The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April 2, 1934.)
Famous New Zealand Trials — The Trial of Charles Clements
When Banquo asked Macbeth “Were such things here as we do speak about? Or have we eaten of the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?” he asked two questions that will arise in our minds touching the mentality of Clements as we contemplate the deed for which he stood his trial.
Madness may be feigned for the purpose of escaping the full measure of punishment, but artificial madness will assuredly break down when doom is pronounced and appears inevitable. For such madness being simulated for a particular purpose will inevitably collapse when the purpose utterly fails. In this strange case the actions of Clements before, during, and indeed, after the trial, all supply leads by which his mental quality may be measured, and no matter what the law ordained, there yet remains the interesting speculation for all to make as to whether, when Charles Clements murdered his wife, he was or was not insane.
The deed was discovered by Peter Ross who, at the request of his wife, called at the Clements' and, not being able to make himself heard, broke in. He went to the bedroom. The blinds were drawn, and although it was bright morning the room was too dark for him to see. He I't a match. The scene lit by that match was gruesome and frightful. Clements sat or half reclined on his bed. At the other side of the bed, at the extreme edge, was a bundle which gradually revealed itself as the dead body of his wife. Blood was profusely spilt over the white counterpane. At the end of the bed lay Clements' two children, silent, awake and untouched. Could ever man have entered into a more eerie scene? “What have you been doing?” cried Ross in horror. “I have done it at last,” said Clements, and then added: “I've had great provocation!” He seemed to think with Pericles, “One sin, I know, another doth provoke; murder's as near to lust as flame to smoke.”
The tragedy was enacted on the 15th November, 1897, in the cottage which the family occupied in a place called Lethaby's Right-of-way, which was off George Street, in the heart of the City of Dunedin. For hours, probably for more than twelve, Clements had lain alongside the body of his wife. His children, aged five and a half and four years, lay at the other end of the bed, probably too terrified even to move. What, one may well ask, was the quality of the mind of a man who could act in such a way, no matter how provoked he had been?
In due course of time Clements stood his trial before a Judge and twelve of his fellow men. The Judge was Mr, Justice Denniston. The Crown was represented by Mr. F. R. Chapman. The prisoner had at first the advantage of the services of Mr. A. Hanlon, who is, and has been for many years, the leading counsel at the criminal bar in New Zealand.
Strange things were to happen, however, when the prisoner was charged. Asked by the Registrar to plead to the charge of murdering his wife, to the utter astonishment of all he pleaded guilty. This declaration was sensational. Then the Judge leant forward, and addressing Clements, said: “You are aware of the consequences of your present plea. You know what your present plea means? It means that there is only one possible sentence that can be passed upon you, and it involves, of course, the admission on your part that you have done what the law defines murder to be, that is, that you intentionally and without legal excuse murdered your wife. You realise all that, I suppose?” Clements at once replied: “Oh, no, sir, I deny that.” At this stage Mr. Hanlon stood up and told the Judge that he understood that the accused intended to plead not guilty. Whereat Judge Denniston remarked: “Well, he deliberately pleaded guilty. But the fact that he has in some way or other been misunderstood, or misunderstood his own conduct, relieves me of a very great responsibility. There is no reason why such a plea should not be recorded, but I should accept it with the greatest hesitation.”
Then the prisoner pleaded not guilty. Another sensation then swept acrosss the Courtroom. Mr. Hanlon stood up and told the Court that the prisoner desired to defend himself. The Judge then took the matter up with the prisoner and the page 25 counsel, who had all along, at the inquest and the Magisterial hearing, appeared for Clements. Out of the advice which the Judge was giving Clements to retain the services of Mr. Hanlon emerged the fact that the prisoner wanted to be called for him a considerable number of witnesses whom Mr. Hanlon refused to call on the grounds that they did not assist the defence and their evidence would not be either admissible or relevant in any form in the inquiry. The prisoner was obdurate and refused to have Mr. Hanlon's help unless he allowed him, the prisoner, to direct the defence and to select the witnesses to be called. Mr. Hanlon very properly refused to be hampered in the exercise of his discretion as to the proper conduct of the defence. Ultimately it was arranged, apparently on the suggestion of the Judge, that Mr. Hanlon should remain in Court in the capacity of solicitor for the prisoner and his services would be available to advise the prisoner as and when it was required. The prisoner, however, conducted his own defence. There is an old adage which says that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client. With few exceptions the adage stands without qualification.
