Tuesday, 15 August 2017

"A shocking tragedy" - Agatha and Ellen McPhee

In the Southern Cemetery can be found many stories of suffering and disaster...if you know where to look.  This story took place at the All Nations Hotel, on the main street of Caversham.  Charles Dickens would have made a novel from it.

"The quiet town of Caversham was this morning the scene of a tragedy so horrible that the bare thought of it almost makes one's blood run cold." reported the ODT on May First, 1871.  Agatha McPhee was a well-respected wife and mother, married to the All Nations hotelier.  What could make such a woman kill her four year old daughter and then herself?

It was about 7am when the hotelier, Donald, was told by one of his daughters that her mother and sister were lying dead in a pool of blood in their room.  Donald rushed to the scene and found his youngest daughter almost beheaded and his wife with her throat cut.  Agatha, however, was still alive. The weapon was an eighteen inch butcher's knife.

A doctor was hastily summoned who recognised that no arteries had been cut and sewed up the wound.  Agatha McPhee seemed to improve but died soon after.  Before she died she was able to make a statement which explained her actions.

Mrs McPhee's husband Donald was in a contracting partnership with a man named Peter Kane who had spent the night in the All Nations while Donald was away.  During the night, Kane had sexually assaulted her.  When Agatha told her husband, he threatened Kane with the law.  Kane replied with "statements damaging to Mrs McPhee's moral character."

Donald McPhee made it clear to his wife that he would lay a complaint against Kane and that she would be required to give evidence in court.  This was too much for Agatha to bear.  The shame of baring all in court and the moral insinuations of a defence cross-examination was too much for her to contemplate.  There was only one way out for poor Agatha.


Dr Hocken, City coroner, held an inquiry to day, at the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, Caversham, touching the death of Agatha McPhee, aged 35 years, and Ellen Margaret McPhee, aged 4 years. Mr Feger was foreman of the jury, and Mr Barton watched the proceedings on behalf of Peter Kane, who was present in custody. 

The following evidence was given: Mary McPhee, aged nine years: Deceased was my mother. Yesterday morning, about half-past seven, whilst dressing m my bedroom upstairs, I heard a noise something like a cock crowing, proceeding from downstairs. I went down, and in mother’s room I saw her lying on the floor with her throat cut, and beneath her lay my sister Nelly, with her throat cut too, and close to a pool of blood. I asked mother who killed Nelly, and she pointed to her chest, meaning herself. I ran away and told father. On Sunday night, when I went to bed at nine o’clock, I heard mother and father talking in a low tone, I heard father tell her he would take it to Court. Father was crying. Mother and father were both up before me yesterday.

Mary McNair: I reside at Caversham, close to the deceased’s. A neighbour of mine called me yesterday and told me Mrs. McPhee and her child were dead, and asked me to go to their house. On going there, I went into the room in which she lying. She waved her hand to me to come in, but did not speak. She was lying with her head on her little girl, who was quite motionless. There were the carving-knife and steel produced close by her. Two other women were helping to bind up her throat. I remained in the house during the whole of that day. She did not speak until ten o’clock in the morning. She asked the time and I told her; it was half past ten. She asked if she could live until “that man” came. I asked who was the man, and she replied, “Peter Kane.” I asked her if she had anything to say to him, she said, "No; not to him. I only wanted to satisfy Mr. McPhee that I was innocent.’’ She then asked if Mr. McPhee had “forgiven her” — I understood her to mean for cutting her throat — “and she hoped the Lord would forgive her.” She seemed perfectly rational; but did not speak much until Sergt. Thompson came in and took some evidence. Towards evening, when I lighted the candle, she again spoke very rationally. She then asked me if I had laid Nelly out. I replied, “Yes.” She said, “Where have you laid her out?” and I told her just in there where it was done. I told her I went into Mrs Lucas’s opposite, and got a little nightgown for the child, and asked her if I had done right. She said, “Oh, yes.” I said to her, “You have a good mind of what you did this morning,” and she said, “Of course I have.” I said, “Did you know you were going to do this last night?” She said, “Yes, I have been thinking of doing it since last Wednesday.” I asked her for what reason she had been thinking over this since Wednesday. She replied that she intended to tell her husband about the circumstance with Kane, and if he did not take it well she would do what she had done. She said she had intended to take her two children with her, as they would be no bother and out of the way; because if he did not take it well she could not look him in the face again. She said she had not time to take the baby; her husband did not take it very well, crying as he then was. She made up her mind on Saturday to do what she had done, because her husband took the affair so badly. I asked her whether she followed her little girl Nelly into the bedroom or took her by the hand when she went to do what she did? She said she lifted her in her arms. She said little Nelly said, “Where are you going to take me, mamma?” and that she replied, “I am gong to send you to heaven.” I asked her how she did it; and she said, "I laid her across the bed; she cried out a little, but it was soon over.” I asked her the reason why she picked upon Nelly first. She said, “Ever since Wednesday Nelly always asked to go along with me. I thought I would take her first, and baby next.” I said, “Mrs McPhee, do you mean to tell me you were in your proper senses when you did this?” She replied, “Yes, of course I was.” I asked her if she was sorry for what she had done; but she made no reply beyond “Nelly is in heaven; she is all right!” During the day some other person asked her if she was not sorry for what she had done, and she merely replied, “It is too late now.” I have known her intimately for about two years. She never showed the slightest tendency to insanity, or appeared low-spirited, and was a temperate, sober woman. She also said that no person should look down on Mr McPhee or the children for what she had done, because none of them had any hand in it. She died about half-past four o’clock this morning. 

