The Man from Ninevah:
How the Case of Naaman Smith Became Known as "The Last Witch Trial in the Maritimes" [Part 1]
On 2 June 1932, in a packed courtroom in Lunenburg Nova Scotia, a young man by the name of Naaman Smith was found guilty of the fatal daylight shooting of his uncle Lemuel Smith. Naaman was sentenced to be hanged on 22 August of that same year. Described as “feeble-minded,” Naaman was said by his defence to be not guilty by reason of insanity. Although testimonies from a number of doctors showed him to be “medically” insane, the defence failed to prove Naaman was “legally” insane when he shot Lemuel. Feeble-mindedness was a known psychiatric term popular at the time that described "all degrees of mental defect due to arrested or imperfect development as a result of which the person so affected is incapable of competing on equal terms with his normal fellows or managing himself or his affairs with ordinary prudence.” Pseudo-scientific reports such as the The Kallikak Family and studies of Nova Scotia’s own “Smith” family (no relation) strengthened upper-class notions that the social and cultural problems associated with rural isolation were not caused by economic or social forces, but rather by bad genes: feeble-minded people, if allowed to reproduce themselves, could infect whole families and communities.
As the first capital case held in Lunenburg in sixty years, Naaman’s trial attracted much attention across the county and the province. The accused was from a small inland hamlet in the interior of Lunenburg County (approximately 55 kilometres from the eastern shore of the province) with the Biblical name of Ninevah. [The proper spelling of the place name is now Nineveh, which is also most commonly applied to the community mentioned in the Old Testament (located close to present-day Mosul in Iraq). In deference to the usage of the 1930s, however, as well as that of many older residents and the present-day road sign marking the hamlet, this paper shall use the spelling “Ninevah,” except when quoting from original documents using the alternative spelling.] In the days leading up to the shooting, two other strange deaths – including the widely-noticed death of one Miles Simpson – had occurred within the same 8-kilometre radius. The body of Miles Simpson was found in the West River on 2 December 1931. Initially revealed to be an accidental drowning by local inquest, his body was later exhumed and autopsied in Halifax where it was discovered Miles died from hemorrhaging of the head and stomach and not from drowning. The day after Miles’s funeral, his brother Gillie (accidentally or purposely) shot himself in the face after being in a “rage.” Gillie died at hospital in Bridgewater the same day Naaman shot his uncle. While much rumor and gossip was spread around the community concerning Miles’s death, no one was ever charged in relation to his murder.
This apparent crime wave put the county on edge and unearthed memories of several other violent and unexplained deaths that had occurred in the district during the past few decades. For example, in 1920 a man fatally shot his father, father-in-law, and three neighbours all in the same day before turning the gun on himself. After Margaret Smith had denied the advances of Wilson Huey in 1919, he later came to her home where he shot and severely wounded her mother before barricading himself inside the house where he slowly beat and bludgeoned Margaret to death before killing himself. In 1917, Lemuel Smith’s father George was “accidentally” shot and killed while hunting with two men he had been feuding with for years concerning the construction of a fence connecting his and Lemuel’s property. The fence was never completed.
The Halifax newspaper the Chronicle reported that there had been eighteen “sensational deaths” in the past 25 years throughout the small hamlets of Ninevah, Simpson’s Corner and Hemford that made up the area collectively referred to as the district of Hemford. Although such crimes were not that uncommon in rural communities in Nova Scotia at the time, Ninevah acquired a reputation as a “violent and Godless place.” For instance. one murder from the town of Windsor in 1906 saw the victim’s head severed from the body and placed in a burlap sack before being covered under a pile of potatoes. A few days following this murder, it was reported that a middle-aged woman from the same area had disappeared without a trace. In 1930 New Glasgow, a man was killed after being brutally attacked with an axe. In the same year a 28-year-old Sheet Harbour widower tied his two-year-old son to himself before leaping off a cliff into the icy waters of the Atlantic. There were, in short, many other “strange murders” to arouse the public in early-twentieth-century Nova Scotia.
