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Letters to Planet Slade: 2010

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Murder Ballads
Secret London


November 9, 2010. Chico Rodriguez of Florida writes:
“I noticed that you have been following my memorials for awhile. The pictures that you took are incredible. Just to inform you, I will not be painting any walls for a while. I wanted to say thanks for doing a story on me, much appreciated. It is a part of the history of the neighborhood.
“I no longer live in NYC and relocated to Florida almost 2 yrs ago. I have gone back and forth to complete some commissioned work but do not anticipate going back any time soon.
“I like the pic of you that you have on your site. It would make a great piece. Let me know if you would like a canvas done by me, an original piece. I'd give you a great deal. Please fell free to look into my website . I am also on Facebook under Antonio Chico Garcia.”

Paul Slade replies: I've never known how to contact you before, Chico, so it's really good to get your letter. You'll find comments from a few other people who've enjoyed your Alphabet City work at the Metafilter link below.
Now that I've had a chance to explore your website, I can see that I've photographed a lot more of your murals in New York without even realising it. Your World Trade Centre tribute and the Danny memorial with the big skulls are both among my favourites in the city, but somehow I'd never registered that you were the artist behind them. I spent half a day walking round the East Village once looking for that Lil' Al memorial from the NYPD Blue opening credits, but never knew that was your work either.
I love the way New Yorkers responded to your WTC painting by using it as a gathering point for their flowers, poems and so on. It shows the neighbourhood really welcoming a piece of public art, and finding a very practical use for it in their own emotional lives. If painting that one's not providing a service to the city, then I don't know what is.
Like everyone else, I'm a bit short of spare cash at the moment, I'm afraid. Next time I've got a significant birthday coming round, though, perhaps I'll treat myself to a Chico portrait to mark the occasion. Something on the side of Buckingham Palace, perhaps?

October 29, 2010. Greg Mullen of Austin, Texas, writes:
“I stumbled onto a post of yours in a Mudcat thread while researching the song Barb'ry Ellen which I heard for the first time today on a Tom Rush record.
“Immediately after hearing the song I began trying to play my own version of it and I went online to try and track down some lyrics. I got sucked into comparing and thinking about different versions I found and then got sidetracked by your website which I have thoroughly enjoyed so far. I read your piece about The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, and found it really rewarding.
“Anyway, I was interested in the printed version of The Life Death and Love of Barbara Allen that you mention, and wondering if there might be any chance of getting a scanned copy of it. I completely understand if its not possible or just too much of a hassle but I just thought I would ask.
“I don't know if you are a Townes Van Zandt fan but the Tom Rush version of this song reminded me of some of his songs, like Colorado Girl. I don't even know if that melody is at all related to other versions. I can't believe how old it is!
“I guess one of the really great things about learning old songs is feeling connected somehow to people who lived in a time that seems so distant and unrelatable in so many ways. If you get the chance I would love to see those verses and I would love to know some of your other favorite old songs."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for your note. I'm glad you're enjoying the site. I've now sent you a scan of the Barbara Allen broadsheet you mention. It is one of those songs which it seems will never die. It was a good story then, and people evidently still find it a good story today.
One of the reasons I started the British Broadsides section of my site is that I wanted to encourage today's songwriters to take some of the old gallows ballads lyrics and set them to fresh music so they can live again as fully-performed songs. If you or any musician friends are ever moved to record or YouTube any of them, please do send me a link so I can hear the result.
I'm a big Townes Van Zant fan myself, so I'll have to dig out Colorado Girl and compare to Barbara Allen. As for my other favourite old songs, well, there are far too many to list, but I'm sure I'll get round to mentioning most of them on PlanetSlade sooner or later.

Message board round-up

Skeptics among you can find all the sources for my latest blurb box ("Quotes quiver at quintessence of quiet quality") below. I don't just make this stuff up, you know!




Word magazine


September brought some interesting new information about Mary Arnold the Female Monster. This, you'll recall, is the Victorian gallows ballad about a woman who's supposed to have used two hungry beetles to deliberately blind her own baby - a tactic she hoped would produce more cash when she used it as a prop for begging.
The only information we've had on this tale so far has come from the two Mary Arnold ballad sheets I've already written about. Now Lee Jackson's excellent Victoriana blog The Cat's Meat Shop has found a Times clipping telling what seems to be the same story. Reproducing a June 17, 1843, story from the Reading Mercury, The Times of June 30 that year says:

“A Monster. –A day or two since, a gentleman traveling along the road near Colnbrook, had his attention attracted to the screams of a child in the care of a tramping woman, who had with her, two other children totally blind. The cries of the child were so distressing, that he insisted on knowing the cause; but; not getting a satisfactory answer, he forcibly removed a bandage from its eyes, when, horrid to relate, he found these encased with two small perforated shells, in which were two live black beetles, for the purpose of destroying the sight. The woman was instantly seized, and given into custody; and, at the magistrate's meeting, at Eton, on Wednesday last, committed for trial. There is too much reason to fear that the wretch produced the blindness of the other two children, by similar means."

Jackson's also found a fictional version of the story, this one published in an 1846 edition of The Mysteries of London. This was a very cheap, very sensational, very popular weekly magazine aimed at the same working class audience which was buying the gallows ballads. It was edited, and often written too, by the roguish George Reynolds.
Here, Reynolds is describing the conversation between two ne'er do wells in a West Smithfield slum:

"'There's nothin' like a blind child to excite compassion,' added the woman coolly. 'I know it for a fact,' she continued, after a pause, seeing that her husband did not answer her. 'There's old Kate Betts, who got all her money by traveling about the country with two blind girls; and she made 'em blind herself too - she's often told me how she did it; and that has put the idea into my head.'
"'And how did she do it?' asked the man, lighting his pipe, but not glancing towards his wife; for although her words had made a deep impression upon him, he was yet struggling with the remnant of a parental feeling, which remained in his heart in spite of himself.
"'She covered the eyes over with cockle shells, the eye-lids, recollect, being wide open; and in each shell there was a large black beetle. A bandage tied tight round the head, kept the shells in their place; and the shells kept the eyelids open. In a few days the eyes got quite blind, and the pupils had a dull white appearance'."

Jackson rightly cautions that The Times' failure to name any of the parties involved is suspicious, as is the fact that Mary's story seems to appear nowhere else. It's entirely possible that The Times and the Reading Mercury before it were simply repeating an urban myth they found too juicy too resist.
"In the case of something this surprising, I would expect to see a report of the trial, although one can never be 100% sure when trying to prove a negative," Jackson says. "What is definitely suspicious is the lack of names in the newspaper clipping; neither the man involved nor the culprit."
On the other hand, Mary's ballad sheets contain a lot of biographical details about her which don't appear in either of the two versions Jackson's uncovered. These include her date of birth (October 10, 1809), her family background, and details of her escapades from age 14 onwards. The ballad writers certainly weren't above making up a story from scratch and then claiming it was true, but I can't think of another example where they've bothered to go into this kind of detail without a genuine court transcript to work from.
The other possibility is that there's another fictional version of this tale which we've not yet seen, but which provided the ballad's writers with all their additional details. The fact that the two Mary Arnold sheets I've already posted here are so consistent with one another suggests they shared a common source of some kind.
At the very least, Jackson has let us date on this elusive ballad to 1843, and identified the Eton magistrates' court where Mary's legal process seems to have begun. Armed with this information, I contacted the good people at Reading Borough Libraries to ask if they could find any trace of Jasper Ewell, described in one of Mary's broadsheets as "a large land holder's son who lived near and was continually haunting after Mary". The implication is that it's Wicked Sir Jasper who left Mary with child, and if anyone's name had survived in the records, you'd think it would that of a large land-owning family like his.
Sadly, RBL's Katie Amos could find no trace of him. "I've had a look on both the 1841 and 1851 censuses and there is no sign of a Jasper Ewell (or Youell or any other variation the computer could come up with)," she writes. "Nor do there seem to be any of that surname in Berkshire. The strongest concentrations of the name seem to be in the Kent, Norfolk and surrounding counties, with a few 'up North', and of course in the London area."
I shall see what else I can discover. And while I'm doing that, take a look at Jackson's site for yourself. You can find his discussion of The Times' story here and The London Mysteries extract here.


