Stranger Than Fiction
How Do You Say Murder? When a Dispute Over the Pronunciation of “Newfoundland” Turned Deadly
By Dean Jobb
The argument erupted at the supper table in a Colorado lumber camp near Castle Rock, a spot on the map at the edge of the Rocky Mountains and about thirty miles south of Denver. William Atcheson, who was working at Hocker & Gray’s sawmill in March 1876, had a large dog, and the landlady asked what breed it was. The reply incensed John Peter Davis, a teamster who was tired of having Atcheson correct his pronunciation.
Atcheson, a twenty-two-year-old who had been born in New York City and “enjoyed the advantages of a liberal education,” the Denver Tribune later noted, “was rather enthusiastic in his defense of the King’s English, and this brought him into frequent and lively disputes with some of the other men.”
It was, Atcheson told the landlady, a Newfoundland dog. The breed had been developed by fishermen on the island of that name, almost three thousand miles away at the eastern edge of North America, then a British colony and now a province of Canada. The Saint Bernard lookalikes can weigh up to 175 pounds and are strong swimmers. Harper’s Magazine that year quoted an English owner who praised the breed’s strength and loyalty. “He can fetch and carry; and if you fall in the water, drunk or sober, he’ll pull you out.”
Davis, a Texan in his mid thirties, took exception to Atcheson’s pronunciation of the word as New-found-land. The proper way to say it, he insisted, was New-found-land, with the emphasis on the last syllable. Atcheson, as usual, disagreed. Their exchange grew heated. “The two men, it appears, were chronic disputants,” Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reported, “and always manifested much temper in their discussions.”
To find out who was right, they headed to Atcheson’s cabin to consult his copy of Webster’s Dictionary. Language and phrases not likely to be found in that book—“high words, and some rather hard names”—were shouted once they were inside. Atcheson punched Davis, knocking him to the floor. Davis got back on his feet and “true to his Texan breeding and education,” by one account, drew a revolver and fired. The bullet struck Atcheson in the stomach but the younger man continued to throw punches, knocking Davis to the floor two more times before he staggered and fell. The gunshot alerted other men in the camp. They carried the wounded man to a bed and summoned a doctor, but there was nothing he could do; the wound would be fatal. Shortly before he died early the next morning, it was said, Atcheson recounted “with triumphant satisfaction” how he had “knocked down his antagonist twice after he had been shot.”
By then, Davis had slipped away into the night. The local sheriff formed a posse and gave chase, but “without much prospect,” one of the Denver papers conceded, “of making a capture.”
“A Question of Pronunciation Settled by a Pistol Ball,” announced the Rocky Mountain News. The fatal outcome of such a trivial argument seemed to fit the time and place. The West was still wild, and it would be another three months before Lieutenant-Colonel George Custer and his Seventh Cavalry had their last stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The United States was celebrating the centenary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. Colorado would not become the thirty-eighth state until that August. Castle Rock, the town nearest to the lumber camp, had been established just two years before and boasted a population of less than one hundred.
Some newspapers saw humor in the deadly war of words. Atcheson had been dispatched “straight to a new-found-land, we suppose,” quipped Santa Barbara’s weekly paper. “A punishment so exemplary for the prevalent and atrocious crime of mispronunciation,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle observed wryly, “would entail the slaughter of more than two-thirds of the preachers of Brooklyn.” The paper’s indictment of the local clergy included the offenses of saying “shell” for “shall,” “gether” for “gather,” “wuz” for “was,” and “ketch” instead of “catch.” Such affronts to the language, the paper added, were “unpardonable in those who know better.” A paper published in the Montana Territory suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that Davis had acted “very properly” in shooting Atcheson: “Correct pronunciation must and shall be preserved.”
Incredibly, there is at least one other recorded instance of a dispute over pronunciation that turned deadly. In 1903 in Donora, Pennsylvania, a borough near Pittsburgh, two young men who boarded together argued over how to say “Hiawatha,” from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1850s poem “The Song of Hiawatha” and the title of a popular song at the time. The dispute between Charles Erven, twenty-four, and eighteen-year-old William Sweets began at the dining-room table and continued in their room. Sweets pulled out a revolver and shot Erven four times, killing him. “Overcome with remorse,” it was reported, Sweets asked another lodger to send a letter to his mother, then shot himself. Neither man appears to have subscribed to the Washington Times, which only days earlier had offered its readers the proper pronunciation: “long i, long a, broad a and broad a, accent on the third syllable.”
