Manitoba History: Make the Night Hideous: Death at a Manitoba Charivari, 1909
by Pauline Greenhill
Rural communities struggle with competing stereotypes; they’re either hotbeds of intrigue or idyllic Edens. The truth always lies somewhere between the two. But when jealousy and resentment combine with riotous celebration, too often trouble follows. On 9 November 1909, eight boys and men gathered outside the home of William McLaughlin Jr, just north of Brookdale, Manitoba, to charivari him and his new bride, the former Ethel Burkell. The two had eloped four days earlier. Though newspapers described McLaughlin as “a man of good character,” the 35-year-old had married the 19-year-old Burkell slightly less than eight months after the death of his first wife.  Burkell’s father did not approve. The situation clearly called for a charivari. 
It is not entirely surprising that these occasions for expressing interpersonal hostility through ritual sometimes turned violent.  In Canada, charivaris incorporated a crosscultural range of originally European practices, symbolic means, and purposes. At their most extreme, they approached riot status; when benign they were simply playful gatherings. They included noisemaking, house visiting—ideally unexpected and late at night—requests for money, and/or pranks and trickery. In the early twentieth century and earlier, they usually showed or stirred up disapproval of old/old, old/young, widow and/or widower, interracial, or interreligious marriages.  But charivaris were also used in this country to celebrate weddings  or to construct or express disapproval of community members’ sexual behaviour  or political actions.  Charivaris around weddings survived well into the twentieth century in rural areas across Canada, and still take place in a few locations.
Generally, charivaris were well documented in the historic record only when they went seriously wrong. In this case, two days after the event, 18 year old charivarier Harry Bosnell died of peritonitis resulting from a 22 calibre rifle bullet fired from the McLaughlin house which traveled through his stomach and liver. The Neepawa Methodist church register lists the cause of death as “gunshot wound,” and adds the remark “shot at a chirarivi.”  A couple of weeks later, McLaughlin was charged with manslaughter, but the Grand Jury at the Spring Assizes in Portage la Prairie in March, 1910 returned “no bill” so the case was dropped.  This charivari and its aftermath became not only a local scandal, but also the subject of province-wide and even national newspaper coverage as well as legal proceedings. Remarkably, the event is still recalled around Neepawa and Brookdale, and one descendant of a local resident took the story with him to Alberta.
The sources can differ on everything from the details of what actually took place to the spellings of the principals’ names. The legal depositions—recent memories of those who testified—give wonderful specifics, though they are by no means disinterested reports.  Then, as now, the newspaper accounts’ accuracy is limited, but the more local news coverage, particularly from the two papers in Neepawa, the nearest large town, can be presumed more generally reliable than the farther flung ones. Closer social and personal connections to the protagonists would encourage the Neepawa papers to check recollections, word of mouth, and gossip more carefully than would those in Carberry, Portage, Winnipeg, or Toronto. The oral tradition, though sometimes factually inexact, reflects greater truths about social relations and cultural interactions of the time, and of the present. All accounts illuminate ideas of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour in strongly gendered terms.
The Legal Record: Mrs. Wiggins’ Success vs. the Men’s Failures
According to the Neepawa Register, Thursday, 18 November 1909, a coroner’s jury found that:
Unfortunately, McLaughlin’s lawyer, referred to only as “Mr. Robertson,” could not be more precisely identified. However, some distinguished members of the Manitoba Bar and Judiciary were involved with the case. D. A. MacDonald, appointed to the Court of King’s Bench in 1906, who became Chief Justice in 1927, presided at the bail hearing. H. M. Howell, made Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal in 1906, heard the Grand Jury case at the Spring Assizes of the Central Judicial District in March 1910. F. G. Taylor, then Crown Attorney for the Central Judicial District, appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench in 1933, appeared for the Crown when the witnesses were questioned in Neepawa. 
The Grand Jury depositions were taken in the Police Court at Neepawa on 24 November from the two doctors who had performed the autopsy, as well as from Peter Griffith, Joseph Bosnell (brother of the victim), Robert Whelpton, Charles Bugg, Harold Burkell (brother of the bride), and William Ernest, six of the eight boys and men who had perpetrated the charivari.  They give remarkably detailed information. It was a dark night, with no snow on the ground. That visibility was extremely poor may in part explain the accident. At no time in these proceedings did anyone suggest the death was anything but unintentional; the charge of manslaughter indicates an inadvertent homicide.
Charles Bugg, aged 33,  claims he first heard about the charivari two days before the event, but “I could not say who organised the charivari party. Joseph Wiggins and several in Brookdale told me that there might be a charivari, but I paid no attention to it till Monday. On Monday I told … O’Hayes that I had heard they were going to have a charivari. I told the Bosnell boys the same.” James O’Hayes was stopping with Bugg, and the two met William Ernest on the road two miles from the McLaughlin place.
According to Joseph Bosnell, the brothers left home about 8 o’clock that evening.  They picked up Charlie Bugg and Jimmie O’Hayes and proceeded to the McLaughlin house. They also called for 14 year old Harold Burkell,  the bride’s younger brother, on the way, and he followed later on his own. They were the first to arrive, at about 10:30. Joe Bosnell had a cowbell; “the other boys had moleboards,  sleighbells, cowbells, and a shotgun in the hands of William Ernest.”
Labourer William Ernest had been threshing at a local farm, and went to the charivari from Brookdale. He set out with Joe Wiggins, aged 41,  who had apparently planned to charivari. They met up with Bugg, O’Hayes, and the Bosnell brothers. According to Ernest, “Mrs. Wiggins [Ophelia, his wife, aged 37]  told Joe Wiggins he wasn’t to go. I went home with him from Brookdale and when we got there I unhitched his horses and he went into the house. In my opinion Wiggins was intoxicated.” Ernest took a plough mould board, and O’Hayes brought a 12 gauge breach loader shotgun, but Ernest took it from him, and claimed that he picked the shot out of the shells.
