Belfast man Albert Black became known as the 'jukebox killer' and was hanged in New Zealand in 1955... now a fascinating new book suggests the 20-year-old could have been the victim of a shocking miscarriage of justice
Author Dame Fiona Kidman on her quest to find out truth about young expat executed for murder
Dame Fiona Kidman's fascinating new novel, This Mortal Boy, is a fictionalised true crime story about Belfast-born Albert 'Paddy' Black, who became the second-last person to be hanged in New Zealand. Known as the "jukebox killer", he was executed in 1955. Here, Fiona (79) explains why she's convinced Albert was the victim of a miscarriage of justice and how she travelled from her home in New Zealand to Belfast to piece together crucial details of his life.
Q. Your new novel This Mortal Boy is about the short life and death of Albert 'Paddy' Black, an assisted immigrant from Belfast, who at the age of 20 was the second-last person to be hanged for murder in New Zealand. What is the background to the case?
A. Albert Black emigrated to New Zealand in 1953 as an assisted immigrant or "ten pound Pom" as they used to be known. The New Zealand he came to was gripped by moral fervour. We were recovering from the war years, and life was a struggle for many people.
Throughout the war years and before there had been a Labour Government that had fairly liberal views. But there had been many American servicemen here and returning New Zealand servicemen resented their influence. There was a desire for a return to "the good old days" where everyone knew their place and women were modest and chaste, and rural values of hard work and thrift ruled.
In 1949, a National Government came to power under the leadership of Prime Minister Sid Holland, who promised to "put things right", and also to restore the death penalty. But young people had their own ideas and, for many, American culture - music, dance, clothes - held great appeal, and English seamen who wore Teddy Boy clothes during their time on shore were also changing the way people looked.
Q. Tell us about Albert.
A. Albert lived quietly near Wellington, boarding with a widow with children, and a friend called Peter Simpson, for a year or so. He sang, built a play hut for the children, kept a pet hedgehog and cried when it died.
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During that time a scandal erupted in the area where he was living, and was reported in a major newspaper, Truth, suggesting that promiscuous behaviour was taking place on the river bank and in picture theatres among young people (there is nothing to suggest that Albert was in any way involved).
Holland commissioned a report into the moral behaviour of New Zealand youth from a lawyer friend of his called Oswald Mazengarb, that was despatched to every household with children in the country. This was known as the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents.
Albert got homesick and moved to Auckland, hoping to make money to return home when his compulsory two-year time in NZ was up. He fell in with a crowd of "bodgies and widgies" and Teddy Boys who frequented a local cafe in central Auckland. They were regarded as outsiders. When his trial took place it was heavily influenced by the moralising Mazengarb Report.
One of the people in this crowd was a violent youth called Alan Jacques, but who went by the name of Johnny McBride, a character in a Mickey Spillane novel. There was a fight and Albert killed Johnny, though that doesn't seem to have been his intention; he claimed to have been acting in self-defence. He was hanged for murder five months later. It has been said by people who knew Albert that he was terrified of Johnny.
Q. What was it about Albert that made you determined to tell his story?
A. I read a newspaper article looking back to the case of "the jukebox killer" as Albert was called (because the incident took place in front of a jukebox). I was a teenager at the same time as Albert - I was 15 at the time of his death.
The man interviewed for this article was called Pooch (Claude) Quintal and he was still protesting 50 years later that Albert was innocent of murder - that the crime was manslaughter, and that he hadn't been able to give evidence because he was in prison at the time.
It struck a nerve. I started looking at the case out of a sense of curiosity rather than with an intention to write a book. Straight away it seemed to me that there may have been a miscarriage of justice. I have been involved in various campaigns of one kind or another. My father was Irish, it was my era - suddenly, I knew it was a book.
Q. As part of your research, you travelled to Belfast. What did you find out about him and his family?
A. The family story is largely imagined because I could not find any living descendants; it may be that he still has a brother alive who was 10 years younger (born in 1945). But I did discover where his first home was - Tates Avenue - and his second one, in Gay Street, which was in the Sandy Row area; the church where his parents married (St Anne's) and when, and the death of a brother before he was born.
I also found accounts of the 12,000 signatures on the petition his mother Kathleen raised to present to the New Zealand Government. She also appealed to the Queen. Not only was her petition turned down, the National Government and its ministers denied her entry to New Zealand in order to say goodbye to her son.
I had wonderful help from Births, Deaths and Marriages, and staff at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. A lot of what I did was just walking around, following the paths that Albert must have walked. There was nobody home when I knocked on the door in Tates Avenue. I am sad I didn't have long enough to follow some possible links to his mother's relatives (I think there might have been Tates and McKays).
