A monument to loss, and a touchstone for action

A monument to the short life of Emily Keeling; murdered aged 17. Monument erected by members of her church and other well-wishers. Photo: Su Leslie, 2014.

A monument to the short life of Emily Keeling; murdered aged 17. Monument erected by members of her church and other well-wishers. Photo: Su Leslie, 2014.

Monument: something erected in memory of a person, event, etc., as a building, pillar, or statue

A headstone (tombstone, gravestone) is – for most of us – the only monument that will be erected in our memory. Whether it is a simple wooden cross, an elaborate marble angel, or anything in between, the placing of a headstone is an act of remembrance.

The headstone of Emily Keeling stands next to that of her parents. It is weathered and damaged and the ground around it is broken and uneven, but the inscription is clear and tragically poignant.

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.

I discovered Emily’s story because of her monument. The Big T and I were wandering around Symonds’ Street Cemetery in central Auckland and read the inscription. Curiosity about that word “shot” sent me to Papers Past* to find out more. New Zealand even now is not a nation of gun-owners, and the idea of someone – especially a young woman – being shot in 1886 seemed not only tragic, but quite bizarre. Was it an accident? Or murder?

Sadly, the latter.

Emily Keeling was murdered a few metres from her home by a man who had that day written to his family ‘… I am going to shoot myself tonight. I love Emily Keeling as no-one ever loved before.’

It was an autumn evening and Emily was on her way to Bible Class. After shooting her, the man – Edwin Fuller – ran a few hundred metres to an adjacent street and fatally shot himself.

Emily Keeling was a victim of domestic violence; another name on a too-long list of women attacked and killed by men who claimed to love them. It is shocking that Emily was so young, a teenager living with her parents. It is shocking that she died in the arms of her neighbours on the street where she lived. But for me what is truly shocking is that Emily Keeling died one hundred and twenty eight years ago but her story is that of countless women now; women who are still suffering and dying at the hands of their husbands, partners and lovers – past and present.

Buried next to, but many years before, her parents. George and Emily Keeling (snr) grew old, robbed of their only daughter. Photo: Su Leslie, 2014.

Buried next to, but many years before, her parents. George and Emily Keeling (snr) grew old, robbed of their only daughter. Photo: Su Leslie, 2014.

An anniversary and a chance to reflect

Today is the anniversary, not of Emily Keeling’s death, but of her birth; 18 April 1868. Had her life not been so brutally cut short, she might have married, had children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who would remember her. She might have become a teacher, a nurse, a businesswoman. She could have been one of the 25,000 women in New Zealand who signed the Suffrage Petition in 1893 and been amongst the first women in the world to cast a vote in a general election.

Page 1 of the Suffrage Petition; signed by over 25,000 women. New Zealand was the first country in the world in which women gained the right to vote – in 1893.

She may have joined – or been part of the formation of – the Society for the Protection of Women and Children (1893), or the National Council of Women, formed in 1896.

We can imagine any number of lives for Emily Keeling, but she experienced none of them.

Small country, big problem

New Zealand has a shockingly high incidence of domestic violence. In 2013 alone, the Independent Collective of Women’s Refuges helped 20,000 New Zealand women in abusive relationships. And if that number seems high, it represents only a small percentage of the victims of domestic violence. For this is a crime that is terribly under-reported.

NZ Police statistics show that:

– 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime

– 78 percent of partner homicides in NZ are men killing their current or ex female partner

– on average, 14 women and eight children in New Zealand are killed by a member of their family each year

Fourteen women and eight children

That’s twenty two names on headstones; 22 futures we can only imagine; 22 lives remembered in monuments to pain and violence and loss.

I went to see Emily today; as I know a friend went on the anniversary of Emily’s death. I went in sadness; having read in the newspaper this morning that police going to tell a woman of her husband’s death in a car smash instead found her dead body. According to the news Police are treating the woman’s “violent” death as a homicide and say it is linked to her husband’s fatal crash this morning. This comes only one day after a man was charged with the murder of his estranged wife in Wellington, and a week after another man was arrested in Auckland for the murder of his partner.

I would have liked to tell Emily that things have got better; that men don’t kill and maim and terrify women and children in the name of “love” any more. I would have liked to tell her that organisations like Women’s Refuge – which didn’t exist in Emily’s lifetime – are no longer needed now.

But I can’t

So instead I’m doing what I can to make sure that domestic violence isn’t buried away as a “family matter” – something that can be ignored or downplayed. For me that means involvement with NZ Sculpture OnShore, a biennial sculpture exhibition that raises funds for Women’s Refuge. Established by a group of passionate, creative and highly organised women who began fundraising for Women’s Refuge twenty years ago, NZ Sculpture OnShore will hold it’s 10th exhibition in November 2014.


Bernie Harfleet 14 2012 photo Gil Hanly

Bernie Harfleet, 14, 2012. Exhibited at NZ Sculpture OnShore in 2012, each coffin represents a women killed in any one year in NZ by a family member. Photo Gil Hanly.

Like many people, I’m doing what I can, so that one day I can visit Emily and tell her that truly, things have got better.

Until then, if you would like to know more about the work of Women’s Refuge, click here.

And if you want to know about a NZ Sculpture OnShore, click here.

* Papers Past is an initiative of the National Library of NZ to digitise historic newspapers from all around NZ.

This post was written as part of the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge. Here are some other “Monuments” I liked:



































43 thoughts on “A monument to loss, and a touchstone for action

  1. I do love these photos of old tombstones and old documents. There is something very beautiful about them that makes me pause and contemplate them. We don’t seem to have time for such decorative detail nowadays…sadly. 🙂

    • I was thinking that when I began writing; lots of people don’t have headstones at all now – let alone elaborate ones.