Peter Griffith, aged 26,  had known McLaughlin “for three or four years but [was] not well acquainted with him.” He learned about the planned charivari from A. R. L. (Bob) Whelpton, aged 28,  who had also first heard of it from Joe Wiggins. Griffith and Whelpton had met on business that night, and they rode together to the McLaughlin place. It was apparently Griffith’s idea to attend the charivari, and he took with him a plough coulter  and a bolt with which to beat it. Whelpton brought a pair of bells. When they arrived at the McLaughlin gate, the Bosnell brothers, Billie Ernest, Charlie Bugg, and Jimmie O’Hayes were already there.
The rest stayed, as Griffith said, “waiting quiet” on the road, while O’Hayes and Ernest went up to the McLaughlin house. Ernest testified that they rapped at the door and got no answer. We spoke up and said “Mr. McLaughlin there is a bunch of boys there to charivari him.” We yelled out that if he would give us $10 we wouldn’t charivari him. Before we asked for the money we went around the north side of the house and shot a blank shell to waken him. 
The first shot from inside the house came shortly afterwards. Ernest fired a second time, and his shot was again answered from the house.
Ernest and O’Hayes went back down the road and after some discussion, the full company proceeded up from the gate, in Griffith’s words “to carry out the charivari intentions,” making noise with the instruments they had brought. Another shot came from the house.
Once again, O’Hayes and Ernest knocked and Griffith heard O’Hayes call “’Billie, we have come to charivari,’ but got no answer. They came back and we circled around to the west and north of the house, everybody making noise with what they had.” He claims “O’Hayes said ’We have come to charivari you,’ and asked for $5 or $10.” Burkell said, “They got no answer. They decided to start hammering the instruments they had. They started to make a noise.”
The two tried a third time, rapping and asking for $10; they stayed about five minutes at the door. Ernest said he heard another shot from the window, and he also shot again. Then Whelpton and Ernest both claimed they heard four shots from the window. Ernest testified, “When the first shot was fired I heard something strike the ground near me, and then I struck for the water closet. There were two more shots fired from the window before I got to the closet and when I got there I shot twice.” On the third shot from the house, Whelpton “saw [Harry] Bosnell coming toward [him] and he said ’Bob, I’m shot.’”
According to Griffith, two shots were fired from the house after Bosnell was hit. Ernest and Griffith put Harry Bosnell into Whelpton’s buggy and Griffith and Whelpton took him to Neepawa hospital. Apparently unconcerned, Joseph Bosnell went home to bed. The whole process probably took less than half an hour, if the first charivariers arrived at 10:30 as Joseph Bosnell reported, and the shooting took place around eleven o’clock, as the Neepawa Register reported. 
Local physician and coroner Israel McInnis testified, “At first condition did not seem serious. After a time, he vomited and from that time he became worse.” Harry Bosnell died less than two days later, 11 November 1909, around 4 p.m.  The cause of death was “peritonitis caused by a bullet.” This acutely painful condition results when the gastrointestinal tract is perforated, allowing the abdominal cavity to fill with gastric contents and bacteria from the digestive tract. If left untreated, the prognosis is extremely poor.
Three days after the death, Constable Charles Rooke went to McLaughlin’s house to interview him.
Two weeks after the event, following an information laid by Constable Rooke, signed by the Attorney General, on 22 November, Rooke arrested McLaughlin, and confiscated the rifle. On 25 November, charged that he “did unlawfully kill and slay one Harry Bosnell,” the accused had “nothing to say.” He was released on bail two days later.  At the Spring Assizes of the Court of King’s Bench on 16 March, the Grand Jury heard the manslaughter evidence against McLaughlin. The following day, it returned with a “no bill” decision: no trial but also no acquittal.
Why wasn’t McLaughlin tried for manslaughter? First, the evidence gathered against him by Constable Rooke would not be admissible because he had not cautioned the witness before questioning him. Under the circumstances, Rooke’s failure looked like incompetence, or a reluctance to make McLaughlin legally responsible, or both. Second, McLaughlin’s counsel properly advised him not to testify, and legal practice could not require self-incrimination. Third, since they were alone in the house, Ethel McLaughlin was the only other witness, and a wife could not be forced to testify against her husband. The case would have been a difficult one to develop.
But there may also have been more personal feelings among the Grand Jury members that influenced the outcome.  For example, the Grand Jury record shows the foreman as “Ramey,” and the only male adult Manitoban by that name in the 1906 Census  was then 36 year old James Ramey of Portage la Prairie district. His 23 year old wife Mary had given birth to their daughter Florence on 23 April that year. If this is the same individual, given the similarity in their circumstances—an older husband, a younger wife, and a very young daughter—Ramey particularly must have had considerable sympathy with McLaughlin’s situation.
That McLaughlin was the only one of the couple mentioned by witnesses seemed particularly remarkable given that one of the charivariers was Ethel’s brother.  For charivaris, the wife’s identity would be crucial when marked by age, race/ethnicity, or marital status as in some way anomalous, yet the practice was directed not at her but at her husband. All the legal records made McLaughlin the subject of the charivari. Testimony about the plans spoke in general terms: “there might be a charivari,” “there was going to be a charivari,” “the charivari party.” But at the actual event, all witnesses say that McLaughlin alone was directly addressed, “’Mr. McLaughlin there is a bunch of boys there to charivari him’ … if he would give us $10 we wouldn’t charivari him” and “Billie, we have come to charivari.” Though the wedding occasioned the charivari, the bride herself does not appear; she’s apparently not germane to the event.
