Hellfire in Shediac

A lurid murder illuminates the 19th-century Atlantic world

On February 13, 1805, Amos Babcock, in a fit of religious frenzy, scalped and disembowelled his sister Mercy Hall, while his wife, their nine children and neighbours looked on in horror. Babcock was hanged for this outrage, becoming only the third convicted murderer in New Brunswick’s history. A subject of passing interest among historians and crime writers, Mercy Hall’s murder also inspired song-writer John Bottomley to write “The Ballad of Jacob Peck” in 1992, pointing to a shadowy figure deeply implicated in the crime and providing this publication with a catchy title.

The wonder of this book is that Debra Komar ever connected with Mercy Hall. A forensic anthropologist with a PhD from the University of Alberta, Komar has taught at universities in the United States and the United Kingdom, investigated human rights violations for the United Nations and testified as an expert witness in the Hague and across North America. Now based in Nova Scotia, she plans to write a series of books on Canadian cold cases. If subsequent publications are as engaging as this one, she will soon have a devoted following and perhaps even a television series.

In this case, there is no mystery about whodunit. Amos Babcock was guilty as charged and sufficiently compos mentis to cover his tracks as he retreated from burying his sister’s mutilated body in a snow bank. What intrigues Komar is a question that concerns legal experts now as then: to what extent can one person be held accountable for another person’s actions? Jacob Peck, an illiterate, itinerant preacher, was perceived at the time as the agent-provocateur in Babcock’s crime. This book explores the social and legal contexts in which Peck eluded punishment.

Preaching hellfire and damnation, Peck lived with the Babcocks while ministering in the community of Shediac in the early winter of 1805. He quickly developed a hypnotic effect on his host and other members of the community. On the evening of the murder, Peck presided over a revival meeting in the Babcock home, where two young women, one of whom was Babcock’s daughter Dorcas, lay in a religious trance, spouting prophecies that were inspired by Peck. Dorcas proclaimed that her family would be “saved” but only through the intercession of her aunt, Mercy Hall, who as a winged angel would carry them to their Heavenly Father. Believing that the “End of Days” was imminent, Babcock became violent, bashing his three-year-old daughter against the wall, ordering his brother and sister at knife point to strip naked, and killing his sister Mercy so that she could perform her preordained role. The grisly details of the murder, documented in writing at Peck’s command by local squire William Hanington, would be difficult for even the most fertile mind to imagine.

Komar parses the circumstances around Amos Babcock’s trial—in which he had no legal counsel and his wife testified against him—and pursues the case against Peck, who was formally indicted for the crimes of blasphemy and sedition but never brought to trial. While guilty on both of these counts, Komar argues that he also could have been charged with a more serious offence—solicitation of murder—and she presents a good argument for a guilty verdict on all charges.

The author also does justice to Mercy Hall by focusing on the gendered context in which she became a victim. Upon the birth of her eighth child in less than 14 years, Mercy succumbed to what was likely postpartum depression. She was cast out by her husband, who soon replaced her with a more energetic partner. Seeking shelter with her brother, Mercy became a major irritant in the cramped Babcock household that could scarcely contain its own growing brood. Without sympathetic support from kin, church and community, she was vulnerable to hostility and resentment.

Komar describes the multicultural layers that defined Shediac in 1805, but even more might be made of events in the burned-over district of southeastern New Brunswick. Not only was the region the focus of the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement that swept North America in the early 19th century, but it was also an epicentre for the power struggle between Great Britain and France that played out between 1689 and 1815. Aboriginal and Acadian guerrillas fought British forces that pursued them after the capture of Fort Beauséjour in 1755, and Shediac served as a refuge for Acadians who briefly escaped expulsion. The region was also the site in 1776 of the so-called Eddy Rebellion, the only attack against a British stronghold in Nova Scotia during the American Revolutionary War.

In the meantime, British, European and New England settlers migrated to the region, seeking free land grants on a troubled frontier where social conditions sometimes bordered on anarchy. When 35,000 Loyalists arrived in the Maritimes, the British government created the colony of New Brunswick in 1784 especially to accommodate many of the refugees and gave the newcomers precedence over earlier inhabitants in land grants and appointed offices. Resentment and rumour, ambition and ethnic conflict, religious belief and rebellious notions are the stuff in which this tragedy is embedded. And as Komar’s genealogical research shows, all major ethnic groups are present in the Mercy Hall story.

Not as isolated as often portrayed, the people of Shediac were keenly aware, if only through rumour, of developments in the larger Atlantic world. When Dorcas Babcock shouted that she saw “the French all going down to hell,” she was referring not only to the Acadians who played a role in this drama, but also to the French and Napoleonic Wars that had been raging since 1793. Indeed, Peck claimed that he personally had received word from the king of England, conveyed in a private letter from Saint John, that a great reformation was about to take place in England or France, a revelation that Babcock took to mean that there would soon be no crowned heads left in Europe. Many people in Shediac would have had first-hand experience with the threat that privateers, impressment officers and other oppressive forces posed in wartime conditions.

Nor are the issues raised by Mercy Hall’s murder only of local and forensic interest. The historian David Bell argues that local elites—among them Loyalist Ward Chipman, who served as prosecutor in the Babcock trial—used the case to discount the extreme evangelical positions that smacked of the excesses of the American and French revolutions, and threatened the stability of established churches and monarchical governments. The good people of Shediac may have expressed their anxieties in a vocabulary soaked with religious references, but their actions—informed by messianic preachers, prophesying women and ineffective community leaders—were harbingers of the new democratic order that was turning the world upside down.

Komar’s narrative is fast paced and grounded in extensive genealogical and historical research, giving it a surefootedness not always found in true crime writing. While the author occasionally slips on matters of detail—suggesting, for example, that the judge who presided over the case was electedto the appointed legislative council—the major thrust of her argument remains grounded and her imaginative recreation of events, which may make hide-bound historians wince, kept me turning the pages.