First Newfoundland Policeman Murdered in the Line of Duty: An Excerpt from Rough Justice by Keith Mercer
Rough Justice is a history of policing and crime in early Newfoundland, from the appointment of the first constables in 1729 to the establishment of the Newfoundland Constabulary in 1871, the oldest continuous police forcce in Canada. In this excerpt, we learn of the violent death of Constable Jeremiah Dunn, who is believed to be the first policeman murdered in the line of duty in Newfoundland.
Constable Jeremiah Dunn deserved a better fate. On 22 October 1861, around 11:00 at night, the young officer was on patrol in his hometown of Harbour Grace with three other policemen when he was hit on the head with a rock. He died a week later. His death occurred within the context of political and sectarian strife in Harbour Main and St. John’s during the spring of 1861, which had been ignited by election contests. In the capital, large crowds surrounded the Colonial Building, pelted the governor’s carriage with rocks, and vandalized property. The troops were called out, and more military reinforcements arrived from Halifax. The violence spilled over into the general election of 1861 and by-elections at Harbour Grace that November.
Harbour Grace had a long history of collective actions, predating representative government in 1832. Dunn’s murder stemmed from the charged atmosphere leading to the fall elections, when crowds were common and the military – both the army and navy – was sent from St. John’s in advance to maintain law and order in Conception Bay. On the night in question, Harbour Grace’s policemen were walking the streets when they passed two apparently drunk men, whom they ordered to go home. When the men refused, the constables prepared to take them into custody. One man was sent to jail, while reinforcements were called to arrest the other. By this time the situation had spiralled out of control and the police were being attacked by a growing crowd, with constables doing their duty under a volley of stones and projectiles. Several policemen were hit, Dunn taking a mortal blow near the temple. Despite medical help, he spent a week in “great agony” before passing away. In the aftermath of this case, which a coroner’s report deemed a homicide, the Harbour Grace Standard unleashed its anger:
We ask should such a state of things be allowed to exist in our town? When a policeman is doing his duty is he to be set on and maltreated with impunity? Is he to be made the target for parties to vent their spleen on? We think not! It is high time for our citizens to unite and put down such a growing sin. What! assassinate a father of a family for merely doing his duty; such a thing is hardly on record.
It was a sad end for a military veteran and family man. Dunn is believed to be the first policeman murdered in the line of duty in Newfoundland, though many others were attacked in similar circumstances. His wife was given a small pension.1
Dunn’s killers were never brought to justice. A police investigation followed, a £100 reward offered, and there were loud calls from the government and the press to end this cycle of election rioting and religious strife. Others wanted reform. In a major speech to a joint sitting of the legislature, Governor Alexander Bannerman stated that it was long overdue to expand and modernize the colony’s police service. However, the governor’s calls went unheeded, and a legislature that had grown accustomed to relying on the army garrison as an excuse for not strengthening the police would not budge until forced to do so a decade later.