Mummers and murder

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Researchers mark tradition’s past connections with violence

In the age of SIMANI, Granny’s face lit up at the news of mummers at the front door. Yet, two local folklore researchers say there was a time that might not have been the reaction — particularly in the island’s urban centres.

As part of the second annual Mummers Festival, in a packed theatre at The Rooms on Wednesday night, Joy Fraser spoke on mummering in the 19th century and its connection with violence in communities such as Bay Roberts, Conception Bay and St. John’s.

A phD candidate in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Fraser said her research has shown mummering did not always have the harmless face it enjoys today. The evidence comes from the work of academics who have come before, but also 20 criminal cases she has recently uncovered in the provincial archives, spanning the period of 1830 to the early 1860s.

The newspaper accounts and trial documents mention nine counts of assault and one case of murder. The murder was of a fisherman named Isaac Mercer, killed in Bay Roberts in December 1860. Three men dressed as mummers were suspected of committing the crime.

All of the cases were connected with a mummering tradition that differed from the house-to-house form more often found in rural communities and most celebrated today. They show mummering with similar dress, but often taking place outdoors — in the form of informal parades. Also groups of male mummers simply roamed in an “undirected wandering.” 

“The mummers are almost always described as carrying some combination of hatchets, sticks, ropes and whips, all of which clearly have the capacity to serve as aggressive weapons. In one case the assailants were armed with bludgeons and swabs dipped in blubber — which they rubbed into their victims faces and clothing — as well as swords and loaded guns,” Fraser said.

“The complainant in another case describes how he was beaten several times with a carpet broom, so severely that the defendant ‘broke his broomstick on my body from the force of the blow that he gave me.’”

Fraser said a “blown bladder” filled with pebbles was carried in one of the cases she has read. “In still another case, the weapon of choice was a hobby horse,” she said. “The complainant in this case describes how ‘I heard some person running and turned ’round. I was struck on the head with something like a horse’s head and knocked down. I rose on my knees to get hold of the man who struck me and he kicked me on the breast.’”

“A witness for the prosecution later confirms that, ‘I saw the defendant dressed like a hobby horse on Tuesday night and spoke to him. I opened his disguise and saw his face and swear that the defendant is the person. There was no other hobby horse on the street that night,”‘ Fraser said.

Two cases out of the 20 involved matters that occurred indoors, Fraser said, yet “the defendants were accused of forcibly entering the complainants’ property, in direct contrast to the practice adopted by participants in the house-visiting tradition where the participants typically knocked at the host’s door and requested permission to enter, with their typical, ‘Any mummers allowed in?’”

When the cases are added together, they help explain why the legislature in Newfoundland might have felt the need to institute laws restricting mummering in the province June 25th, 1861.

“An act was passed which dictated that any person who should be found without a written licence from a magistrate, dressed as a mummer, masked or otherwise disguised, shall be deemed guilty of a public nuisance. Offenders were to pay a fine not exceeding 20 shillings or to serve a maximum of seven days imprisonment,” Fraser said.

In all, 150 licences were issued the first Christmas season after the act, but many mummers also failed to comply with the legislation — leading to cases of mummering without a licence.

“On March 27th, 1862, the legislature passed an amendment to the original act, this time imposing an outright ban on mummering that was to remain in force for over 100 years.”

Folklorist and researcher Paul Smith has been working with Fraser to uncover the less palatable side of early 19th-century mummering.

He also spoke at the recent Mummers Festival event, noting the lopsided artistic representations of Christmas mummering. In the artwork shown, the door-to-door rural form of the tradition has been favoured over the sometimes more violent street mummering since at least the 1970s.

Smith showed representations of mummers made out of copper, mummer relief carvings, paintings, figurines, brooches, pottery, snow globes, tea lights, cookie jars, Christmas ornaments and hundreds of other items. Artists who have created the representations include E.J. Wareham, Danielle Loranger, Valerie O’Brien, David Kaarsemaker, David Blackwood, Eugene Abbott, Keith Coates, Janet Peters, Thomas Hutchings, Harry Sullivan and Cara Joy.

Both Smith and Fraser said they are continuing their research and hoping to eventually uncover something on the violence that has now been connected with early-19th century urban mummering.

Organizations: The Rooms, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Geographic location: Bay Roberts, Conception Bay, Newfoundland

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