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Letters to Planet Slade: 2013

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Murder Ballads
Secret London


When I launched PlanetSlade back in April 2009, I wrote a short introduction for this section encouraging readers to send in any additional information they might have about the six initial subjects I'd covered. "I'd be particularly interested to hear from anyone who's got a Weekly Dispatch treasure hunt medallion hidden away in the attic," it said.
What I had in mind was one of the 177 prize discs that newspaper had buried round Britain in its chaotic 1904 circulation drive. And now, four-and-a-half years after my Treasure Hunt Riots essay first appeared, one of those medallions has finally come to light. It hadn't been hiding in a reader's attic, however, but four inches beneath the surface of Plymouth's Brickfields Recreation Ground, where supermarket worker Alvaro Casares found it with his metal detector this November.
"I found the medallion behind Plymouth Albion," he told me. "When I first retrieved it from the soil, I thought it was a medal. It was covered in mud. Once I got home, I cleaned it with warm soapy water, then Googled the Weekly Dispatch and it took me to your link for The Treasure Hunt Riots. I read all the information with interest and was excited that I had found one of the medallions. That's why I love detecting for historical items. It's not just about the coins - it's about the history of the items I find."
Plymouth Albion Rugby Club is in the south west corner of Brickfields, close against its Madden Road boundary. As you can see from his photographs here, Casare's 10 medallion measures about 6.5cm from side to side - a figure I've now been able to correct in my original essay - and has the word "Hidden" stamped on its reverse side. Casares tells me it's made of lead and thick enough to resist any attempt to bend or mangle it.
Now that I knew a medallion had been buried at Brickfields, I went back to my folders of Weekly Dispatch clippings and found a January 31, 1904 story confirming its reporter had just planted four medallions in Plymouth and that he'd chosen the neighbourhood around Brickfields as one of his targets. The paper calls this its "Stonehouse District" medallion and the reporter specifically mentions Brickfields as one of the spots he visited. The other three Plymouth medallions ended up in Laira, Devonport and St Jude's.
In the paper's next edition, dated February 7, its reporter describes getting off the early morning train from Paddington at Mill Bay Station (now the site of Plymouth Pavilions) and setting off to conceal the Stonebridge District medallion first. He writes:

"First, I went to the 'brickfields'. Only half-way up the hill I climbed, for the ground was soft and slippery, and I could hardly keep my balance. It was near here that a man startled me by demanding my 'disc'. I was relieved, however, on finding that the disc he wanted was a halfpenny - for toll."

The toll he mentions was almost certainly that charged at Plymouth's Halfpenny Gate, which people then had to pass through to cross Stonehouse Creek on the other side of the recreation ground. That spot's just 400 yards from where the medallion was eventually found and forms part of a fairly logical route from the station through the heart of Stonehouse itself to what's now Plymouth Albion's ground. I sent the Plymouth historian Derek Tait another of the paper's Stonehouse District clues, where he thought he could detect references to both the Union Street bridge next to Mill Bay Station and to the nearby Palace Theatre. All these locations lie well within a mile of each other, giving the WD reporter plenty of time to explore the whole area in the 50 minutes or so he had at his disposal before moving on to Laira.
Graham Naylor and Lorna Basham at Plymouth's central library kindly searched their 1904 local newspaper archives for me, where they uncovered a Western Morning News ad for the treasure hunt itself. It appeared in the WMN's February 6, 1904, issue and reads: "Weekly Dispatch Treasure. Over 2,000 still undiscovered in this district and elsewhere." The ad was evidently worded to make unwary readers think there was over 2,000 up for grabs in the west country alone, but in fact that's a national figure, representing just over half of the 3,790 worth of medallions the WD buried altogether. It's that phrase "and elsewhere" which provides the weasel words here, and no surprise to see they appear in the ad's smallest type.
Any medallion found by WD readers had to be presented at the paper's London offices before it could be swapped for cash, and the newsdesk very often took advantage of this by trumpeting the find in its next edition. I've been unable to find any story about a Plymouth medallion's discovery in the copious WD material I've collected, however, which suggests all four were still undiscovered when the whole scheme was forced to close on February 14, 1904. At that point, the paper declared all the remaining medallions worthless, so any searches already in progress were simply abandoned.
Most likely, then, Plymouth's three other prizes are still lurking in the soil there, waiting for Casares or another local metal detector enthusiast to uncover them. His find this November reduces the number of discs still unaccounted for throughout the UK to just 42, but who's to say one of them isn't buried in your own town?


