Domestic Maids and the Curse of the Bloody Handprint


New Zealand Wants Domestic Servants

New Zealand Wants Domestic Servants. Source: The Weekly Press, 18th June, 1913, page 41. Image: Christchurch City Public Libraries File Reference Photo CD 6, IMG0035.

This charming advertisement designed in 1913, was printed onto postcards and distributed at the New Zealand High Commission Office in London to attract young, single women to the colony. Irregardless of their limited education, the new colony desperately wanted more young women to fill domestic positions in hotels and private homes of prosperous immigrants.

One young woman who fitted this calling was Irish girl, Margaret Burke.1 She had arrived in Christchurch in the 1860′s in the search of a better life and circumstances. She applied for a position as a domestic maid in the affluent Christchurch home of runholder and politician, William Robinson. Robinson also owned a a mansion and large run near Cheviot. On account of his habit of being able to pay cash for his stock purchases as well as his general reputation for his wealth, he earned the sobriquet, Ready-Money-Robinson.

The Robinson’s rented town house was on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Montreal Streets. This area, close to the Canterbury Club, ‘oozed’ status, respectability and wealth. Lined with the homes of Canterbury’s richest inhabitants; doctors, run holders and solicitors, the most activity on a quiet summer’s day in January were ladies in open carriages pulling in and out of the sweeping, raked shingle driveways partaking in the fresh air around the park or making house calls to neighbouring homes. While garden sprinklers greened up lawns, gardeners toiled at clipping hedges and mowing the lawns, the only noise was the soft wafting of the weeping willows as they swayed in the wind beside the meandering Avon River.

Murder and Afternoon Tea

However in the afternoon of January 9th, 1871, this picturesque and peaceful atmosphere was broken by the blood curdling screams of a girl being murdered at the Robinsons as they partook in afternoon tea.

The murderer was their negro butler, Simon Cedeno, who had been in Robinson’s employment for four years. Born in Santa Fe, Bogota in South America in 1853, twenty eight year old Cedeno had been working at the Aspinwall Hotel in Panama in 1867, when by chance, he met the wealthy Canterbury farmer, William ‘Ready Money’ Robinson who was travelling via the canal on his way back to Canterbury with his family. The Robinson had gone over to England in 1859 to live as gentry while educating their five daughters and Robinson indulged in his passion for horse racing.

It was the height of fashion for a ‘smart’ household to employ at least one man servant of colour especially after Queen Victoria had taken a young Indian boy servant into her household. Obviously, the exoticism of idea appealed to Robinson, so while he had the chance and certainty of a good reference from the hotel owner, he decided to bring Cedeno back to New Zealand with him. However, in the extremely parochial community of Christchurch, only used to European influence, a butler ‘of colour’ was at best a novelty and at worst, a peculiar figure to be made fun of.

Unrequited Love

Cedeno was a good servant according to Mrs Eliza Jane Robinson who found he was on the best of terms with all the other servants in the household. At times, he would be surly if he was teased about his impending marriage and Robinson had witnessed Cedeno chase one of the servant girls in a threatening manner and had to give him a verbal warning. Although no one suspected Cedeno was dangerous, Robinson had since discovered that the good reference he received was false and he had been ‘troublesome’ in Panama.

The household undermaid, ‘Kate’ Catherine Glynne was a cousin of the kitchen maid, ‘Maggie’ Margaret Burke. Kate had only been working in the household for three months prior to the tragedy. She had got on well with Cedeno and she noticed that he would often do little things for the other maids. However, she also felt he was quick to anger at times. Her cousin, Maggie had acted as she should have with Cedeno even though Cedeno had feelings for Maggie. Apparently she had rejected his offer of marriage. Cedeno was so angry over her rejection, he had beaten his fists on the table and threatened to beat Burke. Others said that afterwards, the two girls had been prone to ‘chaffing’ Cedeno over ‘a new girl’ and his forthcoming marriage to her.

Perhaps Cedeno’s weariness of his employer’s attitude to him or the increasing slurs meted out to him by the maids was too much for him. He had told Robinson he wanted to leave the household but Robinson threatened him with having to make payment for all the butler’s clothes that had been bought for him. Although there is no record of his intention to marry, according to witnesses, it appears he may have planned to marry Maggie. However this unrequited love lead to him telling the household he had another ‘girl’ and planned to marry her to escape his unhappy predicament.

The uneasy atmosphere in the house became so bad that Kate and Maggie were advised to stop teasing Cedeno by their family members as well as by their parish priest, the day before at Sunday mass. They decided they would not talk to Cedeno. On that fateful Monday, the two girls went about their work silently and independently – Cedeno sat in his pantry cleaning the silver, Catherine worked in the scullery and Margaret scrubbed in the kitchen. Cedeno thought he heard the girls joking about his intended marriage.  Kate later said in court, “Simon was sitting in his pantry, looking down, and then he would look at Maggie (Margaret) and then at a little box on the shelf, and repeatedly he would look up at the sky. His manner appeared very strange.”

While holding a long silver handled bread knife, he suddenly cracked and rushed out at Kate and began shaking her. He cried, “I have caught you now.”

You will kill her, you brute

The victim put her arms up crying, “Oh, Merciful Jesus.”

He cried, “You are done for.”

He viciously stabbed her in the face, throat and on her breast bone. Losing consciousness, she fell onto the pump but soon came to and escaped out through the back door. Cedeno had by that stage turned on Margaret in the kitchen. It is not known what was said but she managed to get away from him by running out into the hall as he called out, “You talk of Mary. You talk of my girl?”

“The witness closed with him in the dining room.” Source: The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (January 1, 1934). Image: NZETC

A visitor, Patrick Campbell, was standing in the hall when he heard the girl’s shrieks of terror and saw the terrified Margaret rush down the hallway towards him, with Cedeno closely behind her. Maggie ran past Campbell into the supposed safety of the dining room however Cedeno followed close behind.  As she tried to get away, her long skirts caught on the chairs making her stumble. Cedeno caught her left hand with his and pulled her to the floor.  She screamed and screamed as he stabbed her violently stabbing in her left side of her chest and arm.

By this stage, Kate, who was badly injured, had managed to run in through the front door of the house to get help. She looked into the dining room to see Maggie being attacked by Cedeno.

Campbell grabbed Cedeno around the neck and tried to pull his right arm away to stop the fatal blows. He cried out, “You will kill her, you brute!”

Cedeno stopped and looked at Campbell’s face saying, “Yes, I kill!”

He turned back with all his power and stabbed Margaret again, before Campbell finally pulled him off and held him in a stranglehold.  Bleeding profusely from her chest, Margaret got up and went a few ‘yards’ before succumbing to the fatal blows and falling face first onto the hearth rug.

Mrs Robinson tried to take the knife but cut her finger in the process so instead demanded that he hand over the knife. He calmly replied, “I give the knife to you, ma’am.”

Price, the groom and Patrick Campbell held Cedeno in the dining room. When Doctor Henry Prins arrived, Cedeno on seeing Mrs Robinson leave the room said, “Good bye Ma’am.”

They escorted him down to the Police Depot on Hereford Street, while two doctors were immediately sent for.

On their walk to the station, Cedeno told Price, “You kill Maoris and wild cattle while I kill English girls.”

He admitted that he would have killed Mr. Robinson had he not been away on business buying a bull and that in his country people called him, “wildman, madman, but I am not.”

Doctors Turnbull and Henry Horsford Prins arrived at the house and attended the injured Catherine before sending her by cab to the hospital. Tragically, Margaret had died of a fatal blow to the heart and her body was removed to the ‘dead house’ at the hospital.

Huge headlines screamed out, on January 10th,

“An occurrence unequalled in our provincial annals and fitted to be classed amongst the worst deeds of personal violence, startled the city from its wonted equanimity yesterday afternoon. The details were at first received, even by the most credulous, with complete disbelief, but inquiry shewed that horrible as they were, they were but too true. The tragedy comprises the death of one female and the almost miraculous escape of another.”

Cedeno’s crime was sensationalised in the newspapers. The description of his racial features in the Lyttelton Times read as if it had some ‘relevance’ to his murderous attack,

“He is of negro extraction, all the principal characteristics of that race being prominent in his features, but the complexion is something lighter than that of a pure bred negro, and the hair longer, thus denoting the admixture of blood with some other colored race, probably the Gambian.”

Mr Burke’s inquest was held at the Royal Hotel on Oxford Terrace at 2pm on January 10th.The gentlemen summoned to assist on the jury first met at the Hospital where they were sworn in as the jury by the Coroner, Dr. Coward. They then proceeded to view the body in the dead house, and subsequently adjourned to the hotel as there was no space at the hospital to carry it out there. Cedeno was attended in handcuffs and was supplied with an interpreter who repeated the proceedings in Spanish. He admitted he would not have killed the girls had Mr. Robinson not been away buying a bull.  Mrs Robinson was ‘much affected’ during her evidence at the inquest and a large crowd stood outside the hotel. The inquest finished with the conclusion being ‘wilful murder’. Cedeno was lead outside where a large waiting crowd stared and jeered at him. He was taken back to the police station by cab to await the next Supreme Court session.

Seduced by the Instigation of the Devil

On March 8th, 1871, in the Supreme Court, Cedeno stood trial before Judge Gresson and a twelve men jury for his crime. Mr Duncan appeared for the Crown while Mr Joynt represented Cedeno. The charge read out against him used ‘quaint’ phraseology,

“Prisoner, you stand indicted by the name of Simon Cedeno that, not having the fear of God before your eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 9th day of January, in the year of Our Lord 1871, you feloniously and wilfully and of your malice aforethought did kill and murder Margaret Burke, against the peace of our Lady the Queen, her Crown and Dignity.”

Catherine Glynne was called as a witness but she was still badly injured about the neck and so nervous to be facing a man who tried to kill her, she was barely audible as she recalled the events of the tragedy.

In conclusion the Crown stated,

Cedeno was not fit to live in society, and ought to be punished by death, as an example to others who might otherwise be tempted to commit a similar crime. When he sat down he received a round of applause from the audience. Mr. Duncan’s observations which were quite uncalled for, far exceeded his duty. It was no part of his duty to call for the death penalty. His observation that the death penalty would serve as a deterrent to others was just as unfortunate as it was probably unsound.

Cedeno pleaded not guilty and made a statement at the conclusion of the trial,

Ready Money Robinson

Ready-Money-Robinson. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: PAColl-5564-002. Image: Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

”Mr Robinson brought me to this country, four years and four months ago. I was a very good servant to Mr Robinson at the Cheviot Hills Station.

Mr Robinson gave me a scolding – he said, ‘Black nigger; black heart’.  I said to him, ‘Mr Robinson, give me my accounts, because I do not wish to stay,’ and he said, ‘Very well; if you want your accounts, I will charge you with all your clothes.’ I said, ‘Very well; give me my right money.’ That is about fourteen months ago, and if he had given me my money then, what occurred on Monday at four o’clock, would not have taken place.

Mrs Robinson was very kind to me, but Mr Robinson was not. When there was a dinner party, Mr Robinson, in the presence of his visitors, molested me by telling them in my presence that I had a black heart. That is my statement, and I am now resigned to what the law may do with me.”

“On account of the excitement Mr. Joynt asked the Judge to adjourn for five minutes, and the Judge offered to do so for a longer period if need be. The speech that Mr. Joynt made on the resumption was a curious one. Apparently he was feeling the weight of public opinion. He implored the jury to divest themselves of the prejudice that existed. He referred to the singular round of applause that had succeeded Mr. Duncan’s closing remarks. He then went on to tell the jury that he himself had found that there was a deep rooted public desire for revenge in the case of this prisoner, so much so that he had been told by people, who certainly ought to have known better, that he did wrong in taking up the defence of the poor wretch. He added: “But I felt, and still feel, that I had a very grave duty to perform, namely, to step in and find if I could find anything that might, by urging it upon your attention, save the life of this man.” He agreed that the facts were few and simple.”

Mr. Joynt then proceeded with his address to the jury, and said the presumption to be drawn from their previous good relations was that there had been no malice. He said that when he committed the act the prisoner was actuated by some strange feeling, whatever it was, which amounted to almost a monomania. He admitted it was a crime, but that it was for the jury to say whether it was murder or manslaughter. He finally urged that Cedeno had been unable to control himself, and that strong overpowering sensations had taken hold of him.”

The strong feeling against Cedeno was heavily influenced by the small community’s prejudice towards this ‘outsider’ – this bad, black skinned man. Feeling was made greater by the sensationalist articles in the newspapers. The murder occurred in the home of one of Canterbury’s most prominent and respected members of the community made the crime more sensational and impossible to have a fair trial in a local court.

Although Catherine Glynne was “terribly cut about the face by the infuriated ‘coloured gentleman’ she did not pay such an extreme penalty for her banter” compared to his victim, Margaret Burke. Her inquest and death certificate signed by Dr. John W. S. Coward, wrongly records that she was a servant of about forty years of age, her family said she was only 22 year old.

Nearly five hundred people attended her funeral at the Catholic Pro-Cathedral conducted by Father Chervier, the same priest who attended Cedeno as he was executed. She was buried afterwards in the Catholic Section of the Barbadoes Street Cemetery.

The Execution of Cedeno

It was reported that the convicted Cedeno spoke “English, but very imperfectly, gave great proof of intelligence, altogether, he is a superior stamp to the ordinary run of coloured men.”

Judge Gresson sentenced him to death. This was the second execution since the beginning of Canterbury. Handcuffed and lead away, Cedeno was imprisoned in the Lyttelton Gaol and executed on Wednesday, April 5th there. He conducted himself with great firmness throughout the proceeding, and being a Catholic was attended on the scaffold by the Reverend Father Chervier and Father Boibieux. The papers stated that, ‘He walked to the scaffold with a ‘dogged, sombre expression’.

The sheriff and other officials went over, from Christchurch by special, train, at a 7.15 am, but did not proceed to the gaol until within a few moments of the appointed hour. He was hung on the jibbet at 8 am on April 5th 1871, dying very quickly, and without any struggling. The customary inquest was afterwards held.

Detail showing the bloodied hand print. Photograph copyright J. Adams.

The famous ‘Bloodstone’ remains, circa 1954. Photo: copyright J. Adams.

As a mark of respect, it was reported in the Local and General column of the Star on September 4th, 1871,

IN MEMORIAM.- The Hon. Wm. Robinson, Mrs Robinson, and Misses Robinson have erected in the Catholic Cemetery, Christchurch, a very handsome headstone at the grave of Margaret Burke, who was murdered by Cedeno, in January last, as a mark of respect for the unfortunate girl. They have also gone to the additional expense of having the ground enclosed by stone pillars and iron bars. The work was executed by Mr Taaffe.

The epitaph on the stone memorial read,

Margarett Burke, native of Galway in Ireland who was murdered on the 9th of January 1871 in the 22nd year of her age. She was loved in life, mourned in death.’

Robinson was not to know that his attempt to try and somehow rectify the sad loss of Margaret’s death, was only made worse.  Some years after, the grey memorial stone began to partly oxidize exposing a red mark,  the shape of which, seemed to be a bloodied hand print. Although many tried to clean it off, the indelible mark in the stone remained.  This macabre sight became quite famous and over the years, drew many people to look upon Magaret’s bloody handprint.  Over fifty years after the girl’s death, the Press on May 2nd, 1929 reported,

“The scoffers whisper that it is only a water mark which has always been on the stone and suggest that the Hon. William Robinson bought a cheap piece of material; but the story is too good to spoil by rationalising explanations. Its fame has even travelled overseas for one of the workmen at present employed in the cemetery said he had once been called out at eight in the morning by two Americans who had come to see the miracle. 

One local story of a Christchurch woman, records her terrifying experience when she went with her son to see Burke’s grave. She was initally very sceptical of the ‘bleeding stone’ however she was amazed when she saw what looked like a bloodstained mark in the shape of the hand on the stone. Thinking someone had painted it on as a joke, she wet her old hankie and began to rub it off. As she was doing this,

“Scream after scream rent the air… A blackbird had flown at my son and as he tried to run away his foot got caught in a piece of wire hidden in the long grass. So there he was trapped, terrified and screaming his head off. I’ve never been so frightened in all my life.”

In about 1954, after hearing of this phenomenon, Joseph Adams visited Margaret’s grave and took the photos that are shown here. Joe said “The mark was identified as iron pyrites but the unusual feature was that all the surrounding memorials of similar material showed no similar marks so that was probably what made this particular stone so notorious, given the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death.”2 Unfortunately, Margaret Burke’s grave stone has long since disappeared. As Cedeno was buried in an unmarked grave, the deaths of these young immigrants, are now forgotten by the later generations living in Christchurch. However what is that this tragic crime was partly brought about by racism, cultural differences, rejection and insanity and Cedeno most likely should have been tried on a plea of insanity and committed to an asylum.3

Cheviot Hills Run belonging to Ready Money Robinson painted in 1870 – 72 by Charles Decimus Barraud (1822 – 1897). Source: National Library of New Zealand, Ref: NON-ATL-P0083, Reproduced in New Zealand’s Heritage, Part 62,p.1711.

At a land sale auction in Nelson on Saturday, May 14th, over 50,000 acres of land on the Cheviot Estate were sold to Mr. W. Robinson at the upset price of ten shillings an acre; the only alleged competitor having been brought off by him for the sum of five hundred pounds. 4

This pencil and watercolour painting by Barraud shows, the two-storey, four-gabled home of William (‘Ready Money) Robinson. It is surrounded by fenced paddocks and trees and framed with steep, hills in the background.  On the left, amongst the trees are two slightly smaller houses. Cows rest on a low hill in the left foreground and a haywain is being drawn by a team of bullocks to the right.


  1. Spelt also Margarett  
  2. Thanks to Joe Adams for supplying these images which also featured in “The New Zealand Family Tree”.  
  3. As an aside, Margaret Burke was a cousin to Mr Charles O’Malley, crier at the Supreme Court.  
  4. Source: History of New Zealand, Vol. 1, by Alexander Saunders.  
  1. Wendy Reply

    Many stories exist about the origins of the nickname ‘Ready Money Robinson’, but the most popular relates to the purchase of his Cheviot property.

    Robinson had originally left Liverpool for Adelaide where, according to an Australian newspaper, he was known as “Encounter Bay Bob” – the place where his stock operations were carried out. He then came to NZ in search of a milder climate more suited to his family’s health.

    The popular story has it that with about £30,000 in a sack (because the government would not take his cheque) William went to the Land Office and bought for that sum the ‘extensive and fertile district’ of Cheviot. This was as a result of Sir George Grey’s ‘cheap land’ programme where those with enough money could buy land at 5s – 10s per acre.

    At his death on September 9th, 1889, the Cheviot estate consisted of 84,000 acres of agricultural land, valued at over £300,000. He was described as ‘fabulously rich’. His estate was left to his five daughters, and the Government took over the Cheviot property, which was subdivided and settled, on the perpetual lease system, by 350 families, totalling 2200 persons.

    There seem to be even more stories about the location of the Robinson’s Christchurch home at the time of the Cedeno murder. Australian papers, quoting the Lyttelton Times, reported it to be on the corner of ‘Canterbury-Terrace’ and Salisbury Street. It was more popularly referred to as Park Terrace.

    In her book ‘Ready Money’, William’s Great Granddaughter, Margaret Wigley, writes that the family were actually in residence at the rented home of Sir Frederick Weld, on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Montreal Streets. The year following the murder, not wanting to return to the same house, William bought a property at 52 Park Terrace, spanning the river frontage between Peterborough and Salisbury Streets. This had originally been called Antigua Street, before becoming Park Lane and, in 1872, Park Terrace.

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