By Val Davies
For The Spectator
Sunday, March 17, Debra Komar will be speaking about her second book, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler who was accused of killing 14-year-old Annie Kempton of Bear River in 1896. Debra and many others feel Peter Wheeler aged 26, was wrongly accused. He came from the Mauritius, was dark skinned, orphaned at eight years old and sailed round the world until he was 14, when he settled in Bear River, living in Tilley Comeau’s rooming house and working on the boats and in lumber.
On the evening of January 28, 1896 Peter Wheeler found Annie alone and dead in the sitting room of her home, on her knees with bloody footprints all around. Subsequently Peter Wheeler was accused, tried and perhaps falsely hanged. The publicity surrounding this conviction was so intense that the case was moved from Digby to Kentville. The judge was Sir Charles Townshend and there was a jury of 12. Henry Dwight Ruggles was the lawyer. (He was one of the first lawyers to have a phone. It was #25!) This case was one of the first in Nova Scotia to use fingerprints, footprints, and blood analysis.
In her research on this case and for her other two books, The Ballad of Jacob Peck and Black River Road, Debra has perused archival material, coroners’ and police reports and witness statements of the original investigation. What she is concerned with is what was going on in society at that time. Racism was an overt powerful force. There have been many myths about this homicide, so Debra is bringing together a connection between wrongful conviction and mistaken identity.
For 22 years Debra Komar has been employed with the United Nations as a forensic anthropologist, doing autopsies on victims of genocide. This involved digging up mass graves, recording how the victims were killed, injuries they sustained, checking the clothing worn, and using DNA samples to identify the bodies. The survivors (family members) give samples of DNA from a cheek swab which is checked against DNA in the teeth and bones of the victim. In order to do this job she qualified for force protection, accompanied by two military guys with guns as she was always deployed in areas of conflict. Although not a military person herself she wore a military uniform one time in Iraq. Her job was very specialized, Debra being one of 19 in the world.
Born in St. Catherines, Ontario, she attended medical school at Queen’s University and obtained her doctorate from the University of Alberta. She was a professor at the University of New Mexico in Alberqueque. At one point in her career she testified at the Hague. Eventually at aged 46 she retired to Annapolis Royal, having developed ‘compassion fatigue.’ She loves the water and now has a comfortable home on the Annapolis Basin.
Everyone is welcome to come to the Friends of the Library meeting, Sunday March 17 at the Annapolis Public Library when Debra will share with us who really killed Annie Kempton.