Shortlisted, Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing
On a frigid February evening in 1805, Amos Babcock brutally murdered Mercy Hall. Believing that he was being instructed by God, Babcock stabbed and disembowelled his own sister, before dumping her lifeless body in a rural New Brunswick snowbank.
The Ballad of Jacob Peck is the tragic and fascinating story of how isolation, duplicity, and religious mania turned impoverished, hard-working people violent, leading to a murder and an execution. Babcock was hanged for the murder of his sister, but in her meticulously researched book, Debra Komar shows that itinerant preacher Jacob Peck should have swung right beside him. The mystery lies not in the whodunit, but rather in a lingering question: should Jacob Peck, whose incendiary sermons directly contributed to the killing, have been charged with the murder of Mercy Hall?
In this epic saga, media accounts of what happened in the aftermath of the murder have taken on a life all their own, one built of half-truths, conjecture, and narrative devices designed to titillate, if not inform. A forensic investigation of a crime from the Canadian frontier, the tale of Jacob Peck, Amos Babcock, and Mercy Hall remains as controversial and riveting today as it was more than two hundred years ago.
About the author
Debra Komar has worked as a forensic anthropologist in the US, UK, and Canada for over twenty years. She has investigated human-rights violations resulting in violent deaths for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights, testified as an expert witness in The Hague and across North America, and authored the authoritative Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice for Oxford University Press. The Lynching of Peter Wheeler is her second book on historic crimes. Her first, The Ballad of Jacob Peck, was published in 2013 and was met with considerable critical acclaim.
- Short-listed, Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing
"A genre-defying journey through two centuries, back to a time when law, religion, social order, and even murder were crude and brutish. Komar';s story is a remarkably detailed re-creation of a bloody crime, an execution, and the failure of a nascent judicial system."
"Komar is both a skilled researcher and writer transporting readers back to a sparsely populated Canadian frontier in a time when law and order was in short supply. A non-fiction thriller, it is a firestorm of a book that explains why religious mania drove a decent man to kill."
<i>Owen Sound Sun Times</i>
>"Impeccable research, a deft writing hand, and a comprehensive understanding of the legal and forensic worlds. A haunting and compelling archival journey."
"Constructing The Ballad of Jacob Peck as though she's a prosecutor — dividing chapters with terms such as Res Gestae, scienter, et cetera — Komar builds a case against Jacob Peck for his role in the murder to highlight how current law continues to struggle with prosecuting such accomplices. ... The Ballad of Jacob Peck branches out to not only document the murder, but contextualize the players and era, offering a history of early crime in New Brunswick, and legal proceedings and court in early Canada. ... Her due diligence also does what it can to shape the murdered Mercy Babcock, and other women of the time, into a person, not only providing a sense of justice, but also documenting their lives like no one cared to do at the time or really ever since. ... Komar's voice, skill and insight defibrillate regional history, providing a professional perspective to the underserved genre."
"Komar's prowess for investigation is well balanced with her ability to pen a page-turner ... Komar's respect for her readers' intelligence, combined with her compelling history lesson flavoured by the intrigue of murder, makes her work an engrossing read."
<i>Atlantic Books Today</i>
"Komar takes a no-nonsense approach to the retelling of this bit of Canadian history, differentiating between rumor and fact while keeping context in perspective. The sense of injustice here is palpable, as is the sorrow suffered by those taken in by Peck's deception."
"R;ich, feisty prose ... Komar has produced a grippingly good account of this notorious chapter in maritime history, one chockablock with intriguing side characters who — with names such as Dorcas Babcock, Hezekiah King and Mercy Hall — wouldn't be out of place in a Dickens novel (had he been around to write one). ... The compelling character portraits with which Komar fleshes out this gruesome central event build a vivid sense of the social and political realities of the day. ... Tempting as it is to view The Ballad of Jacob Peck as CSI for the archivist set, the questions it raises, and which Komar explores with such energy and aplomb, are ultimately philosophic and legal ones; ones necessarily resolved in a class or courtroom, not a laboratory."
"Komar's narrative is fast paced and grounded in extensive genealogical and historical research, giving it a surefootedness not always found in true crime writing. ... [T]he major thrust of her argument remains grounded and her imaginative recreation of events, which may make hide-bound historians wince, kept me turning the pages."
<i>Literary Review of Canada</i>
"The Ballad of Jacob Peck, by Debra Komar, is a nonfictional account of family, religion, murder, a charlatan, and early-nineteenth-century Canadian law that is as riveting as a good novel. . . . This book will appeal to a wide audience, including those with interests in true crime, history, law, and human behavior. ... By simultaneously corroborating and refuting old media accounts of the murder, Komar allows the reader to act as a juror, and provides all available information to decide the verdict."
<i>Journal of Anthropological Research</i>, vol. 69
"The result is a seamlessly written narrative that evokes life on the Canadian frontier. ... Komar draws on her legal experience as an expert witness in The Hague to build a compelling case for the prosecution against Jacob Peck. ... As terrorist actions carried out in the name of religion continue to make headlines, there is a timely and timeless message to this book: religion can be a powerful weapon in the hands of those who would pervert its message for their own purposes."
"[A] potent mix of history and true crime. ... a well-told tale that nicely evokes a time and place, its people, and past events."
<i>Quill & Quire</i>
"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."
<i>Maple Tree Literary Supplement</i>
"She plans to write a series of books on Canadian cold cases. If subsequent publications are as engaging as this one, she will soon have a devoted following and perhaps even a television series."
<i>Literary Review of Canada</i>
"The Ballad of Jacob Peck is wonderfully written with historically correct information. It is a very fascinating and informative read. Debra Komar did a wonderful job with this book. This is a must read and I highly recommend it."
"Komar's voice, skill and insight defibrillate regional history, providing a professional perspective to the underserved genre. Digging up the bones of history, Komar has no use for ghost stories and legend, and neither will you after The Ballad of Jacob Peck."