There are still living people who knew Albert in New Zealand, one was an eyewitness to the incident in which Johnny McBride died, so there were all those interviews. And there were just months of reading everything I could lay my hands on to get a further feel for Belfast, and for the era in New Zealand, even though I had lived through it. The living witness was a Teddy Boy at the time; the police said they had enough New Zealand witnesses and they weren't needed. Also, I was given the transcripts of the trial, a real breakthrough.
Q. Albert has a daughter, born three months after his death, and she has descendants. Have you met with any of them?
A. I have met the daughter, a wonderful, strong woman. There are issues of privacy and I can't reveal a lot about her. She did not grow up with her birth mother. She just wanted to know more about who she was and where her father came from, because that has all been kept secret for some of the people involved. She has been pleased that she has learned positive things about Albert, rather than the lurid newspaper accounts that exist
Q. Albert's death, however, gave rise to a tide of disgust about the death penalty.
A. Newspaper reporters were allowed to witness executions provided they simply gave a times and place account, nothing colourful. A Truth newspaper reporter called Jack Young defied this, and he wrote a heartrending account of Albert's death and its attendant horrors. The penultimate chapter of the book is based on this eyewitness count.
There was a tide of public revulsion to the killings which were happening every few weeks in Mount Eden jail in the heart of NZ's biggest city. Ralph Hannan, the Minister for Justice, who had been campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty, found it helpful in his campaign. The death penalty was abolished in 1963.
Labour had come back into power and suspended the death penalty, then National came back and reinstated it, but Hannan, a member of the National Party, had the ammunition to persuade nine members of the caucus to join with Labour in abolishing it. But it also highlighted the irony that it was which party was in government that determined whether or not a person was put to death
Q. You believe Albert was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Tell us about that.
A. If Albert Black was guilty of manslaughter rather than murder he would not have received the death penalty. He says he was acting in self-defence because Johnny McBride had beaten him up badly the night before, and had said he would finish him off the next day.
Albert was terrified of him, and said in his evidence that Johnny had told him in the cafe that he was a yellow Irish b*****d and he would finish the fight outside. In other words, at that moment he was terrified he would be killed.
It appeared that Albert panicked when he picked up the knife and gave him what was supposed to be a warning blow to the shoulder. He went straight to the police station, accompanied by another youth to tell them what had happened.
Q. Is there anything else that clouds the outcome of his trial?
A. When the police arrived, there were three Teddy boys (young English seamen) present as well as a number of young Kiwi men. The police rounded up the NZ youths and told the Teddy boys they were not wanted, they had enough witnesses. One of those Englishmen is still alive. I have interviewed him with a witness present.
Some of the Kiwi witnesses were never called. One was a man known as Pooch Quintal (real name Claude). He committed a petty crime the following day and was sent to borstal in Invercargill. The police would not agree to him being sent north for the trial. Pooch lived for another 50 years, protesting that Albert was not given a fair trial, and that his evidence would be that Albert had spoken the truth.
Also, when the matter came to trial, the witnesses did not support Albert's statement and said they had heard nothing pass between the two men. We don't know whether they were telling the truth or not, but under cross-examination they mostly agreed that they were partially drunk, or that they couldn't remember. Was there some collusion between them, and if so why?
One can only guess at this but there are two possibilities. After Albert left the cafe and went to the police, some of the young men rolled Johnny on to his back, plunging the knife in deeply and cutting his spinal cord. It seems that a superficial wound had turned fatal. It appeared from the forensic evidence that this was what actually killed him.
The young men were obviously trying to help but they may have become panicked into thinking they would be involved in his death.
Or did they concoct a story between them? We know that some of them had committed petty crimes - were they hoping to find favour by fitting the narrative to their own advantage? This does seem possible, because the youth who accompanied Albert to the police station was subsequently intimidated. He had his car damaged outside the cafe a few nights later, and, apparently in fear, left town the next day. He had to be found by the police and forcibly brought back to Auckland in order to give evidence - which varied from that of other witnesses. The presiding judge commented in closed court that the accused was an "outsider", not the sort of person wanted in New Zealand. His comments were relayed to the jury.
Albert was hanged on the 10th of December 1955 in Mount Eden prison. He was 20 and his last words to his executioners were: "I wish you a merry Christmas gentlemen and a happy New Year."
Q. Tell us about your own early years.
A. I had a rural childhood in the far north of New Zealand. My parents had shifted north at the end of the Second World War and were subsistence farmers and orchardists. They were very hard-up and had no vehicle.
I fell ill at the age of six and stayed in hospital for several weeks, without visits from them - we lived about 25 miles away. There was a visiting school teacher who came once a week and she taught me how to read on the first visit. I didn't know it was supposed to take time to learn to read. Books have been my lifeline to the world ever since.
