The Lynching of Peter Wheeler – a review

The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, by Debra Komar. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2014. 346 pp, $19.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Debra Komar, a former forensic anthropologist, illuminates Canada’s past once again in her second historical true crime narrative. Peter Wheeler was found guilty of murdering 14 year old Annie Kempton in Bear River, Nova Scotia in 1896. The story details the crime and aftermath, including the villagers’ participation in the rumors and lies leading to Wheeler’s hanging. Komar believes exploring “how and why” Wheeler was falsely accused and convicted is more compelling than attempting to figure out the actual killer. She also asserts in the preface “…this is the first factual public examination of the case since his trial and the first credible attempt to challenge his conviction.”

It was Wheeler’s misfortune to discover the murder victim. A well-travelled labourer born on an island off the African coast, Wheeler, aged 27, had settled in the Maritimes village, boarding at an unmarried woman’s home. When Nicholas Power, a Halifax-based detective assigned to the murder case, arrived to the scene, he immediately decided Wheeler was guilty. Power is depicted by the author as rigid and self-serving.

The newspapers played a shameful role as well, marking Wheeler as guilty from the start and even fabricating his jailhouse ‘confession.’ Journalists were not about to let the truth get in the way of a good story—even at the cost of a man’s life. The weaknesses within the judicial institutions are also exposed under Komar’s sharp gaze—from the inexperienced coroner to the court room professionals. A jury found Wheeler guilty based solely on circumstantial evidence. Wheeler claimed he was innocent to the very end, yet his sentence was upheld in a final appeal at the federal level. Komar also describes people who tried to bring reason and truth to the situation—but they were few in number and ultimately dismissed.

Komar meticulously traces the lives of key people involved, bringing the distant past to life through the smallest details. She deciphers technical reports and testimony in a way which is accessible to the reader and gives a rich dimension to the narrative. The prose is concise and fast-paced, with 46 short chapters—starting with setting the scene (And So It Begins) to Wheeler’s execution (“Lord, I Am Coming”). The last three chapters describe the aftermath of the execution and the author’s reflections. Photographs and newspaper illustrations are also included, as well as sources and an index.

Komar’s relish at digging for the truth comes through, though she sometimes loses impact when overstating a point, such as her contempt over the newspaper coverage. It’s a story that “runs the gamut of negative and painful emotions,” she observes in her summation, “fear, prejudice, lust, deceit, cowardice, indifference, insecurity and unfathomable rage.” In this gripping story aimed to clear a man’s good name, Komar succeeds in delivering timeless lessons for the reader to ponder.

Reprinted from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sept – Dec 2014 – an on-line journal at


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