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The Bastard of Fort Stikine

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Winner, Canadian Authors Award for Canadian History, Jeanne Clarke Memorial Local History Award, and Prince Edward Island Book Award for Non-Fiction

Is it possible to reach back in time and solve an unsolved murder, more than 170 years after it was committed?

Just after midnight on April 21, 1842, John McLoughlin, Jr. — the chief trader for the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Stikine, in the northwest corner of the territory that would later become British Columbia — was shot to death by his own men. They claimed it was an act of self-defence, their only means of stopping the violent rampage of their drunk and abusive leader. Sir George Simpson, the HBC's Overseas Governor, took the men of Stikine at their word, and the Company closed the book on the matter. The case never saw the inside of a courtroom, and no one was ever charged or punished for the crime. To this day, the killing remains the Honourable Company's dirtiest unaired laundry and one of the darkest pages in the annals of our nation's history. Now, exhaustive archival research and modern forensic science — including ballistics, virtual autopsy, and crime scene reconstruction — unlock the mystery of what really happened the night McLoughlin died.

Using her formidable talents as a writer, researcher, and forensic scientist, Debra Komar weaves a tale that could almost be fiction, with larger-than-life characters and dramatic tension. In telling the story of John McLoughlin, Jr., Komar also tells the story of Canada's north and its connection to the Hudson's Bay Company.

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"A rollicking read and a fresh contribution to the literature of the fur trade — scholarship and skulduggery in the same fine package."

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"The Bastard of Fort Stikine is a fine tale, and Komar has done a superb job in gathering the evidence and sorting out what happened the night McLoughlin was murdered."

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"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."

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"History buffs and armchair detectives are sure to enjoy this absorbing time-machine tale of murder, mayhem, intrigue, and justice denied."

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"A fascinating biohistorical investigation by forensic anthropologist Debra Komar into one of Canada's coldest cases, the mysterious killing of a Hudson's Bay Company chief trader in 1842."

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"Thoroughly researched and in dramatic, evocative prose, Komar gives McLoughlin and HBC the trial they so justly deserved."

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"Who knew the history of the North America fur trade could be so riveting? In the hands of former forensic anthropologist Debra Komar, readers will be spellbound as the author unravels an unsolved murder case occurring at a Hudson's Bay Company post in 1842."

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"By laying out the facts and exploring them with relentless logic, Debra Komar does solve the mystery of who murdered John McLoughlin —; or at least makes a completely convincing case. Not only that: she does so with panache."

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Debra Komar is the author of The Ballad of Jacob Peck, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, and, most recently, The Bastard of Fort Stikine, which won the 2016 Canadian Authors Award for Canadian History. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a practicing forensic anthropologist for over twenty years, she investigated human-rights violations for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.

 
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Black River Road

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Shortlisted, Arthur Ellis Best Non-Fiction Crime Book Award

In 1869, in the woods just outside of the bustling port city of Saint John, a group of teenaged berry pickers discovered several badly decomposed bodies. The authorities suspected foul play, but the identities of the victims were as mysterious as that of the perpetrator. From the twists and turns of a coroner's inquest, an unlikely suspect emerged to stand trial for murder: John Munroe, a renowned architect, well-heeled family man, and pillar of the community.

Munroe was arguably the first in Canada's fledgling judicial system to actively defend himself. His lawyer's strategy was as simple as it was revolutionary: Munroe's wealth, education, and exemplary character made him incapable of murder. The press and Saint John's elite vocally supported Munroe, sparking a debate about character and murder that continues to this day. In re-examining a precedent-setting historical crime with fresh eyes, Komar addresses questions that still echo through the halls of justice more than a century later: is everyone capable of murder, and should character be treated as evidence in homicide trials?

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"An engaging and atmospheric account of a crime that shocked a mid-Victorian city. The Maggie Vail case lives on as a tale interwoven by deceit, lust, avarice, class privilege, and the 19th-century media's growing fascination with ‘true crime.’"

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"Debra Komar's latest foray into Canada's murderous past recreates a sensational Victorian-era morality tale that's brimming with intrigue, shady characters, forbidden sex, and high-stakes courtroom drama. Black River Road combines meticulous research, razor-sharp insight, and riveting storytelling to unearth a forgotten chapter in our legal history."

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"Fans of Komar's finely detailed forensic re-examinations will find much to enjoy here. No rock is left unturned, no assumption left to fester, in the search for truth. The complex moral ambiguities that arise will haunt your thoughts, but with Komar's calm manner deftly guiding proceedings, the readers are always in good hands. I can't recommend her books highly enough as much for the philosophical issues they raise as for the first-class storytelling. Black River Road serves to remind us, at a time when it is needed more than ever, that there simply is no reliable forensic test of character."

