His body and mind ravaged by illness, he stood next to the bed, razor in hand. He rubbed the blade against his wife’s cheek.
“Shall I shave you?”
“Don’t be silly.”
He left her only to return within minutes, again sliding the razor on her face. “Shall I shave you?”
Later that morning, he wielded the axe.
Notoriety in New Zealand began with a cricket ball. No object encapsulated a person’s life the way that ball did for Albert Edward Moss.
It was the source of his greatest triumph: 10/28 for Canterbury against Wellington, the only man ever to take all 10 wickets in an innings in first-class cricket in New Zealand. The record stands today. It also represented his subsequent and quite spectacular downfall.
On the morning of his famous match, December 27, 1889, the Christchurch weather suited Moss just fine. It had rained heavily the night before and the clouds looked threatening again. Then a southerly blew through bringing sunshine. Perfect conditions for fast bowling.
Cricket was a bowler’s game in the nineteenth century. A law change in 1884 outlawed any covering of the pitch once play was under way, which meant conditions could change drastically during a match, usually in the bowlers’ favour. A wet pitch that was drying out would produce uneven bounce and still have enough moisture for the ball to move off the seam.
Moss, then 26, liked to bowl short and fast. His provincial team mate and later cricket historian Tom Reese described him as “probably the fastest bowler ever seen in a New Zealand side”. He had forced his way into the Canterbury XI for the Wellington match with a flurry of wickets for the second-string Lancaster Park club side. A bowler-friendly pitch was just what he wanted to prove himself. To top it off, Canterbury won the toss and batted first, registering 138 before lunch, by which point the sun would really have started to make its mark and Moss would get the ball.
For the only man ever to dismiss an entire first-class side himself in New Zealand, details of Moss’ deed are remarkably spare.
The wickets are recounted in match reports with all the charity one might award a bowler who snaffled two or three tail-enders to bolster his figures. In summation, The Press mustered, “The feature of this innings was the bowling of Moss, for he took all the ten wickets for the small cost of 28 runs” midway through its story. “Moss no doubt bowled well,” Wellington’s Evening Post begrudged, “But he cannot have been nearly as difficult as would be supposed by the play of those opposed to him.” The Press finally stirred a week later, noting the feat “will stand unrivalled for some time to come . . . Even with this success staring them in the face, there are some who still hold the opinion, and express it, too, that Moss is no bowler, but this fact remains, he can get wickets, which needs a lot of explaining away”.
Moss played three more times for Canterbury that season, taking a further 13 wickets.
Albert Moss had a restless disposition. Born in the English town of Coalville, Leicestershire, in 1863, he was the second of six children to Edward and Ann Moss. As a boy, he had trouble concentrating in school, and preferred teasing the girls to learning anything. His childhood sweetheart, and later fiancee, Mary Hall, remembered he would do “peculiar and purposeless” things, “moving things about with no apparent object”. After graduating, Moss taught at a boys' school in Derby until he immigrated to New Zealand in 1889 for the good of his health. His father, a bootmaker, was tubercular and his brother James died at age 6. Mary planned to join him in the colony when she could.
Moss landed in Christchurch and quickly established himself as a sportsman. He played shortstop for the Christchurch baseball club and goalkeeper for the provincial soccer team. By the time the cricket season began, he was working as a clerk for the National Mortgage Agency Company and living at the central city house of William Widdowson. Both arrangements continued into the start of the next cricket season, when Moss broke into the Lancaster Park top XI and distinguished himself.
He didn’t settle down, though. Mary was eager to get to New Zealand and Moss arranged for a berth on a steamship. Then another one, and another. He couldn’t seem to make up his mind. In letters he would write of sending her financial support and his own “command of money”, but it never translated to a ticket.
Towards the end of 1890, Moss began to complain of searing headaches, often holding his head in his hands. Dr Benjamin Moorhouse put it down to meningitis, noting Moss was “of a consumptive habit,” and prescribed a month of rest, “not even to read exciting literature”. But Moss went back to work. Widdowson once had to take a cab to National Mortgage to bring him home.