August 24, 2010. Jim Livingston of Braintree, Massachusetts, writes:
“Please forgive me if you consider this a commercial mailing, but I thought you might enjoy listening to Who Put the Arsenic in Mrs. Bliss's Chowder? which consists of new lyrics to the 1890s novelty tune Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder? The song does promote a book, but I think you can enjoy the song even if you don't buy the book. Just click on
“My own version of the song was based on a real-life event, the poisoning of Evelina Bliss with arsenic-laced clam chowder in NYC in 1895, and the 1896 murder trial of her daughter (my cousin Mary Alice Livingston) for the crime. I heartily recommend the book that inspired the song, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York (Author: J. Livingston). Description below:

"'Arsenic and Clam Chowder recounts the sensational 1896 murder trial of Mary Alice Livingston, a member of one of the most prestigious families in New York, who was accused of murdering her own mother, Evelina Bliss. The bizarre instrument of death, an arsenic-laced pail of clam chowder, had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter, and Livingston was arrested in her mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother's funeral. In addition to being the mother of four out-of-wedlock children, the last born in prison while she was awaiting trial, Livingston faced the possibility of being the first woman to be executed in New York's new-fangled electric chair, and all these lurid details made her arrest and trial the central focus of an all-out circulation war then underway between Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's Journal.'

"PS. One US murder ballad I used to enjoy singing is Monongahela Sal, but as far as I know, that did not relate a real-life murder. Just another 'he did me wrong' song."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for that. I didn't know the Overalls original, but oddly enough there's a thread about it on the Mudcat forum at the moment, which you'll find here.
The only version of this song I did know is Harry 'The Hipster' Gibson's Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs Murphy's Ovaltine? which was recorded (and instantly banned from radio play) in 1947.
I don't know Monongahela Sal either, but if you can point me to a recording of it, I'll certainly give it a listen. I limit myself to songs that tell real-life stories on the site, because otherwise there's just far too many of the buggers, but I'm always intrigued to hear fictional examples too.

August 31, 2010. Jim Livingston of Braintree, Massachusetts, writes:
“Thanks for calling my attention to the Mudcat forum. Someone there noted the 1901 recording of Overalls, and you can hear this played on an old Edison phonograph of that period on:
“I first heard Monongahela Sal on a Pete Seeger LP many years ago. I haven't found his version on the web, but there's a group doing it on YouTube at A Google search also turned up the lyrics elsewhere, plus a discussion of its origin. Although it was not precisely based on one real-life event, it was based on a discussion of several real-life stories told by a group of riverboat captains."

Paul Slade replies: “Apologies for the late reply, but I've just got back from a few weeks away. Oddly enough, I saw a live version of Overalls performed during my trip.
I went to see Frank McCourt's play The Irish and How They Got That Way at the Irish Rep in New York, and they gave us a few lines from the song in Act II. Two of the actors squared up their fists at the lip of the stage and belted it out in a very pugnacious way.
I must admit I'd never heard of the Livingston murder case before, but it's evidently the inspiration for all the songs that have followed. The murder itself in 1896 gets parodied as Overalls (first published in the 1890s and first recorded in 1901). That song produces a parody of its own (Benzedrine) in 1947 - perhaps inspired by some 50th anniversary coverage in the press - and then your own Arsenic version in 2010.
This completes a delightfully neat little circle, bringing the song right back to its origins and to the bosom of the family that spawned it. It's just the sort of song trail I love.

October 2, 2010: Jim Livingston of Braintree, Massachusetts, writes:
“I appreciate learning that they refer to the original Overalls song in the McCourt play, and I'll try to find out more about that. I read on the web somewhere that Mick Moloney sang the Overalls song at McCourt's memorial service. He knew McCourt and his wife, and knew that Overalls was one of her favorite songs."


September 19, 2010, Irene Smith of Cyberspace writes:
"I read very quickly through your Lobby Lud articles and could not see when he went to the Isle of Man.
"I still have a faded cutting of the time my mother caught Lobby Lud in Douglas. She was always so proud of it and told me he took her and her sister to drink champagne. The money she won paid for an additional week at the Isle of Man.
"She was a super sleuth, who he called 'indefatigable Lillian'.”

Paul Slade replies: I've just had a look through my Lobby Lud files and I can't find any reference to him visiting the Isle of Man in his initial 1927 campaign - although Douglas council did get in an early request to have him call there.
That first year of the scheme - launched by the Westminster Gazette - was all I really set out to cover, but I do mention Lobby's later career in passing on page 12 of my piece:
"As it turned out, all Lobby's efforts were not enough to save the Gazette, which was taken over by the Daily News in January 1928. The Daily News itself was merged into the News Chronicle two years later. Lobby migrated to each paper's summer campaign in turn, but with steadily diminishing results. Chinn continued to play Lobby until the 1930 campaign was complete, and then handed the role over to another reporter. By the time this replacement reached his 1933 News Chronicle tour, the prize on offer had shrunk to just 10, and the biggest fuss he could report was a few bungled challenges."
The clipping you sent me is from the News Chronicle, which means it must date from Lobby's career in 1930 or later. For what it's worth, the copy reads very much like that of Willy Chinn (the original Lobby), so my guess is it dates from 1930 itself, which was Chinn's final tour in the role.

Of Carmine, William, Eric and Harry

The main point of the US trip I mentioned to Jim above was to do some first hand murder ballads research in North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. I don't want to get into that until I come to write up the individual songs involved, but the trip also touched on some other topics we've discussed here on PlanetSlade, and I can talk about those now. Here's a few extracts from the journal I kept while traveling round.

Monday, August 30, 2010: Arrive in New York on PlanetSlade's first field trip, get settled in at my hotel, then nip out round the corner to Jim Hanley's Universe, the city's finest comics shop, to find a copy of The Flash Companion by Keith Dallas (TwoMorrows Publishing, 2008). This is the book Steven Jamrozik mentioned in his recent letter about my Superheroes in Court piece, but which I'd been unable to find in London.
Steven flagged up the old Carmine Infantino interviews Dallas reproduces in his book, and the thought had been nagging me ever since that these interviews might contain something that made my own account of Infantino's DC lawsuit look foolish or incomplete. I knew I wouldn't be able to put that idea out of my head until I'd seen the book for myself, which is why I was so pleased to find that copy at Hanley's
Thankfully, there's nothing in the Dallas book that contradicts anything I wrote on Infantino's case, and quite a bit there that gives it added support. The most striking aspect of the old interviews - to me at least - is the two markedly different accounts of the Silver Age Flash's creation which Infantino offers - one from before two of the other key players' deaths and one afterwards.
In an extract from his 2001 book, The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino, the artist takes credit for the character's genesis only as part of a three-man team with DC editor Julius Schwartz and writer Bob Kanigher. "The creation of the new character was a joint creation between Julie, Bob and myself," he says.
Both Kanigher and Schwartz died shortly after that book was published: Kanigher in May 2002 and Schwartz in February 2004. Infantino filed his complaint against DC in June 2004, arguing now that The Flash had been entirely derived from his old character Captain Whiz.
"I brought in Captain Whiz, and that became the character that you see today as The Flash," he tells Dallas in a 2007 interview. If upheld in court, that account could have put The Flash outside DC's normal work-for-hire rules, and thus strengthen Infantino's claim to a financial stake in the character.
Infantino withdrew his lawsuit on undisclosed terms just three months after launching it. Asked by Dallas why he'd never mentioned Captain Whiz before, he replies: "It's because of my lawsuit against DC. That's the only reason why I began talking about Captain Whiz. If DC were nice at that point when I started to sue them, then I wouldn't have mentioned it".

