The Murder of Timothy McCarthy - Commentary by Georges Arsenault Fowke

Locally composed songs constitute a field of study that has gone largely unexplored by French-Canadian folklorists. In fact, nothing has yet been published that can be compared, for example, to the excellent work by G. Malcolm Laws entitled Native American Balladry,1 whose first edition dates from 1950, or to the publications by Edward Ives on popular authors and their songs.2 Yet, there is abundant subject matter among the Acadians.

My interest in locally composed songs goes back to the beginning of my folkloric research. A few of the first songs I recorded in 1971 were local laments. I was impressed by their length and above all by the importance attributed to them by my sources. From that point on, my interest in this type of song kept growing. I am currently preparing a master’s thesis on that song category. It consists of a descriptive, historical, and comparative study of the laments composed by the Acadians of Prince Edward Island.

Before embarking on the topic of my presentation, I should offer a few brief observations on locally composed Acadian songs. Such songs are relatively numerous. Marius Barbeau wrote in 1937 that the Acadian repertoire of folk songs includes many more songs of local composition than does the Quebec repertoire. According to him, such pieces represent more than 20 percent of the repertoire.3 Local songs remain popular in the Acadian repertoire because they are still being collected in fairly high numbers. It is interesting to note that it is possible to record ones that date back more than a century and a half and others that were composed just recently.

Our locally composed songs contain a whole range of themes. Most fall into three categories: 1) satirical songs or songs of popular sanction, 2) laments, and 3) songs composed to mark special events, comical incidents, etc.

Laments are songs composed to commemorate tragic events. Most of the time, in Acadia, they deal with drownings, road and work accidents, fires, and nostalgia. Overall, laments do not make up the largest category of local songs in terms of number. However, it is this category that, to date, has garnered more attention from folklorists.

The topic of the lament I have chosen is the 1877 murder of Timothy McCarthy in Shediac, New Brunswick. It should be mentioned that Acadian laments based on this type of event are relatively rare.

The story behind this mysterious tragedy is a fascinating one. People back then did not soon forget it. Even a century later, the story lives on in a lament and a legend.

Here is the event as described in the newspapers at the time. On November 3, 1877, the Daily Times of Moncton was seeking information concerning Timothy McCarthy, a Moncton hotelkeeper, who had disappeared on October 12. He had last been seen at the Weldon Hotel in Shediac, where he had left his horse in the care of the groom.

In early December, Sheriff Botsford from Shediac began an investigation into the disappearance. Various bits and pieces of information were gathered. Some witnesses had seen him at the Weldon Hotel, others at the Waverly House, an establishment maintained by the Osborne family, who were good acquaintances of Timothy McCarthy. According to several sources, McCarthy was en route to Prince Edward Island where he wanted to buy a horse. At the time, the passenger boat between the Island and the mainland travelled from Shediac to Summerside.

At the start of the investigation, people were unsure how to interpret the disappearance. A newspaper published in Shediac, Le Moniteur Acadien, asked in its December 13th issue whether the disappearance was a case of murder, suicide, or flight. It was known that McCarthy was experiencing marital problems. According to general opinion, it was fully possible that McCarthy had simply temporarily left his wife.

The key account came from Annie Parker, a servant at the Waverly House. She told the sheriff that McCarthy had come to the inn at around 9 o’clock on the evening of October 12. He had had a conversation with Mrs. Osborne and her daughter, Eliza, during which he had shown them a wad of banknotes that he had in his possession. He had left the inn at around 10 o’clock, and that was the last time she had seen him.

