Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Compared with the British, who have a marionette-like regularity and dignity as they drill, and march, and mount guard, these American forces are farcical chawbacons. There has not been time to whip them into a smart army, and it seems unlikely that they would have submitted to such disci­pline. But they have a spirit of their own, which is more formidable than the British have yet discovered. These farmer boys are deadly shots, and they have a trick of rapid reloading that the British cannot equal. They have fought the Indians, and know methods of what would now be called guerilla fighting which dismay and annoy troops who fight by the book. In pitched battles, such as the defence of New York, the British know exactly what they are doing, and they win. But they are not prepared to deal with a mob who call themselves the Sons of Liberty, and succeed in burning down a large part of the city. In Boston they learn a bitter lesson against firing on mobs. In a melee where the insurgents are not in uniform, how is a British officer to know who is an experienced rabble-rouser and who may be merely an excited citizen, hysterical in the muddle like Crispus Attucks? Let honest folk stay out of mobs and they will come to no hurt.

The Americans too are furious. The sense of fair play that enrages the British against the American irregularity of battle enrages the Americans equally, because General Howe has brought in mercenary Hessian troops — thousands of Germans — to fight against them. When brother turns against brother, is it decent to bring in foreigners from outside the family? The grievance is compounded because these Hessians — not all were Hessians but all were from the Ger­man duchies — are splendid fighters, not so lethargic as the British, and their Jäger Corps is the best army in the field. Bringing in foreigners — it is not to be endured, and it adds bitterness to bitterness. It is easy to hate General Howe, who displays haughty British superiority, but he is not feared so much as is von Riedersel, a Brunswicker who is not ashamed to learn from the enemy and quickly trains his men in rapid fire. The Americans are waking up to the fact that this is a real war, and not just a family feud, and that dirty fighting is being met with fighting just as dirty. Both sides are learning that all war is dirty and that the noble deeds on the plains before Troy, about which so many of their officers are well informed, had no reality except in the imagination of Homer. As usual it is the common soldiers, who have never heard of Homer, who know the worst of it.

It is all a muddle, and the women, like Anna, cannot understand why the men have created such a muddle, and cannot find a way out of it. She knows only that there has been destruction in New York city, but that General Howe and his men have it firmly under their control, so far as a city may be controlled where there are so many people who fav­our the other side. There is trouble about food, but it is not serious for her, because she has money to buy whatever food there is. Claes van Someren is firm in his advice to be quiet, be confident and do nothing hastily, and Anna is careful of what she says, even to trusted Dutch friends, who are just as cau­tious with her. In time it will blow over.


It does not blow over. The colony of New York, as opposed to the city, has accepted the Declaration of Independence, and it is assumed that all the citizens of the city are waiting eagerly for the day when the British will have to give it up. Roger, who is big enough to do some scouting unnoticed, as boys tend to be, sees the gilded statue of George III in Bowling Green torn down and insulted, and his British heart turns in his breast. His father had heard “Yankee Doodle” sung in derision of the American troops, but Roger hears it everywhere turned into an Ameri­can patriotic song, with a variety of inflammatory words. Loyal British boys have words of their own, and Anna hears her son singing in the street —

Yankee Doodle came to town

A-riding on his pony;

He stuck a feather in his arse

And called it macaroni.

She beats Roger for singing a dirty song. Or rather, she orders James to beat Roger, and James, who is an old friend of Roger’s, conspires with him to accept a noisy but not a painful punishment. But it is undignified and Roger is resentful. His notion of loyal partisanship is already mas­culine, and he thinks women should keep out of men’s affairs. Elizabeth, who has been listening when she should have been at her embroidery, wants to know what maca­roni means.

“It means foolishly elegant, like Ensign Larkin,” says Anna. She is indignant when, a few weeks later, it is learned that Ensign Larkin has accepted big Yankee money to go over to the rebellious troops, to act as a drill-instructor. There are several such defections, for British pay is not generous.

All of this I see, with an eye cocked now and then at Battleship Potemkin, which hammers home the lesson that all rebellions are ill-shaped and bring heavy troubles on those who want no part of them, but cannot get away from them. When Cain is raised, Cain’s fury will strike blindly. Roger knows that Loyalist windows — so costly to re-glaze — have been broken in the night by gangs whose blackened faces make them unrecognizable. There is a terrible week when James, the porter and odd-job man, talks too loudly in the tavern about the iniquities of the Americans, who won’t fight fair; he does not see the three men in the corner, who lie in wait for him the next day, and lead the gang that tars and feathers him and rides him on a rail through streets where American sympathy is strong. When James manages to crawl home he is in a very bad way, and Anna and the two black women have to nurse him for a fortnight before he is able to take up his duties again.

Tarring and feathering lives now only as a form of jocose speech, but it was a dreadful and dangerous humilia­tion. If the hot tar were spread too widely over the victim’s body it might kill him, for his skin could not breathe. The feathers were a purely decorative indignity, but being ridden — half naked — on a rail might destroy a man’s privates for any future generative employment, because the rail was sharp, and those who carried it shook it to bounce the victim up and down. The tar could be removed with turpentine, but that could burn if it were too generously applied, so rubbing with vinegar was the usual treatment, slow and painful; too generous use of either removing agent left sores which were slow to heal, despite Anna’s generous use of porter as a balm. For the bruised testicles only compresses were of any use, and they were not of very much use. The mob who enjoyed the spectacle hooted and jeered, for what they saw was a scarecrow, a human chicken, a creature rejected by his peers, and thus a fine object for Cain’s mirth. But the wretch, when he escaped, would never be fully himself again. To be scalped by Indians was preferable, because the flesh from which the topknot had been cut would heal in time, and in a wig-wearing age it could be concealed. But the victim of tar and feathers might think himself lucky to escape with one eye, and a limp, and a broken spirit.

I was sickened by the scene of James’s humiliation, and tried to close my eyes to it, and found I could not. Whatever power was showing me this film was determined that I should see it all.

So much of it was strange in ways that had never entered my head. So many of these men and women of the eighteenth century were of low stature, almost to the point of dwarfishness; girls and boys not yet twenty might have no teeth at all, or mouths filled with rotten snags; among the ordinary folk tobacco-chewing was the common solace, and their spitting was indiscriminate and prodigious. Outside Trinity Church on a Sunday morning the pavement was filthy with quids the worshippers had spat out before going in to service. It was through this filth that many of the ladies trailed their long skirts.

I had seen films of the eighteenth century in my lifetime, and I now became conscious how much they depended on ingenious designers of costume; these people wore clothes that looked as if they had been made not by tailors but by upholsterers who had heard tell of the human figure but had never seen one; many of the poor wore outfits of extraordi­nary antiquity, for square-cut coats were not unknown, leather breeches were common, and even steeple-crown hats that spoke of a century earlier could be seen; as they were of beaver they were virtually indestructible; these heirlooms were far too good to throw away. The well-to-do were dressed expensively, but not elegantly, except for the officers, British and Hessian, whose uniforms were made abroad. Anna, who was a woman of means, had the best, but her gowns were so stiff they could have stood alone, and she never wore fewer than four petticoats, one of which was invariably of the densest flannel and flaming red. But she wore no drawers, in the manner of her time, and this was made plain in a scene which I would have preferred not to see.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson