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The Lynching of Peter Wheeler

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by Debra Komar

Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, New Brunswick, 2014
352 pp., illus., $19.95 paperback

No need for a spoiler alert on this review — the title of this recreation of a notorious Nova Scotia murder case from more than a century ago assures readers that the man accused of the crime will be convicted and hanged. And, as forensic anthropologist-turned-author Debra Komar makes clear in this meticulously researched account, Peter Wheeler’s execution was a gross miscarriage of justice.

The murder occurred in the village of Bear River, at the western end of the Annapolis Valley, in the winter of 1896. When fourteen-year-old Annie Kempton was found brutally slain in her blood-spattered home, suspicion quickly fell on Wheeler, a friend and neighbour in his mid-twenties. Wheeler discovered the body and was one of the last people to see Kempton alive, but there was little evidence to link him to the crime — at least at first. Komar shows how a community’s demands for justice and vengeance, slipshod police work, and sensational media coverage combined to put Wheeler’s neck in the noose.

Although Wheeler had lived in Bear River for more than a decade, he remained an outsider. Born on the island of Mauritius off the coast of Africa, he was dark-skinned, and Komar finds plenty of evidence that the overt prejudice of the times was a major factor in his conviction.

The village’s rumour mill transformed Wheeler into a fiend who had tried to rape the girl before killing her. Local newspapers were replete with lurid details, false leads, and speculation about the crime, ensuring he was convicted in the court of public opinion long before he stood trial.

Komar mounts a scathing attack on Nova Scotia’s Victorian-era editors and reporters for being more interested in selling newspapers than in informing the public. It’s an easy accusation to make — and one still heard today — but the sheer volume of pretrial publicity, almost all of it anti-Wheeler, proves her point.

Also singled out for censure is Nicholas Power, a Halifax detective called in to take charge of the investigation. Power is remembered as a legendary sleuth who solved scores of Nova Scotia murders and other crimes in his long career, but Komar exposes him as a shameless self-promoter who rushed to judgment, tried his cases in the media, and tailored evidence to implicate whomever he considered the prime suspect.

The evidence Power assembled against Wheeler was circumstantial and weak. The time of Kempton’s death was in dispute, witnesses changed their stories, and there was no shortage of people with bad things to say about the accused’s behaviour and character.

Local outrage forced the courts to grant a rare change of venue, moving the trial to a town in a neighbouring county, but Wheeler was convicted despite this precaution. His execution in September 1896 drew thousands to the seaport town of Digby, and it was feared a mob might storm the jailhouse and lynch the prisoner before the state could do the job. Hangings were no longer public spectacles, but, in a scene straight out of a Gothic novel, the sheriff put Wheeler’s corpse on display to satisfy the unruly, drunken throng.

Much has changed in the almost 120 years since Kempton’s death; advances in forensic science and police procedures, the Charter’s guarantees of a fair trial, journalists’ codes of ethics, and pretrial bans on the publication of evidence have curbed many of the excesses Komar has unearthed. “Should you ever lament that the system favours the accused at the expense of the victim,” she writes, “recall well the saga of Peter Wheeler, a man stripped of all rights or any hope of a fair trial.”

With this book, Wheeler joins the ranks of David Milgaard, Donald Marshall, and other Canadians wrongfully convicted of murder. Or was he? Wheeler should never have been convicted based on such flimsy evidence, but, before his execution, several newsmen claimed he had admitted to killing Kempton. Komar, though, dismisses the reputed confessions as fabrications and further evidence of an out-of-control press. The book ends with a question that Komar, despite her exhaustive research, is unable to answer: If Wheeler was railroaded, who killed Annie Kempton? More than a century later, the jury is still out.

— Dean Jobb (Read bio)

Dean Jobb is author of Empire of Deception (HarperCollins Canada), the untold story of 1920s Chicago swindler Leo Koretz and his escape to a life of luxury in Nova Scotia.


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