Part two of the life and death of Mercy Babcock Hall…
Too many of us know only porridge1 made of oatmeal and see it exclusively as a breakfast food. That these misconceptions exist demonstrates just how much the lives and diet of ordinary Eastern North Americans (Eastern Seaboard of US and Eastern Canada) have changed.
For the first settlers to Atlantic Canada, as it had been for other colonial settlers to North America, porridge was staple, eaten at least daily. It was made from a variety of ground, crushed or chopped starchy plants and grains not just oatmeal. What exactly folks cooked in milk/water, savory or sweet depended upon what they had. For early settlers that could mean porridge made from barley, wheat, oats, corn or buckwheat, sometimes a combination.
For Mercy Babcock Hall’s family and other settlers to Colonial Nova Scotia in the short term it was corn in their porridge. Corn was listed among the provisions they arranged for the Crown to supply. Corn, like squash originated in North America. By the 1760’s New Englanders were used to cultivating and eating corn, including as porridge. As they and their children would discover oats and buckwheat grow better in many areas of Atlantic Canada than corn.
William Alline, his wife and 6 children, including 11 year old Henry2, arrived in Nova Scotia in 1760, one year before the Babcock family. Henry and Mercy were the same age when they arrived in Nova Scotia, it is entirely possible that Mercy experienced similar hopes and fears as Henry, who recorded his experience in his writings and journal.
“In the year 1760, my parents (after long consultation) concluded to move to Nova Scotia; this filled me with hope and fear… I had two things that I greatly feared in going; the one was the danger of the sea the other the Indians in that country…My joys and hopes were soon eclipsed when it was frequently reported that the Indians were about rising to destroy us; and many came out among us with their faces painted, and declared the English will not settle this country.” – An excerpt from The Life and Journal of the Rev. Henry Alline, describing his childhood as an early settler to Nova Scotia.
The fear, anxiety and insecurity would have been profound for settlers ill prepared for life in isolation. Nearest neighbours despite being only a few miles away, were largely inaccessible through the dense forest, and visits were limited to travel by water. The fear experienced by both children and parents was acute, and fanned by rumour and gossip.
The visits by First Nations peoples described by Alline were intended to intimidate, and discourage the English to stay. An action most of us would see as a normal reaction to others encroaching on our land. Some visits probably represented First Nations people returning to their traditional lands to hunt, fish, or harvest wild plants. Regardless, the mere presence of First Nations people was perceived as threatening to those already insecure in a new land. Events such as these would certainly increase the community’s perception of threat, and been widely discussed and shared through out the country.
As much as Mercy’s experience of the threats, perceived and real might have reflected those of Henry Alline, gender roles assured Mercy’s experience was more limited and restricted. Puritan3 households favoured simplicity, faith and adherence to a strict code of piety.
The roles of men and women were strictly defined, the family a fundamental unit of Puritan life. A man was expected to lead his family, speaking on behalf of the family in public, and making decisions about the family’s interactions in society. Farming, fishing and other income producing activities outside the home, were preview of men. Women were responsible for the home, preparing food, providing clothing, and raising children as good and faithful Christians. Women were expected to always show support for their husband and his decisions. From the earliest age children were ‘schooled’ in their gender roles, boys were educated in the skills they needed to fulfill their role, farming, fishing, chopping wood, etc. Girls learned cooking, cleaning, home gardening, sewing, butter making, etc.
The structure and system at play in Puritan homes was defined by strict rules of piety and the belief that salvation depended upon adherence, prayer and redemption . Henry Alline’s writings demonstrate the depressive and demoralizing effect of the Puritan beliefs on the emotional well being of members. Alline’s teachings presented a more loving and forgiving God and stressed the importance of personal salvation.
Just as Henry Alline was struggling with his early ‘dissenting’ ideas, Mercy was marrying Abner Hall and assuming a traditional role as wife and mother. It would take nearly 2 years before their first child was baptized, raising the possibility Mercy suffered either miscarriage or infant death during the early period of her marriage. Infant mortality was high and obstetrical care limited to assistance during delivery, usually provided by family women.
For Mercy, motherhood presented a long list of potential threats to her babies. Some estimates suggests that as many as 1 in 3 children died before aged five during the colonial period. Outbreaks of measles, and cholera as well as other conditions were common in Nova Scotia, but during the 1770s, Smallpox was leaving a trail of death. Rates of Death by Smallpox although high for adults, were even higher for young children.
Uncontrolled and uncontrollable threats, meant acute and chronically high stress for both parents and children. The rigid and pious nature of the Puritan household was not a place of comfort, it might even have increased the sense of responsibility, stress and anxiety, on Mercy. When a single imprudent step might bring eternal damnation, it would be a short leap to fear its impact of those in our care.
