An extraordinary tale of war-time escape and piracy took place in New Zealand by Count Felix Nikolaus Alexander Georg Graf von Luckner - or The Sea Devil.
It’s the sort of story Hollywood movies are made of.
Von Luckner was born in Dresden on June 9, 1881, part of the aristocracy. But he wanted adventure and at 13, ran away to sea.
His adventures were nearly immediately over, on his first voyage he fell overboard and it was only because the first mate defied the Captain’s order that he was rescued.
In Australia he jumped ship and worked a series of jobs - kangaroo hunter, circus worker, professional boxer, assistant lighthouse keeper and barman. He narrowly escaped outraged fathers, broke his legs, spent time in a Chilean jail for stealing pigs but in the end went back to Germany.
Once there he joined the Imperial German Navy and in January 1912 was on his first ship. By 1916 he took the helm of the Seeadler or Sea Eagle.
In WWI he proved his extraordinary skill and cunning aboard the three masted Seeadler, seeking out and capturing 17 ships in an eight-month-period.
His skill was extraordinary, for all those crews, only one person died. Von Luckner preferred not to kill.
In 1917 the ship was unexpectedly wrecked in a storm and the crew reached Mopelia, an island now known as Maupihaa.
Von Luckner and his crew then rigged a long boat and began an epic open water journey 2000 miles until they came to the Fijian island of Wakaya - the same journey Captain Bligh made after the mutiny of the Bounty 150 years earlier.
There they were arrested and shipped to Auckland arriving on October 7, 1917 to hostile crowds - who believed them to be responsible for the sinking of the cargo steamer Wairuna.
It was later learned that a cruiser called Wolf had sunk it.
Von Luckner was detained at the Devonport naval base and the four seamen shipped off to Wellington’s Somes Island. Von Luckner and another officer Lieutenant Carl Kircheiss there soon sent to Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
Von Luckner recruited a bunch of German ship cadets interned there. They already had an escape plan, which included stolen tools and charts of the Hauraki Gulf.
The initial plan was to steal a boat and go for it but von Luckner went further. He went to the camp commandant and asked permission to organise a Christmas play.
The prisoners made fake bombs and guns and fashioned a German flag out of flour sacks.
Two real pistols with ammo were stolen and a sextant assembled from parts.
They struck on December 13, stealing down to the water and commandeering the island’s motorboat the Pearl.
Von Luckner was dressed as a NZ Army officer, including a sword and scabbard stolen from the camp commandant. The escapees cut the telephone wire to Auckland and lit a fire in the barracks as a diversion.
They then headed for Red Mercury Island where they hid for a few days, while boats were scouring the area looking for them.
But von Luckner wasn’t done - he began to plan piracy. Back to sea they went and he encountered two log scows, the Rangi and the Moa. He chased them in the Pearl. The Rangi escaped and instead he boarded the Moa and raised a German flag making it a vessel of the Imperial German Navy.
Off he set for the Kermadec Islands where the New Zealand Government maintained a cache of provision for shipwrecked sailors, which he plundered.
He tried to sail away but ran across the Iris - an armed cable laying ship. She fired on him as he tried to evade and was he forced to surrender
His next imprisonment was on Ripapa Island together with Kircheiss. Von Luckner dreamed up an escape plan involving getting into a tar barrel and floating in the harbour until rescued, at which point he would steal his rescuer's vessel.
After the war in 1919 he went back to Germany where he was a hero.
Years late, in 1938, he returned to New Zealand with his then wife Countess Ingaborg.
Von Luckner died in Malmö, Sweden at the age of 84 in 1966. However, his body was returned to Germany and was buried in the Main Cemetery Ohlsdorf, Hamburg.
The sextant used in the escape is at Te Papa.
The Wahine disaster needs little introduction. It is still considered one of the most tragic maritime disasters in New Zealand’s history.
Fifty-three people died, 51 immediately, one several weeks later and another much later from ongoing issues from injuries.
Hector Gordon Robertson was the captain of the Wahine on the day of the tragedy - April 10, 1968.
Always called Gordon, he was born February 4, 1911, in Wellington, the second of six children. He married Anne Marie Robertson who was a Canadian passenger on a ship he was working on.
