A Not So Merry Tale

Jude Seminara has provided us with his perspective of the oft told James Merry – Dogtown tale.

The Matador of Gloucester

In the mid-morning of Sunday, September 18, 1892, three local men, Henry and Chester Norwood and Isaac Day discovered the bloody and battered body of 60 year old James Merry wedged between two boulders near the Dogtown Road. His abdomen had been ripped open. Nearby, Patrick Nugent’s Jersey bull was in an agitated condition, bellowing and stomping his hooves, his horns stained with blood. Mr. Day left immediately to summon the police, and Officer Ropper, accompanied by the Undertaker Lloyd and medical examiner Quimby came to investigate.

Tradition holds that Merry had, while a sailor, visited Spain and became interested in bull fighting. When he returned to Gloucester, he raised a bull from a calf and practiced wrestling it in Dogtown. The night before he was killed, the story goes, he was drinking up in town and was challenged to wrestle the bull. The bull won, goring Merry with its horns. While a romantic story, it is simply untrue.

James Merry was born in Edgecomb, Maine, one of three sons, in 1832 to Heram and Betsey Merry. He was in Gloucester sometime prior to 1850, at which time he was recorded as James Murray, fisherman in the census. According to the vital records of Gloucester, he married Catherine Witty in 1856. The Merrys had three children: James Howard, Frank, and Carrie. Carrie died of typhoid fever at the age of 14 in 1878. Merry’s brother David Murray was lost at sea in 1859 and is memorialized in the cenotaph at the Fisherman at the Wheel statue. His other brother Jonathan left Gloucester shortly after David’s death to returned to Maine.

Sometime after 1870, Merry left fishing to become a laborer on the docks of John Pew and Son. He worked for a few years as on the construction crew for the street railway. The 1880 census lists the Merry family as living at 4 Trask Street. By 1892 he is listed in the city directory as living on Cleveland Street and is noted as being a constable. The six foot three Merry was considered to be one of the strongest men in town; he was well liked in Gloucester and was known as a productive citizen.

On that fateful September morning, at about half past eight, Merry had left his home at 8 1/2 Cleveland Street where he lived with Catherine and eldest son James that to pick berries up in Dogtown. It was supposed that while berrying in a pasture, the Nugent bull became agitated and attacked him, goring him with his horns and inflicting a ghastly abdominal wound. Merry had gone berrying in that pasture before, with the bull nearby, but Mr. Nugent was always near. He described his bull as a gentle animal, often cared for by his son; a group of workers on the Rockport line and another man might dispute that. Months before, the bull attacked the railmen, who managed to escape. The other man wasn’t as lucky and suffered a severe injury which left him bed-ridden for several weeks.

It appeared to the men who found him that the bull had hit Merry from behind as he ran. Blood on one stone seemed to indicate that he rested against it. The bull presumably returned and dealt the fatal blow.

Medical Examiner Quimby determined that Merry had died of a large wound on his abdomen, near his left groin, which likely severed an artery. His death is recorded in the vital records as “hemorrhage from wound probably made by a bull.” His funeral was held at his home the day following the attack, officiated by Reverend Villers of the First Baptist Church and well attended. Merry was buried at Cherry Hill Cemetery, but his grave was either unmarked or the marker has been lost.

About a week after he was killed, Raymond Tarr and D. K. Goodwin took chisel to stone and inscribed the two granite boulders where Merry’s body was found. One reads “First Attacked” and the other “Jas. Merry Died Sept. 18 1892.” Years later, as often happens with Dogtown lore, James Merry took on mythical status as a near seven foot bullfighter and the Matador of Gloucester legend was born. Poet Charles Olson immortalized Merry in his epic poem “Maximus, from Dogtown — I.”

One can find the Merry boulders with a little looking over the wall on the right side of Dogtown Road heading towards Dogtown Square, down a little foot path a short distance beyond cellar 18. One wonders if Roger Babson, knowing the James Merry legend, had one of his stonecutters inscribe a nearby boulder with “Never Try, Never Win.”

Here are some of the earlier GMG posts on the James Merry incident. Read the comments to each for interesting tidbits.




6 thoughts on “A Not So Merry Tale

  1. Marty,

    Well done Marty! Lot’s of farms around cape then..so for generations.

    This is a very accurate history indeed and bulls deserve a who bunch of respect! I learned that lesson as a young lad crossing the field by diary farm across from Eleanor Young’s house on high street, with a bull in it drinking from pond edge didn’t see him, me and brother took shortcut from up around community center on high street to cross the fields going toward Days Pond area and two fields we used to play football in, base ball, filed hockey tennis ball, and of course center of shortcuts to many directions Lanesville and days woods. Or going up to walker Hancock’s summer time for swim blue hole! Field slopped down some but did see him coming slow at first but picked up pace when noticed us we took refuge in the Old 1959’s 2 1/2 ton truck.

    Because pull ran up close to fence line stone walls – blocking escape into those fields. He laid down next to it truck. Thankfully the frontend loader was bringing out a full bucket scoop of poop for pile close by yelled out he got us out of there with a stern warning to stay out of field especially seeing it was breeding season bull well you know the rest of how that goes…Most of the milk cows were very tame it was the bull who got testy…

    Lesson learned hard way! By Dave 🙂 & Mike 🙂


    1. We use to play drive in so new where to run when needed that was one of the major shortcuts to days woods and the woods to plum cove beach area come out by what was left field don’t want to get off path or end up in briers with thorns!! 🙂 Dave


  2. Here’s a little of what Charles Olson wrote in the Maximus Poem IV:

    of pasture meadow orchard road where Merry
    died in pieces tossed by the bull he raised himself to fight
    in front of people, to show off his
    Handsome Sailor ism

    died as torso head &limbs
    in a Saturday night’s trying
    to get the young bull down
    to see if Sunday morning again he might
    before the people show off
    once more
    his prowess–braggart man to die
    among Dogtown meadow rocks.


  3. I want to still believe he went up to practice being a matador. But the truth is the saddest tale. He only went to pick berries. When writing an article about his I pulled up the GDT story the day after and I am sure he was drinking in Howard Blackburn’s Tavern the night before and made a bet he could wrestle the bull. But your story has much more the ring of truth.

    Every time I drive by Cleveland Street I think of James Merry.



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