In her book Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character (Goose Lane, 2016), Debra Komar brings a new perspective to the Maggie Vail murder case of 1869. Passed down in local folklore for generations, the story of Maggie Vail, her child Ella May, and their murderer, upstanding architect John A. Munroe, is a story well known among many residents of Saint John, New Brunswick. There have been several attempts in the past to tell the story of Maggie Vail, but Komar’s is the first time a researcher has taken the plunge. Komar attempts to seperate fact from fiction and present the definitive account of what befell Maggie and her child at the hands of Munroe, a respected member of the city’s upper class.
Sarah Margaret “Maggie” Vail was born in February 1845 in Carleton, Saint John West, NB to parents Mr. and Mrs. John Vail. By the 1860s, she was the only one of her sisters still unmarried. When she met the dashing John A. Munroe at a picnic in 1865, she quickly formed an attachment. Although he was married, a fact that was soon revealed, this did not stop Maggie from acting as if John Munroe was her beau. Although Maggie’s sister Mrs. Phileanor Crear disapproved of the couple’s behaviour, she supported her sister when she became pregnant with Munroe’s child in 1867. The child, a girl, was born in February 1868 and called Ella May. The early part of Black River Road focuses on these events and the subsequent breakdown of the relationship between Vail and Munroe. Maggie was still intensely attached to Munroe, but he no longer wanted anything to do with her. As Komar meticulously details the actions and movements of Munroe and Vail, which eventually lead to 31 October 1868, the fateful day when Munroe took Maggie and their child out to the secluded Black River Road, a location they had made several trips to previously, and murdered both of them, leaving their bodies between two large boulders covered with pine boughs. Desperate to free himself from Maggie, who had become an inconvenience, Munroe made the decision to murder. In the late summer of 1869 a party of berry-pickers stumbled upon the remains of Maggie and her child. The second half of the book largely leaves Maggie and little Ella behind, instead focusing almost entirely on the inquest for the case and John A. Munroe’s trial that followed. The question of character, specifically Munroe’s, comes up again and again throughout the work and forms the central part of Komar’s narrative.
In her interpretation of the case, Komar focuses on John A. Munroe and the question of character. At the same time, Komar writes the narrative within the framework of universal lethality theory. This theory “separates the issue of character from the decision-making process, creating a philosophical conundrum that is the central thesis of this book: does your character govern your decisions, or do your decisions define your character?” (14). Most of his Victorian contemporaries would not believe that a man with a sterling character like Munroe’s could have committed such a heinous crime, yet the proof was irrefutable. For Komar, this case highlights the limitation of universal lethality theory and when it comes down to the basics of the murder, it is clear that regardless of one’s supposed character, Munroe made the decision to murder Maggie Vail and acted on it.
Given Komar’s background as a forensic anthropologist and author of several other historical true crime books, it is no surprise that she effectively presents the murder, inquest, and the subsequent trial and sentencing of Munroe. In addition to her primary task of unraveling the case and presenting it for the reader in a captivating manner, Komar was tasked with recreating the setting of Saint John in the 1860s, almost unrecognizable today. With the Great Fire of 1877, which destroyed much of the uptown area, including the Munroe home on Charlotte St and the interior of the courthouse on King Square, little remains of the city Munroe and Vail would have known. Additionally, this fire, coupled with the passage of time has left numerous gaps in the historical record. Komar has taken these limitations in stride and made full and effective use of the sources that have survived. Indeed, her research is stellar and has resulted in an accurate and vivid account of the Maggie Vail case.
Although Komar’s research is first class and the book a thrilling read, at the conclusion of the work the more inquisitive reader is left with the feeling that more could have been written on how the lives of some the key players in the case passed. In the final pages of her work, Komar briefly mentions the fate of John A. Munroe’s brother George and parents, but there is no mention as to what becomes of the various members of the Vail family, especially Maggie’s sister Phileanor, who were mentioned throughout the book. In fact, the text included no information as to what sort of burial Maggie and little Ella received, or if their remains received any at all. This lack of closure is the only detractor from an otherwise excellent and vivid account of a crime which has lived on in the local imagination for well over a century.
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About the Author:
Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick -Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he will be pursuing a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspect of Victorian Britain and its global empire, with his MA thesis focusing on Queen Victoria’s interest and impact on music during her reign. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, rug-hooking, and thrifting.