December 28, 1860
On December 28, 1860, in Bay Roberts, Nfld., Isaac Mercer was strolling home from work with his two brothers-in-law when unexpectedly they became victims of a crew of rowdy masked mummers. The three men were beaten until Isaac Mercer’s body went limp. When the brutes scattered and disappeared into the night, Mercer’s friends, bruised and battered, carried him to help. The next day, Mercer was pronounced dead.
The use of disguises also permitted those of the poorer classes to harass the wealthy merchant classes or often allowed rival religious sects the opportunity to vent their hostility while in masquerade. Newfoundland historian D.W. Prowse observed that “men were often beaten badly for old grievances by the fools.”
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. Court records describe men and women armed with “bludgeons & swabs dipped in Blubber” which they rubbed into their victims’ faces and clothing, as well as swords and “loaded guns”, carpet brooms, blown bladders filled with pebbles, the weapon of choice was a hobby horse, used to charge individuals.
The tragedy of Mercer’s death combined with other abuses that were inflicted while in masquerade fueled a decision that lead on June 25, 1861, to the passing of an act outlawing mummering. The Act dictated that:
“any Person who shall be found… without a written License 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 Twenty Shillings”, or to serve a maximum of seven days’ imprisonment (Consolidated Acts of Newfoundland, 1861: 10).
Recommended Archival Collection: The Rooms Provincial Archives: GN5 /3/B/19 Box 13, File Number 3 and explore GN 2/1-3 and GN 5. Criminal trials involving mummers and mummering.
New Term: blown bladders: inflated animal bladder used as a mock weapon by Christmas mummers … chasing people and striking them with whips at the ends of some of which were attached inflated bladders.
Recommended Reading: Any Mummers ’Lowed In? Christmas Mummering Traditions in Newfoundland and Labrador. Flanker Press, St. John’s, NL. 2014. Folklorist Dale Jarvis traces the history of the custom in Newfoundland and Labrador and charts the mummer’s path through periods of decline and revival. Using archival records, historic photographs, oral histories, and personal interviews with those who have kept the tradition alive, he tells the story of the jannies themselves.
Recommended Song: Mummer Song: Original 1987 uncut TV broadcast. Newfoundland Christmas tradition inspired this hit Simani song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8OPy7De3bk