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Walter Bolton was the last man executed for murder in New Zealand, hanged at Mt Eden Prison on 18 February 1957. He was convicted of poisoning his wife Beatrice with arsenic on their Whanganui farm.
The story of his trial, questionable guilt and subsequent execution continues to raise many questions. Is it right to take a person’s life in exchange for another? What if society’s judgement was wrong? Would our society have made the same judgement today?
But even more compelling than these moral questions is why a man like Walter Bolton would have been driven to murder in the first place. The prosecution contended that he had deliberately put sheep dip in her food; however arsenic was also found in the farm’s water supply – probably because it had leeched in from the normal daily use of that same sheep dip. The clincher for the jury’s guilty verdict was Walter’s admission that he had been having an affair with his sister-in-law, Florence – salacious but ultimately only circumstantial evidence. The decision to execute him was rushed: the trial took place shortly before Christmas 1956 and the judge and jury would have felt pressed to make it home to their families. Up until his death, Walter continued to maintain his innocence. Florence, a spinster, committed suicide soon after his execution and was rumoured to have left a note admitting to the killing.
This combination of our script and music is a fictionalised interpretation of these historical circumstances. We have put Walter Bolton in his Mt Eden Prison cell in the early dawn hours before his execution. His mind wanders to his deceased wife Beatrice, his lover Florence, and the grotesque pantomime of the judicial system as he saw it. In The Lover’s Knot, he awaits the hangman’s noose.
Written as part of the APO Composers' Workshop 2010
Original script by Renee Liang
15 Sep 2010: Workshopped by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with conductor Kenneth Young and actor Stuart Devenie at the Philharmonia Hall, in Auckland
11 May 2011: APO NZ Composer Development: Works with Words