The Wahine was a 8948 ton roll-on roll off passenger ferry, which sailed a regular route between Wellington and Lyttleton. It was the largest ship of its kind in New Zealand at the time. On the evening of April 9, there were 734 passengers and crew aboard for the sailing from Lyttleton to Wellington. New Zealand was in the grips of tropical storm Giselle, which whipped up strong winds and treacherous waves.
At 5.50am the next morning, on April 10, Captain Robertson decided to enter Wellington Harbour. He was a very experienced captain and had made the trip many times before.
But what the captain could not have predicted was the storm front meeting a cold southerly front.
Just as the Wahine entered the narrow funnel to the harbour, the wind increased to 100 knots. A huge wave slammed into the ship, throwing many aboard off their feet.
The Wahine was now side on - and being pushed toward Barrett Reef.
Robertson fought, trying to turn his ship back out into the open sea but with the radar out, the ship reversed into Barrett Reef and knocked the starboard propeller off and the port engine then stopped.
The captain ordered all watertight doors closed and both anchors dropped.
The signal station at Beacon Hill was notified and the crew prepared life saving equipment.
Flooding was causing serious concerns about the stability of the ship, water pouring into the car deck.
By now the Wahine was dragging its anchors and drifting.
The tug Tapuhi had reached the ship, but attempts to secure a line failed.
The Wahine began to list and the order was given to abandon ship, but it wasn’t that easy.
Lifeboats were launched and one was swamped, passengers jumped into the sea.
Rescuers desperate to help stood helplessly on Seatoun’s shore watching as the massive ferry foundered in one of the worst storms ever seen.
Saving them was difficult in huge seas. Two lifeboats ended up in Seatoun with a third in Eastbourne.
Pictures of people being rescued from the sea became part of the national consciousness.
Two hundred made it to shore.
Captain Robertson (and tug pilot Captain Galloway) was the last to leave his sinking ship.
A subsequent inquest said there were errors of judgment aboard and on shore.
Captain Robertson bore the brunt of the blame, but it’s now widely thought there was little he could have done differently.
A Court of Inquiry found no serious omissions or defaults on Robertson's part, but it took a toll on him. He had told the inquiry he had never been in weather that bad before.
Hector Robertson’s quiet resting place at Taita Cemetery tells only that he was the Captain of the Wahine and a solemn little verse “In his duty prompt at every call. He watched and wept and prayed and felt for all.”
So, Fran and I went on an Easter road trip around the Wairarapa looking for stories. A lot of tramping through cemeteries and lots of fantastic finds. We are set to bring you several stories including ones about Tui Brewery, founding families, and murders and accidental deaths that just boggle the mind.
One of the oldest people we have ever discovered in a cemetery was Te Koro Neho Arona.
Mr Arona was born in 1800, nine years before the first European settlers arrived in Russell in the Bay of Islands, and he lived to the truly impressive age of 111. There is very little information about him, as he was born long before records started in New Zealand.
Although his headstone is much faded it reads that Mr Arona was of Ngāti Kaumoana.
At the age of 16 he was christened by the Reverend Samuel Marsden - the man credited with bringing Christianity to New Zealand.
The changes that happened during Mr Arona's life must have been truly astonishing for him. From the 1830s he may have watched settlers arriving on huge sailing ships, and in the 1840s watched settler towns being established in and around Wellington. To put it in perspective, he would have been about 40 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, 45 when Hone Heke chopped down the flag staff in Russell, 67 when Maori men were given the right to vote, 70 when the first game of rugby was played in New Zealand, 86 when Mt Tarawera erupted destroying the Pink and White Terraces, 98 when NZ introduced the old age pension (the first county in the world to do so), 99 when New Zealand troops went off to fight in their first overseas conflict - the Second Boer War in South Africa, 101 when Queen Victoria died and 111 when Amundsen reached the South Pole.
He must have seen so much of his world change.
Mr Arona died at Ouwaka, Lansdowne on October 7, 1911.
While Maori had been in the Wairarapa since the 14th century, Masterton was established in 1845 - and Mr Arona is buried in one of the oldest parts of Masterton’s cemetery in Archer St.