Given that the legal record and sequence of events made the most pivotal woman absent and silent, the only woman mentioned was singular. “Mrs. Wiggins told Joe Wiggins he wasn’t to go.” The men in the testimony were remarkably ineffectual. All their actions were incomplete, thwarted, or futile. Willett D. Burkell could not stop his daughter marrying William McLaughlin; William McLaughlin could not make the charivariers go away by ignoring them; the charivariers could not get McLaughlin to pay $10; McLaughlin did not intend to kill anyone; the doctors could not save Harry Bosnell; initially the post mortem examiners could not even find the bullet. Perhaps there was a success in Constable Rooke’s getting the story from McLaughlin, but the Crown could not use the information, and the Grand Jury’s decision was neither a vindication nor an indictment. Remarkably, Ophelia Wiggins was the one individual in the entire testimony who did not seem to be a mere victim of circumstance, unable to assert her will over others, change the course of events, or have any effect on the outcome. Apparently by mere words, she prevented her husband attending the charivari he had helped organise, perhaps thus saving his life. But we hear no more from her.
The Press: Innocent Young Victim vs. Man Defending His Home
Perhaps the true beginning of the sequence of events leading to the charivari was the end of McLaughlin’s first marriage. The Brookdale column of the Neepawa Register of 18 March 1909 reported:
This notice was sandwiched between the usual community column notes: an announcement for a “big national concert on Wednesday;” a note that “a goodly number of people from here went to Brandon to take in the winter fair;” the news that an Oddfellows lodge would be organised; a description of a couple’s return from their honeymoon and a reception for them at the groom’s parents’ house; word of the local physician’s son’s successful appendicitis operation in the Brandon hospital; and a report about a wedding at the local Methodist church. Local newspapers’ community columns generally announce various kinds of visitations beyond the bounds of the community, as well those by outsiders who travel to it. The late Mrs. McLaughlin’s return to Ontario could be so understood. Indeed, charivaris themselves constituted particular kinds of visits that addressed links between individuals, and between them and their communities. 
If the notice of Ella McLaughlin’s death was terse, the accounts of its aftermath in the charivari were correspondingly ample. Dated Neepawa, 10 November, a “special despatch to the [Toronto] Globe” headlined “Charivari Near Neepawa, Man., Has Serious Ending: The Usual Case of Crowd of Boys and Young Men Annoying Couple Until Man Fires Rifle Among Them—Harry Bosnell Badly Wounded,” reported:
The Carberry News reported “Victim of Charivari Tragedy at Neepawa is in very Serious Condition,” and that “A gay charivari almost ended in tragedy last night.” Referring to the charivari as a “party,” the article comments that “their fun was cut short by the untoward accident.”  The Neepawa Register of 11 November 1909, under the headline “A Serious Shooting Affair,” reported that
Also on 11 November, the Carberry Express, in “Boy Shot at Charivari” reported in an account riddled with factual errors that it received word
The papers from Winnipeg seem to have noted the most personal information about those involved (as well as getting some facts wrong). The Manitoba Free Press commented:
but the following week, under “Corrects a Rumor,” announced:
The Neepawa Press on 12 November, under “Charivari Tragedy,” judged that: “Nonsense has ended in another tragedy and there is death and grief in South Glendale instead of the joy and felicitations that ordinarily follow a wedding.” They describe the wedding as “a quiet affair, and when it became generally known in the neighbourhood a charivari was organized.” But the “fun” of “a crowd of men and boys … was of short duration,” quickly replaced with “tragedy,” “death and grief.” 
The most detailed report of the coroner’s jury was in “An Open Verdict,” in the Neepawa Press of 16 November. It described the charivariers as “marauders.” The article stated that McLaughlin and his wife “were called but on the advice of counsel refused to answer any questions.”
After the coroner’s inquest, the Portage la Prairie Manitoba Liberal noted that the:
The Neepawa Register of 18 November reported “Death of Harry Bosnell.” They noted:
The 18 November Carberry Express account of the coroner’s inquest reported Bill Ernest as saying “he did not know” who went to the door with him, “but thought it was either a Scotsman or an Irishman.” Also, “on being asked who lived in the house, he said Hume used to, but he understood McLaughlin had gone to live there after getting married.” 
The Carberry News of 19 November, in reporting on the coroner’s inquest, called the charivariers “young fellows” (though at least half their number were 26 or older; only teenagers Harold Burkell and Harry Bosnell would be considered young at the time)  and editorialised: “The whole affair is distressingly sad, all the parties connected with it are highly respectable people, the verdict does not implicate any one, but it is not probable that the matter will be allowed to remain a mystery.” 
Winnipeg’s Weekly Free Press and Prairie Farmer, in a report dated 25 November but published 1 December 1909, noted that “The charivari fatality has resulted in information being laid against Wm. McLaughlin, Jr, around whose home the affair was held.”  The Neepawa Press of 26 November reported McLaughlin’s arrest at his home by Charles Rooke of the Provincial police force “without any fuss or parleying. The prisoner talked frankly to the detective telling all the circumstances of the tragedy … Inspection of the windows showed that the north one could be raised only about six inches so that there would be liability of firing too low, though the effort had been to shoot high enough to avoid doing harm.” The paper also reported that Rooke took McLaughlin to the Portage la Prairie jail. 
Reporting the arrest, the Carberry News of 2 December again misrepresented the facts, stating that McLaughlin had been “very frank in his statement before the magistrate,” though McLaughlin never testified—perhaps signalling support for his behaviour in trying to suppress the charivari. Indeed, the article went on to editorialise critically against the practice:
No further press coverage relating to the incident appeared until mid-March of the following year. Portage’s Weekly Manitoba Liberal reported “No Bill in the Charivari Case,” on 17 March 1910:
The summary of the case on this and the preceding page wrongly reported that “This case came out of a quarrel at a charivari party.” 
On the next day, the Neepawa Press reported:
The Neepawa Register also editorised:
The Carberry News directly echoed the first sentence from the Neepawa Press of 18 March, but added their own commentary. “This exonerates Mr. McLaughlin, but it remains an unfortunate incident in his life that will not soon be forgotten.” 
