The Career Of Robert Butler

There is a report of Butler’s trial published in Dunedin. It gives in full the speeches and the cross-examination of the witnesses, but not in all cases the evidence-in-chief. By the kindness of a friend in New Zealand I obtained a copy of the depositions taken before the magistrate; with this I have been able to supplement the report of the trial. A collection of newspaper cuttings furnished me with the details of the rest of Butler’s career.


On the evening of March 23, 1905, Mr. William Munday, a highly respected citizen of the town of Tooringa, in Queensland, was walking to the neighbouring town of Toowong to attend a masonic gathering. It was about eight o’clock, the moon shining brightly. Nearing Toowong, Mr. Munday saw a middle-aged man, bearded and wearing a white overcoat, step out into the moonlight from under the shadow of a tree. As Mr. Munday advanced, the man in the white coat stood directly in his way. “Out with all you have, and quick about it,” he said. Instead of complying with this peremptory summons, Mr. Munday attempted to close with him. The man drew back quickly, whipped out a revolver, fired, and made off as fast as he could. The bullet, after passing through Mr. Munday’s left arm, had lodged in the stomach. The unfortunate gentleman was taken to a neighbouring hospital where, within a few hours, he was dead.

In the meantime a vigorous search was made for his assailant. Late the same night Constable Hennessy, riding a bicycle, saw a man in a white coat who seemed to answer to the description of the assassin. He dismounted, walked up to him and asked him for a match. The man put his hand inside his coat. “What have you got there?” asked the constable. “I’ll—soon show you,” replied the man in the white coat, producing suddenly a large revolver. But Hennessy was too quick for him. Landing him one under the jaw, he sent him to the ground and, after a sharp struggle, secured him. Constable Hennessy little knew at the time that his capture in Queensland of the man in the white coat was almost as notable in the annals of crime as the affray at Blackheath on an autumn night in 1878, when Constable Robinson grappled successfully, wounded as he was, with Charles Peace.

The man taken by Hennessy gave the name of James Wharton, and as James Wharton he was hanged at Brisbane. But before his death it was ascertained beyond doubt, though he never admitted it himself, that Wharton was none other than one Robert Butler, whose career as a criminal and natural wickedness may well rank him with Charles Peace in the hierarchy of scoundrels. Like Peace, Butler was, in the jargon of crime, a “hatter,” a “lone hand,” a solitary who conceived and executed his nefarious designs alone; like Peace, he supplemented an insignificant physique by a liberal employment of the revolver; like Peace, he was something of a musician, the day before his execution he played hymns for half an hour on the prison organ; like Peace, he knew when to whine when it suited his purpose; and like Peace, though not with the same intensity, he could be an uncomfortably persistent lover, when the fit was on him. Both men were cynics in their way and viewed their fellow-men with a measure of contempt. But here parallel ends. Butler was an intellectual, inferior as a craftsman to Peace, the essentially practical, unread, naturally gifted artist. Butler was a man of books. He had been schoolmaster, journalist. He had studied the lives of great men, and as a criminal, had devoted especial attention to those of Frederick the Great and Napoleon. Butler’s defence in the Dunedin murder trial was a feat of skill quite beyond the power of Peace. Peace was a religious man after the fashion of the mediaeval tyrant, Butler an infidel. Peace, dragged into the light of a court of justice, cut a sorry figure; here Butler shone. Peace escaped a conviction for murder by letting another suffer in his place; Butler escaped a similar experience by the sheer ingenuity of his defence. Peace had the modesty and reticence of the sincere artist; Butler the loquacious vanity of the literary or forensic coxcomb. Lastly, and it is the supreme difference, Butler was a murderer by instinct and conviction, as Lacenaire or Ruloff; “a man’s life,” he said, “was of no more importance than a dog’s; nature respects the one no more than the other, a volcanic eruption kills mice and men with the one hand. The divine command, ‘kill, kill and spare not,’ was intended not only for Joshua, but for men of all time; it is the example of our rulers, our Fredericks and Napoleons.”

Butler was of the true Prussian mould. “In crime,” he would say, “as in war, no half measures. Let us follow the example of our rulers whose orders in war run, ‘Kill, burn and sink,’ and what you cannot carry away, destroy.'” Here is the gospel of frightfulness applied almost prophetically to crime. To Butler murder is a principle of warfare; to Peace it was never more than a desperate resort or an act the outcome of ungovernable passion.

Ireland can claim the honour of Butler’s birth. It took place at Kilkenny about 1845. At an early age he left his native land for Australia, and commenced his professional career by being sentenced under the name of James Wilson—the same initials as those of James Wharton of Queensland—to twelve months’ imprisonment for vagrancy. Of the sixteen years he passed in Victoria he spent thirteen in prison, first for stealing, then in steady progression for highway robbery and burglary. Side by side with the practical and efficient education in crime furnished by the Victorian prisons of that day, Butler availed himself of the opportunity to educate his mind. It was during this period that he found inspiration and encouragement in the study of the lives of Frederick and Napoleon, besides acquiring a knowledge of music and shorthand.

When in 1876 Butler quitted Australia for New Zealand, he was sufficiently accomplished to obtain employment as a schoolmaster.

