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Walter James BOLTON





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Poisoner
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 11, 1956
Date of birth: August 13, 1888
Victim profile: His wife, Beatrice Mabel Jones, 64
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Mangamahu, New Zealand
Status: Executed by hanging at Mount Eden Prison in Auckland on February 18, 1957. The last execution in New Zealand

Walter James Bolton (13 August 1888 - 18 February 1957) was a New Zealand farmer who was found guilty of poisoning his wife. He is known as the last person to be executed in New Zealand before the abolition of capital punishment.

Bolton was born in Wanganui, and grew up in nearby Mangamahu. He married Beatrice Mabel Jones in 1913, but Beatrice died on 11 July 1956 after a long and debilitating illness. An autopsy found traces of arsenic in body, and a police investigation was launched. Bolton was formally charged with her murder in September.

The prosecution claimed that Bolton was having an affair with Beatrice's sister, Florence, who had moved in to help look after Beatrice, and that Bolton had poisoned his wife with arsenic he possessed for use on his farm. It also alleged that he and Florence had destroyed Beatrice's diary. Bolton's defence argued that Beatrice could have been poisoned accidentally, by arsenic entering the water supply.

A jury quickly found Bolton guilty of murdering his wife, and he was sentenced to death. He was hanged at Mount Eden Prison in Auckland on 18 February 1957, aged 68. The death penalty was abolished for most crimes several years later, making Bolton the last person to be sentenced to death in New Zealand.

In recent times, there has been speculation as to whether Bolton was guilty. His son, James Bolton, has attempted to clear his father's name. Sherwood Young dealt with the issue in his history of capital punishment in New Zealand in 1998.

In January 2001, Investigate Magazine published an article suggesting that Florence (who committed suicide some time after the events) was responsible for her sister's death, and that she had also killed others. It is claimed that a note existed in which she admitted this, but that the note was suppressed.


  • Sherwood Young (1998) Guilty on the Gallows: Famous Capital Crimes of New Zealand: Wellington: Grantham House: ISBN 186934068X



The last execution in New Zealand: Walter Bolton, 18 February 1957

Walter Bolton was the last person to be executed in New Zealand when he was convicted of poisoning his wife Beatrice. He was hanged for her murder at Mount Eden prison. The death penalty for murder was abolished in New Zealand in 1961, and there were claims that this was due partly to the circumstances surrounding Bolton's case.

Bolton's execution raised the usual questions about the death penalty. Some people believed that capital punishment was legalised murder and that it was morally wrong to take another human's life in this way. Others opposed capital punishment on religious grounds or on the grounds that mistakes were made.

Traces of arsenic had been found in small doses in Beatrice's tea. The quantity consumed over the best part of a year was enough to kill her. Water on the Bolton's farm was tested and found to contain arsenic, and traces of arsenic were also found in Walter and one of his daughters. The defence argued that sheep dip had inadvertently got into the farm's water supply. The prosecution's case was strengthened by evidence that Bolton had admitted to having had an affair with his wife's sister, Florence. The idea that Beatrice's death was a result of accidental poisoning lost credibility. After deliberating for two hours and ten minutes, the jury returned a guilty verdict. When the judge asked Bolton why there was any reason he shouldn't pronounce the death sentence, Walter Bolton replied, 'I plead not guilty, sir.'

A newspaper story later claimed that Bolton's execution had gone horribly wrong. This highlighted another concern of opponents of the death penalty that executions were cruel and inhumane. Rather than having his neck broken the instant the trapdoor opened, Bolton, allegedly, slowly strangled to death. There is, of course, no turning back after an execution if it is subsequently proven that a person was innocent of the crime and there are some who still claim that Bolton was an innocent man. What if an innocent man had been so cruelly killed on behalf of the people of New Zealand?


Doubt over guilt left hanging

By Michelle Coursey -

October 14, 2007

On February 18, 1957, at 6.30pm, Wanganui farmer Walter James Bolton climbed the steps to the Auckland Prison gallows and was hanged for the murder of his wife.

Bolton was the last person to receive the death penalty in New Zealand and now new evidence has emerged that suggests the Crown may have got it wrong.

Bolton, 68, who was known as Jim, was found guilty of murdering his wife of 43 years, Beatrice Bolton, by poisoning her with arsenic.

In the case, the prosecution alleged Bolton killed Beatrice because he was in love with another woman - his sister-in-law Florence Doughty, with whom he had a sexual affair. Lawyers for the Crown claimed Bolton had concocted a potion of arsenic from sheep dip and laced his wife's tea with it on several occasions, requiring hospital treatment, before a large dose killed her on July 11, 1956.

Bolton was found guilty by an all-male jury in his hometown of Wanganui, and lost a Court of Appeal case, despite his claims of innocence.

But was there enough reasonable doubt in the case for our last state-ordered death to be considered an unjustified murder?

New evidence shows that Bolton made statements to police at the time - which were not shared with the jury - admitting he suffered from erectile dysfunction. This affected the relationship he had with Doughty. He also recounted how Doughty seduced him on at least one occasion.

A father of six, Bolton paid large sums of money for his wife's healthcare (he even placed her in a private hospital); and was the only member of the family to agree to an autopsy, which then revealed Beatrice's organs were riddled with poison.

There is also the question of why Bolton persisted with a method of murder that was not working over a period of time - experts agree arsenic does not accumulate in the organs of the body - and 50 years later, scientists still disagree on whether Boton would have had the knowledge of chemistry to make the poison.

Would Bolton have been found guilty of murder before a court today?

That is the question being posed by documentary maker Bryan Bruce, who reveals evidence that was never heard by the original jury on the Bolton case, in the final episode of the television series The Investigator.

Bruce argues that the outcome might have been very different if the jury had heard all the evidence.

"A lot of the case [in court] depended on seeing Bolton as a sexual predator, which he didn't seem to be capable of being. You could have argued a lot more vociferously for reasonable doubt, if you were defending him now," Bruce says. "I think the Crown could equally have argued that Doughty had opportunity and motive to kill her sister."

However, this was not suggested, and a Court of Appeal case claiming the jury could not have found him guilty based on the evidence to hand, also failed. He was hanged less than 13 weeks after being sentenced. His was New Zealand's last execution but it would be another 32 years before the penalty was officially removed from the books of law.

Ultimately, Bruce argues Bolton may have been the victim of small-town judgement, rather than having been convicted on the evidence to hand. "He was probably convicted as much for his sexual morals as for whether he had killed his wife or not... I think that Jim Bolton deserved the benefit of the doubt."

It is a case that demonstrates the dangers of the death penalty.

Bruce says: "From time to time, when someone commits a heinous crime in this country, kills a child perhaps, you hear people saying bring back the death pen- alty... But the law can get it wrong, and death is final."

Fifty-three men and one woman were executed in New Zealand between 1842 and 1957. The death penalty was abolished in 1941, but reinstated in 1950.

The issue of state executions has been in the news again, with Prime Minister Helen Clark announcing last week New Zealand would support a UN initiative to abolish the death penalty worldwide, saying "capital punishment is the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment".


Walter James Bolton



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