Stories in Stone


 Little Flowers of Love, That Blossomed but to Die...



Stories of survival, determination, and tragedy dominate our history. This one begins at the tail-end of the nineteenth century and continued into the waning years of the twentieth. On June 29, 1883, in the booming mining town of Little Bay on Newfoundland's northeast coast, a baby boy was born to Ursula Newman, daughter of George Newman and Elizabeth Fudge of Triton.

Single-parenthood was a rather daunting situation for a young mother in the 1880s.

Sixty miles to the southeast in Change Islands, Tommy Ledrew and his wife, Mary Ivany, were grieving the loss of their youngest child, nine-year-old Samuel Martin, to drowning a year earlier.

A terrible loss. The youngest son was insurance against the uncertainties of old age.

They decided to move to Long Island in Notre Dame Bay where the fishery was less crowded and where they could make a new beginning. By chance, they heard that the infant in Little Bay was available for adoption. The rest is history, as they say--family history. Tommy and Mary named him Samuel Martin after their lost child.

It was a custom adoption without formal paperwork. In the coming years, Ursula visited the family regularly.

When she married Hezekiah Simmons on November 28, 1887, the wedding, conducted by Rev. H. C. Hatcher, took place at Tommy Ledrew's home at Lush's Bight. Tommy's brother, Phillip, and his wife, Phoebe, from Pilley's Island, witnessed the event as undoubtedly did young Samuel.

Samuel grew up at a time when the fishery offered the only opportunity for a livelihood. He looked elsewhere for a lifelong vocation. In 1907, when he married Bessie Raines (pronounced 'Rines' in the thick West Country accent of Long Island--later changed to 'Ryan' in church registers) he was working on the construction of the new paper mill in Grand Falls which opened two years later.

Bessie's grandparents, William Raines Sr., and Sarah Heath, were among the small group of permanent settlers from the West Country of England who came to Ward's Harbour on Long Island around 1830.

Samuel's connection to the paper company helped him to a career as manager of various logging camps feeding timber to the mill in Grand Falls. His cash income gave him a quality of life and independence uncommon among his neighbors.

His standard of living, however, did not insulate his young family from tragedy.

Some sixty years later, the extent of the heartbreak in their lives dawned on us when Grandmother and Grandfather erected a memorial stone on the site where five of their children were buried. For me, as a child, there was the shock of learning that so many of my mother's family had died. Death was always something that happened to other people.

Dulcy B. survived for just five months in 1911, Bramwell, one-and-a-half months in 1913. Annie B. lived for nine months in 1917. Julie, in 1921, was just six months old. We will likely never know the precise cause of their deaths.

Parish records, vital statistics, and rudimentary medical histories shed some light on those times.

The historical record indicates that scarlet fever was common, as was measles, mumps, and chicken-pox, croup and diphtheria--no vaccines had yet been discovered, antibiotics were 30 to 40 years down the road, medical care was non-existent.

'Died from la grippe,' read the clergyman's death record for Annie B., influenza by another name. 

Patent medicines became the thing. Hucksters, feeding on the fears of ordinary people. Natural treatments, they said.

C.C. Richards & Co pushed Minard's liniment as the cure-all for diphtheria, whooping cough, asthma, bronchitis, cholera, and for an added bonus, it could make hens lay.

In a freak accident in 1933, the infant, Julie, at thirteen months, suffocated when a cooked navy bean wedged in her air passage. Nothing could save her.

Still, ten children survived into adulthood. Eric, born in 1908; Joshua, 1910; Robert, 1914; Mabel, 1916; Nellie Amelia, my mother, in 1919; Selby, 1922; Ralph, 1924; Otto, 1926; Phyllis, 1929; and Ruby, born in 1931--twenty-five years of child-bearing for Grandmother.

Just when they thought the dark times had passed, came another cruel blow when the eldest, 30-year-old Eric, disappeared in 1938 leaving a goodbye letter telling them he would not be in touch for five years. He did not disclose his destination. Gone, but he lived on in their memories.

His brothers and sisters did their best to find him. He remained an elusive phantom--showing up in Canadian border registers at Sydney, Nova Scotia in the mid-twenties; port-of-entry records in New York where he was listed as the purser on the freighting schooner, Ester Adelaide, in the late twenties; Halifax during the Great Depression; then into the void.

His goodbye letter offered a tantalizing clue--verbatim instructions provided by those recruiting young men for the International Brigades to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Tell no-one, not even your family, where you are going.

It was illegal, of course. Canada's parliament had passed legislation to prevent young men from participating in the struggle.

Perhaps the cruelest part for my grandparents was having to listen to stories about Eric's whereabouts, hypotheses thrown out to explain the unexplainable; that he may have been seen on a Swedish freighter docked close by; that he was serving a prison term in the US for smuggling during the prohibition era; that he had been killed in action with US forces during WW2. None stood up to investigation.

What really happened? We will never know with 100% certainty. That bothersome 1% doubt often confounds our search in the dark corners of the past.

Sammy and Bessie were larger than life, Grandmother, a born story-teller, with tales of the wild west involving her sister, Lucy-Mae, and Lucy-Mae's partner, Joe Morgan--Uncle Joe. A gunfight in a crowded saloon...

Grandfather was a giant in a 5' 2" frame, his mannerisms sometimes odd.

Whenever he shopped for clothing, he demanded several sizes beyond what the clerk suggested and always rebuked the man for thinking he was 'a mere boy.'

The old hag haunted his dreams all the way to the end.

Grandfather's Newfoundland pony, Bob, was as eccentric as its master, with the strange ability to calculate the precise weight of its load. If an extra pound were packed on his sled, the stubborn horse looked Grandfather in the eye, lay down on the road, and ignored all encouragement and threats until the offending weight was removed. Grandfather invariably yielded to the pony's wishes, always with the comment, "Bob, you bloody reptile."

I use the expression often.

Sources: United States Prison Records, United States Military Personnel Records, Library and Archives Canada; Spanish Civil War records, The Rooms: Census, Parish and other Records, Long Island Cemeteries, Records of the United Church of Canada, Personal interviews, The Twillingate Sun, 1883-1887.

NB: Newfoundland and Labrador's archival records are some of the best in the English-speaking world, making it relatively easy to trace ancestry to the early days of English settlement.





James Rice
January 28, 2019 @03:27 pm
Interesting read Eric. I knew Ralph, Otto and Ruby in the 1960's in Toronto.
Marilyn Henstridge Colbourne
January 26, 2019 @01:14 pm
Well done!
Harold Colbourne
January 26, 2019 @08:10 am
Very interesting, Eric.

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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.