Reenacting the most famous “Chivaree” in Lopez history

By Gary Alexander

Woodmen Hall will host a murder mystery dinner and play at 5:45 p.m. on Saturday, May 27.

As president of the board of the Lopez Island Historical Society, I like to bring that keyword “story” back into history. Our history is not just about dates and places and family names, but some memorable events that transpired when different families had a decidedly different idea about how to conduct themselves in public. One such story is the deadly outcome of a Lopez “Chivaree” in late 1889.

Last fall, Mary Wondra and I read this story aloud in our Lopez Legends Myths and Yarns (fourth edition). I wanted members of the audience to come up on the stage and act out this drama, but that was expecting too much of a paying audience on short notice, so I tabled the idea for this year’s murder mystery dinner theater at Woodmen Hall, where a troupe of 15 actors will replicate the events of that “dark and stormy night” and the dramatic trial which took place the following May in Port Townsend.

What is a Chivaree? The original French word, Charivari, referred to mock celebrations staged outside the home of newlyweds on their return from a honeymoon. Americans shortened charivari to “chivaree.” If you recall the finale of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Oklahoma,” Curley and Laurie were serenaded on their wedding night with pots and pans, shots in the air and yells. That’s a chivaree.

The German word for the same celebration is called Katzenmusik, literally the sound of screeching cats, from which our word caterwaul has evolved. In Europe, a chivaree was generally a negative event – a way for a small community to enforce their standards for who should marry whom. It was a way to demonstrate communal disapproval of unacceptable remarriages, such as a union between an older widower and a much younger woman, or the too early remarriage by a widow or widower.

Even though the infamous Lopez chivaree in 1889 was likely motivated by good cheer among friends, our play is built upon the hypothesis that there could have been some of that social opprobrium involved, since the groom, Martin Phillips, had buried his first wife the previous year and was marrying a much younger, much sought after young lass. After the Phillips couple was married in Port Townsend, they returned home in choppy mid-December seas to their home above Richardson. Late that night, a group of six men made the trek to the Phillips home – where half their number were shot.

If you want to know the rest of the story, it’s in Chapter 13 (“Mayhem on the Southern Perimeter”) of David Richardson’s 1970 book “Pig War Islands” (page 212-216). We will present these dramatic events true to the historical record – until the final surprising ending.

Or you can come see our play at Woodmen Hall. We will present these dramatic events true to the historical record – until the final surprising ending, that is.

Tickets for the dinner and play are $30 each and available at Paper, Scissors. For more information, call Connie at 468-3275.