Everyone in Bay Roberts, NL, knows that Samuel Mercer (1879-1969), Episcopalian clergyman and world-renowned Orientalist and Egyptologist, was born in their town. The record of his birth is incontestable; he was indeed born in the town on 10 May 1879. And, when he entered Harvard University in 1905, he agreed with the baptismal registry, except that he had expanded his name to Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer. Five years later, when he entered the University of Munich, he seemed to have forgotten both the year and place of his birth! “Ich bin am 10 Mai 1880,” he began his resume, “in Bristol, England geboren.”
The two errors – 1880 and Bristol – subsequently entered the reference books, and became the gospel – except in Bay Roberts, where he is venerated as a local boy who made big. The prestigious Current Biography went so far as to speculate on how Mercer ended up in Bay Roberts in the first place!
“At an early age,” the book hypothesized, “Samuel Mercer was taken to North America where he spent most of his boyhood and youth in Newfoundland.”
The question is why Mercer instigated the hoax surrounding his birth. It is a question that readily invites investigation. The holder of twelve degrees, the author of twenty-nine books and a linguist who spoke fifteen languages, he may have wanted simply to forget his poverty-stricken childhood in Bay Roberts and, at the same time, lend credibility to his many and varied accomplishments. Bristol, England, may have sounded more stately to him than Bay Roberts, Newfoundland.
A distinctive Newfoundland regional dialect – the north shore of Conception Bay which exhibits a loss of “r” after vowels – completely fooled a reporter for The New York Times in 1952. The journalist was impressed by what he perceived as Mercer’s “native British accent.” And, an expanded name, Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer, may have carried a more scholarly ring than the mundane Samuel.
A subsidiary factor is drawn from Mercer’s A Brief Autobiography, which he wrote in 1958. At seventy-nine years of age, he dated his birth in 1880 and wrote giddily that it was “the year in which Gaston Maspero [1846-1916], the famous French Egyptologist, discovered the inscriptions in the five Sakkara pyramids in Egypt.” In 1952, Mercer had completed a six-year task of translating these hieroglyphics into English. The historical link between his work and Maspero’s find was, in Mercer’s mind, too close to pass up. His claim to have been born the same year as Maspero’s find backfired, though, because the latter did not make his discovery until 1881. Mercer still missed by a year!
This is but one of many hoaxes that have been foisted upon the public. In the case of Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer, an individual of international repute, for personal reasons, threw a veil over the details of his birth. And, he allowed the hoax to persist until a future biographer rechecked the records. This is a clear example of how a hoax can become entrenched in the accepted version of events.
3 thoughts on “The Enigmatic Samuel Mercer”
I’d love to have any more information on Samuel Mercer that you have uncovered.
Is there anything in particular you are looking for? I have hundreds of thousands of documents about Mercer.
Here is the finding aid for the Mercer material in the Trinity College Archives: https://discoverarchives.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/ottca-f2171
If there are inaccuracies I would be grateful to have them pointed out. There is a claim that Mercer was among the first into the tomb of King Tut but I can’t find any verification of this. A fuller account of his life would be appreciated.