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Debra Komar is the author of The Ballad of Jacob Peck, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, and, most recently, The Bastard of Fort Stikine, which won the 2016 Canadian Authors Award for Canadian History. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a practicing forensic anthropologist for over twenty years, she investigated human-rights violations for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.

 
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The Lynching of Peter Wheeler

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At 2:21 am on September 8, 1896, authorities in Nova Scotia killed an innocent man. Peter Wheeler — a "coloured" man accused of murdering a white girl — was strung up with a slipknot noose. The hanging was state-sanctioned but it was a lynching all the same. Now, a re-examination of his case using modern forensic science reveals one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Canadian history.

On the night of January 27, 1896, 14-year-old Annie Kempton found herself home alone in the picturesque village of Bear River, Nova Scotia. She did not live to see the morning. Shortly after midnight, Annie was assaulted and bludgeoned with a piece of firewood. Her killer slit her throat three times with a kitchen knife then coldly sat and ate a jar of homemade jam before fleeing into the night. The senseless and brutal slaying devastated the town and plunged her parents into a near-suicidal abyss of guilt and grief. At trial, the prosecution's case focused on the inconsistencies in Wheeler's statements, the testimony of two children who placed Peter near the house on the night in question, and the detective's novel analysis of the physical evidence.

It was one of the first trials in Canada to use forensic science, albeit poorly. Wheeler's defense team called no witnesses and did little to challenge the evidence presented. The jury deliberated less than two hours before declaring Peter Wheeler guilty of murder.

The trial itself was a media sensation; every word was front page news. Several papers each ran their own version of "Wheeler's confession," an admission of guilt supposedly authored by the condemned man. Each rendition tried and failed to make sense of the conflicting timeline. With every new iteration, it became clearer that the case against Wheeler was not as airtight as the detective in charge, Nick Power, and the media had proclaimed.

The Lynching of Peter Wheeler is a story of one town's rush to judgment. It is a tale of bigotry and incompetence, arrogance and pseudoscience, fear and misguided vengeance. It is a case study in media distortion, illustrating how the print media can manipulate the truth, destroy reputations, and so thoroughly taint a jury pool, that the notion of a fair trial becomes a statistical impossibility. At the height of the Victorian era, the media created a super villain in the mold of Jack the Ripper, the perfect foil for its other creation, super-sleuth Nick Power. The masterfully constructed narrative was perfect, save for one glaring detail: Peter Wheeler did not kill Annie Kempton.

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"As the narrative of one man's misfortune, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, is lucid and readable."

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"A fascinating account of historical racism and injustice in the True North — strong, but NOT so free. Komar writes with great clarity of prose and mind. The Lynching of Peter Wheeler is an indispensable book for any lover of Canadian true crime or criminal history. Highly recommended!"

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"Debra Komar brings a career's worth of modern-day forensic smarts to her dissection of this more than 100-year-old miscarriage of justice. But she brings something more — and more important: the sure hand of a natural storyteller who can make us see, feel, and understand the injustice of it all."

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Debra Komar is the author of The Ballad of Jacob Peck, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, and, most recently, The Bastard of Fort Stikine, which won the 2016 Canadian Authors Award for Canadian History. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a practicing forensic anthropologist for over twenty years, she investigated human-rights violations for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.

 
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The Ballad of Jacob Peck

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Shortlisted, Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing

On a frigid February evening in 1805, Amos Babcock brutally murdered Mercy Hall. Believing that he was being instructed by God, Babcock stabbed and disembowelled his own sister, before dumping her lifeless body in a rural New Brunswick snowbank.

The Ballad of Jacob Peck is the tragic and fascinating story of how isolation, duplicity, and religious mania turned impoverished, hard-working people violent, leading to a murder and an execution. Babcock was hanged for the murder of his sister, but in her meticulously researched book, Debra Komar shows that itinerant preacher Jacob Peck should have swung right beside him. The mystery lies not in the whodunit, but rather in a lingering question: should Jacob Peck, whose incendiary sermons directly contributed to the killing, have been charged with the murder of Mercy Hall?

In this epic saga, media accounts of what happened in the aftermath of the murder have taken on a life all their own, one built of half-truths, conjecture, and narrative devices designed to titillate, if not inform. A forensic investigation of a crime from the Canadian frontier, the tale of Jacob Peck, Amos Babcock, and Mercy Hall remains as controversial and riveting today as it was more than two hundred years ago.

