Essay On Murder, Part 1

How many of you out there are interested in genealogy? I’ve been working on my family history for at least the past ten years – always with the excuse that I’m doing it for the benefit of future generations. Truth is, I do it as much for myself as for any other reason. I enjoy the research, reading through old parish records, cemetery inscriptions, and anything else I can find.

Searching old parish records can often reveal interesting, and sometimes tragic, events of past lives. Whenever I come across a death record with a note about the circumstances, I get more curious than the proverbial cat. I want to know more. So I begin searching for information about that person, their family life, occupation, anything at all. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes there’s nothing available.

Why do I do this? It’s not part of my own family history. Maybe it’s because I feel that if something wonderful, or horrible, happened to these people, the story should be written. And people should have the opportunity to read about it. That, then, is the reason behind this “Essay on Murder.” It is the result of searching the records in the Trinity Bay area for references to my own ancestors.

Consider the young couple from Ireland who no doubt came to the British Colony of Newfoundland seeking a new and perhaps better life. Did they come with their families? Or were they chasing a dream?

Whatever brought them to our shores, they ended up in the Trinity Bay area where they prepared to begin a new life together. Maurice Connors and Elizabeth Welsh, both of the Kingdom of Ireland, were married on 08 September 1774 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Trinity. It is not known if they may have been of the Roman Catholic faith, as many Irish immigrants were, but there was no Catholic church in Trinity.

Maurice and Elizabeth appear to have settled at Trinity. Within a year they became parents of a son, named Francis, who was christened on 07 September 1775. It would seem that the Connors may have liked to party and have a good time. They may have married at a young age and were not quite prepared to give up the carefree ways they had enjoyed before marriage.

Little Francis Connors died at the age of five weeks. He was buried on 30 September 1775, as recorded in the records of St. Paul’s Church. Exactly what happened is not known – nor will it ever be known – but the burial records say “This child was accidentally murdered by the drunkenness of the mother and licentiousness of her gallants.”

The Connors do not appear to have had any other children at Trinity. Indeed, it is not known if they even remained in the area. Following the death of their infant son, they seem to have disappeared from the Trinity records. Did they relocate to some other place on the island, or did they return to Ireland? It is not known if Mary was charged with the death of her infant son. However, at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, on 08 December 1781, a Morrice Conars married Ann Hancock. Ann was born 30 March 1763 to Thomas and Ann Hancock. Was this the same Maurice who had previously been married to Elizabeth? It is possible since the penalty for murder at that time was hanging.


Then there’s the death of Hannah Barret, who lived with her husband, Alexander, at Trinity. They were at Trinity at least as early as 1760, for Alexander is listed on official records. It is very possible that they may have been there much earlier.

Details of the marriage of Alexander and Hannah are not known. They had at least five daughters, whose marriages are recorded at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Trinity, but no record has been found of sons. The oldest known daughter, Mary, married in 1764, so could have been born around 1744. Sarah, apparently the youngest daughter, was born in 1760. Hannah, therefore, was probably born at least as early as 1726, perhaps earlier. When Alexander died in June 1776, he was 75 years old, meaning he was born around 1701, indicating that he may have been as much as 15 or more years older than Hannah.

Alexander and Hannah’s daughter, Mary, had a daughter, Catherine, out of wedlock in 1763 but married the child’s father, Richard Suly, the following year. Richard and Mary then had a daughter, Mary, in 1766, so Alexander and Hannah had two granddaughters by 1767. Elizabeth married John Mathew in 1764. Ann married John Haywood in 1766.

Hannah Barret was obviously at home when unexpected – and perhaps unwanted – visitors came in. It is not known if the visitors were known to the Barrets. According to the records at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Hannah Barret was driven from her house by “some Irish fellows.” Were the men drinking and perhaps being loud and rough? In any case, Hannah was found dead the next day “at the bottom of a precipice with serious cuts to her head.”

Imagine a woman fleeing from her home in the dark of night. No doubt she was terrified, perhaps even afraid for her life. She may have been trying to hurry as fast as she could, maybe with the intention of seeking shelter or help from someone. Did Hannah lose her footing and fall over the cliff? Could she have been pushed? Or had they all been partying and things simply got out of hand?

There did not appear to have been any suspicion of murder at the time. Mrs. Barret fell over a cliff and obviously struck her head. It is not known if she suffered other injuries, but it was certainly possible in the circumstances. However, in driving her from the house – whatever the reason behind it, these men were indeed guilty of causing this poor woman’s death. Hannah was buried on 25 October 1767.