She went on to say that she had gone to bed at around 11 o’clock and that, at midnight, she had heard a man come in. She recognized McCarthy’s voice. He went to the bar. The servant heard the voice of Mrs. Osborne and those of her children, Harry and Eliza. She heard them talking until two or three o’clock in the morning. Between one and two o’clock, she heard an unusual gasp coming from the bar. Shortly afterward, she heard Mrs. Osborne tell her son to go hitch the horse to the carriage, which he did. When Harry came back into the house, she heard Mrs. Osborne and her children walking from the bar to the front door as though they were carrying something heavy. Later she watched from her bedroom window as the carriage drove off toward the steam mill, She thought she saw a large package in the back of the carriage. Still, according to the servant, the carriage returned half an hour later. Lastly, she said that, the following week, she had found a roll of banknotes in the inn’s kitchen cupboard. As for Mr. Osborne, he had been confined to bed following an illness. He had not met McCarthy. In short, those are the details that Annie Parker gave to the sheriff and the justice of the peace on December 4 and 5, 1877.4

January 19th of the following year was a turning point in the McCarthy affair. That day, Annie Parker, who had been boarding for a few days with Mrs. McCarthy in Moncton, made some new statements. She admitted that, during her first statement, she had not told the whole story. She revealed that she had seen McCarthy being drugged and struck with an axe by Mrs. Osborne and her son, Harry, that Mrs. Osborne had taken all of his money, and that Harry had gone to throw the body into the Scoudouc River after attaching a large stone to its neck. She also said that Harry had made her swear on the Bible never to reveal what had happened.

As soon as she made this statement, Edward McCarthy, the brother of the missing person, demanded that the Osborne family be placed under arrest. Accordingly, Mr. and Mrs. Osborne and their children, Harry and Eliza, were imprisoned.

The preliminary inquiry soon got under way. During her testimony, Annie Parker justified her first statement by saying that she wanted to “see if the people of Moncton could unearth a murder.”5 She was then incarcerated for having indirectly participated in McCarthy’s murder.

Two months before the trial began, on May 11, 1878, the body of the missing man was found floating in the Scoudouc River, near the location indicated by the servant in her statement.

The discovery of McCarthy’s body both confirmed and contradicted Annie Parker’s revelations. The body was found at almost the exact spot she had indicated. The physicians responsible for the autopsy expressed the opinion that McCarthy had been dead before being thrown into the river. However, there were no marks to show that he had been held at the bottom of the river by a stone attached to his neck. Moreover, McCarthy’s overcoat that the servant swore she had seen in the inn after the evening of the murder was in fact still on the cadaver when it was recovered from the river.

Annie Parker’s words were thrown in doubt after this important find. Also, her less than admirable behaviour at the hearing could not help but reduce people’s confidence in her statements. In that regard, an article in Le Moniteur Acadien stated: “It must be said that the flippancy, the giggling, the misplaced quips that characterized her testimony did not exactly create a good impression in favour of Parker.”6

The trial began on July 18, 1878, and lasted five weeks. A total of 118 witnesses were called. The main witness was unquestionably Annie Parker. Despite her contradictions and her somewhat immature conduct before the court, she was evidently an outstanding witness. Here is how the local press described her:

“The centre of attraction in this whole affair is Annie Parker. The outcome of the trial rests on how much credence the jury gives to her testimony. She saw the murder being committed; she even participated in it indirectly. Her evidence is detailed and direct, and a large number of facts corroborate it. Only her personal character is not very commendable. That detracts from the weight of her statement considerably.

As a witness, Annie has already become famous. The lawyers, as they say, are powerless against her. She disconcerts even the cleverest among them. She triumphs under cross-examination and cannot be made to contradict herself on anything.

The young woman’s observational skills are quite surprising. The most minute details did not escape her. She tells and writes down everything: places, distances, positions, nooks and crannies, dress, everything that it was possible to observe. On the geographical map, she shows the judge and the lawyers a thing or two. She has a ready answer to every relevant question, and a question is no sooner asked than it is answered. As soon as the lawyer utters his first word, she understands the direction in which he wants to go, and, extraordinarily for an uneducated person, answers only that which needs to be answered, without ever contradicting herself.

Nothing disconcerts her, nothing embarrasses her, nothing surprises her. Sitting alone in court, she is just as comfortable as she would be telling a story to her girlfriends and joking around with them.

