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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10 (February 1, 1934)

Famous New Zealand Trials — The Trial Of Arthur Rottman

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Famous New Zealand Trials
The Trial Of Arthur Rottman.

How difficult it is to do justice! When the German hordes were being stemmed on the Marne and every English man and woman were “doing their bit” to bring victory to the allied arms, a young German farm hand was quietly working on a farm in the heart of New Zealand.

The war had stirred the heart of every New Zealander, and the country districts were sending their young manhood to the training camps for service overseas. Help of all sorts to carry on the farms was eagerly sought, so when Arthur Rottman, a young German, applied for a job at the farm of Mr. Joseph McCann he was soon to be seen bailing up the cows or driying the milk to the nearby factory. Rottman had been a sailor and came to New Zealand only two or three months before war broke out. Luckily for him he obtained a job as a sailor on the Government steamer “Hinemoa” and he was still on board the tiny ship when war descended furiously upon all. Soon every German was relieved of any connection with Government work and naturally enough one of the first to be dismissed was Rottman. He was at once registered as an enemy alien and placed under all the restrictions becoming his nationality. He was not allowed to go more than 20 miles from his registered place of abode and he was under orders to report regularly to the police. Hearing of farm work to be had at Mangaweka he got the necessary permit to travel, and in a day or two was working for Mr. McCann, a well respected dairy farmer in that district.

Rottman soon shewed himself willing and quick to learn, and his quiet behaviour earned for him a good reputation in the district.

Then followed a dreadful tragedy. The whole McCann family was brutally murdered. Neighbours came to the dread scene, fled, and would not return. Men and women shuddered as they hurried past the farm, while children joined hands and fled past the stricken place.

The family of McCann consisted, apart from Mr. McCann, of his wife and infant child, John Joseph.

On Tuesday the 29th December, 1914, a neighbour knowing that the milk from the McCann farm had not, as was usual, been sent to the factory, went to the farm to see McCann. He found him dead in the cow shed. Hastily going to the house and being unable to rouse anyone, he looked through the window and discovered that the fate that had overtaken McCann had been visited upon the rest of the family. Rottman, too, had disappeared. He had been seen on the train for Wellington. Horror unspeakable swept through the district. Then, following a visit by a stranger to Te Karama station at Terawhiti, came news of the arrest of Rottman in the bush at the back of the homestead.

On the 11th February, 1915, before Mr. Justice Chapman and a common jury at Wanganui the story was duly told. The Crown Prosecutor was Mr. Marshall, who had the well earned reputation of being as fair a prosecutor as ever occupied that position in New Zealand. The prisoner had Mr. C. E. McKay as his counsel. (It will be remembered that Mr. McKay, curiously enough, lost his life at the hands of a German in a riot at Berlin some years after the War).

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The murder was an atrocious one and had occurred in the Ruahine district. Mr. Marshall warned the jury that they must omit from their consideration the fact that the prisoner was a German and must give him a fair trial, and he specially told them, as was meet and proper, that the onus of proving the case was on him and it was not incumbent on the prisoner to prove his innocence. As it later proved, however, the onus lay upon Rottman to establish the defence that was made on his behalf.

The first witness called was Mr. A. M. Roberts a local surveyor who produced a plan of McCann's farm and shewed that the milk factory, to which McCann's milk was taken daily, was 30 chains away. Then came a neighbouring farmer, Herbert Sweet, who said that the deceased had promised to help him with his sheep on the Monday. That Monday was the 28th December. But McCann did not turn up at Sweet's farm as he had promised.

The next witness was William Neil, who had spent a wild time with Rottman just before the tragedy. This witness must have felt very unhappy as he told the story. He said he knew the McCanns and had met Rottman there on two or three occasions. On Boxing Day he met Rottman riding along the road on one of McCann's horses. They went on together to
“Seeing a man crouching down, witness covered him with a revolver.”

“Seeing a man crouching down, witness covered him with a revolver.”

