William Henry Hayes (later known as Bully Hayes) was born probably sometime between 1828 and 1832 in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States, possibly of Irish extraction. His father was a bargee called Henry Hayes; his mother's name is unknown. The adult Bully Hayes had a powerful physique, reddish-brown hair and beard, piercing blue eyes, and a pleasant baritone voice. Of his early life little is known. He was said to have served in the United States Navy in China until dismissed in 1846. By 1854 or 1855 he had acquired his master's ticket and was engaged in trading in California, Australia, East Asia and the Pacific islands. He had also gained notoriety as a bilker, vamooser, and undischarged bankrupt. On 25 August 1857, at Penwortham, South Australia, Bully Hayes married a widow, Amelia Littleton, formerly Moffatt, whom he took to live in San Francisco. There were no children of this marriage.
The loss of his ship, the Ellenita, off Samoa in October 1859, left Hayes stranded in Sydney, penniless. He was sued for debt and incarcerated in the debtors' prison, Darlinghurst gaol, from 17 to 19 January 1860. After his release Hayes joined an itinerant vaudeville troupe, the Buckingham Family entertainers, as manager. With them he travelled to New Zealand on the Cincinnati, arriving in Dunedin on 23 September 1862.
The company performed in Dunedin and Clyde before proceeding to Fox's (Arrowtown). At this stage a rift developed between Hayes and the rest of the company. The Buckinghams acquired the Provincial Hotel and performed there, while Hayes opened his own hotel and theatre, the Prince of Wales, and engaged such artists as Madame Vitelli and Charles Thatcher. Open hostilities began when Rosetta Buckingham, the most talented member of the Buckingham Family entertainers, became pregnant and went to live with Hayes as his wife. No formal marriage took place, and in any case Hayes's first wife was probably still alive.
Hayes's seduction of Rosetta so angered the Buckinghams that they are said to have offered £5 to any barber courageous enough to cut Bully's long hair sufficiently to establish that he had lost an ear as punishment for cheating at cards. The challenge was apparently accepted, the locks were cut and the loss revealed. The whole incident, much to Hayes's anger, was later acted out by the Buckinghams as a comedy.
The quarrel with the Buckinghams ran its course, but financial problems continued to trouble Hayes. In 1864 he travelled to Australia and purchased the brigantine Black Diamond, only to default on the mortgage interest payments. He returned to New Zealand, intending to take the Buckingham Family entertainers, with whom he was now reconciled, to China. He reached Croisilles Harbour, near Nelson, where on 19 August 1864, Rosetta Buckingham; her 14-month-old daughter, Adalaida Eudora; her brother, George Buckingham; and a nursemaid were accidentally drowned.
Hayes's ship was seized, he was sued for non-payment of wages, and later, accused of abduction. Despite these setbacks he re-emerged as the registered owner of the Shamrock and engaged in trading between Lyttelton and the Pacific islands. Later he owned the Rona and traded around the New Zealand coast and the Pacific. On 26 July 1865, at the Royal Hotel, Christchurch, Hayes married Emily Mary Butler. Although he described himself as a widower, the marriage may have been bigamous. Twin daughters, Leonora Harriet Mary and Laurina Helen Jessie, were born on 2 May 1866 at Lyttelton. A son, Frederick, may have been born after Hayes's final departure from New Zealand in January 1867.
The family lived in Samoa while Hayes traded among the Pacific islands. His activities, including 'blackbirding' (slave trading), gun and alcohol running, alleged piracy and atrocities, engaged the attention of British and American authorities, but their inquiries failed to find sufficient evidence to substantiate charges. Hayes was arrested by Spanish officials at Guam in 1875, and convicted of aiding the escape of political prisoners. He was imprisoned in Manila gaol, where he was said to have been baptised into the Catholic faith. Released after nine months, he resumed trading. Hayes met a violent end probably on 1 April 1877, during a voyage from the Marshall group to Ascension and Strong's islands. He died as the result of a blow received in a dispute with a crewmember, and his body was thrown overboard.
Much has been written about Hayes's life, and it is often difficult to disentangle fact from fiction. However, some things are clear. Hayes was an astute entrepreneur and a mariner of great ability. He was courageous, resourceful, determined in the face of adversity, and capable of acts of generosity. He was also a philanderer and a rogue, given to towering rages and sullen moods. He regularly defrauded creditors and willingly engaged in illegal trading activities. He had a reputation for ruthlessness, which has endured. While his numerous misdeeds are acknowledged, it is now generally agreed that Bully Hayes was probably little worse than other trader captains who sailed the Pacific during the nineteenth century.