Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Golwhoppin Ozark Shivaree

Not long ago I was reading a book by one of my favorite Southern authors, Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919 - 1991), the famous coal miner, when I ran across a passage that brought back memories from my childhood. The passage in This is my Story, This is my Song (1963) was about shivarees that took place in his neck of the Tennessee woods. A shivaree (also spelled charivari and chivaree) was an old-time rural custom –- nearly faded to oblivion by the early 1950s –- of throwing a noisy surprise party for newlyweds, either on their wedding night or soon after they returned from their honeymoon..  

He wrote:
Shivarees meant different things to different people. To the kids it meant running around the house beating on pots and buckets and dishpans, having a wonderful time making the biggest and worst racket possible. To the women it meant preparing and toting a mountain of food and doing a lot of gabbing and staying busy in the kitchen. To the young man getting married, well, the shivaree was something to be real glad when it was over.
[In Tennessee they made the bridegroom ride around on a rail.] “When I was just a kid I thought it was fun, watching the poor guy bouncing around on that rail, with all his pals whooping it up. But when I got a little older I began to feel for the victim.

The Ozark Shivaree

Reading this, I was reminded of the shivaree in which I took part in 1952 or 53, when I was 5 or 6 years old. That event is one of the memories I can dredge up from a young age, and I am sure it stuck in my memory because –- as Professor Ford described –- I got to creep around in the dark and make an awesome noise to scare some adults. Now, more than 60 years later, it is a bit painful to think that I am probably among the few people still breathing who took part in a genuine shivaree.

The shivaree was for my mother’s youngest sister, my aunt Charlene, who had a few days earlier married Harold. They were living in a country farm house with no nearby neighbors. I recall the old place, located in the community of Harmon, west of Springdale, east of Siloam Springs, in the northwest corner of Arkansas. It had a pond, and, I think, tomato fields nearby. Also, as I remember it, the house had a dusty front yard with little grass.

The shivaree began when many of the couple’s friends and relatives assembled quietly after dark on a dirt road near the house where they were staying. The conspirators were equipped, as Tennessee Ernie described, with pots and pans, cow bells, and other metal things that made a noise when hit with a large spoon or a hand. In the dark we crept quietly to the windows of the house, noting the dim lights inside, and, on some signal, everyone started yelling, ringing the bells, and pounding on the pots and pans and other metal objects, making a loud and inharmonious noise. It was quite a din and I’m sure I -- with a big smile on my face -- did more than my part to make it as loud as possible. 

If the newlyweds had been sitting innocently in the house, no doubt the noise would have scared the bejebbers out of them. However they had been warned or somehow figured out what was coming and had climbed out a window as the conspirators were approaching the house. According to my aunt Charlene, the escape did not work out too well because she and her new husband, running the dark, fell into a ditch as they tried to get away.

I do not remember much about what happened after the noise ended. I am sure no one rode a rail, but do not know what harassment, if any, the couple received. Likely it was not much more than good-natured kidding.

After the excitement died down, the women in the group probably went back to the cars and trucks to get food they had prepared; no doubt a small feast followed. It is also possible that the friends and relatives of the newlyweds brought gifts to the couple. My cousin Barbara, whose mother, Helen, was a sister of my mother and Charlene, recalls that her mother told her that the event was a pounding, which was a different custom than a shivaree; at a pounding, friends and relatives brought gifts to newlyweds to help them make a start. The pounding custom was borrowed from the Quakers. Its name came from the tradition of giving gifts to the newlywed such as a pound of butter, rice, corn, coffee, sugar, flour, etc. to stock their kitchen. [1] 

Perhaps the night was served as both a shivaree and a pounding –- both noises and gifts.

“It requires backbone to get married out this way”

A Groom Riding a Rail from Ford,
This is My Story, This is my Song
Although the Ozark shivaree was tame, many were not. Tennessee Ernie made clear his uneasy feelings about Tennessee shivarees before World War II. Apparently they could result in “rough treatment” (a euphemism for torture) of the groom, especially if he had been an over-exuberant participant in shivarees that came before his. 