Rangiwahia and there had a good many drinks together. By the afternoon Rottman was drunk. They stayed together well into the night and by 10 p.m. Rottman was sober again. Rottman mounted his horse and spoke sensibly. On the way back Rottman told the witness that he liked McCann, but he did not care for Mrs. McCann as she seemed to have her husband under her slipper. Such a thing Rottman did not consider right for a woman. He added, too, apparently in a spirit of spleen, and without, as far as can be gathered, any truth, that she drank too much. When the two reached the corner of the road where Rottman would normally have turned off to go to his home he did not do so, as he said he did not want to go home till he was quite sure McCann would be in bed, otherwise there would be a row, as he had not gone home in the afternoon to help in the evening milking. So the two went on together and about midnight Rottman turned back and went to his home. In cross-examination Neil admitted he had had a good many drinks. It was true, too, that Rottman had wanted to go home in the afternoon. Apparently he had been discouraged from doing this.

Albert Patchett, who earned his living as a cheese maker, said that Rottman had worked for McCann from some time in September, 1914. About 7.45 a.m. daily McCann's milk was brought to the factory. Sometimes McCann and sometimes Rottman would drive the milk van to the factory. On Sunday, the 27th, about 9 a.m., Rottman came to the factory. He said that he had had a night out. His eyes were puffy and his face was red. He spoke rationally. After staying talking for about an hour he said that he was going home for a sleep. Next morning Rottman brought the milk about 6.30. He was the first of the suppliers to arrive. It was most unusual for him to be so early. In answer to a query put to him Rottman said that McCann was going fleecing down at Sweet's farm that morning. The weight of the milk was not up to the average weight by about 100 lbs. Again, in answer to a question he said that McCann had had an accident with a can, some of the milk being spilt. The following day the witness was at the factory for the purpose of receiving supplies, but none came from McCann's farm. That was an abnormal happening that needed investigation. Accordingly he and the factory manager, Mr. Poole, walked up to McCann's farm. Inside the cowshed they saw, to their horror, McCann lying dead. There was a deep cut in his head. In answer to Mr. McKay, Patchett said that Rottman was not of a quarrelsome disposition. He was quiet and inoffensive, sober and well liked.

Gustave Kreger, a local farmer, then took his place in the witness box. He had known the McCann family for seven or eight years. He heard that Patchett had been to the farm and he too, with one, Fox, went to the scene of the crime. Both front and back doors of the house were shut, but one of the bedroom windows was open. On entering, he found the child lying dead on the bed and, on the floor at the foot of page 34 page 35 the bed, he noticed a heap of clothes under which he discovered the murdered body of Mrs. McCann. They escaped from the house quickly. Then they herded the cows and milked them. Some had apparently not been milked since the Monday. The next day with one, Dunn, the witness said that he found the axe in the grass about ten feet away from the place where they had seen McCann lying. Blood and hair connected the weapon with the killing. In answer to Rottman's counsel, the witness said that had the milk been spilt as Rottman had said, he would have noticed the patch on the ground.

The story was then resumed by Phelix Fox who told the story of his going with Kreger to the house and getting through the window. James Badland, by occupation a mail carrier, said that he saw Rottman about 3 p.m. on Boxing Day. He did not think that he was drunk, but he was merry. Witness had a drink with him. Rottman told him that McCann could milk the cows as it was Boxing Day. On the Monday he saw Rottman and invited him to have a drink as he was going to Feilding. Rottman told him he got home at 3 a.m. on the Sunday morning. He added that as Mrs. McCann had had cheek enough to lock the back door, he had had cheek enough to enter the house by the front door. He said that McCann was going to Feilding that day, whereat Badland asked how the cows were to be milked. Rottman told him that McLennan was going to drive him back so that he would be in time to attend to them. According to the witness there was nothing strange in Rottman's appearance.