November 6, 2013. Dick Mathews of Southend on Sea in Essex writes:
"As you know, Islington Folk Club runs a competition for solo singers every year, with the entries being posted to YouTube. One of the songs covered this year was the 1848 broadside ballad Murder at Westmill.
"As my own Wallis ancestors hail from there, I put the title into Google and came up with a link to your website, where I discovered that the 'murderer' was a boy aged nine, left in charge of three younger siblings while the parents were at work. Your Notes section on the ballad's PlanetSlade page says:

'With Billy's confession on record, it seems almost certain he would have been convicted. Children that age were very seldom executed, however, and there's no record of an exception being made in this case. Transportation of convicts to Australia continued till 1857, so perhaps he was able to begin a new life there.'

"I checked the Criminal Register via Ancestry's website and found the young William was found Not Guilty of murder at Hertford assizes on 27 February 1849. There's an extensive report of the inquest in the Hertford Mercury of 2 September 1848 and a report of the trial in the same paper's 3 March 1849 issue.
"I know a couple of singers (Annie Dearman and Steve Harrison) based in Yorkshire, who have quite a repertoire of broadside ballads and put a lot of effort into researching the facts behind them. I'll point them to your site, so you may hear from them."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks so much for that, Dick, and thanks also for sending me scans of the two Hertford Mercury stories you mention. I've added an "Update" section to the ballad's PlanetSlade page giving all the details of Billy's true fate and crediting you as my source for this new information.
I did hear from Annie and Steve, who were kind enough to send me a Soundcloud link to their performance of another gallows ballad I've covered. In this case, it's their own take on
Jealous Annie's tale and you can hear them sing it here. Steve tells me they adapted their lyrics from an original ballad sheet called Annette & the Soldier, which they found in the Bodleian Library's collection. The sheet specifies it's to be sung to the tine of Fanny Blare, so that's just what they've done.


November 11, 2013. Diarmid Mogg of Edinburgh in Scotland writes:
"As you saw in my review on Amazon, I thought The Outcast Dead was great. It's a really impressive presentation of all the research, and the present-day chapters take it from just a good historical overview to something with a real emotional weight.
"It's quite inspiring to learn about the great thought, care and attention that people (well, some people) are giving to the memory of those hundreds and thousands of tragic women who ended up in that small corner of one great city. Wonderful stuff."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for that, Diarmid, and thanks also for pointing out the handful of typos you spotted in the book. I've deliberately left the most amusing one of these uncorrected in one of the book's three formats, mainly because I want to see how long it takes for somebody else to spot it!
Some new information on Cross Bones emerged about three weeks after I posted the book online, when
Property Week reported that Pearson plc, the owner of the Financial Times, has its eye on the site for a planned new headquarters building. The Cross Bones graveyard itself is just part of the 2.4 acre site developers now call Landmark Court, and that's the land that Pearson hopes to buy from Transport for London, the site's current owners.
"Pearson has earmarked TfL's Landmark Court on the South Bank for a relocation from its One Southwark Bridge Road headquarters,"
PW's November 29, 2013 issue reports. "However, the site is not officially up for sale and, as a public body, TfL may yet have to tender the sale through the Official Journal of the European Union. The transport provider is also thought to be in the process of renegotiating existing leases on the site."
PW confirms that TfL briefed property agents Drivers Jonas Deloitte to market Landmark Court back in 2011. "Landmark Court has been identified as land suitable for development and is surplus to requirements," an anonymous TfL spokesman told the magazine then. TfL's plans at that point were shelved when it became clear Landmark Court was still needed for railway works, but those works aren't going to go on forever and, as John Constable's always said, it would be foolish to set one's face against any development at all there. The London Borough of Southwark has already suggested a mixed-use scheme of commercial, residential and retail units would be acceptable.
"TfL is understood to have received dozens of expressions of interest, given the site's location in an up-and-coming part of London,"
PW's latest story says. "Supplementary planning documents show that the cemetery would need to remain as an open space within any scheme, but more than 182,000 sq ft could be developed on the rest of the site with the relevant planning consents."
The core issue here is to ensure the graves area at Cross Bones and its gateway shrine are treated with respect - and that some degree of public access remains possible. With commercial interest in Landmark Court evidently hotting up, the Friends of Cross Bones petition becomes more important than ever, so if you haven't already signed it, then now would be an excellent time to do so.