At Cromwell, Otago, under the name of “C. J. Donelly, Esq.,” Butler opened a “Commercial and Preparatory Academy,” and in a prospectus that recalls Mr. Squeers’ famous advertisement of Dotheboys Hall, announced that the programme of the Academy would include “reading, taught as an art and upon the most approved principles of elocution, writing, arithmetic, euclid, algebra, mensuration, trigonometry, book-keeping, geography, grammar, spelling and dictation, composition, logic and debate, French, Latin, shorthand, history, music, and general lectures on astronomy, natural philosophy, geology, and other subjects.” The simpler principles of these branches of learning were to be “rendered intelligible, and a firm foundation laid for the acquirement of future knowledge.” Unfortunately a suspicion of theft on Butler’s part cut short the fulfilment of this really splendid programme, and Butler left Cromwell hurriedly for the ampler field of Dunedin. There, less than a fortnight after his arrival, he was sentenced to four years’ hard labour for several burglaries committed in and about that city.

On the 18th of February, 1880, Butler was released from prison. With that consummate hypocrisy which was part of the man, he had contrived to enlist the sympathies of the Governor of the Dunedin Jail, who gave him, on his departure, a suit of clothes and a small sum of money. A detective of the name of Bain tried to find him employment. Butler wished to adopt a literary career. He acted as a reporter on the Dunedin Evening Star, and gave satisfaction to the editor of that newspaper. An attempt to do some original work, in the shape of “Prison Sketches,” for another newspaper, was less successful. Bain had arranged for the publication of the articles in the Sunday Advertiser, but when the time came to deliver his manuscript, Butler failed to appear. Bain, whose duty it was to keep an eye on Butler, found him in the street looking wild and haggard. He said that he had found the work “too much for his head,” that he had torn up what he had written, that he had nowhere to go, and had been to the end of the jetty with the intention of drowning himself. Bain replied somewhat caustically that he thought it a pity he had not done so, as nothing would have given him greater joy than going to the end of the jetty and identifying his body. “You speak very plainly,” said Butler. “Yes, and what is more, I mean what I say,” replied Bain. Butler justified Bain’s candour by saying that if he broke out again, he would be worse than the most savage tiger ever let loose on the community. As a means of obviating such an outbreak, Butler suggested that, intellectual employment having failed, some form of manual labour should be found him. Bain complied with Butler’s request, and got him a job at levelling reclaimed ground in the neighbourhood of Dunedin. On Wednesday, March 10, Butler started work, but after three hours of it relinquished the effort. Bain saw Butler again in Dunedin on the evening of Saturday, March 13, and made an appointment to meet him at half-past eight that night. Butler did not keep the appointment. Bain searched the town for him, but he was nowhere to be found.

About the same time Butler had some talk with another member of the Dunedin police force, Inspector Mallard. They discussed the crimes of Charles Peace and other notable artists of that kind. Butler remarked to Mallard how easy it would be to destroy all traces of a murder by fire, and asked the inspector whether if he woke up one morning to find some brutal murder had been committed, he would not put it down to him. “No, Butler,” replied the inspector, “the first thing I should do would be to look for suspicious circumstances, and most undoubtedly, if they pointed to you, you would be looked after.”

In the early morning of this Saturday, March 13, the house of a Mr. Stamper, a solicitor of Dunedin, had been broken into, and some articles of value, among them a pair of opera glasses, stolen. The house had been set on fire, and burned to the ground. On the morning of the following day, Sunday, the 14th, Dunedin was horrified by the discovery of a far more terrible crime, tigerish certainly in its apparent ferocity. In a house in Cumberland Street, a young married couple and their little baby were cruelly murdered and an unsuccessful attempt was made to fire the scene of the crime.

About half-past six on Sunday morning a man of the name of Robb, a carpenter, on getting out of bed, noticed smoke coming from the house of a neighbor of his, Mr. J. M. Dewar, who occupied a small one-floored cottage standing by itself in Cumberland Street, a large and broad thoroughfare on the outskirts of the town. Dewar was a butcher by trade, a young man, some eighteen months married, and father of a baby girl. Robb, on seeing smoke coming from Dewar’s house, woke his son, who was a member of the fire brigade. The latter got up, crossed the street, and going round to the back door, which he found wide open, entered the house. As he went along the passage that separated the two front rooms, a bedroom and sitting-room, he called to the inmates to get up. He received no answer, but as he neared the bedroom he heard a “gurgling” sound. Crawling on his hands and knees he reached the bedroom door, and two feet inside it his right hand touched something. It was the body of a woman; she was still alive, but in a dying condition. Robb dragged her across the passage into the sitting-room. He got some water, and extinguished the fire in the bedroom. On the bed lay the body of Dewar. To all appearances he had been killed in his sleep. By his side was the body of the baby, suffocated by the smoke. Near the bed was an axe belonging to Dewar, stained with blood. It was with this weapon, apparently, that Mr. and Mrs. Dewar had been attacked. Under the bed was a candlestick belonging also to the Dewars, which had been used by the murderer in setting fire to the bed. The front window of the sitting-room was open, there were marks of boot nails on the sill, and on the grass in front of the window a knife was found. An attempt had been made to ransack a chest of drawers in the bedroom, but some articles of jewellery lying in one of the drawers, and a ring on the dressing-table had been left untouched. As far as was known, Mr. and Mrs. Dewar were a perfectly happy and united couple. Dewar had been last seen alive about ten o’clock on the Saturday night getting off a car near his home. At eleven a neighbour had noticed a light in the Dewars’ house. About five o’clock on the Sunday morning another neighbour had been aroused from his sleep by the sound as of something falling heavily. It was a wild and boisterous night. Thinking the noise might be the slamming of his stable door, he got up and went out to see that it was secure. He then noticed that a light was burning in the bedroom window of the Dewars’ cottage.