The newspaper rhetoric around the McLaughlin charivari showed some ambivalence. Descriptions like “party,” “fun,” “gay,” “celebration,” and even “escapade” suggested harmlessness, whereas “affair,” “ridiculous demonstration,” “custom out of step with modern civilization,” and “make the night hideous” were more negative. Yet even the latter looked relatively mild in contrast to the grandiloquence which flourished when William Wallace of Purves, Manitoba shot and wounded charivariers near Snowflake a mere three years earlier, on 8 September 1906.
Wallace, a 42 year old widower, married Janet Clarke, a 44 year old widow, instantiating two charivari-worthy characteristics: previous marriage(s), and marriage involving older people. The wounded charivariers didn’t press charges. Yet the case was also widely reported. Page one news of the Toronto Star, 12 September 1906, under the headline: “Three Men Wounded at a Charivari: Noisy Young Fellows Fired Upon by Bridegroom—Thirty Grains in One Body” described:
Apparently the term charivari wasn’t sufficiently familiar to their readers, so the following day the Star reported: “A Manitoba bridegroom shot three young men who took part in a charivari, although the charivari is in the nature of a compliment, being the marriage ode of the ancients plus the noise and minus the words.” 
Local coverage well reflected the evaluation that community members were “indignant.” For example:
Apparently the incident remained newsworthy three weeks later, in “The Charivari: A Relic of Barbarism:”
Given the relatively benign outcome for the Wallace charivari, the papers showed less restraint in characterising their disapproval of the custom than in the McLaughlin case. The death of a young community member who had participated in the charivari must have caused them to limit their rhetoric rather than by implication accusing Harry Bosnell of being the author of his own demise. Yet in both cases, the news is about the male participants.
While the significant women weren’t entirely absent from the newspaper reports, their identities were invariably given in terms of their relationships to men. A 1909 reader might not have been bothered by the absence in her community column death notice of the first Mrs. McLaughlin’s given name, birth name, age, the place in Ontario where she would be buried, or indeed the child’s name, its sex, and many other details. But there was other information to be found about Ella Ennis McLaughlin’s life and death. One death registration made by William McLaughlin gives her age as 39 years, seven months, notes her birthplace as Cranbrook, Ontario, and gives the cause of death as “childbirth.”  Another registration by Frank Ennis of Eden—a brother? father? uncle?—gives her age as 36 years, 11 months and 15 days and gives the cause of death as peritonitis.  This variance of ages is compounded in the 1906 census, which notes Ella as 27 and William as 28; their marriage registration from 16 October 1901 makes Ella 25 and William 27. As already suggested, William McLaughlin would have wanted to minimise the age difference between himself and his second wife—his stated age upon his second marriage, just over eight years later, was also 27. 
Ella Ennis McLaughlin was a similarly unnamed and shadowy figure in some newspaper charivari accounts. Any that mentioned the bride also noted her predecessor. For example, “young men decided to ’charivari’ Mr. Wm. McLaughlin … who was married to Miss Ethel Burkell … McLaughlin’s first wife died last April”  and “William McLaughlin, whose first died last winter, took unto himself a second one last week, the bride being Ethel Burkell, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Willett Burkell.”  Sometimes the mention was extremely oblique: “McLaughlin, a widower, was married to a daughter of Willett Burkell.”  The former Ethel Burkell was rarely named in the newspaper accounts; most often she was referred to either in terms of her relationship to McLaughlin or in terms of her relationship to her father or both, e.g., “W. D. Burkell, father of Mrs. McLaughlin.”
Ethel McLaughlin’s unnamed presence was noted at the inquest: “William McLaughlin and his wife were called but … refused to answer any questions”  “Mr McLaughlin and his young wife were present, but on advice of counsel, did not give evidence.”  At the inquest, however, Ethel McLaughlin’s predecessor was rhetorically absent. Yet it was as if the women dropped off the face of the earth once the coroner’s inquest was complete; they were apparently insignificant to any discussion. Two principal characters remained—Harry Bosnell, the shooting victim, and William McLaughlin, clearly understood to have fired the shot.
Between the two there was something of a discursive struggle; reporters and commentators were unwilling to completely exonerate anyone. With respect to murder, historian Angus McLaren asked “just how far legitimate force could be pushed,”  linking the question to ideas about masculinity. This manslaughter case—as well as other contemporary discussion of charivari—offered some useful insights on the question. Masculine obligation included the defence of one’s own property, and while contemporary discourse might not consider wives literally part of a man’s chattels, their legal and personal identities were still almost entirely subsumed under their husbands’ (or, if they were unmarried, their fathers’). Perhaps because the result was a death, only the Neepawa Register says in condemnation of the McLaughlin charivari, quite mildly for the time, that “in this country a man’s home is in a sense his castle and that citizens take long chances in the attempt to carry out a charivari program.” McLaughlin’s actions were understood in terms of his need to defend his home; Harry Bosnell was excused as being young and it was presumed (perhaps wrongly) that he was not one of the perpetrators of the charivari, but simply went along.
The Oral Tradition: McLaughlin’s Best Friend vs. Rivals for Ethel’s Affections?
In contrast to the legal testimony and newspaper accounts, the women clearly figure in most local recollection. For example, I learned from McLaughlin relatives in Neepawa that the “infant” survived, and that her name was Gladys. She was listed in McLaughlin’s obituary as “Mrs. Stan (Gladys) Foulton of Flin Flon.”  No children were recorded. One of her Neepawa cousins recalled Gladys moving out of the province some time in the 1960s, to British Columbia. She lost contact with her during the 1980s. William and Ethel McLaughlin had no other children. It was not at all unusual for families at the time in the area to have half a dozen offspring or more, yet Ella’s pregnancy came very late (after eight years of marriage) and Ethel never gave birth. Neither Ethel nor William came from a small family. At the 1906 census, the Burkell family had eight children: Ethel, 16, John, 15, Harold, 11, Frank, 10, George, 8, Ellen, 6, William, 3, and Robert, 2. William McLaughlin Sr’s wife died in 1880 giving birth to daughter Margaret,  but William Jr had four brothers and one other sister.
