Come all ye fellow citizens
With pity lend an ear
the sad and mournful story
You are about to hear
By Peter Little
from The New Brunswick
This is the opening verse of The Sad Tale of Maggie
Vail, a come-all-ye" popular in lumber camps earlier in the century and passed
on orally from one person to another and indeed from one generation to the
Unlike many old ballads,
where the truth of the story is lost in time or the origins are fanciful, this
sad tale was meticulously detailed in newspaper reports from a sensational
trial. It is a of love and greed, of lust and shame. But mainly it is a story
of murder -murder on a Halloween Saturday on the Black River Road in Saint
It is said that for many
years after the murder, a white handkerchief was tied to a tree to mark the
spot of the crime and horses would shy away from the lonely flat when passing
by through the woods. And to this day there is talk of teenagers dared into a
local cemetery to the murderer's gravestone on Halloween night. On this night,
the legend has it, it glows from underneath.
The sad tale of Maggie Vail
first became public on September 14, 1869. Two days earlier some children from
the black community near Ben Lomond had been picking wild berries in a wooded
area between the Black River Road (now the Garnett Settlement Road) and Loch
Lomond Road when they made a grizzly discovery. One of the children, Carolyn
Thompson, had spotted some clothing protruding from under a small pile of rocks
and brush. Upon further investigation they discovered the skeletal remains of
an adult and an infant. The children beat a hasty retreat and two days later,
the discovery was reported to authorities.
Brown hair carefully styled
in a braided knot with a long heavy curl hanging from one side, known as a
waterfall - was still attached to the woman's skull. There was a black alpaca
dress, straw hat, heavy tweed cape and other clothing. A few yards away were
the remnants of a child's white dress, an infant's boot with a sock in it. The
coroner for St. John County, Dr. Sylvester Earle, examined the remains and
determined that they were the bodies of a woman and young child, that they had
been partially eaten by animals and that they had been dead for about one
The coroner also determined
that they had met their deaths by foul means. However, without further clues or
help from the public, the authorities have little chance of making a positive
The investigations into the
deaths began immediately and shortly thereafter a man named James Kane from
Portland (now Saint John's North End) was arrested and held for questioning.
It's unclear why Kane was a suspect but the Crown, not being able to build a
case against him, was forced to release him.
An inquest quickly followed, but there were few
clues unearthed until a coachman named Robert Worden came forward. He said that
the previous fall he had driven a woman and her infant on two occasions from
the city out to the Black River Road. Each time, they were accompanied by John
A. Munroe, a rising architect in the city.
Munroe confirmed to police
that Worden's story was true and that the woman who accompanied him was Sarah
Margaret Vail of Carleton, now West Saint John. He insisted that he had taken
her out there to meet a friend, but that two days later, he waved goodbye as
she boarded a steamer to Boston. He informed police that he understood that
Maggie's sister, Phileanor Crear, had received a letter from Maggie postmarked
On September 29, a most damning piece of evidence
arrived from Boston, or to be more accurate, returned from Boston. The steamer
New York, on one of its return trips to Saint John, off-loaded travelling
trunks belonging to Sarah Margaret Vail. The trunks had been sent to Boston one
year earlier in October 1868, but were unclaimed by their owner, so after a
time they were shipped back to their owner's address in Saint John. The trunks
contained not only clothing belonging to Maggie Vail, but a picture of John A.
The sheriff was also
informed that the baby's name was Ella May Munroe, the illegitimate daughter of
Maggie Vail and a local carpenter and architect named John A. Munroe.
Munroe was an "architect of
repute and a young man of good standing in the community" and was also a
married man with two children. He was born in Ireland and moved to Saint John
with his family as a boy. In the 1851 census, Munroe was twelve years old and
living in the uptown area with his parents John and Mary, three-year-old sister
Mary and ten-year-old brother George. His father was a carpenter by trade.
After finishing school young John went to work in the office of his father's
Munroe was also a talented
artist and painted as a hobby. Many of his paintings were given to family and
friends; it is not known whether any survive to this day. It was his talent for
painting that spawned his interest in architecture. Buildings designed by
Munroe include the Wiggins Orphans Asylum, the Germain Street Baptist Church,
both of which were destroyed in the great fire of 1877, and the Carleton
Masonic Hall. He also designed several residences; at least two examples of his
talent survive to this day. 0ne is owned by the Hughes family of Algonquin
Place on the West Side and the other is owned by the Grant family in Rothesay.
Suspicion then had fallen
And I could not prevail
'Things went so hard against me
I was sent to jail.
