Murder on the Rock: True Crime in Newfoundland
and Labrador, by Robert C. Parsons,
Flanker Press, paper, $19.95
Reviewed by Dean Jobb
Two ship’s captains stand trial for barratry. A St. John’s woman is arrested on a charge of shebeening. And the entire crew of a sealing vessel is jailed for the crime of manusing.
Welcome to crime and justice Newfoundland-style, where the offences can be as strange and colourful as the people and events that come before the courts.
Robert C. Parsons’ Murder on the Rock is a collection of 59 stories drawn from more than two centuries of Newfoundland and Labrador history. There’s barratry, shebeening and manusing and plenty of other skullduggery afoot – including what may be the only known case of attempted cannibalism – but, given the book’s title, surprisingly few murders.
Parsons, a prolific writer and former teacher who lives in Grand Bank, has scoured old newspapers and court files as well as the memories of descendants to tell these obscure stories. Most details can be verified on the public record but Parsons adds a few tales that survive only as local lore.
“In every story from Newfoundland and Labrador’s past, no matter how strange, far-fetched, or curious, no matter how close it borders on legend,” he writes, “there is always a nugget or kernel of truth.”
And, he could have added, there’s an element of truth no matter how strange the offence.
Manusing, or manus, was “a crime akin to mutiny,” as one newspaper noted, but one that appears to have been specific to the sealing industry. In the spring of 1862, when the crew of the Harbour Grace vessel Mary refused to work and forced the captain to return from the sealing grounds with an empty hold, the eleven men received jail terms of up to a month.
Barratry? That’s intentionally sinking a vessel, a form of insurance fraud that was likely common on an island where isolated communities relied on sea travel. As Parsons notes, the setting was perfect – “hidden bays and coves, hundreds of schooners, scores and scores not making a profit … erstwhile captains and owners many miles remote from authorities.”
He offers several examples. One captain was jailed for eight months in the 1890s for grounding his schooner near Fortune Harbour. A few years later, in 1901, an insurance company paid a $3,900 claim after the Violet M. supposedly struck a small iceberg and sank; a crewman with a guilty conscience later admitted he had been asked to drill holes in the ship’s hull, and the skipper served two years in prison.
As for shebeening, not even the unfortunate woman hauled before a St. John’s court in 1898 understood what she had done to run afoul of the law. Parsons discovered it’s a term of Scots-Irish origin and refers to an establishment where liquor is illegally sold – bootlegging, to use a more modern term. The woman’s confusion (she appeared to think she was accused of prostitution) generated so much laughter among spectators and court officials that the magistrate dismissed the case to restore order.
Another crime unique to seafaring communities was wracking – stripping cargo and fittings from wrecked vessels that could have been saved or salvaged. For impoverished fishermen in Newfoundland’s outports, news that a vessel had run aground on their doorsteps was like winning the lottery, and many were tempted to hop in their boats and take what they could.
Some vessels were swarmed and plundered before passengers and crew had time to abandon ship, making “the coast people,” as one report called them, look like lawless thugs. The looting of the Massachusetts-based schooner Fernwood in the Bay of Islands in 1904, Parsons relates, made the pages of the New York Times and earned stiff fines for nine local men.
It’s little wonder that some fishermen were willing to risk prosecution for wracking. The Depression and poor fishing seasons brought hunger to the outports, and other stories in this collection tell of riots and raids on merchants’ stores as desperate fishermen sought food for their families. In the 1930s residents of Bonne Bay briefly held a government minister hostage to back their demands for a road to Deer Lake, where they hoped to find work.
There is murder here as well, including some unsolved cases from long ago. Eleanor Power, the first woman executed in Newfoundland, was the victim of a grave injustice – she was hanged in 1754 alongside her husband even though she was not present when the victim was slain during a burglary.
Parsons tells these stories in a matter-of-fact way and with enough context and colour to capture the reader’s interest. The stories are short – some only a page or two – making the book a quick read.
And that case of attempted cannibalism? In the 1850s, so the story goes, a group of starving survivors on a waterlogged vessel forced a crewman to murder a cabin boy. No sooner had he been killed than another vessel came to the rescue; the victim’s body was hidden and abandoned with the wreck, leaving no trace of their intentions or the crime.
Only in Newfoundland.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, Empire of Deception (HarperCollins Canada), tells the strange-but-true crime story of Chicago swindler Leo Koretz and his escape to a new life in 1920s Nova Scotia.
Read this review as published in The Chronicle Herald.