A Hundred Years On: The Rongahere Tragedy

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It’s one of those things that creeps up on you. This month marks the centennial of a personal family tragedy.

Specifically, on Saturday, 15th May, 1920, my great-great-grandfather John Sharp murdered one of his daughters.

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John was the maternal grandfather of my maternal grandfather – I am descended from his daughter Mary, who married a John Keenan in 1917, and as such wasn’t living with him during that fateful day. It’s a truly heartbreaking tragedy too: John had lost his son (also called John) in the First World War, and as such had some serious mental health problems as a result. The son had been supposed to inherit the family farm in South Otago. Then his wife went to Dunedin, and wrote a letter back to say she was staying there… the eldest daughter saw the letter, realised that her father would react badly, and tried to hide that bit from him. He found the letter, decided that everyone was conspiring against him, and went mad… beating his youngest daughter (aged seven) to death with a stick of manuka. He promptly gave himself up to police.

As a footnote, John Sharp was convicted, and sentenced to death, but he escaped the hangman’s noose on the basis of insanity. He died ten years later, in 1930, in Seacliff Mental Hospital.

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