Those early years up north were pretty tough. I was an only child. But when I was 13 my father inherited money from his aunts in Bandon, Co Cork, and we moved away to a dairy farm, and there were some very happy years in the farming community of Waipu.
I didn't get a lot of education but I sure knew how to milk cows, and join in the social life of the small township, go to dances, have boyfriends. Then for a variety of reasons we had to sell up the farm and we moved south again to Rotorua, the geothermal town in the centre of the North Island. I became a librarian. But I was also of the rock 'n' roll generation and there were some great dance halls around
Q. You've had a very varied career?
A. I married at 20. My husband Ian was a school teacher and we were hard-up too. When the children came (and I stopped working, as one did in the 1960s) I decided to try some freelance journalism in order to make some extra money.
I did well, but I had already decided when I was expecting my first baby that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write a novel right away, but there was all that thing of being a housewife and a mother, which, by the way, I loved. And someone introduced me to the head of broadcasting in New Zealand and I was invited to write radio plays, and then television. By this time we had shifted to Wellington, where I have lived now for 50 years, in the same house on a clifftop overlooking Cook Strait, the sea that divides the North Island from the South Island, and writing fiction and poetry has been interspersed with raising money.
Other women by this stage were going out to work because they needed two incomes. Staying home without earning was a luxury we couldn't afford. I had a full-time job for some years as a radio talks producer too. I threw it in when I realised that my dream of writing novels would never happen if I didn't make some changes. I was given my first government grant.
Q. Your maiden name is Eakin, do you have Northern Irish ancestry?
A. Not Northern Ireland, but close by! My grandfather Henry Eakin was born in Fenagh, Co Leitrim, or so it says on his birth certificate. My grandmother was from Bandon, Co Cork, where my father spent a lot of his early life. However, my father was actually born in Middlesbrough, and after a roving life, migrated here in about 1927 (he was a 'ten bob Pom', it was cheaper then!). I never met my father's family; he never went back "home". He was always homesick.
Q. You enjoyed a long and happy marriage with Ian until his death two years ago in an accident.
A. I met Ian in the library when he brought a group of his students in. I fell for him straight away.
He was of Maori descent, his tribe Ngati Maniapoto. We were married in a Maori Anglican church. So there was that point of difference as a family. Although mixed marriages are common enough, back in the 1960s it could be an issue for some people. My mother's Scots Presbyterian family had to get their heads around that. But then my mother's marriage to an Irishman had been a source of discord and she had had to deal with that herself. Outsiders, again.
Ian was an amazing man with a passion for everything he did. His death was only 20 months ago and it's still pretty raw. I finished This Mortal Boy two weeks before his sudden death. He was so interested in the book.
Q. After such a long relationship, it must be very difficult to try to adjust to life as a widow?
A. Yes, it is hard. We travelled a lot together, talked a lot, loved a lot. I am fortunate to have a wonderful and supportive family including two amazing people, my daughter Joanna and son Giles, now six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. I'm blessed, in spite of loss.
Q. When you visited Northern Ireland what impressed you the most?
A. I had been to the Republic but not to Northern Ireland. I wished I had been there for longer and hope I might go back. The kindness of strangers was what impressed me the most, the way people would help me to find my way from one place to another and have chats.
And I thought Belfast a beautiful city, though I probably only saw a glimpse of what the whole city really looks like.
Q. What is the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to you?
A. Sudden death is traumatic and I don't want to dwell on that right now. I've had some traumas in Asia where we spent a lot of time. In the early 1990s we went by mistake to a smugglers camp on the Vietnam/Cambodian border, and escaped just with our lives, guns held at our heads. I think it was decided we were more foolish than anything and we were let go.
Q.. And the best?
A. The birth of a child, and every time a new one comes into the family it is a miracle. There was a new one last week.
Q. Are you religious?
A. No. Ian was a Buddhist, but I am not that. I respect belief and faith but I don't necessarily share it.
Q. Apart from writing, what are your other interests?
A. Going to the movies and concerts. Hanging out with my family, my cliff-side garden, planted mainly in native trees and shrubs. And reading, of course.
Q. Any phobias?
A. Racial intolerance.
Q. Favourite writers? Piece of music? Film?
A. Alice Munro, Anne Enright. I'm reading Maggie O'Farrell's I Am I Am I Am right now, and for the moment it is my favourite book in the world, apart from Seamus Heaney's Collected Poems which stays on my bedside table, always; Sebastian Barry. I loved Anna Burns' Milkman. The best film I've seen this year is the Mexican film Roma.
Q. Any unfulfilled ambitions?
A. You know, I reckon I've had a lucky life. I'd rather enjoy the good things in my life now, than keep on and on striving, which I discovered was very hard work. Though I did it for a long time.
This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman is published by Gallic Books, £8.99