Cold case Saint John double murder the subject of new book

The latest instalment of a four-book series by forensic anthropologist and true crime author Debra Komar is a “blood-soaked Victorian love story” set in 19th century Saint John.

Nearly 150-year-old case has ramifications in the modern legal system, says author

Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character is available in bookstores and online. (Goose Lane/Dan Froese)

Black River Road, the latest instalment of a four-book series by forensic anthropologist and true crime author Debra Komar, is a "blood-soaked Victorian love story" set in 19th century Saint John.

On a fall day in 1869, blueberry pickers returned from Saint John's east side with horrifying news: the skeletal remains of a woman and child were lying, partially hidden, in a field near Black River Road.

The woman, later identified as Saint Johner Maggie Vail, had been shot fatally in the head. Her child, too, had been murdered.

Suspicion soon fell on respectable, married, middle-aged architect John A. Munroe, with whom Vail was rumoured to have an affair.

The trial scandalized Saint John, and the double murder formed the basis for lurid local news coverage, several ghost stories and at least one popular ballad, The Sad Tale of Maggie Vail.

In her book, Debra Komar, a forensic anthropologist, reexamined the conviction of John Munroe in the 1869 murder of Maggie Vail and her infant daughter. 8:39

Adultery, reputation, and murder

Komar, a practising forensic anthropologist and tenured professor of forensics at the University of New Mexico for more than 20 years, has written a number of books, including The Ballad of Jacob Peck,The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, and The Bastard of Fort Stikine. She describes her style as "a more intelligent [type of] true crime."

"It's not just a recitation of the case with all the blood and gore," Komar said. "It uses historic cases to illustrate points about the modern system, what has changed or not changed."

It brings up the extent to which we think of some people as good people, and therefore incapable of bad acts, and forces you to re-evaluate any misconceptions or preconceptions you might have.- Debra Komar, author

She adds the nearly 150-year-old case has ramifications in the modern legal system.

"These were very ordinary people in a very ordinary situation," said Komar. "A married guy and a single woman began a relationship they shouldn't have, and it doesn't end well for any of them. It brings up the extent to which we think of some people as good people, and therefore incapable of bad acts, and forces you to re-evaluate any misconceptions or preconceptions you might have."

What disturbed Komar more than anything, she said, "is that 150 years later, we still treat character as evidence in a court of law. [Munroe's] entire defence strategy was to essentially argue that he was an educated, wealthy, well-to-do man, and therefore incapable of murder. The argument that I try to make is that it's time to start dealing with character for what it is: someone's opinion."

Komar describes Black River Road as a fresh approach to a case which, while familiar to some Saint Johners, hasn't been approached from the perspective of attempting to determine not what sort of sort of man Munroe was, but whether he actually killed Vail.

"What I've tried to do with this book is to have the reader give Munroe the sort of trial he never received the first time," said Komar, "answering the sort of questions that the court asks today: did he make the decision to actually kill, and did he actually act on it?"

The resulting narrative, while scientific, is also spine-tingling. "I've always loved this mesh of forensic science and historical cases," said Komar, "but in this book I give the reader a good, old-fashioned murder mystery."

As part of Saint John's Fog Lit Festival, Komar will host a workshop on crime writing on Sept. 13, at the East Branch Library from 6:00 pm to 8:00 p.m. On Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m., she will read from Black River Road at the New Brunswick Museum.

With files from Information Morning Saint John