John Swan, laborer, Green Island: On Saturday afternoon last I came into town, calling at Mrs McPhee’s on my way. She invited me to stop to tea, and after it was over, and when she had got the children out of the way, she commenced to tell me what had happened with Peter Kane, whom I knew to be her husband’s partner. She told me that Kane came in from the Peninsula on the previous Tuesday. After some money transactions had taken place between them, she borrowing some money from him, he (Kane) did something in the house, which she passed by, thinking that he would not dare to dishonor her; that towards evening he got somewhat tipsy, and she insisted on him going to bed, but he would not. She told the children to lock their rooms. Some time in the night, she said she was awoke by some one touching her feet. She exclaimed “who’s that;" when Kane said, “Hush! it’s only me — do not make a noise.” At the same time she said she believed she heard footsteps outside the house, as if some person were listening. She said she got more alarmed at that than at what was happening. She told him to leave the room, but he would not. He caught hold of her by the breast and arms, while she resisted, and ultimately escaped out of the room. She then got bold of a carving-knife and steel, with a view of using them if he persisted in his attempt. She went into the dining-room, and cautioned him to go to bed. He refused unless he got drink, which she gave him to pacify him. After this she heard her neighbor’s little girl — Mary Blackwood, who was sleeping with her child Mary — cry out. and she went to see what was the matter with her. She asked my advice as to whether she should tell her husband, and I advised her to do so at once. I have known her some time, and have been on friendly terms with her. She appeared very much agitated, and was scarcely able to speak, and the subject seemed a very painful one to her. She also said Kane called her foul names — a prostitute, &c. — and said “he would fetch Sparks from the N.E. Harbour to her;" and that he alleged Sparks had criminal intercourse with her. I left her in a very grievous state: but did not think she contemplated doing anything to herself. She saw she was apprehensive her neighbours had heard her contest with Kane, and that there would probably be scandal about her; that appeared to affect her more than what happened; and she was apprehensive her husband would do something dangerous. I told her she must tell her husband under any circumstances. 

James Anderson, police constable: I was called in to see the deceased on Monday morning. When I entered her bedroom she was writing: “Mrs Hagerty, send for my sister. I have been going since I left the Catholic Church. I wish to live till I see the man who took such advantage of me last Tuesday night. Send for him before you move me,” After I came in she wrote: “Mary Blackwood, I want her and my own Mary when Kane comes for satisfaction for my husband.” She afterwards wrote this to me when she saw Mr Thomson, J.P, “What can you do with me until the man that took advantage of me will come.” The following is her deposition, taken before Mr Thomson: — “I, Mrs Donald McPhee, make this deposition, believing I am on the point of death. I cut my own throat. I did it because of sin and shame. I also killed the child Agatha McPhee.”

Dr Hammond: I was called in to see the deceased yesterday morning, about eight o’clock. On my arrival, I found her lying against a chest with her throat cut; she was partly supported by a neighbor. I had her lifted into the next room. The child was lying dead on the floor; its head almost severed from the body. Death must have been instantaneous. There were two gashes — one not sufficient to cause death, the second extended right across the neck, severing the windpipe, main veins, and spinal bone. With the woman none of the main arteries were severed. I did all that was necessary, At half past 2 p.m., when I again visited her, she was somewhat stronger, and seemed very rational. I was informed in the evening that she had got up off the sofa, scared the nurse, and had tried to get at her neck. I went out and put a straight jacket on her. She died this morning; her death was caused by exhaustion following a self-inflicted cut throat. It was possible she suffered a great mental blow; and at the time she committed the act, it was quite possible her mind was unhinged. 

