It was a grisly scene that Tamalee walked into when he entered his friend Peter Kakua’s house on Bastion Street in December of 1868.
Tamalee later testified in court that Kakua — also known as Kanaka Pete — had come by his house the evening of Dec. 4, and spoke to him in ominous tones about having to “go away” for the crime of murdering his wife, baby, and wife’s parents.
After expressing his disbelief, Kakua showed Tamalee the bloody stump where his finger was missing — chewed off by his father in law in the struggle, he said.
Kakua was so drunk it made anything he said seem implausible, but just in case, Tamalee went to check on the family.
It was there that he discovered their hacked-up corpses.
These graphic details of Kakua’s story were recently unearthed by Aimee Greenaway, program co-ordinator for the Nanaimo Museum, during her research for the museum’s upcoming lantern tour.
Until now, little has been known about the circumstances of the family murders and Kakua’s ensuing trial.
Kakua was from Honolulu and came to the West Coast on a Hudson’s Bay Company boat, as did many at that time, said Greenaway.
It was in a 1972 edition of the Hawaiian Journal of History that she found a 10-page chaper, written by W. J. Illerbrun, that described the incident in detail.
The story will feature in the tour, as well as a related ghost tale she found in an old edition of the Daily Colonist.
Starting next week, the tour will also cover some of the darker and more grisly tales from Nanaimo’s history, including that of cult leader Brother XII and Henry “The Flying Dutchman” Wagner — the last man to be hung in Nanaimo.
It will also wind through various downtown hotels, the old provincial jail, courthouse and the former foundry site.
“It’s things we wouldn’t normally have on our usual downtown walking tours,” said Greenaway.
“We don’t normally highlight axe murderers and public hangings and things that aren’t really that pleasant.”
Kakua, or Kanaka Pete, is inextricably linked with Newcastle Island, which became his final burial place in what is now Kanaka Bay.
It was to Newcastle that Kakua initially fled following the murders, after his friend Tamalee informed another man, Charles York, of the crimes. It was York who then went to the police and set off a manhunt, wrote Illerbrun, a former history associate at the University of Hawaii.
With the idea that he would row his canoe over to the mainland to escape, Kakua convinced another drunken friend, Adam Stepney, to accompany him.
However once Stepney realized Kakua’s intention, he demanded to get off on Newcastle Island. It was there that both men disembarked at dawn, and drank until the police surprised them on the afternoon of Dec. 5.
Two days later, at the coroner’s inquest, more details on the circumstances of that evening were uncovered by Illerbrun in the official statement offered by Kakua (in English, not his first language).
His wife Que-en, also known as Mary, informed him via her brother that she was taking their baby and moving out, said Kakua.
On the evening of their murders he said he had come home to find Que-en and her parents Squash-e-lik and Shil-at-ti-Nord in their home on Bastion Street, gathering her possessions.
“He left again to go and drink, and then he came back to find them sitting around a fire . . . and that’s when he lost it,” said Greenaway.
It was an ensuing fight with Que-en’s father Squash-e-lik, that led him to pick up an axe and swing it indiscriminantly until his entire family was dead — including his infant daughter.
After pleading not guilty, Kakua was convicted of four counts of murder in two separate trials.
At 7 a.m. on March 10, 1869 Kakua was hung, and buried in an unmarked grave on Newcastle Island.
The accounts of where Kakua was put to death vary – with some sources claiming he was hung at Gallows Point on Protection Island.
“My understanding is that he spent his last night in the jail underneath the Bastion, and that they built a scaffold right outside and just hung him there,” said Bill Merilees, author of Newcastle Island: A Place of Discovery.
“Why would they move him out (to Gallows Point)? He tried to escape from them before.”
According to the Daily Colonist from March 11, 1869, which simply states he was hung in Nanaimo, Kakua “ascended the scaffold unflinchingly, made no remarks, and struggled but slightly after the drop fell. His neck was evidently broken.”
However this was not to be the last of Kanaka Pete.
On Oct. 4, 1899, workers from the New Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company were excavating a new mine shaft on Newcastle Island in what is now known as Kanaka Bay when they unearthed a well-preserved coffin.
According to Merilees, the coffin contained a body complete with leather shoes still in good condition. Following a coroner’s inquest, it was concluded that it was Kakua, said Merilees.
“The coroner’s inquest would have determined he died of a broken neck and so on,” he said.
Thirty years after his death, the story of Kanaka Pete was again revived, and according to the Daily Free Press he was reburied again in Kanaka Bay.
Today, the gory tale lives on in the form of ghost stories told around the fire by those camping on Newcastle Island.
For Greenaway, one of the most compelling ghost tales involves former MLA H. “Jim” Hawthornthwaite.
Recounted in the April 27, 1953 edition of the Daily Colonist, the story claims that Hawthornthwaite was living “near the famous Bastion and behind the present Plaza Hotel” with a man named Arthur Potts.
One evening, the article said, Potts heard a commotion in the living room and found the Irish parliamentarian standing near the fireplace, brandishing a poker.
Hawthornthwaite shakily explained that he had seen a man in the room, “‘covered with blood’ and ‘holding a bloodstained axe.’”
Colonist writer Bert Binny went to say that neither man had publicized the incident until years later, when Hawthornthwaite confessed the story to a police officer.
“It took 30 years for the story to come out,” said Greenaway.
“It turned out that the house Jim Hawthornthwaite was living in was either the same house, or on the site where the axe murder happened.”
This house site is just one of the stops on the Nanaimo Museum’s lantern tours, led by Greenaway and her lamp.
The tour runs Oct. 18, 23, 25 and 30 from 6:30 – 8 p.m. The tour meets at the Nanaimo Museum, and costs $15 per person.
Pre-registration is required at call 250-753-1821. Space is limited. For more information go to www.nanaimomuseum.ca, or email email@example.com.
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