[Diarmid's website, Small Town Noir, features police mugshots taken in New Castle, Pennsylvania, between 1930 and 1960, telling the story behind each photograph from his own research. If you like PlanetSlade, it's a safe bet you'll like Small Town Noir too.]


December 2, 2013. John Constable from the Friends of Cross Bones writes:
"I've now read most of your book and I like what you've written - a very thorough account of Cross Bones' history and a sympathetic report on our work there.
"There's been quite a lot of shifting and shaking around Cross Bones recently, and we may have to wait until the dust settles before it becomes clear where things are leading. Your book may then need an extra chapter (or three) to cover what could be 'the end of the beginning' of the Cross Bones saga!
"Inevitably, as with any reporting, there are a few instances where the story seems slightly garbled. For instance, your Chapter 8 report of how I met the Invisible Gardener conflates a number of stories: me returning from a trip to the Amazon, where I'd cleaned the cemetery of a remote esoteric community; my tying to the gates an image by a late friend of mine (showing the risen Christ with leaves and flowers blooming from his wounds); various signs left by the Invisible Gardener (including a huge hank of mistletoe hung on the gate with a ribbon reading 'Take a piece of me'); Jen's 'envisioning' of the garden at various vigils; meeting Jacqui Woodward-Smith when we were the only two at a vigil, and telling her that Jen's garden 'is already there' (by which I meant in the spirit world); then, a few days later, my partner Katy and I walking past the north gate on Southwark Street and being approached by the Gardener with the words: 'John Crow, I've been watching you!'
"As I recall, it was after this that he showed us his work in progress and helped us gain access to the site. Friends of Cross Bones members subsequently helped clear the site of rubbish and did some planting and, on St George's Day 2007, I conducted a rededication of the site. One result of the recent shake-ups I mentioned is that the Gardener and I now independently have contracts from TfL giving us permission to access the site to carry out unpaid essential works and maintenance.
"A couple of other minor points: the banner with the skeletal face you show in Chapter 2 is Santa Muerte (displayed only at Halloween and Goose Night vigils). It's the reverse of our usual banner, which depicts the Virgin of Guadelupe. In the Cross Bones context, both images represent different aspects of the Goose/Goddess/Virgin Protectress.
"In footnote number 9, you have me assuring you that I'd 'taken nothing that night'. As I recall, whenever people have asked whether I'd taken any psychoactive substances on that particular night, I've never explicitly answered 'yes' or 'no'. I've tended to say, with a twinkle in my eye, something along the lines of:
"'Whether or not I took an heroic dose of LSD, which I then directed with the use of shamanistic disciplines learned over a lifetime of travel and study. or whether my teenage experiments with psychedelics returned to hit me with the mother of all flashbacks ... or whether the entire incident was precipitated by the spontaneous appearance of an autonomous 'spirit'... such questions are ultimately distractions. It was 'as if' I had received an authentic visitation from a transpersonal agency: the events which followed appeared to confirm that I had tapped into something real rather than being caught up in an hallucination or bipolar episode.'
"So I'm not saying I did; only that, since The Southwark Mysteries itself contains references to psychoactive sacraments, an explicit 'denial' could be as distracting as any 'confession'.
"All these corrections are relatively minor, though you may wish to consider them in any future revisions. Recently, there seem to be lots of anthropologists wanting to write books and articles about us. Dr Sondra Hausner from Oxford is writing a book focusing on our ceremonial re-examination of sex work; Dr Adrian Harris has just written a treatise; and a group of students from Goldsmiths are in the process of editing a new film about Cross Bones.
"Enough for now, Paul. I've shared a link to your website/online book on our Cross Bones website and on the Facebook page and included it in the last email to Friends of Cross Bones. It's a very impressive piece of work which I'm sure will help us in our work to protect the Memorial Shrine and to establish a Cross Bones Garden of Remembrance."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for that, John. No-one knows the Cross Bones story better than you, so if you liked the book I take that as a big vote of confidence. Thanks also for the links you mention - I'm always egotistical enough to think PlanetSlade deserves more readers, so anything pointing people my way is very welcome.
I'm sorry if I presented a rather conflated version of the Invisible Gardener story. I was faced with a lot of contradictory versions of events when researching this part of the book and perhaps I went a step too far in my efforts to reconcile them all into a single narrative thread. It's good to have your first-hand account here to put matters straight. The confusion between Santa Muerte and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chapter 2 was just sheer ignorance on my part, I'm afraid, but I've corrected those references to the quilt now.
Good luck with all your remaining work at the site, and congratulations again on everything you've achieved there already. As you say, we seem to be approaching the endgame now, so I hope everyone reading this will scoot on over to and sign the petition.


