Cow Head's Murderous Axe

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jun 17, 2015 12:53 PM

Sitting on the outskirts of gorgeous Gros Morne National Park, Cow Head is a small town where tourists flock for scenery and serenity each summer. But even this idyllic oasis has a skeleton (or two) in its closet - and the Dr. Henry N. Payne Community Museum might just house the spine-tingling evidence.

Some of the area’s first settlers were trappers who plied the land in the early 19th century, years before the town came into being. In 1809, a Rocky Harbour merchant hired three men - Richard Cross, Joseph Rendell and John Pelley - to maintain trap lines in the remote wilderness where Cow Head now exists. When Cross and Rendell were overdue back at home, Sarah Singleton (sister to Cross and fiancé to Rendell) set out in search of them, accompanied by her employer. Upon arrival, however, they found only Pelley, who swore he’d seen neither of the missing men. Suspicious of foul play, the pair returned home to rally the townsfolk and, before long, an armed search party set out to confront Pelley. After an intense interrogation, he confessed to committing a double axe murder.

“Whether [Pelley] felt they were encroaching on his trap lines, or for whatever reason, he murdered them both,” says Glenda Reid Bavis, curator of the Dr. Henry N. Payne Community Museum in Cow Head. Pelley was eventually taken to St. John’s and hanged for his chilling crimes.

Glenda says it’s her understanding that it was more than a century later, around 1919, that road construction work uncovered the victims’ bodies - as well as the axe presumably used to kill them. She assumes the axe was passed from generation to generation and eventually wound up in the museum, where the blade remains on display to this day. (The weapon’s wooden handle has long since rotted away.) Copies of the court transcripts, a newspaper clipping and an interpretive panel detailing the grisly details are also available at the museum for the public to peruse.

“When the museum started, I guess whoever had [the axe] was just glad to get rid of it and brought it to the museum. When I got involved 25 years ago, it was in the museum then,” she says. While it’s never been proven to be the same axe wielded in the town’s infamous double homicide, Glenda says she has no reason to believe that it’s not.

Read about nine more amazing artifacts displayed in Newfoundland and Labrador museums in the July 2015 issue of Downhome.