NL GenWeb Oral History
Northern Peninsula ~ St. Barbe South District
Cow Head - Double Murders at Cow Head, 1809The information was transcribed by ALEXANDER PAYNE, September 1999. While I have endeavored to be as correct as humanly possible, there could be some typographical errors.
Double axe murders: it could be the headline noting yet another grisly
death in some large American city, except that it happened in Cow Head in
At that time, there was no Cow Head and in fact, very little settlement on the entire Northern Peninsula, aside from French fishermen who were based along the "French Shore" during the summer.
Then, as now, Cow Head was comprised of a rocky peninsula joined to the mainland by a narrow spit of sand and gravel. The site of the present community was thickly forested, and the only inhabitants of the entire region were a few trappers.
Merchants in the Bonne Bay area were involved in both fur trading and the fishing industry, and they often hired trappers and sent them north to take animal pelts. Among the men hired were Joseph Rendall, who had a camp at Shallow Bay, Richard Cross and a man known as John Pelley, who had settled there from St. Mary's Bay.
Pelley (locally pronounced as 'Peeley') had come to Newfoundland from Ireland and it was commonly understood that he had murdered his wife and escaped the law by crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
The three men were sent to cover the area north of Rocky Harbour, with Pelley and Rendall being sent to Shallow Bay, as Cow Head was then known, to set their traplines. Cross would visit his traplines once or twice a week, sometimes staying overnight at Rendall's Shallow Bay camp.
Cross left for one such trip on April 10 and said he would return later that week. Several days after his expected return, his absence was causing concern among friends and relatives. Among the Rocky Harbour residents who expressed concern was his sister Sarah Cross Singleton, who was also the fiancee of Joseph Rendall.
She worked as a housekeeper for John Paine, said to be an ex-Navy man. In fact, a relative described Paine as a deserter from a warship, who jumped ship near Quirpon and hid in the woods. He eventually walked to Rocky Harbour, where he became known as "Man-o-war John Paine."
Nearly a week after the trappers left Rocky Harbour, Paine and Sarah Cross walked 28 miles to Shallow Bay in search of them. When they arrived at Shallow Bay, Pelley was standing in the doorway of Rendall's camp. He told them he had not seen Cross at all, and that Rendall had gone into the woods and it was uncertain when he would return.
Paine and Sarah Cross stayed at Rendall's camp that night. The next morning, Paine went out and discovered two pairs of cuffs and a set of rackets, which Sarah identified as belonging to her brother. She became very agitated, but Paine managed to escort her back to Rocky Harbour without alerting Pelley of their suspicions.
One local version of the story states that Sarah had galled her foot while walking and asked for a bandage. Pelley directed her to a room, where she noticed bloodstains and her brother's snowshoes. She also noticed that in the main room, her fiancee's mittens, which she had knitted, were hanging up to dry.
She knew the men would not have gone in the woods without their mittens and snowshoes, and relayed her fears to Paine. The two, who had planned to stay overnight in Pelley's camp, were unable to sleep, especially when Pelley took his gun into the bunk, claiming he had seen a weasel.
The two returned to Rocky Harbour and told of their fears that Cross and Rendall had been murdered by Pelley. An armed search party set out for Shallow Bay to investigate. When they got to a marsh half a mile from Rendall's camp, they saw Pelley with his axe and gun. When he spotted the men, he grabbed his gun and started running for Shallow Bay.
He was ordered to stop or he would be shot. Pelley obeyed and was escorted back to the camp and questioned. He denied any involvement in the apparent murder of the men, so, according to the local story, the men resorted to stronger measures.
They apparently built a fire and threatened to throw Pelley into it if he didn't confess. He finally broke down and admitted to killing the men. He directed the searchers to remove some snow and boughs from a spot near the camp and there the bodies of the two men were found, with their skulls bashed in.
There are two versions of the explanation Pelley gave for his actions. One is that he felt the two men were encroaching on his trapping territory. While in the camp, one of the men bent down to put a stick into the stove, and Pelley hit him. He then turned on the other man, killing him too.
