Hanging on every word

Paul Sparkes
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Our newspapers missed little, even more than a century ago

Several weeks ago, when I was reading old copies of The Twillingate Sun at the Provincial Archives in an effort to find things on the Arm Lads Brigade (column of Oct. 16, 2013), I came across the following report from Regina … way out on the Prairies, beyond Canada. It was dated 1885. It had nothing to do with my search.

The report amazed me both because of its almost unbelievable detail and the fact that it showed how well we here were connected to the outside world so very long ago.

Today we talk about having media all around us, informing us constantly. But the following shows that readers knew exactly what this particular case was all about even in outport Newfoundland. There was no preamble. Even the simple, two-word headline suggests widespread familiarity.

Quite possibly, the Twillingate paper copied the report from a St. John’s newspaper. It appears in print in Notre Dame Bay 26 days after it occurred. The text likely arrived in St. John’s from the Prairies by telegraph.

In any case, it is effective communication for a vast, largely unknown, 3,000-mile wide country with the population a mere 4.5 million. As this is the very year the trans-Canada railway was completed to the Pacific coast, perhaps dispatches were now hitching rides west to east.

The Saskatchewan territory would not become a province for another 20 years.

Here is that report complete and unabridged from the front page of The Twillingate Sun:

‘The Execution’

DECEMBER 12, 1885 – Reporting on November 16 – REGINA. The morning broke fine and clear, the sun casting its bright rays over the broad prairie.

The same extraordinary precautions against the possible escape of Riel or intrusions into the barracks of unauthorized persons were observed.

At a mile from the barracks, mounted patrols challenged all persons and compelled them to show written passes.

Other lines of guards were stationed at points near the post and the same precautions were observed.

At 8 o’clock the execution party went up the rickety ladder upstairs and proceeded along the loft to

the far end, where was found Louis Riel kneeling near a door leading to the scaffold with Pere Andre and

Fr. McWilliams reciting prayers for the dying.

Dr. Jukes stood nearby, near Sheriff Chapleau. The tall form of Deputy Sheriff Gibson filled the door.

The noose was visible dangling beyond. Around stood a guard of police.

At 8:05 Pere Andre administered the last sacrament to Riel who gave the responses firmly. Although pale, he was firm. He was dressed in a black coat, brown tweed pants and moccasins.

The figure of the hangman now appeared out of the gloom of the left, holding straps to bind Riel. He wore a mask over his face. At 8:15 Riel rose to his feet and was pinioned by the hangman. Deputy Sheriff Gibson, superintending the operation; Riel stood with his eyes open, praying in French, the priests standing in front.

He then walked firmly to the scaffold repeating, “In God do I put my trust” — his head was erect and his step firm, never showing the least tremor. As he repeated the prayerful exclamation, a half smile lit up his face. Descending a few steps of the scaffold, he stood on the drop with his face turned northward.

Pere Andre and Fr. McWilliams continued to pray and Riel said, in English, “I do ask forgiveness of all men and forgive all my enemies.” He then prayed a short time in French. The executioner now took his place, the white cap was drawn over Riel’s head and both priests, holding lighted candles, continued to repeat prayers for the dying.

Exactly at 8:23 the drop fell. The rope shook violently for a moment, swaying back and forth, then quivered.

The length of the drop was eight feet.

At the first moment of the fall the body remained still. Then the knees were drawn up violently, three or four times, the quivering body swayed to and fro and Riel was dead.

From the first moment of the drop to the time when the body became quiescent was under two minutes.

Performed with decorum and dispatch. The body was taken in charge by the coroner and the verdict usual to all state executions was rendered.”

• • •

Hand in hand with the above graphic account, business and news carried on as usual in the same issue of the Notre Dame Bay newspaper. You might consider the following a surprising marketing approach for well over a century ago:

“The Newfoundland Furniture and Moulding Company — we will send a photograph of any piece of furniture free on application to anyone living in the outports.”

The subject of an article atop the front page in another issue of The Sun concerned “Intelligence in Cows.”

Then there was the following strict directive published under authority of F. Berteau, Stipendiary Magistrate, and issued from the Police Office, Twillingate: “Any goats without a good and substantial yoke, the lower bar of which shall be three feet and the upper bar not less than

18 inches in length, found wandering at large, or straying in or about any of the streets, squares, lanes or passages, the owner thereof shall be prosecuted according to law.”

So much for goat behaviour.

Dogs were next: “Every dog found without its owner or other person in charge thereof is required to have fastened its neck, a clog, or a piece of wood not less than 18 inches in length, with the name of the owner stamped or marked thereon, or to be effectually muzzled, and every dog so found at large without its owner or other person in charge thereof, and not clogged or muzzled as aforesaid may be immediately shot or otherwise destroyed by any person.”

Coming forward on the calendar by some 43 years, we sense that times are changing and community problems are more sophisticated:

“From the bylaws of the Motor Association, Newfoundland, May 5, 1928: Members of the Association must use the following hand signals — if stopping, slowing down, or turning out of a road, right hand held out horizontally. If the drive is left hand, left hand held out. Any motorist member of the Association, desiring to overtake or pass a car must blow his horn two blasts and the driver of the car ahead shall signal that he has heard the horn by answering two blasts.”

— C. White, of the Twillingate committee

• • •

Awesome headlands

Also this week, a small footnote comparing two prominent headlands. About 120 years ago, a photo of North Cape, Norway, was printed in a little around-the-world photo book. At the time, it seems the best knowledge was that the awesome headland (actually on the island of Mageroe, and not mainland Norway) was “some twelve hundred feet above the sea.”

That is not so as today we know it is 307 metres, which is just over 1,007 feet.  The old photo is reproduced here, but, of course, it is dark and the finer rocky features do not show well. For a much better view of the cape,  Google North Cape, Norway, and then Wikipedia.

Says the old album-type book, “the island of Mageroe is divided by a narrow channel from the mainland of Norway. It is celebrated (the rock headland) not only for the sombre grandeur of its scenery, but as the northernmost point of Europe (that is not so, says Wikipedia). It consists of a precipitous slate rock, fissured with many clefts.”

By way of comparison, it beats our own Signal Hill by some 480 feet. I very much like the photo of Signal Hill in “Geology of Newfoundland: Touring Through Time at 48 ScenicSites” (Martha Hickman Hild, Boulder Publications, 2012). The author says the walk from Outer Battery to North Head “is a great opportunity” to experience what sedimentary rock can tell us about the movement of the Earth’s plates.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Sun, Trans-Canada railway, Newfoundland Furniture and Moulding Company Police Office Motor Association Twillingate committee Google Boulder Publications

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Notre Dame Bay, Saskatchewan territory Norway North Cape Island of Mageroe Europe North Head

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