Imagine a giant, real-life Clue game. Imagine walking around the game board from the kitchen to the dining room to the ballroom and being able to talk to Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett to gather clues about who done it, with what weapon and why. The Fort George Murder Mystery evening was like a giant interactive theatre experience complete with real historical facts and stories.
Last Friday evening was the second and final instalment of Fort George’s Murder Mystery winter series.The scene was set at the Officers’ Winter Ball at the Fort George National Historic Site, and encompassed a few of the major buildings on the site.
The first sold-out whodunit that took place earlier this month was such a success that Peter Martin, special events coordinator at Fort George, added a second caper on Feb. 21. This event also sold out, making the Winter Murder Mystery series an overall success.
Instead of Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett, there was a different set of characters, including Colonel and Mrs. Gold, Captain and Mrs. Green, Captain and Mrs. Silver, Lieutenant Red, Sergeant White, Private Mustard, and Mr. Brown and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Brown. As we were introduced to the characters at the Officers’ Ball of 1812, Captain Green (Chris Gilchrist) is murdered before our very eyes. Who could have perpetrated this heinous crime?
Major Blue, aka. Peter Martin, enlists the audience to become amateur sleuths to help him solve the mystery of the murder. He advises his new recruits to keep in mind three very important questions: Who had the motive? Who had the means? Who had the opportunity?
In a time when we talk about first person perspective video games and virtual reality, it does not get any more immersive than this. Participants wander through the Officers’ Quarters, out to the kitchen and into the blacksmith’s shop in search of clues. The characters are scattered throughout the buildings, while the officers and their staff remained in the rooms in the Officers’ Quarters. Guests find Colonel Gold, played by Scott Finlay, suffering with a mysterious illness, while Mrs. Gold, portrayed by Erin Ronfeld, becomes evasive when asked about why she was seen by Private Mustard, played by Sam Challen, arguing with Captain Green earlier that day.
Mrs. Brown, the cook, played by Julia Grcevic, is in the kitchen, and with the right questioning, guests find out that Mrs. Brown, whose husband died because of Captain Silver’s arrogance, had access to the poisonous spotted water hemlock. Was Mrs. Brown a suspect? Mr. Brown was Mrs. Brown’s brother-in-law and the Fort’s blacksmith, played by Jessy Lepine. He was stationed by the forge in the blacksmith’s shop. He was the strong, silent type, not giving away too much information to the inquisitive guests, who wandered through the buildings interrogating characters with questions until they reconvened in the ballroom to listen to Major Blue’s deduction and the rest of the story.
Martin has found another, truly entertaining way to keep the fort alive with these theatrical events. The murder mysteries are usually staged along with other events during the summer season. These summertime murder mysteries incorporate the entire fort and can handle between 100 to 150 participants. Martin decided that since attendance is slower in the winter, he would add a murder mystery to attract more people. He capped the event at 45 tickets for each show to limit the number of people wandering through the buildings at night, in the cold.
Martin says he is pleased with the reception of the public to these winter-themed events. He hosts and writes murder mysteries for other historical sites, including HMCS Haida in Hamilton, and Woodside National Historic Site in Kitchener. He says that Woodside is a great place to hold a murder mystery event, in a Victorian-style home with a bit of an eerie atmosphere.
Martin writes the plots, and explains it takes a lot of research to complete one of these events. He incorporates historic stories into the murder mysteries. For example, for this caper, he wove a true story about a mutiny that happened during this period into the narrative. He also extensively researched poisons which would have been available in the Niagara Region at the time of the War of 1812.
He incorporated the Parks Canada staff into the narrative, with cast members coming from all areas of the fort. Martin writes about an eight to nine page story, providing the actors with a character page which outlines their character’s background, their relationship to the other characters, and one big clue to move the story along. For example, Martin had the blacksmith (Jessy) play his character as the silent type that gives one word answers. Participants learned from his character about the poison that was used and who had access to it — they just have to ask the right questions.
Martin also used Lepine’s skills as a welder and gave him a crash course in blacksmithing. Lepine stoked the fire and worked metal when he was not being interrogated. His character’s sister, the cook, bustled around the kitchen baking cookies on a real fire with period cooking utensils, which added to the ambiance of the evening.
Martin deems the murder mystery “successful” when about one-third of the participants get the correct answer. As he explained, “you have to find the balance. You don’t want to make it too easy so everyone gets it but you don’t want to make it so hard that it is not enjoyable.”
Ronfeld, as Mrs. Gold, says she enjoys participating in these events. She also helped write some of the story. She says she was introduced to Fort George and murder mysteries at the same time. The very first time she came to the fort was for a murder mystery with her parents when she was 12, and is now participating as an actor and yes, as the murderer. Spoiler: Mrs. Gold in the officers’ ball room with spotted water hemlock.
Martin says he has retired this story and will write something new for the upcoming summer season. Remember to look for Murder Mysteries at Fort George on the Parks Canada/Fort George website at https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/