The strange adventures of Etienne Brocher (aka Stephen Bosher, aka Stephen Brocher, aka the Petone murderer)

Bricks are the best thing that I find. That’s my answer to the most common question an archaeologist is asked. Bricks? Why bricks? Because they always have the best stories to tell! Brickmaking was a booming industry in the 19th century. Fortunes could be made and lost, and opportunities to climb the ranks of society were ready for the taking. Through brickmaking, workhouse orphans would become influential businessmen and labourers would grab political power. And then there were the criminals and schemers trying their best to hang on for the ride…

Recently I was sent out to Akaroa to investigate an old brick kiln on Rue Grehan. The kiln itself is in a very good state of preservation, and many of its original features remain intact. It’s a small, simple, rectangular kiln, set some distance from the road at the foot of L’Aube hill. The elevation facing the road has been replaced in the 20th century. No one driving past would have given it a second thought, but, as most kilns that survive today are of the large robust Hoffman type, this small kiln is a very rare and valuable artefact of Victorian industry.

The 19th century south elevation of the brick kiln on Rue Grehan. A bricked up door is visible towards the middle of the image. Unfortunately a better photograph wasn’t possible due to the foliage. Image: M. Hennessey.

A bricked up opening in the south elevation. The original function was probably to add fuel to the kiln (scale = 1m). Image: M. Hennessey.

The bricks that had been used to build the Kiln were marked ‘EB’ – and with the help of the Akaroa museum, and a healthy amount of background research, it was discovered that this mark belonged to Etienne Jean Brocher.

‘EB’ marked brick used to build the kiln on Rue Grehan, Akaroa. Image: M. Hennessey.

Brocher, a French immigrant, had arrived in Lyttelton in 1876 when he was about 19 years old (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 19/1/1897: 3). Upon arriving in New Zealand he took up work as ships cook aboard the ketch Alice Jane.

He supplemented his legitimate employment with a second job: petty criminal and scammer.

His early criminal career started off slowly. In 1875 he was arrested for forging cheques to buy boots in Timaru. At his arrest he gave an alias, Stephen Brocher, and when he appeared in front of the magistrate he gave the ultimate of novice defence strategies – I don’t speak English (an unfortunate condition that appears to have only affected him when dealing with law enforcement). Unfortunately for Brocher the magistrate saw straight through this well-crafted subterfuge and assigned an interpreter, and Brocher spent a stint in Lyttelton gaol (Timaru Herald 3/2/1875: 3, Timaru Herald 29/9/1875).

On his release Brocher moved to Akaroa, where he got work as a carter, before finding work with brickmaker, Joseph Libeau (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 27/6/1879: 2). While in Akaroa, Brocher entered into a feud with local man, Chas Lemmonnier. In 1877 Lemmonnier accused Brocher of kicking him. The reason for the assault? Lemmonnier had made the gravest of offences, and had called Brocher a COWARD and a PRUSSIAN!

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 16/11/1880:2.

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 16/11/1880: 2.

While Brocher had denied kicking Lemmonenier, a medical certificate was produced to the contrary. And where had Brocher kicked Lemmonnier? Right in the, ahem, family jewels.

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 16/11/1880: 2.

In 1878 he married the daughter of Joseph Libeau, Josephine (Alaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 1878: 2). Josephine owned a small plot of land in Grehan Valley that had been subdivided from the larger rural section owned by her father and, while we’ll never know for sure, it seems likely that Brocher married her to get access to this property (LINZ c.1860: 1016). Josephine, being fairly astute, never transferred ownership of the property to her husband.

Brocher constructed the brick kiln on Josephine’s property, and begins appearing in the local newspaper as a brickmaker starting in 1881 (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 2/12/1881: 3).

The only problem? Brocher wasn’t very good at it…

In 1881 Brocher entered into litigation against John Dixon, who had received a load of bricks six months prior.

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 2/12/1881: 2.

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 2/12/1881: 2.

Brocher gave up brickmaking shortly after, and began a new career as a photographer (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 2/12/1881: 3). He also continued his new-found interest in litigation, suing Josephine’s brother for £9 4s 6d in 1881, and continuing his feud with Chas Lemmonnier, suing him for £1 15s that same year (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 13/5/1881: 2).