October 5, 2013. John Gallon of Whitby in Yorkshire writes:
"I've always been a fan of Reg Smythe's Andy Capp, but it’s only recently I heard about a little-known strip of his featuring a speedway rider called Skid Sprocket.
I have searched the internet but can't find any trace of the strips, though I did find out Skid was published in Speedway World in the 1950s. Below are a couple of strips I was sent after I applied for help on the Speedway Plus website. I would be grateful for any help in tracing more."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter, John, but I can't be much help, I'm afraid. I came across one or two references to Skid Sprocket while researching my Andy Capp piece, but no actual samples of the strip.
The British Cartoon Archive doesn't seem to have any Skid Sprocket material either. That's a shame because, although Smythe was still in the process of learning his trade when he drew these strips, Skid is interesting from a historical perspective. Andy's own debut came in 1957, so it's fascinating to see the young cartoonist's development in the years leading up to that.
Skid Sprocket strip would have been produced at a time when Smythe was still casting around for work to get his cartooning career underway. This meant pitching ideas to all kinds of hobbyist and trade magazines, offering them gag cartoons or a strip set in their own very particular world. Speedway World would have been just one more client magazine for Smythe at this time, just as The Fish Trader's Gazette and The Draper's Record were, and as far I know he had no particular interest in the sport himself.
If you want to research Skid further, I'd suggest contacting the British Library's newspaper collection here in London. They have a very good collection of British newspapers and magazines going way back to the early 1800s and may well have a run of
Speedway World among them. They're usually very helpful on the phone, though a proper follow-up search would require a personal visit. In the meantime, if anyone out there with more information on Skid Sprocket would like to contact PlanetSlade, I'll be sure to pass their letters on.

November 11, 2013. John Gallon adds:
"Thanks for your help. I've had a lucky find on Ebay and bought a 32-page booklet of Smythe's speedway cartoons containing over 60 cartoons from the early 1950's, some of which feature Skid Sprocket.
"My speedway team is the Redcar Bears, which is based on Teesside. Since finding the booklet I have tried to find the copyright owner, without success, to see if I can get permission to reprint it. If this is possible I would like to distribute the new booklet amongst like-minded speedway supporters with a view to raising funds for a safety fence at the track which will be mandatory for the 2014 season."


October 8, 2013. RJ Barker of Leeds in Yorkshire writes:
"I'm writing a script for English Heritage about the Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. It's to be performed at Halloween in Whitby but (together with the company which commissioned me) I'm trying to keep it from being too sensationalist or portraying Eddowes as only a victim. And that (as they say in the poor quality movies I generally watch) is where you come in.
"The research I've been given says that Eddowes sold murder ballads in Wolverhampton, where she lived before moving to London (including at the hanging of her cousin, Christopher Robinson). I thought I would ask you just in case you knew about any of the Eddowes ballads. I also wanted to ask if you knew any of the actual tunes that were used for murder ballads - any of them, not just the Wolverhampton ones. And if there were easily accessible recordings (or sheet music). Kate, who will be doing the monologue, has a cracking voice and would love to give one a go."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for getting touch, RJ. Your Eddowes project sounds like huge fun to me - how come I never get commissions like that?
I've had a look through my small collection of Jack The Ripper books (Knight, Rumbelow, Begg) - and also Googled about a bit for any search combining the words "Eddowes" and "ballad". Here's what I've found:

* In Paul Begg's Jack The Ripper: Uncensored Files, he quotes Frederick Wilkinson, the keeper of a lodging house where Eddowes had stayed, saying she was "a very jolly woman, often singing". This provides a bit of support for the idea that she may have sung the gallows ballads she hawked around in order to attract a crowd to buy the sheets, and ample justification to give your actress a musical number of her own.

