Accidental folk hero George Wilder.
George Wilder was a New Zealand burglar who became a folk hero in the 1960s for his multiple escapes from prison and his non-violent approach to crime.
Wilder's first escape, from New Plymouth prison in 1962, made headlines as he managed to evade capture for 65 days without using violence, avoiding capture by staying in holiday homes and leaving apology notes for the owners.
However, it was his second escape that really captured the public's imagination. Wilder managed to stay on the run for more than six months, traveling all over the North Island by foot, car, boat, bicycle, and even horseback. During this time, Wilder gained a reputation as a charming and resourceful outlaw, with the public often siding with him over the police. “People would leave out trays of scones in case he happened to be running past and needed a feed.” His escapades became the stuff of legend and were even celebrated in song by The Howard Morrison Quartet with their hit "The Wild(er) NZ Boy." He was finally captured in a deer culler's hut on the Napier-Taupo Road, where he had been living off the land and enjoying a comfortable lifestyle.
George Wilder, handcuffed to Constable R.J. Clarke, is taken to a police car at Taupo. With them is Sgt. T.A. Marsom, who made the arrest. Photo credit: Taupo Times.
While Wilder's escapes were exciting and earned him a certain level of fame, they also had consequences. His third escape, which involved a sawn-off shotgun and the kidnapping of three people, resulted in additional sentences being added to his original offences. When all was said and done, Wilder ended up serving more than a decade in prison.
Despite the criminal nature of his actions, Wilder has remained a beloved figure in New Zealand history. His resourcefulness and refusal to resort to violence during his escapes have made him something of a folk hero. In fact, many people believed that he had earned the right to freedom during his time on the run.
George Wilder (extreme left) with the Cape Turnagain golf team.
Despite his fame, Wilder managed to keep a low profile in later years. He lived in a small settlement at the bottom of Hawke's Bay, far from the public eye. It's a fitting end for a man who has always been skilled at evading capture and staying hidden. While his legacy is complex, there's no denying the impact that George Wilder has had on New Zealand's history and culture. His escapades will likely continue to be remembered and talked about for years to come.