Saturday, September 4, 2010: I've written about the excellent William Castle's innovative methods of promoting his films before, but never had the chance to experience them for myself.
This seemed a shame, because I knew from John Water's writings about Castle that his gimmicks included Emergo, a glowing rubber skeleton which shot out on a wire above the audience seats during The House on Haunted Hill and Percepto, an electronic buzzer which sounded beneath selected auditorium seats as The Tingler's monster slug electrocuted a matching movie audience on-screen.
New York's Film Forum on Houston Street had a William Castle festival on while I was in town, so I stopped by there on Saturday afternoon to see The Tingler for myself. The cinema had made every effort to replicate Castle's gimmicks, mounting a life size skeleton of its own on a ceiling pulley and hoisting it out of the shadows during Vincent Price's pioneering acid trip.
Castle's colour effects were all present and correct too, including the swirling coloured gels of the acid trip itself and sudden stabs of colour for a blood-filled bathtub and sink in what is otherwise an entirely black-and-white movie. The Tingler was released in 1959, a full ten years before Easy Rider's similar acid effects, but somehow Castle never seems to get any credit for inventing this technique. In the bathroom scene, he ensured that everything but the blood remained in monochrome by painting the whole set in black, white and grey and making his actress wear grey make-up throughout the scene. Genius!
The Tingler's plot contrives to have its villain live above a fleapit movie theatre so that, when the monster itself escapes through a loose floorboard, everyone knows it must have fallen into the auditorium below. The creature itself is a giant rubber slug, extracted as a parasite from one of its dead victims' spines, which kills by inducing extreme fear. The only defence against it is to release your fear by screaming as loud as you can.
When we reached that point in the film, the projector appeared to break down - just as Castle had intended - the room plunged into darkness and Vincent Price's voice boomed out saying: "The Tingler is loose in THIS theatre! Scream! Scream for your lives!"
A loud buzzer sounded from somewhere behind my seat, and members of the box office staff rushed in shouting, waving torches about, grabbing random members of the audience by the neck and shouting "It's here! The Tingler is here!" Ten rows in front of me, I saw a shower of popcorn suddenly fly into the air, though whether that came from a genuinely startled audience member or a cinema staffer I don't know.
There was a bit of kerfuffle as they announced someone had fainted and was being treated by "trained medical personnel", Castle's effect of a silhouetted Tingler crawling across the projector's lens appeared on screen, and then we finally saw Price recapture it so the movie could resume. There had been more laughter than actual screams while all this was going on, but I dare say that was true in 1959 as well, and it detracted nothing from the experience. This was a rare chance to see one of Castle's films exactly as the master had intended, and Film Forum did a great job staging it. Watching it on DVD at home just wouldn't be the same.

Monday, September 27, 2010: After completing my murder ballads research in the States, I had a few days free in California. Eric Pace, the great grandson of Black Swan founder Harry Pace, is a film student there, so we'd arranged to meet for dinner while I was in San Francisco.
As I explain in my piece about Black Swan, Harry was a light-skinned black who, after a lifetime of trying to improve black people's lot in the US, found himself regarded as a race traitor by the more militant blacks who followed him. Harry's crime, in their eyes, was moving his family into a prosperous white suburb, and he responded to the black protestors who followed him there by disappearing into the white community, passing for white everywhere he went and ensuring his children did the same.
It was a sad end to a remarkable life, and it's only in the past five years that Eric and his family have discovered their true background. I knew Eric was working on a film documentary about both Harry's life story and his own family's journey of discovery since, and I was interested to hear how it was going. What I didn't know until we met was that Eric's studies at the University of the Pacific had already netted him a festival award for Baba Yaga, the short film he made there with fellow student Philips Shum, in 2009.
As we sat at the restaurant bar waiting for our table, Eric told me he'd been researching Harry's life for about four years now, and working on his movie for two. So far, this had produced between 30 and 45 minutes of edited footage, including interviews with Minnie Handy-Hanson (WC Handy's grand-daughter) and Elliot Hurwitt, two of the Pace experts my producer and I had interviewed for that Radio 4 Dirty Blues programme.
Minnie had let Eric film her interview in Handy Brothers' old New York offices, he told me, a chaotic space just off Times Square crammed with the memorabilia of the past 90 years. Harry Pace and WC Handy had fallen out when Pace broke up their partnership to form his own Black Swan venture back in 1921, and Minnie rather sweetly told Eric she saw this interview as an opportunity for the two clans to reconcile.
Eric had also obtained some extracts from Bessie Smith's 1929 film St Louis Blues, now in the public domain, which reconstructed her famous encounter with Harry, and buy the footage of a vintage interview with John Johnson, the highly-successful publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines, who had always considered Harry his mentor, and was happy to say so on camera. He hoped to give the film a personal edge by incorporating his own family's story in it too, and had shot some interview footage of himself and his Dad discussing it all to bring this home. You can get a taste of the material Eric's gathered so far by viewing his teaser YouTube trailer here.
As a film student, Eric was able to borrow cameras and editing equipment free of charge, and draw on the services of a cameraman friend he knew from the course. It all sounded very promising, and Eric had found some additional evidence that the Bessie Smith spitting story is true too. He's promised to keep us in touch with his Harry Pace film as it progresses, so watch this space.

Message board round-up

The source comments for my latest collection of delightfully flattering blurbs ("Reader reaction renders repeated radiant respect") can be found at the links below.

24th State


Comics Journal



The Never-ending Pool,com_fireboard/Itemid,22/func,view/id,76063/catid,6/

The Profaner

Pervasive Games

Spooky Librarians

Steve Earle

Who Is Your Lawyer?


July 16, 2010. Steven Jamrozik of Chicago writes:
“Carmine Infantino reached a settlement with DC Comics out of court. Limited details can be found in The Flash Companion published by Twomorrows Publishing.
“Basically, Carmine Infantino created a character for a newspaper strip called 'Captain Whiz and the Colors of Evil'. Carmine was a fan of Captain Marvel and based the name on the character and the title of his book. Carmine shopped it around to various people including Joe Simon, but nobody would buy it as superheroes were not selling.
“When Julius Schwartz wanted to bring back the name of The Flash but with a new character, Carmine offered him Captain Whiz. Villains were also changed. Carmine's 'Purple' character became Gorilla Grodd. The 'White' character became Captain Cold. 'Blue' became Captain Boomerang. 'Green' became The Top. Mirror Master was 'Orange' and 'Yellow' became Reverse Flash.
“DC was skeptical as the Captain Whiz story was told after Julius Schwartz' death. Carmine said that in addition to Schwartz and Bob Kanigher, Arnold Drake and Joe Simon were aware of Captain Whiz. Because Arnold Drake and Joe Simon were still alive, a settlement was reached.”

Paul Slade replies:
Steven's referring to my Superheroes in Court piece, of course, and specifically to the box copy about Carmine Infantino's 2004 lawsuit claiming a stake in The Flash and several other DC characters.
I haven't been able to find a copy of The Flash Companion on this side of the Atlantic, but I had read the bare bones of the Captain Whiz story elsewhere. Until I got your letter though, Steven, it had never occurred to me that Whiz's adversaries may have been reincarnated as the predominant colours in each Rogues' Gallery costume. Even the grey/blue highlights sometimes used on Grodd's fur could be said to give him a slightly purple tinge.
For those unfamiliar with the Rogues, the picture above shows Captain Boomerang and the Pied Piper seated, with Captain Cold, Mr Element, the Trickster, the Weather Wizard, Reverse Flash, Abra Kadabra, the Mirror Master, the Top and Heat Wave ranged from left to right behind them. The big hairy fellow at the back is Grodd, of course.
July 20, 1010. Panama of the Mojo message board writes:
“Just read your piece on Masquerade and found it as fascinating as I have found the other articles on your site. I'm being picky but on page 2 of your Lobby Lud article you describe Max Mallowan as an architect when he was an archaeologist.
“Keep up the good work. I have thoroughly enjoyed your articles.”

Paul Slade replies:
“Thanks very much for that, Panama. I knew perfectly well that Mallowan was an archaeologist when I wrote that piece, but for some reason I typed “architect” anyway. I'm grateful for a chance to correct the error, which I've now done.
Head in the clouds, face in the book

I've very little to report this month on PlanetSlade's attempts to colonise the rest of the internet, bar the fact that I have finally started a Facebook page for the site, which you'll find here.
I've only just set it up, so it's a bit of a ghost town at the moment - tumbleweed blowing through the streets, a lonely church bell sounding in the distance, that sort of thing. If anyone feels like scurrying on over there and livening the place up a bit, that'd be much appreciated.
I'm still not quite sure why I want a Facebook page, mind you, but with half a billion people now signed up there I guess it's bound to come in handy one way or another. For the moment, I'll be using it to post a little notice every time I add something new to PlanetSlade and keep an eye on any comments you may care to add. Whether it flourishes or not is really up to you.
Elsewhere in the forest, I have found a couple of intriguing little time-wasters online recently. The first is a website called I Write Like, which takes a short sample of your prose, analyses it, and tells you which famous author your style most closely resembles. Here's what the critic Bob Fiore had to say about it:

“The natural test you'd want to put this thing to is to try it out on famous authors themselves. It started out pretty well; a paragraph of  Huckleberry Finn turned up Mark Twain, and a paragraph from Dubliners turned up James Joyce. However, from this point forward performance degrades considerably. I'm figuring Ernest Hemingway ought to be an easy one, but when I put in a chunk of  Hills Like White Elephants it came back Ian Fleming. I put in a chunk of  Red Wind by Raymond Chandler and it came back Margaret Mitchell. I put in a chunk of  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald and it came back Stephen King. [...] All this should tell you just how much salt you should take this with.”

