My Illustrious Ancestors


Someday, you'll be an ancestor too




If truth be told, I have always been a Walter Mitty type, day-dreaming about my exotic origins, living in heroic times, wielding the pitiless sword of righteousness.

I first became aware of this tendency from watching Lord of the Rings, the movie trilogy based on Tolkien's stories. The three films released between 2001 and 2003 drew me back to the big screen and convinced me that my ancestors were Hobbits with some Elfin genes thrown in.

What clinched the argument for me, was Cate Blanchett--Galadriel, the mightiest and fairest of the Elves who, in the closing scene, steps into a boat with Gandalf, Bilbo, and Frodo, which will take them to Valinor, The Land Beyond the Great Sea--to everlasting life. I desperately desired to be on that boat with Galadriel. Even though she was then 8,412 years old, she didn't look a day past twenty.

Alas, I had promised my wife I would be with her, throughout eternity. Goodbye, Galadriel. I yearn for you, tragically.

Around that time, archaeologists discovered that a new species, Homo floresiensis--Hobbits, had indeed existed on the remote Indonesian island of Flores some 75,000 years ago. Using my evidence-based protocol, I concluded, then and there, that these were the people who had evolved into the future me.

Then, there was that time back in the day when a casual comment from a guest at our B&B sent me off on another mad dash along the unmarked trail of my ancestral past.

"You look so much like Dustin Hoffman," said the young lady(ahem!). By coincidence, I kept a publicity snap of the famous actor from The Graduate, in my office. With photo in hand, I rushed off to the nearest mirror to find links to my true self. Sure enough, he reminded me of me, the eyes and the nose matched, as did the laugh lines around the mouth, and the fragile look of innocence mixed with devilish intent on the face. Koo-Koo-Ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson.

I had secured a link to the silver screen. A quick letter to Mr. Hoffman c/o HBO Productions in Hollywood, introducing myself as a potential relative, elicited no response. Mr. Hoffman, I understand, jealously guards his privacy.

Soon, I discovered through a cursory search at that neither our parents, nor our grandparents, nor their parents had had any kind of positive interaction in the past. Factors of geography, religion, and age, had intervened to make an intimate liaison impossible.

My potential link to movie stardom was broken like a frayed string on Paul Simon's guitar. The trail ended, as is so often the case, in a dead-end street. Still, Dustin, like myself, was not excessively tall, the Hobbit gene being still dominant.

Of course, I am not alone in the pursuit of exceptional forbears. Bill Clinton, my favorite politician, and Johnny Cash, my all-time favorite singer, both claimed Cherokee ancestry as do millions of others in the US. When an ancestral search turned up no Cherokees on any appendage of Bill's (tree), he said he had misspoken. Ditto for Johnny Cash, except he had the grace to apologize to the Cherokee Tribal Council. We get a lot of pretendians, said one tribal elder.

And here comes Miley Cyrus, Johnny Depp, Elizabeth Warren...

At one time or another, as I flirted with my exotic origins in the new world, I have entertained myths that my gggggggrandparents were Huguenots, those courageous Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, persecuted by the French--maybe that's where the paranoia about Churchill Falls comes from.

Then, there were three brothers (never three sisters) who were stowaways fleeing the lawful authorities in the old country. The three had engaged in riotous behavior in Ireland and had maimed a few British soldiers. When they arrived at Gander Airport (sometime in 1756), one went north, one went south, and one went God knows where.

That story didn't hold water either. I discovered that my New World ancestors had washed up on a beach and had settled down in Twillingate, Newfoundland, in 1782. They brought a few books with them but no magnificent coat-of-arms. Just a couple of wet white people. Pretty mundane.

But, I did pay a king's ransom for my family coat-of-arms during a layover from an overseas flight at Toronto International Airport in the 90s--with a mind numbed by jet-lag. "You must be A distant relative of Queen Elizabeth the First, the Virgin Queen," said the guy at the kiosk as he handed me a pre-programmed printout and raked in my money. Now we were getting somewhere, I thought. Sir Walter Raleigh couldn't be far behind. 


I never did find the great-great-grandmother who was an Indian princess.

My family tree became a tangle of brambles in a bog.

Until I visited the famous National Museum in Nuremberg, Germany. And in a flash of recognition, there he was, Father. Charlemagne: King of the Franks, Slayer of the Infidels, the Great Liberator, son of Pippin the Short and Bertrade of Laon, Hobbit parents from the Shire, without a doubt.

The first of the Holy Roman Emperors stood before me in all his regal glory. The intelligent eyes with a glint of merriment, the furrowed brow, the aquiline nose, the suggestive dimples in the cheeks...the beard and long locks that I sported in my hippie days...He was me. 

Oh sure, it was over a thousand years ago and forty generations removed, but sometimes one has a feeling...

I have just completed a literary consultation with Adam David Rutherford, the famous British geneticist, and author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. He has confirmed that I am the direct descendant of Drogo of Metz, son of Charlemagne.

But just yesterday, my wife observed that I sometimes project a magnificent Mongolian aura.

Genghis Khan?

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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.