Debra Komar creates a narrative which manages to straddle the line between scholarly analysis and page-turner, relying upon court records, newspapers, and other historical documentation to gather evidence surrounding the murder of 14-year-old Annie Kempton in Bear River, Nova Scotia in 1896.
“This book looks back so we can see ourselves more clearly now,” the author explains.
“David Milgaard, William Mullins-Johnson, Anthony Hanemaayer, Steven Truscott, Kyle Unger, Romeo Philion, Guy Paul Morin — a tragic litany of wrongful convictions plague the Canadian justice system, men falsely accused of murder and caged for decades for crimes they did not commit. Their faces form a dire and haunting portrait of a legal system fraught with injustice, bias, and all-too-human error. We sit equally transfixed and paralyzed by their nightmarish tales of agony and salvation. The nation’s news cameras focus on these exonerated men but only by widening the lens to include Peter Wheeler does a clearer picture emerge. More than a century on, it appears we are none the wiser when it comes to understanding how wrongful convictions occur.”
Along the way, in pursuit of understanding how Peter Wheeler was sentenced to death for this crime despite solid evidence of his innocence, many subjects of historical relevance are explored.
Debra Komar considers the practices of newspaper reporters (the ways in which a thirst for salacious detail overrode traditional constraints), policing and the crime fighting ethos (with an emphasis on prevention and collaring drunks), the synchronicity of this crime’s proximity to the London papers’ reporting of Jack the Ripper’s exploits (which influenced the aforementioned members of the community and the community-at-large) and the question of forensic science in regards to this case.
About 50 pages into the work, the proverbial tide turns against Peter Wheeler. A teenage girl’s testimony raises doubts as to the veracity of Peter Wheeler’s original statement. Debra Komar’s description of the scene serves as an example of the way in which she infuses trial transcripts with personality and emotion.
“The Morine girl swore Annie never asked her to stay that evening or any other. Under questioning, Grace was defiant, wielding all the petulance and indignation afforded a teenage girl accused of something she did not do.”
The author blatantly addresses the racism which also fuelled the fire lit beneath Peter Wheeler.
“In 1896 Canada was unfathomably, unrecognizably racist. The country, a mere twenty-eight years old, had already weathered a turbulent and troubled history. During their formative years, the Maritime provinces had witnessed the expulsion of the Acadians and the systematic denigration of its First Nations peoples. Many had known slavery to be legal in their lifetime. Halifax, the region’s capital and one of the principal gateways to the New World, funnelled an endless stream of cultures, creeds, and languages through its port and expelled them into the less than welcoming arms of those eking out a living in the lands and waters beyond. Clashes verging on race wars were inevitable.”
Her background in forensics provides useful information. For instance, readers learn that the techniques used to determine time of death in 1896 are based in the same three principles today, which are known as the Mortis sisters: Algor Mortis, Livor Mortis, and Rigor Mortis (temperature, lividity, and muscle rigidity). She also explains that the “potential of fingerprints in criminal investigations was widely recognized but poorly understood” as another factor which contributed to the unjust prosecution of Peter Wheeler.
And, perhaps most impressively, based on the transcripts and testimony, she re-constructs a timeline which was deliberately presented in such a disorderly fashion as to obscure the fact that much evidence was provided to vindicate Peter Wheeler of this charge.
The narrative is interspersed with a number of illustrations including hand-drawn maps provided to the coroner during inquest, archival photos of Bear River, and artists’ renderings of participants in the trial. It is followed with twenty pages of references in the endnotes, predominantly newspaper articles with frequent nods to the trial transcripts.
Although The Lynching of Peter Wheeler could have been written in a dry, officious tone based on the documentary evidence, Debra Komar presents her findings in a consistently engaging style. History lovers and readers of crime fiction are both likely to be satisfied with the results.