Felix Tanner was, if nothing else, a showman.
He knew the value of a good picture and a story, and it was clear he liked the limelight.
Born in Berrima, New South Wales on March 23, 1863, as Charles Jackson, he would go on to have quite a few names, including Henri le Strange, Professor Jackson and the Australian Blondin.
But he was best known in New Zealand as Captain Felix Tanner.
He saw great tightrope walker Charles Blondin - best known for walking across the Niagara Gorge - as a young child
So he became a tightrope artist himself as well as a balloonist, parachutist and deep sea diver. His first visit to New Zealand in 1884 included several trapeze acts.
He returned to Australia and as a tightrope walker he walked over the famous Kiama Ocean Blow Hole in New South Wales on a wire stretched high up in the air.
Then in Melbourne, in 1890, he began a show that would forever leave him called Fasting Felix. He began fasting in public. Weirdly inspired by the story of a man convicted of cannibalism, Tanner wanted to show how you could survive long periods of time just on water.
So he charged people to watch him fast. It lasted 40 days and he did it several times that year and many times in later years, especially to raise money.
He married the first of his three wives, Sarah Anne Watson (which ended in a divorce) and ended up living in Waihi where he took advantage of the public’s horrible fascination with executions by creating a device for a mock hanging. It plunged him seven feet leaving him dangling in a gruesome display.
Later he moved to the Taranaki district where he held regular employment with the New Plymouth Harbour Board as a diver.
He drew up plans for an aerial balloon ship that he would take to Auckland but it never got made. He built a model but was unable to come up with what he estimated was £2000 to build it.
Tanner was then contracted to find the ship Elingamite which had gone down near the Three Kings Islands with gold on board. He found the wreck, but not the gold.
But Tanner’s life would change when a modified dugout canoe came into Taranaki port in 1903 on a world tour.
He formed an idea of a new world tour - in a barrel boat which he called the Ark. He designed plans and began building it in his backyard, putting it on display.
He managed to launch it but within days vandals bored holes in it and sank it.
But Tanner thought a new shape was needed.
After moving to Whanganui he began working on Ark no 2. It was launched on April 5, 1904, but despite making it to the entrance to Wellington harbour he beached in Ohau Bay.
Now living in Wellington, Tanner created Ark no 3 - 25 feet in length - his biggest yet but while he managed to get it across Cook Strait, a westerly gale all but ruined it and it had to be abandoned.
Tanner wasn’t done yet though. The New Zealand International Exhibition of 1906-07 set him to making Ark no 4. He said it was a new type of lifeboat, strong as a barrel and unsinkable.
It was built at his home in Arrow Street, Wakefield, 18 miles from Nelson, and had to be taken to the port by truck. At thirty feet long, it weighed over two and a half tons.
This went better. It sailed to Lyttleton and later was on display in Timaru where Tanner beached it. He said he would come back and sail it to Sydney but instead sold it.
He continued to invent - making good money for a device that prevented the racing of marine engines and then in 1913, a type of crane for getting goods onto a boat.
Tanner disappeared from view - some said he went to America - then came a newspaper report on January 2, 1919 of Felix Tanner’s death in San Diego, California.
It was just the identity, however, of Tanner who died then. Tanner was still alive, but going by the name of Charles Jackson. Tanner/Jackson died for real in 1943. He had fathered 12 children by three women and committed daring feats.
He is buried in the Rookwood General Cemetery in Sydney.
Joseph Sewell was hopping mad.
The 57 year-old farmer from Longford, a short way out of Murchison, had been in a decade-long dispute with his neighbour, Walter Neame, over property.
In particular, in 1903, the dispute had come down to what happened to a white-faced heifer that Neame had branded and set loose with four others along a river beach near his farm. He had not seen the cow for two years.
Neame saw the creature on Sewell's property but he was told it wasn’t his.
Sewell responded by locking up a wire chair device that Neame used to cross the Mangles River.
Police tried to calm the situation but there was little they could do.
So Neame took the cow, only for Sewell to take it back.
On and on it went, until Neame filed an application in court for compensation.
On May 1, 1903 the public gallery at the court was packed with Murchison residents.
Both Neame and Sewell opted to represent themselves.
Sewell accused Neame of lying and warned “I’ll blow the devil to hell and I have enough dynamite to do just that.”