By 1774, there were increasing threats to the community as those in the 13 colonies began to consider their political influence. Despite the isolation of settlements in Nova Scotia the ties between settlers and their home communities remained. When the rebel cause was initially presented many Nova Scotia settlers agreed, but not all. Groups of English and Scottish settlers who were less established and thus more dependent upon the Crown provided balance, but so too did the increasing raids of coastal communities by pirates4 and others emboldened by the Rebel cause in the colonies.
Even as tensions were rising, so too was Henry Alline’s star as a Preacher. Henry began preaching after receiving a ‘sign’ from God that it was his calling. By the beginning of the Revolutionary War his following had grown to include people in many communities dotting the Bay of Fundy coast and along the St John River. Resistance and condemnation from the ‘established church’ was present but so to was an enthusiastic response to Alline’s sermons. Alline’s New Light spiritualism movement had begun, despite his death in 1784 it would continue to inspire others, including Jacob Peck.
Mercy’s life was a far from easy, after the birth of her 8th child in 13 years, Mercy suffered a emotional and mental breakdown (probably Postpartum depression), her husband Abner removed her from the family home. Much has been written about Abner’s brutal act against his wife and the mother of his children. There has as well have been ‘suggestions’ of physical abuse. We will never know the exact nature of Mercy and Abner’s relationship beyond this act and what we know about the typical experience at the time.
Puritan family life was private; provided the family did not act in direct contradiction of the Bible’s literal teachings or cause the family to constitute a risk to the community, no action was considered appropriate or taken. The nature of relationships inside a Puritan family home were largely dependent upon the family’s leader, the man of the household.
Despite the apparent cruelty in Abner’s treatment of his wife it is possible some in the community would have sympathized with Abner. Mercy’s breakdown interfered with her ability to play the role of wife and mother… a role fundamental to Puritan family life. When Abner expelled Mercy from his house, her family were obligated to step up and take her in.
Of course the Babcock family saw Abner’s behaviour as the heartless and inappropriate off loading of his duties and responsibilities it was. A woman not being able to play her role as wife and mother presented a challenge to a family, one inflicted with a mental illness another thing entirely.
Mental Illness has been poorly understood through out history, even today stigma and myth isolate and marginalize sufferers. It would be easy to assume that Puritans were heartless and insensitive to the suffering of those with mental illness but that is not the case entirely. By this time some Puritan writers were describing melancholy (major depression) as an illness of both body and soul. Yet, it would take decades for even the earliest facilities for those suffering mental illness to develop. Social isolation, censor, gossip and stigma comprised much of the community’s response to situations like Mercy’s. As is still the case, Mercy’s illness stripped away much of her humanity, robbing her of her ability to ‘be Mercy’ and exposing her to the inhumanity, even cruelty of others.
In communities like Cornwallis Parish there were no facilities, no poor houses or work farms. At the end of the day, any possible threat Mercy might pose to the community had to be managed, it was managed by her youngest brother Amos.
Exactly when Mercy’s time in Amos’ household began is unclear, but by 1791 when Amos and family moved to Hopewell Cape, New Brunswick, Mercy was with them. Reports of Mercy’s life in the household include that she was disliked by her sister in law, Dorcas Bennett Babcock and not permitted to eat with the family. Whatever the true circumstance between them conflict, and resentment of this type would have been difficult to manage in a small house, filled with a growing family.
Like Cornwallis parish, Hopewell Cape was settled by a group from Pennsylvania drawn by the Crown’s invitations to settle. Dorcas Babcock’s Bennett kin as well as the entire Babcock family (except Jonathan sr and his wife Lydia Lee) moved to the Hopewell area, attracted by the possibilities it represented.
Many second generation settlers like Amos and his brothers were under considerable pressure to secure land and enterprise sufficient to feed their families and build a secure future. The land which their father’s had settled sometimes failed to deliver on the promise or was sold when ‘other’ opportunities presented.
Complicating matters were the thousands of United Empire Loyalists who had flooded the region at the end of the Revolutionary War. Competition for land was fierce and land transactions frequent, the likelihood of success low. Although life could be difficult for the former New Englanders, life for Acadians was even more precarious, their land grants reassigned to English speaking settlers. All of these stresses, anxiety and uncertainty were at play in the lives of everyone in the region including Amos and his family.
Sadly, the family’s lack of success appears to have seen both Amos and his older brother Jonathan jr relocating to the Shediac area about 1802. Amos and family eventually settled in the ‘rental’ property where they living in February 1805. The single roomed structure housed Amos, Dorcas, their children ranging from teenage to toddler (8 in all) and Mercy.
Amos and his brother Jonathan’s ability to speak both French and Mi’kmaw, skill they were reputed to have acquired while living in Hopewell, should have aided them in their new location but life continued to be a struggle. Work was difficult to find and tensions between Acadians, First Nations and Settlers remained high as the newly minted colony struggled to contain its seams from bursting.
In January 1805, a series of revival meetings were held in the Shediac area, drawing those with a leaning towards spiritualism, to hear itinerant ‘self declared’ preachers. Amos and his family were among the group attending the meetings, including those provided by Jacob Peck. Peck who had been inspired by the New Light Movement, appears to have attached himself to the Babcock family, their home becoming host to his revival meetings. Amos’ daughter one of the teens who were ‘filled by the holy spirit’ and who with Peck’s encouragement predicted the world’s end.