We have much more to come.
During the 1930s in New Zealand, it was not unusual for a newspaper headline to read “Slippery Sam at it again”.
The prolific burglar was often blamed for house break-ins in Auckland and, let's be honest, it is a great name.
But was anyone ever properly identified as the high profile criminal?
Who was Slippery Sam? Was there a group of burglars? One daring man (or woman). Or was it all just a myth?
Police believed all of those at one point or another.
Some of the first headlines from November 1931 saw a burglar active in Dominion Road, Auckland, but police were not sure it was Slippery Sam.
Then in 1932, a store on Karangahape Road was burgled and several pairs of shoes were stolen.
Notes from the burglar, left for police on a desk, read: “Slippery Sam trying a new racket” and “Thanks for the sneakers (canvas shoes) I will be back again.”
After a short period of inactivity, police thought he might be in prison.
Then in 1934 Sam hit several houses in Kingsland getting small amounts of money and making a narrow escape from one house.
Sam is believed to have hit a Grafton Road boarding house and searched three rooms, pocketing a small amount of money while the residents were sleeping. But one resident awoke to find a man standing at the foot of the bed. With an out cry residents chased him off down Moehau Street with three boarders in pyjamas in tow - but he escaped.
At one point Sam burgled six houses in Kingsland in 90 minutes.
Then a series of houses in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, slipping into the houses silently while residents slept, to search for cash.
A man wearing a hat pulled down over his eyes was seen nearby and ran when a woman yelled, making off through the grounds of Sacred Heart College.
At one point in 1934 Sam was even believed to be a she after a milkman saw a woman wandering nearby in the early hours of a morning.
By 1935 Sam was believed to have been a myth - or more than one person.
Any description was vague. The arrest of a man that year was thought to be a breakthrough in the case, but another outbreak of house burglaries occurred while that suspect was in custody.
Several people - believed to be the notorious burglar were caught by the police and imprisoned - only for more burglaries of the same type to happen.
Slippery Sam had a modus operandi. He wore quiet rubber shoes and did not work on Sundays. He often got in to a house then opened a back door to allow him a quick escape and was known to be especially agile.
Then in 1936 a man who newspapers thought might be Slippery Sam ended up in the courts. Victor Royden Curline pleaded guilty to 36 charges of breaking and entering and theft along with possession of an unregistered revolver.
But there was no evidence that Curline was actually Slippery Sam other than the fact he was charged with a lot of burglaries. In a different city. Over a thousand kilometres away.
Curline died in 1970 - and was buried in Dunedin.
And the real identity of Slippery Sam is still unknown
How two con men nearly brought down New Zealand's wartime government.
Sydney Gordon Ross and Charles Alfred Remmers met in prison.
Both had a bunch of convictions to their names and the inmates became firm friends.
Remmers, born in 1888, in Camden Town, Middlesex, England, had at one time been a London police officer, who came to New Zealand in 1912. He signed up for the police here but it did not last long. He was found guilty of committing burglaries while on night shift. He got three year's jail and once he got out he appeared to go straight - until he was caught impersonating a clergyman and committing forgery, ending up with him back in prison.
There he met Ross. Stanley Ross was born in Thames in the Coromandel on February 6, 1909, the son of a blacksmith Charles Ross and his wife Maretta Elizabeth Feiney. Ross went to a local school before the family moved to Otahuhu then to Onehunga.
He left school and worked at a variety of jobs; baker, salesman and labourer.
But by the 1930’s he had 17 convictions for dishonesty offences including fraud.
Ross’s release from prison in March, 1942 was on a Saturday. He had with him an old briefcase, clothes and a train ticket.
By the next day he was standing in the office of Robert Semple, the Minister for National Service, saying he had been in contact with a German agent who had told him there were Nazis in Ngongotahā, near Rotorua.
He spun quite the tale, of sleeper agents and a u-boat on the Bay of Plenty coast and that the plan was to invade New Zealand - all under the leadership of Remmers.
It’s unlikely he would have been believed but for several factors. Worry about the war was everywhere, and by coincidence, Semple had seen secret intelligence from Australia that spy rings were real.
