The Burgess Gang - Maungatapu Murders

I’m a avid reader of Gold mining books. About 5 years ago I bought a book of Trade Me called ‘The Maungatapu Murders And Other Griseley Tales’ by David Burton. I’d seen it several times before but as it didn’t seem about gold I had ignored it. A mistake. I bought it and read it. I thought that it was the most amazing story I had ever read so sat down and I read it again.
It is almost an unbelievable story that happened in NZ during the 1860’s. It started off at Wetherstones in 1862 and ended in Nelson in 1866 when 3 of the gang were hanged for 5 murders. The 4th member of the gang turned against the other 3 and was controversally pardoned of the murders - which he probably took part in. Nobody knows how many people were murdered by Burgess & co. but it can be estimated as well over 40. They used strangulation, knives, guns and strychnine. Mark Twain became interested in the story when he visited NZ and became engrossed in the story. He said it was ‘without peer in the literature of murder stories’ - or something like that.
It wasn’t unusual for Burgess to spend 50 pounds a night in a saloon in Hokitika and gold was worth about 3 pound 14 shillings at that time. All that money was gained through murder.
I have a good friend called Wayne Martin and I told him about it. He was so struck by the story that he ended up writing another book about it after researching it thoroughly. His book is also a ‘must read’ but I recommend the Burton book as a first read because it tells the story in Burgess’ words (it was his auto biography) and then Martin’s book analyses it in great depth.
Burton’s book is often on Trade me for a few $. It is the most amazing story about NZ’s greatest mass murderers and it is our history. Most people have never heard about it.


In politically correct New Zealand, land of poofters and cotton wool cry babies, a forgotten incident in Goldfields history was played out at Gabriel’s Gully but even though it would have been a dramatic crowd drawing event at the Gabriel’s Gully 150th in 2011 it was not even mentioned.
It involved a gunfight between a Police Sergeant and the criminal element. It was easily researched onthe internet but now it seems to be impossible to find…maybe the subtle sanitisation of our history.

To destroy this fabulous account then they would have to find and destroy every copy of ‘Early Days in Central otago’ by Robert Gilkinson - this account is worth reading as it is a little like ‘The Gunfight at the OK Corral’

The reason I mention it here is that I am sure that there was a tie up between the ‘badies’ and elements of the Maugatapu murderers - Burgess, Kelly etc.

If I can eventually find the article online I will cut and paste.


Yes indeed…this story should be made into a feature film I feel!

It should - I could not agree more - it would be an amazing film. The history of these characters and what they got up to is quite unbelievable. Sadly in Cottonwool land the PC Brigade seem to deny that these things existed!
I am sure that such a film would rate up there with ‘Utu’ and ‘River Queen’
I would not be at all surprised if Burgess, Kelly, Sullivan and Levy as well as Garrett held the all time high for the number of murders in New Zealand, far more than the Aramoana massacre.

1 Like

There is a screen play being written at the moment. It will be good.
I did a lot of dredging through Papers Past when my friend Wayne Martin was writing his book. For every 10 honest hard working miners there was at least one who preyed on them. Philip Levy was the last addition to the gang but his part in the murders at Maungatapu remains clouded. He certainly researched the situation at Deep Creek, Nelson, and advised the others in the Burgess gang of the movements of the 4 merchants who were subsequently murdered. Levy had been a merchant at Mutton Town Gully near Clyde and was decidedly dicey as a couple of newspaper articles indicate. Legend His wife mysteriously disappeared and he was recognised by a woman at Deep Creek who asked after his wife. (Rumour/legend was that he had murdered her but that is unknown. Something obviously had occured but Levy wasn’t telling.) Levy wouldn’t answer but the fact that he was at Deep Creek became evidence in the later trials.
Burgess knew Garrett but the stories that Burgess was a member of the Garrett gang is almost certainly untrue. They were in gaol in Dunedin at the same time and it would be fair to say they disliked each other strongly. They interacted and they knew each other well and in his autobiography Burgess described Garrett as a coward and someone who couldn’t be trusted. Garrett ( in the book titled ‘NZ’s First Bush Ranger’) described Burgess as a blowhard and a liar. Burgess had come through the infamous prison hulks in Australia (floating prisons) and was a hardened a cold blooded killer, Garrett wasn’t. If Burgess had been part of Garrett’s gang all the captives would have been murdered - Burgess’ theory was dead men don’t tell tales.
I’ll find some of the newspaper articles and bring them into this thread, some are quite chilling. Many of the nasties that turned up on the Coast came from Australia via Otago. Aliases were common in those days but the same names crop up.
More to come …


I find this 1866 newspaper article fairly sinister. It has all the hallmarks of the Burgess Gang and it is probable that a murder has just been committed. Sullivan himself said that victims were murdered and buried in shallow graves below the high tide mark.

