New Zealand's last execution

18 February 1957

Headline about Beatrice Bolton (Alexander Turnbull Library, Eph-D-NEWSPAPER-NZ-TRUTH-1956-01)

Walter Bolton, a 68-year-old Whanganui farmer, became the last person executed in New Zealand. Convicted for the murder of his wife, Beatrice, he was hanged at Mt Eden prison following a controversial trial.

Beatrice’s tea had contained traces of arsenic, and, over the best part of a year, she had consumed enough to kill her. Investigators found traces of arsenic in water on the Boltons’ farm and in Walter and one of his daughters. The defence argued that sheep dip had accidentally contaminated the farm’s water supply.

The idea that Beatrice’s death was a result of accidental poisoning lost credibility after Bolton admitted to an affair with his wife’s sister, Florence. The jury returned with a verdict of guilty.

A newspaper story later claimed that Bolton’s execution had gone horribly wrong. Rather than having his neck broken instantly, he had allegedly suffocated slowly. The botched execution and lingering doubts over Bolton’s guilt fuelled debate surrounding the use of capital punishment in New Zealand. Parliament eventually abolished the death penalty for murder in 1961.