Strangling Angels and Noxious Remedies: The Real World of Our Ancestors



 Back in 1899, when everybody sang auld lang syne...

                                                               Steve Goodman, The Twentieth Century is Almost Over.


Expressions of sorrow and condolence appeared regularly in newspapers of the day. A notice in The Twillingate Sun in October 1891 was typical: We learn that diphtheria has been prevalent of late and that a good many cases have proved fatal. We are sorry that Mr. Samuel Short [of Ward's Harbour] has lost three children from the disease.

Settlers in outlying communities along the northeast coast of Newfoundland in the latter part of the twentieth century faced overwhelming health challenges. Life expectancy hovered around 42 years for men and 47 for women.

Just as today, La grippe (influenza) was common and often deadly for the elderly and young children, so too for Quincy, winter fever, the Spotted Demon, and Phthisis.

To our ancestors, these very words brought fear and foreboding. Perhaps no news was more terrifying than learning that the Strangling Angel--Diphtheria, was on the loose. The dread disease received its name from the development of a greyish membrane in the shape of angel wings on the tonsils, which quickly expanded to completely obstruct the windpipe and suffocate the victim.

When Great-grandmother, Martha Earle, lay dying in Island Cove, Notre Dame Bay, on Wednesday, April 6, 1892, five days after giving birth, she was leaving behind a family of four healthy boys ranging in age from eight to thirteen. To protect them from the disease, Great-grandfather had moved the children to another household in Lush's Bight, a mile away.

Martha was pregnant when she developed Diphtheria. The infant, John, born on April 1, was already doomed and certainly without his mother's care, he could not survive. On Good Friday, April 15, 1892, the Strangling Angel claimed him, as well.

The highly contagious disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae claimed 40 to 50 percent of children in the area over a ten-year period from 1885 to 1895. In many of the households, multiple children fell victim to the disease.

In the fall of 1890, Lily, four years of age, Herbert, two, and John, just three months, the children of John and Selena Parsons of Lush's Bight, died within a week of each other. To lose one child was a tragedy, to lose all three was a calamity.

There was little comfort even in their church. Most clergymen and lay-preachers viewed such diseases as either a test of faith or a punishment from God for sinful practices, a belief cemented in biblical orthodoxy as in 1 Corinthians 11:30, that's why so many of you are weak and sick and a considerable number are dying.

Or, the work of Satan, as in Job II, vii.

Unable to find solace and understanding in the confusions of the spiritual realm, people sought guidance from other sources. Newspapers carried sensational details of miracle cures for various ailments often accompanied by fabricated testimonials from doctors and from the formerly afflicted.

A report in the Twillingate Sun for January 25, 1890, proclaimed one such cure. The following remedy was discovered in Germany and is said to be the best known: after the first indication of Diphtheria in the throat of the child, make the room close, then take a tin cup and pour into it a quantity of tar and turpentine, equal parts. Then hold the cup over a fire so as to fill the room with fumes, the person affected will cough up and spit out all the membraneous matter and the Diphtheria will pass off. The fumes of the tar and turpentine loosen the matter in the throat and this affords the relief that has eluded the skill of physicians.

Ineffective as the remedy was, it became common practice in many communities. There were few, if any, alternatives. Medical science at the time was in its infancy in terms of understanding the nature of common diseases.

Antitoxins and vaccinations were many years down the road.

Minard's Liniment and other patent medicines filled the void--all claiming to be cure-alls for a host of afflictions, Rheumatism, Neuralgia, bleeding of the lungs, Cholera morbus, Croup, Dipthteria...and kindred illnesses. Heals burns, bruises, etc. Best Staple Medicine in the World. Beware of Imitations. Good for Man or Beast.

By the 1880s, health authorities had a basic understanding of contagious diseases and introduced measures such as quarantine under the Public Health Act. Violations of an imposed quarantine could result in fines of $100 (around $3000 today) and/or three months in prison. Such measures, however, were difficult to enforce in small communities.

On March 28, 1896, the Sun carried news from the Police Courts in Twillingate, Magistrate Berteau presiding: On Monday last, Mr. George Rice of Little Harbour, charged with violation of the Public Health Act, by allowing his family to go abroad while his house was under quarantine for Diphtheria: and also for removing the flag before the house was disinfected. He pleaded ignorance of the law and was let off by paying $3.50, being the costs...

Also, Mr. John Spencer, of the same place on a similar charge, having gone to church and other places from a house infected with Diphtheria. He had to pay costs, $2.99. 

In defiance of the odds, the four boys of Martha and James survived.

James remarried on November 12, 1892. Five more children were born to him and Annie Eliza, his second wife, over the next twelve years.

Their descendants have spread throughout Newfoundland, Canada and into the US.


MUN Digital Archives. The Twillingate Sun. June 24, 1880, to January 31, 1953.

M. A. Bromley, Gleanings From the Sun. Genealogical Abstracts from the Twillingate Sun, 1988.

Cemetery Transcriptions, Long Island, Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland.

Family History Library; Salt Lake City, Utah.

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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.