Nothing more was known of what had occurred that morning until at half-past six Robb saw the smoke coming from Dewars’ house. Mrs. Dewar, who alone could have told something, never recovered consciousness and died on the day following the crime. Three considerable wounds sufficient to cause death had been inflicted on the unfortunate woman’s head, and five of a similar character on that of her husband. At the head of the bed, which stood in the corner of the room, there was a large smear of blood on the wall just above the door; there were spots of blood all over the top of the bed, and some smaller ones that had to all appearances spurted on to the panel of the door nearest to the bed.

The investigation of this shocking crime was placed in the hands of Detective Bain, whose duty it had been to keep an eye on Robert Butler, but he did not at first associate his interesting charge with the commission of the murder. About half-past six on Sunday evening Bain happened to go to a place called the Scotia Hotel, where the landlord informed him that one of his servants, a girl named Sarah Gillespie, was very anxious to see him. Her story was this: On the morning of Thursday, March 11, Robert Butler had come to the hotel; he was wearing a dark lavender check suit and carried a top coat and parcel. Butler had stayed in the hotel all Thursday and slept there that night. He had not slept in the hotel on the Friday night, and Sarah Gillespie had not seen him again until he came into the house about five and twenty minutes to seven on Sunday morning. The girl noticed that he was pale and excited, seemed afraid and worried, as if someone were coming after him. After giving her some money for the landlord, he went upstairs, fetched his top coat, a muffler, and his parcel. Before leaving he said he would have a pint of beer, as he had not breakfasted. He then left, presumably to catch an early train.

Butler was next seen a few minutes later at a shop near the hotel, where he bought five tins of salmon, and about the same time a milk-boy saw him standing on the kerb in Cumberland Street in a stooping position, his head turned in the direction of Dewars’ house. A little after ten the same night Butler entered a hotel at a place called Blueskin, some twelve miles distant from Dunedin. He was wearing an overcoat and a light muffler. He sat down at a table in the dining-room and seemed weary and sleepy. Someone standing at the bar said “What a shocking murder that was in Cumberland Street!” Butler started up, looked steadily from one to the other of the two men who happened to be in the room, then sat down again and, taking up a book, appeared to be reading. More than once he put down the book and kept shifting uneasily in his chair. After having some supper he got up, paid his reckoning, and left the hotel.

At half-past three the following morning, about fifteen miles from Dunedin, on the road to Waikouaiti, two constables met a man whom they recognised as Butler from a description that had been circulated by the police. The constables arrested and searched him. They found on him a pair of opera glasses, the property of Mr. Stamper, whose house had been burgled and burned down on the morning of the 13th. Of this crime Butler acknowledged himself to be the perpetrator. Besides the opera glasses the constables took from Butler two tins of salmon, a purse containing four shillings and sixpence, a pocket knife, a box of matches, a piece of candle, and a revolver and cartridges. The prisoner was carrying a top coat, and was dressed in a dark coat and grey trousers, underneath which he was wearing a white shirt, an under flannel and a Rob Roy Crimean shirt. One of the constables noticed that there were marks of blood on his shirt. Another singular feature in Butler’s attire was the fact that the outer soles of his boots had been recently removed. When last seen in Dunedin Butler had been wearing a moustache; he was now clean shaven.

The same evening a remarkable interview took place in the lock-up at Waikouaiti between Butler and Inspector Mallard. Mallard, who had some reason for suspecting Butler, bearing in mind their recent conversation, told the prisoner that he would be charged with the murder in Cumberland Street. For a few seconds, according to Mallard, the prisoner seemed terribly agitated and appeared to be choking. Recovering himself somewhat, he said, “If for that, you can get no evidence against me; and if I am hanged for it, I shall be an innocent man, whatever other crimes I may have committed.” Mallard replied, “There is evidence to convict you—the fire was put out.” Butler then said that he would ask Mallard a question, but, after a pause, decided not to do so. Mallard, after examining Butler’s clothes, told him that those were not the clothes in which he had left the Scotia Hotel. Butler admitted it, and said he had thrown those away in the North East Valley. Mallard alluded to the disappearance of the prisoner’s moustache. Butler replied that he had cut it off on the road. Mallard noticed then the backs of Butler’s hands were scratched, as if by contact with bushes. Butler seemed often on the point of asking questions, but would then stop and say “No, I won’t ask you anything.” To the constables who had arrested him Butler remarked, “You ought to remember me, because I could have shot you if I had wished.” When Mallard later in the evening visited Butler again, the prisoner who was then lying down said, “I want to speak to you. I want to ask the press not to publish my career. Give me fair play. I suppose I shall be convicted and you will see I can die like a man.”

