There were clear signs that something was not right with Duncan Munro right up to the moment he bashed in the heads of his family with a flat iron. Sadly, the signs were missed or ignored
It was the milkman who, while doing his early morning deliveries on February 10, 1892, found Munro’s wife Grace and his four children lying in pools of blood in their Tauranga home. Only one survived.
Munro was born in Australia in 1861 and as a young child his parents James and Jane Munro (nee McPhail) moved their family to New Zealand. James Munro died in 1865 in the Waikato. In 1866, Jane, now a widow with four children, quickly remarried to James Bodell a recently discharged Waikato militiaman, with a reputation for being a tough, heavy drinker. (Bodell would in 1888 become the Mayor of Tauranga).
Munro began to exhibit signs of severe mental health problems from a young age and these grew worse as he grew older. He suffered from bouts of religious mania. In 1885 he became engaged to Grace Freeman. According to news reports, Grace was warned by friends and family to hold off on the marriage for a year to see if Munro’s mental state would improve. She ignored the warnings and on March 10 that year the couple married.
Eleven months later their first child, George was born, followed a year later by their second child, John, then two years after that a third son, James Alexander, was added to the family.
Soon after James Alexander’s birth Duncan had a fit of mania which was witnessed by a nurse who was looking after Grace. She said Duncan smashed a clock, because it offended him, and then tried to smash a kerosene lamp over the baby’s head to anoint it with oil. The nurse complained to police and in July 1889, he was sent to Whau Lunatic Asylum in Auckland for treatment.
After six months of confinement, Munro’s mother Jane arranged for his release from Whau, promising that she and his younger brother Peter would care for him. Munro returned to Tauranga to his wife and children and all seemed to be going well for a while, but then the fits returned. He was kept locked in the house until they subsided.
In 1891 a daughter, Lilly, was added to the family.
Munro’s bouts of madness continued and he was moved to the back bedroom of the house where he was locked away at night.
The day of the tragedy, February 9, Munro was found in the school grounds suffering from another bout of religious mania. He was taken to his mother’s house and, after he appeared to recover, his mother and brother took him home to his own house. They left him there, his mother waiting on the other side of the road to make sure all was quiet. Grace locked Munro in his back bedroom.
About 7am the following day the milkman saw Munro on the beach behind the house wearing only a nightshirt and heading out into the waves. Fearing the worst he went into the house and discovered a scene of absolute horror.
Authorities were alerted and found Grace and George lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen, James Alexander was in his cot in the front room covered in blood and Lilly and John were lying on the double bed. All had massive injuries to their heads, inflicted with a cast iron flat iron. All were still alive, but within hours, John, George and Lilly died.
By the following day accusations of blame were flying. An inquest on the three children found that Munro had wilfully murdered his three little ones. The inquest jury took the unusual step of including a rider blaming his mother and brother for the tragedy. They said Munro “should not have been discharged from the asylum and that since his discharge proper precautions have not been taken by his family or the present calamity would not have happened”. The jury had a clear view of Munro’s condition as part way through the inquest he had to be forcefully removed when he started singing hymns.
Munro was taken to Auckland and readmitted to the asylum. The following day, February 14, Grace died. This time the inquest jury urged that the Government should hold an enquiry to determine how Munro came to be released. Possibly anticipating such an inquiry, Dr Moir, Munro’s former doctor, spoke to the NZ Herald saying he had warned the family of the dangers and said he had also seen them tie him down with ropes during a bout of mania.
On March 9, Munro was sent to trial for the murders, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent back to the asylum where he died on October 27, 1904. He is buried in the Presbyterian section of Waikumete Cemetery, Auckland. Grace, George, John and Lillian are buried in Tauranga Cemetery in the Bodell family plot. They have no headstone to mark their deaths.
Remarkably, little James Alexander recovered from his injuries.
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