This little plaque approximately halfway along King Edward Parade in Devonport marks the location of a dark event to have occurred in the village – the first European to be judicially executed in New Zealand.
How did sleepy Devonport become synonymous with this event?
Joseph Burns was hanged on the 17th June 1848 after confessing to the murder of naval lieutenant, Robert Snow, his wife and daughter, for £12 in naval pay kept in their house on the 22nd October 1847.
Burns was born in Liverpool in 1805 or 1806. He joined the Royal Navy as a ship’s carpenter at about the age of 20, and arrived at the Bay of Islands, on the Buffalo in 1840. Following the wrecking of the ship at Mercury Bay, and Burns took his discharge moving to Auckland where his foul reputation often found him in between jobs and short of money.
The guilt of Burns’ crime had devastating effects on him and his family – his long-term partner, Margaret Reardon and their two sons, fled him. In turn Burns bolted from the country only to return in December 1847 and seek Margaret out. An appalling act of domestic abuse on Margaret was his undoing. Convicted of grievous bodily harm on her and sentenced to transportation for life, Burns manipulated her in backing up a false confession in which he accused others of the murder of the Snow family. Burns subsequently withdrew the confession and was in turn charged and convicted of the murders.
In September 1848 Margaret Reardon was convicted of perjury for her part in the confession and sentenced to seven years’ transportation – the final victim of Joseph Burns.
The plaque incorrectly dates the murders to 1848 rather than 1847 and is not actually on the site of the murders.
An excellent podcast on this event can be found on the Radio New Zealand webpage – https://www.rnz.co.nz/…/slash-and-burn-the-story-of-joseph-…
This site is protected as a historic heritage place in the Auckland Unitary Plan UPID01161