A few days after Butler’s arrest a ranger on the Town Belt, a hill overlooking Dunedin, found a coat, a hat and silk striped cravat, and a few days later a pair of trousers folded up and placed under a bush. These articles of clothing were identified as those which Butler had been seen wearing on the Saturday and Sunday morning. They were examined. There were a number of bloodstains on them, not one of them larger in size than a pea, some almost invisible. On the front of the trousers about the level of the groin there were blood spots on both sides. There was blood on the fold of the left breast of the coat and on the lining of the cuff of the right arm. The shirt Butler was wearing at the time of his arrest was examined also. There were small spots of blood, about fourteen altogether, on the neck and shoulder bands, the right armpit, the left sleeve, and on both wristbands. Besides the clothes, a salmon tin was found on the Town Belt, and behind a seat in the Botanical Gardens, from which a partial view of the Dewars’ house in Cumberland Street could be obtained, two more salmon tins were found, all three similar to the five purchased by Butler on the Sunday morning, two of which had been in his possession at the time of his arrest.

Such were the main facts of the case which Butler had to answer when, a few weeks later, he was put on his trial before the Supreme Court at Dunedin. The presiding judge was Mr. Justice Williams, afterwards Sir Joshua Williams and a member of the Privy Council. The Crown Prosecutor, Mr. Haggitt, conducted the case for the Crown, and Butler defended himself.


To a man of Butler’s egregious vanity his trial was a glorious opportunity for displaying his intellectual gifts, such as they were. One who had known him in prison about this time describes him as a strange compound of vanity and envy, blind to his own faults and envious of the material advantages enjoyed by others. Self-willed and arrogant, he could bully or whine with equal effect. Despising men, he believed that if a man did not possess some requisite quality, he had only to ape it, as few would distinguish between the real and the sham.

But with all these advantages in the struggle for life, it is certain that Butler’s defence would have been far less effective had been denied all professional aid. As a matter of fact, throughout his trial Butler was being advised by three distinguished members of the New Zealand bar, now judges of the Supreme Court, who though not appearing for him in court, gave him the full benefit of their assistance outside it. At the same time Butler carried off the thing well. Where imagination was required, Butler broke down; he could not write sketches of life in prison; that was too much for his pedestrian intellect. But given the facts of a case, dealing with a transaction of which he alone knew the real truth, and aided by the advice and guidance of trained intellects, Butler was unquestionably clever and shrewd enough to make the best use of such advantages in meeting the case against him.

Thus equipped for the coming struggle, this high-browed ruffian, with his semi-intellectual cast of countenance, his jerky restless posturing, his splay-footed waddle, “like a lame Muscovy duck,” in the graphic words of his gaol companion, stood up to plead for his life before the Supreme Court at Dunedin.

It may be said at the outset that Butler profited greatly by the scrupulous fairness shown by the Crown Prosecutor. Mr. Haggitt extended to the prisoner a degree of consideration and forbearance, justified undoubtedly towards an undefended prisoner. But, as we have seen, Butler was not in reality undefended. At every moment of the trial he was in communication with his legal advisers, and being instructed by them how to meet the evidence given against him. Under these circumstances the unfailing consideration shown him by the Crown Prosecutor seems almost excessive. From the first moment of the trial Butler was fully alive to the necessities of his situation. He refrained from including in his challenges of the jury the gentleman who was afterwards foreman; he knew he was all right, he said, because he parted his hair in the middle, a “softy,” in fact. He did not know in all probability that one gentleman on the jury had a rooted conviction that the murder of the Dewars was the work of a criminal lunatic. There was certainly nothing in Butler’s demeanour or behaviour to suggest homicidal mania.

The case against Butler rested on purely circumstantial evidence.

No new facts of importance were adduced at the trial. The stealing of Dewar’s wages, which had been paid to him on the Saturday, was the motive for the murder suggested by the Crown. The chief facts pointing to Butler’s guilt were: his conversation with Mallard and Bain previous to the crime; his demeanour after it; his departure from Dunedin; the removal of his moustache and the soles of his boots; his change of clothes and the bloodstains found upon them, added to which was his apparent inability to account for his movements on the night in question.

Such as the evidence was, Butler did little to shake it in cross-examination. His questions were many of them skilful and pointed, but on more than one occasion the judge intervened to save him from the danger common to all amateur cross-examiners, of not knowing when to stop. He was most successful in dealing with the medical witnesses. Butler had explained the bloodstains on his clothes as smears that had come from scratches on his hands, caused by contact with bushes. This explanation the medical gentlemen with good reason rejected. But they went further, and said that these stains might well have been caused by the spurting and spraying of blood on to the murderer as he struck his victims. Butler was able to show by the position of the bloodstains on the clothes that such an explanation was open to considerable doubt.

