The Ballad of Jacob Peck by Debra Komar (Goose Lane Editions, 264 pages, $19.95).

Examining the ‘powerful murder weapon’ of religion

By  Andrea D'Angelo, Catholic Register Special
  • June 8, 2013

The coastal town of Shediac, N.B., is the lobster capital of the world. Two centuries ago, it was the site of one of the most gruesome murders in Canadian history.

In 1805, farmer Amos Babcock stabbed and disembowelled his sister Mercy Hall. He claimed to be acting on instructions from God, revealed through the prophecies of a travelling preacher named Jacob Peck. Peck had no formal training in any religion; he was a fraudulent and cunning narcissist who preyed on isolated farm settlements. His hellfire-and-brimstone sermons focused on the imminent Rapture and Babcock was hooked. Peck recognized an opportunity not to save a soul but to gain “complete control of Babcock’s mind, body, spirit and will.” He tested the commitment of his new disciple by inciting Babcock to commit murder.

Babcock was charged, tried and hanged for the crime. Peck was charged with blasphemy and sedition, and received — it would appear — not even a slap on the wrist. Many since have questioned the injustice of this decision, including writer Debra Komar.

“The Ballad of Jacob Peck” is a folk song by Jack Bottomley that inspired Komar to write a book by the same name. Using modern forensic and investigative techniques, Komar re-examines the murder using historical records held in local archives and libraries. What she finds is a crime that has been sensationalized through speculation, errors and a liberal use of artistic licence with each retelling.

Komar’s book sets the record straight, sticking strictly to facts found in original materials — letters, journals, court records, autopsy reports and newspapers. Dates and locations are drawn from parish and cemetery registers, census reports, land registries and deeds.

The result is a seamlessly written narrative that evokes life on the Canadian frontier. Imagine the logistics of orchestrating the arrest of a burly, raving murderer in the middle of winter when your nearest neighbours speak only French, or having to keep a decomposing body in your root cellar until the coroner shows up to conduct the examination on your kitchen table.

Komar organizes the book into acts. Each character who played a part in this drama is given their due, the traces of their lives closely scrutinized. Unfortunately, there are infuriating gaps in the historical record surrounding Mercy Hall’s murder, leaving questions unanswered and characters undeveloped. For example, almost nothing is known about the victim herself. Often vilified in subsequent accounts of her brother’s trial, Hall was usually portrayed as mentally challenged. By today’s standards, Komar asserts that Hall would likely have been diagnosed with post-partum depression.

For a book that celebrates the archival record and even begins by stating that “all events are faithfully reconstructed from credible sources,” it was disappointing to find all the historical references relegated to the back of the book. Maybe it’s just my preference for footnotes over end notes, but it seems like a blatant attempt to disguise this non-fiction book as a juicy crime novel.

Make no mistake that this is an academic work. A forensic anthropologist by profession, Komar spent two decades investigating human rights violations for the UN and Physicians for Human Rights. In The Ballad of Jacob Peck, Komar draws on her legal experience as an expert witness in The Hague to build a compelling case for the prosecution against Jacob Peck. She skilfully explains the quirks of Canada’s early legal system and its enduring technical jargon. As readers, we are asked to act as jurors and pass judgment on Peck’s culpability for the crime. Should Babcock have been found not guilty by reason of insanity? Should Peck have been charged with solicitation for murder?

The latter question is one “that continues to haunt our legal system to this day: to what extent can one person be held accountable for the actions of another?” Komar draws parallels between solicitation and contemporary crimes committed by individuals under pressure from cyberbullies.

As terrorist actions carried out in the name of religion continue to make headlines, there is a timely and timeless message to this book: religion can be a powerful murder weapon in the hands of those who would pervert its message for their own purposes.

The Ballad of Jacob Peck will appeal to readers of true crime that enjoy wrestling with legal and ethical issues rather than fans of murder mysteries or legal thrillers.

This is the first in a series of four books that will revisit historical Maritime murders from a modern perspective.

(D’Angelo is an archivist with Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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