Illustration by
Daniel Chang

It’s not clear what brought future Penn Law Dean Edwin Keedy from Philadelphia to a courtroom in the far north of Canada in the summer of 1917—beyond a connoisseur’s interest in criminal procedure—but his account of the trial of two Inuit men for the murder of two priests remains a vivid and relevant piece of scholarship.

By Dennis Drabelle

Edwin Roulette Keedy (1880-1958) is still very much a presence at Penn Law School. His portrait hangs in Roberts Hall. The student who makes the best contribution to the law review receives the annual Keedy award. The team that prevails in the intramural moot-court competition, which climaxes with an oral argument before a panel of outside judges, wins the Keedy Cup. (My partner, Mike Levy L’69, and I vied for that honor before Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and two lesser lights in the spring of 1969; we lost). But as I discovered recently, after finding Keedy cited in an unusual place, our knowledge of his life and career is limited.

The citation in question is a 1951 article by Keedy, “A Remarkable Murder Trial: Rex v. Sinnisiak.” Its first sentence, “In August, 1917, the writer attended the trial of Sinnisiak, an Eskimo, at Edmonton, in the Province of Alberta, Canada,” raises a tantalizing biographical question. Long before eco-tourism and the lure of the Edmonton Mall, what was “the writer,” a new member of the Penn Law faculty, doing in distant northern Alberta? He doesn’t say.

His follow-up sentence elaborates on a sensational topic with sober restraint: “Sinnisiak was charged with the murder of Rev. Father Rouvière, a priest of the order, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, at Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River near Coronation Gulf on the Arctic Ocean in November 1913.” Next, the author notes that he’d meant to chronicle the trial upon its conclusion but had gotten around to it only now, more than 30 years after the fact; “but it is believed,” he adds, “that the interesting and unusual features of this trial warrant a presentation even at this late date.” With that bare-bones prelude out of the way, Keedy begins to tell a fascinating story.

We shouldn’t blame our man too much for his low-key beginning, or for the detachment he maintains throughout the account. Written before learned articles evolved into a form of performance art, this is a chunk of old-fashioned scholarship, 20 pages of straightforward text and copious footnotes, published in the 100th volume of the Penn Law Review. It’s a piece worth revisiting not only because it features that perennially intriguing subject, murder, but also because it has come to the aid of journalist McKay Jenkins, author of a new book, Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness, Murder, and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic, 1913. “A Remarkable Murder Trial” exhibits the staying power of sound scholarship, which can prove useful to later thinkers and writers in ways that the original researcher may not have foreseen.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/05/05

A Remarkable Record
By Dennis Drabelle

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