The Coroner pointed out to the jury that their great duty was to determine whether the deceased Agatha McPhee was sane or insane when she destroyed her own life and that of her child. He had carefully taken a good deal of evidence so as to enable them to judge, so far as was possible, whether she was suffering from mental excitement of any kind sufficient, as Dr. Hammond believed, to have turned her brain. Did they think such was the case? Several of the witnesses stated she was an intelligent woman and never gave the least signs of insanity; but, on the other hand it was such a terrible deed it could hardly be believed she did it in her sane mind. She had no hatred towards her child: on the contrary she loved it very much. She had been subjected to very great mental excitement, and her mind had been greatly taxed by the occurrence of the previous Tuesday. It was, therefore, very probable, that she inflicted those wounds during violent phrenzy, which would account for them.

The jury, after a short retirement, returned a verdict to the effect that “Agatha McPhee killed herself and her child while laboring under temporary insanity.”  -Evening Star, 2/5/1871.

There was more tragedy to come for Donald McPhee.


This Day. (Before His Worship the Mayor and John Gillies, Esq., R. M.) 


Peter Kane was charged, on the information of Donald McPhee, with having, at Caversham, on the 20th ult., assaulted one Agatha McPhee with intent, &c. 

Sergeant Thompson, in stating the circumstances of the case, said the husband of the deceased woman was most anxious to prosecute the case. The proceedings were undertaken entirely at his request, and it would be necessary to ask for a remand. 

Mr Barton said he appeared for the accused, and, if his instructions were correct, the case was one of most extraordinary lunacy. The accused was, and always had been, a very respectable man, and, as their Worships were no doubt aware, was a partner of the prosecutor. He (Mr Barton) could not blame Mr McPhee for the action he had taken, if he gave credence to the deceased’s statements. But it would be hardly fair to his client if he were to allow the remand without making some statement of certain circumstances, the truth of which could be ascertained. He thought their Worships, after earing these circumstances, would come to the conclusion that there must have been some hallucination on the part of the deceased. Kane had always conducted himself well before, and the parties were friendly. The All Nations Hotel was in a thick neighborhood, and if there had been any altercation or noise, as Mrs McPhee alleged to have taken place on the 25th ult., it must have been heard outside. The circumstances he was about to relate were true, and, if authenticated by the police, would, he thought, have considerable weight with their Worships. Although the offence with which Kane was charged took place on the 25th, on the Thursday following Mrs McPhee came into town, and purchased amongst other things a shirt, which Kane now wears, and presented it to him. On the same day she left him in charge of her bar, and on the day following gave him two mattrasses - one for her husband, and the other for himself — to take to the Peninsula. If he had attempted to violate her on the previous Tuesday, it was very unlikely that she would have done those things, or allowed him to take charge of her house. The learned counsel then proceeded to comment at length on the evidence taken yesterday at the coroner’s inquiry, and pointed out the discrepancies in the various statements made by the deceased. Her last written statement he referred to more particularly. “On Tuesday night,” she said, “I went bed frightened about Kane using such bad —. About half-past two I felt something feeling at legs. Thought it was a rat” — according to her statement to her friend Swain she knew it was Kane — “I shoved my foot and jumped out of bed. He up to me and took me under the two arms and wanted me to lay with as he done it to me already. I opened my bedroom window and made as much noise” — this was directly in opposition to what she told Swain; to him she merely said she resisted Kane, and ultimately got away from him, and that thinking some neighbor had been listening she got frightened — "I got and struck a match and got steel and he said he not molest; to go to my bed. No sooner I was in bed about half an hour he was there again and turned him out and went to his bed. Shortly after that I heard the girls singing out.” It was terrible that his client’s life and character should be blasted by this matter. He assured him (Mr Barton) most positively that the whole matter was an hallucination; that he neither directly nor indirectly attempted any harm to the deceased. He thought when the facts were properly investigated, the Bench and the public would come to the conclusion that it was a painful and unfortunate case of insanity. The present charge must fail; and, at the most, it could only resolve itself into one of indecent assault; so that the accused might be admitted to bail on his own recognisance.

The accused was remanded until Saturday, bail being allowed, himself in a surety of L40 and two sureties of L20 each.  -Evening Star, 3/5/1871.



