The murder of Isaac Mercer
Christmas of 1860 was one of the saddest ever for the residents of the Town of Bay Roberts.
On Friday evening, Dec. 28, six Roman Catholic mummers attacked three Protestant men in Bay Roberts. The next morning, one of the victims, Isaac Mercer, lay dead. The 20-year-old had been married for just 15 days. The cause of death was a fractured skull, his injuries inflicted by a blow or blows from his own hatchet.
The initial newspaper report of the murder didn’t appear until New Year’s Day of 1861. According to the reporter, Mercer, a “respectable resident,” was “ beaten by some fellows in the usual mumming disguise prevalent at this season.”
A coroner’s inquest issued a verdict: “wilful murder.”
Three days later, the investigators from St. John’s paid a second visit to the Conception Bay town. By Jan. 15, the crime remained unsolved.
Governor Alexander Bannerman then sought the public’s help in discovering, apprehending and convicting the murderer(s). Government even offered a 100-pound sterling reward.
However, if anyone in Bay Roberts had knowledge about the crime, they were remaining tight-lipped.
By now, additional details were emerging about the actual murder. According to a contemporary newspaper account: “From the almost macerated condition of the victim’s head … there can be little doubt that poor MERCER’S destruction had been resolved upon, and most thoroughly and brutally was it accomplished — so much the more reason for a determined, unwavering, vigorous search for his savage murder.”
The murderer was nothing more and nothing less than a “scoundrel,” the reporter added.
On Feb. 20, three men were appre- hended for their role in Mercer’s murder: 32-year-old John Dawson; his 28year-old brother, Stephen; and 37year-old James Hedderson.
The troika was transported to Her Majesty’s jail in the capital city. Hedderson died while in custody prior to his trial date. The brothers Dawson remained for three months, awaiting a court appearance.
The Dawson brothers made their first court appearance on May 20, but the case was postponed until November.
Meanwhile, on June 10, a lawyer filed an application for bail on behalf of t he Dawsons. The accused remained free on bail for five months until their case was called in Supreme Court.
The Grand Jury deliberated for five days, returning on Nov. 25. The Dawson duo were free of the murder charge, but faced a lesser charge of manslaughter.
As Michael F. Flynn notes, the absence of additional information in the time following the Grand Jury’s ruling leaves many unanswered questions:
• Did the jury ignore both the murder and manslaughter charges despite the judge’s instructions? • Was it legally allowed to do so? • Were the charges dropped and, if they were, why was it not reported?
• Were the charges dropped in camera? Was there a publication ban? If no ban, why, in such an obviously competitive news market, did not at least one of the dozen newspapers report on the proceedings of a trial?
It is assumed that the Dawsons brothers were acquitted, but no official documentation to support this claim has yet been uncovered.
Was the murder a result of either family or religious disagreement in Bay Roberts? After all, the accused were Roman Catholic, while Mercer was Anglican. The Dawson brothers’ father, James, was also Roman Catholic, and their mother, Mabel Russell, was Protestant.
Flynn writes: “ The murder sparked widespread outrage and catapulted mumming ( an older term for mum- mering) to the top of the legal political agenda. The Mercer case can more accurately be interpreted as the culmination of a well-established relationship between mumming, violence, and the law in Conception Bay and St. John’s.”
Elsewhere, Flynn states, “ The murder of Isaac Mercer was a pivotal court case in Newfoundland history; it forced the government to enact legislation banning the wearing of masks in public.”
The history of Bay Roberts abounds with stories such as the murder of Isaac Mercer. Read all about many of them in Michael F. Flynn’s recent book, “Historic Bay Roberts: Not Your Typical Small Town,” published by Flanker Press in St. John’s.