Annie Parker is very young – just 17 or 18. She was born in Quebec of a French-Canadian mother. She speaks French easily; her English is not good and is spoken with a French accent. Moreover, as we saw her in court, such is she in private. However, she has developed a broad streak of vanity: she believes herself to be an important figure and speaks only about sending this one or that one to prison; she believes her life to be in danger and demands a bodyguard.7

One person’s testimony that elicited a good deal of attention was that of Agnès Buchanan, a friend of Annie Parker. She revealed a secret that her friend had confided in her. The secret was that Mrs. McCarthy had allegedly promised Annie to keep her like a lady if she would swear that the Osbornes had killed McCarthy.”8

The jury was unable to reach a verdict. Ten of the jurors wanted to find the Osbornes guilty, while two wanted to acquit.

A second trial was necessary. It too lasted five weeks, from November 12 to December 19, 1878. However, the new jurors were unable to agree on a verdict either. The newspaper Le Moniteur Acadien wrote that seven of the jurors apparently believed that they were guilty and five, that they should be released.9 Following that trial, Mr. Osborne and his daughter Eliza were released on their own recognizance. Annie was later released as well.

The final phase in the McCarthy-Osborne affair began in January 1879 when the situation reversed itself and the Osbornes became litigants. They accused Annie Parker of committing perjury during both trials. At the time of her arrest, she was still living at Mrs. McCarthy’s. However, there was no third trial owing to legal complications. In the end, the charges against the Osbornes were dropped, and they were all released.

Annie Parker took advantage of her celebrity (the McCarthy affair had attracted the attention of the provincial, the national, and even the international press) to earn a little money. In August 1879, she published an announcement in the Saint John Globe stating that Miss Annie Parker wishes to announce to the public that she will be at the Dorchester Hotel in this city, on the corner of Dorchester and Sewell streets, for one week, where she can be seen from 9:50 to 11:50 a.m., and from 2 to 4 p.m. Admission 25 to 40 cents.10

This mysterious drama haunted the public for a long time. The newspapers still mentioned it 13 years later. In 1890, Le Moniteur Acadien said, “This tragedy, more shrouded in mystery now than ever, sometimes resurfaces and preoccupies people’s minds.”11

A drama as moving and as spectacular as this one could only leave a strong impression on the residents of southeastern New Brunswick. A blacksmith from College Bridge in the Memramcook Valley, named Honoré Leblanc (1845-1925), even came up with the idea of composing a lament on the subject.

The composition entered into popular tradition. Handed down orally to the present time, it spread well beyond the Memramcook region. When I did my research for this study during the winter of 1976, I was able to inventory 16 versions conserved in different archives. Most are from southeastern New Brunswick, i.e., Kent and Westmorland counties. Also, one version was collected in the Gaspé and three were collected on Prince Edward Island. It is interesting to note that the first version was collected at Port-Daniel in the Gaspé, in 1923,by Marius Barbeau. At the beginning of this article, I provide an aesthetic version of the song that I reconstructed after a meticulous comparative study of the 16 versions I had found in the archives. The melody is from the version collected from Mrs. Evéline Arsenault-Filion of Montreal, formerly of Cocagne, New Brunswick.12 Like most locally composed songs, the song’s melody is borrowed from a pre-existing air. Here, the air used as the melody is from the traditional French song Le départ du soldat: le glas, the title matching that in the Catalogue de la chanson folklorique française by Conrad Laforte.13

As to its form, the lament contains 12 heterometric quatrains. The first two lines of each are alexandrine while the last two are decasyllabic. The rhyme scheme is nonalternating, often with assonance of the“é” or “an” sounds.

The narrative element is very important in this song, although the author allows characters in the drama to speak on five occasions.. As is usual with laments, the first verse invites people to listen to the song. In the same verse, the victim is identified and his fate revealed. The body of the song is devoted to telling the story, which is reported in detail. The last verse serves as a warning. The author warns travellers not to stop at the same inn where McCarthy was assassinated, and especially not to reveal the contents of their purse in public, because that money, like their lives, might very well remain there.

