Archive for June, 2013

The Ballad of Jacob Peck – a book review

June 3, 2013


The Ballad of Jacob Peck, by Debra Komar. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2013. 258 pp, $19.95

A true crime set in the Maritimes and passed down through the generations in song, novel and journalism, “The Ballad of Jacob Peck” may have reached its final destination with this definitive re-telling. Debra Komar, a forensic scientist and international human rights investigator, digs deep into archival documents to explore the grisly murder in 1805 of Mercy Hall by her brother Amos Babcock at his home near Shediac, New Brunswick. Babcock was soon arrested, tried in a court of law and given the death penalty. His crime was committed under “God’s instructions” from itinerant preacher Jacob Peck. Yet Peck was not held accountable and the author wants to know why.

The late Canadian musician John Bottomley wrote a haunting 1992 ballad of the same title. His lyrics inspired Komar and prefaces this book. Peck could “whip you into a frenzy at his mad house revival parties,” Bottomley wrote. Mercy Hall was “of melancholy disposition” and Babcock’s wife and nine children watched in horror as “Babcock drew a knife and sharpened it” before committing the heinous deed against her. Kormar’s careful and well-sourced version of these events moves artfully from the present, as the author describes her research hunt, to the past, with its rural landscape of snowbanks on dark winter’s night. Kormar also makes note of a “broken telephone” of errors and misconceptions as the story was re-told down the generations. She is clearly after the truth.

The author’s frustration over gaps in the historical records, such as discarded trial witness statements, is compensated by her ability to nevertheless vividly re-construct the crime and aftermath, in a frontier colonial society populated with interesting and sometimes colorful people. The humble status of the farming people depicts the fragility of their existence. Babcock, poor and illiterate, did not have a defense lawyer for his own trial, for instance and a consequence of his crime included confiscation of property by the government, leaving his wife and children destitute.

More information is available about William Hanington, a prosperous man from whom Babock rented a small house and piece of land. Lawyers and judges involved in Babock’s trial also left a thicker paper trail and are more easily researched. Their education, wealth and family connections gave them considerable influence—and responsibility–over the lives of others, as this story underlines.

No one, rich or poor, escapes the author’s scrutiny. Take for example, Robert Keillor, the town jailor at the Dorchester Courthouse and owner of the tavern situated above the jail. Though he was of good family stock, Keillor was “something of a drinking man.” As Babcock’s keeper, Keillor got to know him well and Keillor’s testimony at the murder trial would prove to be significant. Another person not to be overlooked was Babcock’s cellmate, John Jerome. His destiny became darkly entwined with Babcock’s.

Finally there is the elusive Jacob Peck. His role in the crime based on evidence provided, is left for the reader to determine. At story’s end, however there is much more than Peck’s malignant spirit to ponder in this richly woven tale from Canada’s past.

Reprinted from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, an on-line journal, #15.

Under Budapest – a book review

June 3, 2013


Under Budapest by Ailsa Kay. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2013.

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

The Ontario-based author Ailsa Kay fell in love with Budapest on a visit nine years ago. She stayed on searching beyond the Hungarian city’s post-Communist surface for the essence of the ‘Magyar’ people. The result is her first novel spiced with suspense and history and with characters who linger on in the reader’s imagination when the story ends.

Three storylines collapse in to the finale. We are grabbed at the outset with the “innocent” night-time prowlings of Janos, a young man of Hungarian birth, who has lived a sheltered life growing up in Toronto. He is with an old childhood friend, Csaba and foolishly wanders in to the dark side of Budapest. An accidental witness to Janos’ grisly fate is Tibor Roland. A central character, Tibor, like the reader, must put together the puzzling plotline as each piece comes to light. He is an academic born in Toronto and appears to lack a meaningful personal life, depicted in a love affair. His widowed mother, Agnes (nee Tiglas), a Hungarian émigré, has the potential to help Tibor know himself. He has already been exploring her repressed memories in the guise of academic research. An opportunity arrives for the pair to visit Budapest. It is the eve of the 2010 election in a country now independent but still recovering from the long repressive Soviet-based Communist regime after the Second World War. And it is on his early morning jog from his hotel to Gellert Hill, that Tibor sees a crime.

The third plot is set in Budapest, 1956. Agnes’ father is among the many arbitrarily imprisoned by the government. Her mother is convinced he is somewhere below the city in a tunneled prison. Meantime, the time for rebellion arrives. Agnes is caught up in a march in the first hopeful days: “In this whispering city, people yell, “Now or never.” And the urban landscape of Budapest is always a beloved constant : “They keep walking, and the swell carries her, and the bridge miraculously holds as the evening sun lights the Duna on fire.” There are mass protests, fighting in the streets and the Communist rulers appear to be willing to negotiate.

Agnes escapes to Austria before the government closes the border and the violent reprisals begin. Her boyfriend and revolutionary leader, Gyula Farkas is captured and imprisoned. What happens to her sister, Zsofi who remains to fight with Gyula, insisting he loves her, not Agnes, is a central question of the novel.

Few tender moments occur between the people of Budapest—past or present. The author holds no punches as she depicts callous brutality from top to bottom. The potential for cruelty beneath a civilized veneer is a guiding point Agnes tries to instill in her Canadian-born son. The youthful Agnes also tries to warn her idealistic sister and boyfriend to escape Hungary before the crackdown, to no avail. What does bond both dreamers and pragmatists in Budapest is the belief tunnels exist beneath the city; that people are both imprisoned and freed within them. The author succeeds in her compelling novel, Under Budapest, to reveal much of what lies beneath. As her deftly woven story illustrates, for the current generation, it is a past generation rich in stories, secrets and lessons.

Re-printed from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, an on-line magazine, issue #15.

Longevity in the Courts – The Life of Thomas Hurley

June 2, 2013


by Janet Nicol

Thomas Hurley has been overshadowed in history by his wife, Maisie Hurley, but his dedication to law deserves its own place in BC’s stories. He practised criminal law in Vancouver from 1911 to his death in 1961, aged 77.

Thomas Hurley’s first big murder case, as he recalled to a journalist decades later, involved a love triangle on Vancouver’s waterfront. A First World War veteran with the surname Russell lived in a ‘shack.’ The Adams lived close by. Russell and Mrs. Adams began having an affair and her husband found out. A fight between the two men ensued and Adams was stabbed to death.

“Some poor devil of a lawyer is going to get that case,” Hurley said he remembered thinking, as he read about the murder in the newspaper. “I can hear the scaffold going up and every nail being driven in.”

As it turned out, Hurley took on the defense. A key witness testified Adams started the brawl and Hurley was able to convince a jury to acquit his client.

Excerpt from “Longevity in the Courts–Thomas Hurley”, published in BC History, Summer 2013.

Photo above shows Tom Hurley, front row, seated on the right with Hudson Bay Co. Cricket Club, 1924.

Photo credit: City of Vancouver archives, CVA99-3391, Photographer Stuart Thomson.