Already a nervous character who had trouble sleeping, Moss became more wired than usual. Tubercular meningitis affects about two per cent of tuberculosis sufferers. It attacks the tissues and membranes around the brain and spinal cord, and can cause brain damage and seizures among survivors. Even as Moss moved the next April to Ashburton and took up a job as clerk with the Friedlander Brothers merchants, the headaches persisted.
Mary, meanwhile, had given up waiting for her husband to organise her passage. She boarded the S.S. Tainui bound for New Zealand and an early May arrival. The bliss of being reunited at Widdowson’s home was short-lived, as she noticed something amiss. Her future husband was too pleased to see her. As if his excitable nature had got the better of him. Widdowson noticed it, too. Mary knew Moss had been sick. Did that have something to do with it?
Even after their June 8 wedding ceremony, Moss was agitated. A delivery of furniture was due at his home in Ashburton. He left briefly to pay the bill, mentioning again his “command of money”. When she arrived at her marital home in Burnett St, Mary was greeted with disarray. The furniture had been unpacked but not arranged.
Not four weeks had passed when, on a Thursday morning, bailiffs knocked on their door to demand payment for the furniture. Moss was greatly distressed by this, not least because he’d ostensibly left his own wedding reception to settle the bill. Desperate for more time to pay, he went to the Ashburton Magistrate’s Court and pleaded for leniency. He told the clerk he had money invested in Christchurch and promised to have it by Saturday. The bailiffs were called off.
The reprieve would be temporary. Moss didn’t have the money. He was nervous that afternoon in the office at Friedlander Brothers, making uncharacteristic errors. At home, Mary continued to worry that something was seriously wrong with her husband. The bailiff episode had spooked him more than a simple misunderstanding over a payment should. He was moody. He would say things sarcastically, then ask her if she thought he meant it. Two nights in a row he woke up in bed with a start, his face white as a sheet.
Moss worked on Friday but was restless that night. On Saturday morning, he made his wife a cup of cocoa and left for work.
One of his jobs that day was to pay the Friedlander weekly account with the Railway Department. He never showed. Instead, he headed to the courthouse. The money hadn’t arrived from Christchurch, he told the clerk, so he presented two cheques from his employer as collateral. The cheques were crossed for the Railway Department, but the clerk agreed to hold them.
By late afternoon, railway employee Thomas Potter had tracked Moss down to inquire about the account. Moss explained how he had gone home to see his wife during the day and had the cheques in his pocket. He put them on his table among some old letters and they must have been swept away. How unfortunate, Potter said. He hoped Moss would be able to find the cheques by Monday morning, otherwise the matter would be escalated.
Things were going far worse on Burnett St. Mary fell ill on Saturday morning with vomiting and stomach pains. A neighbour, Catherine Lane, tended to her. Moss had come home several times during the day (that much of his story to Potter was true) but seemed more worried about money matters than his wife’s health. At one point he did ask Lane if she thought Mary would die. “No,” came the reply.
Mary recovered early on Monday. Had she been poisoned, she wondered? Not at all, her husband reassured. “I know the symptoms well.”
About 9.15 that morning Moss headed to the Railway Department to tell Potter he couldn’t find the cheques, and beg him not to tell his boss. Potter agreed, extending the search until lunch time. But when no cheques appeared by late afternoon, he had had enough. He called Hugo Friedlander, the dominant partner at Friedlander Brothers and the Mayor of Ashburton.
At 10.30 that night, Moss answered a knock at the door. It was Potter.
“Does Mr Hugo know?” Moss asked.
“Yes,” Potter said, but if Moss would admit something was wrong, his boss would ensure the company would do what it could to help him.
“Oh my God,” Moss said. He shut the door in Potter’s face.
There was a subsequent meeting at the railway that night to further discuss the missing cheques. In attendance were Potter, station master John Stephenson, Friedlander Brothers chief clerk Moritz Friedlander and a pale and distressed Moss.
“Did you notice his eyes?” Stephenson would later say to Potter. “The man’s mad.”
The next morning, Moss held a razor to his wife’s face, twice, asking, “Shall I shave you?”