He wrote, “[The celebrants] would eventually simmer down and just start teasing the boy with talk. Man, they’d give him a rough time. But somehow he’d survive. Somehow they always did.”  He said he was glad that he gotten married in California, “so I didn’t have to spend the night before my wedding getting ridden around on a rail.”

Checking out old newspaper and magazine stories about shivarees, it is evident that the custom varied at different times and from location to location. In some times and places, it was a punitive, even vicious, custom; in others, it was a friendly get together. In the early days, it was usual that only men participated in shivarees; later, celebrants of both genders usually took part. In some places, the shivaree took place on the wedding eve or night; in others they were held a day or more after the wedding. In some places, the newlyweds were supposed to provide refreshments for or bribes to the shivaree party; in others the participants tried to surprise them, bringing their own food. 

On the nice end of the spectrum, here is an account of a pre-World War II shivaree held in a rural Missouri community:
A few days after the couple got settled, the community held a shivaree. The shivaree was a post-wedding noisy party for the community where the newlyweds were pressed into service as hosts. In short, the shivaree was a mock serenade and a roast of the newlyweds. People brought all sorts of noisemakers and pots and pans to bang on, and they sang songs and enjoyed refreshments, compliments of the newlyweds. Adding to the atmosphere of friendly ribbing and polite mockery, nobody bothered to dress up…. Newlyweds looked forward to the noisy event as well, and they would have been insulted at not being forced to host the shivaree. [2]
At the torture end of the spectrum, here is what a couple suffered through in a farm house south of Perryton, Texas in 1951, as remembered by the groom:
Just after dark the abuse began with the largest crowd ever gathered at a shivaree in our community. This was probably because I had been a very active participant in many previous community shivarees. One cousin drove 200 miles to exact his revenge after waiting years for the opportunity. 
I hoped for the best, but as my glasses and billfold were removed, I knew it was going to be bad. The small house filled to capacity as the shenanigans began. All labels were removed from kitchen foods, cans and supplies. Toilet paper was dunked, food canisters switched, rice and crackers dumped into the short-sheeted bed. Bed slats were fixed to fall out and cans of rocks were tied to the bedsprings. Shoelaces and socks were tied into hard knots and all underwear placed in a pillowcase and tossed up on the rooftop.
During the evening I washed my wife’s feet, reenacted my proposal of marriage and pushed her up and down the driveway in a wheelbarrow with everyone singing “There’ll be a hot time in the old house tonight.” As I passed my car, I could hear air hissing as the valve cores had been removed and tossed into the weeds. My work pickup had been mired axle-deep in a nearby mud hole.

The women gathered our keys, money and extra light fuses, then dropped them into a gallon jar of honey we had received as a wedding present. When my city-raised bride began to cry, they let up on her but increased their efforts on me without mercy....
Finally, only one car was left as the cousin from afar unscrewed the light fuses from our fuse box and tossed them as far as he could into the darkness. I consoled my poor bride, lying in cracker crumbs in our bed, and apologized to her for having to share in my punishment. My shivaree was now over and, I might add, I have not been to another since. [3]
Apparently during frontier times, shivarees had often been, like this Texas shivaree, pretty rough. Here is a description of shivarees in frontier Kansas.
[W]eddings were made most memorable by the "charivari," or "shivaree," that neighbors exacted on the newlyweds on their wedding night. The closest modern equivalent of the shivaree would be a combination of trick-or-treating, fraternity hazing, and Christmas caroling. 
Shivaree participants would gather at a neighbors' home to "warm-up" and sometimes have a few drinks. As darkness descended, the shivaree party would converge on the home of the newly wed couple, hoping to catch them shortly after they got into bed. Shortly after arrival, the shivaree party would begin banging pots and pans, singing, and yelling to get the attention of the couple. If the couple refused to come out, the shivaree leader would bang on the door, demanding admittance, so that the party could come inside and to celebrate the wedding and toast the bride and groom's good health.
If the groom appeared at the door and gave the party some money or another treat, the party might be convinced to go and celebrate elsewhere. If the party's noisemaking was ignored, it was not uncommon for them to break into the house, abduct the groom, and carry him miles away on horseback, leaving him -- in varying stages of undress -- to find his way home in the dark. One Kansas newspaper provides the following description of a shivaree party: "They performed such tricks as shooting bullets through the windows, breaking down the door, dragging the couple out of bed and tumbling them about on the floor, and indulging in other equally innocent tricks." The editor added, "It requires backbone to get married out this way." [4]  

