Dancing on Air: Vengeance, Mercy and the Death Penalty in Newfoundland


On St. Patrick’s Day, 1942, a quiet St. John’s neighbourhood awoke to terrified screams as the bloodied body of nineteen-year-old Josephine O’Brien was discovered in a downtown boarding house. Beaten to death with a flat iron, police soon arrested her fiancé Herbert Spratt. British governor Sir Humphrey Walwyn sentenced Spratt to death. Six years later, Alfred Beaton was tried for shooting Dorothea Manuel to death during a night of terror in the community of Norris Arm. While the new British governor, Sir Gordon Macdonald, was deciding between prison and the gallows for Beaton, a mysterious letter-writer emerges from the political wilderness of 1940s Newfoundland and attempts to turn the tide of public opinion against the death penalty. In Dancing On Air, Eric Colbourne offers the true, gripping account of a flawed justice system, the agony of victims of violence, and a political awakening in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Author Bio

Eric Colbourne

Eric Colbourne grew up in the small community of Lush’s Bight-Beaumont on the northeast coast of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. His earliest memories are of the tales spun by village elders under the flickering light of oil lamps in the kitchen of the family home on the isolated island. This tradition of story-telling is captured in his first book Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland which has enjoyed international success.

His latest work, Dancing on Air: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy, and the End of the Death Penalty in Newfoundland, published in October 2016 by Boulder Publications, represents an enduring fascination with the issue of capital punishment which he has researched extensively over many years in this country and around the world.

Colbourne was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland, The University of Reading in the UK, and at McGill University in Montreal. He has enjoyed a varied career in education, community development, tourism and senior management in the public service of Nunavut and the NWT. He currently devotes his time to writing and historical research.

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