Mary shrugged him off. “Don’t be silly,” she said.
Her nonchalance masked a colossal unease. The erratic behaviour that troubled Mary when she arrived in New Zealand had got worse since the bailiff incident. Her husband was smiling and affectionate at times, distant and grimacing at others. On this morning, the mood swings deepened.
Moss, calmer now, shaved himself.
Then, mayhem: After breakfast he left the house, but returned moments later demanding money. Mary handed him her purse and he was out the door again. This time when he came back she met him on the front porch. What did he have in his pocket? Moss laughed. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” he said. He skirted the house and entered the kitchen through the back door.
Come here, he commanded, once inside. Mary obliged. Moss announced he was going to cut some coal, and bent down to break a lump with a tomahawk. Job done, he checked the sharp edge with his thumb. He stood up and cracked the axe down on Mary’s head.
Moss struck her three times before she was able to grab his hand; he dropped the weapon. He reached for the razor, in its sheath in his pocket. Mary was now on her feet and fighting. He slashed a deep wound in her cheek and one on the back of her neck before she could flee. As she turned to look back, her husband was sprawled on the floor, hacking at his own neck with a force so great that he severed his windpipe. Blood was oozing into a pool around him.
William Brooking heard horrendous screams. Outside, he watched his neighbour stagger out, blood dripping from her head, neck and hands. My husband is dead, she cried out. Brooking and several other passers-by ran inside and found Moss face down, his throat slit, seemingly lifeless.
Dr John Tweed arrived on the scene, tending first to Mary. Once she was bandaged and taken to hospital, the doctor turned his attention to her critically injured attacker. On the kitchen floor, he rolled Moss over to examine him. “He’s dead,” someone said.
He wasn’t dead. Five days later in hospital, Moss would tell a policeman that his first memory after having a razor in his hand was Tweed rolling him over. “I breathed heavily and opened my eyes to show I was not dead,” he said. “I was afraid they may kill me right out.”
“Not guilty,” he said, almost inaudibly.
Justice Denniston allowed Moss to sit down on account of his health. His neck was heavily bandaged. As he took his seat, he leaned forward and placed his face in his hands.
The prosecution opened with its star witness, Mary Emma Moss. She recounted her ordeal, focusing on the fateful morning. Other witnesses would fill out the picture.
The first was William Salek, testifying that Moss came into the chemist shop where he worked two weeks before the attack asking about prussic acid. He wanted some to poison cats that were “making such a noise he wanted to get rid of them”. Prussic acid, better known as cyanide, was far too deadly to be allowed out of the shop, Salek told him. Moss had bought a product called “Rough on Rats” from the store for the same purpose on June 18 and was feeding it to the animals in milk. Salek suggested dispensing it in meat as Rough on Rats contained arsenic, an insoluble powder.
Moss’ pre-trial lawyer, Frederick Wilding, had tried, with some success, in the Ashburton Magistrate’s Court hearing two weeks earlier to have all evidence relating to the poison ruled inadmissible. What did it have to do with Moss assaulting his wife, he argued. Perhaps everything. At that hearing, Salek’s testimony directly followed that of Catherine Lane, who cared for Mary when she was ill the weekend before the attack. Mary had described the cocoa her husband made her on the Saturday morning as having “gritty” dregs. She began to feel sick about an hour later with stomach pains and vomiting. Was Moss thinking of killing his wife two full weeks before his debt was exposed? Or were the local cats just too much? Both Tweed and Dr James Trevor, the surgeon who attended Moss and Mary, testified it was at least possible Moss was insane at the time. He was a man of “unstable mind,” Trevor said.
Lane didn’t testify at the Supreme Court trial, and Mary’s evidence concentrated on the attack. Salek’s lone account of a poison purchase may have seemed apropos of nothing to the jury, but it didn’t look good. Neither did the testimony of Andrew McPherson, a shopman at Orr’s general store in Ashburton. Moss came into the store about 8.30 on the morning of the attack looking to buy a cheap revolver. There were none in stock, McPherson said, but Moss didn’t look suspicious and he would have sold him one if he could.