Butler’s speech in his defence lasted six hours, and was a creditable performance. Its arrangement is somewhat confused and repetitious, some points are over-elaborated, but on the whole he deals very successfully with most of the evidence given against him and exposes the unquestionable weakness of the Crown case. At the outset he declared that he had taken his innocence for his defence. “I was not willing,” he said, “to leave my life in the hands of a stranger. I was willing to incur all the disadvantages which the knowledge of the law might bring upon me. I was willing, also, to enter on this case without any experience whatever of that peculiarly acquired art of cross-examination. I fear I have done wrong. If I had had the assistance of able counsel, much more light would have been thrown on this case than has been.” As we have seen, Butler enjoyed throughout his trial the informal assistance of three of the most able counsel in New Zealand, so that this heroic attitude of conscious innocence braving all dangers loses most of its force. Without such assistance his danger might have been very real.

A great deal of the evidence as to his conduct and demeanour at the time of the murder Butler met by acknowledging that it was he who had broken into Mr. Stamper’s house on the Saturday morning, burgled it and set it on fire. His consciousness of guilt in this respect was, he said, quite sufficient to account for anything strange or furtive in his manner at that time. He was already known to the police; meeting Bain on the Saturday night, he felt more than ever sure that he was suspected of the robbery at Mr. Stamper’s; he therefore decided to leave Dunedin as soon as possible. That night, he said, he spent wandering about the streets half drunk, taking occasional shelter from the pouring rain, until six o’clock on the Sunday morning, when he went to the Scotia Hotel. A more detailed account of his movements on the night of the Dewars’ murder he did not, or would not, give.

When he comes to the facts of the murder and his theories as to the nature and motive of the crime—theories which he developed at rather unnecessary length for the purpose of his own defence—his speech is interesting. It will be recollected that on the discovery of the murder, a knife was found on the grass outside the house. This knife was not the property of the Dewars. In Butler’s speech he emphasised the opinion that this knife had been brought there by the murderer: “Horrible though it may be, my conclusion is that he brought it with the intention of cutting the throats of his victims, and that, finding they lay in rather an untoward position, he changed his mind, and, having carried out the object with which he entered the house, left the knife and, going back, brought the axe with which he effected his purpose. What was the purpose of the murderer? Was it the robbery of Dewar’s paltry wages? Was it the act of a tiger broken loose on the community? An act of pure wanton devilry? or was there some more reasonable explanation of this most atrocious crime?”

Butler rejected altogether the theory of ordinary theft. No thief of ambitious views, he said, would pitch upon the house of a poor journeyman butcher. The killing of the family appeared to him to be the motive: “an enemy hath done this.” The murderer seems to have had a knowledge of the premises; he enters the house and does his work swiftly and promptly, and is gone. “We cannot know,” Butler continues, “all the passages in the lives of the murdered man or woman. What can we know of the hundred spites and jealousies or other causes of malice which might have caused the crime? If you say some obscure quarrel, some spite or jealousy is not likely to have been the cause of so dreadful a murder, you cannot revert to the robbery theory without admitting a motive much weaker in all its utter needlessness and vagueness. The prominent feature of the murder, indeed the only feature, is its ruthless, unrelenting, determined vindictiveness. Every blow seemed to say, ‘You shall die you shall not live.'”

Whether Butler were the murderer of the Dewars or not, the theory that represented them as having been killed for the purpose of robbery has its weak side all the weaker if Butler, a practical and ambitious criminal, were the guilty man.

In 1882, two years after Butler’s trial, there appeared in a New Zealand newspaper, Society, published in Christchurch, a series of Prison “Portraits,” written evidently by one who had himself undergone a term of imprisonment. One of the “Portraits” was devoted to an account of Butler. The writer had known Butler in prison. According to the story told him by Butler, the latter had arrived in Dunedin with a quantity of jewellery he had stolen in Australia. This jewellery he entrusted to a young woman for safe keeping. After serving his first term of two years’ imprisonment in Dunedin, Butler found on his release that the young woman had married a man of the name of Dewar. Butler went to Mrs. Dewar and asked for the return of his jewellery; she refused to give it up. On the night of the murder he called at the house in Cumberland Street and made a last appeal to her, but in vain. He determined on revenge. During his visit to Mrs. Dewar he had had an opportunity of seeing the axe and observing the best way to break into the house. He watched the husband’s return, and decided to kill him as well as his wife on the chance of obtaining his week’s wages. With the help of the knife which he had found in the backyard of a hotel he opened the window. The husband he killed in his sleep, the woman waked with the first blow he struck her. He found the jewellery in a drawer rolled up in a pair of stockings. He afterwards hid it in a well-marked spot some half-hour before his arrest.

A few years after its appearance in Society, this account of Butler was reproduced in an Auckland newspaper. Bain, the detective, wrote a letter questioning the truth of the writer’s statements. He pointed out that when Butler first came to Dunedin he had been at liberty only a fortnight before serving his first term of imprisonment, very little time in which to make the acquaintance of a woman and dispose of the stolen jewellery. He asked why, if Butler had hidden the jewellery just before his arrest, he had not also hidden the opera-glasses which he had stolen from Mr. Stamper’s house. Neither of these comments is very convincing. A fortnight seems time enough in which a man of Butler’s character might get to know a woman and dispose of some jewellery; while, if Butler were the murderer of Mr. Dewar as well as the burglar who had broken into Stamper’s house, it was part of his plan to acknowledge himself guilty of the latter crime and use it to justify his movements before and after the murder. Bain is more convincing when he states at the conclusion of his letter that he had known Mrs. Dewar from childhood as a “thoroughly good and true woman,” who, as far as he knew, had never in her life had any acquaintance with Butler.

