A ghost town in N.B. was the site of an infamous axe murder — for which a man was tried 3 times
1906 murder case set precedents in Canadian law as trials and eventual hanging made headlines around the world
All that's left of what was once a vibrant New Brunswick logging community called New Ireland is a graveyard now being overtaken by the forest, several old stone foundations and a crime story that made headlines around the world.
It may be a ghost town now but New Ireland was the site of a brutal axe murder that led to three separate trials of a young British man in the early 1900s, and set a precedent in Canada's legal system.
James Upham, a Moncton historian and educator, says visiting the area still gives him a "very eerie" feeling.
New Ireland is west of Riverside-Albert, near the northeast corner of what is now Fundy National Park. St. Agatha's Catholic cemetery, where Rev. E.J. McAuley and his cousin and housekeeper Mary Ann McAuley are buried, is one part of the community that is still maintained.
"This was a major event," Upham said of the crime that happened in 1906.
"This is somewhat comparable to the Lindbergh baby. This was huge news when the first trial took place. It's an axe murder — that gets headlines."
Catching fish and chopping wood
The story starts when a young Irish man named Tom Collins arrived in Albert County between 1905 and 1906 from England. He was hired by Rev. McAuley to help out at the New Ireland rectory and church.
"They had horses that needed to be looked after. They had kindling that needed to be cut. They had physical work that needed to be done," Upham said. "Unfortunately, at some point in that process there appears to have been a bit of a disagreement."
According to Upham's research, Collins said the disagreement was about the number of fish he had caught one day, when Mary Ann sent him to a nearby lake to catch their supper. McAuley was away and the two were at the property alone.
Mary Ann was upset Collins hadn't caught enough and sent him to chop wood in the wood pit, where she continued to scold him.
Collins decided to leave New Ireland and the rectory as a result of the argument.
"At that point, though, he also robbed the place," Upham said. "We know that because he says he did. And when he was apprehended, he was caught carrying things that he had stolen from the building we're standing outside of right now."
Upham said there is no question as to whether Collins robbed the rectory of items such as a gold watch. There is also no question that someone murdered Mary Anne with a straight razor and an axe.
An article in the Daily Telegraph from July 4, 1907, recounts the evidence presented in Collins's second trial in Hopewell Cape.
"The murderer, whoever it was, was not content with dealing a blow which crashed through the skull and into the brain of the victim, but her throat was cut as well, as if to make doubly sure of the awful deed," the account reads.
Collins tried 3 times
Upham describes the community as having a sort of "Twin Peaks" feel to it, pointing out it was a remote Catholic community in a Protestant world.
"There's mistrust, there's distrust, there's misinformation."
In Collins's first murder trial in January 1907, Rev. McAuley testified, and the verdict was guilty. However, that decision was overturned because the judge was found to have erred in his instructions to the jury.
He "will not walk to the gallows," reads an article in The Daily Gleaner on Feb. 23, 1907. It goes on to explain the judge at the first trial had directed the jury that certain facts had been absolutely proven, when this should have been left to the jury to decide.
"That got Tom a second trial and that was the first time, as I understand it in Canadian history, where a legal decision was overturned based on the judge's discharge to or the judge's instructions to the jury," said Upham.
"And this was a moment in Canadian history where we said, 'Yeah, actually, the law trumps what the guy on the bench thinks or assumes he can do. That's a huge moment because you have a young Catholic boy who is friendless and without family in this country being defended by a legal system that was not necessarily built to protect his ancestors."
In that first trial, Collins did not take the witness box, but many friends and family from England sent letters about his good character.
In between the first and second trials, the case made headlines again when on Feb. 3, 1907, Rev. McAuley died suddenly of "apoplexy" or what we would likely call a stroke today.
In the second trial, held just six months later in the summer of 1907, Collins did testify in his own defence. He admitted he had stolen from Rev. McAuley but said he did not kill Mary Ann. His lawyers argued that all of the proscution's evidence was circumstantial, and that someone else had murdered Mary Ann.
The second trial ended in a hung jury. By the time the third trial was held, Upham said, the case was so famous it was almost impossible to find an impartial jury. The third trial reached the same conclusion as the first: death by hanging.
"And in the third trial, honestly, they seem to have just given up and said to hell with it — hang him," said Upham.
"So a young fellow who had done possibly nothing more than rob a place, was hung to death down the hill from here."
On the morning of Nov. 15, 1907, Collins became the only prisoner ever to be hanged at the Albert County Gaol, and one of the last in New Brunswick.
He was buried in an unmarked grave outside the jail in Hopewell Cape. According to the Albert County Museum, his body was re-interred at a nearby cemetery 60 years later.
The case of Tom Collins was referenced in the Supreme Court to justify the double jeopardy amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code.
Community gone, controversy continues
More than 100 years ago, the community was divided as to the guilt or innocence of Tom Collins, and that division continues to this day in Albert County, Upham said.
"You can get in quite a heated discussion with certain people in Albert County over what actually happened out here," he said. "There are people who will swear to you that Tom was innocent, that Father McAuley did it. There are people that will tell you that there are people in the neighbourhood who did it."
Upham said that two weeks before Collins even arrived in New Ireland, someone broke into the rectory and stole alcohol.
"It's sometimes tempting to look at these little communities historically and say it was all perfect and rosy until, you know, a thing happened or something dreadful occurred."
Upham said the remaining graveyard and old stone foundations are one of thousands of roadside monuments where you can "stop and look around and say, 'OK, there is more to this.' And this is a prime one again."
"We're standing in the middle of a vital community that existed for generations," he said. "Where one of the most interesting legal events in Canadian history occurred, where a horrifying tragedy occurred and the only thing that memorializes it is a mouldering basement and a graveyard that is being reclaimed by the trees."
with files from Khalil Akhtar