1886 KILLING – TRIAL BY NEWSPAPER (May 12/00)

“On the morning of the 9th of September between the hours of 9 and 10 o’clock, I was working in my barnyard when I heard my name called by J. W. R…., who was sitting in his wagon with his wife in the road, some four or five rods from me. He said, ‘Trueman, come out here; I want to talk to you.’

“I put my shovel down by the fence and went to the road. I spoke to and shook hands with Mrs. R….; then Mr. R…. said, ‘Trueman, did you say so and so,’ repeating something I had said. I said I had. Mr. R…. then said ‘You are a liar.’

“I replied that if I am, there are a pair of us here; you are another one then. Then Mr. R…. said, ‘Old lady take these lines; I will settle with this young man.”

This heated discussion which took place over a century ago on a quiet farm road near Hall’s Harbour lead to an altercation and the death of Mr. R…. in the autumn of 1886 at the hands of Trueman T….. The unusual aspect of this old killing is that it did not come to trial. Instead, the case was tried in the pages of a Kentville newspaper, the New Star. The paragraphs highlighted above are taken from a letter to the New Star‘s editor, a letter written by Trueman T…. who in effect, pleaded self-defense and had written to defend himself.

It may seem strange to us today that someone would use the pages of a newspaper to answer possible manslaughter or murder charges; or that a newspaper would dare print such a letter before charges had been laid or an inquest had been held.

But that’s what it was like here in the last century. Not only would newspapers conduct trials in their pages but people were freely defamed, libeled, slandered, labeled as scoundrels, swindlers, drunkards and so on. When they talked about freedom of the press in the 19th century, that’s exactly what they meant. Late in the last century, for example, a local newspaper devoted its entire front page to a raid on a bootlegger, naming the man and using scathing adjectives in describing him.

The killing of Mr. R…. by Mr. T…. is a typical example of how far newspaper could safely go at one time. The letter from Mr. T…. spelled out exactly what transpired (from Mr. T….s point of view) during the fatal argument. No details are spared.

Even more amazing, the newspaper had earlier printed the entire sworn statement of the wife of Mr. R…., which was given at a coroner’s inquest nearly two months after her husband’s death. Mrs. R…. recounted the events leading to her husband’s death, which prompted the rebuttal letter from Mr. T….

On printing the statement Mrs. R…. gave at the inquest, the editor of the New Star tells its readers that “now we are able to give the evidence and the verdict of the Coroner’s Jury so that the public may be able to judge of the facts themselves.”

In other words, the New Star is asking its readers to be judge and jury. The trail has already taken place – in the pages of the New Star. Mr. T…. has already convicted himself of manslaughter, thanks to the letter the New Star printed. There was nothing else for the Courts to do except to lay sentence on Mr. T….

According to the New Star, however, that will be impossible. The newspaper dutifully reported that Mr. T…. has skipped the country.

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