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New questions in 1887 murder of pregnant P.E.I. girl: 'They hung the wrong boy'

Last Updated Sep 15, 2016 at 2:20 pm EDT

More than a century after 17-year-old Mary Tuplin, who's grave is shown in this recent handout image, was murdered in Margate, PEI, a ceremony has been held to reunite her head with her body. THE CANADA/HO-Robert Keezer MANDATORY CREDIT

MARGATE, P.E.I. – She was 17, single and pregnant, an uneasy combination in 1880s Prince Edward Island.

Now, more than a century after Mary Tuplin was murdered, a ceremony has been held to reunite her head with her body, amid new questions about whether William Millman, who was convicted of the murder, actually killed her.

“They hung the wrong boy,” said Bobby Williams, a Tuplin relative who lives in Alberta.

“I think I know who did it. I can’t prove it, but I’m looking harder into it.”

Williams was responsible for arranging a service on Aug. 21 at the United Church cemetery in Margate, P.E.I., where Mary’s skull was buried with the rest of her remains.

What happened to Mary, and how her skull became separated, is a story discussed at the dinner tables of her relatives ever since. It has also been the subject of songs and poems on P.E.I.

Williams said he feels very grateful to have finally given his distant cousin a proper burial ceremony with a minister and family present, even though it came 129 years too late.

“The night she was buried, she was put in the ground without a casket, without family and without service,” Williams said from his home in Alberta. “I wanted those three things to be done. We finally got those done. What a relief.”

Tuplin’s body was pulled from the Southwest River on July 4, 1887, just a short distance from where she lived with her parents in Margate.

She had been shot twice in the head. Her body was weighed down with a heavy stone, and it was discovered that she had been six months pregnant.

“They cut her head off right on the shores of the river. They sent her head to Charlottetown for further examination and for evidence. Her body went to the graveyard that night in Margate at one o’clock in the morning,” Williams said.

Tuplin’s body was buried in the same plot in which her brother had been buried just days before. He had died following a lengthy illness.

Right from the start, William Millman, 20, became the prime suspect.

Millman and Mary had seen each other a few times and there were rumours that Millman was the father of the unborn child.

Millman maintained his innocence and claimed an alibi, to no avail.

According to newspaper reports of the time, Chief Justice Edward Palmer noted that it had been a long trial with 48 witnesses for the Crown and 18 for the defence. He said the case was based on circumstantial evidence.

At the sentencing hearing, Palmer related the events of the case, saying that Millman had shot the girl twice in the head.

“You then hastily conveyed her to the river, and before even the cold pall of death had completely enshrouded her body you cast it, attached to a heavy stone, into what you thought the deepest part of the river — there, where you felt assured no human eye could ever again behold it,” Palmer said.

“But there was one eye you forgot or disregarded, the invisible eye of an Omnipresent God, from whom no sin can be hid. He provided a signal for those in search of her — a small piece of white muslin lay on the margin of that river. This, on examination, proved to be a pocket handkerchief of the deceased and at once suggested to the minds of her friends the necessity of dragging the river, which being diligently prosecuted, her body was thus discovered and easily recognized.”

The jury’s recommendation for mercy was denied, and Millman was hanged.

Following the trial, Tuplin’s skull remained in a paper bag at the Johnson and Johnson pharmacy in Charlottetown, which also served as the coroner’s office. Williams said the building has changed hands numerous times over the years — each time Mary’s skull and other historical items going with it.

Williams’ great-grandfather and Mary were first cousins. Both were 17 at the time of her death.

In 2014, while on a visit to P.E.I. from his home in southern Alberta, Williams met with a family who had the skull in their possession, and convinced them to return it to the family so it could be buried. It took until August of this year to find a date when family members could all come together.

Robert Keezer, another of Tuplin’s relatives, said it was an emotional ceremony, with about 30 relatives and area residents in attendance.

“It was a very terrible story that was told at dinner tables over the years, and we’re very happy now to have given Mary a Christian funeral,” he said from Summerside, P.E.I.

Keezer said he also doesn’t believe that William Millman was the killer.

Williams said that in recent months he has been getting calls and emails from people, whose families lived in Margate in the 1880s, with clues and information about the murder.

He said he plans to continue to pursue his investigation in hopes the truth will finally be known. He won’t name his suspect until he feels he can prove it.

“It’s not over yet,” he said.

— By Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.