Police Constable Essen, of Mangaweka, said that he saw Rottman on the Monday at Mangaweka. Rottman remarked to him that he had been told by Mrs. McCann that the constable had been to the farm. The witness then said that he told Rottman it was about the registration regulations affecting aliens, and that he, Rottman, was not to go further than 20 miles from McCann's without a permit. The prisoner assured him that he had no intention of doing so, as he was too well off as he was. He told the witness that the McCanns were very good to him. He chatted on about his progress as a farm hand. He said that he could now milk 25 cows and generally he was getting on very well. The next day, Tuesday the 29th, with Dr. Turnbull witness went to the McCann's farm. He saw the axe and found a pair of Rottman's boots by the door of the house. In Rottman's bedroom he found a sheet saturated with blood. The room was in a state of disorder. Next day the witness found a second axe which bore signs of having been used in the murder of one at least of the victims. He looked very carefully for signs of spilt milk, but he could see none. The value of this evidence of there being none spilt, apart from attacking Rottman's veracity, was to tend to shew that McCann was probably dead when the short supply was taken by Rottman to the factory. The witness said that Rottman was of a quiet, steady, and sober disposition.

Then the story of Rottman's flight was unfolded by William Kelly. He was employed at Terawhiti where, at Karori, there was then a new lighthouse. The witness had known Rottman when he was on the “Hinemoa” but did not know his name. On the 29th Rottman called at the witness's camp looking for a job. He had a horse that day. He rode away and returned two days later saying that he had sold his horse for £5, but he had not yet got the money. He said that he had gone to Terawhiti to catch a boat that would take him to Pelorus where he knew that he could get a job. Witness told him to go to Wellington and catch the Nelson boat. Rottman told him that the place was lined with police locking up all Germans. He said that he would drown himself before he would let the police get him. Under pressure from Rottman witness agreed to let him sleep at the camp that night provided that he cleared out the next day. Next morning as they were talking the newspapers arrived. Witness handed Rottman one and started to read the other. Rottman glanced at his and then said to the witness: “Have you read the Ruahine murder case?” Rottman then proceeded to read out the details. Then he read about the “Hinemoa.” This made witness suspicious, though he did not know the name of his companion, he suspected he might be Rottman, the man who was wanted by the police in respect of the murder. A little later witness told Rottman that he was going into town to see about his letters. At this Rottman said: “It is a strange thing you want to see about your letters so soon after reading about the murder case.” Witness asked Rottman to come to town with him. He refused and asked witness not to tell the police he was there. Needless to say, however, it was the first thing witness did.

The next witness called was Dr. Turnbull. He bore out the statement of Constable Essen and described the head injuries from which the three unfortunate victims had succumbed. Each had received severe blows on the head. It was then that the first indications of the real defence were disclosed. In cross-examination, Dr. Turnbull admitted that insanity might be of short duration. Epilepsy, too, often resulted in homicidal tendencies, and alcohol, also, might bring on an epileptic fit. If no adequate motive were suggested insanity would, the witness thought, be the cause of the act. An excessive number of blows, too, might be indicative of insanity. Moreover, in the conditions described as “mad drunk,” subjects were delirious, violent, and often exhibited homicidal tendencies. Its development was sudden and in some subjects could be produced by very little alcohol. If there was a family history of insanity, that might increase the tendency towards alcoholism. From his examination of the bodies the doctor had come to the conclusion that death had occurred on the Monday morning.

The story then related back to the happenings in Wellington. Detective Sergeant S. Rawle said that with acting Detective Dempsey and Constable Pearson he went to Te Karama page 36 page 37 farm at Terawhiti. From certain information he received from a man there, the party went to a part of the farm that was covered with bush in the rear of the homestead. Seeing a man crouching down witness covered him with a revolver and told him to put up his hands. The man rose and said: “I am guilty. I know what I have done.” The man was then secured. He was at once charged with the murder of the McCann family and he said: “I am guilty.” He added: “God punish the man who brought liquor into this country.”

The evidence of the next witness related to certain happenings on the way back from the inquiry. Constable David Crow said that in the train Rottman made a voluntary statement to him. No inducement was offered Rottman to make the statement, which read as follows—

“On the morning of the 28th December I got home about 3 o'clock and went out with McCann to the cowbails. McCann was putting in a new board. I asked him to let me do it as I was a carpenter. He said, ‘You are too full.’ I said, I can swing an axe, and swinging it round my head accidentally hit McCann. I then slept for two hours. When I got up I saw McCann there. I drank another bottle of whisky, wanting to kill myself. I then went to Mrs. McCann's bedroom to tell her what I had done. I don't remember anything more till I came to the cowbail and there I saw McCann. I got sober at once and put four tins of water into the milk and went to the factory.”