"An Idiotic Survival of Semicivilized Times" or "Just Plain Fun"?

According to several newspaper accounts of shivarees before WWII, celebrants not only made noise by banging pots and using noise makers, but also by firing their guns and rifles. The combination of unholy noise, weapons, booze, and reluctant newlyweds sometimes yielded regrettable results. For example, during an Ohio “Shivaree” in 1882, a team of horses belonging to T. Wichershim in Hicksville, Ohio, that been hitched in front of the Blacksmith shop, “became frightened and broke loose, wrecked a nice new carriage and went towards home at break neck speed.” [5] 

And even worse happened. For example, in 1883, two members of a shivaree party in Kansas got into a fight and one man killed another. [6]  In 1896, the father of a bride in Utica, Ohio, got mad when the shivaree party would not leave after he told them to: he shot into the group and killed James Arrington. [7]  In 1924, a man was convicted for negligent homicide when he killed Alta Richardson at a shivaree party. He admitted firing shots from a pistol, but not in Richardson’s direction.[8]   A North Carolina newspaper reported this tragedy that occurred in New Jersy in 1911:
A party of farm folks gathered early this morning under the windows of J. Walter Force, a young bridegroom in Livingston, to give the bridal couple “Shivaree” were welcomed with loads of buck-shot. Walter Livingith, a serenader, fell mortally wounded. Hugh Porter is seriously hurt.  [9]
It seems that the wounding and killing people with guns at shivarees was common enough that a notice was published in a 1906 newspaper that the organizer of a shivaree was not shot:
Friends of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Longworth who …were married last week gave them a “shivaree” at 2.a.m. We regret to report that Mr. Leiter, who organized it, was not shot in the leg.” [10] 
Many people came to view shivarees as disreputable. Thus a Shawnee (KS) county debating society concluded in 1893 that “no person of culture will attend a shivaree.” [11]  That year, the Osage City (KS) Free Press called the shivaree “a disgraceful performance.” The article described the custom in stark terms:
It consists in gathering a crowd of country free loaders and toughs before a house occupied by a new married couple and making night hideous with tin pans, cow bells, “horse fiddles,” shotguns and other noise-producing instruction. The object is to compel the bridegroom to donate money wherewith the loaders and toughs may buy whisky…. It is to be hoped that the hoodlums who get up “shivarees” may continue killing one another until the tribe is extinct.” [12]
The Gazette Globe (Kansas City, KS) in 1911 described shivaree as “a crude social condition”.[13]  The Corvallis (OR) Gazette-Times in 1929 said shivarees are the “most asinine of our American traits, the indulgence of in which ought to be sufficient evidence that the culprits are fit for the insane asylum instead of the penitentiary. Shivarees come under the head of disorderly conduct and unnecessary nuisances.” [14]

With such negative sentiment directed at shivarees, it is not surprising that over the years,the demise of the custom was often predicted. For example, in 1899 an article in the Arkansas City (KS) Daily Traveler had these headlines:

The Barbarous Charivari a Thing of the Past
Order-Loving Communities Are Doing Away with This Idiotic Survival of Semicivilized Times
This article told the story of a shivaree in Watonga, OK. As the shivaree participants were making the usual loud noises, the newlyweds came to the porch and asked everyone to leave. One of the party fired a shotgun at them, killing the bride and badly wounding the groom. The paper wrote, “This outrage should go far to put an end forever to a custom that long ago should have become obsolete.” [15]

The fact that the shivaree survived all of the mishaps and condemnation is likely attributable, in part, to the fact that in many places it was viewed as honoring the bride and groom. In its good-natured form, it welcomed the couple into the community, and they took pride in being honored. As noted above in the description of the benevolent Missouri shavaree, newlyweds in that community looked forward to the event.