He also accused Neame of murdering his wife who had died two years before.
Suddenly police realised Sewell had not taken his left hand out of his pocket throughout the hearing.
Quickly the magistrate suggested an adjournment for Sewell to go outside and compose himself.
Two police officers followed him closely but as they went to pin his arms, Sewell turned and warned them off.
He began backing outside pulling out an explosive and said he had 50 more wrapped around him.
One of the police officers went to calm him down but the explosives went off.
It was reported that Sewell was blown to bits, and the closest police officer, Inspector Edward Wilson received a grave head wound. But no one else died. Wilson’s trousers and beard were blown off, but he eventually recovered.
So large was the explosion that the courthouse was moved several inches on its piles.
At the inquest, his children said Sewell had become increasingly obsessed and despondent and had access to 150 plugs of gelignite.
The finding was that Sewell had suffered a temporary insanity.
It had not been the first time Sewell believed he could solve his problems with explosives.
He had confronted a solicitor several years earlier over payment in another case showing him he had a package of dynamite.
The solicitor had decided he did not need payment that badly.
Sewell is buried in the Murchison Cemetery.
It is believed to be the world’s first non-military suicide bombing.
Archibald Sillars Hamilton was what he called a ‘practical’ phrenologist.
It’s a job that doesn’t exist anymore given that phrenology is now widely debunked.
But back early last century phrenology was the latest craze and Hamilton toured the country giving talks and lectures.
The examination of the bumps and ridges of someone’s head to predict their personality or the possibility of criminal behaviour now seems laughable, but Hamilton held public events where he did just that.
Hamilton was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of Edward Hamilton and Agnes Hamilton (nee Sillars) who was herself a phrenologist, Scottish reformer and champion for women’s rights to an education.
In 1854 Hamilton left for Australia where he was to begin a career as a phrenologist.
He often went to executions and in 1860 made death masks of two men hanged for rape and murder at the Maitland Gaol in New South Wales.
It wasn’t enough for him though and he offered money if he was allowed to dig up the bodies and remove their heads.
He ended up in court and defended himself “just as a geologist needs rocks, a phrenologist needs heads".
He was acquitted by the jury.
It was in New Zealand he began giving talks and lecturing, attracting plenty to listen to him talk about bumps on people’s heads, the shape of their jaws and whether they had protruding brow ridges. He called himself Professor Hamilton.
He took private customers charging them for a description of their character with advice (3 shillings, 6 pence), a written sketch of character (5 shillings), or a detailed character reading with a phrenological chart (10 shillings).
In 1866 Richard Burgess, Thomas Kelly and William Levy were hanged in Nelson. The Burgess gang as they were called had embarked on a crimewave, terrifying citizens and ultimately murdering several people.
While being held in prison Hamilton spoke to the men, Burgess in particular was keen to have a death mask made of himself, even asking that it be done before he was hanged in case his face was distorted after death.
Hamilton attended the executions then made the other two death masks.
The masks are in the collection of the Nelson Provincial Museum.
Indeed Hamilton gave numerous talks especially about Kelly who he said had a small organ of conscientiousness with his brain being of medium size, rendering him expert in all the arts of deception, totally unreliable and thoroughly obsessed by self.
He also said Kelly’s organs of social sympathy were blighted.
But it was another Kelly that Hamilton became famous for.
In 1880 notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly was hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol. While authorities denied it for many years, Kelly was dissected and Hamilton was supposedly given his head.
"There is not one head in a thousand of the criminal type so small in caution as his, and there are few heads among the worst which would risk so much for the love of power," Hamilton said.
A death mask was also made of him - on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.
When Hamilton died in 1884 his collection of 55 human skulls was shipped to the National Museum of Victoria which still has them.
Hamilton is buried in the Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney.
Pic by Ray Smithers
With the Olympics now over, it's time to remember New Zealand’s very first medal winner, Harry Kerr.
Harry didn’t win a gold or even a silver medal, but on July 14, 1908 he won New Zealand’s very first medal...a bronze….for walking (now called race walking).
Henry (called Harry) Edward Kerr was born on January 28, 1879, in Taranaki, the son of Edward and Sarah Kerr (nee Hutchinson), both from Northern Ireland.
At 193cm tall, he was a born athlete, a keen rugby player and champion shooter, and did many track and field events.
