Genealogy

Epitaphs

... Lost Whilst Driving to Sea

 

 

 

I was fortunate to have visited the tomb of Mahatma Gandhi. Inscribed on the slab of black marble at Raj Ghat, New Delhi, are the words, Hey Ram, roughly translated as 'O, Lord.' They were the last words spoken by the great man as he was felled by an assassin's bullet. Gandhi's epitaph may hold the record for brevity.

Always, the lines etched in stone to mourn someone's death are cryptic, with an obscure universe of meaning hidden in snippets of elegant poetry or brutal prose. By their very nature, they inspire us to rummage through our ancestral past to unearth the secret stories.

Two such epitaphs appear on a single weathered monument erected in the old churchyard between Quenton's Cove and Ward's Harbour, Newfoundland, in 1933, by Andrew and Bertha (Normore) Hewlett of Long Island, Notre Dame Bay. Bertha was the daughter of John and Dinah Normore of Sunday Cove Island.

On the family tree, Andrew is my first cousin, three times removed. We shared common ancestors, Robert and Mary (Heath) Hewlett, two of the immortals who made the ancestral leap across the Atlantic from the West Country of England in the summer of 1835.

In Loving Memory.

The cemetery is tucked into a small wooded valley where the souls of the dead enjoy the soothing breezes from the ocean close by.

On the right column of the monument below the crest of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the words: No. 2425 Pte. Levi Normore, Killed in Action at Monchy-Le-Preux, April 14, 1917. Aged 27 Years. He Gave His Life For His Friends.

The record left behind by relatives, census makers, clergymen, and government agencies reveal a complex story.

Levi, born in 1890, to a single mother, Annie-Eliza Caravan, survived childhood diseases and the first twenty months of infancy with his mother and his grandparents. Then, in a twist of fate, his mother decided out of necessity to marry my great-grandfather, James, who six months earlier had lost his first wife, Martha to Diptheria. 

In the marriage bargain, Annie-Eliza sacrificed Levi. She offered him for adoption to keep the peace--at James' insistence.

John and Dinah Normore needed the security that a young son would offer them in their senior years. They adopted the infant and Levi Caravan became Levi Normore, a custom adoption without paperwork, common practice at the time.

The Normore's 12-year-old daughter, Bertha, and her new brother developed a special bond.

Levi grew into a young man at a time when the dying embers of nostalgia for the old country still glowed faintly. Looming war clouds in Europe after 1912 stirred those distant memories of the ancient homeland and fanned the flames of patriotism for King and country. Our ancestors discovered that their enthusiasm for war matched that of their relatives across the sea.

In the temper of the time, becoming a soldier was a natural choice for Levi.

Unlike most of his peers, he was not wedded to the fishery. By his early twenties, he had already experienced the hell below ground in the grim coal mines of Cape Breton as he searched for a future away from the feudalism of the fishery. But he had made a devil's choice and discovered that bondage to a coal baron was no better than servitude to a fish merchant.

On his return to Long Island, he courted a young woman and they set a marriage date. Across the harbor in Cutwell Arm, Levi began work on their dream home. In a break from traditional construction techniques on the island, the unique building featured two brick chimneys and a concrete foundation.

The conflict overseas intervened.

He didn't have to volunteer. At twenty-six, he was beyond the normal enlistment age.

Levi put his planned marriage on hold, winterized his newly built home, and went to war on April 4, 1916.

Just over a year later, in the dim light of a cold Saturday dawn on April 14, 1917, Levi and his company charged towards German lines on the high ground just outside the French village of Monchy-le-Preux. German defenders caught Levi's battalion in a carefully laid trap. Aside from the few who became prisoners-of-war, the battalion was annihilated. Levi's remains were never recovered.

Back home on Long Island a year later, another battle played out over Levi's estate between Annie-Eliza, his natural mother, and the Normores, his adoptive family. The competing claims were finally referred to the Department of Justice which ruled in Annie-Eliza's favor. She received a cheque for just over sixty-five dollars, Levi's service gratuity.

In the coming years, Dinah Normore was reduced to poverty and survived on a poor pension of $2.30 per month.

In 1920, citing the loss of her son, Levi, who had been her only support, Dinah asked the Department of Militia for a Separation Allowance. I have been directed to state, came the reply from the government, that this allowance cannot be granted to you because your dependence on your son is not shown...

In 1923, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment forwarded a memorial plaque and a portrait of Levi to Dinah Normore as next of kin to a soldier killed in the Great War.

                                                                ***

On the left column of the monument the inscription: Ernest Gordon, Beloved Son of Andrew and Bertha Hewlett. Killed by Falling Over a Cliff. August 2, 1929. Aged 13 Years and 10 Months.

