Book Review: The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie, by David Hastings

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_many_deaths_of_mary_dobieOne sunny afternoon in November 1880, on the road near Ōpunake in Taranaki, visiting Englishwoman, Mary Dobie, is brutally murdered, with her throat cut so deeply that she was all but decapitated. It was a horrific crime by both contemporary and modern standards. Wellington’s Evening Post called it a “shocking outrage”. Speculation was rife – about the nature of the crime, the behaviour of the victim, and the motive of the perpetrator.is an in-depth account of this fascinatingly awful story.

The backdrop to this sad story is the rumbling unease as tensions escalate at Parihaka. The ploughmen have been increasingly active and the pākehā settlers are calling upon the government to take action. Many at the time suspected that there were political motives for Mary’s murder, as she was the sister-in-law of a captain stationed at Taranaki with the Armed Constabulary. A confession is quickly elicited from a young Māori horse wrangler, Tuhi, and he is committed for trial.

Hastings is a journalist by background and has employed all of the talents in his arsenal to comprehensively research the events in the book, drawing upon many first-hand accounts in newspapers, court records and diaries. Sources are meticulously documented in the Notes and Bibliography, leaving no doubt that this tale is well-researched. The inclusion of photographs and drawings, some by Mary herself, bring the story to life and serve as a sobering reminder that these were real living people, and not merely fictional characters in a sordid whodunit.

This is a fascinating tale of a gruesome killing, made all the more interesting by the surrounding political climate of the time. I confess I had not before heard of the poor ill-fated Mary Dobie, but I will no longer be able to drive around the Taranaki coast without thinking of her. This is a story that stays with you for some time.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie: Murder, Politics and Revenge in Nineteenth Century New Zealand 
by David Hastings
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408374