The charivari, or shivaree, as it is usually spelled in southern Ontario, is a social ritual that was once common in this area of the province, but seems to be dying out during the last few decades.
As practiced here, friends and relatives of a pair of newlyweds would gather around their residence and “serenade” them late at night with various noisemakers, musical instruments, and even chain saws. The noise would end when the couple invited the guests inside for an ample lunch, and more often than not, a rubber of euchre.
The charivari, in one form or another, dates back many centuries, to France and other Latin countries. At times the charivari was used to encourage reluctant young people to proceed with their marriage. At other times the charivari was a way of expressing the disapproval of a community over an inappropriate marriage. The latter is part of the southern Ontario tradition. A fine example of a charivari staged to show the indignation of a community took place in Elora 136 years ago.
During the summer of 1872 a couple of young men showed up in Elora, and ran a series of religious revival meetings. As well, they devoted their evenings to delivering sermons on the Mill Street, soliciting coins from passers-by. They were not skilled preachers, and made up for their lack of theological knowledge with youthful enthusiasm. Most people thought there was something phony about the pair. Others recognized an endearing quality about their efforts at proclaiming the gospel.
One of the young men, a fellow named Hoffman, struck up an acquaintance with a widow named Catherine Irvine, who lived part way up the Metcalfe Street hill. She had a family of six children, aged from 21 down to 10, and worked as a milliner in various stores in Elora, as did her two eldest daughters.
Hoffman and his companion moved on after a few weeks, but he and Catherine maintained contact with one another by mail. In mid October she left town. When she returned on Oct. 30 she told acquaintances that she had become Mrs. Hoffman, and had enjoyed a honeymoon with her youthful spouse. She was then 41 years old (44, according to one newspaper account), and Hoffman only 20. Her new husband was a year younger than her eldest daughter.
She happily told everyone about her new status. After tidying up her affairs in Elora, she planned to join her new husband, who was then in Brampton.
Everyone she spoke to was surprised, to put it mildly. Most people thought the marriage, though an unusual one, was no one’s business. A few were appalled at the disparity in age, and made no secret of their disapproval. As well, they believed that she had abandoned her younger children, who were left in the care of older siblings.
The night after Catherine’s return was Halloween. In Elora in the early 1870s, that meant a great deal of mischief and vandalism. Privies and outbuildings were victims, along with garden gates, wagons, and other property. Several sections of wooden sidewalk were ripped apart and overturned.
Among the activities that night was a charivari in her honour. Inspired by the people who were critical of the marriage, they assembled in the evening in front of her residence, and kept up a barrage of noise as they bombarded the residence with rocks and other objects. Both neighbours and the village constable felt too intimidated to intervene.
The mob made known to repeat their serenade the next night, and every night so long as Mrs. Hoffman remained in the village. Fearing for her safety, she asked for help. Reeve Hugh Hamilton, who lived at the northeast corner of Colborne and Princess Streets, agreed to take her in. News of her relocation quickly spread through the village.
The mob assembled at the reeve’s house the next night, and kept up its noise making, rude insults, and hurling of stones for several hours. Hamilton sat tight as the mob terrified his wife and three daughters, as well as Mrs. Hoffman.
As they had promised, the mob assembled again the following night. It was a Saturday, and their numbers were swelled by those who could sleep in the next morning, as well as by farmers in Elora for their weekly shopping trip.
With the smashing of two windows in his house, Reeve Hugh Hamilton decided to confront the mob. But when he stepped outside the front door a couple of the ruffians grabbed him by his hair. Fists from every direction pummeled his face and body. Hamilton was a blacksmith by trade, and at 44, was still in excellent physical condition. He was able to land some excellent blows himself before retreating back into his house.
Leaders of the mob made known their intention to return again the following night, and every night as long as Mrs. Hoffman remained in Elora. News of the attack on the reeve outraged the village the following day. The activities of the night before were the main subject of conversation at church services that morning. Hamilton attended services, but he had an ugly black eye, several noticeable bruises, and walked with a slight limp.
A group of men volunteered to guard the Hamilton residence that night. They resumed their duties again on the following Monday and Tuesday. Some of the ruffians appeared, but soon slipped away when they saw the men on guard duty milling about, most armed with clubs.
On Wednesday morning, Nov. 5, Mrs. Hoffman boarded a train at the Elora station, bound for Brampton and a rendezvous with her new husband.
The fate of the children is not recorded. The two older daughters, aged 21 and 20, were already employed and self-supporting. The four oth-ers, aged between 10 and 15, seem to have slipped from the historical record. They may have accompanied their mother, but it is also possible that they were adopted by another family.
That was probably the most dramatic and notable charivari in the history of Elora, but there were others of a similar nature elsewhere in Wellington in the 19th century. It is unlikely that many of the young men who participated in the harassment of Mrs. Hoffman held strong opinions on the suitability of the marriage. Their actions were those of the archetypical mob: each emboldened by the presence of others to do things they would be unlikely to do if alone. The key factor in the intensity of the charivari was the approval of a significant portion of the village population. Though they would not consider participating themselves, they sat by in silent encouragement, and in some cases probably voiced approval to members of the mob.
With Mrs. Hoffman’s departure, local sentiment began to swing against the mob. Several citizens circulated a petition to council, urging that a reward be offered for the “detection of the offenders” who organized the charivari. Nothing, of course, came of the effort: the ringleaders were certainly already known to everyone. The petition was really a signal that a repeat of the incident would not be well received in Elora.
The Hoffmans, presumably, began a new life after the time endured by Catherine. Their story is one of the lost threads in our local history.