The oral tradition speaks extensively to community dealings, the links between charivariers and charivaried, and the devastating effects of the tragedy. It weaves a complex story about gender relations rather than addressing the local morality and justice that are the journalistic and legal discourse’s subject. Indeed, it is not entirely clear that the stories (other than that of an eyewitness) recognise this charivari as a mark of community censure. Oral history may presume that the McLaughlin charivari instead took the custom’s more recent form—that of a celebration of an appropriate marriage, not condemnation of a problematic one.
My first indication of an oral tradition concerning this event came during an interview in 2004 on charivari traditions in Brookdale. The discussion turned to “stories about shootings” related to charivaris.  Indeed, the tradition is quite extensive. In early summer 2005, I began cold calling McLaughlins in Neepawa, hoping I could locate some relatives. As I was describing to one elderly woman my interest in locating kin of Ethel and William McLaughlin because I was studying charivaris, she said “Wasn’t there a shooting?” She didn’t know a lot more, only that there had been a charivari, a shooting, and a man killed. Her late husband was a McLaughlin and she thought that William was his uncle.
But before I had time to follow up on this lead, I received an email communication in response to a general query about charivaris sent to newspapers across Canada, from Bill Dunn, now living on “Mosquito Creek Ranch in the foothills of southern Alberta:”
It’s not surprising that some of the details don’t fully match. Only Ethel McLaughlin was young; not all those attending were the groom’s friends; McLaughlin was charged; Bosnell was not killed immediately. Yet a great deal of the information fits: the noise “beating on tin,” the charivariers circling the house, the bullet striking the victim, the timing, the very dark night, the accidental nature of the killing, its effect on the community. Considering that one contemporary newspaper got the number of victims and even the type of weapon wrong, this account is remarkably accurate.
Bill Dunn’s father, Perry Powell Dunn, would have been nearly nine years old when the charivari happened, and its impression is clear from his story. Charivariers and charivaried are near associates in communities where the tradition is practiced.  Particularly in its more current forms, today’s charivarier is tomorrow’s charivaried, and vice versa. Participants tend to be of the same age group and are usually those who socialise together. Even at approval charivaris, accidents can sunder relationships between close friends, sometimes permanently. And sometimes what is later described as accidental may in fact have been a deliberate attempt at revenge, or at least at levelling the charivari score. Sometimes the repercussions address grievances between individuals, but very often they are specifically against actions at a previous charivari.  Extreme trickery, like removing the mattress from the bed and leaving it out in the rain all night, or letting livestock run through the house, creating disgusting messes and lasting damage to household goods, would be revenged if the perpetrator’s identity became known.
Bill Dunn commented that his father “seemed to feel strongly that the one shot and killed was the shooter’s best friend.”  It’s relatively unlikely, however, that 18 year old Harry Bosnell, who arrived in the area with his family from England in 1903, would have been the best friend of a man twice his age whose family had been homesteading in the area since 1879.
But other stories about the charivari suggest alternatives for the best friend’s identity. Local archivist and historian Don Murray told me that his uncle had heard about the charivari from Bob Whelpton, who had also shown his nephew a hole in his coat where a bullet from McLaughlin’s rifle had passed through. (An undated note I received from him when I visited 7 September 2005 says “Bob Whelpton had a bullet go in the cuff of his coat and out at the elbow.”) Eleanor Swanson also heard from “somebody from Brookdale”  that a Whelpton had been shot. If Bob Whelpton were a close friend of McLaughlin’s, he might not have volunteered the information that he, too, had been shot during the charivari, since it might make the shooting of Harry Bosnell appear less inadvertent.
But there was another excellent candidate for McLaughlin’s best friend—or, perhaps, his former best friend—among the charivariers. One person thought that McLaughlin had been shooting at, and had injured, Charles Bugg. Bugg and McLaughlin could have been close. They were nearly the same age, and Bugg was an in-law to McLaughlin; in 1900, Charles’ younger sister Sarah married William’s older brother George.  In 1901 at census time, 25 year old Charles Bugg was still living with his parents, as was William McLaughlin.
What the “best friend” story about the McLaughlin charivari tells us is not only the social proximity of McLaughlin to his tormenters, the extreme emotions involved, but also the profound sense of regret. What it does not do, that the women’s stories about the event do, is make the women involved part of the motivation. The involvement of Charles Bugg not only offers a personal motivation for the charivari, consistent in spirit with Bill Dunn’s account, but also makes Ethel McLaughlin central to the event. Elizabeth (Chisholm) Ames, who lived across the road from the McLaughlins and was ten at the time of the charivari, explained that Bugg had been courting Ethel Burkell before William McLaughlin married her: “He was going with Mrs. McLaughlin before she was married to him. So he was angry, you see.”  As local Brookdale historian Eleanor Swanson, who had the story from her late husband who was eight at the time, put it, “it was a grudge match. He knew there’d be a shivaree, so he was ready for them, he had the shotgun upstairs. And the fellow that got shot got hung up on the fence getting away … That man was married the second time.” 
Charles Bugg also figures in a story told to Cecil Pittman from around Brookdale: that Bugg himself did the shooting, although William McLaughlin was charged.  Again, there may be symbolic if not literal truth in this account. If Charles Bugg organised the charivari, he was ultimately responsible for what happened.
Elizabeth Ames’ daughter Donna Walker reported her 106 year old mother’s accounts of the charivari for me, originally at the request of Don Murray:
A later communication from Liz Ames via Donna Walker added the detail that “She remembers a Burkell coming to their place at supper time and inviting the boys, but a friend that lived with them telling the boys to stay away from there as he felt there might be trouble, and so no-one went.”  Later, Donna Walker identified the friend as Jim Litt.
Liz Ames had an astonishing and accurate recall even of details concerning the event. She was correct, for example, about the then staggering amount of money paid by William McLaughlin Sr for his son’s bail, and recalled Samuel Holmes, who put up the other half of the bail money, as a Neepawa resident. The charivari must have been the subject of a great deal of talk among children, as Perry Powell Dunn’s and Liz Ames’ accounts indicate. The discussions would have been memorable in part because they would have been somewhat illicit. As Donna Walker said, children at the time would not have been told very much about such events by their parents. Eleanor Swanson commented: “It was kind of hushed up, and at that time we kids didn’t ask very many questions. We were told to mind, not to bother (laughs).”  Liz Ames knew, however, that William McLaughlin had been married twice and that his “first wife died when [their] first child [was] born.” 
These women’s accounts make the two McLaughlin wives, Ella Ennis and Ethel Burkell, pivotal to the event. In considering Burkell, particularly, these stories and recollections lead to questions as to why she married William McLaughlin. Evidently, she was attracted to older men. Indeed, it’s likely that given the difference in their ages, there would have been a charivari if she’d married Charles Bugg. What was her motivation for marrying a much older man, especially one with a young child? I thought perhaps she had been taking care of the infant Gladys, and was courted in that context by McLaughlin. Clearly, Ethel and Gladys were close in later life. Community memory does not suggest the same was true for William and Ethel. Liz Ames remembers the infant Gladys being sent to McLaughlin relatives in Riding Mountain to be cared for after her mother’s death, returning only just before the wedding: “She was adopted, just looked after for a while, and then he just got her back when this all happened. She was looked after by a relative up at Riding Mountain.” 
Perhaps having caring responsibilities for only one child was something of a respite for Ethel Burkell. As the eldest daughter of the household, she would be expected to help her mother tend for her siblings. At the time of her marriage, three of the remaining six would have been pre-teens: George, 11, Ellen, 9, and William, 6 (Robert died on 15 September 1907, aged 3). And it is possible that between 1906 (census) and 1909 (Ethel’s marriage) her mother could have had more children. 
Even with three different discourses, some questions evidently remain. Those who have studied English, French, and Canadian history may be astonished to learn, as I was in 1987 in Ontario, that charivari survived the 19th century, let alone the 20th. What purposes could it have served for its participants? Why would a wedding be the community’s business? The practice clearly speaks to extensive scrutiny and judgement with respect to community members’ lives in socially close if geographically far flung communities like those around rural Manitoba at the turn of the 20th century and later.
Marriage, as Cecilia Danysk argued, was fundamental to the economic and social base of early twentieth century Manitoba communities—the family farm—and had sweeping cultural implications. “The economic contribution of a family was proportionally much greater than their mere numbers, since the costs of their labour and provisions were hidden in their production. Politically and socially, individual farm ownership meant conservative values, while the predominance of families ensured the entrenchment of institutions and fostered social stability.” The proportion of men to women was skewed; women were in a minority, and thus there was no social stigma on bachelorhood.  Men felt that they had a right to ask for money from someone who married beyond the community’s conventional ideas. And indeed, it was not only young rowdies who took license to charivari, but men as old as 41 year old Joe Wiggins and 33 year old Charles Bugg. Anyone following current politics might do well to compare the current controversies over same sex marriage; exactly who someone chooses to marry is by no means beyond public scrutiny, even today.
Some might suggest that the payment in cases like McLaughlin’s would be in recompense for his taking a young woman out of the system of exchange involving young men. Women were a scarce commodity. Taking a second wife, especially so soon after the death of his first, showed insufficient attention to the concerns and needs of others. But that doesn’t explain the Snowflake/Purves charivari, involving a widow and widower. I remain convinced that the “problem” in charivaris is not about the individual identities of the participants, but about the fertility issues that might be raised by particular matches. Marriage, in small communities, is supposed to ensure their continuation, the passing of land from fathers to sons. Marriages of older individuals are both less likely to be fertile, and more likely to raise concerns about inheritance (especially when bride, groom, or both bring children from a previous marriage into the relationship). Even the current charivari could be argued as an encouragement to fertility; some folks in Ontario told me that a couple could be charivaried any number of times until their first child was manifestly on the way.
In this world, then, McLaughlin could be charivaried not only for taking a young woman out of the pool of eligibles, but also because their fertility would be in question given McLaughlin’s previous marriage, and because further offspring, if they arrived, could cause succession problems. The reason charivari died out first in more heavily settled areas has less to do with the ostensible reason usually given—that the noise and drunkenness disturbed the public peace (though indeed, several ordinances were passed in towns and cities explicitly outlawing the practice)—than it did with the lower level of scrutiny on community continuation through individual and family fertility. Larger communities became less closely-knit, the ties between all individual members would attenuate, with less responsibility placed on any particular group of individuals to maintain the status quo. Charivari survives in rural areas in large part because it not only addresses community notions of appropriate behaviour (unquestioning hospitality, willingness to deal with the unexpected with aplomb, being a good sport, and taking a joke) but because it addresses very real needs. By its “welcome”—the term participants used most to describe the charivari’s purpose—it reminds young marrieds that their responsibility is to stay on the farm, continue to do the work their foremothers and forefathers did, and keep the community going. It confirms their community membership, and the responsibilities that go along with it. 
A final mystery, though, is the survival of the tradition of charivari in the Brookdale area in the face of such a tragedy. Surely, one would think, as the newspapers suggested, the death of a community member might end the practice. And yet charivaris continued there, at least to the early 1970s, though its form and intention altered considerably (as it has done across most of English Canada) from a statement of disapproval to one of commendation. The main point of the charivari became to party with the newlyweds, rather than to extract money from them, as well as to play tricks on them. But crucially, as Kathleen Swanson said, “I think it was a mark of affection in some ways, because you didn’t do it to people you were uneasy with … and whose reactions you couldn’t predict fairly well. I think that’s also the reason why there was never any real damage beyond labels off the cans and that sort of thing.” As Charlie Simpson explained, “We had to go back and work together, maybe the next day.” 
