Unlocking the Past

The past is never dead. It's not even past

                                                                 ...William Faulkner




The photograph, remarkable for its detail and clarity, was taken at L'Anse au Pigeon (Lancy Pigeon) on the French Shore of northern Newfoundland in the summer of 1910. Many families from the islands in Notre Dame Bay gathered there in the early summer for the seasonal fishery, filling schooners with dried salted cod for the markets of Europe.

On the surface, it appears to be just an ordinary image of the time--shot by an itinerant photographer with a box camera and a steamer trunk filled with period costumes. He traveled every summer from the city to fishing stations along the coast. For a small fee, he dressed his subjects to make them visually presentable, snapped their picture, and months down the road they received their portrait.

Their youth was now enshrined in black and white; she, a 21-year-old; he, 27. They pose with their first child, Rupert Clifford, a Christmas baby in 1909, fragile-looking, the first-born of a large family to come.

In the background, we see the large wooden shed for fish storage and the smaller wood-frame, canvas-covered shack that is their home for the summer.

After the photo session, they dress again in their everyday clothing; she, her simple frock and apron; he, his rough fisherman's Guernsey and stained canvas coveralls. The child's dress and leather lace-up boots, the lady's fine high-necked blouse, and the man's shirt, tie, Edwardian cap, and jacket are all returned to the photographer.

They resume their daily routine. She is responsible for the household, caring for the child, and the curing of cod on the drying flakes. He spends sixteen hours a day hauling the nets, cleaning the fish, and storing it in salt.

They work in a cashless economy. His production becomes a credit on the merchant's ledger which will be drawn down on for winter provisions and the outfitting for next season's fishery. Slavery by today's standards.

Unlocking the past from old photographs and from old documents has long been a passion, some would say an obsession.

For well over two decades, I have poured over old documents in dusty archives. I have traipsed through dozens of cemeteries, some well kept, others abandoned and overgrown with willows and weeds that quickly take hold when communities fade and people forget.

Contacts far and wide have helped me find pieces that fit the puzzle.

At times the search is frustrating, always laborious, time-consuming, but always rewarding. Sometimes, like a wide crevasse on a glacier, the road to the past seems unbridgeable. Invariably, one finds the way.

The passion for genealogy was nurtured years ago by a professor who invited me to enroll in her family history course at the university at a time when I was looking for a beginning. The passion grew as I discovered the archival wealth of The Rooms in St. John's, church records, colonial office papers, old newspapers, war records, and census materials dating back to Sir John Berry's survey of 1675 when he was a British Naval officer on station in Newfoundland waters.

I came to understand the stories told by individual headstones, by abandoned cemeteries, by deserted homes, and by elders whose recollections spanned several generations beyond the misty times before my own memories.

The 1910 portrait taken at L'Anse au Pigeon became a beacon, a jumping off point both to the past and to the future. The man in the photo is my paternal grandfather, Wilson, born 130 years ago on May 23, 1886. I never knew him. He died on the morning of April 24, 1948, when I was just three years old. After rowing across the harbour in his punt, he climbed onto his wharf and suffered a massive heart attack.

Several days later on a snowy spring afternoon, my mother and I watched the funeral procession from the parlour window. A horse-drawn cart with the casket, followed by a group of mourners dressed in black, moved slowly along the harbour road and up to the old United Church on the hill. 

The woman in the photograph, my grandmother, Priscella, was born on March 16, 1889. She died on January 4, 1973, a quiet, gentle lady who doted on her grandchildren.

Rupert Clifford, the baby, died in infancy on February 24, 1911, from one of many childhood diseases for which there was no cure at the time.






Bev Dawson
January 19, 2019 @08:48 pm
My maternal grandparents. I have the same photo displayed on a table in my house!
pearl slade
January 18, 2019 @08:03 am
Very interesting story of my relatives as well. Hard working people back in the day. Lovely picture.

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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.