Obviously just a bit of fun, then, and not to be taken remotely seriously. I was bored, however, so I plugged a few paragraphs from my Stagger Lee essay into the site and it came back “William Shakespeare”. First try, no cheating, honest to God. I should have quit there, but I couldn't resist trying again, so I fed it a section from my Hattie Carroll piece, and this time it told me I write like Stephen King. I'd be happy to take either of those, but I can't help feeling Fiore's salt is mounting fast.
Exhausted by my efforts to meld Macbeth with Carrie - a neater match than you might think - I turned next to This takes whatever prose you give it and produces a word cloud, matching each word's typesize to the frequency with which you've used it. I tried this out with the first page of each PlanetSlade piece, and you can view the gallery it produced here. I think the Stagger Lee one's prettiest.
Message board round-up

The full quotes from which I've extracted my latest blurbs can be found here:



BBC Radio messageboards

The Comics Reporter


Harmony Central



Mudcat Café

Neil Alien


Thanks very much to everyone who entered PlanetSlade's competition to win one of Trikont Records' new murder songs CDs. All the entries are now in, the draw's been made, and we know who the winners are.
I asked you to name the two old English folk songs which give Knoxville Girl its earliest roots, and the answers I was looking for were The Bloody Miller and The Berkshire Tragedy. Many other songs have fed into Knoxville Girl along the way, but it was specifically its earliest roots we asked for, and nothing beats the two songs named on that count.
The competition brought in a gratifying selection of entrants from around the globe, producing winners who live in Britain, the United States and Germany. The four lucky names drawn from Stagger Lee's magic Stetson are:

David Suff of Rutland, UK;
Ryan Harris of Louisiana, USA;
Pete Flood of Hampshire, UK, and;
Gordon Baxter of British Forces, Germany

Congratulations to those four gentlemen, whose copies of the CD are on the way. It's a fine collection of what Trikont calls “songs from the dark side of the soul”, with contributions from Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, The Stanley Brothers and many more. Details of the CD - including a full tracklist - can be found here or on Trikont's own site.
May 26, 2010. Holly Gramazio of Hide&Seek writes:
“I curate the Sandpit, a monthly event for games designers, theatre-makers, writers and artists to try out new work at the intersection of games and other cultural forms. Some of them have made games before, but some are completely new to the form. There's a bit more information at
“I've really enjoyed your articles on PlanetSlade, and I thought I'd get in touch to ask whether you've ever considered making some sort of live playful event yourself. We're currently running a series of events in partnership with LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre), culminating in an event at the National Theatre on 9-11 July. If there's anything you might be interested in trying out, it'd be great to talk about it.”

[Holly and I met a week after this e-mail came in to kick a few ideas around for the July event. It's too early yet to say whether anything will come of them, but watch this space.]
May 4, 2010: Anne Renaud, of Westmount, Quebec, writes:
“I am a writer of children's books. I am currently working on a book on Anna Swan and will be visiting the Anna Swan museum in June, in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. I will also be speaking with her great-grand nephew, Dale Swan.
“I contacted the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle for any archival documentation they might have relating to the gifts given to Anna and her husband by Queen Victoria, and of her command performances before the Queen. However, the archivist has informed me they have no record of these events. This baffles me.
“Please let me know if you have come across any documents, newspapers or otherwise that I might consult to corroborate these facts. Any assistance you can provide would be greatly appreciated.”

Paul Slade replies:
I contacted the Royal Archives while researching my own piece in 2006, and received a similarly disappointing reply from assistant archivist Julie Snelling. She was unable to find any mention of Martin and Anna in Queen Victoria's journal and no mention of the gifts in her Privy Purse records. “This is not to say that Queen Victoria did not see Martin van Buren Bates and Anna Swan during their time in London,” she said. “But, unfortunately, no relevant documentation appears to have survived.”
Queen Victoria's journal was notoriously bowdlerised by Princess Beatrice, her youngest daughter, who destroyed any entry which she considered unseemly or insufficiently flattering to her mother's majesty. All that survives is about a third of Victoria's original, which may explain why there's now no mention of Martin and Anna there.
I can't explain the lack of a reference to the gifts in the Privy Purse records, but I take some comfort from the fact that the archivists feel this can't be used to rule anything out.
My main source for the details of the gifts is the Anna Swan website referenced as point (4) in my own article. That's a museum site, which Dale Swan is associated with, and which appears well-researched and reliable in every other particular. Unfortunately, they don't give sources for their own material on the site, but Dale may be able to put you in touch with someone there who can help.
Lee Cavin's 1959 biography of Martin,
There Were Giants on the Earth, also mentions both the gifts and the presentation to Queen Victoria. On the gifts, Cavin says: “The bride wore a gown of white satin with orange blossoms. Among her jewelry was a cluster diamond ring, given her as a wedding present by Queen Victoria. The groom wore a dress suit, with a watch and chain which was also a wedding gift from the Queen of England.”
The paragraph mentioning the presentation quotes directly from Martin's own writing, and says: “We appeared twice before the Queen, once at Buckingham Palace and once at Windsor”.
Please keep in touch as your book progresses. I'd love to give it a mention on publication and tell any interested PlanetSlade readers where they can buy a copy. And if you ever get a definitive answer to the records question, do let me know.

2017 update: Two years after Anne and I had this exchange, the Royal Archives put the text from Queen Victoria's diaries online, which gave me a chance to confirm for myself that there's no mention of Martin or Anna. There isn't. One thing the 1871 diary does tell us, though, is that Victoria spent the whole of the period from May 17 till June 20 that year living at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The only opportunity she'd have had to see Martin and Anna at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle before their wedding, therefore, would have been in the first half of May. Cavin gives a date of June 2, 1871, for the first of their two meetings with Victoria, but the diaries show this can't possibly be right. I've made a couple of small changes to my original essay to reflect this new information.
April 13, 2010. Matt Brown of writes:
“I've just read your British Broadsides essay. It's an excellent read, so I've put a post up on commending it to readers.
“Also, I think I spotted a small error. On page 1, you have 'Returning to the Dials for his 1888 Dictionary of London, Dickens...' I'm pretty sure the dictionary was the work of his son (also Charles Dickens) rather than the master himself (Dickens Senior had died 18 years earlier).
“Finally, have you chanced across Another Nickel in the Machine's site? Although the author concerns himself with 20th century tales, the tone and story choice remind me of your own site. It's always a cracking read.
“I hope our post sends a few new readers your way. I'm looking forward to reading some of the other London essays you have on there.”

Paul Slade replies:
Thanks very much for that, Matt, and thanks also for your kind words over at
You're dead right about Charles Dickens Jr, of course, and I've now corrected my error. The facsimile edition of the 1888 dictionary I've got credits it simply to "Charles Dickens", and I'm afraid I just assumed it was the great man himself. To be honest, I didn't even know until I got your letter that Dickens had a writer son, let alone that the son had chosen such similar subjects as his Dad.
I suppose that, by the time Charles Jr began publishing, the Dickens brand was so firmly associated with London it would have been quite a valuable asset in its own right. You can hardly blame the boy for capitalising on this, or his original publishers for slipping such a famous name into their book's title and credits. If a few unwary buyers foolishly made the same mistake I did, then I'm sure that didn't hurt sales.
Sleevenote Surprise

