As demonstrated by some of our previous articles, crime in late nineteenth century Ashburton could often seem quite ridiculous. Accounts of court cases from old issues of the Ashburton Guardian can range from solemn to hilarious, depending on the circumstances.
With that said, I have thought it appropriate to share what I consider to be one of the oddest criminal cases of Ashburton’s history. What follows is the case of Thomas Nolan and Jeremiah Hefferman – tree thieves.
Trees, of all things?
Two Ashburton Guardian articles, one dated the August 12, 1880, and another a week later, tell an interesting tale of conspiracy, intrigue, and trees.
On the usual page detailing the Resident Magistrate Court session of August 10, wedged between a first offender’s drunk and disorderly case, and a routine sheep-stealing accusation, sits an offence simply titled ‘Alleged Larceny of Trees.’
Two men – keep in mind that two actual men thought this was a good idea – were charged with stealing at least eighteen trees that were the property of the Domain Board. As stated in the newspaper, Thomas Nolan and Jeremiah Hefferman stole what are referred to as “microcarpa” initially which may refer to a great number of smaller species. We also learn that they stole larger trees as well.
At this first hearing, Nolan applied for a remand so that he could get his case straight. Hefferman also requested a remand on account of him only being a lodger with Nolan, or more accurately, he was clearly trying to weasel his way out of the situation entirely and leave Nolan to deal with it. Nolan surely learned a life changing lesson from this case (apart from “don’t steal trees”) – to stop being friends with Jeremiah.
Humphrey W. Charlton, the Domain’s keeper, claimed that a large quantity of trees had been stolen from the Domain on four separate occasions – sixty six trees to be exact, which he reckoned were worth up to £4 19s total. Furthermore, Charlton claimed he had seen some of these trees in Nolan’s garden. The two offenders were detained with a bond of £100 and two £50 sureties each. One week later, on the August 17, the thieves would reappear before Resident Magistrate F Guinness, and what followed was a rollercoaster of a trial.
The second hearing got off to a good start with an argument between a Mr O’Reilly (a witness of the defendants) and Guinness over having the thieves tried separately, which Guinness denied.
HW Charlton then proceeded to lay out every detail he could recall regarding the thefts, and all signs seemed to point at Nolan and Hefferman’s guilt.
Charlton stated that on various dates throughout July and early August, trees had gone missing from the Domain and kept popping up in the same garden almost immediately after. One Mr Cookson eventually came to Charlton asking him if he’d missed any trees, and when he replied that he had indeed missed eighteen trees recently, Cookson directed him to a tree that had been lying out opposite a boarding house.
Charlton reasoned that, given the position of the Domain and the garden where his trees were appearing, that tree Cookson found in the street was on a straight path toward the residence of the accused.
Charlton got a search warrant for the property and went to investigate with Constable Neill. Charlton recognised most of the trees there by marks he had made himself, also noting how all the trees had been pulled up by the roots in an effort to transplant them. Mr O’ Reilly, grasping at straws no doubt, claimed “it is quite possible for other persons to mark trees like this one”, however he was quickly shut down by the testimonies of one other gardener, Constable Neill, and multiple neighbours who had seen the accused planting trees over the last month.
Once all witnesses had been interviewed, and after Nolan made a further statement attempting to exempt Hefferman from any guilt, the Resident Magistrate delivered his verdict. In the end, Hefferman was fined £4 or two weeks in prison, and Nolan was fined £21 18s or two months in prison.
The case of the tree thieves stands out among other accounts of larceny from the Guardian in the 1880s as being one of the strangest premeditated acts by anybody in this town, especially when you start to wonder – just what were they trying to achieve?
We cannot know for certain whether the tree thieves ever struck again, but we can make some inferences based on newspaper records. Thomas Nolan pops up over thirty years later in the Guardian for breaching prohibition laws in Ashburton, however it is not clear whether it was actually him. As for Jeremiah, it seems that this debacle was the last criminal plan he got himself involved with, since his name is not mentioned again in any newspaper nationwide.
By Connor Lysaght
1) A man standing by a bridge in the Domain, 1895.
2) Francis Hart Vicesimus Guinness, the Dublin-born Magistrate of Ashburton at the time of the trial.
3) The old Ashburton courthouse.