According to Exelda Leblanc, granddaughter of the author of the lament, her grandfather had read the story of the McCarthy affair in the newspapers. That is quite plausible since most of the facts related in the song are consistent with Annie Parker’s statement at the preliminary inquiry of January 21, 1878, published in some detail a few days later in Le Moniteur Acadien.14 The only detail that does not appear in the reports on the inquiries and trials is found in the last line of the seventh verse, where the author says that McCarthy asked for a priest after drinking the poison. In all likelihood, the author made that up. As for why he would do that, could it be that he simply wanted to embellish, if not idealize, the victim’s image?

With his song, Honoré Leblanc acknowledges the truth of Annie Parker’s testimony and attributes responsibility for the murder to the Osbornes. It would be interesting to know whether the author composed the lament before the trial was over or after the accused had been released and the charges dropped. If it was not composed until after the trial, then it must be concluded that Honoré Leblanc was convinced the Osbornes were the actual murderers. Whatever the case, a century after the tragedy, the Osbornes are still held responsible, through the lament, for the death of Timothy McCarthy.

The comparative study of the 16 versions of this lament showed that it was fairly well conserved. Thirteen versions contain at least 7 of the 12 verses, and three of them contain all 12.

As with all songs handed down orally over the course of a century, numerous variations have arisen. For example, the names Weldon and Osborne are often distorted and sometimes interchanged. Also, a few lines are very unstable such that their meaning varies from one version to the next. Indeed, without the historical documents such as those published in Le Moniteur Acadien, it would probably have been difficult, if not impossible, to determine the original meaning. This considerable instability of certain lines is likely due to the weakness of the original text. Yet certain lines and details are surprisingly stable. For example, the date of the murder is October 12 in all of the versions.

At the beginning of my article, I said that the story of McCarthy’s murder has also been passed down through a legend. Since that is a topic I am unable to discuss in this article, I will merely say that several legendary tales relating to the murder have been collected recently in southeastern New Brunswick by Catherine Jolicoeur, who has been conducting intensive research into Acadian legends for some time now. By going through the legendary tales she has collected, I discovered that the lament had made it possible for this legend to be passed on and preserved.

In closing, I have to say that, in my opinion, the song Le meurtre de Timothy McCarthy is one of the most interesting Acadian laments of local composition. It could even be said that the story is just as captivating as many laments from the Middle Ages. For Acadian singers, it would be even more meaningful than the old French laments because it brings to mind a tragic event that is much closer to them in time and space.

1 Rev. ed., Philadelphia, American Folklore Society, 1964.
2 Larry Gorman: The Man Who Made the Songs (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1964); Lawence Doyle: The Farmer-Poet of Prince Edward Island: A Study in Local Songmaking (Orono: Univ. of Maine Press, 1971).
3 Marius Barbeau, Romancero du Canada (Montreal: Editions Beauchemin, 1937), p. 184.
4 Le Moniteur Acadien, December 13, 1877, p. 2.
5 Ibid., January 24, 1878, p. 1 [Translation].
6 Ibid., May 23, 1878, p. 2 [Translation].
7 lbid., August l, 1878, pp. 2 and 3 [Translation].
8 Ibid., August 15, 1878, p. 2 [Translation].
9 Ibid., December 19, 1878, p. 2.
10 The French translation of the announcement was published in Le Moniteur Acadien on August 21, 1889, p. 4.
11 Le Moniteur Acadien, October 14, 1890, p. 3 [Translation].
12 Centre d'études acadiennes, Père Anselme Chiasson collection, recording 1228. The musical transcription is by Charlotte Cormier, ethnomusicologist at the C.E.A.
13 Quebec City, Les Presses Universitaires Laval, 1958.
14 Le Moniteur Acadien, January 24, 1878, pp. 1 and 2. 

Georges Arsenault Fowke
c. 1977
© 1977, Canadian Journal of Traditional Music. All Rights Reserved.

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