Alexandria’s town crier rhymes in uniform
In the heat of the summer, he dons a pressed-wool tricorn hat, a white, billowy-sleeved shirt, a red waistcoat, a white-silk neckerchief, white breeches that reach just below the knee, gray stockings and straight last shoes.
Grasping a brass handbell and a cloth scroll spooled on wooden handles, he booms, “Oyez, oyez, oyez!” And crowds snap to attention.
Benjamin Fiore-Walker, 52, is Alexandria’s town crier, who for 10 years has welcomed visitors, led parades, opened events and introduced officials in his hometown.
“It’s immensely fun,” he said. “I love Alexandria. I love representing Alexandria. At most events, people are happy, excited, and it’s fun welcoming them.”
In our age of split-second communication, a town crier may seem anachronistic. Before moveable type for printing was invented and at a time when most people were illiterate, England’s town criers made official announcements such as the King’s proclamations or news of a royal child’s birth.
In Alexandria today, the town crier is part of the city’s persona. With its cobblestone streets, antique lampposts and historic architecture — some the same as when George Washington walked the streets — Alexandria loves to show off the town’s history.
Conde Nast Traveler’s 2020 Reader’s Choice Awards named Alexandria one of the top five best small cities for the third consecutive year. Southern Living listed it as one of the South’s top 20 in 2020, a city that “has it all,” including locally owned businesses, “signature boutiques” and “historic charm.”
Adding to that charm is the town crier, a role that has existed off and on in Alexandria since the 1700s. Fiore-Walker is one of perhaps 20 criers in the U.S. and 300 in the world. (Firm estimates are hard to come by.)
“In the 30 years that I have worked with the Office of Historic Alexandria, I have had the opportunity to work with four fantastic town criers,” said Gretchen Bulova, director of that office.
“Each of them has brought his own special talent and voice to the job. At its core, the position of the town crier is a historic link to our local community.”
A Ph.D. and associate dean
Fiore-Walker, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, has always had an interest in history. He wore Colonial garb to his Quaker wedding ceremony. He volunteered as a docent at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria and gave pedicab tours to visitors, pedaling and pointing out local historic sites.
His professional background and day job are completely unrelated to his town crier role, Fiore-Walker notes. After getting a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in neuropsychology, he taught psychology and neuropsychology at Georgetown University School of Medicine and went on to be the school’s associate dean for diversity for 20 years.
Today, he manages diversity, equity and inclusion for the American Chemical Society, an organization of professional chemists and chemical engineers.
To land the unpaid crier position, Fiore-Walker beat 11 others in a “cryoff” in which judges rated the strength and clarity of his voice, deportment, verbal and nonverbal communication and interest in Alexandria.
The cry he performed for the tryout recalled the city’s history of Scottish, English, Irish and African people and its heyday as a tobacco port.
Fiore-Walker is the city’s second African-American town crier. Peter Logan, a man born into slavery who bought his freedom, was the first, in 1816. The irony of having a freed slave as the town crier in what before the Civil War was one of the country’s largest slave trading centers is emblematic of Alexandria, Fiore-Walker said.
“Race did not matter as much as you would think. The only thing that mattered was whether you could read.”
Rhyming is part of the job
Fiore-Walker belts out cries, rhyming quatrains that he writes unique to each event, using what he calls “Colonial sentence structure.”
When he’s working, he’s in full Colonial mode, representing the city. His clothing is a uniform, not a costume, he insists. The attire is called a “livery” — an 18th-century term for the elaborate uniform worn by royal servants.
Once in uniform, he puts aside all electronic devices and modern accoutrements and takes on a town crier mindset. For example, en route to events, he does not stop at a store for milk. “A town crier does not need a carton of milk,” he said.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic moved most events online, Fiore-Walker still strives for authenticity. He grumbles that “Hear ye, hear ye” is a Hollywood invention: The proper cry is “Oyez, oyez,” derived from old French, meaning “to hear” — a call used to silence crowds and command attention.
Alexandria’s town crier is a lifetime position. When Fiore-Walker dons Colonial garb and rings his bell throughout Old Town’s cobblestone streets, belting out poetic announcements, he doesn’t consider himself an actor. Rather, he said, he’s a town official doing official town business with pride.
“It means something,” he said.