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The Isaac Mercer Mummer Murder Gate

A colour photograph of a man with white hair and white beard, dressed in a leather coat and jeans, standing in front of an iron gate, with a concrete pillar to the left of the photo.

Historian Mike Flynn, 2013.

If there is one image that has come to represent a merry Christmas in Newfoundland and Labrador, it is that of colourful, disguised mummers (also called janneys in Bay Roberts). Janneys are jolly characters who go door to door during the twelve days of Christmas. But in the nineteenth century, a combination of disguise and drink led at times to violence. Courts were kept busy in the weeks following Christmas as they dealt with the aftermath. This violence came to a head with the alleged murder of a fisherman, Isaac Mercer, by mummers in Bay Roberts in December 1860.

Mike Flynn is a local historian and one of the experts on the Isaac Mercer case. Today, the location of the murder looks fairly innocent, and is marked by an old gate.  Mike says:

That morning he got out of bed, and he went into the woods with his two brothers-in-law. Abraham Russell was one, and John Brown was the other one. They spent the day in the woods and they came out and they went to Isaac Mercer’s mother-in-law’s to get a cup of tea. But as the evidence develops, I don’t think it was tea they were drinking. They referred to having a few drinks out of a noggin, a flask, basically.

He was afraid so he wanted his brothers-in-law to walk home with him. When they got to the end of Wilcox’s Lane, they were attacked by six mummers. A skirmish developed, somebody grabbed Mercer’s hatchet and hit him over the head with it. He didn’t die right away. He fell to the ground, they picked him up, they walked him home. He died that night; he died in his sleep.

Mike speculates that there could have been a number of motives for the murder:

At the time, the whole area was engrossed in major religious violence, and what better way to do it but in disguise? Mercer was Protestant, his two brothers-in-law were Protestant, but all those involved with the murder were all Catholic. So, coincidental or not? There was intermarriage between those two families, as well, which was unusual back in 1860. I also heard from a descendant that one family owed the other one money, so it all came to a head.

Audio clip with transcript: Folklorist Dr. Joy Fraser on the Isaac Mercer murder case.

The history of mummer-related violence, coupled with the Isaac Mercer case and other high-profile attacks in St. John’s, Carbonear, and Harbour Grace led to various attempts to regulate mummering.

On June 25th 1861, an Act to Make Further Provision for the Prevention of Nuisances was passed.  It dictated that: “Any Person who shall be found, at any Season of the Year… without a written Licence from a Magistrate, dressed as a Mummer, masked, or otherwise disguised, shall be deemed guilty of a Public Nuisance.”

As the violence continued, legislature passed an amendment to the original act.  On March 27th 1862, mummering was made illegal, a law that remained in force for over a hundred years.