The description of the cause of death reminded me of an anecdote about the famous writer, Ernest Hemmingway. On a ten dollar bet, in a Brooklyn bar, sometime in the 1920s, he supposedly penned the shortest saddest story ever written: For sale. Baby shoes, never worn. Just a half-dozen words that needed only some quiet reflection on the implied tragedy of a tiny life cut short and happiness denied.

Hemmingway was likely inspired by epitaphs he had seen in cemeteries of the day.

Killed by Falling Over a Cliff would rank favorably with Hemmingway's classic.

The tragic incident had taken place at the Grey Islands off the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. Grey Island Harbour was a favored fishing station for Long Island fishermen in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. Boys as young as eleven years took their place alongside their fathers as part of a fishing crew. At thirteen, the boys were expected to assume adult responsibilities and by sixteen were considered full-time sharemen.

In 1929, Andrew and his son, Ernest, were members of Skipper Joe Short's crew.

August 2, 1929, was a Friday, normally a long workday in the hectic life of a fisherman, but for whatever reason, Ernest had gone to the cliffs south of Grey Island Harbour to gather eggs from the nests of seabirds which flocked to the area during the breeding season.

It was there that his friend from Beaumont caught up to him with a love letter from a special girl in Ward's Harbour. As he reached for the letter, Andrew, slipped, lost his balance, and fell to his death.

Bertha's grief would last forever.

Weep not Dear Parents, Brothers and Sister Dear

Disturb not Our Rest.

 

 

SOURCES:

Files of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The Rooms Provincial Archives.

1921 Census of Newfoundland. 

Cemetery Transcriptions, Long Island, Newfoundland.

With special thanks to Mr. Job Burton (now deceased) who told us stories of his days as a fisherman at the Grey Islands.

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ericcolbourne@ericcolbourne.com

Dancing on Air: New Edition: New Publisher

Dancing on Air

The revised edition of Dancing on Air(Boulder Publications) is now available from Boulder -- boulderpublications.ca also from Chapters/Indigo and Coles bookstores across Canada as well as at Amazon.com

Advance Reviews:

     "What a fascinating read this is. It has all the suspense of a true crime novel ...Newfoundland itself emerges as a colorful character..." -- editor, Friesen Press

     "In Dancing on Air, Eric Colbourne exposes the raw politics and behind the scenes intrigue of critical events in Newfoundland and Labrador history. In the process, he has skilfully unveiled the human faces of tragedies which have remained with us for well over half a century."   --Mervin Wiseman, Political Activist, NL.

     "This is a great way to present history. It's emotionally engaging, highly instructive, and jam-packed with fascinating details."  --Editor, Friesen Press.

     Dancing on Air: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy, and the End of the Death Penalty in Newfoundland is a story of justice and injustice amidst war and political upheaval.

     On St. Patrick's Day, 1942 Herb Spratt, the youngest son of a prominent St. John's city councilor, murdered his girlfriend, Josephine O'Brien. A weak defense at a two day trial in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland resulted in a guilty verdict coupled with a strong recommendation for mercy. The chief justice pronounced a sentence of death on April 28, 1942, but that was not the end of the story.

     Six years later, on October 23, 1948, during a night of terror in the town of Norris Arm on the central north coast of the island, Alfred Beaton stabbed his girlfriend and shot to death another young woman. At least 10 other individuals narrowly escaped death as Beaton rampaged through the community with a high powered rifle.

     Beaton went to trial in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland on January 31, 1949. The jury returned a guilty verdict without a recommendation for mercy. The chief justice again imposed the death penalty.

Alfred Beaton (center) after the death sentence

The incidents come together as a gripping account of a flawed justice system and of the impact of public opinion. With its cast of powerful characters, the story reads like fiction but what happened was only too real.  

The Dancing on Air Mystery: Who was Portia?

                  

 

On Monday, February 7, 1949, two days after Judge Emerson handed down the death penalty in the murder trial of Alfred Beaton, a mysterious letter appeared in the St. John's Evening Telegram. It contained an emotional plea for mercy and a call to action against capital punishment in Newfoundland. 

The eloquent letter writer persuaded thousands of citizens in the city and across Newfoundland and Labrador to demand an end to a barbaric practice. The final outcome was a surprise. Who was the mystery lady, Portia? For the first time in over 60 years, it is now possible to identify her--but the reader has to pick up the clues in the text.

 

 

Bio

 

 

 

Eric Colbourne grew up in the small community of Lush's Bight-Beaumont on the northeast coast of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. His earliest memories are of the tales spun by village elders under the flickering light of oil lamps in the kitchen of the family home on the isolated island. This tradition of story-telling is captured in his first book Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland which has enjoyed international success.

 

His latest work, Dancing on AIR: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy, and the End of the Death Penalty in Newfoundland, published in October 2016 by Boulder Publications, represents an enduring fascination with the issue of capital punishment which he has researched extensively over many years in this country and around the world.