West Coast Grave in the sand.pdf (12.1 KB)


This is the semi political correct version of the Gabriels Gully episode I mentioned above. Sadly, even in the 1930s they were laundering history. I cant find the 19th century account but it began when a storekeeper named Alexander sent an elderly man who worked for him down to the creek to get water.Alexander kept two loaded revolvers under the counter of his shanty. It must have been dark when the old man went to get the water because when he had been gone for only a short time Alexander heard a ‘garrotting’ sound of someone being strangled so he grabbed one of his revolvers and rushed out to rescue the old man.

A pistol cracked and the ball passed by his head but he returned fire by aiming at the point where he saw the flash of the discharge.

Next morning the police found a cap at the site and it was recognized as belonging to a known miscreant who frequented a tent which was pitched alone and so they approached the tent to arrest those on it. On seeing the police coming the criminal element rushed out of the tent to escape but one person running around the back of the tent was laid low with a ‘life preserver’ - for years I sued to think “What the hell was a policeman carrying a life preserver for -, after all they are round things that are carried by ships to rescue people in the water?”…back then a life preserver was a truncheon.

This page from ‘Early Days in Central Otago’ By Robert Gilkinson continues to tell the remainder of the story.


Love this sort of history, having come from an area where you could still find genuine smugglers graves, complete with skull and crossed bones in the UK. Thanks for the heads-up @Lammerlaw and @oldrimu

1 Like

Pleased I’m not boring you.
Here are another couple articles. No one knows how many people the gang killed, and we will never find out, but it could have been dozens.

New Zealand Herald - A suspected murder.pdf (87.1 KB)
Wholesale Murders on the Coast.pdf (102.6 KB)


Another couple of articles about baddies in Otago. Phil Levy was a member of the Burgess Gang and he was hanged in Nelson in 1866.
The larger article on the West Taieri Goldfield contains a Edward Jones who, I think, was an affilaite of thre Burgess Gang.
I hope these don’t bore you. It goes to show it wasn’t all lovey dubbie on the gold fields.

Bodies in the Molyneux.pdf (60.0 KB)
Bodies in the Kawarau river 1863.pdf (121.2 KB)
West Taieri Goldfields Outrage.pdf (109.8 KB)

1 Like

The actual use of a firearm on the gold fields from Page 263
.A man named Acton had a store at Switzers. One night some men came to the store ancl asked permission
to make a shakedown. He gave them supper, leave to stop, and their breakfast in the morning. When they left.
during the evening they learnt that he intended to make’ a trip to Invercargill next. day. In those times when a
storekeeper made such trips it was well known he always had gold and nioney with him. Some. hours after Acton had left home he saw a tent in the scrub, and suddenly several men jumped out and caught his horse. One of them put his revolver in his face and without speaking fired. The bullet struck him over the eye on the
temple and ploughed along the side, leaving a.track that you could lay your finger in. The men were
masked but hut Acton thought he recognised them. They then tied him up and put him in the tent. They took the gold and money, and told him if he uttered a word they would shoot him. Thinking he was thoronghly frightened, he removed the mask, and then looking through a hole in the tent he could see them dividing the spoil. He then recognised them as being the men he had helped the night before. After their departure he managed to get loose and reported the case at Invercargill but the men were never caught, and the next he heard of them was in connection with the murders on the West Coast.

Hopefully you can read this. I cannot find the Papers Past articles relating to the Gabriel’s Gully affair so I took a photo with my El Cheapo cell phone. This is part of an article I wrote for a newsletter back in 1984; -

Aw shit oh dear - I just noticed that I DID find the reference to the above and photographed the actual book and put it on a few days ago so its further up the page - age makes ya senile! Stupid old bastard.

