by Stephen Ross
First Published: Sleuthsayers, Dec 30, 2014 READ
On the evening of Saturday, March 13, a person or persons unknown entered the house of Mr. Augustus Braithwaite, the postmaster of Ponsonby. Braithwaite was shot dead and the keys to his post office stolen from his pocket.
Ponsonby is a central city neighborhood in Auckland, and the post office (built in the Edwardian era and featuring a clock tower) has long been a focal point and landmark in the neighborhood.
The postmaster’s inert body was discovered by his wife. He was still warm, and a doctor was telephoned for. The attending doctor immediately recognized that he was looking at bullet wounds (one to the abdomen and a second to the throat), that Braithwaite had been murdered, and a police constable was summoned.
It quickly became apparent that the postmaster’s keys were missing. Within an hour, the police constable, together with officers from the detective branch of the Auckland police, made their way to the Ponsonby post office… It had been robbed. The strong room had been unlocked and the cashboxes inside jimmied open. Clear fingerprints were evident on three of the boxes.
On March 15, the cashboxes, together with a list of the usual suspects (24 known criminals thought to be in Auckland on the night) were sent by train down to the CRB (Criminal Registration Branch) at the headquarters of the New Zealand police in Wellington. They arrived on the desk of the nation’s fingerprint expert: Senior Sergeant E. W. Dinnie (ex Scotland Yard and 17 years of fingerprint investigative work to his name).
No fingerprint match was found.
Three days after the murder, which had gripped the nation and had taken up residence on the front page of every daily newspaper, a retired prison warder thought he might drop by the Auckland police headquarters. The retired warder had seen a man by the name of Dennis Gunn in the vicinity of the Ponsonby post office. In fact, he had seen Gunn loitering several times near the building on the day of the murder/robbery.
Dennis Gunn wasn’t a known criminal, but he had two years earlier served a two week sentence in jail for the conviction of evading military service, and the retired warder had recognized him. Subsequent to the criminal conviction, Gunn’s fingerprints were on file.
A telephone call was put into the CRB in Wellington. Within hours, they had a fingerprint match, and four days after the robbery, Dennis Gunn was arrested and charged with the postmaster’s murder.
Gunn is on record as having smugly remarked to the arresting detective: “You’ll have the devil of a job to prove it.”
Three days after Gunn’s arrest, a recently-fired revolver was located in a canvas bag in the bush down a steep gully near his mother’s house (where he lived), together with the stolen post office keys, a jimmy, and a bag containing 229 pennies. A fingerprint matching Gunn’s was taken from the revolver.
Gunn was still confidently smug.
A ballistics match was quickly made with the revolver: Grooves were matched. There was little doubt the gun (a .38) had fired the two bullets that had killed Braithwaite.
Gunn was still confidently smug. He was probably sitting in his police cell, clipping his fingernails, and thinking about hopping aboard a steamer bound for the islands for his summer vacation.
Gunn was smug because this was 1920, forensic science was still in its infancy, and no New Zealand citizen (in fact, no citizen in the entire British Empire) had ever been convicted of murder based solely on the evidence of fingerprints.
And there was no other evidence. The two gunshots had been heard, but in 1920, it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence to hear a gun being fired (it was only two years after the Great War, and many a man still had his service revolver tucked away in his sock drawer).
There were no eyewitnesses, no convenient boot impressions left in the mud, no left-behind telltale strands of hair or threads of fabric. Nothing (not even the gun proved traceable). All there was were sets of damp little etchings, where a man’s hands had touched several metal surfaces and had left behind little impressions of whorls and ridges.
Gunn had no alibi. He had no plausible explanation as to why he had hung around the post office that day, and he couldn’t account for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. His trial began on Monday, May 24 at the Auckland Supreme Court, and quickly became a test case.
The matching fingerprints were the only things that tied Gunn to the gun and to the cashboxes; and the reliability of fingerprints as evidence was furiously argued against and discredited by his lawyer. As Gunn’s lawyer correctly pointed out, there was simply no precedent for such a serious conviction based on such evidence.
After five days of heated courtroom debate, the jury retired for deliberation. Given that this was only two years after the First World War, when New Zealand’s population was around 1.2 million, and that the country had recently lost more than 17000 men in the fighting; and given the fact that Gunn’s earlier conviction was for desertion (a fact known to the jury); they’d have probably hung him for jaywalking.
A verdict of Guilty was returned for the robbery (the takings from the post office had amounted to 67 pounds, 14 shillings, and 5 pence), and a verdict of guilty was returned for the murder of Augustus Braithwaite. Gunn was promptly sentenced to death.
On that afternoon, Friday 28 May, 1920, a legal precedent was set for New Zealand and the British Commonwealth. As Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of Australia, concisely remarked at the time: “He who leaves a finger-print behind him, leaves an unforgettable signature”.
Gunn was hung in Auckland on the grounds of Mt Eden prison, on Tuesday June 22, 1920. He was 25.
Gunn never confessed to the murder and had remained largely quiet throughout his trial. After the verdict was returned and the death sentence passed, he immediately attempted to blame two others: He confessed to the robbery, but claimed he hadn’t pulled the trigger. The two others he fingered (a brother-in-law and an associate) both had alibis and neither of their fingerprints had been found on the gun or at the post office.
It should be noted that there were two other .38 revolvers found in that canvas bag retrieved from the gully, together with 30-odd rounds of ammunition. Neither of the other two guns was traced to an owner and neither held any fingerprints.
I’ve once or twice wondered if Gunn’s keeping his mouth shut during the trial was some kind of thieve’s code of silence (he clearly thought he would get away with it), and that once the verdict came in, all bets were off… It’s unlikely we’ll ever know.
Gunn is buried in Waikumete Cemetery: A vast cemetery in West Auckland that I often rode past on my bicycle as a kid. Gunn’s mother never believed in her son’s guilt. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: In loving memory of Dennis Gunn. Sadly wronged.
Newspaper Clippings form the National Library of NZ:
Dennis Gunn : Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 67, 18 March 1920
Fingerprints : Observer, Volume XL, Issue 40, 5 June 1920
Death notice : Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 145, 18 June 1920