Amos’ landlord, local farmer William Hannington did not engage with Peck (or the other preachers), instead remaining steadfast to his Church of England tradition. A few days prior to February 13th, Hannington was summoned to Amos’ house to transcribe the teen girl’s ‘prophecies’, his accounts suggest Peck was playing a leading role in fostering and encouraging a view that the world was ending and that Mercy would have to die. Hannington’s testimony at Amos’ trial provides a good deal of the context available on Mercy’s murder.
The extent to which Joseph Peck was responsible for what happened to Mercy is the subject of much speculation. The Ballad of Joseph Peck by accomplished writer and forensic scientist Debra Komar provides a more complete look at the events and is recommended for those looking for more on the specifics of Mercy’s murder. Komar provides a comprehensive set of arguments that Jacob Peck was as guilty of Mercy’s death, maybe more so than Amos.
It was 39 year old Amos Babcock who stabbed and dis-embowled his sister Mercy, convinced her presence in his home, her life had to end before the rapture…before Amos and his family could ascend in to heaven. Amos faced a swift trial, where he had no legal representation and no one was permitted to speak on his behalf, the testimony of his wife Dorcas and brother Jonathan used to secure a death sentence. On 28 June 1805, Amos Babcock was hanged at the Dorchester, NB courthouse, and buried on the grounds.
Mercy was targeted, the extent to which targeting resulted from her illness, from the precarious position she held in the household and how much was fostered by Peck will never be conclusively known. It is however truly disturbing the extent to which Mercy’s story, Mercy’s humanity, and Mercy, has been lost in the telling and retelling of her death. We know what happened to Amos, we know his final resting place, we can follow the trail of what happened to his family as they coped with the murder. We know Jacob Peck escaped accountability and was allowed to retreat to his Salisbury Parish farm.
We do not know Mercy’s final resting place. I have hope, that community members (the Poirier family in particular) who remained at the Babcock home, while Amos was being transported to justice, treated Mercy’s remains with the dignity denied her in life. Sadly, Mercy’s grave is unknown but presumed to be somewhere on the property where she died, about two miles from Shediac on the road to Cocagne…
A bit more about porridge…
Starchy materials simmered in milk or water comprised much of the diet of early settlers… whether served savory or sweet, flavoured with salt or served with Molasses, maple sugar or dried fruits it was an essential source of complex carbohydrates. By 1805, oatmeal and buckwheat were in widespread use by New Brunswickers.
This My Mother’s cookbook recipe is one for savory Buckwheat porridge…
Buckwheat Porridge (aka Kasha)
1 cup of buckwheat groats
1 3/4 cup of water or stock(unsalted)
2 Tbsp of butter
1/2 tsp of salt
1. Rinse and allow buckwheat groats to drain well. I toast the groats in a dry fry pan for a few minutes prior to cooking.
2. Place groats, liquid, butter and salt in a sauce pan and bring to a boil, cover and simmer about 18 -20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.
References and Explanations:
1. Porridge is simply stewed starchy plants, whether water or milk, oats, rice, corn, buckwheat or anyone of the variety of plants prepared worldwide. Porridge was a practical result of the need for complex carbohydrates in the diet and the limits of early cooking options.
2. Henry Alline and the New Light Movement played a minor, yet critical role in the environment surrounding both Mercy and Amos. Henry Alline, the Apostle of Nova Scotia writings provide a unique glimpse into life in colonial Nova Scotia. Henry Alline inspired the New Light Movement, one of many groups who followed nontraditional spiritualism and the evangelical preachers making waves in both North America and Europe at the time. The New Light Movement was threatening to the established churches, which might have driven some of the quick response to Mercy’s murder by authorities. It is unlikely that Henry Alline would have condoned the practices of Jac Peck which lead to Mercy’s murder. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/henry-alline
3. Puritan is a term which referred to those who dissented from the established practices of the Church of England. Their primary beliefs included the need to remove any and all practices associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The Mayflower settlers were Puritan, many of their descendants including those who settled in British Colonial Nova Scotia maintained a life and religious belief system heavily rooted in Puritan traditions.
4) Smallpox -https://loyalist.lib.unb.ca/atlantic-loyalist-connections/smallpox-and-fear-inoculation
5) Pirates and privateers played a significant role in colonial life, there were locally born among their ranks. https://www.hallsharbour.org/2-uncategorised/15-history-pirates-pasha-and-the-sea
6)The Ballad of Jacob Peck, Komar, Debra, Goose Lane 2013 –https://gooselane.com/products/the-ballad-of-jacob-peck
7) The life and Journal of Henry Alline – Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/cihm_27898/page/n47/mode/2up?ref=ol&view=theater
Acknowledgement: I acknowledge that the land on which I live and write about is the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.