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 22/11/1881: 3.

Always trying to get his hands on more money, Brocher was “connected with some trouble about a sum of money collected for a Catholic Church”, and stole the deeds of his father in law, Joseph Libeau, to take out a fraudulent mortgage on his property. His inability to produce his father in law’s signature stopped his attempt (Mataura Ensign 30/3/1897: 4).

Finally, in 1882, Brocher decided that the marriage to Josephine wasn’t working as he had envisioned. The brickmaking business had failed, and photography wasn’t letting him pay his growing debts, let alone making him wealthy.

On 26 December he stole a horse and bridle from his brother in law, Henry, and abandoned Josephine and their son and daughter (Mataura Ensign 30/3/1897: 4). He rode the horse to Lyttelton, where he sold the horse, and then boarded a ship for Sydney, before going back to France. A warrant was put out for his arrest. Of interest, a distinguishing feature is a bullet wound on his right leg, perhaps a souvenir from earlier dealings…

New Zealand Police Gazette, volume 6, 1882: 9.

The editor of the Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser made it clear how the Akaroa population felt of Brocher’s departure without paying down his debts.

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 10/1/1882: 2.

And so, was that the end for Etienne Brocher’s story? Not by a long shot. In fact, things were just getting started.

Following his arrival in France, Brocher was immediately arrested for being naturalised in New Zealand without the consent of his parents, and for not serving in the military (New Zealand Times 1896: 3). After refusing to join the 37th Regiment of infantry at Troyes Champagne he was sentenced to 5 years military detention in Africa. Then, after serving his time, he was sent to the first battalion of Light Infantry at Mascara, Algeria (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 19/1/1897: 3).

Following his military service, he returned to New Zealand in 1890, eventually settling in Petone, Wellington, under the pseudonym Stephen Bosher (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 19/1/1897: 3, Ashburton Guardian 1896: 2, Star 25/3/1897: 2). He re-appears in the New Zealand historic record in 1896 when, as Stephen Bosher, he is implicated in the brutal murder of elderly shop keepers, Joseph and Emma Jones.

The murder had occurred on the evening of 27 August 1896. The Jones’ had been interrupted by an unknown assailant while eating dinner. A struggle had ensued, in which the assailant had thrown pepper into Mr Jones face, blinding him. Mr Jones was then stabbed three times in the back. The body of Mrs Jones was found in a hallway leading from the kitchen to the front door (Evening Post 28/8/1896: 6). She had received a single stab wound to the chest (Evening Post 29/8/1896: 5).  The motivation for the murder was unclear as the cash box belonging to the Jones’ had been left behind, and it appeared nothing had been stolen (Evening Post 29/8/1896:5; 31/8/1896: 6). The murder made national headlines.

Evening Post 28/8/1896: 6.

Brocher had gone to the Jones’ shop to collect a package the morning after the murder. After he failed to get a response from the Jones’ he asked a neighbour to check on them. The bodies of Mr and Mrs Jones were discovered by the neighbour. Brocher then entered the house, saw the bodies himself, and alerted the police to the crime (Evening Post 14/1/1897: 2).

Initially a man named James Shore was accused of the murder, and Brocher was brought in as a witness (Evening Post 16/11/1896: 6). Shore was a known drunk, and an easy target for law enforcement, although luckily for Shore he had spent the night of the murder annoying the local Petone residents in a drunken haze. His whereabouts on that night were well-known, and he could not be placed at the crime scene (Evening Post 17/11/1896: 5). Attention turned to Brocher as a suspect.

The case against Brocher was incredibly flimsy, and came down to some very circumstantial evidence:

  • Mr Jones ledger book showed that he had been the last person to purchase something from the store that night,
  • It was discovered that Brocher had an almost £3 debt to Jones,
  • The knife wounds described by the coroner supposedly matched a knife owned by Brosher – although the knife was never found, and the description of the blade was based entirely on witness testimony,
  • A muddy footprint found in the Jones’ scullery matched a pair of boots owned by Brocher – although Brocher had entered the house the morning the bodies were discovered prior to alerting the police.