Alexander still had daughters Hannah and Sarah at home to cope with the tragic death of his wife. Daughter Hannah married in 1768 to Partick Codd of Ireland. Then Mary’s husband, Richard Suly, died in 1770 and in 1771 she married again, to Thomas Young. Sarah, meanwhile, was just seven years old when she lost her mother. She married in 1774, at the age of 14, to John Dolman of Lytchett Matravers, Dorset, England. The marriage record listed her as daughter of Alexander Barret, widower in Trinity Harbour.

When Alexander died in 1776, his daughters were all married and settled.

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories is that of a man named Maurice Power. Power and Mary Burke were married at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Trinity on September 29, 1765. The marriage record did not give their ages or where they came from so very little is known about them. Further research revealed that Mary was of Irish extraction which could mean she was born in Ireland, or that at least one of her parents was from the Emerald Isle. Other “Powers” in the area were known to be from Ireland so that may have been where Maurice originated from as well. Maurice and Mary had three children baptized at St. Paul’s: John, 11 October 1766; Mary, 24 October 1768; and William, 15 September 1771.

Court records show that Mr. Power was a fisherman. The Powers lived on the north side of Trinity Harbour and would appear to have been an ordinary, probably happy family. Sadly, little John Power died early and was buried on 24 September 1768, shortly before his second birthday.

Then, in 1772, tragedy struck the Power family. Maurice Power was murdered in his own home. In a shocking turn of events, his wife, Mary, and an accomplice were subsequently arrested and tried for murder. This is a strong indication that all had not been going smoothly in the Power household.

On Monday evening, 25 May, Power had apparently been out somewhere. Perhaps he was making preparations for the next morning’s fishing, visiting a friend, or socializing with other fisherman, chatting about the weather, the catch of the day, etc. Neighbours who saw him going home that night considered him to be in good health.

According to the court records, when Peter Rose saw Mrs. Power the next morning, he inquired how she was. She replied “Bad enough,” and informed him that her husband was dead. Surprised at the news, Rose went to see the corpse. Mrs. Power told Rose that she found him dead by her side, indicating that she had found him dead when she woke in the morning.

The rector, probably during funeral preparations, noticed signs of violence on Mr. Power’s body and notified the resident naval surgeon. Although he had no legal authority, D’Ewes Coke conducted a port mortem examination. Coke then organized a 14-man jury of planters and servants to view the corpse – local merchants refused to participate. Coroner’s inquests appear to have been viewed somewhat skeptically in those times.

What this jury found were “appearances of violence” on his throat and his neck seemed to be broken. Several marks were also found on his “breast, elbows and bowels.” A bloody shirt, “pretty much tore”, was found in his house. Overall, the condition of the body was suspicious enough for them to conclude that the deceased had been murdered.

Both the jury’s report and that of Coke were sent to Governor Molyneux Shuldham. Coke was commended for his initiative and the Governor immediately appointed him as Justice of the Peace for Trinity.

Maurice Power was laid to rest on Sunday, May 31st, 1772, five days after his death. His burial is recorded in the register of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Trinity. Corpses are not usually kept that long so it is presumed that the reason was so facilitate a full investigation.

When the arrests were made is not known but, on 06 October 1772, Mary Power, widow of the deceased Maurice Power, and Robert Fling were brought to trial for the murder of Maurice Power. Robert Fling was described as a “Splitter and Salter,” late of Trinity Harbour, so presumably he had been engaged in the salt fish industry.

Court was held in St. John’s, Newfoundland, as the island was then a British colony. Presiding were the seven Commissioners who had been appointed by His Excellency, Governor Shuldham: Edward White, Edward Langman, Nicholas Gill, William Thomas, Charles Walley, Robert Bulley and Samuel Webber.

Sheriff John Phillips escorted the accused parties into the courtroom, where the charges against them were read out. Maurice Power was determined to have been strangled and choked by a rope and handkerchief about his neck. It was determined to have taken place between the hours of one and four “in the forenoon”, in his own home, while he was asleep in his bed. With their right hands raised, Mary Power and Robert Fling both entered a plea of “Not Guilty.” The Clerk of the Peace then asked each of them separately, "Culprit, How will you be tried?” to which both replied “God and Country”.

A number of witnesses were called and the main focus seemed to be on determining the whereabouts of Robert Fling. He had apparently claimed to be on board a boat during the night and said that Christopher Spencer had called him up in the morning. Spencer, however, could not confirm Fling’s statement, as he said he had not been onboard himself. Fling then said he “thought” it was Spencer who had called him.

