Mason Folklorist Uncovers New Evidence in Pivotal 153-Year-Old Murder
By Buzz McClain
Isaac Mercer had a feeling of dread. It was a cold December 28 in Bay Roberts, across Conception Bay from St. John’s in Newfoundland, and although the traditional Christmas festivities continued apace in the small town, once he finished chopping timber for the day he asked two of his relatives to accompany him home.
It was the holiday merriment that spooked him.
In 1860 Newfoundland, it was traditional to celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas with an imported English and Irish custom known as mumming. Residents would wear costumes—seal skin masks, white veils, ornate hats—and, in the civil version of the revelries, would call on neighbors, entertain them in their homes, and have them guess their identities.
In the less civil version, masked marauders, generally after drinking, roamed the streets with pickets, whips, “swabs dipped in blubber,” and animal bladders full of pebbles, striking passersby with abandon, and often without repercussions. Cruel and crude, it was all in good fun, brutal as it was, until six mummers confronted Mercer and his two companions on Bay Roberts’ main street. There was a struggle over Mercer’s hatchet; one of the mummers struck Mercer in the head with the pole of the ax, a wound that would kill him by the next morning.
He was 29 and a newlywed, leaving behind him a grieving widow. And thanks to evidence uncovered by Mason English and Folklore Studies professor Joy Fraser, there’s a clearer understanding about the impact of the case, as well as the hidden history of the controversial holiday.
The 153-year-old Mercer case, Fraser says, is important because the Newfoundland legislature outlawed mumming for the next 100 years, an action akin to a government forbidding Halloween in modern times. The Mercer killing, Fraser’s work seems to verify, was the last straw.
Fraser discovered some 200 pages of new evidence and testimony regarding the murder mystery on a research visit last summer to the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador. On previous research excursions to the archives, Fraser found evidence of several other criminal cases involving mummers, previously unpublished, indicating the custom had a violent history as early as 1830.
The Mercer case, old as it may be, still resonates with Newfoundlanders. In December, Fraser was invited to present the results of her work via videoconference to faculty, students, and community members at Memorial University in St. John’s, where Fraser earned her master’s and PhD degrees. The daily Telegram newspaper covered the event, which was part of the fourth annual Newfoundland Mummers Festival.
Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away, Fraser was surrounded by 35 of her own students and members of Mason’s faculty in a conference room in Mason’s Long and Kimmy Nguyen Engineering Building during the broadcast. Unlike their Canadian counterparts, many in the Mason audience wore costumed headgear in the tradition of mummers.
Fraser’s research has renewed interest in the Mercer case, and while it’s not exactly CSI: Newfoundland, the new evidence isn’t without drama: Mercer’s widow’s testimony revealed they had been married for two weeks. “That one made me weep a bit in the archives,” Fraser says. “She talks about how she couldn’t even go into the room where he died because she was so hurt by what happened.”
Mason graduate assistant Erin Farquhar, a master’s candidate in English who is also completing a graduate certificate in Folklore Studies, transcribed the documents uncovered by Fraser. “We pieced together as best we can what they’re saying,” Farquhar says. “It’s not so much the wording as that it’s a chicken scrawl.” (Think the Declaration of Independence but smaller and with a distinctive Newfoundland accent.) Eventually, she says, “you get an idea of what some of these words are and get acquainted with the handwriting.”
The work has inspired Farquhar to think about working in archival material as a career, which is how Fraser got her start looking for the Mercer coroner report while a student at Memorial. “It’s interesting to see all the affidavits and legal material,” Farquhar says, “because it makes you wonder about early law; we had no material to show how they took these statements. Are they coaching witnesses? Are they influencing the witness? How does this compare with how we think about the law today?”
The question arises, why is this grim episode from the past taught as folklore and not history?
“It’s both,” Fraser says. “We sometimes think of folklore as quaint traditions that bear little relevance on larger historical realities. And certainly, the documents provide invaluable information about local mumming practices. But they also reveal a folk tradition intricately bound with the turbulent sociopolitical climate of 19th-century Newfoundland. Violence surrounding mumming was one manifestation of widespread public unrest; in turn, the custom itself became a significant source of political and legal controversy.”
With the cooperation of Memorial’s Distance Education, Learning and Teaching Support division, and Mason’s Collaborative Video Technologies group, the teleconference supported two-way communication between the campuses, and Fraser took questions from both sides of the screen at the end of her presentation. One spectator in Canada remarked that Mercer was a Protestant and the attackers who were arrested were all Catholics, an element that could have led to the attack.
Fraser revealed that the investigators closed the case, but the government re-opened it under pressure in mid-February 1861; in newly discovered correspondence, the authorities acknowledged they were fearful of a riot in town when they made three arrests a week later.
And this: Two months after his death, Mercer was exhumed and a second postmortem conducted. “The archival discoveries reveal that the case was more complicated than researchers previously realized,” Fraser says. “We have still to untangle the details of what happened next, and this is what I’ll be working on as I move forward with the project.”
So who did it? Who killed Mercer and wounded his two companions? And was it an intended murder or a mischievous mummering assault gone awry?
“I think we’ve gone a long way to solving the mystery,” Fraser says of the new court records. “Five were eventually charged with assault causing grievous bodily harm against Mercer’s companions, but no one appears to have been convicted of murder. The prosecution never proved it was premeditated.”
Highlight image courtesy of the Rooms Provincial Archives Division.
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