On October 2, he was
arrested for the premeditated murder of Maggie Vail and their daughter Ella
May. Judge Allen had set the trial date for December 7 and because of the
interest in the case and his desire for an impartial jury he issued a
publication ban on all evidence relating to the case until the trial.
From the evidence amassed
at the coroner's inquest, reliminary examination, grand jury and trial, a
clearer picture of the events leading to the murder of Maggie Vail emerged.
According to Vail's sister,
Phileanor, Monroe first met Maggie at a picnic at McCarthy's grounds in
Carleton in the summer of 1865. At first he insisted he was not married and she
fell deeply in love with him. He visited her frequently, especially after her
father died. She was despondent after she became pregnant with his child, but
when she chided him for seducing her, he grabbed her, sat her on his lap and
said: "Maggie, if I get the poison will you go and poison my wife?"
In his will, Maggie's
father left property in Carleton to Maggie and she sold it for $600. She gave
at least some of this money to Munroe to hold.
About a week before the
murder, on Friday, October 23, Maggie Vail, calling herself Mrs. Clark, and her
nine-month-old child were taken to the Brunswick House on Prince William Street
in Saint John, run by a Mrs. Lordly. The hotel owner did not really believe
that she was married, but said Mrs. Clark appeared very uneasy Saturday night
wondering why her husband didn't come.
"She waited until almost
twelve o'clock when she went into her room. At half-past two, I saw a bright
light in her room and had difficulty in waking her up. I asked her about the
light and made her open the door. I asked her what the blind was up for and and
put it down after observing a man walking up and down on the other
On Monday morning, Robert
Worden came to pick up Maggie Vail at the Brunswick House. Munroe was in the
coach but did not get out to greet her. They travelled to Loch Lomond, east of
Saint John, past the Ben Lomond Inn run by Horace Bunker, and then turned about
a quarter of a mile down the Black River Road.
"We'll walk the rest the
way," Munroe said to Worden. "You can turn about and go back to Bunker's and
feed your horse and get your dinner."
When they returned to town,
Maggie Vail was dropped off at the Union Hotel on Union Street. Worden fetched
her trunk from the Brunswick House.
Maggie Vail and her child
were booked to go to Boston - apparently to start a new life - on Thursday,
October 29. But the weather was stormy and Munroe convinced them to stay for
another few days. Munroe went to Fredericton with his wife on the Friday. The
next morning he contacted Worden, who drove them to the same spot on the Black
That Halloween day in 1868
was damp and cold. Horace Bunker recalled that Worden had come into the inn and
ordered a meal; about thirty minutes later, the accused entered in a very
agitated state. He bought a brandy, drank it quickly and ordered Worden to get
up and go with him. When Worden protested that he hadn't finished his meal,
Munroe thrust some money at Bunker, much more then the meal was worth, and
pulled Worden from the inn.
Worden and Munroe placed
Maggie Vail's trunks on the steamer on November 2.
The character witnesses at
the trial said they knew Munroe to be a man of calm countenance. However, it
was revealed that when sufficiently aroused, he was known to have a violent
temper. The last witness called by the defence was Munroe himself. He swore
that Miss Vail had returned to the United States and had changed her name to
Clark in an effort to hide the shame of having a child born out of wedlock. He
also testified that he did indeed take her to the Loch Lomond Road and left her
there where she was to meet a man who was going to marry her.
The trial concluded on
December 17 and Judge Allen spent more than four hours delivering his charge to
the jury. The jury, however, deliberated for only an hour-and-a-half before
returning a guilty verdict. Most of this time was spent debating the issue of
capital punishment and in the end the more liberal members of the jury won out
and they recommended the Crown show mercy on the accused.
Throughout the trial,
Monroe had remained stolid and calm, but the verdict crushed him. His head
bowed, his body doubled, he sunk to the floor with great sobs shaking his
During the days that
followed he took little food, nor paid much attention when he was sentenced to
die on the gallows on Valentine's Day, 1870.
On the fourteenth day of
By the neck you shall be hung
May God have mercy on your soul
For the awful deed you've done.
While his son awaited his
fate, Munroe's father gathered signatures on a petition to spare his son's
life. The petition was presented to the governor-general in Ottawa, but the
Queen's representative agreed with the trial judge and the death sentence was
upheld. The elder Munroe returned to Saint John in one of the worst storms of
It was after this that
Munroe began to accept his fate and made preparations to meet his Maker. He
repented for his sins and in the last few weeks of his life he appeared to
become a devout man, praying often and reading the Bible daily. On the eve of
his execution, he met with Rev. Lathern and Rev. Stewart, the local Methodist
preachers, for prayers and exhortations.
