Shot in the back.
On February 26, 1904, tree felling contractor Leonard Reeves Collinson did what he had done hundreds of times before. He sat down in a bush clearing to smoke his pipe.
Only this time he did not get up. Instead, his body was found, shot from behind from a distance of about 12 metres. The bullet had destroyed Collinson’s heart and exited out of his chest. His box of matches and unsmoked pipe were lying nearby.
Collinson was not born into the life of being a bushman. In fact, his parents appeared to have had much greater plans for him. Collinson was born in Islington, London in 1863, to John and Julia Collinson. As a teenager, Leonard was given the job of working as an assistant to his father who was receiving officer for the Great Northern Railway. It appears he was intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and take over the well-paying position in due course. However, in 1884, at the aged of 21, Collinson got himself into trouble with the law after he fraudulently obtained two bales of silk and a quantity of tea from the Midlands Railway Company. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in Wandsworth prison. According to newspaper reports, the theft had caused his wealthy family some grief and embarrassment and he was banished to New Zealand, leaving his younger brother Ernest to become their father’s successor. Far from the gentlemanly life his parents had planned for him, by 1890 Collinson was working as a labourer on remote Te Awaiti Station on the coast near Tora in the Wairarapa. Away from the crowded London streets, however, it appeared that he had left his troubles behind him – until he met James Ellis (aka John McKenzie).
Ellis was born in Wellington in 1861 and, like Collinson, at the age of 21 also found himself in trouble with the law, but on a much more serious and shocking charge. In 1882, under the name of James William Ellis, he was convicted of the rape of an 11-year-old girl in north Greytown and sentenced to 12 years in prison and 60 lashes. The sentencing judge described the rape as “one of the most brutal outrages” he had ever seen in his career . Ellis was released in 1891.
A year before the murder Collinson had hired Ellis as a contractor. Ellis was then calling himself John McKenzie. A few months later, when the new employee was accused of poaching stags, Collinson sacked him.
Ellis became an immediate suspect in Collinson’s killing. He had threated to do for Collinson after his sacking and had also been spotted around the bush camp in which Collinson and his crew of men were working at the time of the murder. Collinson and the other men had suspected that McKenzie was actually the brutal rapist Ellis, especially as he never shown his back to them lest they see the scars of the 60 lashes.
Police were called in from around the country to hunt for Ellis and a 100 pound reward was offered for information leading to his capture. Ellis had striking features, being described as 5ft, 3-and-a-half inches tall with sandy reddish hair, grey eyes, long thin pointed nose, small mouth, sandy moustache and slightly bow-legged, however, he managed to elude capture.
Numerous sightings of Ellis were reported, and several look-a-likes arrested, including one in Sydney, Australia, who remained in custody until a police officer, who knew Ellis, could sail from New Zealand to confirm the man’s identity.
Finally, nine months after the murder, on December 10, 1904, Ellis was captured in Kereru near the Ruahine Ranges in Hawkes Bay. Police found him asleep in a hut in which he had been hiding out (the hut, which was built in 1884, still exists and is now known as Ellis Hut, a tramping hut in the Gwavas Forest near Takapau). When arrested, Ellis had a .303 repeating rifle and a six-chambered revolver, both fully loaded.
After a trial lasting five days Ellis was, on February 11, 1905, found guilty of Collinson’s murder. The jury recommended mercy. Justice Denniston imposed the death sentence and 10 days later Cabinet Minsters considered the jury’s recommendation but decided to allow the sentence to stand. Ellis was hanged at 8am on a grey and gloomy 28 February 1905 at Wellington by executioner Tom Long (whose story we brought you earlier). Asked if he had anything to say before he died Ellis replied, “Nothing at all. Only that I am innocent. That is all I have to say”. Ellis is buried at Karori Cemetery. Collinson is buried in Martinborough Cemetery. His headstone reads: “In loving memory of Leonard Reeve Collinson who died at Colds Creek, Te Awaite 26 February 1904. (Erected by his friends)”.