  2. Sadly, NZ is not the only country with this – a friend of mine was also shot bey her ex-partner in California. This is a cause that I whole heartedly support.

    • True; it is a worldwide problem and one that affects all ages, classes, ethnicities. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

  3. Oh Su, what a poignant and sad response to this challenge! I’m so touched by your images and especially your words; their message NEEDS to be out there.

    • Hi Cindi; thank you so much. I guess it’s clear from the post that this is an issue I feel very deeply about. I feel very privileged to be part of a group of women who feel the same way and are doing something positive to effect change. It’s exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. Happy Easter.

  4. My thoughts and prayers to Emily and all the women who had been victims of senseless, evil crime, abuse and brutality. Today, so many still suffered and despite of laws and government agencies that tries to stop it, injustice and cruelty to women & children exist. May everyone work together to help in whatever way they can. Powerful post!

    • Thank you so much; it is through the awareness and small efforts of the many that change will occur. Happy Easter to you and your family.

  5. Yours is one very interesting post.
    May what knowledge we have today and what we will acquire in the future, help saving a lot more unfortunates ladies like Emily Keeling.

  6. Excellent post. We tend to think that these are “modern” problems. The expression “domestic violence” probably didn’t even exist back then. But in fact the problem of violence against women (and children) has been with us forever; it was just considered a private matter and swept under the rug. You have given meaning to Emily’s short life by writing this.

    • Thank you Amy. The notion that domestic violence is “private” still exists. IN New Zealand, our crime statistics don’t include domestic violence, so when the police talk about violent crime lessening, it’s simply not true.

    • 🙂 Thanks. I also feel overwhelmed by so many of the “wrongs” I see, and the issues that affect us. This is just one little thing I feel I can do, and I have such admiration for those who give their time to the helpline and to “rescuing” women and children from abuse when they feel ready to leave.

    • Thanks Raewyn; I think you are right. Perhaps our TV campaign, encouraging people to speak up and ask if friends and family want help, identifies the cause of this. We are less connected to our families and communities these days, so some of the old checks and balances are just not there anymore. People feel they can get away with a lot more.

  7. What a terrible story you have had to tell Su. Domestic violence is abhorent and needs to take a central stage though it’s all to easy to make it a ‘man issue’ – it’s amazing how often female partners will seek to encourage fights between ‘suitors’ and then pretend innocence of involvement – men are stupid enough to get involved 😉 In our house we speak honestly to each other – that means that when we disagree we have a vibrant discussion but we know where the boundary is because we love each other and understand that in every relationship there will always be disagreement from time to time, especially where children are concerned!
    Our thoughts are with Emily and her family but also with you and your’s – may we all be able to live in harmony.

    • Thank you Martin; I so appreciate everyone’s kind words. This is a difficult story to tell – perhaps more so because it was so long ago and I don’t think there is anyone else left to remember Emily. I wish you and your family a Happy Easter. 🙂

      • I thank you Su – I hope you may find peace in telling the story. And I hope it promotes positives for the future and results in better family behaviours 🙂

        • Thanks; the act of story-telling is healing and has power that goes beyond helping the teller. 🙂

  8. A very thoughtful post. People often talk about the past as being an easier and simpler time, bemoaning the fact that things are so much worse now. However, the more I poke around into history, the more I realize that the world wasn’t easier and simpler – in many ways it was worse, especially around safety laws & guidelines. Unfortunately violence seems to be the nature of our species and time hasn’t softened it.
    A very poignant story.

    • Thank you. I think in terms of domestic violence, the main difference now is that – at least in our society – it is seen as unacceptable. So there is some pressure on perpetrators not to commit acts of violence (or perhaps to keep them more hidden). There are of course, also support services for victims. I remember as a child hearing whispers about men who “knocked their wives about” and it was regarded as unfortunate, but not cause for interference. Now the message is very much to reach out and help those who may be victims rather than ignoring them. Thanks for visiting and commenting; as you can probably tell, this is an issue close to my heart.

  9. Great story, written with such feeling; and so incredibly sad. Unfortunately, some things just don’t change; and certainly not as quickly as we would like. Take care, Colleen

    • Thanks Colleen. Change is certainly not fast enough in this area, but so many good people are working hard to effect change and we are all so much more aware than in the past. I have hope 🙂

  10. Shocking statistics. There should be a way to display all names of the people killed in fits of domestic violence. Many people when seeing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC leave saying ‘no more, this must stop’. Maybe a memorial could be erected in the front of every parliament and congress in the world to bring change to a horrible plague of humanity.

    • That is a wonderful idea. The artist who made ’14’ and his partner Donna Turtle Sarten, both produce work that highlights the numbers of people affected by violence, or poverty. Donna produced a sculpture called Strange Fruit (https://suzysu.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/strange-fruit-remembering-vietnam/) which lists the names of all the servicemen from NZ killed in Vietnam; and she recently created a huge installation of 83,000 plastic spoons representing all the children in NZ who go to school hungry, so a piece that names our tragic roll-call of domestic violence victims would be a logical project for her. Many thanks for stopping by and commenting – and for this idea. I’ll share it with the artists I know. 🙂

    • Thank you so much; I’m humbled that so many people have read Emily’s story and been moved by it. 🙂

  11. a very interesting and sad story. Good that there are people in this world, that write stories about this kind of crimes which unfortunately still exist.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful, kind comment. Sadly, Emily’s story is played out every day in our world, and New Zealand seems particularly cursed with domestic violence. 🙂

  12. Pingback: DP Photo Challenge: names, take 2 | Zimmerbitch

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