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.

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