Enter Major Kenneth Folkes, the head of the newly-formed Security Intelligence Bureau. He encouraged Ross to travel the country to report on enemy agents.
Remmers, who had left prison ahead of Ross, was living in Ngongotahā and Ross visited him. After one visit Ross produced a list of conspirators which he said Remmers had given him.
This list included what turned out to be an elderly Native Department clerk, a dry-cleaner and three nurses.
Ross even concocted a story about being captured and tortured by them after he cut his back on a barb-wire fence and reported back that he was hearing about plots to kidnap Semple and Folkes.
There was only one problem. Not a single word of it was true. And a doctor treating his wounds began to wonder.
Instead it was a deliberate plan to dissolve the civil government.
When the Attorney-General at the time began investigating, it all came crashing down ruining Folkes' career.
Neither Ross nor Remmers was ever charged. It was deemed too much of an embarrassment for the Government.
How much was planned by Ross and how much by Remmers is debatable. Remmers hated the government while Ross loved to tell grandiose stories, mostly about himself.
Ross went back to prison then later died in 1946. He is buried in Waikumete Cemetery.
The supposed mastermind, Remmers, died in 1943 and was cremated at Karori Cemetery.
On October 30, 1931, chemist Arthur Blomfield was found bashed and bleeding at the back of Mackay’s Pharmacy in Wellesley Street, Auckland.
It appeared that at about 5pm someone had repeatedly hit the 75-year-old over the head and left him to die.
Shortly after 5pm, a customer walked into the dispensary and was told by a man he thought worked at the pharmacy that Blomfield would be there any minute.
The man then left - disappearing into the crowds on the street.
A few minutes later a shop assistant returned from his dinner break and went to the back of the store. He found Blomfield bleeding and blood spattered around the room.
The till was on the floor and £6 were missing.
Blomfield had 16 wounds to his head and died shortly after being found.
One of the few clues to the murderer's identity was a fish and chip wrapper left in the pharmacy on top of the safe.
There was a nearby fish and chip shop and a woman who worked there said she had sold a pack of fish and chips to a young man not long before the attack on Blomfield.
Both the customer at the pharmacy and the fish and chip shop employee remembered a young man, but a possible identification of Oswald Coulton as the mystery man was made only after he was shot and killed during a bank robbery. (see our previous post).
In fact, the witnesses were taken to the mortuary to view Coutlon's body. Both were unsure but admitted a general resemblance.
Later the woman was shown a picture from the Papakura Football club of Coulton and felt more sure it was him.
But it doesn’t match Blomfield’s final words, which were: “Go away George, don’t do it.” Who was George? No one knows.
No drugs were taken and the description of the killer was of a man aged about 22 to 23 years - about 1.8 metres tall, with short, wavy, dark hair, which could have fit a lot of men - including Coulton. The witnesses also described a blue coat but there was none found among Coulton’s effects.
Despite the best efforts of the police, including offering a reward, no one has ever been charged with Blomfield’s murder.
Blomfield is buried in Purewa Cemetery.
Oswald Laurence Coulton lived a short life, dying before the age of 30 when he was shot trying to rob a Remuera bank.
But was he also guilty of murder?
Coulton was born in 1909 in Tamworth, New South Wales, to a reasonably well-off family - but even with his financial advantages he wasn’t happy.
He had delusions of fame, particularly as a writer or an airman. He started training to be a pilot, but his family had been unable to continue to pay for the lessons.
Then he ended up in prison in 1929 for forgery and uttering (actually using the forgery), serving two years. After his release he came to New Zealand.
For 14 months in 1930 and 31 Coulton worked on a Papakura farm. He was also a member of the Papakura League football team, but by the time of the bank robbery in November 1931 he was unemployed.
But Coulton had not given up his dreams of fame - he wrote a letter to the New Zealand Press Association in January saying he proposed an attempt to beat the record flight time between England and New Zealand and was trying to raise £2000 to do it.
Then on November 25, 1931, out of nowhere, Coulton walked into the Remuera branch of the Bank of New Zealand and presented the manager Fred Youngs with a note - he wanted £250 to go to another account. The note gave a fake name and address.