At the same time, the account given by Butler’s fellow-prisoner, in which the conduct of the murdered woman is represented as constituting the provocation for the subsequent crime, explains one peculiar circumstance in connection with the tragedy, the selection of this journeyman butcher and his wife as the victims of the murderer. It explains the theory, urged so persistently by Butler in his speech to the jury, that the crime was the work of an enemy of the Dewars, the outcome of some hidden spite, or obscure quarrel; it explains the apparent ferocity of the murder, and the improbability of a practical thief selecting such an unprofitable couple as his prey. The rummaged chest of drawers and the fact that some trifling articles of jewellery were left untouched on the top of them, are consistent with an eager search by the murderer for some particular object. Against this theory of revenge is the fact that Butler was a malignant ruffian and liar in any case, that, having realised very little in cash by the burglary at Stamper’s house, he would not be particular as to where he might get a few shillings more, that he had threatened to do a tigerish deed, and that it is characteristic of his vanity to try to impute to his crime a higher motive than mere greed or necessity.

Butler showed himself not averse to speaking of the murder in Cumberland Street to at least one of those, with whom he came in contact in his later years. After he had left New Zealand and returned to Australia, he was walking in a street in Melbourne with a friend when they passed a lady dressed in black, carrying a baby in her arms. The baby looked at the two men and laughed. Butler frowned and walked rapidly away. His companion chaffed him, and asked whether it was the widow or the baby that he was afraid of. Butler was silent, but after a time asked his companion to come into some gardens and sit down on one of the seats, as he had something serious to say to him. For a while Butler sat silent. Then he asked the other if he had ever been in Dunedin. “Yes,” was the reply. “Look here,” said Butler, “you are the only man I ever made any kind of confidant of. You are a good scholar, though I could teach you a lot.” After this gracious compliment he went on: “I was once tried in Dunedin on the charge of killing a man, woman and child, and although innocent, the crime was nearly brought home to me. It was my own ability that pulled me through. Had I employed a professional advocate, I should not have been here to-day talking to you.” After describing the murder, Butler said: “Trying to fire the house was unnecessary, and killing the baby was unnecessary and cruel. I respect no man’s life, for no man respects mine. A lot of men I have never injured have tried to put a rope round my neck more than once. I hate society in general, and one or two individuals in particular. The man who did that murder in Dunedin has, if anything, my sympathy, but it seems to me he need not have killed that child.” His companion was about to speak. Butler stopped him. “Now, don’t ever ask me such a silly question as that,” he said. “What?” asked his friend. “You were about to ask me if I did that deed,” replied Butler, “and you know perfectly well that, guilty or innocent, that question would only be answered in one way.” “I was about to ask nothing of the kind,” said the other, “for you have already told me that you were innocent.” “Good!” said Butler, “then let that be the end of the subject, and never refer to it again, except, perhaps, in your own mind, when you can, if you like, remember that I said the killing of the child was unnecessary and cruel.”

Having developed to the jury his theory of why the crime was committed, Butler told them that, as far as he was concerned, there were four points against him on which the Crown relied to prove his guilt. Firstly, there was the fact of his being in the neighbourhood of the crime on the Sunday morning; that, he said, applied to scores of other people besides himself. Then there was his alleged disturbed appearance and guilty demeanour. The evidence of that was, he contended, doubtful in any case, and referable to another cause; as also his leaving Dunedin in the way and at the time he did. He scouted the idea that murderers are compelled by some invisible force to betray their guilt. “The doings of men,” he urged, “and their success are regulated by the amount of judgment that they possess, and, without impugning or denying the existence of Providence, I say this is a law that holds good in all cases, whether for evil or good. Murderers, if they have the sense and ability and discretion to cover up their crime, will escape, do escape, and have escaped. Many people, when they have gravely shaken their heads and said ‘Murder will out,’ consider they have done a great deal and gone a long way towards settling the question. Well, this, like many other stock formulas of Old World wisdom, is not true. How many murders are there that the world has never heard of, and never will? How many a murdered man, for instance, lies among the gum-trees of Victoria, or in the old abandoned mining-shafts on the diggings, who is missed by nobody, perhaps, but a pining wife at home, or helpless children, or an old mother? But who were their murderers? Where are they? God knows, perhaps, but nobody else, and nobody ever will.” The fact, he said, that he was alleged to have walked up Cumberland Street on the Sunday morning and looked in the direction of the Dewars’ house was, unless the causes of superstition and a vague and incomplete reasoning were to be accepted as proof, evidence rather of his innocence than his guilt. He had removed the soles of his boots, he said, in order to ease his feet in walking; the outer soles had become worn and ragged, and in lumps under his feet. He denied that he had told Bain, the detective, that he would break out as a desperate tiger let loose on the community; what he had said was that he was tired of living the life of a prairie dog or a tiger in the jungle.

Butler was more successful when he came to deal with the bloodstains on his clothes. These, he said, were caused by the blood from the scratches on his hands, which had been observed at the time of his arrest. The doctors had rejected this theory, and said that the spots of blood had been impelled from the axe or from the heads of the victims as the murderer struck the fatal blow. Butler put on the clothes in court, and was successful in showing that the position and appearance of certain of the blood spots was not compatible with such a theory. “I think,” he said, “I am fairly warranted in saying that the evidence of these gentlemen is, not to put too fine a point on it, worth just nothing at all.”

