It's All Relative

You are of royal descent because everyone is.

Adam David Rutherford, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived



When Edward Longshanks came to the throne of England in 1272, he literally stood out among my 4 million or so relatives in the 13th century. At a time when the average height of a male was just under 5 feet, Edward stood at 6' 2''. A lisp and a lazy eye were other genetic traits he would leave to posterity.

Longshanks became King Edward I on November 12, 1272. When he died on July 7, 1307, at the respectable age of 67, he was survived by his wife, Eleanor, and a family of 9 daughters and 4 sons.

Edward became my royal ancestor (and yours, assuming you are of English descent) by virtue of a simple mathematical calculation. Each of us was born with 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 gg-grandparents and so on into the shadows of history with the number of ancestors doubling with each generation.

In terms of your DNA, your parents gifted you with 50% of their genes, your grandparents each contributed 25%, your great-grandparents, 12.5% until you get to very distant relatives who were downright miserly.

After 10 generations, I have acquired a modest 1024 direct ancestors of the ggg...grandparent variety who theoretically would have been living around the year 1650 in England--more than a full century before my gggg-grandparents, John Colbourne Sr. and Elizabeth along with their four children crossed the broad Atlantic.

Even 1024 relatives are far too many to invite over for Xmas dinner, nevertheless, a manageable number if they aren't constantly sending you friend requests on Facebook.

Things get more interesting as we journey further back in time. At generation 22, that of our 20th great-grandparents (Longshanks and Eleanor), the number of direct ancestors has grown to a frightening 4,194,304, each one of whom would have contributed a smidgeon of their DNA (0.004069%) so that I could be me and you could be you.

That's a problem. The population of England in 1272 was just 3,500,000 which of course means that everyone alive at that time was my relative and yours. Just so we don't get too carried away with the royal connection, we would have to include in our pedigree not just Longshanks but also the scullery maid in the royal kitchen and the filthy beggar outside the palace gates.

Genealogists point to a flaw in the calculation of the massive numbers. The model does not account for what really happened in the bedrooms (and fields) of 13th century England. Close encounters, of the first and second cousin kind, accounted for more than 80% of conjugal unions and procreation in those ancient days. Uncles marrying nieces and aunts hooking up with nephews were also quite common.

Duplicate ancestors tend to jump out of the family tree in droves.

The royal families of Europe deliberately practiced inbreeding in order to protect their imperial bloodlines. Kings and queens quoted the holiness laws of Leviticus 18 to justify the practice. Cousin marriages were sanctioned in the Old Testament. Isaac and Rebekah's first-born son, Esau, for example, married his first cousin, Mahalath, daughter of his father's brother.

The hairy, red-headed Esau and Mahalath produced five sons. Their children made do with three pairs of great-grandparents rather than four.

After Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's two daughters took it up a notch (Genesis 19:30-38) by each bearing sons for their father. Lot became both the grandfather and the father of the two boys. Lot's wife, their grandmother, became a pillar of salt.

All of which created loads of additional problems.

In the middle ages, Royals got in on the act in a big way.

Charles II of Spain, the last of the great Royal House of Hapsburg, was born on November 6, 1681, to Phillip IV and Mariana of Austria who were uncle and niece, thus making Charles, their son, a great-nephew and a first cousin respectively. All of Charles' great-grandparents, gg-grandparents, and ggg-grandparents were closely related--an extreme case of keeping it all in the family.

After 5 generations, it all culminated in pedigree collapse and disaster. Charles was born with a multitude of genetic defects, early dementia, depression, a deformed jaw, an elongated skull, one pea-sized testicle, speech impediments, and spindly legs. Courtiers said that he was so ugly no one could stand to be in his presence.

Poor Charles died an early death on November 1, 1700.

Thankfully, he was not my direct ancestor. Or, was he?

The outlaw, Jessie James, married his first cousin, Zerelda Mimms, in Clay County, Missouri in 1874. Their descendants still argue bitterly about their ancestry.

He, too, met an early death.

In his book Wit and Humor of the Age, Mark Twain shared his comedic take on tangled family relationships: Well Sam, I'll tell you how it is. You see, I married a widow, and this widow had a daughter. Then my father, being a widower, married our daughter, so you see, my father is my own son-in-law.

In 1947, Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffee turned the situation into a song which was subsequently covered by the likes of Grandpa Jones and Willie Nelson. You are probably more familiar with the Ray Stevens' version of I'm My Own Grandpa. (Available on YouTube).

Using the pyramid model, you and I are most certainly related to Charlemagne, Emperor of the Romans in 872 AD--theoretically, we could have had over one billion ancestors alive at that time, each one of whom would account for 0.0001% of our DNA. In actual fact, the population of the whole of Europe was barely 50 million.

But of course, the family tree is not a tree at all, nor a pyramid. At best, it is a tangle of brambles with spikes and branches turning in on each other.

Which is why I generally find that after the fifth or sixth generation, the pursuit of ancestors loses its meaning. "At some point," said the historian, Henry Weincek, "the search becomes futile--there is nothing left to find."

We should keep in mind, however, that we share 99.9% of our genetic endowment with all other humans on the planet.

In December, when you are planning that big dinner, you may as well go into the street and invite a dozen or so people at random. They are certain to be your relatives.






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Dancing on Air: New Edition: New Publisher

Dancing on Air

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

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.







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.


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

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 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 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:

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)


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 and in kindle and print format.