Perhaps, in any regular case, this evidence could have been argued away by a competent lawyer. Unfortunately, since arriving back in New Zealand Brocher had been up to his old tricks.

After arriving back in New Zealand Brocher had attempted to contact Josephine to ask if he should come home. She sent back a single word reply: “No”.

New Zealand Times 16/11/1896: 3.

During the murder case against Shore, Brocher was arrested for selling a cart to two separate people, while also taking out a loan on the same cart.

Evening Post 22/9/1896: 6.

Evening Post 22/9/1896: 6.

Brocher re-appeared in court later that day on a separate charge. As it turned out, the cart he attempted to sell to Smart and Zachariah may have been stolen from W. H. Cook.

Evening Post 22/9/1896: 6.

Then, while in prison, Brocher attempted to again contact his wife, Josephine, in Akaroa. This was a huge mistake. Brocher had since re-married. The only problem? He and Josephine had never been formally divorced, and they were still married. That, and he had told his current wife, Mary Anne Reece, that he had never been previously married (Evening Post 23/10/1896: 6). The letter had been intercepted by a jailer, and the revelation made national scandal!

Evening Post 14/11/1896: 5.

Josephine attended the hearing for his bigamy case, not once looking at her husband.

New Zealand Times 16/11/1896: 3.

Brocher was sentenced to two years imprisonment both for the case of the cart and for the charge of bigamy, to be served concurrently (Evening Post 16/1/1897: 5).

New Zealand Police Gazette, volume 20, 1896: 216.

While in prison, Brocher was charged with the murder of Mr and Mrs Jones. With the gossip about the bigamy still warm the case became something of a soap opera.

At the beginning, Brocher clearly felt that he was going to be let go.

Evening Post 13/1/1897: 6.

A suggestion was made that Mr Jones’ eyes should be photographed, as the image of the murderer would be captured in his retina, although the editor of the North Otago Times noted that the last thing Mr Jones saw was pepper…

North Otago Times 1/10/1896: 3.

And a witness gave his testimony in a fake French accent…

Evening Post 15/1/1897: 6.

While another gave testimony in fake broken English.

Evening Post 18/3/1897: 6.

Brocher had been concerned that he would be accused of the murder because throwing pepper is a “foreign trick”.

Evening Post 18/3/1897: 6.

And of course, Josephine made a statement as to the character of her previous husband.

Mataura Ensign 30/3/1897: 4.

Ultimately it was the bigamy case that would be Brocher’s downfall. Previously, his current wife, Mary Anne Reece, had not been expected to testify against her husband (Hastings Standard 14/11/1896: 2). But after it was clear that she was not his wife she was open to questioning by law enforcement. Mary Anne Reece gave testimony that her husband had been acting strangely that night, was shaken, had a cut on his hand, and that she had seen the supposed murder weapon and it had gone missing following the murders (Evening Post 16/1/1897: 5). The fact that her entire life had just been destroyed by the bigamy case doesn’t appear to have had much sway over the court.

His criminal past (including outstanding warrant for his arrest for the horse and bridle), the bigamy case, the fact that he had a history as a scammer, and now the testimony from Mary Anne Reece meant that opinion was quickly turning against Brocher. In many ways, it no longer mattered if he was guilty of the murders…. In the eyes of the public he was absolutely guilty of something.

Brocher’s story ends in 1897 when he was sentenced to death for the Petone murders. In his final statement he reaffirms his innocence, and accuses some of the witnesses of lying to the court (Evening Post 24/3/1897: 2). He would later forgive these witnesses with his last words at the gallows (Evening Post 21/4/1897:5).

Evening Post 24/3/1897: 2.

Etienne Brocher was hanged at the Terrace Gaol on 21 April 1897 (Evening Post 21/4/1897:5).

Matt Hennessey

 

References

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Ashburton Guardian. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Evening Post. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Hastings Standard. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Mataura Ensign. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

New Zealand Police Gazettes. [online]. Available at https://www.archway.archives.govt.nz/.

New Zealand Times. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Timaru Herald. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Land Information New Zealand, c,1860. Deeds index – C/S 8 – Subdivisions of rural sections register. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.

 

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