The Lynching of Peter Wheeler

The Lynching of Peter Wheeler - Debra Komar “Violent crimes render us myopic. In the immediate aftermath of a murder it can be impossible to see things clearly; emotions run high and the desire for vengeance often trumps reason. When the crime has racial overtones, justice is rarely colour-blind, and for cases that capture the media spotlight, the wave of punditry and prognostication that inevitably follows sweeps away all hope of ever separating fact from fiction … One of the telltale symptoms of our crime-induced myopia is wrongful conviction.”

Those sentences begin the preface of this book and if the reader were unfamiliar with the subject matter one could assume the book was about one of any number of crimes in the headlines of today’s newspapers. But this particular murder took place on January 27th, 1896 when Annie Kempton was the victim of an attempted rape. She was then beaten and finally murdered. Her assailant then sat in the room with the dead or dying Annie and calmly consumed a jar of homemade jam before disappearing into the night. Annie was 14 years old, and because of a little white lie she told, was alone when someone broke into her home. She died defending her virtue.

“Her cause of death was painfully obvious. A short cut of stove wood rested on the rug, painted with her blood. Its dimensions perfectly mirrored those of the jagged wounds across her face, but the log was not what killed her. Three deep gashes across her throat were the fatal injuries, stigmata of her killer’s uncontrollable rage. Two silver case knives lay near her head. Lest anyone doubt their significance, there were coated in blood. One however, did not look sharp enough to cut butter. The far more formidable blade of a well-honed butcher’s knife lay in wait on the only standing table in the room, yet it bore no trace of her blood. It was a curious anomaly, one that escaped all notice.
Like a shadow box, her blood had captured the outline of her killer. Bloody handprints were plastered on the cutlery and the window ledge. Bloody footprints faded in the snow, flagging his escape route through the back door. The assault had been quick but he had not been careful. He made no effort to mask his crime or destroy the telltale traces of it. There was little question her assailant had left soaked in her blood, a marked man.”

Annie’s neighbour, Peter Wheeler, had the unfortunate circumstance of being the last person to see Annie alive the evening before and then, the next morning, being the one to find her lifeless body.

So begins the perfect storm – Peter Wheeler’s swarthy complexion and unknown origins; an inexperienced Dr. Lewis Johnstone Lovett heading the kangaroo court of an inquest; the daily newspapers determined to make their pennies in sales and, the citizens of the small town of Bear River, Nova Scotia desperate to apprehend a killer in their midst.

“Canada’s newspaper had learned well the lessons of Jack the Ripper. Murder sells, to be sure, but an unsolved murder soon leaves a populace uneasy. Morbid fascination (and sales) quickly waned of all that was on offer was speculation and uncertainty.”

Enter Detective Nicholas Power, the self-professed “super cop” of the Maritimes. There was not a case he couldn’t solve or a criminal he couldn’t apprehend with his unique powers of deductive reasoning, rivaled only by those of the legendary Sherlock Holmes. Before he even stepped foot inside the crime scene Detective Power had his sights set on Peter Wheeler.

The author writes, “As for Detective Power, the media’s response fit perfectly into his scheme of things. Once Wheeler was in custody, there was no need to look for alternative suspects. With blinders firmly in place, the crack gumshoe now set about proving Wheeler’s guilt, a decidedly easier task than actually solving Annie’s murder.”

Ms. Komar brings her over twenty years of experience as a forensic anthropologist to the telling of the arrest, trial and subsequent hanging of Peter Wheeler. Her thorough research certainly leaves no stone unturned. She looks at this case from all angles and in some cases even justifies the errors as “a product of the times”. Ms Komar astutely points out that obviously forensic science was, if not unheard of, certainly in it’s infancy. However, fingerprint analysis was becoming a common practice, yet even that obvious manner of conviction or exoneration was swept under the table (because it did not fit Detective Power’s agenda). She quotes from the several local newspapers of the time, but only in the context of how they served to influence public opinion about an obviously innocent man. If I had to pick one flaw in this book it would be the amount of words given to how self-serving and yet influential the newspapers were, not only for the duration of Peter Wheelers’s case but, during that period of history in general. My personal opinion about that aside, this is not only a well-researched book but also a very well written book. Though the subject matters of true crime and wrongful convictions have caught my interest lately, I am apprehensive to pick up certain books because they often read like textbooks. Definitely not so in the case of Ms. Komar’s writing. She gives the facts in a smooth flowing and very readable narrative complete with illustrations, historical documentation and photographs.

Ms. Komar clearly brings the relevance of looking at history into the present. I definitely agree with her when she states:
“The true problem remains one of focus. Because the legal system demands it, appellate lawyers stare myopically at trial transcripts, hoping to find an impeachable error but they are missing the real reasons their client was wrongfully accused, for such social factors dwell outside the courthouse: racism, media manipulations, the force field that is celebrity, a community’s need for justice, and police officers with personal agendas” as in the case of Nicholas Power, “who cared more for preserving his aura of infallibility than in the pursuit of true justice.”

I can think of more than one case in the news recently where that last statement is more than exemplified. Sadly, with regards of wrongful convictions, the more things change … the more they stay the same.