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Oyez, oyez, oyez! Town criers shout to be heard

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Bill Joseph dressed as a town crier, with his wife Alma as his escort, at the Battle of Bound Brook reenactment in New Jersey in 2001. (Photo courtesy of Bill Joseph)

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Bill Joseph intoned, “the document you are about to hear will affect each and every one of you.”

The portly 63-year-old in black breeches and knee-length gray coat topped with a tri-corner hat paused on stage and looked out on 40,000 people in the hot sun. He then heard his wife Alma’s knees knocking. She leaned over to him and whispered, “How are you doing this?” But he was undaunted.

And so on July 4, 2004, Joseph, a town crier from New Jersey, did as his forebears did more than two centuries ago: He delivered the news of the day. In this case, it was the Declaration of Independence, delivered in front of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C.

Though an important part of British society, criers had a relatively short history in America, as the advent of the newspaper helped put them out of business. Still, criers and newspapers coexisted for awhile, as this ad in one of Benjamin Franklin’s papers attests: “While doing my rounds as a common crier, I found a purse with two initials on it. If you can identify the purse, I will return it for a common crier’s fee.”

Town criers soon fell out of favor in the United States, and did not experience a resurgence until the country's bicentennial in 1976 brought reenactments and a growing fascination in all things 1776. It was as a result of this newly rediscovered interest in history that town crying came to be seen as a pastime in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Besides being very loud people, we’re hams, too,” said Richard LaLena, 52, who founded the American Guild of Town Criers in 1997. Since then, the organization has grown from seven to 37 members. “If you want to be standing up in front of people ringing a bell, you obviously like the attention.”

Though they tend to be history buffs, many town criers are also interested in playing a role in their communities and in doing more than just reliving history. In Canada, where there are about 150 criers, they are hired as official ambassadors of a community, with the greatest concentration in Ontario.

Some parts of the country are enjoying the benefits of a crier for the first time ever.

“I’m creating history because I’m literally the only town crier that ever was in all the communities I’ve been appointed to,” said Joseph, who is the official crier for the town of Belvidere, N.J., as well as for Morris and Sussex counties in New Jersey. “I’m part of their history.”

Criers date back as early as the year 1066, when news of Britain’s invasion by William the Conqueror was spread by individuals employed by the king. With most people not being able to read or write, town criers came to be the most common purveyors of news.

In the United States, criers dressed in their full regalia ply their craft at weddings, retirements or dedications, or before municipal meetings and events. Some towns and counties throughout the U.S.--from Fairhaven, Wash. to Blue Ridge, Ga.--appoint “official” criers, who usually volunteer for the job and are unpaid. They may also attend competitions, including the North American Town Crier Championships that are held every two years and the world championships every four years.

Criers typically are given information to include in their cries, and then they then try to write eloquent, witty proclamations, and to read them with gusto while dressed in period garb. Each begins by ringing a bell (or another attention-getting instrument) and shouting the word “oyez” three times. “Oyez,” descended from the French verb meaning “to hear,” is also used to open sessions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In competition, they are judged on the content of their cry--whether it sticks to the given topic, how clever it is--and how they carry themselves, as well as their clarity and sustained volume. The emphasis on the power of the voice makes crying somewhat similar to singing; in his case, LaLena sought advice on his voice from a neighbor who studied opera.

Former folk singers who did programs in local schools for more than 20 years, Bev and Jerry Praver are the official town criers of San Luis Obispo County and the village of Cambria in California. The husband and wife team works together by alternating back and forth during a cry.

“Milords, Miladies, citizens of Cambria and friends of the Cambria library,” one of their cries, honoring the retirement of a local librarian, proclaims. After extolling the woman's virtues, the cry continues, “Kathleen is now intending to join her husband, Tom, in gratifying her growing grandchildren, making more melodious music, and generally diddling away her time while the rest of us must continue to get up and trudge to work so the county can pay her pension.”

They’ve had their moments in the spotlight, too. LaLena, a truck driver and nondenominational minister who managed to eke out a living by town crying alone for six years, cried for the National Park Service and the History Channel, and opened the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. And Peter Moore, the official town crier of London for more than 30 years, has cried on National Public Radio and the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, LaLena was filling in for a coworker at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia, the site of the First Continental Congress in 1774, when one of the park rangers asked him to go outside and tell the tourists to return to their hotels until further notice Similarly, during a hurricane in northwest New Jersey in 2003, Joseph was asked to go to local grocery stores where people were huddled, seeking shelter, and alert them to the locations of churches and synagogues where the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be providing help the next day.

“It was my opportunity to act really as a news-carrying town crier,” Joseph said. “At no other time have I done anything like that.”

But criers recognize that opportunities like these are rare. Jerry Praver compares the job of a town crier to the job of a lighthouse. “There's no practical purpose to lighthouses anymore,” he said. “It’s a traditional thing. It makes you remember what life might have been like if things were simpler.” Like lighthouses, town criers can still serve a purpose in case of the breakdown of technology--and can still attract interest.

Perhaps it’s that hankering for the simple life that will save the newspaper. But with change, expect confusion. In the future, a newspaper may look as foreign to young people as a man with a mustache in a tri-corner hat, ruffled sleeves and buckled shoes.

“Every time I put on my tri-corner hat, kids thought I was a pirate,” said Praver.

E-mail: jro2111@columbia.edu