Honorary citizenship on PlanetSlade this month goes to Peanut138 from California, USA, Seanyboy from Halifax in Yorkshire and Dave Henderson of the music magazine Mojo.
Peanut138 made the grade by thinking to mention my British Broadsides piece on StumbleUpon. That sent a couple of thousand extra visitors to PlanetSlade's door, and we want him to know it's much appreciated. Seanyboy did similar sterling work by promoting my own Ronald Knox plug from Metafilter's Projects page (where you're allowed to talk about your own work) to the main page (where you must rely on others to recommend you). Once again, many extra visitors came running this way as a result.
Dave Henderson's efforts are equally deserving. I took myself off to Brick Lane a couple of Sundays ago to have a mooch round Rough Trade, London's last big independent record shop. Browsing through the racks there more or less at random, I came across a CD compilation containing a dozen or so early versions of Frankie & Johnny, one of the murder ballads I've written about here.
I'd found the same CD once before in Rough Trade, but passed it over because I've already got quite a few of the tracks on it. This time, though, I decided what the hell, and added it to the small pile of stuff I was buying.
Half an hour later, I was in the Starbucks behind Spitalfields market glancing through my purchases when I opened up the Frankie booklet and found Dave's sleevenotes full of praise for PlanetSlade's F&J coverage, not to mention a note of the site's full web address. The CD's unlikely to sell in any huge numbers - at least by mainstream standards - but it was a cheering experience nonetheless. I think it was the fact that I'd honestly bought it as a punter, and had no idea what I'd find inside until the moment when I actually found it. So cheers, Dave, you made my afternoon.
The CD in question, by the way, has 15 excellent versions of Frankie on it, including those by Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Big Bill Broonzy, Champion Jack Dupree, Ethel Waters, Jimmie Rodgers, King Oliver, and Duke Ellington. It's on the ever-excellent Righteous label, and you can find full details at their website.
Message board round-up

You'll find the main sources of comments in my latest blurb column on the threads below. Sometimes there's an interesting discussion to follow there too.

Harmony Central

Charlie Gillett

Mudcat Café




To help PlanetSlade celebrate its first birthday on May 1, those nice people at Trikont Records have given me four copies of their new compilation CD Murder: Songs From The Dark Side of the Soul.
It's a fine selection of early blues, country and calypso from artists like Jimmie Rodgers, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lord Executor, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Blind Boy Fuller, Louis Armstrong, Champion Jack Dupree, Billie Holiday, The Stanley Brothers and many more. Two of the key songs we've discussed here are on the CD too, with Ethel Waters doing Frankie & Johnny and Archibald tackling Stack-A-Lee.
So: all good stuff, then, and clearly deserving a prime place in your collection. All you have to do to enter our prize draw for one of the four copies on offer is answer this simple question:

Knoxville Girl has its earliest roots in two old English folk songs. Name both of them.

I'll draw four entries at random from all those received by midnight on May 31 (London time), notify the winners by e-mail and get their CDs in the post next day. When you enter, please include a postal address so I know where to find you, and mark your e-mail's subject line “Trikont Murder Competition”. I won't pass your contact details to anyone else, but I might use them to tell you about future PlanetSlade projects. Only one entry per person, please.
Trikont's a great little label - John Peel used to love their stuff - and you should definitely buy as many of their CDs as you can. In the meantime, here's the full track-list for that Murder compilation:

Jimmie Rodgers - Gamblin' Bar Room Blues 2
Ethel Waters - Frankie & Johnny
Sonny Boy Williamson - Your Funeral My Trial
Lord Executor - Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard
Billy Boy Arnold - Prisoner's Plea
Wilmouth Houdini and his Humming Birds - Bandsman Shooting Case
Roosevelt Sykes - .44 Blues
Memphis Minnie - Biting Bug Blues
Bessie Smith - Send Me to the 'lectric Chair
Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris - Down in the Willow
Blind Boy Fuller - Pistol Slapper Blues
A'nt Idy Harper and the Coon Creek Girls - Poor Naomi Wise
Honeyboy - Bloodstains on the Wall
Little Walter and his Jukes - Boom Boom, Out Goes the Light
Louis Armstrong with Louis Jordan - You Rascal, You
Champion Jack Dupree - I'm Going Down with You
The Stanley Brothers - Pretty Polly
Archibald - Stack-A-Lee Parts 1 and 2
Henry Thomas - Bob McKinney
GB Grayson and Henry Whitter - Rose Conley
Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit
Lonnie Johnson - Got the Blues for Murder Only
The Delmore Brothers - The Fugitive's Lament

February 19, 2010. Kelly Bellis of Horizon Surveying Company writes: “You've written a wonderful article on Masquerade! And kudos too for the radio program!!
“There's one item, however, which stood out as uninformed, hitting me so hard between the eyes that I had to stop and jot this down. Near the middle of page 7, you say: "Catherine's Cross is just half a degree off the Greenwich Meridian line. Therefore, when the sun is on the equator - as it is on Spring Equinox - its mid-day shadow points almost exactly due north”.
“Every place on earth has its own local meridian and every place on every day of the year for the instant of its local noon - the time when the sun is at its highest for any given day - all shadows point to precisely due north. The date of Equinox - and it wouldn't have mattered if it had been the Spring or Autumn Equinox - is a fixed occurrence allowing Kit to instruct the precise moment in the determination of the shadow's length.
“Thank you very much for writing this splendid article, I can't wait to get back and finish reading it!”

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for pointing that out, Kelly. Embarrassing as it is when someone catches me out, at least it gives me a chance to look less stupid in the future. I've corrected the offending paragraph now.

[Before making that correction, I contacted Kelly again with a few questions to make sure I'd understood his points correctly. His answers were fascinating, so I'm reproducing our exchange below.]

PS: There's nothing special about the Greenwich Meridian as far as north-pointing shadows are concerned. Whatever longitudinal reading you pick, shadows there at noon (local time) will point due north. Have I got that right?

KB: “That's correct - nothing special about zero longitude in terms of 'Catherine's long finger'; however, understand that it's local solar time.
“Local time is generally understood to mean the local time zone; e.g., Eastern Standard Time. In other words, noon in local solar time is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky for any location and is when any shadow cast is along the meridian of the location; i.e., due north. Noon in local time is generally understood as 12:00 o'clock. The differences between local solar noon and 12:00 o'clock civil time become increasingly greater the further the observer is from the Standard Time Meridian for their time zone and vary daily.”

PS: BUT do noonday shadows point north all over the Earth, or just in the Northern Hemisphere?

KB: “Excellent question. The answer is no, only in the Northern Hemisphere - in the Southern Hemisphere shadows point south. The answer to why is very nicely demonstrated at the Exploratorium. It also neatly addresses the exceptions which exist between the Tropics of Cancer (23 26' 22" N) and Capricorn (23 26' 22" S).”

PS: Equally, there's nothing special about the Spring (or Autumn) Equinox as far as shadow length is concerned. Williams could have specified mid-day on any date of the year, and the shadow of Catherine's Cross would have reached just as predictable a length. It would have been a different length from the one on Spring Equinox, of course, but just as easy to predict one year on. Have I got that right?

KB: “As for the aesthetic significance of Equinox and the story in Masquerade, I can't say, but in terms of predicting where the overshadowing end of Catherine's finger would be at mid-day, that specific day of the year would need to be known; eg, August 7, etc. Without knowing the specific date, and only that we're to look at mid-day, we'd have a lovely trench running due north starting at about 9 feet from the base of the monument and over 50 feet long - based upon the approximated height of the monument to be 17 feet and covering all days of the year.
“As an interesting side discussion to this point, and from what I've gathered in various readings, the location marked by Kit with a magnet was based on his observation of the shadow on the day of Equinox. The riddle characteristically only says mid-day, and solar noon is therefore implied.
“What I'd ask Williams, if he could possibly somehow stomach one more Masquerade-related question, is this: Do you recall what the precise time was when you observed the end of Catherine's long finger? I'd expect from Kit, largely based on Bamber's sketch, that he had indeed made allowances for the differences between 12:00 o'clock civil time and local apparent solar time. Such an allowance will account for differences in longitude and the equation of time. ET is significant (ranging between +15 minutes to -17 minutes over the course of a year) and needs be considered in discussing such differences in addition to the observer's longitude.
“For example, if we use my approximated longitude for Catherine's finger (0 30' 27.25") and calculate the difference in time between local time and mean solar time we get slightly more than 2 minutes and because we're west of the Standard Time Meridian the value is positive. The ET value for March 21 is about +7 minutes 28.7 seconds, and adding the 2 minutes 2 seconds (rounding up to the nearest whole second), we know then to plant the magnet at shadow's end (rounding up to the nearest whole minute) at 12:10pm - or more precisely: 12:09:30.5.”
February 21, 2010. Dan McWilliams of Vancouver writes: “You've got some great stories on Secret London. Here's some others:
* The Mummy of Jimmy Garlick.
* The Crossbones Graveyard, a plague pit filled with 15,000 dead (including the local whores, who were called “punchable nuns” in the parlance of the day). Now used as a bus-parking yard by Transport for London to the outrage of some Londoners, who stage a monthly memorial at the site at 7:00pm on the 23rd of each month.
* Hidden wildlife preserve in London: Camley Street Natural Park.
* Museum in the garret of St. Thomas's Church.”