The other explanation is that a quarrel had arisen between the men in connection with a boat Rendall planned to build. There was a crooked tree in front of the camp which was suitable for boat timbers and as Rendall started to chop it down, Pelley struck him with the axe. As Cross reacted in horror, Pelley turned on him too, and he met the same fate as his partner.
At any rate, Pelley was taken to Rocky Harbour and held there until the spring, when a British man-o-war transported him to St. John's. There, he stood trial for the murders, and the official version of the story was given on September 1, 1809 before chief justice Thomas Tremlett.
On the witness stand, Sarah Cross stated that while he was being held, Pelley had said to Paine: "Ah John, I have murdered them both, and you may kill me if you please." Paine asked the prisoner why.
'The prisoner said he had been ordered by Rendail to cut some wood," the transcript reads. "On his (Pelley's) grumbling, and going reluctantly, Rendall said if he was not quiet he would knock his liver out...Rendall approached toward him when he (Pelley) struck him a blow and knocked him down, but perceiving him move, he struck him a second time and killed him." Pelley was judged guilty of the murder and n Sept. 5, was hanged from a yardarm of a naval ship in St. John's harbour. However, there a happy ending to part of this story, as John Paine and Sarah Cross were married at St. John's before they returned home to Rocky Harbour.
Court Records (1809)
TRANSCRIPT OF COURT PROCEEDINGS
Cout of Assizes held at the Court House Saint Johns, September the first one thousand eight hundred and nine.Honorable Thomas Tremlett Chief Justice
The Court opened in the usual way, when the following Gentlemen were sworn in as Grand Jurors.
List of the Grand Jury
The Grand Jury returned a Bill of Indictment into Court, a true Bill, against John Pelley for the Murder of Jospeh Rendall of Shallow Bay.
The prisoner was arraingned and pleaded not Guilty. The following Jury was Impanneled to Try the ....
Court of Assizes held at the Court House Saint Johns first September, one thousand eight hundred and Nine.
List of the Petty Jury
Rex -- versus John Pelley of Shallow Bay, for the Murder of Richard Cross of Rocky Harbour
Fort Townshend, 3rd Sept 1809
I have the honor to be
Fort Townshend, 4th Sept 1809
I am Sir Your most
By His Excellency John Holloway Esqr
Whereas a Court of Assize and General Gaol Delivery holden at the Court House in St. John's in this Island on the First and Second days of September instant, John Pelley was in due Form of Law convicted on the Murder of Jospeh Rendall and Rich'd Cross at Shallow Bay in this Island, and was sentenced for the same to be hanged by the Neck until he is dead. I do by virtue of His Majesty's Commission made Letters patent bearing date at Westminster, the Sixth day of May in the Forty Seventh Year of His Majesty's Reign hereby authorize and command you that Tomorrow morning being the Fifth day of September instant, between the Hours of Nine and Eleven, you cause Execution to be publicly done upon the said John Pelley; according to the Sentence aforesaid, by hanging him by the Neck until he is dead. And for so doing this shall be your warrant.
Given under my hand and seal at
By Command of His Excellency
St. John's Newfoundland
Expences incurred in the apprehending and Prosecution of John Pelley convicted of the Murder of Joseph Rendall and Richard Cross.
To William Salmon for 8 days loss of time in the assisting in apprehending John Pelley
To John Paine for his Labour in searching for and securing Pelley 17 days a 5/ 4 " 5 " ~ D° for 40 Days absence from his home and coming to St. John's to give Evidence 10 " ~ " ~
Sarah Singleton for her Expences and loss of time in attending to give Evidence 8. 5 " ~ " ~
Joseph Norris for Tho~ Skinner attendance 8 Days in assisting to apprehend Pelley Thos Skinner for his Expences and attendance to give Evidence on Trial 2 " ~
APPROVED L 51 " 3 " 6
(Signed) T. Coole, J.P. Approved for Payment
St. John's 18 Sept 1809
District of St John's (partial transcript only)
1809 Sept 22
John Paine This marriage was sol- her Lemnized between us Sarah X Singleton Mark In the presence of Willm Notting Jane Hollwill
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