Richard Langhorn testified that he had seen Fling come on board in the evening. Fling had asked Langhorn where he should put his bed. Longhorn instructed him to carry it down the forescuttle and lay it on the platform, which he did, and then came back up on deck. Longhorn then said he saw Fling “come up the fore hatches the next morning he supposed about 7 or 8 of the clock but not before.” Longhorn, apparently, had seen Fling in the evening, and again in the morning, but could not confirm that he had been on board all night.

The next two witnesses both claimed that on the Monday evening before the murder, they had seen Fling walking by himself on the deck when they went on board the vessel. John Elliiott and Thomas Bath both said they had gone directly to their berths, and had “left the said Fling walking by himself on the deck.”

Witness Charles Hide (Hyde?) said that he had never seen Robert Fling until the Monday afternoon before the murder. Hide had brought Fling on board and then went back to shore. He went to bed around nine o’clock and did not know if Fling had returned to the boat again that night, but he did see him at breakfast the next morning.

Robert Fling was then asked where he had been on Tuesday morning while the rest of the men were at work, getting things on board the boat. Fling said he was on shore with Edward Hinds and others and that they had carried some empty puncheons and some pease to Mr. White’s stores.

On the witness stand, Edward Hinds confirmed that Fling had gone ashore in the boat with him. Hinds said that, following the orders of his master, Mr. Spencer, the men had been called up before sunrise. He had stayed on deck after calling the men, collecting some loose things. Hinds did not say that he had seen Fling on deck with the other men, only that he had gone ashore in the boat with him.

John Lodge testified that he had seen Robert Fling on shore, on the north side of the harbour, the day before the murder – which would have been Monday. Lodge could not remember if he had seen him after that. The Power’s home was located on the north side so Lodge’s testimony put Fling in the vicinity of the murder on the day before it happened.

Although he was not in Trinity at the time of the murder, Andrew Maloney stated that “it was the general opinion of the people there that it was done by his wife and her confederates.” Obviously, people had discussed the tragic event and it seems that Mary Power, for some reason, did not have their support. They thought she was guilty. One wonders if, perhaps, she was not a very popular person in the community since others did not seem prepared to give her the ‘benefit of the doubt.’

There may have been some question about the relationship between Maurice Power and Robert Fling. Thomas Kidman was brought to the witness stand and asked “if the deceased Power had in his life time ever told him that he was afraid Robert Fling would murder him.” Kidman had no knowledge of any such thing. He said that he saw Fling come ashore about eight o’clock on the morning after the murder and they had talked about the death of Power. Kidman said he had asked Fling “where he kept last night, to which he replied on board the vessel.”

During the testimony of the witnesses, both prisoners continued to pleas innocence of the charges against them. They also accused each other of the crime, which indicates that they probably knew each other.

When the testimonies had concluded, the accused were taken back to prison. Every person “sworn of the inquest” was to remain in the Court House “without Meat Drink Lodging Fire or Candle.” No one was allowed to speak to them until they had reached a verdict. It is not known how long the trial lasted or how long it took the jury to decide, but the sentence was handed down on 14 October.

Robert Fling was declared not guilty and acquitted of all charges. However, he was to be sent out of Newfoundland at the first opportunity and never allowed to return to the island again.

Mary Power was found guilty and sentenced to be "hanged by your neck till you are Dead, Dead, Dead and the Lord have mercy upon your Soul." Three days after sentencing, on 17 October 1772, two midwives, Elizabeth Fleming and Susanna Earles, examined Mary Power in jail. They reported that, to the best of their knowledge, the prisoner was “with child and about five months gone."

This child had apparently been conceived around May 1772, shortly before the death of Maurice Power. However, given the circumstances, one wonders who the father was. Was it Maurice Power or Robert Fling? Whether or not he had any part in the actual murder, Fling was involved somehow or he would not have been arrested and accused. Were Mary and Robert having an affair and had plotted to get rid of her husband so they could be together? What kind of man was Maurice Power to live with – was Mary driven to commit a violent act?

It stands to reason that Mary’s death sentence would have been delayed until after the birth of her child. However, it appears that during that time, an appeal of sorts was made on the grounds that there had been no concrete evidence to prove that she was indeed guilty of murder. The governor issued a reprieve but she remained in prison until the results of her plea for mercy were known. On 23 June 1773 Mary Power was released from prison with a full pardon.

The question that now comes to mind is this: did Mary Power and/or Robert Fling get away with murder? Or did they suffer mental anguish for something they had no part in? Or was it some other, unknown, person who escaped even the notoriety of suspicion? Sadly, the violent crime that caused the untimely, tragic death of Maurice Power was, ultimately, unsolved. One often wonders what a crack forensics team would have uncovered in such cases…

To be continued...

© Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Feb/Mar 2010

Non-fiction 1

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