Cold case: Bloodied iron bar stashed under shed after Kaiapoi killings in 1916

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sunday, 17 June 2018, 9:26PM
James Holland was found murdered in his shed in May 1916 in a case that remains unsolved. Photo/ NZ Herald
James Holland was found murdered in his shed in May 1916 in a case that remains unsolved. Photo/ NZ Herald

The Holland double murder of 1916 was never solved. And if not for the undesirable instincts of the family cat, the murder weapon might have remained a mystery too.

James Frackleton Holland was an old man, but that didn't seem to stop him putting up a fight when he was attacked with an iron bar.

The 74-year-old's right arm was dislocated in two places, according to a post mortem exam which found the cause of his death was a blow to the head.

He was found in a pool of blood in the shed where he kept his trap - a light, horse-drawn carriage - at the back of his house at Kaiapoi, north of Christchurch.

When his wife, Hilda Marion Holland, aged in her early 30s, rushed to his aid, she too was bludgeoned on the head with the 50mm by 375mm bar and, like James, died of a fractured skull. Both also had cord around their necks.

Hilda appeared to have been killed in the yard and dragged into the house.

The only member of the household to survive the onslaught in the late afternoon of Thursday, May 11, 1916, was their 3-year-old son Cyril, who, after the deaths were discovered the following day, was taken to a relative's home in Christchurch.

The police said both deaths were murder - they ruled out murder-suicide - but the killer was never found. It remains in police files as "homicide unresolved", with the chilling note "murdered and child left in house".

But while the murderer - who, according to one speculative report, may have been a "madman" - fled undetected, the murder weapon was left behind. The iron bar, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, was found under the trap-shed. The detectives were led to hunt for the grisly parcel by a piece of the blood-stained wrapping in the house, brought inside, it was thought, by the cat.

No convincing motive was found for the killings, although there was a suggestion that a large sum of money withdrawn from a building society account may have interested the killer. Certainly a simple mugging was discounted, since James Holland's pockets were undisturbed and still contained £10.

There was a hint the motive might have been sexual. Hilda's clothes were disarranged. But another theory sought to explain this by suggesting that the family had just arrived home: while James unhitched the horse, Hilda was inside changing her clothes when she realised her husband was being attacked and rushed out.

Holland was considered a man of some means. An Irish immigrant, he was a farmer until he sold his land for a freezing works to be built.

He and Marion lived in a two-storey house some way back from the southwestern side of the Kaiapoi River.

Marion was his second wife. He had five children with his first wife.

Holland drove to Christchurch on the day of his death and withdrew by cheque a little over £1000 (worth about $140,000 today) from a building society. He cashed the cheque at a city bank, returned to Kaiapoi with the money in a small bag and lodged it in a bank there.

"It is possible the murderer knew of this money, and thought it would be still in Mr Holland's possession on Thursday night," the Herald's Christchurch correspondent wrote at the time.

No cry for help was heard from the Holland house, although a worker at the property was deaf and unable to speak, according to the Herald.

"The old deaf and dumb man who was working at the back of the premises on Friday morning is proving a difficult witness, on account of his infirmities, but he is understood to have indicated that he saw a man in the yard on the Friday morning."

The police evidence at the inquest was that on the previous night, some hours after the killings, a fisherman named Thompson visited his boat in the river not far from the crime scene. He heard voices in the house and noted a light in the kitchen window. When he returned at 5am on the Friday morning the light was still on.

Hilda Holland's death was reported by an insurance agent who visited the house on the Friday afternoon.

"The front door was about half open, and when he [the agent] knocked, the little boy Cyril came out," the Christchurch Star said.

"The agent asked the child if his father or mother were at home, and the boy, who is not able to speak very well, behaved in a manner which seemed strange to the caller."

The agent stepped into the hallway and saw Hilda lying at the far end, near the kitchen door, in a pool of blood. He made no further investigations and informed the police.

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand recorded that between soon after his arrival in New Zealand in 1868, and 1873, Holland worked for Marmaduke Dixon snr at Dixon's farm inland from Kaiapoi.

Dixon's son, Marmaduke jnr, was a pioneering mountaineer who was involved in a number of the early attempts to reach the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Holland later farmed with his brother, Samuel, at what was known as Kaiapoi Island, then on his own account. He joined the Druids in 1879 and became chairman of the lodge the following year.

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