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for those suggestions, Dan. One of the subjects you mention is already on my list of potential Secret London essays, and I will get to it eventually. You'll have to wait and see which one it is, though.”
March 4, 2010. Jim Hauser of The Stagger Lee Files writes: “In your piece on Stagger Lee, you write that some folks believe the barking bulldog is a handgun. Do you happen to recall where you came across this idea?
“Also, apart from The Downhome Boys 1927 recording, do you know of any other versions before 1950 which have the line 'I was standing on the corner'? If you're aware of any, please let me know. I'm interested in musical recordings and lyrics published in books, journals, articles, etc. and it doesn't matter whether the bulldog is mentioned in the lyrics or not.
“I've been researching the legend of Stagger Lee for at least 7 or 8 years now. I've even created a website (The Stagger Lee Files) which you may have come across. Since I wrote the material on that site, I have continued working on the legend and I hope to write some more about Stagger Lee after completing my research. I'm a librarian by trade.
“By the way, Cassell's Dictionary of Slang defines a barking iron as a pistol. It places its use between the late 18th century to mid 19th century. “Thanks a lot for your help on this.”

Paul Slade replies:Don't thank me too soon, Jim. I've just flipped through my Stagger Lee folder again, but I still can't remember where I first came across the notion that the song's bulldog was a gun rather than a wheezing canine.
It would certainly make sense for songwriters like Lloyd Price to place a British Bulldog - as this particular Webley & Scott revolver was nick-named - in Stag's world. Cheap copies of the British Army sidearm were widely available throughout the US in the 1890s, and it's easy to imagine a young city pimp deciding to buy one. Cecil Brown's book tells us that the real Lee Shelton's gun was a Smith & Wesson .44, so in strictly literal terms the Bulldog theory doesn't stand up. In the semi-fictional world of the song, though, giving Stag a Bulldog works perfectly, and that's what makes the theory such an appealing one.
On the other question you raise, I've also listened through all my pre-1950 versions of the song, and aside from the Downhome Boys recording you mention, I can find only one which mentions corners at all - and even that's in rather a different context. It comes on the Memphis Slim/Big Bill Broonzy/Sonny Boy Williamson recording, which David Hirsch's site dates at 1947. The lines in question are:

'Stagger Lee told Mrs Billy Lyons,
If you don't believe your man is dead,
Why don't you look around the corner,
See what a hole he has in his head."

Not quite what you're looking for, I know, but I'm afraid that's the closest I could find.
I'm not sure this has occurred to me before, but now you mention the corner reference in that Downhome Boys version, it strikes me as quite an interesting early sighting of a key thread in the song.
Reed says he was standing on the corner minding his own business when a cop arrested him for no reason. It was then fairly common at harvest time for the cops in some southern towns to round up any black men they could find hanging around, slap a trumped-up charge like vagrancy on them, and ship them off to the nearest prison farm. Once there, they were used to boost the workforce gathering crops at this crucial time of year.
It's this wildly unjust practice which Reed's cheeky little protest verse has in mind, and it could be viewed as a precursor to the Mississippi John Hurt's later question:

'Police officer how can it be,
You arrest everybody but cruel Stagger Lee?'

It's essentially the same thought that's being expressed in each case: why don't the police drop this soft option of arresting innocent black men and go after the real villains like Stagger Lee instead? The answer implied, of course, is that it's because they're afraid of him.
Please do drop me a line again when your new material's up on-line. I read The Stagger Lee Files as part of the research for my own essay, and I'd be fascinated to see any new information you've uncovered.
March 14, 2010. Jim Hauser writes: “You're right about the practice of arresting blacks under the vagrancy laws to force them to work in the fields. Over the last few years, I have found several interesting variations to this key verse in songs which are not about Stagger Lee. For example, in Newman Ivey White's American Negro Folk-Songs, there is a song with these lyrics:

'Standin' on de conah, didn't mean no hawm
Long come a 'liceman, an' grabbed me by de awm
Took me to de station to hab my trial
De judge gimme thirty days on de ole rock pile.'

“In his autobiography, David 'Honeyboy' Edwards writes about how the vagrancy laws were used to put blacks to work on the plantations. Also, there is a book which documents just how evil these forced labor practices were. In Slavery by Another Name by D. Blackmon, the author shows how lawmen, judges, prisons and businesses (farming and industrial) conspired to re-enslave blacks. Many of them were forced to work in mines, mills and various work camps for years for very minor offenses. Many of them were completely innocent and many of them died due to the horrible conditions.
“Your suggestion that the same type of practice is being protested in Mississippi John Hurt's version of Stagger Lee (with the line asking the police officer why he arrests everybody except Stagger Lee) is something that never occurred to me. And I think you're exactly right. Certainly any black man who had been a victim of forced labor would have been likely to interpret the lyrics in this way.
Returning to The Downhome Boys' version, one interpretation of the song could be that Stagger Lee is a hero for killing Billy--who is cast in the role of a police officer in this version. What goes around comes around. Billy, who is a member of a police force that has been arresting innocent blacks, is killed by a black man, namely Stagger Lee, that he tries to arrest.
“The research that I've been doing for the last several years has focused on the idea that Stagger Lee may have been a much more positive hero than he seems to be. When you look at how terribly oppressed blacks were, and how they lived in a world where good and evil became so twisted and intertwined that it was hard to know the difference between the two, it makes perfect sense that a badman could be a very positive hero for them, not just an anti-hero. So I've been gathering evidence to support this idea.
“For example, you can see that the distinguished black poet Sterling Brown saw Stagger Lee as a great hero through his poem Odyssey of Big Boy. In it, the narrative voice shows his admiration for Stagger Lee by asking that, when death takes hold of him, he be with John Henry, Casey Jones, and Stagolee.”

Paul Slade replies: Have you read HC Brearley's 1939 essay Ba-ad Nigger? It's available in an anthology called Motherwit From The Laughing Barrel, and talks about the appeal of characters like Stagger Lee in black folklore.
Brearley sums up these characters as offering “heroic deviltry”, which I think catches Stag's dual nature pretty well. Like the protagonist of a classic gangster movie, he has to be both a hero and a villain simultaneously - strong enough and free enough for us to envy him, but evil enough to give us a vicarious thrill at his exploits. I'm not sure you can strip out either aspect of that without fundamentally damaging the myth.
Going back to that Downhome Boys version, it's interesting that Stag is allowed to escape at the end, and that we're invited to celebrate that fact. That changes with Mississippi John Hurt's 1927 recording, where Stag hangs at the end. To pursue that gangster movie analogy for a moment, Hurt's approach could be seen as the equivalent of the moralistic ending tagged on to a James Cagney movie to justify all the mayhem that's preceded it.
Perhaps there's a worthwhile distinction to be drawn between versions which allow Stag to get away and those which insist he's punished at the end? We could think of the first group as unambiguous "hero" songs and the second as "anti-hero" ones. I wonder if the second group came about as an attempt to pull in the white audience, and so sell more records? And whether there's been a return to the original approach in very recent recordings? These tend to be more extreme in every other way, so perhaps they're more willing to throw away the idea of obligatory punishment too.
The other thing that struck me reading your letter was the
NME placing Tupac Shakur's shooting of two white cops squarely in Stag's tradition, and quoting Dream Hampton's description of this act as "the kind of community work we all dream of doing". There's a bit more about that in the final section of my own essay, and that section touches on Stag-as-hero in a couple of other ways too.
March 17, 2010. Jim Hauser writes: “I agree with your comments about Stagger Lee's dual nature of hero and villain. But I think that much of the hero part of it has been missed by many writers.
“Some, such as Cecil Brown, have recognized it, but still this part of the legend has not really been fully explored. Writers say that blacks idolized Stagger Lee because he was so bad that nobody would mess with him, including the white man's law. Greil Marcus referred to this as 'a fantasy of no limits'. But I believe that Stagger Lee was a hero for more than just this; I think he was a hero for performing acts which were truly heroic.
“For example, Cecil Brown believes that the Stetson represented manhood and the fight over it symbolized a fight for manhood. In my writings on my website, I suggest that if the fight was a fight for manhood, then it could also be symbolic of the fight for black freedom. I believe I have a good amount of evidence to support the idea that Stagger Lee was a freedom hero. Some of it is in my Stagger Lee Files website, but I've found much more evidence in the years since I wrote the essays that appear there.
“I'm not trying to romanticize Stagger Lee. I recognize the darker side of the legend, especially as can be seen in the toasts and in the more recent recordings to which you make reference. And I recognize that not all African Americans loved Stagger Lee or saw him as a hero. Mississippi John Hurt did not see Stagger Lee as any kind of hero. He was a gentle soul who probably objected to the violence perpetrated by the badman.
“Regarding versions of Stagger Lee in which he escapes punishment, a key version would be Lloyd Price's. His recording sounds like a celebration of Stagger Lee's killing of Billy. I believe that Price saw Stagger Lee as a hero. The ending to the Downhome Boys' version is interesting because it seems to serve as a warning that he's out there and could strike again. But Stagger Lee can be a hero even if he is killed. As Greil Marcus noted, Stagger Lee's death gave him the opportunity to go down to hell and defeat Satan.
“I don't know much about Tupac Shakur. Wikipedia says he was a rapper and social activist who advocated egalitarianism. His intervening when he thought two cops were harassing a black man remind me of Sterling Brown's poem The Ballad of Joe Meek. I think Shakur may be on his way to becoming a mythical figure himself. I remember one day in the library hearing a couple of black kids argue about whether he was really dead.
“Your essay also struck a chord with me when you wrote about Russia's gangsters. I've come across evidence that other cultures do celebrate their badman heroes in song. There is a book by Elijah Wald titled Narcocorrido which explores 'a genre of ballad that glorifies gun-toting drug lords in a Mexican version of gangsta rap'.
“I once got an e-mail from someone telling me about a contemporary Stagger Lee-like hero in Portugal nicknamed Pica. He was a 10-year-old car thief who stole cars from people by threatening to stick them with a hypodermic which he claimed was infected with the HIV virus. (I was told that Pica means needle.)
“According to the story, he wreaked so much havoc that his own parents set him up for the cops to arrest him. He died in prison and now is celebrated in Portuguese rap songs. Some of his idolizers have custom paint jobs on their cars depicting Pica steering their vehicles from above.”

