Retired forensic anthropologist Debra Komar has written, to date, three books about unsolved murders from Canada’s past. I have now read two of them, The Ballad of Jacob Peck (2013) and The Bastard of Fort Stikine (2015). A third book, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler was released in 2014. All three books are published by Goose Lane Editions.
The Ballad of Jacob Peck was Ms. Komar’s first book and it deals with the little-known murder of Mercy Hall by her brother Amos Babcock in Shediac, New Brunswick back in 1805. Of course, 200 years ago the occurrence of murder in such a small frontier community was big news and it was talked about for years. Amos was convicted of the murder (there was no question he did it, there were many witnesses), but why and by whom was he driven to murder his own sister? This is what Ms. Komar endeavors to discover by meticulously going through what few historical records exist from that time period. Jacob Peck was an itinerant, self-declared preacher of the Gospel (but was illiterate, as Ms. Komar proves) who incited Amos Babcock to murder Mercy Hall, for he led poor Amos to believe the only way to salvation (Rapture) for his family was to kill Mercy, for it was she who was holding them back from attaining their reward.
Admittedly, there was not much in the way of records kept in those days; they didn’t even have court reporters to record witness statements. What ultimately became of some of the participants is unknown. As for Jacob Peck, the author notes that “his death predates all types of formal social tracking” that we take for granted today: death certificates, church records or even a gravestone. The lack of reference material makes for an ostensibly drawn-out telling of an incident that occurred briefly in time, many years ago. Despite this, the most fascinating part of the book is the Postscript wherein Ms. Komar examines the crime in light of current law and our understanding of the concept of solicitation of murder (of which Jacob Peck would be charged with today, she contends). Fittingly, she allows us to sit as a juror and proceeds to inform us (from her point of view as a prosecutor) of what we should know to render a just verdict against Peck and give Mercy Hall the justice she has been denied for two centuries.
The Bastard of Fort Stikine, on the other hand is a vastly more satisfying read than Jacob Peck, for two main reasons:
- The history of the Hudson’s Bay Company is well-established in the historical record
- The murder of John McLoughlin, Jr. in 1842 is also well-documented, including correspondences between his father and HBC Governor Simpson
It all adds up to an extremely good read, both for Canadian history buffs (HBC history in particular) and for fans of forensic anthropology. However, as the author notes in the preface:
The solving of a murder more than 170 years after it was committed is a challenge, but there is more to this story than a historical whodunit.
Indeed, this book could well be entitled The Bastards of Fort Stikine, since there are several characters fitting that epithet, including the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company himself, George Simpson. The reader is left to conclude who the real owner of that title belongs to. Since Fort Stikine was a nest of ne’er do wells and malcontents, the events that transpired there are not surprising in themselves. It is the manner in which the initial investigation was carried out (by Simpson), and the conclusions it jumped to in the name of brevity and a possible cover-up. The case never saw the inside of a courtroom.
The Bastard of Fort Stikine examines not only the sad life and murder of John McLoughlin Jr. but also his father’s elusive search for justice and the exhaustive attempts to clear his son’s besmirched name. This is where the author’s extensive experience as a practicing forensic anthropologist for over twenty years (and as an expert witness in The Hague and across North America), pays off. She understands the father’s (John McLoughlin Sr.) grief driven search for justice (having personally witnessed it many times over the years) and, by his going about it in all the wrong ways, fully expends himself and ruins his own good character in doing so.
The layout of the book itself is quite engaging: it goes from vignettes from squalid Fort Stikine documenting events leading up to the shooting death of John McLoughlin Jr. to full chapters on the background history of the “Company” and the major players in the drama, replete with photos, maps, and diagrams. This is what makes for a great history book for me: lots of supporting material, well presented with just enough narrative to make it cohesive and interesting to read. Ms. Komar has unquestionably progressed as a writer since her first book (see above) and The Bastard of Fort Stikine deserves to be on a long-list for must-reads of 2016.
You can read an interview with Debra Komar here: https://miramichireader.ca/2016/08/debra-komar-interview/
Her Goodreads profile is here.