The Ballad of Jacob Peck

By Debra Komar

On a cold winter night in 1805 a New Brunswick farmer named Amos Babcock stabbed his sister Mercy Hall to death in a fit of religious fervour that may have been inspired by the hellfire sermons of a wandering preacher named Jacob Peck. It’s not a particularly well known story today, but it was picked up on by several local historians in later years and even inspired a song by John Bottomley.

In this new account of the crime, which takes its title from Bottomley’s song, forensic anthropologist Debra Komar seeks to set the record straight in the matter of the murder of Mercy Hall: cleaning up some errors that were introduced by earlier tellings of the story, taking a fresh look at the culpability of Jacob Peck, and providing a fuller, more sympathetic portrait of the victim.

The result is a compelling mix of history and true crime, albeit one that puts its case for the prosecution a little too forcefully.

In the first place, Komar registers shock, and comes close to suggesting professional incompetence, at the fact that Peck was not pursued in relation to Mercy Hall’s killing. This, however, would have been a very difficult charge to make stick. There’s no doubt Peck was a bad guy who behaved irresponsibly, but his actual role in the events remains ambiguous.

Also excessive, at least in terms of Komar’s rhetoric, is the way other historians are taken to task for having embellished or falsified the record. Certainly some revision and clarification is necessary, but in many places in Komar’s account the narrative is given a novelistic tinge, with events and even thoughts and feelings described that are hard to imagine being in the sources. And there are in addition some confusing moments brought about by what seems to be a rush to convict. One nineteenth-century account of the crime, for example, is accused of “myth-building” because it reports that Amos’s brother Jonathon actually “saw the blood flow” the night of the murder. But “In truth,” Komar writes, “Jonathon never saw any blood.” This is, however, only said to be according to Jonathon’s own witness statement, other parts of which Komar calls into question and which in any event he had some reason to be less than honest in. Compounding the confusion, during the trial we are told that Jonathon’s witness statement was “graphic and sanguinary,” and that his re-enactment of the crime fully satisfied the “gore-hungry spectators.” It’s hard to sort this out.

There is a tension between the world of criminal forensics, which deals in absolutes and things that have to be established beyond a reasonable doubt, and history, where few things are entirely certain, especially in very cold cases accessible only through a patchy record. In her prosecutorial zeal Komar sometimes blurs the line between the two worlds, but nevertheless this is a well-told tale, at its heart “little more than the lamentable meeting of two delusional men,” that nicely evokes a time and place, and people and events, that are fascinating to learn more about.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2013.

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