“Up to about 150 years ago, hanging was very much a public event. Thousands of people would show up to the public spectacle of a young man or woman being hanged. In the United Kingdom and England, there were special seats up front that were often booked by upper class citizens,” author Eric Colbourne said.
As the accused fought for their life, it appeared they were dancing on air and the saying was forged.
“Dancing on Air: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy and the End of the Death Penalty in Newfoundland,” by Colbourne is about two grisly murders that eventually lead to the end of the death penalty in Newfoundland — the murder of Josephine O’Brien in St. John’s in 1942 and Dorothea Manuel in 1949 in Norris Arm.
Colbourne recalled hearing the stories from his father, an avid radio listener who kept up on what was going on in the province.
“That’s where I first heard the stories and I went on to read accounts of it. I was never satisfied with the accounts of what happened. It was never told from the point of view of the witnesses or relatives of victims and the impact it had on families and communities,” he said.
That’s what spurred him to write the book from a different point of view and dedicate it to the two female victims.
“I’ve talked to people who were involved at the time and the story is still immediate and evokes an emotional reaction from the relatives of the two women,” Colbourne said.
On the night Manuel was killed, Oct. 23, 1948, Alfred Beaton was on the streets of Norris Arm randomly shooting and Colbourne said many more people could have been killed.
O’Brien, on the other hand, was beaten to death with a flat iron by her boyfriend, Herbert Spratt on St. Patrick’s Day, 1942.
Both men faced the death sentence and Spratt was ultimately hanged for his crime on May 22, 1942.
However, Beaton was spared the same fate through a public outcry against capital punishment that began with an anonymous letter.
The letter was penned by an individual identified only as “Portia.”
“Who was Portia? A true-to-life mystery character who had an incredible impact on the justice system. People often write letters to the editor and think they won’t go anywhere, but Portia wrote one of the greatest letters about capital punishment ever written that stirred thousands of Newfoundlanders to sign a petition demanding an end to the death penalty,” Colbourne said.
Following the letter, petitions, public outcry and an appeal by Beaton’s lawyers, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Colbourne wrote in his book that when Beaton was told 10,000 citizens of St. John’s signed petitions to have his death sentence commuted, The Twillingate Sun reported he said, “ Yes, sir. It’s very good. They must be very nice people.”
While Colbourne won’t say exactly who Portia is, after three years of research for the book, he does know. And Colbourne said there are clues embedded in the last part of the story that will allow readers to come to the conclusion of who Portia is.
Colbourne doesn’t mince words about his views on capital punishment and said in a civilized society, it’s the worst form of punishment.
“I’m totally anti-capital punishment — large numbers of people wrongfully convicted,” he said. “Some figures show as much as five per cent of people convicted are innocent. Many people went to their death as innocent people. It’s a blight on society when we take a life in that manner,” he said.
“Dancing on Air,” has garnered a positive response from readers, Colbourne said.
“From all quarters, it’s been very positive. Some people are disturbed by some of the graphic detail. But without it, people don’t understand the nature of the death penalty,” he said.
Colbourne’s book is available at local stores, online at www.ericcolbourne.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.