 

Colbourne was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland, The University of Reading in the UK, and at McGill University in Montreal. He has enjoyed a varied career in education, community development, tourism and senior management in the public service of Nunavut and the NWT. He currently devotes his time to writing and historical research.

Back Cover:Dancing on Air

Public Executions: Dancing on Air

At 5.32 a.m. on August 14, 1937 a young black man, Rainey Bethea was executed at Owensboro, Kentucky after his conviction for the rape of a white woman. A crowd, estimated at 20,000, gathered in Owensboro the day before and held 'hanging' parties throughout the night. One reporter likened the scene at the scaffold next morning to a sporting event. The hangman was intoxicated and barely managed to trip the lever. It was the last public hanging in the US.

The practice of public executions was abandoned in Canada in 1869 and in the UK in 1870. Many countries, notably Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran continue the practice to this day for crimes such as drug trafficking, witchcraft, disloyalty to the government. and homosexuality.

Comments?

If you have comments on this site or reviews of Dancing on Air, please e-mail me at ericcolbourne@ericcolbourne.com.

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Advice for Writers

Elmore Leonard, a well known mystery writer who died last year offered a number of rules for good writing. A few of them:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Keep your exclamations points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

3.Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

4.Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

From the Ballad of Reading Gaol

 It is sweet to dance to violins

  When love and life are fair:

To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes

  is delicate and rare:

But it is not sweet with nimble feet

  To dance upon the air!

 

                       ...Oscar Wilde

Historic Vote

In 1948, residents of Newfoundland and Labrador decided their future in two referenda. In the first vote, held on June 3, Commission of Government was eliminated but neither Confederation with Canada nor Responsible Government received a majority, making a second referendum necessary. Voting was heavy, nearly 89% on June 3rd and 85% on July 22nd. 52.34% of voters chose Confederation on the second ballot.

Where to Buy Disappeared

     Disappeared:Stories From the Coast of Newfoundland is available in print and e-book from Amazon.ca and in e-book format from Kobo, Chapters etc. To locate it on Amazon, type 'Disappeared Colbourne' into their 'find' bar. Delivery is about one week.

     Author copies are also available directly from ericcolbourne.com. Click on the facebook link and send the author a message. Price is $15 plus postage.

     Due to the short print run the book will not be available in most bookstores.

New Edition: Dancing on Air

More Questions About an Execution

The case of Wilbert Coffin who was convicted of murder and hanged in Quebec more than 60 years ago raises many new questions. For the full story see: www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/wilbert-coffin-execution-cda-1.3441076.

Excerpt from Dancing on Air

(A Hanging in Quebec, 1902)

 

 

...Until the mid-1800s some 200 offences were regarded as capital crimes that carried the death penalty. In a modern age most of those offences now seem absurd.

 

John Dean, variously described in the records as a child of eight or nine, may have been the youngest to suffer death by hanging. On February 23, 1629 he was convicted of arson at Abington, England for setting fire to two barns in the town of Winsor. The judge saw evidence of wickedness in the boy's actions, an attitude which led directly to his death sentence.

 

In early August, 1814, an unfortunate William Potter received the death penalty at the high court in Chelmsford, England, for damaging an orchard. He had chopped down an old apple tree for firewood. To no avail at his trial, William pleaded ignorance of the law. The judge had second thoughts several days after sentencing, but with the wheels of justice already in motion, William was hanged about a week later on August 12.

From our Readers: Dancing on Air

I finished the book this morning and my only regret is that I couldn't read more....The exacting research gives real context in shaping the period, but it's Colbourne's ability as a writer that allows the reader to feel the crisp bite of the wind, smell the damp night air, and experience the pain and anguish of the characters. Colbourne's deft footwork in handling the historical record while giving life to the characters is to be applauded, and it separates this work from the pack.  (Glen Tilley)

 

An absolutely lovely read...The book reads like a richly textured novel but the story is flawlessly woven into the historical account (or borne out of it). It is clear that the book is meticulously researched...An excellent read on all fronts. Difficult to put down! (Monty Henstridge)

Disappeared

Excerpt from the story 'The Black Arts Book' in Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland.

 

...Old Meriam was indeed dead but no one seemed to know how she had died or where she was buried, all of which added to the mystery of her life  and the power of her witchcraft.

 

After her death, the old house seemed lonely more than anything else, sitting way out on the point by the landwash, facing the September storms and enduring the sad soundings of the ocean swells.

 

With each passing season it added a deeper tone of grey as the harsh weather of late fall and winter took its toll. Nobody in the village could understand how the old house could withstand so much punishment.

 

Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland  has been named a top seller on KOBO, one of the largest e-book distributors in the world. It continues to receive positive reviews in Canada and fifteen other countries. Disappeared is also available from amazon.ca and amazon.com in kindle and print format.