The story about the robbery at Switzers is interesting and the story is also narrated in the Reminscinces of the Early Days of Dunedin and south Otago. I think I got that title correct, if not it is similar to it. It is in the chapter on gold discoveries and I think it is narrated in greater length. The mention of murders on the West Coast is almost certainly the Maungatapu murders. We know that Phil Levy had a store at Muttontown Gully and he was around in 1863, Burgess and Kelly were locked up in Dunedin Gaol in 1863. That leaves Sullivan and just to confuse matters there was another Sullivan around in Central at the time but it wasn’t the Sullivan of the Burgess gang and it appears just a coincidence that two had the same name. I guess when there are several thousand men there are always going to be several with the same name. Sullivan of the Burgess gang didn’t arrive in NZ (Hokitika until 1865.) I guess many of the early writers assumed that the Sullivan was the same Sullivan of the gang. It is an understandable that those ‘oversights’ were made. Sullivan is mentioned in some of the early reports of the the disturbances at Wetherstons because Burgess and Kelly were there but Sullivan almost certainly wasn’t.
The ‘gunfight’ at Wetherstons is interesting as well. Shots were fired, there is no doubt about that. Kelly discharged his weapon but said he only fired one shot and that was by accident - yeh, right Tui? The constables returned fire and Burgess and Kelly were arrested a day or two later. Back in those days an outlaw used aliases to disguise their true identity and a couple of those mentioned as being with Burgess & Kelly have aliases that crop up later on the West Coast. Two examples are James Wilson (aka Murray) and Ned Jones aka Ed Croft.
So, I’m sure about the faces being recognised as those committing the murders on the West Coast. It doesn’t seem correct but it would need a lot of research. I might ask my friend Wayne Martin who wrote a book on the Maungatapu Murders to give an opinion.
Now, this is interesting - When Burgess and Kelly were arrested because they shot at the police, they were transported to Dunedin, in shackles, but the police who were also doing gold escort duties. Somewhere coming around the Maungatuas the wagon the Burgess left the track and careered into a gully. Burgess took a knock to the head and was seriously injured. He spent his first few weeks of his prison term in a hospital bed. My Great G G grandfather was on the gold escorts. His name was John Bevin and he rode in Charge of the Light Brigade in the 8th Irish Hussars. He got up the end of the valley and was captured by the Russians.That is another story but he may well have been on that trip to Dunedin gaol with Burgess & Kelly.
All interesting but I have run out of whiskey so I’m off to find red wine.

Sleep well.


Now I am not 100 percent certain but I am 99 percent certain that John Bevin rose to become a Sergeant or Sergeant Major in the Otago Police.

It is interesting to note that the Otago Police at the time were issued with Colt Revolving Carbines and also Colt revolvers.

The Colt revolvers were described as Navy Model Revolvers and everyone immediately thought that these would be 1851 Navy Revolvers.

Indeed an 1851 Navy did turn up in the ceiling of a Central Otago house in the 1930s and indications are that it was a Gold fields Police one.

12 very special Navy revolvers however were issued to the officers of the Police. These all had ivory handled grips and of course it was assumed that they were also 1851 Navies. It now transpires that they must have been 1861 Colt Navys as two ivory handled 1861 Navy Colts turned up in the North Isloand on a farm at Kinohaku near Kawhia many years ago and are believed to be two fo the original Otago Police ones. To lend credence to this consideration is the fact that these two revolvers have consecutive serial numbers and it would not be amiss to consider that the Otago Police ones would have all been consecutively numbered as well.

The moral of this story is that of the two revolvers photographed below there is an extremely good chance that Sergeant Bevin may have been armed with one as these as they are the two that turned up at Kawhia and are believed to be two fo the twelve Otago ones. Interestingly enough a Colt Revolving Carbine known to be one of the Otago ones was until recently with these revolvers but has since been sold.


This is the 1851 Navy Colt that was found in the ceiling of a Central Otago house in the 1930s - if it could only tell a story. It is very likely a Police revolver as it has traces of an official Enfield Armoury Storekeepers Cartouche on it. This makes it possibly the only New York Navy so marked as all other known ones are Hartford or London guns. This means that it went from the US to Britain, into Government hands and then to NZ. What ever it’s past it is a genuine Otago Goldfields gun.