But it would be walking that earned him his medal.
New Zealand was not able to field its own team so he and three others went to the Summer Olympics in London in 1908 as part of an Australasian team.
He took part in the 3500 metre walk and came in third place, which gave New Zealand its first ever Olympian.
Harry had nearly missed the start of the race though, busy chatting to officials under the grandstand while the race was lining up.
He later qualified for the final of the 10 mile walk but did not start due to injured feet.
He nearly had not gone at all. He had become a professional athlete early in his career and when he sought reinstatement as an amatuer he had to stand down for two years to qualify.
He retained his fitness clearing scrub on the family farm near Stratford.
Kerr then won national titles over one and three miles in 1911, won the mile again in 1912 and was again Australasian champion over both distances in 1909.
Like many men of his generation he enlisted during World War One, joining the New Zealand Medical Corp and served in France. He was slightly wounded but remained with his unit, returning to New Zealand at the end of the war.
He returned to walking - at the national championships in 1925 - aged 46 - and won the one and three mile titles.
Later he also represented Taranaki at lawn bowls.
Harry died on May 17, 1951 aged 72, and is buried in the Inglewood Cemetery with his wife Isabelle. He has a simple headstone that gives no hint of the extraordinary feats he accomplished.
He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
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We wrote about William Lee in an earlier story. He died from his injuries after being pinned to his bed during the Esk Valley flood.
We tracked him down to an unmarked grave at Napier’s Park Island Cemetery. But it’s not going to be unmarked for long. The New Zealand Remembrance Army checked our research and confirmed it was him.
Now he’s about to get a headstone. A ceremony will be in November and we will update you if you wish to come along.
Hawke’s Bay Today reported on it last week - here's the story:
He survived the horrors of World War I, only to die as floods and landslips hit Napier.
Now the New Zealand Remembrance Army is trying to raise funds for a proper headstone befitting the returned serviceman buried in an unmarked grave in Park Island.
There is little information about how William Lee, born in 1870 in Ireland, came to be buried so far from home.
In 1915, aged 45, he enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, where he served in the Otago Infantry Regiment with the 12th reinforcements until 1918.
He was injured in Egypt and shot in both arms, before being discharged via a medical board and sent back to New Zealand.
His next of kin was listed as Henry Lee, a butcher in Whangārei.
Despite living in Wellington, Lee was caught in the Hawke’s Bay floods in April 1938, when three days of heavy rain caused significant damage across the East Coast.
Napier recorded 274mm of rainfall during this time, 169mm of which fell over a 24-hour period.
A historical Niwa catalogue of the event states “scarcely a hill from the north of Gisborne to the south of Napier was free of slips”.
“Slipping on hillsides occurred at a spectacular scale. The majority of the slips were shallow and were the culmination of sheet erosion and heavy rainfall.”
This caused widespread damage to property and infrastructure, along with flooding, with two men drowning in Gisborne.
A newspaper clipping from the time suggests Lee was pinned to his bed by a fallen beam in a house in Northe Rd which was hit by a huge landslip.
“His plight was not discovered for some time,” the clipping reads.
“The house was moved 20 feet from its foundations and two other houses on the top of the hill were left in very precarious positions.”
A few months later, on August 4, Lee died as a result of injuries sustained in the landslip.
He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Napier’s Park Island cemetery and seemingly forgotten until his case was picked up by the New Zealand Remembrance Army this year.
The group was started about three years ago by Simon Strombom, a veteran, to restore service headstones and memorials of returned servicemen and women.
“It’s all about remembrance and respect.”
While cleaning graves, the group soon realised there were amazing stories behind them and also began raising funds to put in headstones for those buried in unmarked graves.
He said Hawke’s Bay had a rich military history, but Lee’s was a particularly “interesting story”.
“He joined quite late [in his life]. Something happened while he was [in Egypt] where he was injured quite badly. He came back and was living in a pub in Wellington. He’d gone to Napier for work and been caught up in the 1938 floods and a landslide.”
Strombom said Lee was buried without a headstone and forgotten, “just lost in time”.
The Remembrance Army has now purchased a gravestone and has been trying to contact any remaining family for a potential unveiling ceremony to be held with the Taradale Services Association this year.
“It just takes that heartache away and they can focus on celebrating their relatives,” Strombom said.