* This page at has a copy of a genuine ballad sheet from Christopher Robinson's 1866 execution, plus some interesting background on Eddowes herself. There's no guarantee it's the same sheet Eddowes may have been hawking there, but it's as good a candidate as any. has an account of the Robinson/Segar killing itself here.

* again, and this page has a good account of Eddowes' ballad career from the Black Country Bugle. That suggests strongly she was involved in the ballad trade in one capacity or another, but whether she actually played a part in writing them is another matter.

* This page has a couple of Jack The Ripper ballads - both written long after Eddowes' death, but good fun nonetheless. The tone is more music hall than anything else, but what they lack in historical authenticity they make up for in crowd-pleasing gore and corny jokes. They're probably entirely wrong for what you're doing here, but worth a look anyway.

* Finally, Felicity Lowde's blog has a piece suggesting Eddowes helped to write a music hall song called On The Fatal Morning, which... I've been unable to trace.

On your question about tunes, there are one or two gallows ballad sheets among those on PlanetSlade which suggest a specific tune to be used (just click through to the original sheets' scans to check), but this was the exception rather than the rule. My impression is that the lyric writers neither knew nor cared which particular tune people chose to sing their words to - they simply took care to compose the words in ballad metre and let the buyer take it from there. At the time, everyone would have a dozen or more ballad tunes lodged in their heads anyway and most would fit any set of lyrics written in that metre.
I didn't really grasp this point myself till I wrote a set of Nasra Ismail lyrics copying the metre and rhyme scheme of Steve Tilston's excellent
Slip Jigs & Reels. People kept telling me my lyrics could be sung to The Wild Rover, which struck me as a miraculous coincidence till I realised that both The Wild Rover and Tilston's song had been written in ballad format, so of course my lyrics would fit either tune.
Where ballad writers did suggest a specific tune, the trick seems to have been to avoid anything too ambitious. "To select an elaborate and less well-known air, however appropriate, may not be pleasing to many members of the school of ballad-singers, who feel it to be beyond their vocal powers," Henry Mayhew warns in 1851's
London Labour & The London Poor. "Neither may it be relished by the critical in street song, whose approving criticism induces them to purchase as well as to admire." Often, suggesting a popular folk tune or hymn tune was the answer.
PlanetSlade Music has over 20 sound recordings based on the gallows ballad sheet lyrics, some of which take quite a traditional approach, so those'll give you an idea of how easy they are to set to music. The ballad form has such huge momentum and rhythm built into the words alone that they do half the work for you.


Message board round-up

The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs ("Correspondents chorus.") can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.

