Thursday, March 31, 2011

New England Elections: Town Meeting, Select Board. . . Hog Reeve?!

This post originated in a Twitter exchange with historic preservationist and genealogist Marian Pierre Louis. Back in January, on her blog, "Marian's Roots and Rambles," she wrote:
In The Handbook of Medway History, 1713-1913 by Orion T. Mason (1913), I came across the following interesting tidbit:

"For many years all newly-married men were elected "Hog Reives" at the annual April meeting." This item was dated 1800.
It occurred to her, "Now this makes for a very interesting marriage record substitute!" i.e., absent other documentation, it could enable one to date the beginning of an ancestor's matrimonial ties within a year or so. She went on to ask,
I wonder if this was a common tradition in other Massachusetts towns. Let me know if you have come across traditions like this for newlyweds in your research.
Nothing I like better than a little historical challenge.

J. F. Jameson's Records of the Town of Amherst from 1735 to 1788 (Amherst, 1884) mentions the office and notes, in the introduction (iii-iv), "Of the Yankee sense of humor, we see little; the annually-recurring joke about the hog-reeves seems to have been ever fresh."

Well, that's all well and good if you live in the late nineteenth century and get the joke (imagine trying to figure out who Charlie Sheen was in 2111), but the rest of us latter-day folks need some context.

The standard (antiquarian and ponderous but indispensable; glad someone else did that work so I wouldn't have to) Carpenter and Morehouse History of the Town of Amherst (1896) is even less illuminating. It refers to the office in some six places, but does not even describe it, much less, explain why it was the subject of a running joke.

We are all familiar with the disparaging characterization of a political candidate as someone "who could not be elected dog catcher." The case of the hog reeve is similar, though with a bit of a twist.

During election season last fall, Christopher Beam, over at Slate, pursued the matter, finding:
The insult that someone "couldn't be elected dogcatcher" appears to have originated in the late 1800s. In 1889, the Weekly Courier Journal in Louisville noted that then-president Grover Cleveland was "so unpopular in Washington that he could not be elected dog catcher for the district." A year later, a letter to the New York Times attacked a politician who "could not get elected on his own popularity and without the aid of his 'machine' to the office of dogcatcher were it an elective one" (emphasis added). Dogcatcher is also sometimes used as shorthand for the lowest-level political office. For example, in 1979 National Journal wrote about the collapse of a magazine "designed to appeal to elected officeholders from U.S. Senator to dogcatcher."
He also points out that, in most locales, the position—nowadays called "animal control officer"—is appointed rather than elected and, he hastens to add, requires professional training. (in Amherst today, it is neither appointed nor elected; information on lost and found pets here.)

Now back to the hog reeve.  A "reeve," according to the Oxford Etymological Dictionary, was
1. Chiefly in Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England: a supervising official of high rank, esp. one having jurisdiction under a king;

a. The chief royal representative in a county, who administered royal justice and collected royal revenues;
There were eventually various types of lower-ranking reeves: town-reeves, port-reeves, and so forth. We are all familiar with the "sheriff," derived from shire-reeve (remember Robin Hood?).

Two recent sources explain the nature of the New England hog reeve and the humor associated with the post.

For example, a 2008 article in New Hampshire Magazine says, "The Hog Reeve rounded up all stray pigs and fined their owners fifty cents. Later the office became a joke. The voters would often elect the prissiest man in town Hog Reeve. In the 1850s Charlestown elected their minister, Dr. Whittaker, to this office. In some towns the most recently wed young man was elected Hog Reeve. People knew a good time back then."

And the Old Sturbridge Village Glossary of New England Town Officers, noting that the office was mandated by state law, explains, "Towns could decide not to enforce this law by a vote in town meeting, and many did, leaving hog reeves with nothing to do. Thus it became traditional, as a running joke on the status of matrimony, for men to be elected as hog reeves during their first year of marriage."

Now you know.


As chance would have it, the topic of stray animals and the heroic officials who chase them down became topical again in western Massachusetts in 2012. Read the rest here.


Marian said...

That's fascinating stuff! Thanks so much for digging deeper. This could make for an interesting little pamphlet or book with more direct quotes from other New England towns. I love this kind of stuff.

Jim Wald said...

Well, you were the inspiration. And it would be fun to pursue the matter in various locales. There, you see: you've come up with another good idea!