Samuel Salek, a local pawnbroker, then took the stand to say Moss visited his store the day before the attack. He confessed his debt - about £50 (the equivalent of $9800 today) - and the failed cover-up. He said he couldn’t stand the disgrace of financial failure and that neither he nor Mary would live to see it. He begged the pawnbroker for an advance. Salek refused.
It’s one thing to snap while you’re cutting coal and, out of desperation, turn the axe on your wife. It’s another to plot her death for days, or weeks, and here were two witnesses – three if you counted William Salek – speaking to premeditation. At least the pawnbroker and gun incidents had come right before the attack, when everybody agreed Moss was acting strangely, even by his standards, but a defence could argue only temporary insanity so far.
And if he was out of his mind, Moss managed to compose himself enough to write two letters shortly before the attack. When he was found near death on his kitchen floor, Moss was able to point alternately to his pocket, where he had stashed them, and to Hugo Friedlander, who had arrived at his employee’s home. In a letter to Friedlander, Moss explained the missing cheques could be found in the custody of James Collier, clerk at the Ashburton Magistrate’s Court, and why. The second letter was unaddressed but began, “My dear Mary…” He wrote he had been “swindled of £185 by a canting humbug” and that his “dear, brave little wife” should not live to see his shame. He seemed to back this up on his way to hospital when he somehow managed to write another message: “Robbed – really swindled – I have lost all my money, £185 – Where is my wife – a man swindled me.”
Whether anyone fleeced Moss was never proven. In any case, his self-professed “command of money” was fairly lax. He clearly didn’t settle his furniture bill when he excused himself from his wedding reception, and couldn’t remedy the deficit when he needed to. Wilding would later describe Moss in a letter to Minister of Justice William Pember Reeves in 1893: “With his careless idle habits and self indulgent nature he is bound to be very much out of employ and very much in debt.” Which was an old-fashioned way of saying Moss liked a drink and a punt.
These habits, especially the drinking, were a legacy of Moss’ sporting days. Cricket was the most social of pastimes and Albert Moss was well-practised in taking toasts by the time of his 10-wicket haul. Wilding and Reeves should know – they were usually there.
Both men were Lancaster Park club stalwarts and Canterbury reps. Wilding was the star all-rounder of the provincial side for 20 years. He went on to play cricket for New Zealand and won five national tennis championships. His son Anthony would win Wimbledon four times.
No one was in any doubt that Moss had tried to kill Mary. The question was if he could be held responsible. The 12 men of the jury retired just before 4pm on August 12 to consider his fate. They deliberated until 9.30pm, but couldn’t reach a verdict. At one point they returned to ask the judge if Moss wrote his letters before the meeting at the railway on the Monday night, but there was no way to know. The stalemate continued the next morning and they were discharged. A second jury was empanelled and the evidence heard again. This time a verdict took just an hour and 20 minutes: not guilty by reason of insanity.
Moss was ordered to be detained until “the pleasure of the Colonial Secretary be known”.
The sentence meant Moss would remain in jail until the justice system deemed him fit for release – a rare form of imprisonment. He was incarcerated at Lyttelton and petitioned several times to be freed. In March 1893, the Government commissioned a report into his detention. Justice Denniston wrote of his support for the insanity verdict: “There was ... strong evidence that immediately preceding the attack on his wife he had shown physical signs of brain disturbance.” Inspector of lunatic asylums Duncan MacGregor agreed, noting however that Moss was “quite rational and calm” to talk to when he visited him in prison: “He certainly shows no sign of insanity at present but the gaoler informs me that he is very irritable.”
Moss wanted freedom not just to improve his mood, but to resume his life with Mary - a notion clearly impossible to everyone except him. It probably didn’t help that Mary played the part of devoted wife in their frequent correspondence.
“They write to each other in very affectionate terms,” Lyttelton gaoler Matthew Cleary wrote in a memo to Inspector of Prisons Arthur Hume as part of the 1893 report. “He has been urging for her to try and obtain his release. Mrs Moss expressed a wish that her husband should not know of her intention not to live with him again.”
