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A.K.A.: "The Otahuhu murderer"
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Motive unknown
Number of victims: 4
Date of murders: September 26, 1865
Date of arrest: December 27, 1865
Date of birth: ???
Victims profile: Mary Finnegan and her three sons, James 18, Benjamin 14 and John 10
Method of murder: Hitting with a hammer
Location: Otahuhu, Auckland, New Zealand
Status: Executed by hanging at the Mt Eden Gaol on April 7, 1866

James Stack, the Otahuhu murderer was accused of the murder of four members of the Finnigan family. They were found missing and their bodies, with the exception of a son, were discovered buried on the property boundary where they lived. The missing body was discovered several years later.

Stack's connection to the family was by marriage to Mary (victim), one of Finnigan's daughters who had died at the time of the crime. He was a friend of the family, which he demonstrated by helping with the upkeep of the Finnegan's home and his friendship with the sons. They were James, Benjamin and John.

All four had been smashed in the head with a hammer and James had two blows to his head. Benjamin's throat had been cut. Stack had borrowed a hammer from a next door neighbour. When the neighbour asked for it's return, Stack paid two shillings to him, to get a new one. Letters given in evidence proved to be damning. Stack's letter to Mary Finnegan had read until death do us part.

Stack maintained his innocence until he was hanged at the Mt Eden Gaol on 7 April, 1866.


James Stack

James Stack, an old soldier of the British 65th Regiment, which had once been based in Otahuhu, had married the daughter of Mrs. Mary Finnegan. When Stack's new wife died suddenly, he took up residence with Mary Finnegan, herself a widow of one of the early Fencible settlers and her three sons in their cottage on Lot 7 of Section 8, in what was then called Chapel Road, Otahuhu. Mary's sons were James 18, Benjamin 14 and John 10. A fourth son Alexander was away serving with the Militia in Tauranga.

Like typical Fencible cottages at the time, it was divided into two separate homes, with the Finnegan's on one side and the widow Mrs. Weaver on the other.

Towards the end of September 1865, Mrs. Weaver expressed concern that the entire Finnegan family seemed to have suddenly disappeared overnight. She had spoken to Mary Finnegan only the previous day and shehad expressed concern over Stack's intentions toward her and the boys. On the night they disappeared, she had heard only the normal noises of people moving around next door.

The following morning Mrs. Weaver had gone next door and asked James Stack for the return of a hammer she had loaned him a few days earlier. He claimed he could not find it and instead, gave her two shillings in payment for it.

She did not see James Stack again that day, but over the next few days she observed James Stack digging furiously in the garden, until he too disappeared. After an initial reluctance, Constable Negus was finally convinced to investigate the matter, but he made only cursory inquiries as each time visited the Finnegan cottage he found it locked and failed to proceed further. Later, he was to receive considerable criticism from many quarters for his inaction at this time.

Negus eventually managed to track James Stack down late December, but the man produced a plausible story about the Finnegan's traveling to the Hokitika gold fields and even supplied a letter, supposedly written by Mary Finnegan, to support his story. This letter was later proven to have been a forgery written by a friend of James Stack. Meanwhile, Negus once more lapsed into inaction until just prior to Christmas, when news reached him that Stack had fled the district because of concerns over the Constables questioning.

Finally, the cottage and its gardens became the subject of a full search. Whilst the cottage itself revealed no evidence at all, searchers soon discovered the body of James Finnegan buried in the garden. Benjamin's body was found nearby and Mary was located buried beneath a bed of carrots. Ten year old John's body was not discovered until several years later. All were found to have died from severe blows to the head from a blunt instrument possibly the hammer James Stack had borrowed from Mrs. Weaver. She was immediately arrested as a suspect, but then released without charge.

Police Commissioner James Naughton arrived from Auckland to take charge of the investigation and started by offering a reward of twenty pounds for the arrest of James Stack. Messages were sent out to all districts across the country on the new telegraph system and, on 27 December 1865, Stack was apprehended at Kaipara north of Auckland, when he was recognized by a sergeant from his former Regiment. He had grown a moustache to change his appearance and was using a false name.

James Stack was returned to Auckland under armed escort and on arrival, was marched through a large crowd and into the City Gaol in Queen Street. He was subsequently convicted of the Finnegan murders by a trial jury and sentenced to death by hanging.

Early on the morning of 7 April 1866, Mary Finnegan's surviving son Alexander went to the gaol and pleaded with Stack to say where the body of 10 year old John could be found, but Stack pretended to deny all knowledge of the deaths. Stack was then taken to the gallows at 7.00 am and was executed, his body remaining on the rope until 8.00 am.



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