Sir — However painful it may be to me to appear in your columns under the distressing circumstances, yet, in justice to my unfortunate and deceased wife, I must beg to contradict the statement made in your paper with  regard to the evidence given by me at the Coroner's Inquest; my there stating that my wife had confessed to me before death that the man Peter Kane had accomplished his desire by violating her. This statement, made in your paper, I must beg to most emphatically deny, as myself and everyone who had the opportunity of hearing any and every conversation that may have occurred between myself and her after the lamentable occurrence, before death, will most heartily concur with me in saying that she most steadfastly denied any criminality on her part, but that the man Peter Kane had said so. 

Trusting you will forgive my correcting your report at the inquest, and bear with me under the painful circumstances in which I  am placed — I am &c, DONALD McPHEE    -Otago Daily Times, 6/5/1871.


This Day, (Before his Worship the Mayor.) 


Peter Kane was again brought up on a charge of having at Caversham, on the 25tli ult., assaulted one Agatha McPhee, now deceased, with intent, &c. Mr Barton defended. Sergeant Thompson stated that since the accused was last brought up he had caused enquiries to be made, which proved that Mr Barton’s statements were correct. The deceased on the day after the commission of the alleged offence placed the accused in charge of her bar, made him a present of a shirt, and gave him the two mattrasses referred to. He might state that Mr McPhee had engaged the services of Mr Haggitt to conduct the prosecution, but he declined to prosecute. He (the sergeant) had no evidence to offer; but if Mr McPhee, as a private individual, desired to go on with the matter, he would have no objection to examine any witnesses he might have, but, for his own part, he did not think it right to take up the time of the Court in proceeding in the absence of evidence.

On Mr McPhee being called into Court, His Worship addressed him as follows: It has been stated that your counsel is not in attendance, and that he declines to prosecute. The police also say that on examination of the evidence they have no case against the accused, and they do not prosecute. It now remains with you to say whether you wish to proceed with the case or not. 

Mr McPhee: Yes, I do.

Mr Barton said he would certainly press upon Mr McPhee the utility of proceeding with the case, seeing that no evidence could be received, the accused not having been present when the deceased’s statements were made. Besides, there was Mr McPhee’s statement in the Daily Times this morning, denying that his wife ever told him that she had been violated, as reported in that paper’s report of the Coroner’s inquest, which took away the only ground for these proceedings. There was no evidence which could possibly be produced against the accused; and the only one of the deceased’s statements that could be received in evidence did not relate in the remotest degree to the charge. He could understand the feelings under which Mr McPhee at present labored; but be felt sure that when in the course of time his mind calmed down, he would arrive at the conclusion that the present was not a solitary instance of strange hallucination attended with sad results. He should ask Mr McPhee not to attempt to bring forward this matter again. If he had to give evidence, he (Mr Barton) should have the very painful task of cross-examining him. He commiserated and felt for him; and had no doubt his client felt equally grieved and sorry that he should feel (naturally no doubt) his present ill-feeling towards him. Under all the circumstances he (Mr Barton) hoped the matter would be stopped where it was. 

His Worship: I feel bound to say I endorse all what Mr. Barton has said. I do not think any evidence that can be given in this matter will tend to fix any charge upon the accused. I would really counsel you, as an act of kindness, to stop the case where it is now. Of course, if you wish to proceed, I cannot stop you, and should not use the power to do so if I had it. What Mr. Barton has said is quite true; the only evidence you can give is of a secondary kind, all the statements by the deceased having been made in the absence of the accused, and such evidence, it is my duty to tell you, would be objected to by the accused’s counsel and rejected by the Bench. It is now entirely for you to say whether you will proceed with the Case or not. I shall not be considered prejudging it if I tell you you cannot possibly succeed with the case. 

Mr. McPhee having expressed his desire to go on with the case, the following evidence was adduced. 

Wm. Swain: The deceased made a complaint to me.

Albert Barnes: I am a butcher, residing at Caversham, I recollect seeing the accused at my shop on the evening of the 26th ult, I was at the All Nations Hotel with him the same evening; we were supplied with some drink by Mrs. McPhee. She and accused then appeared to be on friendly terms. I again saw him the next evening at my shop. He told me not to send any more meat for him down "to the contract job, at which he and Mr. McPhee were working, as he was not going to work there any more.” I said to him “do you think McPhee will have a row with you because you have been on the spree?" He replied "Oh, a glass of grog is nothing; it's not that at all.” A little later in the evening, he asked me to go with him to the All Nations and have a drink. He gave me a shilling, and said “I was to pay for the liquor; as Mrs. McPhee would not serve him." We went into the bar; Mrs. McPhee was there. When I asked Kane what he would have to drink, he nodded to her, and she said “Oh, water is good enough for him.” at the same time placing the bottle of gin before him. I observed that there was a coolness between them.