The dilemma wasn’t lost on Frederick Wilding. He wrote to his cricket buddy Reeves, days from starting his second tenure as Minister of Justice, about their mutual friend “who made such a mess of it in Ashburton”:
“If he were released his wife would not be safe. Financial troubles would unhinge his poor little apology for a brain, and he would probably repeat his previous performance.”
When the possibility of release was put to Cabinet, Reeves advised against. Moss wasn’t going anywhere. He continued to ask Mary for help, but by the end of 1893 his wife, conflicted but still devoted to her husband, had changed the tone of her letters:
“I cannot see that the future holds out any bright prospect,” she wrote from French Pass in the Marlborough Sounds, where she worked as a teacher. “I had great faith in you, but it has been thoroughly shaken and can, I am afraid, never be restored. These may seem cruel words, but they are the plain truth. If you are released will you consent to go right away and never attempt to see me any more?”
Unperturbed, Moss continued to ask her to support his petition for release. Mary wrote that she would consult the doctors who testified at the trial and get back to him. “In the meantime rest assured that I think of you hourly, and am anxious to do what is right towards you and that I shall always remain your affectionate wife.”
Having left her husband with that thought, Mary then wrote letters to Colonial Secretary Sir Patrick Buckley (the de facto head of the public service) and Hume expressing her anxiety: She cared greatly for her husband and wanted only the best for him. She also never wanted to see him again.
Moss petitioned the Government to be let out twice more in 1894. He was refused both times, despite claiming he would leave New Zealand upon his release. He was also getting restless.
“The petitioner is now in the prime of life and therefore better qualified to face the world and attempt to re-establish his position than he would be after a longer detention,” he wrote of himself in one plea.
Mary wasn’t faring much better. In a letter to Wilding she repeated her concerns about her husband’s delusion that marital bliss would resume. His liberty was no idle threat. Hume had emerged as Moss’ champion, pushing for an end to his indefinite sentence. He noted in a memo that he had personally informed Moss his freedom would be on the proviso that “he consented to leave the Colony and not return”. He recommended a release date around May 30, 1895. By chance, there was a steamer leaving for Rio de Janeiro that day.
Reeves endorsed the order to release, but Moss didn’t make the boat. He would wait just over six more months for freedom. On December 11, Reeves again advised in favour “at such time as arrangements can be made for his passage”. A week later Moss was moved to Wellington gaol. The 1896 Police Gazette noted he was “Pardoned, and sent to Monte Video”.
In South America, Moss worked on the ranches of the Pampas before finding a job with the railway. He also started drinking again. He put in more than one bleary-eyed appearance at work but eventually secured a better position: another railway job in the more familiar surrounds of the British colony at Cape Town, South Africa.
There, finally, he reached his nadir, when in June 1904 a court clerk served him with divorce papers from New Zealand. “Respondent Albert Edward Moss has without just cause wilfully deserted the Petitioner and without any just cause left her continuously so deserted during five years and upwards,” the coup de grace sentence read. Mary’s lawyer was Frederick Wilding.
Moss did not take it well. For a man determined, however improbably, to reconcile with the wife he tried to kill, “wilfully deserted” must have stung. And Mary still had his prized cricket ball. Riven by alcoholism, he considered suicide again, and resolved to throw himself into the ocean off the Cape Town docks. He burned all his papers in readiness, but backed out.
The Salvation Army’s social farm at Rondebosch, a middle-class suburb of Cape Town, was intended to rehabilitate freed criminals. Moss was accepted there despite skipping over the details of his decline. Educated and comparatively well-dressed, he stood out. His high-collar shirt was always fastened at the neck despite the oppressive African heat. No awkward questions about neck scars, that way.
At the farm, milking cows, sowing crops, helping fellow prisoners, Moss found a home. In 1910 he applied to become an Army officer. Prematurely grey at 46, and a good 20 years the senior of most candidates, he became one of the oldest probationary-lieutenants in Army history. He went on to posts in Johannesburg and Pretoria, again helping men newly-released from jail. His work earned him a mention in the South African edition of the War Cry, the Army newspaper, in 1915.