When Mr Youngs bent over to read the letter, Coulton hit him with a sandbag in which there was a fire brush.
But Mr Youngs was a stalwart chap, he grabbed a loaded revolver and yelled "Stop Thief". Youngs had been a sniper during WWI - exactly the type of man Coulton did not want to encounter.
Coulton ran but Mr Youngs was quicker, he shot Coulton in the back. Coulton died shortly after.
Police searching Coulton’s home found a fake airman’s certificate. They also discovered he had been trying to get a film script, entitled Scotland Yard and the Underworld, accepted for production - ironically it was about a bank robbery.
But what prompted him to actually try a bank robbery is unknown.
The search of his room also uncovered a motor jack. It was just the type of weapon police had been looking for in the murder of chemist Arthur Blomfield, who had been found bludgeoned to death behind his Auckland shop a month before.
The find saw Coulton become a prime suspect in his murder.
A witness, who saw a man believed to be the murderer, in a nearby fish and chip shop before Blomfield's killing, could not positively identify Coulton.
But nothing ever came of it, there was not enough evidence to connect Coulton to the crime.
Coulton was buried in the Papakura Cemetery while Mr Youngs is in Waikumete.
The murder of Arthur Blomfield has never been solved.
Finding out who someone is after death - and especially after many years - is part detective work and part guess work.
You might have to take a leap of faith or you might get lucky. At Genealogy Investigations we are constantly surprised at how little things add up. This is a great story of how doing just that led to the discovery of who an earthquake victim was.
Sister Ignatious died in the collapse of a building at the St Joseph’s convent in Hawke’s Bay’s 1931 earthquake but no one knew who she really was.
Initially only identified by the name she took on joining the Catholic religious order, little was known about her other than her father was a farmer in Dannevirke called Mr Walsh.
In 2016 Ancestry began a project using every scrap of archives, records and previous research done to look at who the earthquake victims were.
Detective work by the Ancestry project bringing together genealogists and historians uncovered a local girl whose parents were settlers in Hawke’s Bay.
They found Sister Ignatious’ name but not who she was.
With just two small pieces of information - a last name and a location they began the hunt.
A Barbara Walsh, buried in the Dannevirke Settler’s Cemetery, was a possible clue.
They used a technique we also use. Sometimes you have to go back before going forward.
Barbara Walsh was born Barbara Lumsden Pratt in 1851 in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland to James and Isabella Pratt.
By 1901, records showed she married James Walsh in St Patrick’s Church in Masterton and in 1907, on January 15, she had a daughter Mary Deeley Walsh.
Sadly, just two years later Barbara died, leaving her young daughter and husband.
Researchers scoured records but could find nothing to suggest Mary Walsh ever married or died.
With few public records to go on, they reached out to the Catholic Archives who referred them to the Religious Order of Our Lady of the Missions who usually undertook to educate women and children around the world.
It had been four Mission sisters who arrived in Napier to begin the Mission’s work in New Zealand.
They did know about Sister Ignatious but little about Mary Walsh herself. Crucially they knew her date of birth - January 15, 1907 matching rural girl Mary Walsh - with Sister Ignatious.
She is buried in the Taradale Cemetery under the name Mary Ignatious Walsh.
Her father, who survived her by seven years, is buried in Mangatera cemetery.
A floating suitcase might not have been cause for concern, but the headless and legless torso inside was.
The suitcase was found underneath Picton's wharf on May 7, 1938 and investigating officer Detective Sergeant Bill McLennan must have expected the worst. He could see part of a hand sticking out.
Stuffed inside was the torso of a man. There was an unemployment levy book in his coat pocket, revealing him to be Edwin Norman Armstrong from Wellington.
How did his dismembered body come to be in a suitcase in Picton?
Within days a second suitcase, with a head and legs in it, was found on the seabed.
People at the time remembered Mr Armstrong as a man who abused his wife, drank and treated his family terribly, swore and did not like to work.
He was not well liked and, as it turned out, he was hated even more by his son Douglas who saw the ruin of the family in his father’s behaviour.
Mr Armstrong had been in Australia for about seven months but moved back into the family home in Wellington two months before his death and the family, including youngest son William, found him difficult to live with.