In his opening address to the jury, Mr. Chapman told them that the case was very clear. He reminded them it was not necessary for the Crown to provemotive. There was no doubt that the act had been a deliberate one. The deceased woman, who was twenty-seven years old, had been married a few years. She was physically a strong woman and well built. By occupation she cleaned out offices. The prisoner was a labourer. They had not been happily married; there were frequent quarrels and, at times, the two did not live together. Sometimes, too, the prisoner had violently assaulted the woman. On the 15th November a man named Ross went to the prisoner's house. It was shut up. He tried to get in, and to do so ultimately broke in the kitchen door. He went into the bedroom, where the blinds were drawn. Counsel then told the jury of the scene that was presented to Ross when he lit a match. Ross then ran out and brought in a policeman. The police searched the house, and one of them asked the prisoner: “Have you killed her?” Clements replied “I had plenty of cause to do so.” After his arrest the prisoner was taken to the police station. Mr. Chapman recounted the remainder of the essential details in a speech which took one hour to deliver. He then called the first witness, who proved to be Peter Ross, who told how, at 5.45 a.m. he went to the house because his wife had asked him to do so. Mrs. Clements was his wife's sister. He found it necessary to break in the door, and then the witness told the jury what a fearful sight lay in store for him in the bedroom. To his question: “What have you been doing?” Clements had replied: “I have done it at last. I've had great provocation.” Ross then said he went for the police. He was too shocked to take much notice of the details of the tragedy. He said that Clements had always nagged at his wife. In the month of May or June of the previous year Mrs. Clements had left her husband and had gone to stay with witness and his wife. On one occasion Clements came to see his wife and quarrelled with her all night. Clements cross-examined the witness, who denied that he was always drunk when he visited Clements. To a suggestion that witness always illtreated his wife he retorted: “If you had been as good to your wife as I am to mine you would do.” Clements had, the witness admitted, spoken to him about a woman called Mrs. Ashton who, he said, was partly the cause of the trouble. Clements was always making state ments against Mrs. Ashton.
Then Constable Timothy Hickey was called. He said that he was present when Ross said to the prisoner: “What have you been doing Charlie? Have you killed her?” The prisoner had replied: “I had plenty of cause to do so.” Later Clements told the witness that the deceased had killed herself, though a little later he said he had done it with a knife and a tomahawk. He had used the tomahawk, to said, to drive the knife home into her neck. He also said that he was sorry that the knife had not been longer for then he would have killed himself. When Dr. Roberts came, the witness said that Clements told him that this, meaning the deed, was committed because of his wife's going through so many illegal operations at the hands of Mrs. Ashton. In reply to Dr. Roberts' question, “There must have been a row here?” the witness had replied inconsequently: “It all happened on Saturday.”
Medical evidence was then given by Dr. Fulton, who said that the woman was dead when he arrived at the house. He also examined the prisoner, who had a wound in his throat. It was about half an inch deep. There was a good deal of blood on his face and body. There was a scratch on his wrist, which he said his wife had inflicted. The doctor said he asked Clements why, while he was at it, he had not finished himself as well. Clements replied that if the knife had been longer he would have done so. A little later he asked Clements “How did all this come about?” and Clements then replied: “She did it,” and he repeated this several times. The disorder that the witness noticed in the room suggested to him there had been a row. Clements, however, told him there had been no row at all. “It all happened,” he added, “on Saturday.”
Mary Jane Ross, the wife of the first witness and the deceased's sister, told the jury that Clements and his wife lived unhappily. Clements was unjustifiably jealous. At times in front of the deceased page 26 Clements had told witness that he had torn up her clothes and broken things in the house. In reply to Clements, the witness said that she did not know her sister took drugs. It was also untrue that she had offered witness thirty shillings to do away with a child. The witness said that she had advised deceased to keep away from Mrs. Ashton. Accused often said things against his wife.
At this stage, and as the witness left the witness box, Mr. Chapman called the child, Maggie Clements, who was only five and a half years old. The Judge had her placed on the Bench beside him and he had a talk with her. He said that he thought that the child ought not to be examined unless it were absolutely necessary. The little child promised to speak the truth. She was far too young to be sworn in. She told a few facts quite irrelevant to the issue and the Judge ordered her evidence to be removed from the notes.
Dr. Roberts then told how he had conducted the post mortem on the body of Mrs. Clements. It seemed to him she had at first been struck down with the tomahawk and then killed with the knife. She would have died within three minutes of the wounding. In answer to the Judge, he said that he had noticed no sign of mental disease in the prisoner.
Catherine Ashton was then called, but the Judge said that it was not necessary in this case to rebut the allegations against this witness. The prisoner, however, took the opportunity of cross-examining her. She denied that she had administered drugs to Mrs. Clements. She denied that she had been out to a party with her and had come home at midnight. She said she had never told the prisoner otherwise. The prisoner then asked several more irrelevant and improper questions, despite remonstrances from the Bench. At length the Judge ordered the witness to leave the box, and so put an end to the matter.
