Remembering Emily Keeling

While Shaking the Tree is principally a blog about my family, I am a researcher at heart, and all family history stories interest me.

A few days ago, something caught my attention the other day that relates not to my family’s story but to that of the city I live in. It also speaks of the on-going story of violence against women, which is particularly in my mind at the moment, I guess mainly in light of the high-profile fatal attacks on women that have made the news lately. For each for these cases, I know there are many, many more that are not reported. Violence is endured daily by so many women in so many places – and most go un-remarked and un-reported.

So … I was walking in Auckland’s oldest cemetery – Symonds Street – in central Auckland, when I found a memorial headstone that caught my attention.

Sacred to the memory of Emily Mary the beloved daughter of George and Emily Keeling of Arch Hill who was shot while on her way to the Primitive Methodist Church Bible Class Alexandra Street April 2nd 1886. Aged 17 years.

Symonds Street Cemetery was in use from 1842 until around the 1930s. It contains the graves of many early European settlers to Auckland, and walking amongst the headstones is a lesson in the hardships of life in the nineteenth century, and of pioneer life in particular.

However, New Zealand has always had a reputation as a very safe place, so death by shooting – particularly the death of a young woman – was both deeply sad, and really intriguing. I had to know more. Was she shot accidentally? Or was it a murder?

It was a murder.

Thanks to Papers Past, an initiative of the National Library of New Zealand to digitise New Zealand’s newspaper heritage, I was able to find newspaper accounts of the death of Emily Mary Keeling, which was widely reported throughout New Zealand.

From the articles I read, it seems that Emily Keeling was fatally shot by a man who lived next door but one to her family. He claimed to have fallen in love with her, and had – two years previously – asked her father for permission to marry her. At the time of the proposal, Emily was only 15 and her father had refused permission. In the intervening two years the man, Edwin Fuller, had moved around the Auckland region working in different jobs before returning to the city to pursue Emily again. According to the newspaper reports, he wrote a letter to his family outlining his plans to kill Emily and himself.

So on a Friday evening in April, a month that in Auckland can be beautifully autumnal, Emily Keeling died a few hundred metres from her home; shot in the chest by a man who wrote to his family ‘… I am going to shoot myself tonight. I love Emily Keeling as no-one ever loved before.’

Edwin Fuller did shoot himself – a couple of streets away – having left Emily to stagger across the street to a shop, where she died within an hour.

I’ve been thinking about this story since Saturday night, and it’s affected me on all sorts of levels. Most importantly of course, I feel an overwhelming sadness at the absolute tragedy of it. A young woman walked out of her front door to go to a Friday evening class, and didn’t even get to the top of her street before being killed. Even 120 or so years later when the murder rate in New Zealand has risen alarmingly, such an event is still rare enough to be remarkable.

I am also feeling something that I’m beginning to recognise quite a lot in family history research; what drives me to do research is curiosity and the pleasure of solving puzzles, and yet it’s often the case that the information which helps to solve those puzzles is only available because the people we are searching for have experienced tragedies that brought them into the public record in some way. So my enjoyment is often tempered with sadness.

Emily Keeling was one of two children. Her brother had moved to Australia and she of course didn’t live to bear children of her own. I don’t know then if there is anyone left in Auckland who remembers her – certainly her grave appears (like most of those I saw in Symonds Street cemetery) untended. Tomorrow I’ll take flowers, in memory not only of Emily Keeling, but of all the women who die violent deaths and who are forgotten like Emily.

11 thoughts on “Remembering Emily Keeling

  1. Su,

    I found this entry so moving. I read it several times and it left its mark on me just like it did on you after you saw the gravestone. You could so easily have left it as a sad gravestone of an unknown girl. I am so glad you didn’t. I hope you did take the flowers.

    I often wonder about the spirit world and if/how they are affected by actions like this. I would like to think that she knew her story impacted you and you took the time to find out more about her. In a way I feel it helps her live on and, in some small way, her death was not the end and was not totally in vain. From her tragic and untimely death, you have thought not only about Emily but about other women who experience domestic or other violence. I think that is very powerful. After all, your story has affected me now and who knows how many others who have read your blog and mentioned it to someone else.

    I believe a small thing like taking time out of your busy life to find out more and acknowledge this young woman, has a domino effect and you may never know the result of that.

    Good on you.


  2. Thanks Lynn. It took me a few days, but I have been back to Emily’s grave with flowers. I’m so glad I did; and was especially pleased to find that the graveyard is now being tidied up by a group of people who have been sentenced to community work. We call it periodic detention in NZ; but whatever the name, I think the principle exists in lots of countries. Anyway, I talked to the group’s supervisor and told him Emily’s story, so I feel that it is being passed on, as you say – and not forgotten. I’ve recently become a trustee of The Friends of Women’s Refuge ( and so domestic violence has been very much in my mind lately.

  3. Hi Su,
    Thank you for sharing Emily’s story. I was touched by your words in a way I did not expect. As a storyteller, I come across so many stories of people’s lives that I would love to tell. Emily’s story is one that repeats itself in the never ending cycle of violence against women.
    Graveyards are fascinating places – some may find them macabre – but I do not. Many headstones reveal a snapshot of life and love in a way that no other medium could.
    I’m pleased you took flowers to Emily’s grave, her life was not a wasted life, simply because you chose to share her story with others.

    • Thank you Toni. Emily’s story continues to touch my life and i’m so pleased that it is also touching those of others who hear it. It’s the anniversary of her death in a couple of weeks so I will go back to the cemetery. Like you, I find them fascinating and poignant places. Thanks for visiting my blog.

    • Next Tuesday is the anniversary of Emily’s death. A few of us are planning to visit her grave with flowers then.

  4. Lorri Anne; sorry I meant to also add, it is lovely that you want to visit her grave. I’m a little bit overwhelmed by how much this story has touched people, and how kind and thoughtful everyone has been. I’m glad that Emily’s story – and those of other women who have been victims of violence – is not being forgotten. Thank you.

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