On the morning of 24 September 1888, warders at H.M Prison in Invercargill discovered that Rudolph Radka, an inmate awaiting trial for arson, was not in his cell. The alarm was raised and police and prison warders began searching the area immediately. At the time, prison cell doors had indicators to show whether they were locked or unlocked. It was discovered that Radka’s indicator had been tampered with to show that it was locked even when it wasn’t.
Radka had been arrested by police two and half weeks before his escape and charged with setting fire to his own house on Teviot Street, Invercargill. He lived with his sister in the nearby suburb of Georgetown and the house was being rented to Mrs Amelia Tozzie and her three children. At around 23:00 on the evening of 4 September, a neighbour noticed the fire and alerted her. She woke the children and they all escaped unharmed. The fire brigade arrived to extinguish the fire, which had caused relatively minor damage. When police arrived on the scene, they discovered that the fire had been deliberately lit. Jammed under a wall plate on the outside of the house, Detective Ede found slightly burnt, kerosene-soaked cotton waste, as well as an empty kerosene bottle nearby.
Further investigation led police to suspect that Radka was the arsonist. He had visited the house on the afternoon of the fire and local shopkeepers confirmed that he had purchased a bottle of kerosene and cotton waste that same day. He had no alibi for the time of the fire and Police believed his motive was to secure an insurance pay-out. The house was insured for forty pounds, approximately $8,500 NZD today.
After escaping his cell, Radka still had to get through the front door of the prison and then over the prison wall. At the time, the front door did not have a secure lock. Getting over the prison wall was a more challenging task. Radka had initially attempted to scale the wall using a clothesline made of galvanised wire. Principal Warder James McKillop found the wire dangling over the wall, with pillow cases, items of clothing and a pair of socks still attached to it. Police determined that this had been unsuccessful because the wire was not strong enough to hold his weight. Instead, Radka had escaped by climbing a corrugated iron fence near the prison’s eastern wall and sliding down one of the buttresses to the other side.
By 15 October, Radka was still on the run and police were offering a fifty pound reward for any information leading to his arrest. He successfully avoided capture for nearly three months until surrendering himself on 12 December 1888, the day his trial was due to be held at the Invercargill Supreme Court. Rather than turning himself into police beforehand, he simply walked into the courtroom. Radka admitted that there had been several times over the past few months when police had almost caught him. When police had questioned two young hunters a few miles from town, he had been hiding behind a tree only a few yards away. There was also speculation by locals that Radka had disguised himself as a woman and worked as a waitress in a country hotel, once serving a police officer who had been involved in the search.
Radka pled guilty to the charge of escaping jail and sentenced to four months hard labour. He insisted that the escape was not pre-planned and that his cell door had been left unlocked. His bail had been refused and he seized the opportunity to spend the months before his trial as a free man, with no intention of ever skipping it. As for his original charge of arson, the jury found him not guilty. By this point, Radka was notorious within the district and the verdict was met with applause from a full courtroom. The jury’s opinion was that although the fire had been deliberately lit, there was no direct evidence to prove that it had been by Radka.
Researched and written by Victoria University of Wellington intern, Danielle Campbell.