William Simpson, butcher, Caversham: I know the accused. He came to my shop at about eight o’clock on the morning of the 26th ult. He appeared to have been drinking. He asked me to put on my hat, and come and have a drink — which I did, after some persuasion. I asked where we should go to have it. He replied, “We’ll go up to the Edinburgh Castle Hotel.” I expressed surprise at his going to the Edinburgh Castle instead of the All Nations, where he was boarding, saying, “Peter, what’s up?” He replied, “Oh, I drunk her out last night.” meaning, as I understood him, that he had exhausted her supply of gin, which he usually drank. When in the bar of the Edinburgh Castle Hotel he drew my attention to the street, and said, “Do you see the bitch?” I looked out and saw Mrs McPhee standing outside her door; but I cannot say whether he referred to her. He appeared to be in the “horrors” — as though he had been drinking all night. 

Mary Blackwood: I am a servant, and reside at Caversham. I knew the deceased; and saw the accused at the All Nations Hotel, where I was stopping. I recollect the 25th ult. I observed the handle of the dining-room door on that day; it was all right. I slept with Mary Ann McPhee in one of the rooms upstairs. I was awoke during the night, and heard a step as of a man walking through the house. I heard voices —those of Mrs McPhee and Kane, I heard her say, “Take a candle, and go upstairs.” I believe it was Kane, because he slept in one of the rooms upstairs, and there was no one in the house but the children. She did not seem to be a bit cross in any way. I heard a voice say, “I will not go to bed unless I get something to drink.” That voice was Kane’s. I heard nothing more. I locked my door when I went to bed on Tuesday night; but when I woke on the morning of the 26th, I found it was open. Accused went away on the Wednesday evening, and returned on Thursday morning. The accused and she were on friendly terms. Mrs McPhee went into town on Thursday, leaving Kane in charge of the house. She merely told me if the baby cried I was to give it food. I asked her who was to mind the bar. She replied that “Peter would mind it all right.” She returned about four in the afternoon, and brought Kane a shirt, which she gave to him. On the same night she told me to get tea for Peter and herself, and afterwards sent him to assist her daughter Mary Ann in obtaining two mattrasses. He left at about five or six, taking the deceased’s son with him. I was in the house from the Wednesday morning until the accused left on Thursday night, and did not observe any coolness between her and him.

Henry Sparkes was called, and made the following statement: I went down with Mr McPhee and Kane to their contract on the Peninsula, and have been working there ever since. Kane, before coming up to Caversham the last time, asked me if I had had any connection with the deceased. I said “ No, that I did not believe she was a woman of that sort; and that neither him nor any one man would succeed in such a thing.” He then said he believed himself she was not a woman of that sort. 

This being all the evidence, 

His Worship said: It is almost unnecessary for me to say that there is not, in my opinion, the slightest particle of evidence to prove the accused guilty of the offence with which he is charged. There does not appear to be the most remote evidence; I have nothing to do except to discharge the accused.   -Evening Star, 6/5/1871.

Caversham, 9th May, 1871, GENTLEMEN — I received your letter expressing sympathy with me in the very severe calamity that has befallen me, and for which I feel very grateful. Such kindness to a man under suffering like mine greatly helps to bear him up and encourage him.

Again thanking you, and wishing your Society prosperity, 

I remain, Your obedient servant, 


To the President and Members of the Mutual Improvement Society, Caversham.   -Otago Daily Times, 10/5/1871.

Later in the year of 1871 the All Nations Hotel was offered for sale or lease - it seems that Donald McPhee had declared bankruptcy, the first and final payment being 7d to the pound.  It was taken up by a Mr Woodland who changed the name to the Railway Hotel and applied for a license.  He had considerably improved it, he claimed.  The Magistrate responded that it should be, because when he visited the house on the occasion of a recent tragedy, it was one of the most miserable, dirty, filthy places he had seen since he had been in the colony, and that was saying a good deal.  (ODT, 20/11/71)  The application for a licence was refused.

With this, the McPhees fade from the story.  Donald died in 1878 - very close to the anniversary of Agatha's tragic act - and was buried beside his murdered daughter, Elle. His occupation is described in his will as "sawmiller."  Agatha was buried in the same grave but not - at least, according to DCC records - until 1880.  Perhaps the reason for the delay was due to the old Catholic custom of denying burial in consecrated ground to suicides.

Peter Kane lived to reach a century's life and is buried in the Waikouaiti Cemetery.  The ODT described him as "an able exponent of the gospel of work."

Southern Cemetery, Dunedin.

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