The Flat Earth Society


I get the willies when I see closed doors

                                                ...Joseph Heller




Oftentimes, after spouse has embarked on her journey through the Land of Nod, I stay awake into the wee hours, listening to soothing music, propaganda, and tales of the weird and wonderful on late night radio from places as far away as Moscow, Beijing, and Washington. A few nights back on Voice of America, a noted psychologist, Dr. Lucy May, expounded at length on the epidemic of dire phobias afflicting the entire human race, an extreme situation worsened by the continuous news cycle, social media, and a crop of unscrupulous politicians, all of which have unleashed a torrent of nostalgia for the simple life of our cave-dwelling ancestors who roamed the earth at will, unbothered by flu epidemics, taxes, or where to get the next joint, whose only worry was being ripped apart by a sabre-toothed tiger or being gored by a mastodon, and who had not yet bothered to elect untrustworthy shysters  who would stop at nothing to gorge themselves on the fat of the land.

Ninety-nine percent of us are obsessed by these phobias, said the psychologist. Moreover, these fears are deeply embedded in our subconscious. Fifty percent of us are now consumed by nomophobia--the fear of not having our cell-phone with us, a fear well-founded according to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who recently warned in a broadcast on Radio Moscow that people's dependence on smartphones could bring about the coming of the anti-Christ.

Another ten percent of us, said Dr. May, have a condition we call pantophobia--a fear of everything.

All of which has led me to ponder my own condition and whether I might join the race back to the stone age. The recent spate of hurricanes and blizzards has provided ample opportunity to reflect on life's modern conundrums as well as on the need to adjust to being trapped inside a house inside a cocoon of snow inside a city wrapped in a dense blanket of fog which threatens to hold us prisoner until well into spring. Opening a door and being confronted with a solid wall of the white stuff is unsettling, to say the least.

Fortunately, kindly neighbors came to our rescue and dug a tunnel from the street to our front door--a tunnel which spouse refuses to enter because she has claustrophobia. This has become somewhat of a problem because she now expects me to attend to the many long-delayed maintenance tasks inside the house while we endure the endless winter season in these pine-clad hills.

All those years I have been keeping my phobias a secret from spouse ever since she announced shortly before we embarked on wedded bliss, that she suffered from occasional bouts of anuptaphobia, a fear of marrying the wrong person.

Just yesterday, she began to complain about a picture hanging at a 30-degree angle in the stairwell. "just bring in the stepladder and get up there and straighten it," she said.

"It looks fine to me," I said. "The impressionist style of this piece of art requires it to be hung at a certain angle. It's a Salvador Dali."

She was having none of it. I brought in the stepladder and informed her that she would have to get up and fix it. "I have a serious philosophical problem with standing on anything higher than a chair," I said.  "I don't want to create the impression that I am above everybody else."

"You mean you have acrophobia."

"Yes, I confess to this character flaw," I said, "But at least I respect your opinions so I don't have allodoxaphobia."

I proceeded to relate a story from my past which I had kept well hidden as it involved disruption of public order with potential legal complications.

"Some years ago," I said, "on a foolish whim, several friends and I, decided to walk across the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge linking Halifax and Dartmouth, intending to return by the harbour ferry. We set out on our merry way just before rush-hour in the morning. At the time, I had not thought the whole excursion through; that the suspension bridge was rather elevated above the water; that, at its peak, it dangled over a hundred meters above the inlet; that I could be in serious trouble if I did not keep my eyes focused on the rising sun. In fact, these things did not dawn on me until the halfway point when I happened to glance down through the grating and saw a toy ship--which in reality was a massive freighter--meandering down the channel beneath my feet.

"An icy chill filled the lower part of my stomach, after which my brain transferred all responsibility for action to my legs--which stiffened and wandered off in all directions. I envisioned splatting like a jellyfish on the ship's deck.

"Choosing the lesser of two calamities, my legs opted to move into the very busy oncoming lane, thereby causing traffic chaos. After many rude and defamatory shouts from drivers, my two companions dragged me back to the pedestrian walkway and encouraged me to continue. I was to close my eyes and place my right hand on my friend's shoulder while my second friend walked behind me with his hand on my neck.

We made it to the far-side banks of Dartmouth where a kindly police officer inquired as to our motives whilst issuing a citation forbidding us from ever going near the bridge again on pain of arraignment before a magistrate of Her Majesty's Court.

" I'm sure there's a drug to cure that," said spouse. "Now, you should think about how to deal with your fear of the government."

And on further reflection that day, I began to arrive at a better understanding of my recently developed aversion to some politicians.

Several years back, Dr. Dale (he who toked with a female Liberal colleague in Gander--all in an aging punk-rocker 1980s kind of way) came to our door to ask for our support as he campaigned for a position to feed at the government trough. His gaze fell on a book I held in my hand. As he talked about a better tomorrow, his voice developed a high pitch and extreme anxiety furrowed his face of a fraudulent messenger. Mumbling a hurried goodbye, he rushed off to the next home up the street.

After he became the minister of illiteracy some months later, I was not the least bit surprised when he announced that he would be closing all community libraries and that the government would impose a fifteen percent tax on books. Bibliophobia immediately came to mind.

"After four years of oppressive taxation from politicians that excel in abusing the great unwashed, it is little wonder," I said to spouse, "that I have now developed politicophobia."





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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.