Douglas was especially close to his mother, Mary Robb Armstrong, and when he had finally had enough he confronted his father, trying to give him money to leave.
In a later statement to police, Douglas said he started in on his father with his fists and “think I went berserk”.
He cut up the body, put it in two suitcases, took a taxi to the ferry Tamahine and left for Picton.
In his book No Remedy for Death pathologist at the time Dr Philip Patrick Lynch said “At Picton it was raining and dark. Douglas later told police 'I got off the boat with my suitcases and went down towards the stern of the ship after walking towards the end of the wharf. I heaved the suitcases into the water'.”
But the police did not know this when they went to Mr Amstrong’s Hinau Road home. Instead, Mrs Armstrong astonished them when she told them that not only was her husband missing, but her eldest son was too.
Douglas had left his mother a note saying he was going to Auckland, but a taxi driver told police he took a young man to the ferry early that morning. He had two heavy bags with him and when the driver asked Douglas what it was, he said, “venison meat”.
Examination of the house revealed blood stains and a tenon saw with meat clinging to its teeth.
The first news of Douglas was in a private letter to his mother confessing all and asking her to meet him privately which she did.
A week later he was caught in Auckland about to board a train to Wellington. He initially gave the police the name Dave Lyon but quickly came clean. He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His mother stood with him throughout the trial but sadly died before her son left prison. Douglas left New Zealand when he was released.
However, it was not the end of Mr Armstrong’s story. He was not buried for many years. Instead, his remains stayed in the care of the police museum to be used for training purposes.
But in 2015 the museum decided the remains should be properly and respectfully interred. A special ceremony and memorial plaques were put up for Edwin Armstrong at Karori cemetery.
A lot of Hawke’s Bay looks the way it does because of one man.
Streets, the waterfront, railway lines and drainage were all under the overview of Charles - or Carl - Hermann Weber, a noted surveyor who mysteriously died while out surveying land.
The tiny Central Hawke’s Bay town of Weber was named after him along with a street in Woodville. Weber township, some 28 kilometres south-east of Dannevirke, was founded as an overnight stop for coach teams heading for the coast. It had once been a thriving little town.
Weber also had a little cemetery - now just a memorial. Charles Weber is, however, not buried in his namesake town.
Weber was born on August 28, 1822 in the town of Fulda in Germany to Ludwig Christian Weber and Maria Franzisca Ruperti along with five brothers and three sisters.
One of his brothers was noted English doctor Sir Hermann Weber.
He served in the Army and attained the rank of Captain of Engineers. But in 1848, after he refused to fire on people during a revolution, he was cashiered.
He fled to the United States of America and there he was one of a party, under the leadership of General John Fremont, which helped lay the transcontinental railway from New York between 1846 and 1853.
Weber moved on to the romantic-sounding South Seas Islands, which we now call the Pacific Islands, as part of the sandalwood and beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) trade.
Next he spent time in South America before moving on to Australia where he bought a large cattle run but he was forced to give it up when gold fever struck and he was unable to keep farm hands.
In Melbourne he met and married Ellen Powell Drewe.
It was in Sydney that he took tests to become a surveyor and was lured to New Zealand in 1860 by the founding of a new province - Hawke’s Bay - to be the chief surveyor.
In 1866 he became the Provincial Engineer of Hawke’s Bay, a position he held for five years before joining the Public Works department employed in the preliminary survey of the Manawatu railway line.
It was Weber who supervised the construction of the Napier breakwater, advised on massive drainage projects and on the development of Napier Harbour. He was also involved in the planning of the train and road through the Manawatū Gorge.
After a time in private practice he retired, but continued to take an interest in the nearby town of Woodville.
In 1886 Weber headed out to look at some land near Mangatainoka. He was last seen on the coach near Pahiatua. He went into the bush and disappeared. Searches were mounted and rewards offered but it would be three years before his body was found by bush fellers near Makakahi. An inquest returned the finding that he became lost and died of exposure.
Weber is buried at the Old Napier Cemetery with other members of his family including one of his sons, Ernest who died after being accidently shot while a cadet clerk with the railways by another clerk playing with a loaded gun.