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Today, we’re going to switch things up a little bit and present our pieces in the new Chapters-Indigo True Crime Collection. Our titles include a triple threat from acclaimed writer and forensic anthropologist Debra Komar: Black River Road, The Ballad of Jacob Peck, and The Bastard of Fort Stikine.
BONUS: Listen to this excerpt from another of Debra's works, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler.
In 1869, in the woods just outside of the bustling port city of Saint John, New Brunswick, a group of teenaged berry pickers discovered several badly decomposed bodies. The authorities suspected foul play, but the identities of the victims were as mysterious as that of the perpetrator. From the twists and turns of a coroner's inquest, an unlikely suspect emerged to stand trial for murder: John Munroe, a renowned architect, well-heeled family man, and pillar of the community.
In re-examining a precedent-setting historical crime with fresh eyes, Komar addresses questions that still echo through the halls of justice more than a century later: is everyone capable of murder, and should character be treated as evidence in homicide trials?
Like many unions of the era, John Munroe’s marriage to Annie Potts was one of convenience, serving to cement the social status of its participants. She was an appropriate bride, as attractive and well bred as a racehorse, but Annie fell short in one crucial regard: though placid and obedient, she did not adore John. Thanks to his father’s constant coddling, Munroe came to expect exaltation from those in his immediate circle. Annie was his wife and the mother of his children, but she was not the idolizing mirror Munroe craved.
Sarah Margaret (“Maggie”) Vail was everything Annie Potts Munroe was not. From her head to her hems, Maggie was nothing to write home about. She was certainly not the Victorian stereotypical fragile and consumptive female. In an age that favoured its women pleasantly plump, Maggie was well past zaftig. The kindest adjectives her supporters could marshal were “stocky” and “stout,” although one acquaintance went so far as to call her “a lowish sized woman.” On a more winsome creature, her skin might be described as alabaster, but on Maggie it was fish-belly white. However, even Maggie’s harshest detractors agreed that her hair was her finest feature. She kept it coiffed in the latest styles, an amber mane cascading down her back. Many praised her dazzling smile, although her intimates were quick to note she was snaggle-toothed — one of her upper incisors was longer and wider than its mate, causing her two front teeth to overlap.
Despite Maggie’s physical shortcomings, she was universally described as an attractive woman, for there was something beguiling in her spirit. Maggie carried herself well. She kept abreast of the latest fashions, devouring ladies’ periodicals and aping the trends to the extent her budget allowed. She also possessed a very pretty face, normally a consolatory compliment to women of size, but in Maggie’s case it proved true. In short, Sarah Margaret Vail did the best she could with what she had, and the net result was passable, if not entirely memorable.
Maggie Vail may not have been airbrushed by genetics but John Munroe already possessed such a vision in Annie. What the forgettable and oft-forgotten Maggie offered had nothing to do with pedigree: she grew to adore John with blind, reckless abandon. She knew no better; in matters of the heart, Maggie was a true tabula rasa.
On a frigid February evening in 1805, Amos Babcock brutally murdered Mercy Hall. Believing that he was being instructed by God, Babcock stabbed and disembowelled his own sister, before dumping her lifeless body in a rural New Brunswick snowbank.
The Ballad of Jacob Peck is the tragic and fascinating story of how isolation, duplicity, and religious mania turned impoverished, hard-working people violent, leading to a murder and an execution. Babcock was hanged for the murder of his sister, but in her meticulously researched book, Debra Komar shows that itinerant preacher Jacob Peck should have swung right beside him. The mystery lies not in the whodunit, but rather in a lingering question: should Jacob Peck, whose incendiary sermons directly contributed to the killing, have been charged with the murder of Mercy Hall?
The arrival of Jacob Peck in Shediac Parish met with none of the hysteria that would accompany his departure some six weeks later. On that frigid morning —January 6, 1805 — his coming was neither expected nor welcome. His reputation had proceeded him to the sparse settler's enclave on New Brunswick's northeastern shore. He was known but not particularly respected. He had no family waiting, no acquaintance anxious for his company. He carried little in the way of luggage, preferring to travel light. He arrived prepared for a swift departure, should one prove necessary.
Peck's reputation — such as it was — was a volatile pastiche of the sacred and profane. By profession, he was a farmer but by self-proclamation, he was a preacher. His ministry was itinerant by design if not wholly by choice. He lacked proof of a formal education and was therefore ineligible for any permanent placement in a proper institution. In his quest to bring his message to the people, he was, at that moment, wending his way north from Moncton through the more negligible outlying settlements. In the parlance of the day, he was 'working the circuit' — a well-trodden path forged by roaming evangelists who plied their trade in those communities without the benefit of organized religious services. Peck's inclination was to arrive in a village, convert the willing few to his unique brand of theology, then attempt to establish a more enduring foothold. He had yet to succeed in that final step. Inevitably, within days of his arrival, Peck would beat a hasty retreat. Whether his departures were by choice or by community decree was grist for much speculation. As he slogged through the mire into the village, having made his way on foot for the past 20 miles, this was the sum total of what the good people of Shediac knew of the cryptic Mr. Peck.
Just after midnight on April 21, 1842, John McLoughlin, Jr. — the chief trader for the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Stikine, in the northwest corner of the territory that would later become British Columbia — was shot to death by his own men. They claimed it was an act of self-defence, their only means of stopping the violent rampage of their drunk and abusive leader. Sir George Simpson, the HBC's Overseas Governor, took the men of Stikine at their word, and the Company closed the book on the matter. The case never saw the inside of a courtroom, and no one was ever charged or punished for the crime. To this day, the killing remains the Honourable Company's dirtiest unaired laundry and one of the darkest pages in the annals of our nation's history.
Using her formidable talents as a writer, researcher, and forensic scientist, Debra Komar weaves a tale that could almost be fiction, with larger-than-life characters and dramatic tension. In telling the story of John McLoughlin, Jr., Komar also tells the story of Canada's north and its connection to the Hudson's Bay Company.
It began with Benoni Fleury, pie-eyed and slobbering in the arms of John McLoughlin, who was himself "half-seas-over," an era-specific euphemism for drunkenness. William Lasserte lingered like a useless prop as McLoughlin fought to tuck his servant in for the night, but things soon got out of hand. To hear Fleury tell it "I fell to bed. in doing which a scuffle took place between us and I unfortunately tore the sleeve of his shirt." The rent was accidental but McLoughlin "became outraged and thrashed [Fleury] unmercifully, so much so that Lasserte requested leave to desist," The boldfaced challenge to his authority inflamed McLoughlin, who "flew at Lasserte and struck him repeatedly." Lasserte had no choice but to turn tail and run, with McLoughlin on his heels. At one point, McLoughlin managed to grab hold of Lasserte and smack him again for good measure. Lasserte wrenched free and fled, with McLoughlin staggering in pursuit. Lasserte made for the staircase, leaving McLoughlin listing in his wake. Step by step, McLoughlin pulled himself halfway up the flight of stairs before finally giving up the chase. He then stormed into Belanger's room, where he found Simon Aneuharazie, Francois Presse, Urbain Heroux, and Charles Belanger drinking to excess. McLoughlin grabbed Aneuharazie by the throat, mistaking him for Lasserte. A terrified Aneuharazie gulped for air as he told his master he had the wrong man. McLoughlin relinquished his death grip and lurched from the room, leaving the men bewildered.