Mr. McKay then cross-examined the witness, who said that Rottman did not sleep on that train journey. The statement he made was at 3 a.m. The witness added that he knew that he had received a telegram from Mr. Wilford, a well known Wellington lawyer who practised extensively at the criminal bar, and the telegram read “Write nothing, say nothing, do nothing.”

That concluded the evidence called for the Crown. Mr. McKay in addressing the jury said before calling evidence that he felt the weight of his responsible task. He hoped the jury would not be prejudiced against Rottman on account of his being an alien. There would be little controversy as to the facts. There was no denial that Rottman had struck the fatal blows. The defence was that he was insane at the time of the deed. There were many forms of insanity. One was delusions, another was fits of frenzy. When the person recovered from a fit of frenzy he did not know what he had done in the fit. The most deadly cause of insanity was alcohol. Rottman had been mad drunk. Counsel asked for a verdict of insanity and the result would be that prisoner would be detained in an asylum during the pleasure of the Crown. John Moore of the Seamen's Mission at Wellington was then called to speak of Rottman's excellent character and his mild disposition.

The prisoner then entered the witness box. He spoke in broken English. He said he was a German subject and was 21 years old. His father had held high office in the Prussian Civil Service. He arrived in New Zealand in May, 1914, and secured employment on the “Hinemoa.” His mother had been in a mental asylum twice. He had two brothers, one of whom had died from brain fever. His father drank excessively at times. He had had an accident in his youth when he fell downstairs and presumably hurt his head. He said he had also been shipwrecked. Turning then to the facts of the case he said Mr. McCann had always treated him very kindly. He then bore out Neil's statement, though he said that when he wanted to return home in the afternoon Neil argued with him about doing so. They started off, but then returned to the hotel. He was thrown off his horse twice. He then proceeded to get drunk. They went off home about 10 p.m. and he left Neil about midnight. He did not go inside, but waited until about 4 a.m. when McCann came out to attend to the milking. McCann told him that he did not expect him until 7 a.m. and that he had been very wild with him for not returning the evening before for milking. McCann asked him if he would like a whisky to straighten him up. They had a drink and then milked the cows. McCann then told Rottman to go to bed and he would take the milk to the factory. Rottman then had a good sleep and in the afternoon helped with the cows. That evening he and McCann had what the witness called a ‘homely evening’ which consisted in singing and drinking. Both got drunk. The prisoner said he went off to his bed at 1 o'clock in the morning taking more liquor with him for consumption. Next morning McCann told Rottman that he had made an awful noise through the night. Rottman said that he then went off for the cows and brought them to the cowshed. He then remembered swinging an axe over his head, lying on the grass, and afterwards lying in the passage of the house between his and Mrs. McCann's room. He looked into Mrs. McCann's room and saw a lot of blood. He felt as if a shot struck him and it made him feel quite sober. He went to his room. Outside, he was trying to think where McCann had gone to. He went out of the house and saw the axe. Then he remembered going to the factory after watering the milk. He told the man at the factory that McCann had spilt the milk. He then returned to the farm, fed the pigs and calves, and left hot water in the milk cans. Then he said that he went and dressed and rode away. He agreed with the witnesses who spoke of his movements after he had left the farm. The prisoner in referring to his capture said that when he said that he was guilty he meant he was ready to go to the police station. He had no grudge against the McCanns. In cross-examination he admitted that he had thought he might get sacked by McCann for not returning on Boxing Day. He did not remember saying that he would give McCann a piece of his mind if he did get sacked. He may have said that Mrs. McCann drank too much. He denied that he told the constable that the page 38 axe had struck McCann. He said he was not sober when he went out for the cows. When he went to the house after taking the cows to the shed he did not know that McCann was dead. He said that when he got up on the Sunday afternoon after a sleep he was quite sober. During that night McCann and he drank two gallons of beer and part of a bottle of whisky. Both were helplessly drunk. He remembered swinging the axe, but it was all a dream.