The McLaughlin charivari, and its aftermath, show that traditions are remarkably resilient. Yet traditions also change; it’s more valuable in contemporary rural Canada to mark marriages—at least heterosexual ones—than to convey disapproval of specific matches. The tradition itself has a new purpose—to mark the recipients’ change in personal status upon marriage—yet it resists social change on a larger scale—leaving the farm or leading a lifestyle the community does not support. While very few Manitobans currently practice charivari, strong memories remain of events in which neighbours, friends, and families “made the night hideous.”
I conducted this research thanks to a SSHRCC Standard Research Grant 2004-2007, “Charivari and the Sexual Regulation of Women in Formal and Folk Law.” I gratefully acknowledge research assistance from Leah Allen, Alex Pustogorodsky, and Lisa Vivian. Archive and museum staff at the Beautiful Plains Museum in Neepawa, the Brandon University Archives, the Carberry Plains Archives, the Manitoba Archives, and the United Church Archives were most helpful, including Diane Haglund, Don McGillivray, Tom Mitchell, Don Murray, Penny Shaw, and Tannis Young. I also thank the two anonymous reviewers for Manitoba History, whose suggestions pushed my analysis farther, and Angela Armstrong, whose reading brought useful insights. Individuals who shared their knowledge of the event and/or of charivaris in general were Elizabeth Ames, Bill Dunn, Don Murray, Cecil Pittman, Charlie Simpson, Eleanor Swanson, Kathleen Swanson, and Donna Walker. I can’t express the depth of my gratitude to them.
1. Their marriage registration (wrongly) lists McLaughlin’s age as 27, with at least one other error, giving Ethel’s father’s name as William (should be Willett). McLaughlin was born on 25 May 1874 and Burkell on 7 May 1890. Birth dates, where not otherwise attributed, are from the 1901 Census. At the time, then 26 year old McLaughlin was still unmarried and living with his father and three younger siblings. The senior McLaughlin was a widower whose wife had died in childbirth some twenty years earlier (Irene [McLaughlin] Martin, “William McLaughlin Family,” in Heritage: A History of the Town of Neepawa and District as Told and Recorded by its People eds. Louise Rey and Myrtle McKenzie, pp. 634-635. [Neepawa: History Book Committee at Neepawa, 1983]; Jennie [McLaughlin] Watson, “Wm. McLaughlin,” in First Century of Langford, 1891-1991 pp. 421-423. [Neepawa: Langford Centennial Historical Committee, 1990]). Marriage registrations also indicate that William McLaughlin (Jr) married Ella Ennis in Neepawa on 16 October 1901.
3. David Del Mar Peterson’s Beaten Down: A History of Interpersonal Violence in the West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002 shows some circumstances that could lead to altercations, with concerns around race, gender, and ethnicity behind many of the situations he explores. In the McLaughlin case, however, social similarity rather than social difference provided the impetus for conflict.
4. Natalie Zemon Davis, “Charivari, Honor, and Community in Seventeenth-Century Lyon and Geneva,” in Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance ed. John J. MacAloon Philadelphia: ISHI, 1984; Russell P. Dobash and R. Emerson Dobash, “Community Response to Violence Against Wives: Charivari, Abstract Justice and Patriarchy,” Social Problems 28 (1981): 563-581; Jacques Le Goff and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds., Le Charivari. Paris: Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1981; Henri Rey-Flaud, Le Charivari: les rituels fondamentaux de la sexualité. Paris: Payot, 1985; E. P. Thompson, Customs In Common. New York: The New Press, 1993.
5. Pauline Greenhill, “Welcome and Unwelcome Visitors: Shivarees and the Political Economy of Rural-Urban Interactions in Southern Ontario,” Journal of Ritual Studies 3 (1989): 45-67; Monica Morrison, “Wedding Night Pranks in Western New Brunswick,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 38 (1974): 285-297.
7. Allan Greer, “From Folklore to Revolution: Charivaris and the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837,” Social History 15 (1990): 25-43, Bryan Palmer, “Discordant Music: Charivaris and Whitecapping in Nineteenth-Century North America,” Labour/le travailleur 3 (1978): 5-62.
8. Held at the United Church Archives, housed at the University of Winnipeg.
9. “No Bill” means that after the evidence was presented by the Crown, the Grand Jury did not indict McLaughlin. Manitoba had Grand Juries until 1923. Historian of law Alvin Esau said: “We abolished Grand Juries here because they were viewed as a waste of time given that for most serious cases, the accused was entitled to a preliminary hearing before a provincial court judge whose job was precisely to determine if there was sufficient evidence for an indictment” (personal communication, 27 September 2004).
10. Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987; Joan Sangster, “’Pardon Tales’ from Magistrate’s Court: Women, Crime and Court in Peterborough County, 1920-50,” Canadian Historical Review 72 #2 1993:161-197.
12. Further information about these individuals can be found in J. M. Bumsted, Dictionary of Manitoba Biography. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999; Dale Gibson and Lee Gibson, Substantial Justice: Law and Lawyers in Manitoba 1670-1970. Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1972; Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba. Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Co., 1925.
13. Noted in the Criminal Register for Portage (GR 7188), the Portage case file (M1348) was transferred to Winnipeg (Criminal Register GR 3636) where it currently can be found (M1476) in the Manitoba Archives. I have been unable to learn why no deposition was taken from James O’Hayes, called O’Hara, farmer from Langford, in the Neepawa Press, the seventh charivarier.