Paul Slade replies: The idea of Stag as an unabashed freedom fighter dovetails neatly with the real Lee Shelton's career in St Louis party politics, and I'll be interested to see you develop some of these thoughts on your site. I love that story about Pica too, and I'm going to ask PlanetSlade's readers if they can supply any more details about him - the myth or the reality. I want to see some photos of those Pica paint-jobs too!”
And finally...

PlanetSlade's thanks this month go to Max Welton of Langley in Washington state. Max was kind enough to mention my Masquerade essay on Metafilter's main board, and the link he included there sent a couple of thousand extra visitors scurrying over this way. You can find the resulting discussion here.


January 5, 2010: Glancing through PlanetSlade's stats in early January, I noticed a new name in the list of links referring people over here: a flickr page showing this 1903 Tit-Bits postcard.
    It's a souvenir card commemorating the Hitchen spot where one of the magazine's buried money tubes was found. The sign reads: "This is the exact spot where the 500 sovereigns were hidden". The people gathered round have, I assume made the trip simply to bask in the glory of visiting such a remarkable site.
    I was delighted to see this, because the Tit-Bits competition directly inspired the Weekly Dispatch scheme I wrote about in Treasure Hunt Riots. I'd never seen photographs from either hunt before, so I e-mailed Catherine Feely, the Manchester PhD student who'd posted the card on flickr, asking if she'd like to sell it. She wrote back as follows:

"Thanks for your e-mail. No worries about giving your site a plug - your article was fascinating. Having written my MA thesis about Tit-Bits a few years ago, I knew a little about the Tit-Bits competition but not about the Weekly Dispatch.
    "I'd be very happy for you to reproduce the postcard on your site, with credit to my full name. I haven't got my act together enough to put anything on the web about my work on
Tit-Bits (I am now doing a PhD on something entirely different!), but I would be happy for this e-mail address to be put on there with an invitation for people to e-mail me if they want to talk about the paper.
    "I don't really want to part with the original as I am now building a little collection of
Tit-Bits ephemera. My boyfriend found the card on Ebay a few weeks ago, so I am afraid there is no romantic discovery story about it being in my grandfather's attic or somesuch!
    "Anyway, very glad to be in touch and I will continue to scan
Tit-Bits competition/advertising stuff if I come across it. I think these are artefacts that should be shared."

The e-mail address Catherine gave me is, where I'm sure she'd be glad to hear from other Tit-Bits collectors ar anyone with an interest in the magazine's history.

January 11, 2010: Elsewhere in the forest, my Lobby Lud article led a couple of message board folk to recommend a piece in the December 2009 issue of Wired (the American edition rather than the British one). The magazine hired a freelance writer called Evan Ratliff to erase or disguise all traces of his digital identity, sent him off on a mystery tour of the US and challenged its uber-nerd readers to locate him by whatever on-line means they could devise. The first person to find him and utter the code word "Fluke" would win $5,000.
   Evan managed to stay undetected for a full month, making him the closest thing we have yet to a Lobby Lud for the digital age. When I read the Wired piece, I was amazed by the similarities between his own experiences and Lobby's, so I dropped him a line asking if their two stories struck him the same way. Here's what he had to say:

"Many thanks for the note, and the link to the piece. Fantastic, and well told! I'd seen a couple people reference Lobby Lud while I was on the run, and had looked up the basics of it, but your account is wonderful.
   "Completely fascinating, and in so many ways similar to what I went through: the false accusations (there were less in my vanishing, but still quite a few I heard about); his standing in proximity to the poster with his photo on it (I did that at a newsstand in Santa Monica, standing there reading the
Wired issue with my picture in it); the growing fear on the newspaper's part that nobody would find him (Wired had the same, and started releasing more info as a result); the depression that set in after a while on the "run;" people taping his picture up and studying it (I heard from people who did exactly that for me).
    "Many of them also told me how difficult it was to walk up and challenge someone in public. It's a very awkward interaction. And the Mrs. Lobby Lud feature, growing out of women feeling uncomfortable challenging men, is a more extreme period version of that.The parallels, as you say, are uncanny.
    "You'd think I'd have heard of Lobby Lud before I started, but I hadn't! If I had, I might have borrowed a few ideas from it. I love the standard reply for someone using the wrong phrase: 'You are making a mistake'. I also had never heard the Agatha Christie story before. Fascinating as well.
    "Love the way you are producing your own long-form reporting at your site. In any case, thanks again and all the best."

   You can read Evans full account of his life on the run here at and his subsequent updates on its aftermath at
February 13, 2010. Darlene Spears writes: "I am the great, great niece of Martin Van Buren Bates from Kentucky. My great, great grandfather was his brother Robert Bates. You've done an excellent job documenting Martin and Anna's story. I have learned so much from your work!
    "I grew up in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and heard many stories about Martin throughout my childhood. My grandmother told of how her parents would put two beds together to accommodate his size when he came to visit. My cousin has an old worn-out shoe sole of Martin's that was found in a field on the old homestead. Needless to say, it is huge. I will photograph it when I return to the States and e-mail it to you.
    "I am presently in London and am interested in visiting sites and getting information about my uncle's life here. We were here for three weeks last fall, and I visited St-Martin-in-the-Fields several times. It was such a treat imagining them walking down that aisle! We are going to Trafalgar Square now for a walk, and I hope we can find Craven Street while there.
    "Again, thank you for the great work you have done on Martin and Anna."

Paul Slade replies: You're very welcome, and how nice it is to hear from one of Martin's own relatives. Please do send me a photo of that shoe sole when you get back home, as I'd love a chance to post it on the site.

Message board round-up

I took advantage of the Christmas break this year to put some of PlanetSlade's Murder Ballads material up on a Harper Collins site called Authonomy. The idea of this site is that would-be authors post their work there and the site's users vote on its merits. The five books which get most votes from the 5,000 or so titles it has on-line get a professional read and a written report from Harper Collins' editors. Once in a blue moon, they might even publish something they find there.
    As I write this, my own efforts have peaked at 910 and been steadily dropping ever since. The exercise did produce a few encouraging comments, though, which I've extracted with my usual rampant egotism and included in the box to your right. You'll find my Authonomy page here ( and the rest of the box copy's sources below.




