Forget Islamic extremists or anything to do with the Middle East, the world’s first strapped-on suicide bombing happened in the small South Island town of Murchison.

Joseph Sewell was a 57-year-old farmer from Longford 18km (11miles) from Murchison. He made history when on Friday 14th of July 1905, he strapped sticks of gelignite around his torso and blew himself up outside the Murchison Courthouse. It was an event that got reported worldwide as “The Murchison Tragedy”.


Joseph Sewell had developed a dangerous belief in the efficacy of explosives to settle any dispute. In 1900, he failed in an attempt to sue the Buller County Council for damages to his property caused by a careless cart driver along a council road. After Westport solicitor Edward Harden sent Sewell three accounts with a final demand for payment for having represented him in the case, Sewell marched into his office. “Do you intend to actually get this money?” Sewell shouted to the solicitor.

“Certainly, people in my line of business do not usually go to the trouble or expense for nothing,” calmly replied the solicitor.

“Then we shall go to hell together!” the enraged client announced in a voice that sent a chill down the solicitor’s spine. From under his coat, Sewell then produced a package of dynamite with a detonator attached.

The solicitor jumped up in alarm. “There is no hurry for the money. In fact, I don’t mind if you never pay me.”

A tense silence filled the room for a number of agonizing moments before Joseph Sewell settled down and marched from the office.  

Murchison Courthouse the day after the explosion in 1905


Considerable ill-feeling over a range of property issues had been simmering for a number of years between Sewell and his neighbour Walter Neame who lived across the Mangles River. In 1903, their ongoing dispute grew more serious over a distinctive white-faced heifer. Neame claimed to have not seen the cow since branding and turning it out with four others a mile upstream from Sewell’s farm two years earlier. When Neame finally did spy the distinctive animal on Sewell’s property, he crossed the river for a closer look but Sewell’s daughter stopped him staunchly claiming the animal as theirs. Neame wrote to his neighbour formally claiming the heifer. Sewell responded by padlocking the airborne seat that Neame used for crossing the river. Police were called to intervene in the escalating dispute but decided there was nothing they could do. When Neame next spotted his heifer he waded across the river on foot and brought it home only to have it retrieved by Sewell.


Interest in the dispute increased with every passing week. When Neame’s application for restitution for the white-headed heifer plus another missing animal finally went to court, the public gallery of the Murchison Courthouse was jam packed with 50 locals. Both Neame and Sewell chose to represent themselves. 

From the court records…

His Worship: “Why didn’t the heifer come home of his own accord?”

Plaintiff Neame: “It only needed a little persuasion.”

His Worship: “Cattle running on unfenced land must be branded. Your evidence that the beast is yours must be supported by evidence that another brand has been placed over yours.”

Plaintiff Neame: “I am prepared to give evidence that I think will satisfy your Worship.”

Defendant Sewell shouting: “Why is he telling so many blasted lies. It is a waste of time! There is no sense him talking, I’ve been humbugged with this dammed fellow for 17 years, he will be eating my eggs next time. I’ll blow the devil to hell, and I have enough dynamite to do just that!”


The gravity of the situation was fast dawning on everyone who were all now well aware that for his entire time in court, Sewell had not once removed his left hand from his vest pocket. Acting calmly, Magistrate Kenrick suggested an adjournment to allow Sewell to get some fresh air and compose himself. Silence filled the courtroom as the angry man and his supporter were ushered out. Two policemen closely followed ready to restrain Sewell if necessary. Before they could get their chance, Sewell turned to the policemen: “Keep back, I don’t want to hurt you, you are gentlemen.” 

Now outside the courthouse, Sewell pulled out an elongated explosive. “I have 50 more of these wrapped around me.” he declared to the increasingly anxious policemen. Bravely, one of them stepped up and put his hand on Sewell’s shoulder in an attempt to pacify him and to hopefully indicate some sort of support. But at that moment a violent explosion took place. Sewell’s body was reported to have, “blown to atoms, portions of it recovered over 100 yards away”.

Inspector Wilson who had been closest received serious injuries, while Sewell’s supporter was also badly injured. Reportedly his trousers were blown clean off along with all his beard and whiskers. Wounded members of the public lay dazed and bleeding all around, while those still inside the courthouse were cut by flying glass. Doctors from nearby towns were immediately sent for to help attend the injured. Damage to property was extensive. Nearby Downies Hall was seriously damaged, along with several houses on each side of the street. Worst hit was the Courthouse which got shifted several inches on its piles.


At the coroner’s inquest, Sewell’s three children all gave evidence admitting there was a ton of ill-feeling between the two men. They also mentioned their father’s growing obsession and despondency with it all. On the night before the horrific event, William Sewell heard his father say there was just not enough room in the Buller for himself and Neame, and that he intended to let the court know all about it. The son also informed the inquest that150 plugs of gelignite for blowing out stumps were stored in the family house. He also said that 99 of them, along with 70 detonators, had all gone missing in the early morning of that fateful day. The inquest concluded Sewell had been in a state of “temporary insanity” when he set off at 5am that morning walking to the courthouse.

The solicitor never reported the dramatic encounter that took place five years earlier in his office, so afraid was he that Sewell would return if he did mention it to anyone, but it came out at the inquest. Also revealed during the proceedings was how Sewell used a nail to manually trigger the explosives outside the courthouse, jabbing it sharply into a detonator inserted into one of the plugs of gelignite strapped around him.

All the injured recovered, even if many of them took months and even years to fully recover from the blast. “The Murchison Tragedy” got reported throughout the Commonwealth as having no parallel in the history of the colony, indeed the world. Little could anyone imagine at the time that it was a sign of things to come. Sadly, in the past few decades such terror episodes have become all too common in a number of countries around the world.

Ceidrik Heward

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