The Ballad of Jacob Peck by Debra Komar

Debra Komar’s The Ballad of Jacob Peck (Goose Lane, 2013) is a noteworthy attempt to resurrect one of New Brunswick’s earliest murder cases from the murkiness of the historical record and the well-meaning, but often inaccurate retellings of amateur historians over the decades.

In the bleak early months of 1805, self-styled preacher Jacob Peck arrived in Westmoreland County’s then infantile community of Shediac. Considered to be an adherent of the ‘New Light’ movement within the Baptist denomination which immerged in the Maritimes in the early years of the 1800s during the Second Great Awakening, Peck, although illiterate with no formal theological training, roamed the circuit from community to community in a rather self-serving attempt to spread the Gospel. Regardless of his lack of actual knowledge of the Christian faith, within days of arriving in Shediac, Peck had amassed a number of followers, all of whom were spellbound by his proclamations that the Day of Judgement was Imminent. This sort of religious-inspired mania was common enough among believers captivated by the ‘New Light’ movement, but to what degree was Peck legally culpable in the tragedy that unfolded in February 1805? That is the ever-present question asked by Komar over the course of a riveting and dramatic retelling of one of New Brunswick’s earliest murders.

 Travelling preachers inspired by the ‘New Light’ Movement wandered around Maritime circuits eager to convert rural inhabitants with their zealous and often radical interpretation of the Bible.

Utterly shocked at the transformation of their neighbours and family members at the hands of Peck, those who were not under the fraudulent preacher’s spell watched in horror and disgust as he told his prophesies and visions. Among those who were caught up in Peck’s zealous rantings was Amos Babcock, a poor farmer whose lot in life had been one of drudgery and in adequacy. Spurred on by one of Peck’s constructed prophesies, delivered by him through Babcock’s own daughter, Amos violently murdered his own sister Mercy Hall in front of his wife, brother, and children, before burying her lifeless body in the snow outside of the Babcock’s meagre home. The first half of Komar’s study undertakes to uncover this murderous narrative, while the remainder traces the trial and fallout which followed. Indeed, although the title bears the name of Jacob Peck, Amos Babcock is also at the heart of this tragic page in New Brunswick’s history.

Although the story has been known and retold by New Brunswickers for over two centuries, Komar’s efforts to provide a definitive and accurate account of Mercy Hall’s murder at the hands of her brother Amos Babcock deserve unreserved praise. Occurring as it did at the dawn of the nineteenth century, the historical record from which Komar drew to accurately reconstruct the events of the tragedy is both limited and filled with gaps, the product of the ravages of time and the shoddiness of early record keeping in equal measure. Working with the few sources available, Komar showed her skill as an accomplished forensic scientist to reconstruct the narrative as far as possible. Coupled with this immense challenge, Komar was also tasked with stripping back the layers of inaccuracy the story had gained from retellings by other historians starting at the end of the nineteenth century. Correcting the narrative and refuting each inaccuracy was an unenviable task that Komar accomplished with precision and foresight.

An early map of Westmoreland County showing Shediac, Dorchester and other locations

Bearing the hallmarks of any worthy true crime study, Komar’s work does more than tell an entertaining true story, it sets the record straight regarding the tragedy and takes to task amateur historians and the damage they cause with their, albeit unintentionally, poor interpretations of history. Komar’s work highlights the fact that the telling of some histories should be left to the professionals. In essence, The Ballad of Jacob Peck is a prime example of a work which seeks to shed light on a long-misrepresented crime story, while also questioning the guilt of others, in this case the rouge preacher, Jacob Peck. He may not have wielded the knife which took the life of Mercy Hall, but in the minds of many, he was just as guilty, if not more so, than Amos Babcock himself. Komar lays out all the facts and poses the important questions, but the reader is free to decide for themselves if Peck was indeed guilty of any wrongdoing.

Please add The Ballad of Jacob Peck to your Goodreads shelf.

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About the Writer:

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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