The next witness was the Superintendent of Porirua Mental hospital, Dr. Grey Hassell. He interrogated Rottman who seemed to answer his questions truthfully. Rottman had a bad mental history. If a more than brutal murder is done by a young man of twenty it would suggest insanity. Three murders suggested acute homicidal mania. Absence of concealment of the victims suggested insanity. All the circumstances of this crime suggested it. These insane impulses were of short duration and might be brought on by seeing an instrument with which it could be done. There might be two periods—one when he remembered what he was doing and the other when his memory was a blank. It was then that the murder was committed. Dr. Maurice agreed with the last witness, and Dr. Alex Wilson said that the circumstances might well be explained by mania apotu.

Then came the addresses to the jury. As the defence had called evidence it was incumbent on Mr. McKay to make the first speech. He did so at great length. He traversed the subject of insanity. Marvellous and complex as the brain was, it was subject to terrible and various diseases. Rottman had had a brain storm. Alcohol was responsible for it. It might of course have been an epileptic seizure or mania apotu. He referred to the heavy drinking bout and the necessarily lowered vitality that would follow. He reminded the jury there was no motive suggested for the terrible deed. The death of the child alone shewed insanity in the clearest terms. Then the jury was reminded of the accused's good temper and character as negativing malice, so necessary in a crime of this character. The doctor's evidence was almost decisive on the question of insanity. No evidence had been called by the Crown to rebut Dr. Hassell's evidence. Rottman had faced the jury from the witness box and had given his evidence in a straightforward manner. He was entitled to be believed. People outside said he had no chance as he was a German. Mr. McKay said: “I do not believe it. I don't believe that such unworthy considerations will influence you.”

Mr. Marshall addressed the jury with great fairness and firmness. He covered all the relevant facts. He reminded the jury that Rottman expected to get the sack from McCann. He said: “He might have had some very inadequate motive of quarrelling with his friends. Inflated with drink he might have carried his intention to give them a piece of his mind to terrible excess.” Mr. Marshall said that when McCann told Rottman he was too drunk to help with the piece of carpentering, that was not a statement of one drunk man to another. Then the doctor had found six wounds in McCann's head. Rottman might have killed Mrs. McCann and the baby in a ‘seeing red’ mania. He had shewn no signs of frenzy just after the deed. He asked the jury to bring in a common sense verdict. The accused knew what he was doing if he stated what the constable said he stated in the train.

The summing of the Judge was lengthy. He agreed that a man might commit a ferocious act and not be conscious of it. Rottman was not insane on the Sunday. Of course he might have negligently swung his axe and be guilty of manslaughter. The onus of proving insanity lay upon the defence. It must be established that Rottman did not know what he was doing when he killed the McCanns. It was to be remembered that he had anticipated trouble with the McCanns and had arranged for another job in the event of his dismissal. The jury had to consider the whole of the facts. They would remember that the accused had fled from the scene of the deed and had tried to hide his tracks. In his statement he remembered hitting McCann and going to tell Mrs. McCann. The jury retired at 12.48 p.m. and at 2.10 p.m. returned with a verdict of Guilty of murdering the whole family.

When he was asked if he had anything to say why he should not receive the sentence of the law Rottman said: “I have received the best of treatment. At no time could there be any reason nor did they give me any for committing the crime. I know nothing of killing the poor people. Although my country is at war with yours, I have received a fair trial and if I have to die like my countrymen who are fighting I will die with good heart and leave it to that great day for Our Good Father in Heaven to judge.”

In sentencing him to death the Judge said that Rottman had been found guilty on the plainest evidence. The verdict was entirely justified, and he was in full accord with it. Rottman received no commutation of sentence, and went to the scaffold, there to pay the just due. To some extent Rottman was at a serious disadvantage. At the time the feeling against any German was too intense to allow for calm judgment. Moreover, there was no way of verifying his statement of his own mental history. The crime was really without motive and it may well have been the fact that he was under the influence of a passion, or frenzy, with which he had no power within himself to cope. If we had not been at war with Germany, Rottman, with his previous good character, might well have escaped the gallows at least.