Thriller Thursday: 'The Cyrus Haley of Otago'

The name Cyrus Haley won’t be familiar to many today, but back in the late 1800s, Cyrus Haley’s nefarious exploits were well documented in the print media, from his attempts at murder, his fondness for setting fires, right down to his death in 1875 while attempting to escape imprisonment.

So who was the man that caused such speculation in the media of the day?

Cyrus had emigrated from England to New Zealand with his family in 1870 and wasted little time making enemies and enacting his own form of justice. When his wife Emily’s singing performance at the Music Hall was savaged, the hall was mysteriously gutted by fire. More arsons took place and while all these couldn’t be linked to Haley, there was one involving the property of BNZ founder Thomas Russell, also director of a company in which Hailey claimed to have lost ₤3000.

While Thomas Russell himself wasn’t short of enemies, Cyrus’s grudge was so intense, he set about trying to kill him. In December of that year, Haley fired through the windows of the Russell home (the glorious Pah Homestead in Hillsborough Road, Auckland), almost killing one of Russell’s children. Haley also wrote anonymous notes threatening death to Russell.

He was caught and tried, and subsequently convicted of attempted murder, threatening to kill and threatening to destroy property - he had also set fire to hay on the Russell property. His sentence was life imprisonment in the Dunedin gaol.

Ref: Taranaki Herald, 6 October 1875, Papers Past

Haley first attempted to escape the prison in 1873, but in 1875, after receiving disturbing news about his children, he tried to flee a labour gang and was shot by a warder. The inquest following his death concluded it was “justifiable homicide.”

Ref: Taranaki Herald, 9 October 1875, Papers Past

To learn more about this fascinating and disturbed character, you need only check out the Papers Past website where all his activities and accompanying speculation were well documented.

Ref: Daily Southern Cross, 30 January 1872, Papers Past

Indeed, the Daily Southern Cross of January 30 1872 says of the man following his arrest after the Hillsborough house incident, “Various reports respecting Haley are in circulation, one of which is that he is insane, and another that he is feigning insanity. Neither report is correct. Haley's conduct in confinement is perfectly rational, and he is neither apparently nor in reality insane.”


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