Butler’s concluding words to the jury were brief but emphatic: “I stand in a terrible position. So do you. See that in your way of disposing of me you deliver yourselves of your responsibilities.”

In the exercise of his forbearance towards an undefended prisoner, Mr. Haggitt did not address the jury for the Crown. At four o’clock the judge commenced his summing-up. Mr. Justice Williams impressed on the jury that they must be satisfied, before they could convict the prisoner, that the circumstances of the crime and the prisoner’s conduct were inconsistent with any other reasonable hypothesis than his guilt. There was little or no evidence that robbery was the motive of the crime. The circumstance of the prisoner being out all Saturday night and in the neighbourhood of the crime on Sunday morning only amounted to the fact that he had an opportunity shared by a great number of other persons of committing the murder. The evidence of his agitation and demeanour at the time of his arrest must be accepted with caution. The evidence of the blood spots was of crucial importance; there was nothing save this to connect him directly with the crime. The jury must be satisfied that the blood on the clothes corresponded with the blood marks which, in all probability, would be found on the person who committed the murder. In regard to the medical testimony some caution must be exercised. Where medical gentlemen had made observations, seen with their own eyes, the direct inference might be highly trustworthy, but, when they proceeded to draw further inferences, they might be in danger of looking at facts through the spectacles of theory; “we know that people do that in other things besides science—politics, religion, and so forth.” Taking the Crown evidence, at its strongest, there was a missing link; did the evidence of the bloodstains supply it? These bloodstains were almost invisible. Could a person be reasonably asked to explain how they came where they did? Could they be accounted for in no other reasonable way than that the clothes had been worn by the murderer of the Dewars?

In spite of a summing-up distinctly favourable to the prisoner, the jury were out three hours. According to one account of their proceedings, told to the writer, there was at first a majority of the jurymen in favour of conviction. But it was Saturday night; if they could not come to a decision they were in danger of being locked up over Sunday. For this reason the gentleman who held an obstinate and unshaken belief that the crime was the work of a homicidal maniac found an unexpected ally in a prominent member of a church choir who was down to sing a solo in his church on Sunday, and was anxious not to lose such an opportunity for distinction. Whatever the cause, after three hours’ deliberation the jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty.” Later in the Session Butler pleaded guilty to the burglary at Mr. Stamper’s house, and was sentenced to eighteen years’ imprisonment. The severity of this sentence was not, the judge said, intended to mark the strong suspicion under which Butler laboured of being a murderer as well as a burglar.

The ends of justice had been served by Butler’s acquittal. But in the light of after events, it is perhaps unfortunate that the jury did not stretch a point and so save the life of Mr. Munday of Toowong. Butler underwent his term of imprisonment in Littleton Jail. There his reputation was most unenviable. He is described by a fellow prisoner as ill-tempered, malicious, destructive, but cowardly and treacherous. He seems to have done little or no work; he looked after the choir and the library, but was not above breaking up the one and smashing the other, if the fit seized him.


In 1896 Butler was released from prison. The news of his release was described as falling like a bombshell among the peaceful inhabitants of Dunedin. In the colony of Victoria, where Butler had commenced his career, it was received with an apprehension that was justified by subsequent events. It was believed that on his release the New Zealand authorities had shipped Butler off to Rio. But it was not long before he made his way once more to Australia. From the moment of his arrival in Melbourne he was shadowed by the police. One or two mysterious occurrences soon led to his arrest. On June 5 he was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment under the Criminal Influx Act, which makes it a penal offence for any convict to enter Victoria for three years after his release from prison. Not content with this, the authorities determined to put Butler on trial on two charges of burglary and one of highway robbery, committed since his return to the colony. To one charge of burglary, that of breaking into a hairdresser’s shop and stealing a wig, some razors and a little money, Butler pleaded guilty.

But the charge of highway robbery, which bore a singular resemblance to the final catastrophe in Queensland, he resisted to the utmost, and showed that his experience in the Supreme Court at Dunedin had not been lost on him. At half-past six one evening in a suburb of Melbourne an elderly gentleman found himself confronted by a bearded man, wearing a long overcoat and a boxer hat and flourishing a revolver, who told him abruptly to “turn out his pockets.” The old man did ashe was told. The robber then asked for his watch and chain, saying “Business must be done.” The old gentleman mildly urged that this was a dangerous business. On being assured that the watch was a gold one, the robber appeared willing to risk the danger, and departed thoroughly satisfied. The old gentleman afterwards identified Butler as the man who had taken his watch. Another elderly man swore that he had seen Butler at the time of the robbery in the possession of a fine gold watch, which he said had been sent him from home. But the watch had not been found in Butler’s possession.

On June 18 Butler was put on his trial in the Melbourne Criminal Court before Mr. Justice Holroyd, charged with robbery under arms. His appearance in the dock aroused very considerable interest. “It was the general verdict,” wrote one newspaper, “that his intellectual head and forehead compared not unfavourably with those of the judge.” He was decently dressed and wore pince-nez, which he used in the best professional manner as he referred to the various documents that lay in front of him. He went into the witness-box and stated that the evening of the crime he had spent according to his custom in the Public Library.

