THE BALLAD OF JOHN COLEMAN’S JAIL (September 25/98)

In the recent column about my great uncle John Coleman, the Kings County jailer from 1896 to 1928, I mentioned a ballad about the jail during his tenure there. While my father knew a few lines of the ballad, I assumed most of it had been lost or forgotten over the years. Why would anyone save a minor song about a county jail, especially when it was of no historical significance?

I didn’t reckon with the likes of Gaspereau historian, Murrille Schofield. Mr. Schofield, whose historical notes on Wolfville, Gaspereau, and nearby communities was my topic last week, had a copy of the ballad in his papers. I discovered this thanks to Lexie Davidson whose history of Forest Hill-Gaspereau Mountain was mentioned in this column recently.

The ballad of John Coleman’s jail was written by two young men from Gaspereau Mountain who came from one of the first families to settle the area after the Acadians. Apparently, they spent one or two nights in jail for creating a disturbance by shouting. Kentville’s then chief of police, Rupert Davis, did the honours, and he is the “Pup Davis” mentioned in the first stanza.

“Oh Mr. Pup Davis, the cop of the town/With his brass button coat you’ll see him step round./He’ll hop on a stranger and take him to jail/Then search all his pockets and lock up the cell.”

To the chorus of “And it’s hard times in John Coleman’s jail, and it’s hard times they say,” the ballad continued for four more stanzas. None of it is complimentary. The food is cold mush, the Parson charges for a visit, bedbugs are plentiful. All of which must be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The sour notes of the ballad contradict what I’ve discovered about the way John Coleman ran the jail. Besides, if you are one of the tenants, what else is there to say about time spent in jail, especially a jail of the early 1900s?

According to Murrille Schofields’s notes, the ballad of John Coleman’s jail was written by some of his relatives. I believe the version in his files is authentic. The melody is unknown but it was probably sung to the tune of one of the old ballads that have been around for generations.

There’s more to the story about the balladeers who slurred John Coleman’s jail. Some of Murrille Schofield’s relatives were notoriously skilful and biting when it came to writing poems about the people of Gaspereau Valley and Gaspereau Mountain. They had a knack for portraying in rhyme the foibles and traits, both good and bad, of the people in the region. The poems were witty and humorous, but only if you weren’t the victims of their often biting satire.

Recently I had the opportunity to read a few of these poems and I can understand why Gaspereau people were “scandalized.” As for how the verses came to light, the way I heard it was that they were mailed one or two at a time to various households. The “perpetrators of this purple poetry” wished to remain anonymous, so the mailings were done from outside areas. I believe that at the time a number of the verses were posted in public places around the Gaspereau Valley.

From what I can ascertain, all this poetry writing took place over half a century ago and the people mentioned in them are deceased. The uproar they caused is still remembered, however. The verses have been preserved but given their nature, there’s little chance any of them will be published.

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