Then came Margaret Williams, who said that she was one of the deceased's sisters. On the Saturday night she saw her sister. Clements and his wife often quarrelled. Between 7.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on that Saturday she had gone to her sister's. In the bedroom she saw broken picture frames and crockery. The deceased's clothing was torn and lay scattered about the room. That afternoon Clements and his family had been to witness's house. As they were leaving Clements said to his daughter, “Kiss daddy, you won't see him in the morning!” He had then given his wife some paper money that he had previously taken from her. On the Sunday she called on the deceased, who told her she had packed up and she was going to leave next morning. Clements told her that what he was going to do himself, was his own business.
Annie Cremer was the next witness. She said she lived at Lethaby's Right-of-way. On Saturday, 1st November, she had herself seen Clements tear his wife's clothes off her and then rip them to pieces. But next day they seemed good friends again. On the Sunday there was no sound from them, and on the Monday morning she noticed that the blinds in the bedroom were still drawn down. About 11 a.m. she went to the house, but could hear nothing.
Constable Aldridge had been placed in charge of Clements while he was in hospital under treatment for his injuries. Clements had told him that his wife was always jawing him. He said: “She took a tomahawk to me and cut me across the hand. I took it from her and used it to knock the knife into her throat.” Later Clements had told him that he did not touch her, but that she had done it herself! Of that fact, Clements said he could get plenty of proof.
That was the evidence called for the Crown to prove the charge.
Then the prisoner said that he would call his witnesses first and then give evidence himself. He began by calling Jane Pratt. He told the witness that he wanted her to prove what his wife had told her and she had told him. The Judge told Clements that would not help him, and urged him to consult. Mr. Hanlon. Clements refused to do so. The Judge reminded prisoner that they were not trying his wife's fidelity, but whether he killed her. Then came three more witnesses. After a few words, the Judge dismissed them from the box as their evidence was irrelevant. Anne Hughes was then called, but she told Clements that she did not remember the deceased hitting the prisoner though she recollected seeing him hit her! The futility of the defence was also shewn by the next witness, Dinah Pine, who said, in answer to the prisoner, that she remembered seeing him once strike his wife, and on another occasion he had lifted a dinner knife up and had threatened to kill her.
Still Clements persisted in calling further witnesses whom Mr. Hanlon had refused to call, and they added nothing but irrelevant and immaterial matters. There were about seven such witnesses, and then the prisoner left the dock and walked into the witness box. This is what he swore: “We were quarrelling, and she said she would take these drugs as long as she liked. I said: ‘You are very foolish. I have told you often and often about taking them.’ She replied: ‘If you don't stop your growling I'll knock you down.’ Then she stooped to pick up the tomahawk, but I stopped her. She then picked up a knife and cut me across the hand. When she had done that I hit her on the head and lifted her on the bed and cut her throat. I did not use the tomahawk on her, but on myself. The children were sleeping at the time. It was about 11.30 p.m. The next day the children asked for a drink and it took me all my time to walk into the next room for it.” Mr. Chapman did not trouble to cross-examine the prisoner, who then returned to the dock, after telling the Judge, in answer to a question from him, that that was all he had to say, and then he repeated his allegations about his wife taking drugs for a certain purpose.
There were no addresses, either by Mr. Chapman or the prisoner. Mr. Justice Denniston, in his summing up, told the jury that never before had he had a case with such painful and peculiar features. Though it was a very painful case it was a simple one. It was highly regrettable that prisoner had refused to employ counsel, but that he thought could not have affected the prisoner's chances. The Crown's case had been presented with great moderation. He then traversed all the facts, and pointed out to the jury that the killing was not justified, and he could see no reason for reducing the act to manslaughter.
The jury retired at 5.57 p.m. and returned with a verdict in half an hour. The verdict was one of guilty, and as the defence was presented it could not have been otherwise. Clements said that the only thing he desired to say was that he had cause to do what he did. If she had not picked up the tomahawk he would not have done it. As the sentence of death was passed upon him he shewed not the slightest emotion, and steadily left the dock as the warder gave him the sign to do so.
On Tuesday, the 13th April, he was executed. On the fateful morning he did not seem to realise thoroughly the position. He appeared indifferent as to what was going on. On the scaffold, and as the minister was reading a prayer, he interrupted with, “God bless Maggie and Willie.” These words were immediately followed by imprecations. Then he changed his voice to a quieter tone and said: “A policeman said I told him I killed my wife. I deny using those words.” The last words he uttered were “God bless Maggie and Willie. God bless William and his family.”
The painful scene was brought to an end by the hangman completing his gruesome task.