For an hour and a half he addressed the jury. He disputed the possibility of his identification by his alleged victim. He was “an old gentleman of sedentary pursuits and not cast in the heroic mould.” Such a man would be naturally alarmed and confused at meeting suddenly an armed robber. Now, under these circumstances, could his recognition of a man whose face was hidden by a beard, his head by a boxer hat, and his body by a long overcoat, be considered trustworthy? And such recognition occurring in the course of a chance encounter in the darkness, that fruitful mother of error? The elderly gentleman had described his moustache as a slight one, but the jury could see that it was full and overhanging. He complained that he had been put up for identification singly, not with other men, according to the usual custom; the police had said to the prosecutor: “We have here a man that we think robbed you, and, if he is not the man, we shall be disappointed,” to which the prosecutor had replied: “Yes, and if he is not the man, I shall be disappointed too.” For the elderly person who had stated that he had seen a gold watch in Butler’s possession the latter had nothing but scorn. He was a “lean and slippered pantaloon in Shakespeare’s last stage”; and he, Butler, would have been a lunatic to have confided in such a man.

The jury acquitted Butler, adding as a rider to their verdict that there was not sufficient evidence of identification. The third charge against Butler was not proceeded with. He was put up to receive sentence for the burglary at the hairdresser’s shop. Butler handed to the judge a written statement which Mr. Justice Holroyd described as a narrative that might have been taken from those sensational newspapers written for nursery-maids, and from which, he said, he could not find that Butler had ever done one good thing in the whole course of his life. Of that life of fifty years Butler had spent thirty-five in prison. The judge expressed his regret that a man of Butler’s knowledge, information, vanity, and utter recklessness of what evil will do, could not be put away somewhere for the rest of his life, and sentenced him to fifteen years’ imprisonment with hard labour. “An iniquitous and brutal sentence!” exclaimed the prisoner. After a brief altercation with the judge, who said that he could hardly express the scorn he felt for such a man, Butler was removed. The judge subsequently reduced the sentence to one of ten years. Chance or destiny would seem implacable in their pursuit of Mr. William Munday of Toowong.

Butler after his trial admitted that it was he who had robbed the old gentleman of his watch, and described to the police the house in which it was hidden. When the police went there to search they found that the house had been pulled down, but among the debris they discovered a brown paper parcel containing the old gentleman’s gold watch and chain, a five-chambered revolver, a keen-edged butcher’s knife, and a mask.

Butler served his term of imprisonment in Victoria, “an unmitigated nuisance” to his custodians. On his release in 1904, he made, as in Dunedin, an attempt to earn a living by his pen. He contributed some articles to a Melbourne evening paper on the inconveniences of prison discipline, but he was quite unfitted for any sustained effort as a journalist. According to his own account, with the little money he had left he made his way to Sydney, thence to Brisbane. He was half-starved, bewildered, despairing; in his own words, “if a psychological camera could have been turned on me it would have shown me like a bird fascinated by a serpent, fascinated and bewildered by the fate in front, behind, and around me.” Months of suffering and privation passed, months of tramping hundreds of miles with occasional breakdowns, months of hunger and sickness; “my actions had become those of a fool; my mind and will had become a remnant guided or misguided by unreasoning impulse.”

It was under the influence of such an impulse that on March 23 Butler had met and shot Mr. Munday at Toowong. On May 24 he was arraigned at Brisbane before the Supreme Court of Queensland. But the Butler who stood in the dock of the Brisbane Criminal Court was very different from the Butler who had successfully defended himself at Dunedin and Melbourne. The spirit had gone out of him; it was rather as a suppliant, represented by counsel, that he faced the charge of murder. His attitude was one of humble and appropriate penitence. In a weak and nervous voice he told the story of his hardships since his release from his Victorian prison; he would only urge that the shooting of Mr. Munday was accidental, caused by Munday picking up a stone and attacking him. When about to be sentenced to death he expressed great sorrow and contrition for his crime, for the poor wife and children of his unfortunate victim. His life, he said, was a poor thing, but he would gladly give it fifty times over.

The sentence of death was confirmed by the Executive on June 30. To a Freethought advocate who visited him shortly before his execution, Butler wrote a final confession of faith: “I shall have to find my way across the harbour bar without the aid of any pilot. In these matters I have for many years carried an exempt flag, and, as it has not been carried through caprice or ignorance, I am compelled to carry it to the last. There is an impassable bar of what I honestly believe to be the inexorable logic of philosophy and facts, history and experience of the nature of the world, the human race and myself, between me and the views of the communion of any religious organisation. So instead of the ‘depart Christian soul’ of the priest, I only hope for the comfort and satisfaction of the last friendly good-bye of any who cares to give it.”

From this positive affirmation of unbelief Butler wilted somewhat at the approach of death. The day before his execution he spent half an hour playing hymns on the church organ in the prison; and on the scaffold, where his agitation rendered him almost speechless, he expressed his sorrow for what he had done, and the hope that, if there were a heaven, mercy would be shown him.


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