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"R;ich, feisty prose ... Komar has produced a grippingly good account of this notorious chapter in maritime history, one chockablock with intriguing side characters who — with names such as Dorcas Babcock, Hezekiah King and Mercy Hall — wouldn't be out of place in a Dickens novel (had he been around to write one). ... The compelling character portraits with which Komar fleshes out this gruesome central event build a vivid sense of the social and political realities of the day. ... Tempting as it is to view The Ballad of Jacob Peck as CSI for the archivist set, the questions it raises, and which Komar explores with such energy and aplomb, are ultimately philosophic and legal ones; ones necessarily resolved in a class or courtroom, not a laboratory."

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"Constructing The Ballad of Jacob Peck as though she's a prosecutor — dividing chapters with terms such as Res Gestae, scienter, et cetera — Komar builds a case against Jacob Peck for his role in the murder to highlight how current law continues to struggle with prosecuting such accomplices. ... The Ballad of Jacob Peck branches out to not only document the murder, but contextualize the players and era, offering a history of early crime in New Brunswick, and legal proceedings and court in early Canada. ... Her due diligence also does what it can to shape the murdered Mercy Babcock, and other women of the time, into a person, not only providing a sense of justice, but also documenting their lives like no one cared to do at the time or really ever since. ... Komar's voice, skill and insight defibrillate regional history, providing a professional perspective to the underserved genre."

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"Komar is both a skilled researcher and writer transporting readers back to a sparsely populated Canadian frontier in a time when law and order was in short supply. A non-fiction thriller, it is a firestorm of a book that explains why religious mania drove a decent man to kill."

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"[A] potent mix of history and true crime. ... a well-told tale that nicely evokes a time and place, its people, and past events."

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"The Ballad of Jacob Peck, by Debra Komar, is a nonfictional account of family, religion, murder, a charlatan, and early-nineteenth-century Canadian law that is as riveting as a good novel. . . . This book will appeal to a wide audience, including those with interests in true crime, history, law, and human behavior. ... By simultaneously corroborating and refuting old media accounts of the murder, Komar allows the reader to act as a juror, and provides all available information to decide the verdict."

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>"Impeccable research, a deft writing hand, and a comprehensive understanding of the legal and forensic worlds. A haunting and compelling archival journey."

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"The Ballad of Jacob Peck is wonderfully written with historically correct information. It is a very fascinating and informative read. Debra Komar did a wonderful job with this book. This is a must read and I highly recommend it."

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"Komar's narrative is fast paced and grounded in extensive genealogical and historical research, giving it a surefootedness not always found in true crime writing. ... [T]he major thrust of her argument remains grounded and her imaginative recreation of events, which may make hide-bound historians wince, kept me turning the pages."

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"Komar's voice, skill and insight defibrillate regional history, providing a professional perspective to the underserved genre. Digging up the bones of history, Komar has no use for ghost stories and legend, and neither will you after The Ballad of Jacob Peck."

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"At story's end, however, there is much more than Peck's malignant spirit to ponder in this richly woven tale from Canada's past."

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"The result is a seamlessly written narrative that evokes life on the Canadian frontier. ... Komar draws on her legal experience as an expert witness in The Hague to build a compelling case for the prosecution against Jacob Peck. ... As terrorist actions carried out in the name of religion continue to make headlines, there is a timely and timeless message to this book: religion can be a powerful weapon in the hands of those who would pervert its message for their own purposes."

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"Komar's prowess for investigation is well balanced with her ability to pen a page-turner ... Komar's respect for her readers' intelligence, combined with her compelling history lesson flavoured by the intrigue of murder, makes her work an engrossing read."

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"She plans to write a series of books on Canadian cold cases. If subsequent publications are as engaging as this one, she will soon have a devoted following and perhaps even a television series."

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"Komar takes a no-nonsense approach to the retelling of this bit of Canadian history, differentiating between rumor and fact while keeping context in perspective. The sense of injustice here is palpable, as is the sorrow suffered by those taken in by Peck's deception."

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"A genre-defying journey through two centuries, back to a time when law, religion, social order, and even murder were crude and brutish. Komar';s story is a remarkably detailed re-creation of a bloody crime, an execution, and the failure of a nascent judicial system."

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Debra Komar is the author of The Ballad of Jacob Peck, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, and, most recently, The Bastard of Fort Stikine, which won the 2016 Canadian Authors Award for Canadian History. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a practicing forensic anthropologist for over twenty years, she investigated human-rights violations for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.

 
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