Black River Road

An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character

Reviewed by Beverley Tallon

Posted April 22, 2017

Black River Road tells the story of Sarah Margaret (Maggie) Vail, an unmarried woman who fell for a married man and had his child. Vail and her sister, Phileanor (Philly) Crear, first met John A. Monroe, a prominent Saint John architect, in 1865. Monroe set his sights on Crear, but when he determined she was married he turned his attentions to Vail.

At first he pretended to be a single man. However, when confronted by Crear Munroe told Vail the truth. “All Philly knew for certain,” author Debra Komar writes, “was that in June 1867, Maggie found herself ‘in the family way.’”

By the time of the baby’s birth, the relationship had soured. The expense and possible scandal of an illegitimate child frustrated Munroe. As Komar writes, “She wanted more, he wanted out.”

The saga takes a gruesome turn when the decomposed bodies of Vail and her daughter are discovered in 1869. After numerous twists and turns, Monroe is arrested and brought to trial.

Komar is a practising forensic anthropologist, and this is an engrossing book that weaves historical records into a fascinating story. Her research shows how Munroe’s social status afforded him preferential treatment from both the legal system and the press.

Komar notes that much has changed “of our class-based prejudices regarding crime, yet we still confuse morality with criminality.”

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