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Joseph BURNS






Auckland Naval Base Murders
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery - Arson - Mutilation
Number of victims: 3
Date of murder: October 22, 1847
Date of birth: 1805/1806?
Victims profile: Lieutenant Robert Snow, his wife, and their baby daughter Mary
Method of murder: Tomahawked and stabbed to death
LocationDevonport, Auckland, New Zealand
Status: Executed by hanging on June 17, 1848

Joseph Burns


By Janice C. Mogford

Joseph Burns was born in Liverpool, England, in 1805 or 1806 of Irish parents. He joined the Royal Navy as a ship's carpenter at about the age of 20, and arrived at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, on the Buffalo in 1840. On 28 July the ship was wrecked at Mercury Bay, and Burns took his discharge; he was then employed by the government. He later moved to Auckland, where his first employment was with a local boatbuilder.

Burns won a reputation for heavy drinking, which he maintained was necessary to dull the pain of severe headaches caused by head injuries suffered previously in a fall from a mast. He and Margaret Reardon, a married woman separated from her husband, lived in a shack Burns had built in Mechanics Bay. Two sons resulted from this liaison. In 1845 Burns worked in a market garden until he was dismissed for assaulting the foreman.

Settlers were reluctant to employ him but he finally found work on the North Shore as a farm labourer for James Harp. Early in 1847 Harp dismissed Burns for stealing and butchering his stock. He was evicted from the farm cottage and subsequently built a rough dwelling for his family at Shoal Bay; they survived on what Burns earned in casual labour for the chief Patuone, supplemented by vegetables grown by Margaret Reardon.

On 22 October 1847 Burns, desperate for money, murdered a naval lieutenant, Robert Snow, his wife and daughter, for the sake of 12 in naval pay kept in their house. The bodies were mutilated to suggest a Maori attack, and the house burned. Maori camped in the vicinity were suspected but at the inquest Dr John Johnson, coroner, returned a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown. The case raised fears of an imminent Maori attack on Auckland.

Margaret Reardon left Burns as a result of the murders, and took the children to her sister, Sophia Aldwell, in Shortland Crescent. Burns then joined the naval steamer Inflexible, which departed for Australia on 6 November 1847 and returned to Auckland on 11 December. On 28 December he visited Margaret Reardon to persuade her to marry him so that she could not be compelled to give evidence against him; she refused. In a drunken fury he savagely attacked her and then attempted suicide. He was arrested and at the Supreme Court criminal sessions on 1 March 1848, he was convicted of grievous bodily harm and sentenced the following day to transportation for life.

Burns was now fearful that Margaret Reardon would implicate him in the Snow murders. He asked her to visit him with the two boys and coerced her into backing up a false confession in which he accused Thomas Duder and William Oliver, his former shipmates from the Buffalo, of the crime. They were exonerated after Burns retracted. On 1 June he was charged with murder, and accused Margaret Reardon, the chief prosecution witness, of inciting him to make the false confession. She admitted perjury and recounted the true sequence of events.

Burns was pronounced guilty of wilful murder by Chief Justice William Martin and sentenced to hang. On 17 June 1848, having made a full confession, which unfairly implicated Margaret Reardon, he was taken under escort from the gaol, across the harbour to the site of his crime and hanged before a large crowd of settlers and Maori. He was the first European in the colony to be executed for a capital crime.

In September 1848 Margaret Reardon was convicted of perjury and sentenced to seven years' transportation.


Auckland Naval Base Murders

This triple murder was the first case in Auckland where a Pakeha was found guilty since the founding of the city, one hundred years before. Even though there would have been murders by the score before this, this murder was on a New Zealand Naval Base so it drew attention from both the Navy and the police.

In 1841, Lieutenant Robert Snow was the officer in charge when the Royal Navy founded it's first naval base in Devonport, on the North Shore in Auckland. Lt. Snow lived on the base with his wife, Hannah, and their two daughters.

Six years later they still resided in the same cottage with their neighbours being a few local Maoris and European settlers. A shipping signal station manned by Able Seaman Thomas Duder could be seen on Mount Victoria.

On Friday, October 22, 1847, the ship named HMS Dido was anchored off the North Shore. Benjamin Baker, the ship's quartermaster, was on watch duty and at around 1am spotted a fire on the North Shore Naval Base. He reported this to his Captain who ordered they go ashore with a crew to assist if needed.

On arrival at the scene, they found Lt. Snow's cottage ablaze. They could not vanquish the flames and saw no sign of the occupants of the house. Unable to locate the family anywhere on the base, the worse was feared.

After the flames had died down, the wreckage was sifted through and the searchers came across an horrific sight. The burnt and mutilated bodies of Lt. Snow, his wife, and their baby daughter Mary. This now became a case of murder.

It was alleged that Lt. Snow had been known to have run-ins with the local Maoris and one had threatened to burn down his cottage. Able Seaman Thomas Duder testified that he had seen the cottage on fire from the signal station and he also saw two Maori canoes nearby. He also helped identify the Snows' bodies.

The Snows had been brutally tomahawked and stabbed before their house was set on fire. Through a long trail of deception the crime was attributed to Joseph Burns. His statement was that he paid too much attention to bad women and drink.

At his trial Joseph Burns was found guilty of the murders of Lieutenant Robert Snow, his wife and baby daughter. One of the two children was away at the time and survived.

A scaffold was built over the site of the crime where Joseph Burns was hanged, a practice which was afforded highwaymen in England.



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