A Canadian author’s hunt for the truth about Coleraine ‘axe-murderess” Hessie Gray and a murder scandal which involved a headless corpse is told in a new book published this week.
Bev Lundahl’s Entangled Roots: the Mystery of Peterborough’s Headless Corpse, tells the story of Mary and William McGregor and Hessie and Tom Gray’s tragic lives after they emigrated to Canada from Coleraine in the 1880’s.
The sensational case involved a house being burned down and a headless corpse found inside.
The ‘sharp-tongued’ Hessie Gray was accused of the murder of an Orkney Scot, David Scollie, who was in his sixties, on a farm near Peterborough, Ontario in 1894.
The infamous case was never solved and Gray became a legend in Peterborough. The town still tells her story on cemetery tours and refers to her as an axe-murderess.
Lundahl, has searched a century’s worth of historical documents looking for the truth. William and Mary McGregor were her maternal great-grandparents and Hessie herself was her great-great aunt.
The author, who lives in Regina, the capital city of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, says: “The story is my search for the truth.
“What happened to David Scollie’s head and how did he die? What really happened that stormy February night in 1894 and what did the Aboriginals from the nearby Reserve know about his charred remains?”
Gray was acquitted but the case was not solved and the victim’s head was never found.
Part of Lundahl’s research for the book involved a visit to Coleraine with her sister last year.
She says: “We found no trace of our great-grandparents, William James McGregor Sr. of Agherton and Mary Newton of Ardvarness or of Mary’s sister Hessie Newton, wife of Thomas Gray of Killowen.
“Even at the service we attended at the St. Mary’s Church of Ireland in Macosquin where both Hessie and Mary were married, no-one had memory of them. When we went to Roselick More, the home of William and Mary McGregor where their first child, Maggie was born, we found only Stables Art Gallery. Their memories had not lingered.”
Lundahl’s account explores the repercussions of the murder, the collision of two cultures and how it reverberated in Ontario folklore for over a hundred years.
It also propelled the author into unfamiliar territory, and she began a journey into the heart of First Nations country, following an obscure trail that exposes the bones of Canadian history.
Entangled Roots is published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing and is available on Amazon.