23. Money gathered by charivariers would be used to buy alcohol to lubricate male sociability, as described for a later time in British Columbia by Robert A. Campbell, Sit Down and Drink Your Beer: Regulating Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
27. 3 December 1909, p. 2. The records suggest that his bail, given on 27 November 27, was $4000. However, the Manitoba Free Press (which was not notable for its accurate accounts of the event) reported McLaughlin’s bail at $8000 and notes that “McLaughlin has given security for $4,000 his father for $2,000, and a friend named Hamilton, of Neepawa, the remaining $2,000. McLaughlin returned to Neepawa [from Portage la Prairie, where he was held] last evening.” The legal record indicates that the other bail guarantor was Samuel Holmes.
28. I’m grateful to Brandon University Archivist Tom Mitchell for pressing me to go further in examining this verdict.
29. As transcribed on http://automatedgenealogy.com/index.html (to November 2005).
32. For further details on this argument see Greenhill, “Welcome and Unwelcome Visitors.” In True Poetry: Traditional and Popular Verse in Ontario (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989), I discuss other forms of community-building visits.
36. Ibid., p. 1. “Make the night hideous” is a journalistic convention for referring to charivari, used for example in the Globe (2 May 1877, p. 2) and Toronto Star (5 January 1899, p. 1). Errors in this short account include: McLaughlin was not married on the Tuesday, but several days earlier; not one random shot was fired, but several into the air; the shot was not at close range but from an upstairs window; the bullet did not come out the back but lodged in the body; bullets were shot from a rifle not from a shotgun; no one but Bosnell was injured.
37. 12 November 1909, p. 1. The first Mrs. McLaughlin died in March, not February, and the second was 19, not 18, at the time of her marriage. The Weekly Free Press and Prairie Farmer reported the identical information on 17 November 1909, p. 5.
42. Ibid., p. 4. From Willett D. Burkell’s letter, we know that the McLaughlin house was within shouting distance of his, which suggests that McLaughlin relocated perhaps in part to ensure that his wife had family support nearby. Family recollection and the legal record indicate that McLaughlin moved to the house shortly before his marriage. Liz (Chisholm) Ames, who was ten at the time, and lived across the road from the charivari location, mentioned that the Burkells were neighbours of her family.
43. Angus McLaren’s “Males, Migrants, and Murder in British Columbia,” in On the Case: Explorations in Social History ed. Franca Iacovetta and Wendy Mitchinson, p. 174 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), suggested that youth could be attributed on a class basis, with a twenty year old working class male considered a man and his middle class counterpart a youth. This result seems unlikely in the less socially differentiated rural culture of Manitoba, and it is highly improbable that men well into their twenties and thirties would be considered youth in any case.
51. Manslaughter, unintentional killing, is of course a crime. Justifiable homicide would not be a possible verdict for a manslaughter charge (unintentional death); it relates only to intentional acts.
55. Western Canadian, 13 September 1906. Note the use of historical comparisons from the legal context, however, which perhaps shows awareness of the ultimate sources of charivari in community regulation.
56. Western Canadian, 4 October 1906. One might want to attribute the presumption that the groom was young to the ongoing transformation of the charivari at this time from a statement noting community disapproval of the match to that of approval of the marriage of individuals who will belong to the community.
58. Form 11, obtained from Manitoba Vital Statistics. Watson “Wm. McLaughlin,” 421; Martin, “William McLaughlin Family,” 634.
59. One reader rightly took me to task on presuming that this variance resulted from deliberate obfuscation, pointing me to Bruce Curtis’s fascinating work on 19th century Canadian censuses, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001). Indeed, the census cannot simply be presumed accurate, given that the information was dependent on the sources, the gatherers, and the census structure generally. See also Ingrid Botting’s useful feminist critique, “Understanding Domestic Service though Oral History and the Census: The Case of Grand Falls, Newfoundland.” Resources for Feminist Research 28, 1/2 (2000):99-120. Yet the 1901 census and his first marriage certificate agree on McLaughlin’s age, as do the local newspapers; I don’t know why the 1906 census makes him younger by approximately five years, but social disapproval would provide motivation for McLaughlin minimising the age difference between himself and Ethel, whose age remains nearly constant in the documentation: 10 in 1901, 16 in 1906, and 19 on her marriage certificate in 1909. The information on Ella Ennis McLaughlin remains unclear. If she was 25 in 1901, she could be neither 36 nor 39 upon her death in 1909. The great specificity of the ages at death is equally if not more puzzling. Perhaps she was older than McLaughlin, which would offer the same motivation—social disapproval—for an inexact marriage registration.
71. For example, one woman I interviewed during this research asked that her name not be used in its communication, because she did not want her best friend to find out that she was the perpetrator of tricks at the friend’s wedding, some 30 years ago. Around 10% of responses to my survey of charivari across Canada describe lasting ill will between individuals as a direct result of actions at charivaris. Some 30% of respondents, mainly women, were not entirely pleased to be charivaried.
78. Imagine my joy in discovering that an eyewitness to the events survived and was able to tell me about it. I’m profoundly grateful to Don Murray, who made the connection to Donna Walker, who not only co-operated in helping to get answers to my questions from her mother, and helped to arrange a short interview between myself and Liz Ames, but also provided invaluable background information (see Marcy Nicholson, “107-year-old city woman second oldest in Manitoba.” Brandon Sun, 18 August 2005). There was a Dr. Bugg, a physician, practicing in the area around the same time (Jessie Graham, “Dr. Edwin Edward Bugg,” in Heritage: A History of the Town of Neepawa and District as Told and Recorded by its People eds. Louise Rey and Myrtle McKenzie, pp. 408-409 (Neepawa: History Book Committee at Neepawa, 1983); Charles Bugg is listed as a farmer in the 1901 census. Liz Ames was born a Chisholm, and Marcus Chisholm was her father (personal communication from Donna Walker, 31 August 2005).
Page revised: 1 June 2012