Catherine Bell heard a shot ring out on the quiet night of July 25, 1892.
She was expecting her husband Richard home from a Hokonui farmers club meeting when it happened.
Worried, she made her way to a small plank bridge that connected their home with the road.
There she found Richard, bleeding badly from a shot to the face. She managed to get him to the house but he died three hours later, spitting up blood from the torn vessels in his throat.
But who shot him and why?
It’s still a mystery.
Richard had been born to David Bell and Jane Moore, both from Ireland. Jane with Richard (who was 18) came to New Zealand first in 1875, with their other children and David arriving on later ships.
Richard was a ploughman. In 1876 he married Catherine McMaster and together they had six children.
With his dying breath he told Catherine, their neighbour 65-year-old John McRae had done it.
There had recently been an argument between them over damages done by two cows of Bell’s that had ended up on McRae’s property.
Indeed McRae was arrested and charged, but the police investigation was hardly convincing.
A number of witnesses seemed to consider another man Patrick Walsh, who worked nearby, was involved.
During the investigation a shotgun was found near the gate Bell had just stopped to open in tussocks of grass spattered with blood and flattened as if someone was lying in wait. Shot found at McRae’s house did not match that gun.
The police offered a reward for information but no one came forward.
McRae protested his innocence many times and after three months the charge was dropped. He died in 1900.
A year before being shot, Bell had found a bottle of a brandy bottle on a reserve beside his property but it tasted awful and Bell became unwell, thinking he had been poisoned.
Hokonui was known for its moonshine businesses. Rumors abounded that Bell had actually found an illegal whiskey still.
Despite the police investigation no one else was ever arrested.
Then in 1928 there was a deathbed confession. But even though it was widely reported, it didn’t solve the mystery as the person who made the confession was never named. But it wasn’t John McRae.
Richard is buried in the Winton cemetery.
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