In some cases, families were proud of the magnitude of the event. Take, for example, this 1893 newspaper story, probably apocryphal, in the Denver Tribune.  It tells how one day an angry man stomped into a newspaper office and demanded to speak to the editor.  He told him:
You said the wedin passed off quietly. Who told you it passed off quietly?...I’m the gal’s father! I’m Peter Crumpet! The weddin passed off, sir, with the golwhoppinest shivaree ever got up in our neighborhood, and if you don’t put it that way next week an do the gal justice I’ll come back and break every darned bone in yer body!” [16]
Marilyn Wright described the good aspects on shivarees in an article in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina:
The merits of a shivaree were numerous. Everyone in the community participated -- young and old, male and female. The newlyweds certainly met their neighbors in a friendly if raucous manner and were, in turn, properly initiated into the community. Another important feature of the custom was the collective good cheer and feeling of community everyone shared. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, shivarees were an old-fashioned diversion that was just plain fun. [17]  

The End of Shivarees

In writing about shivarees, Prof. Tennesee Ernie concluded with this observation:
Actually this whole shivaree business was just another way that poor country folks managed to have themselves a good time. Entertainment wasn’t an easy thing to come by in those days. There wasn’t any television to stay home and watch. So whenever there was an excuse for some doings everyone jumped right in.
His observation helps explain the demise of the custom after World War II. By the early 1950s, few shivarees were held and by the middle of the 1950s they were rare. Not only were they done in by their early excesses and shaky reputation, but also by demographics and technology. The frontier had largely disappeared, and more people moved to cities where shivarees do not work well:  the noise not only scares the newlyweds, but also is likely to provoke startled neighbors to call the police. Also, so many couples were getting married after the war that it would have been quite time consuming to have shivarees for all of them.

Then, of course, the development of television and other types of home entertainment decreased the need for the remaining “poor country folks” to entertain themselves. Other marriage traditions, such as showers and bachelor parties, thrived, but increasingly fewer people thought that it was a good idea to go ring cow bells and bang on pans in the dark in front of the houses of newlywed couples.

I am glad that Shivarees had not died completely that year when I had a chance to take part in the old frontier custom. It might not have been the galwhoppinest shivaree ever held, but there is no doubt in my mind that one galwhoppin shivaree took place that night in Harmon many years ago.


[5] Hicksville (Ohio) News, Feb. 2, 1882, p. 4

[6] The Osage City (KS) Free Press, Nov. 2, 1893, p. 2

[7] The Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), June 26, 1896 p. 1

[8] Vernon (TX) Record, Jan. 15, 1924.

[9] The Causasian (Clinton, N.C.), June 22, 1911, p1)

[10]  The Minneapolis Journal, Feb. 19, 1906 p. 4

[11] Ottawa (KS) Daily Republic, December 2, 1893

[12] The Osage City (KS) Free Press, Nov. 2, 1893, p. 2

[13] The Gazette Globe (Kansas City KS), Jan 11, 1917, p. 4

[14]  Corvallis Gazette-Times quoted in The Oregon Statesman, Aug 1, 1929, p. 4

[15] Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler, August 1, 1899, p. 7

[16] From Denver Tribune, posted in The Newark (Ohio) Advocate, Nov. 12, 1893, p. 5

[17]  http://ncpedia.org/shivaree

Note: all newspaper articles were accessed through Newspaper.com.

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