Some time after publication, Mary, still teaching in New Zealand, was on a walking tour of the North Island during the school holidays. An unlikely scene was recalled decades later in the New Zealand War Cry: “Stopping on a stretch of road, she felt a piece of paper blow against her legs by a strong gust of wind.” It was a copy of War Cry, and when she bent down to remove it she saw a name on the page she knew.
Soon after, Moss received a package in the mail. It was small, round and hard, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. It had been posted from New Zealand. Moss untied the string, unwrapped the paper.
Inside he found an old cricket ball, carrying an inscription on an embossed silver shield: A.E. Moss, from L.P.C.C., Cantby v Welln, Dec 1889, 1st Innings, 10 wkts for 28 runs.
Albert and Mary Moss married for the second time in 1918, soon after the bride arrived in South Africa. They had exchanged letters for three years, and Army hierarchy assured Mary her husband’s transformation was legitimate. Mary had joined the service, a precondition of the union, and the couple lived in Pretoria. There, Moss was promoted to adjutant, and he specialised in working with prisoners.
They spent seven years together before Mary’s health began to fail. The toil of Army life wasn’t for her. She was a teacher at heart, who loved music, history and reading aloud to children the works of the greats: Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson and her favourite, Charles Dickens. The couple returned to England to spend their final days together in their homeland. Mary died in 1928.
Moss lived on at their home in Hadleigh, Essex, until his death in 1945, aged 82. “He was called suddenly to his Reward, which was the kind of death he desired,” the funeral programme declared. “So has passed to the fuller life a sterling Salvationist and large-hearted gentleman.”
What became of the cricket ball that returned with his devoted wife? Shortly before he died, Moss gave his prized ball to his friend, Salvation Army commissioner John Lewis, with the instruction that it be returned to the Lancaster Park Cricket Club. Lewis handed over the ball during a visit to New Zealand in March 1947. According to a War Cry report, Lancaster Park club captain Ian Cromb said it would be “treasured as a historic memento”.
He was wrong.
For more than 20 years, Albert Moss’ legacy sat in a glass box at the Lancaster Park club. In the 1970s, it enjoyed a short but successful stint on the public speaking circuit. Salvation Army lieutenant-colonel Rodney Knight had read a small, semi-fictionalised Army biography of Moss, which mentioned the ball’s return to Christchurch, and thought it would be a good subject for a sermon.
He borrowed the ball, delivered the sermon, and returned it. A few years later he asked to borrow it again.
“[He] was told they were actually cleaning out the clubrooms and the ball … was on the back of a truck ready to go to the dump,” Knight’s son, also named Rodney, said in an interview.
“He asked if he could have it and they told him he could if he came and picked it up. He rushed around, I remember because I was in the car with him, he went in and he came out with this small case.
“From then on the ball had been in Dad’s possession and he gave the same sermon innumerable times. The family can’t count.”
The ball made a brief public appearance in 2005, when Canterbury spinner Paul Wiseman took 9-13 against Central Districts, the second-best bowling figures in New Zealand cricket. Knight senior spoke to media on the condition of anonymity to avoid the spotlight. Cricket officials had also made overtures to get the ball back.
“We felt that Canterbury Cricket had not been very responsible with the ball, so we decided to keep it,” he said at the time, “But they can borrow it as often as they want.”
Rodney Knight senior died in 2005. The ball has been part of his estate since. His sons hope ownership can formally pass to the Salvation Army, and an agreement struck to find it a home in a public place, preferably the New Zealand Cricket Museum at the Basin Reserve in Wellington. There, it would be possible to witness the story of the rise, fall and remarkable redemption of Albert Edward Moss. The man who was saved by himself, and a stray piece of newspaper.
As Rodney Knight junior declared, “It’s a very practical couple of miracles”.
LAYOUT AND EDITING
This story was written using archival material from newspapers including The Press, Ashburton Guardian, Christchurch Star and New Zealand Herald and documents held by Archives NZ.
Thanks to those who helped with the research and writing:
Jamie Bell, curator, New Zealand Cricket Museum
Selwyn Bracegirdle, researcher, Salvation Army