That same night, of his own
free will, Munroe prepared and signed a confession to the murders. It was
released after his death:
"The first time I went out
with Miss Vail it was only for a ride. We had no quarrel and our going was at
her wish. We got out of the coach, at or near the place described on the trial,
she had a satchel, and we walked along the road, I cannot say how far, sat
down, and had a bite to eat. We both fired at a mark, she using a pistol I had
given her - one of a pair - a breech loader, same as my own. The mate I gave to
a friend. I had learned her to use it. There was no intention on my part to
harm her at that time. We came back and I left her at Lake's. She was to have
gone to Boston on the Thursday after our first going out, but it was too
stormy, and I went with my wife to Fredericton on that day, and came down again
on Friday night. It was during that trip to Fredericton I first thought that
the spot I had visited with Miss Vail on the Monday previous was a suitable
spot to commit a bad act. I went out again with Miss Vail the Saturday
following. We went the same road as before and to about the same place. The
morning was frosty, the moss crisp and hard. There was no wet on the barren.
The road was a little muddy. We went off the road a little way together and sat
down. I went into the bushes, the child cried, I came out again, was angry, and
strangled the child. I do not know if it was actually dead. As she was rising
up, I shot [Miss Vail] in the head - I do not think on the same side as shown
in the court. I threw a bush over her face and some over her hands. I found the
pistol in her pocket, or just fallen out of it, a common handkerchief and a
wallet with only a few dollars in it. I threw the handkerchief and wallet away
and left at once and have never been back since. I had previously had some of
her money - cannot say how much - perhaps half or a little more. I cannot say
that money was not one of the reasons of the motives for the act committed. I
do not say it was in self defence I killed Miss Vail. It was the money, my
anger with her at the time and my bad thoughts on and after the trip to
Fredericton working together, caused me to do the bad act. The letter written
to Mrs. Crear [Maggie's sister] was written by me, and mailed in Boston by a
friend of mine living in or near Boston. I never killed any other person or
The day of the execution,
Munroe met again with the clergy early the next morning at which time he
appeared calm and prayed for strength. Before they pinioned his arms to his
side, he took off his gold watch and chain and requested that they be given to
his wife. He was dressed in black cloth pants without braces, white shirt and
leather boots. Partially drawn over his face was a white cap which rested on
Before going to the gallows
the condemned man thanked the sheriff for kindness shown during his confinement
and hoped his fate would be a warning to others. All present then sang the hymn
Rock of Ages and walked together to the place of execution.
"I hope you will all see me
Public executions had been
ended a few years before, but crowds began to gather early in the morning vying
for the best vantage point from which to watch the hanging in the courtyard
behind the Sydney Street courthouse in Saint John. There were hundreds of
people in the street and the Old Burial Ground, while scores of others climbed
trees or peered down from rooftops and church steeples for a view of the
hanging. At precisely eight o'clock, with the sound of the first gong from the
bell tower, a black flag was run up the flag pole to half-staff and the gallows
trap door swung open. A press report of the time says:
"For a moment there was no
motion save the swaying of the body, then the hands began to work, the fingers
clutching and then closing with a grip. The legs were not drawn up, but by
muscular contraction were turned over across the other somewhat. The neck was
evidently not broken, death resulting from strangulation."
Twenty minutes later, John
A. Munroe was dead. Rumours spread that his neck had not been broken because he
had wrapped something around it under his high-necked collar to prevent it from
His body was taken down at
8:30 that morning and later in the day he was buried in Fernhill Cemetery with
only his wife and clergy present.
Following the trial and
execution, his wife, to protect her sons from the stigma of having a murderer
for a father, changed the family name to Potts. One of their sons, Frank, went
on to become mayor of Saint John serving from 1924 to 1926.
There are two local legends
that arose after the execution. The first is that the words to the come-all-ye
ballad, The Sad Tale of Maggie Vail, were penned by the murderer as he awaited
The second story that began
to circulate was that a couple of years previous, Munroe, trained as a
carpenter, was contracted to build a new gallows behind the courthouse. During
the construction it is said he remarked to a fellow worker, "I wonder who will
be the first s.o.b. to swing from this?"
As it turned out, it was
Come listen to the story
What I have to undergo
And shun the fate before too late
said John A. Munroe.
Peter Little is an amateur historian who
lives in Gondola Point.