The Straight Dope

Time Out

Ukulele Cosmos

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Fans (Germany)

Reader reaction renders repeated radiant respect

On PlanetSlade
“Whoa - your site is great, bro.” - LaneXplace, Metafilter.

“Fantastic content.” - Filthy Light Thief, Metafilter.

On Murder Ballads
“Full of the stuff I'm interested in.” - Rennie Sparks, The Handsome Family, via e-mail.

“Very interesting stuff.” - Darlincommitme,

“This is amazing! You have a compelling underground piece here.”- Rob,

On Stagger Lee
“I got a kick out of this.”- Editor,

“You're doing a great job.” - Eurodan49, Authonomy.

On Knoxville Girl
“A lovely article.” - Emily Jorrey, Sing a Song of Murder, via e-mail.

“A nicely detailed history.” - Chris Davis,

On Frankie & Johnny
“A great history of Frankie's life and the song.” - Quanta, The

On Hattie Carroll
“Very comprehensive.”- William Stevenson, BBC Radio 4 message boards.

On Treasure Hunt Riots
“A great piece.” - Stenros, Pervasive Games.

“Er, wow.” - Severalbees, Twitter.

“Love the piece on treasure hunters.” - Lee Jackson,

“Very cool stuff.” - - Stein, Infocult.

“A wonderful recounting.” - Jinnet,

On Superheroes in Court
“Paul Slade's superb essay.” - Attorney Robert Scott Lawrence,

Several satisfied seers say Slade's stories scintillate

On PlanetSlade
“Well-researched write ups.” - Filthy Light Thief, Metafilter.

“A very interesting website!” - William Stevenson, BBC Radio 4 message boards.

On Murder Ballads
“I love that you have gone into the history of songs.” - Suzie Q, Authonomy.

“Your website is fascinating!” - Singer Katie Rose, via e-mail.

“Amazing is all I can say. A great idea.”- Eloraine, Authonomy.

“Cool. Massive research, perfectly laid out.”- Luke Bramley, Authonomy.

“We need more of this.” - CM Santry, Authonomy.

“I'd love this as a coffee table book.” - Liz, Authonomy.

“Interesting premise!” - Craig, Authonomy.

On Treasure Hunt Riots
“Slade's whole article is wonderful. Read it!” - Dan, Archaeopop.

On Broadside Ballads
“Absolutely fascinating. Wonderful job.” - Neil, Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

“Damn, that stuff is great.” - Blue2Blue, Harmony Central.

“Seriously good research and seriously well written.” - Tom Bliss, Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

“Very fertile ground for an enterprising songwriter.” - Matt Milton, Mudcat Café.

“A very welcome source.”- Kari Salonen, fRoots.

On Knoxville Girl
“This covers not just the crimes themselves, but swathes of social history.”- Lynn Clayton, Authonomy.

On Masquerade
“Fascinating.” - Panama, Mojo, via private messaging.

On Superheroes in Court
“Looks damned interesting.” - Dirk Deppy, Journalista.

“Humongous.” - Neil Alien,

“Very interesting!” - J Harris, Metafilter.

“A totally worthy topic.” - Tom Spurgeon, The Comics Reporter.

“Answers some troublesome questions.” - Vhsiv, Metafilter.

“An interesting link.” - Jenny, moderator, QI message board, via private messaging.

Tantalising texts think this treatise terribly talented

On Murder Ballads
“A fantastic website.” - Dave Henderson, Mojo.

“What a great idea this is.” - Lord Dunno, Authonomy.

“Some excellent writing on the subject.” - Jesse Sublett, Wordpress.

“Clever.” - T. Hart, Authonomy.

“I've really enjoyed reading your essays.” - Pete Flood, via e-mail.

“Great concept, excellent execution.” - Craig Faustus, Authonomy.

“I learned a lot and enjoyed this.” - Burgio, Authonomy.

“This is such a wonderful idea.” - Carl Ashmore, Authonomy.

On British Broadsides
“Great stuff! And a fine job of web publishing.” - Dick Greenhaus, Mudcat.

“Excellent article!” - Stackabones,

“Very good.” - Q, Mudcat.

“Required reading.” - Matt Brown,

“Fascinating stuff.” - Giles Earle, Mudcat.

“Really interesting.” - Joanna,

On Texas Easter Fires
“Wonderful story.” - Matt Besinger, via e-mail.

On First Great Radio Hoax
“This is quite wonderful.” - Infinite Jest, Metafilter.

“Fascinating as always.” - Neil King, Fatea.

“Fascinating. I knew nothing about this.” - Languagehat, Metafilter.

“Great piece!” - Twang, Metafilter.

“A good account.” - Anonymous, Infocult.

Users usefully united in utterly upful ululation

On PlanetSlade
“Always fascinating topics.” - Blue2Blue,

“A Really interesting site [...] Well worth bookmarking.” - NormanD,

“What a wonderful website.” - David Suff, via e-mail.

“Very interesting website.” - Philippa, Mudcat.

On Masquerade
“It's exhaustive. I love it.” - Dan Amrich,

“Very cool.” - Madajb, Metafilter.

“An enthralling tale.” - Fleeg, Pharmacy Forum.

“A fascinating article.” - Kelly Sedinger,

“That was a good read.” - Wilful, Metafilter.

“A great article.” - JBadeo,

“An amazing article.” - Simon Carless,

“Really well-written and worth the reading.” - Sova, Metafilter.

“Excellent article.” - Dave Lartigue,

“Nice work.” - Joe Beese, Metafilter.

“Wonderful.” - - Sean the Gramophone, Twitter.

“A fantastic story for a fantastic puzzle book.” - Flatluigi, Metafilter.

“Long and engrossing.” -

“(An) intriguing saga.” - Maxwelton, Metafilter.

“Wow! Great article.” - Kbellis, Tweleve.

“I loved reading this.” - Toodleydoodley, Metafilter.

Vastly valuable visitors' very vocal verdicts

On PlanetSlade
“A great website.” - Scud, Mojo.

“Absolutely fascinating. Brilliant idea!” - Lorraine, Authonomy.

“Such fascinating and valuable explorations of the roots of our songwriting history.” - Blue2Blue, Harmony Central.

“Fascinating, entertaining and instructive.” - Jared, Authonomy.

“Absolutely engrossing.” - Aldiboronti, The Straight Dope.

“Interesting and clearly well researched.” - Clare Hill, Authonomy.

“Really, really good and well worth the time.” - Marc Nerenberg, MySpace Forums.

“An interesting read and very well written.” - Karen Blakeney, Authonomy.

“What a compelling read. Well written, well researched.” - CC McKinnon, Authonomy.

“Like opening a door on a world you never knew existed.” - Jim Darcy, Authonomy.

“Brilliant work.” - Andrew W, Authonomy.

“These are fascinating stories that are worthy of publication.” - Vivalasbradleys, Authonomy.

“A fascinating study.” - Mairi Graham, Authonomy.

“A great idea, done well!” - Andrew Dawson, Authonomy.

“Very readable and enjoyable.” - Frank McGrath, Authonomy.

“Murder Ballads makes a fascinating read.” - Niobrara Kardnova, Authonomy.

“Excellent.” - Bill Holt, Authonomy.

“A fascinating piece of social history. Very enjoyable.” - Whittington, Authonomy.

Warmest words witter wisdom while we wallow

On Stagger Lee
“A clear and thorough account. Well written and fascinating.” - Peter Tarnofsky, Authonomy.

On Hattie Carroll
“That's really excellent.” - Lostchords, The Never Ending Pool.

“I greatly admired your analytical and informative essay.” - MtheGM, Mudcat

“Interesting article, Slade.” - Koeeoaddi, The Straight Dope.

“Looks good.” - Jackobob, The Never Ending Pool.

“Very interesting.” - Mrrzy, Mudcat.

On Lobby Lud
“A fascinating read.” - Peter Watts, Time Out London.

“Wonderful stuff, Paul. A great article.” - EnglishFolkFan, Mudcat.

“Astonishingly exhaustive.” - Holly Gramazio, Sandpit.

“Fascinating and meticulously researched.” - Chris M Dickson, Haloscan.

“Excellent.” - Chez Guevara, The Straight Dope.

“A fascinating and entertaining story.” - Ximenean, The Straight Dope.

“Highly entertaining.” - Andrea Prandenberg, Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Fans (Germany).

“Fascinating story.” - Kevan Davis, Sore Eyes.