Who had correctly pronounced Newfoundland back in 1876, Atcheson or Davis? A folklorist at Memorial University, in the Newfoundland capital of St. John’s, has studied how the pronunciation has changed over time. In the nineteenth century, Philip Hiscock told Canada’s National Post newspaper in 2016, the island’s inhabitants were likely to give each syllable equal weight, calling it “new-found-land.” But the variations Atcheson and Davis favored (New-found-land and New-found-land) were also in use on the island more than a century ago, according to Hiscock, so both men had been right.
(The accepted pronunciation today, he told the paper, is “noo-fn-land.”)
Davis’s escape after he shot Atcheson, it turned out, was not the last word in a case that revolved around a single word. The man thought he was dying.
* * *
John Peter Davis of Peoria, Oregon, seventy and seriously ill, wanted to make a confession before it was too late. Thirty-six years earlier, he told Dr. Graham, the physician called to his bedside, he had shot and killed a man in Colorado during a dispute over how to say a word. William Atcheson’s killer had finally been found.
Dr. Graham dispatched a letter to Castle Rock, 1,300 miles to the east, informing Sheriff Anderson of Douglas County of the confession. The bizarre, forgotten shooting over the pronunciation of Newfoundland was back in the news. “On Deathbed Man Owns to Murder,” declared a headline in the Arizona Republic in December 1912 as the story was relayed to papers nationwide. In Colorado Springs, District Attorney M.W. Purcell announced he would bring Davis back to the state to stand trial if he recovered. “Death and Justice Racing,” noted another headline.
In Castle Rock, still a town of only a few hundred, Sheriff Anderson began to make inquiries. A few old-timers remembered the murder, press accounts noted, “because of the trivial nature of the quarrel.” A man named Simmons had apparently witnessed the shooting, but no one knew where he was or if he was still alive. The doctor who had examined Atcheson before he died was himself dead. Anderson located one of the men who had served on the coroner’s jury that investigated the death back in 1876, but official records of the inquest were missing. “In the event of the return of Davis to Colorado,” the local authorities realized, “the absence of corroborative evidence would make conviction hard should Davis decide to refute his alleged confession.”
In a final twist, Davis’s health rebounded and he survived. “It is understood that Davis is now better,” the Associated Press reported, “and regrets having made a confession.” If he recanted, as he appeared likely to do, there was no other evidence tying him to the crime. The sheriff and district attorney appear to have concluded a prosecution would be futile. There is no record of his extradition to Colorado or of a trial.
By then, however, news of the confession had generated a new round of comments and jibes across the country. A journalist in Kansas recalled having a strict schoolteacher who “beat up” a pupil who insisted on saying New-found-land—a capital offense, in Atcheson’s case. This appears to have been the accepted pronunciation in Britain. Some American papers republished an item from the London Chronicle confirming that, in England, “the accent is generally put on the second syllable.” An Ohio newspaper playfully took on the role of peacemaker, urging restraint to those confronted with mispronunciations and misspellings. “We have never wasted any time trying to convince folks that ‘address,’ verb or noun, should not be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable,” noted the Mansfield News-Journal, and have never “assassinated” anyone for offenses against the language. The paper had “even spared those who say ‘I seen’ or ‘I have saw.’” In North Carolina, far from both Newfoundland and Colorado, an editor with the Raleigh News and Observer was worried. The earliest reports of the sinking of the liner Titanic that year had been relayed through a Newfoundland wireless station, and the island’s name had appeared in countless newspaper articles. Resurrecting the long-ago Colorado crime might spark a fresh round of arguments—none, hopefully, culminating in murder—over how to pronounce Newfoundland.
“The public,” the paper noted, “is still left in the dark as to what is correct.”
Dean Jobb’s latest book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), won the inaugural CrimeCon Clue Award for True Crime Book of the Year and was long-listed for the American Library Association’s 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Find him at www.deanjobb.com.