Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Hungry Ghosts

Sara E. Johnson -- special guest

We are excited to welcome Sara E. Johnson back to the blog. Her Alexa Glock series, set in New Zealand, is a Murder is Everywhere favorite and she has new secrets to share from her upcoming release, The Hungry Bones. Welcome Sara!

I am happy to be back with Murder is Everywhere. Thanks, Wendall, for asking me to visit. My fifth Alexa Glock forensic mystery, The Hungry Bones, comes out in June.


Coming June 11.

The setting is a charming former gold-mining town on the South Island of New Zealand.  


Arrowtown, New Zealand

Alexa, a traveling forensic investigator (most towns in New Zealand are too small to have any CSI), is called in when a skeleton is discovered in an unmarked grave. Alexa's specialty is teeth.


She'll analyze the strontium isotopes in the enamel of the skeleton's molar to determine where he spent his formative years, but that's another very cool story. This story is about gold and ghosts.
The Arrowtown area gold rush began in the 1860s. Most of the miners were English, Irish, and Scottish. By 1862, fifteen hundred miners camped beside the Arrow River. 



As soon as the river and surrounding area was deemed barren, the European miners rushed off to other goldfields. Chinese miners were recruited to keep the economy going. By the 1880s, there were five thousand Chinese in the Otago region, almost all men. 


Chinese gold-miners in New Zealand

The Europeans miners mostly stayed in New Zealand. (Gosh – they had come all that way!) The Chinese considered themselves visitors. Their goal was to make money and return home. They did this in one of two ways: Strike it rich, buy a bowler hat, and sail to Hong Kong on a steamer ship. The second ticket home was to sail on a corpse ship.

You heard right.

There's a Chinese proverb: Falling leaves return to their roots. The Chinese believed that after death, the soul hovers over the grave until he is home. Many of the miners, of course, never struck it rich or made it home.



Hence – the corpse ships. Chinese benevolent societies arranged the ships. If you paid in advance – most miners or their families did to avoid the calamity of being abandoned – you were guaranteed a trip home if you died. The first corpse ship, Hoihow, set sail in 1883 with the remains of 286 miners. Members of the Cheong Sing Tong society had painstakingly exhumed them from graveyards all over Otago, including Arrowtown. They defleshed (if necessary) and cleaned every bone and bagged them together in calico bags. Then they enclosed the bags in zinc boxes covered with wood. Tiny coffins. 



The S.S. Ventnor

The next tomb ship was nineteen years later. The S.S. Ventnor sailed from Wellington on October 26, 1902, with 499 skeletons aboard. Seven elderly Chinese men were given free passage home in exchange for attending to the coffins. Somewhere off Hokianga – the far north of the North Island – the Ventnor went down, taking all those hungry ghosts to the bottom of the sea.


The Chinese gold miners died twice.


Over the next few months bones and tiny coffins washed ashore. Māori members of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi (tribes), who were mystified at the time, respectfully interred them in their urupā (burial grounds).


The wreck of the Ventnor was discovered in 2012 and later designated as an archaeological site.


Do you have strong feelings about where you want to be buried or have your ashes spread? 



When I was in New Zealand last year, I visited Opononi, a beach community where a memorial was built, to pay my respects. The names of all 499 miners are listed on plaques. It is a beautiful and haunting memorial. Check out The Hungry Bones, this June, to learn more about the New Zealand gold rush and why one miner did not want to return to his roots. The book is dedicated in memory of the Chinese miners. 




You can find Sara at

On Twitter/X at @sarajhn 







  1. This is such a heartbreaking story, Sara. Can't get the tiny coffins out of my head. Thanks very much for joining us and can't wait for The Hungry Bones!

  2. What a fascinating backstory! I definitely want to read The Hungry Bones...

  3. You really hooked me Sara! Well done in every respect.

  4. Wow I didn't know about this--thank you. It's so sad but now I want to read more.