Story: Crime and the media

Page 4. Popular culture and mythology

All images & media in this story

Folk heroes

Some criminals enter folklore – people often identify with underdogs up against authority, even if they have done wrong. One of the mythologised is James Mackenzie, who was found with around 1,000 stolen sheep in 1855. Fairlie has a statue of him and his dog on its main street, and the area where he was caught is known as the Mackenzie Country. Artist Trevor Moffitt painted a series on Mackenzie in 1965, and in 1986 he began depicting West Coast mass murderer Stanley Graham.

Myth making


Trevor Moffitt explained why he chose Stanley Graham as the subject for a series of oil paintings begun in 1986: ‘I felt an empathy for him. Things were stacked up against him. The narrative was important – how Graham was and how his life got out of control. The lessons of the man are still to be learnt – that lack of communication leads to violence in society.’1


On the run

In 1962 George Wilder, a small-time car thief and burglar, escaped from New Plymouth Prison – the first of his three breakouts. In total he spent 237 days on the run. The Howard Morrison Quartet wrote a song about him, ‘George the Wilder colonial boy’.

In 2009 another prisoner on the run, William Stewart in Canterbury, carved a note in a wooden desk, addressed to someone he burgled, signing it ‘Billy the Hunted One’. Stewart achieved such notoriety that he inspired a ‘Where’s Billy’ T-shirt, a song and several pages on the Facebook site.


The movie Beyond reasonable doubt (1980) is based on the case of Arthur Allan Thomas, who spent nine years in jail for murders he was later pardoned for. Bad blood (1981) details the 12-day manhunt for Stanley Graham in 1941. Roger Donaldson’s 1982 film Smash palace, set in a car-wrecking yard, sees a petrolhead (car enthusiast) played by Bruno Lawrence kidnap his daughter after the court prevents him from seeing her following the break-up of his marriage. The Peter Jackson film Heavenly creatures (1994) centred on the case of two teenagers, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who murdered Parker’s mother in Christchurch in 1954. Sam Neill’s 1995 documentary Cinema of unease explored the dark themes in many New Zealand movies. Out of the blue (2006) tells the story of the 1993 murders of 13 people by David Gray at Aramoana.

She’ll get you


For decades children in Southland were told that if they didn't behave they’d be sent to Minnie Dean, a ‘baby farmer’ (someone who took care of illegitimate children for money). In 1895 she was found guilty of murdering one-year-old Dorothy Carter and hanged – the only woman ever executed in New Zealand.


Shaping attitudes

While some offenders became folk heroes, others were demonised by the press. Peter Ellis, a childcare worker in Christchurch, was accused of sexual abuse in 1991 during a time of media hysteria on the issue. He was convicted on child testimony alone, and was jailed from 1993 to 2002. Some sections of the media have since raised doubts about his conviction. Once an offender is released from jail media interest tends to die down unless there is a campaign to clear a person’s name or to seek a pardon and reparations.

Cases of innocent people being jailed for crimes they did not commit have had very high media profiles. In 1970 Arthur Allan Thomas was convicted of the double murder of Waikato farming couple Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. He spent nine years in jail. Pardoned in 1980, he received $1 million in compensation after it was revealed that police had planted evidence.

  1. Ronayne, Chris. Trevor Moffitt: a biography. Auckland: David Ling, 2006, p. 129. Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Crime and the media - Popular culture and mythology', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2022)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018