Everybody loves good gossip and a scandalous story, whether we like to admit it or not. Scientific research into our psychology has suggested that humans love to gossip and gossip has many functions, one of which is to promote cultural learning.
In the 2004 issue (Vol. 8) of the Review of General Psychology, three researchers, Baumeister, Vohs and Zhang, wrote a paper named Gossip as Cultural Learning, proposing that, “In our view, gossip is a potentially powerful and efficient means of transmitting information about the rules, norms, and other guidelines for living in a culture. On the surface, gossip consists of stories and anecdotes about particular other people, perhaps especially ones that reflect negatively on the target. We readily concede that some of the appeal of gossip is simply learning about other people. However, we think that a second, less obvious function of gossip is to convey information about social norms and other guidelines for behaviour.”
Barbara Worthy’s Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum lecture, Scandal and Gossip, this past Thursday afternoon definitely gave listeners some entertaining stories about other people. Some of the stories were sad and heart-wrenching. Others were scandalous and intriguing. However, all of them conveyed “information about the social norms and guidelines for behaviour,” the difference being that Worthy’s gossip was about people no longer around to dispel any rumours.
As Worthy explained, “I think the public always enjoys juicy, somewhat macabre tales … and when they’re historical, it takes the horror out it. I wouldn’t want to retell stories of that nature, if they are too close to our own times. But in general, stories that incorporate something that is not the norm, or illustrates some kind of behaviour that would have shocked people in their times — those stories are fun and revealing. Not just about the people involved, but about society at that time.”
Last year, when Worthy gathered these stories, she was able to turn them into an event by walking with a group to each location. At the location, she would tell the story of what happened there. This year, things are different, and Worthy had to adapt her presentation to the digital world. “The most challenging aspect was being comfortable using Power Point and operating the slides at the same time as reading my script and keeping them all in sync,” she says, “and not getting stressed if something went a little off, But I think everyone is very forgiving in today’s Zoom world.”
As an experienced writer, director, producer and performer, Worthy showed no stress during the lecture as she presented her gossip in a fun and entertaining way. Worthy was a drama and documentary producer for CBC Radio for two decades, and she enjoyed a 20-year association with the Shaw Festival, including acting, writing, and producing. She teaches at both Brock University and Niagara College, and is a creative producer and content provider for many local arts organizations in the Niagara region. Over the years, she has worked with the museum on specific projects and contracts, but joined the museum staff last fall as the visitor and members services Assistant.
In her new role, she put together this lecture that took viewers on an adventure filled with mystery, romance, murder and espionage. She drew the audience in as she recounted the mystery of the tunnel beneath Parliament Oak School, and the mystery of who really haunts the Olde Angel Inn. She recounted the tragic romance of Isaac Brock and Sophie at Brockamour Manor, and the tale of romance gone sour between Peter and Mary Servos at Palatine Farm. She wove tales of betrayal and murder within the Free Masonry and with the murder of Bartholomew London by his wife and her lover. She ended with the story of Niagara’s spy, Catherine Poole who supplied the British with information on the American occupiers during the War of 1812.
Even though the lecture was on gossip, that does not mean that the stories are unsubstantiated. “Most of the initial research came from hard digging by museum student interns last summer,” Worthy explained. “And other research came from our graveyard tours that we’ve done here for the past eight years.”
She continued, “You have to be a kind of historical detective. What makes sense? What else could be going on? And you have to check multiple sources, of course.”
Some sources also include NOTL locals. “Mostly it’s digging through the archives. And then talking to the locals, and trying to find material that backs it up . . . like checking official documents. And there’s going to be a certain amount of literary licence, but around here you can’t stretch that too far or we’ll hear about it, for sure. The locals are very passionate about their history, and mostly they want us to get it right.”
These tales of gossip may be based in truth with a little pepper thrown in for spice, but they remain a window into the life and culture of the past. They can still serve as cultural lessons on morals and behaviour. As Baumeister, Zhang and Vohs concluded in their study, “Gossip greatly expands the opportunities for cultural learning, because one can benefit from the experiences of others outside of one’s field of vision and sometimes even outside one’s circle of friends.” After experiencing this lecture, we could add, even outside one’s period of time.
Worthy’s lecture is up on the museum’s YouTube channel for viewing, Virtual Scandal & Gossip – Tour of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Worthy added that the museum has been successful in obtaining a couple of grants and she will have the opportunity to write a new musical to complement the upcoming All Along the Waterfront exhibit which is planned for a spring 2021 opening.
“My short ‘docu-musical’ will be called Rollin’ Down the River, and will incorporate some of that same fun stuff on the Zoom lecture, some darker tales of stories about the river, as well as how it was the lifeblood of the region.”
The next lecture in this series, The Cayuga and her Consorts: Remembering beloved Niagara-to-Toronto Steamers, will take place Thurs., Aug. 20 at 4 p.m. and presented by John Henry. Contact Amy Klassen firstname.lastname@example.org or call 905-468-3912 to register.