The Browser

The London Burial Grounds

The Modern Babylon


Talk Music

Worship Blues



Every once in a while, I find myself wondering what happened to some of the transported convicts I've written about in PlanetSlade's British Broadsides section. Now, thanks to Yvonne Johnson of Adelaide in South Australia, I can answer that question for at least one of the ballads concerned.
Johnson is Annette Meyers' great-great-granddaughter, and she got in touch after seeing my article about the ballad Jealous Annie while researching her family tree. Meyers, you'll recall, was the Victorian housemaid who shot her soldier boyfriend dead in London's St James's Park after he tried to bully her into becoming a prostitute. A public campaign saved Meyers from the gallows, but not from convict transporation to Tasmania. If you haven't read her story already, please click her ballad's link above and do so now. What follows will prove far more satisfying if you know the background.
Yvonne hadn't previously known about Meyers' crime or the appalling treatment from Ducker that provoked it. "Naturally, I was saddened and tear-eyed," she told me in her letter. "But I was also excited and could not wait to tell the family. This certainly fills in a lot of gaps in my family tree." She passed me some links from the site which another researcher called Dick Matthews had given her, and these tell us quite a lot about Meyers' life down under.
She sailed from London on the convict ship Emma Eugenia on October 30, 1850, arriving in Hobart, Tasmania, on March 7 the following year. Records from that point onwards give her surname as "Myers" rather than "Meyers", but include enough other details to establish it's the same woman. On arrival in Tasmania, she's described as a lady's maid, 4 foot 10 inches tall and aged 27. She has sandy light brown hair, a small nose and hazel eyes. Her "native place" is given as Paris, with a note added to say she'd grown up in Brussels, just as the original ballad sheet says.
After a few months in Hobart's Elizabeth Street working for a couple called Waterhouse, Meyers was sent up the coast to Great Swan Port (now Swansea), where she arrived in December 1851. "Annette Myers was sent to Great Swan Port to work for John Lyne and his wife Lillias at their property Apslawn," Matthews writes. "There she met her future husband John Desmond, a convict assigned to the neighbouring property."
Desmond was a farm labourer from County Cork, who'd been transported to Tasmania on a ten-year sentence for sheep stealing in 1845. Coombend, the Great Swan Port property where he worked, was owned by John Lyne's brother Henry.
Meyers was quite a refined woman, but she allowed Desmond to woo her nonetheless. After Ducker, I dare say she'd had enough of more sophisticated men. "Despite his humble status and illiteracy, John Desmond formed a relationship with Annette, and they were married at Apslawn in 1852," Matthews writes. "They appear to have remained in the district till the birth of their only child, Francis William Desmond, in 1854. Soon after, they moved to Victoria and John disappears from the record."
Victoria is on the Australian mainland, just across the Bass Strait from Tasmania. The town had a gold rush in the 1850s, as prospectors flooded to the new fields there hoping to get rich quick. This led to the Australian population trebling in just ten years, and may explain why John and Annette decided to up sticks with their new baby. If so, then perhaps John went off into the bush round Victoria to seek gold, leaving Annette and little Francis safe in town.
Matthews continues: "In 1874, Francis William Desmond (1854-1926), son of the convicts Annette Myers and John Desmond, married Mary Anne Crabtree (1855-1889), daughter of the convicts Elizabeth Bell and William Crabtree. The marriage produced five children, but tragically only their daughter Annie Millicent survived to adulthood." Annette herself died in 1879, just a year before Annie Millicent was born - and Annie Millicent Desmond was Yvonne Johnson's grandmother.
So, there we have it. After her transportation for killing Henry Ducker, Annette Meyers - our own Jealous Annie - worked for a Swansea family on the east coast of Tasmania. She married the boy next door and bore him a son before they both sailed north to Victoria, perhaps with the hopes of staking a gold claim there. She lived in Victoria for around 25 years, saw her son married there and died at the age of about 55. By the standards of her day, that's not a bad innings.
The Founders-Storylines site I mentioned above has a section devoted to Annette's life which it calls Crime of Passion: In Sorrow Without Shame. This includes both a Van Walker recording of her 1848 ballad (labelled Songline), and two videos to go with it (labelled Clip and Lifeline respectively). I particularly like the fact that Van Walker's version of the song adds a few lines suggesting Ducker's not to be trusted. "He'd fill her ears with empty words / That proved dangerous talk," is just one example.
Also on the British Broadsides front, I'm pleased to report that PlanetSlade's Gallows Ballads Project reached another little milestone in August, when The Jetsonics released a brand-new studio recording of Cruel Lizzie Vickers on their latest EP. We've already heard the band's live demo of the song here, of course, but the studio production gives it a lot more punch and a much crisper sound. Think of a classic single by The Jam circa 1980, and you won't be too far out.
This is the first of the tracks created specially for the GBP to win a full commercial release, and you can buy it now as a download (from Amazon or iTunes) or a proper CD (from the band's own website). EP Four, as the disc has been cunningly titled, also includes Seven Foot Drop, a song telling the ture story of the Hounslow winkle-picker murder of 1960, so it's clearly a must for any murder ballads fan.


July 28, 2013. Chris Woodyard, author of the Haunted Ohio series, writes:
"I'm working on my next book and ran across a promising story. A murder ballad is mentioned at the end. Here's the gist, although there are several variants about whether/when Mrs Higgins died:

'THE MURDERED CHILDREN: About a mile and a half north of the Congregational Church in Killingworth, on the old road which runs parallel with the main street, is a group of dilapidated houses. In one of these ancient dwellings there formerly lived a Mrs. Higgins, who was possessed of a most violent temper.
'On October 14th 1779, after having quarreled with her husband, she grasped a common case-knife and cut the throats of her three children. The victims of this bloody tragedy were buried in the old cemetery in the Union District. There was at that time a belief almost universally indulged in that grass would not grow over the grave of a murdered person; and it is said that for a long time the lot where they laid these children was barren as a desert. The natural sterility of the soil, however, is a sufficient explanation of the phenomenon.
'Mrs. Higgins subsequently resided in the Pine Orchard District, near the Union Church. On that edifice there was a clock dial with stationary hands, and she was heard to say: 'When those pointers come together and stand at twelve, my sins will be pardoned'. She also cherished the strange hope that her husband, who was separated from her, would return and that she would again be the mother of three children in place of her dead offspring. She is reported to have made an attempt on her own life at the time of killing her children, but was prevented by her husband, and in after years always wore a black ribbon about her neck to cover the ugly trace of her savage rage.
'The story of her terrible deed was versified by a local poet, and within the memory of the living the aged women have been heard to sing in a mournful minor the sad song of this unfortunate woman. She was doubtless buried in the old cemetery in Pine Orchard district, but her grave, like that of her children, is still unlettered, and the historian looks in vain for the last resting place of her whom in charity he fain would call a maniac, not a murderer.' - The History of Middlesex County, Connecticut 1635-1885, edited by Henry Whittemore (JH Beers & Co, 1884).

You'll notice the reference to a possible song about this tragedy. I'm trying to track down the poem and the song, and wondered if you, who are so wise in the ways of murder ballads, had ever heard of this particular one? Certainly a mournful tale."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter, Chris - and thanks also for your kind words recently about my Pearl Bryan essay. You may have over-estimated my wisdom, however, because I fear I'm not going to be much help with Mrs Higgins. It's a new story to me, and I don't know of any ballad that's related to it.
The most promising search terms to investigate it struck me as being "The Murdered Children" (which sounds very much like a ballad title to me), "Killingworth" (because what poet could resist using that place name in a murder story?) and "Higgins" (though family names tend to be one of the first things that get distorted or changed as a ballad moves through the folk process). The bit about grass refusing to grow on their graves seems like an image no poet could resist too, but is harder to boil down into a single search term. "No grass grew" perhaps?
I spent an hour or so this morning Googling various combinations of those phrases, but came up with precisely nothing. I found one of two sketchy accounts of the story, but these took every scrap of their information from the Whittemore extract you sent me, so I'd say you've got the primary source right there. I wonder what his own sources were when he published the book back in 1884? Even then, I should think Connecticut newspapers from 1779 were pretty thin on the ground, and I'd be amazed if you managed to find any today.
I'm sure you're already working your contacts among local historians and such, and the only other thing I can suggest is that you start a thread on Mudcat asking if the story rings any bells there. Mudcat's a folk music board which allows non-members to post there, and it has a large and knowledgeable readership. Somebody there might just have that one tiny nugget of information you need to reach the next stepping stone along.
If it's OK with you, I'll run your letter with this reply next time I update PlanetSlade's correspondence pages. It's just possible that one of my readers will be able to help with your query, and I'll certainly pass on any information that comes in. The letter would give me a chance to point people over to Haunted Ohio as well, and recommend they check out some of the deliciously spooky stuff in your blog. I've written a couple of piece for
Fortean Times in the past, so your mention of Charles Forte there definitely struck a chord with me.

July 28, 2013. Chris Woodyard writes:
"Mudcat sounds very promising. I will post something there today. And excellent suggestions all in searching for "The Murdered Children". I'm keeping my fingers crossed one of the local groups will know of something. And please do list my query on PlanetSlade. I'd be honored.
"I found one contemporary source, although not a Connecticut paper. And not the same story as told by the county history, which seems to have the usual folklore-ish accretions: black ribbon around the throat, no grass growing on the grave, longing for impossible clock miracle, a dull knife....

'NEW LONDON Oct. 20: The following tragical affair happened at the north parish in Killingworth on Wednesday last, viz. the wife of Mr. [illegible: Horace?] Higgins of that parish, being disordered in her reason, and being left in the house with three of her children, she called her son of seven years old, to her, telling him she wanted to pin his collar, and immediately cut his throat, she then cut the throats of her daughter of five years old, and her infant which lay on the bed: Mr. Higgins soon after coming into the house, found her on her knees, cutting her own throat with a dull knife, which with some difficulty he wrested from her; but she had wounded herself to that degree she died soon after.' - