Devonport is a 12-minute ferry ride across the harbour from bustling downtown Auckland and yet it retains the ambience of a quaint seaside village where much remains the same. Certainly, on the surface, it seems that little has changed since I lived there 25 years ago. The flagstaff stands tall, and heritage buildings still line the main street. Giant Moreton Bay figs shelter Windsor Reserve while picturesque King Edward Parade remains fringed with pohutukawa trees.

For me, these things are a touchstone to the past, but it remains possible to be jolted by the unfamiliar and unknown stories of others whose lives have been inextricably linked to this place. In late 1991, I was staying with friends who lived in an elegant two-storeyed home at the bottom of Mays Street, near to the intersection with King Edward Parade. The family frequently claimed the house was inhabited by the ghost of a small girl that had been seen on the stairway. I remained sceptical until one night when I was in bed, still sleepless during the midnight hours. I sought solace in a book of local history.

Enormous Moreton Bay Fig Trees flank the waterfront park and library

When I read the story of the brutal killing of naval lieutenant Robert Snow, his wife Hannah, and their six-year-old daughter Mary, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The family was murdered in October 1847 by former ship’s carpenter Joseph Burns, who mutilated his victims’ bodies and burned the house down in an attempt to make the killing look like an attack by local Māori. This inflamed simmering racial tensions until they almost reached boiling point; just as Burns, a violent alcoholic, was convicted of the crime. Under guard the murderer Burns was returned across the water to near the scene of the crime, where – in June 1848 – he was hanged before a large crowd of Māori and Europeans.

It is likely that the house where I read of the murders, was built on the site of the Snow’s razed dwelling. I now wondered if the ghost of the young girl my friends claimed to have seen was the restless soul of six-year-old Mary Snow.

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