Mrs. Eyre or the prisoner. And Mrs. Eyre had sworn that she had never fired a gun in her life. Thorne had not suggested that she had done the deed, indeed he specially said to the police that he did not suggest she had. The Judge then dealt with all the many incidents of the proof, and all seemed, on consideration, to implicate Thorne. In a long and very exhaustive charge to the jury, he touched on every important phase of the facts. His last words were: “All I ask you to do is this: rely on your judgment. Rely on your consciences. Rely on a proper appreciation on the true effect of the cumulative evidence, and determine accordingly whether or not the Crown has proved the case.”
The jury considered their verdict for nearly four hours, and when they returned they announced that they found Thorne guilty of the crime of murder with which he stood charged.
When sentencing Thorne to death, the Judge told him he had been defended with exceptional ability. He added that in his judgment the prisoner's guilt was absolutely demonstrated. His Honour particularly congratulated Detective-Sergeant Cummings not only for the marked ability of his work, but also for the scrupulous fairness towards the prisoner. With his final words he said he was perfectly satisfied that Mrs. Eyre had told the truth in the witness box.
(Photo, Auckland “Star.“)
The first one-day excursion from Whangarei to Auckland was inaugurated by the Railways Department on 19th August, approximately 500 people taking advantage of the concession fare offered by the Department for the occasion. The illustration shews the crowd disembarking from the train at Auckland station.
Thus ended a sensational murder trial, and that justice was done when Thorne paid for his crime on the scaffold is indisputable. That the crime was so completely proved was in no small measure due to the fact that the detective force was hot on the trail before much of the essential evidence could be obliterated.
It was a great trial, well handled on all sides.
From the Hon. Secretary, Thistle Association Football Club, Christchurch, to the District Traffic Manager, Christchurch:-
The Management Committee of the Thistle Football Club wish to express their appreciation and thanks to your Department for the excellent arrangements made for their team travelling to Greymouth by goods train, on Friday evening, 28th July. A steam-heated carriage placed next to the engine made the travelling very comfortable, and was greatly appreciated by the players. Upon the return of the team on the following Sunday morning, a number of our members (including several ladies) were at Christchurch Station to meet the train. They arrived at the station a considerable time before the train was due, and thus had a long time to wait on a midwinter's morning. However, the Shunter in charge kindly put the shunters’ room at their disposal, where they could wait in comfort. His kind thought was much appreciated.