Before the facts of Naaman’s case were made public, a staff correspondent for the Chronicle named May C. O’Regan believed she had found the key to the strange occurrences in the district. The reporter claimed that the deaths were “interwoven” with a history of witchcraft and that the area still practiced “ancient rites” and “seventeenth century sorcery.” While there is ample evidence to indicate many people in the area still believed in forms of witchcraft, there is little to none indicating that Lemuel’s murder was related to witchcraft. The narrative put forward by the Chronicle was not followed by any other newspapers in the province, and its credibility was generally questioned when the facts of the case came to light during the trial. However, it was a narrative that would last in Nova Scotia folklore.
Amateur historian and writer (to say the least) Thomas Raddall would follow this narrative pattern in his fictional short story “The Powers of Darkness” in 1952 and, perhaps more damagingly, makes mention of it in his 1976 memoir In My Time, in which he claims the accused had killed his uncle because he believed him to be a witch doctor who had cast a spell on his children. Maritime folklorist Clary Croft would follow this narrative in his 2010 book Witchcraft: Tales, Beliefs, and Superstitions from the Maritimes where he relyed heavily on Raddall’s version while supplementing it with some contemporaneous newspaper reports. He claimed that Naaman was “perfectly sane” and killed his uncle because he believed him to be a witch doctor. Croft presented the trial as “the last witch trial in the Maritimes.”
The Canadian historian Daniel Samson argued in 2008 that “the making of modernity in rural Nova Scotia was a fragmented and contested process and the distinct class interests led and defined a series of debates on the future direction of social development in the province.” During the nineteenth century, religion held much more of an influence over people’s lives throughout Nova Scotia than did the provincial state. “Fishing, shipbuilding, lumbering, and farming underpinned local life, but the first three were, largely, separate spheres that gave markedly different casts to landscapes, economies, and societies in those areas in which they dominated.” By 1900, over half of the labour force identified as farmers, even though many of them supplemented their farm income with the proceeds from other endeavours, principally woods work. Most in rural communities saw little value in education and campaigns to convince people that schools were vital to economic and cultural progress were resisted. Education (and later prohibition) was very much pushed by the middle class and urban elites upon poorer rural working people.
The Chronicle’s reports on Naaman’s case reveal the two prominent ways in which poverty-stricken inland Nova Scotians were often represented in the province, both of which constituted their “othering” as the inferiors to the metropolitan Halifax elite. Like a different Nova Scotia “Smith” family demonized by partisans of eugenics, the inhabitants of Ninevah were portrayed as feeble-minded, the sad inheritors of generations of in-breeding and isolation; or they were held up as quaint believers in witchcraft, upholders of obscure folk ways that were contrasted with Nova Scotia’s progressive, rational, and British tradition. Analytically distinct in theory, these two interpretive approaches were frequently combined in journalistic practice, with the supposed witchcraft an indication of the rural Nova Scotians’ genetic predisposition to primitive cultural forms. What was almost entirely unexplored were the actual patterns that accounted for the acute poverty of Naaman and his family, since any such exploration would entail a critical stance towards the social and economic order the Chronicle was in the business of defending.
This paper will first take a brief comparative look at the patterns of European witchcraft studied by scholars of the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern period and those modern forms of witchcraft associated with twentieth-century Nova Scotia. It will then provide an empirical account of life in Ninevah in the early twentieth century along with a closer look at Naaman Smith’s life, the circumstances surrounding the death of Lemuel Smith, and how these events were written about and discussed by contemporaries. It draws upon various sources: the Department of Justice’s detailed ‘Capital Case’ file maintained by Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa; the abundant local and Halifax press stories; a self-published book about the area written by Naaman’s nephew who has also provided the author with numerous facts and opinions via e-mail; the collection of folklore books and articles written about Nova Scotians’ beliefs; and the newly available genealogical data bases that can help illuminate the lives of even the most obscure among them. The sole purpose of this paper is to give an accurate representation of the factual details concerning this case and provide a better account of Naaman, who, because of his lot in life, was not able to influence the representations of him in the public sphere, either when he was alive or afterwards. It will not offer decisive conclusions about the extent or nature of witchcraft in Ninevah, although it will strongly suggest that Naaman himself was likely not a good example of it.