Shipwright John Blair Thompson watched his 11 year old daughter Isabella skip away from him, her happy laughter pouring into his ears. She had every reason to be joyful and excited, the school picnic was a few days away and the whole township of Lyttelton always looked forward to such an event. It was to take place at Riccarton. John had dropped a couple of coins in Isabella’s hand so she could go and purchase tickets for he and his wife to attend and as he watched her leave, the hands on his pocket watch read 4.45pm. How could he have known that an hour later, Isabella would be dead?
The early evening of the 9th January 1875 was a beauty. John Bailey was driving his cows from one paddock to another when something odd caught his eye. As he glanced down Oxford Street, he saw what appeared to be a piece of white material hanging off the gorse hedge belonging to Rev. Frederick Pembers. Unable to ignore this, John made his way down and slowed his step when he spotted a drunk fast asleep under the hedge. He headed back to his cows without a closer look, but minutes later he mentioned his find to some friends.
Brothers, Thomas and Richard Rouse, not able to resist the opportunity to move on a drunk for laughs, headed down to the hedge. As they went to shake awake the drunk, they soon realised that it was no drunk but the body of a young girl. They reeled in horror as they saw her face was covered in blood. The quiet of Oxford Street is soon full of the echo of pounding feet as one brother ran for the police while the other stayed with the body. I’m sure the stillness of the evening for the remaining brother was deafening as he could do nothing but stare at the remains of little Isabella Thompson.
Constable James Wallace followed the Rouse boy up Oxford Street with great alarm. Upon reaching the Rev.’s hedge, he climbed underneath to take a closer look. Shakily he reached out to touch her small face and knew then that she was dead. He noted a large cut from Isabella’s left ear and down around her throat. Death had been instant as her carotid artery had been butchered. Her pretty summer dress was bunched up around her waist and her underclothes removed. He found them covered in blood, tucked under her right thigh. A man’s bloody handkerchief sat at her right shoulder and looked as if it had been used to wipe a knife with. Two school picnic tickets were still grasped in her fingers. With a sad shake of his head, he glanced up the hill to see the lonely tombstones of the Lyttelton Anglican Cemetery…what a place for a little girl to die! The hands on his pocket watch read a few minutes after 6.00pm.
As the news of the murder ripped through Lyttelton, people started making their way to the Police Station that very night. A strange man had been seen staggering down Oxford Street around 5.30pm; some say he was drunk where others said that he was flustered and nervous. He was next seen on the train heading to Christchurch, blood on his hands and face. He had quickly explained to other passengers that he had just killed a sheep for his crewmen of the boat ‘Cleopatra’ and had no time to clean up. His name was John Mercer.
After a night and morning of collecting those eyewitness accounts, John Mercer soon found himself surrounded with police while on duty on the ‘Cleopatra’. Asked for his clothes of the previous evening, he was also quizzed how his face got scratched.
“I fell over,” he calmly told them.
After seeing his bloody clothes, he is arrested and taken to the police station. He was stripped searched there. All over his legs and arms were gorse scratches and some prickles were still embedded in his skin. He claimed his innocence right up to the inquest at ‘The Mitre’ in which crowds swarmed outside in numbers like never seen before.
During his trial, damning evidence just kept mounting up against him. A fellow ship mate told of a disturbing conversation which happened between them,
“I want to get a girl, and if I can’t get one here, I can get one in Christchurch. And if I don’t get what I want, I will cut her throat!”
“I never killed that child!” came John Mercer’s reply to that accusation.
But what he could say to those who claimed that he had tried the same thing in Buller and failed. Also those from the ‘Cleopatra’ said that they did not kill their own sheep but their meat was delivered from a butcher. No one was really surprised when John Mercer was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The lawyer who helped put him at the noose was Thomas Smith Duncan, the founder of today’s Duncan and Cotterill law firm.
He was returned to Lyttelton via train to await his own death at Lyttelton Gaol. A reporter who shared John’s last train ride later wrote that he was calm, collected, enjoying his pipe and tapping his foot along to a tune that only he could hear.
On the 8th May 1875, John Mercer was the third man to be hung at Lyttelton Gaol.
*photo taken by Annette Bulovic*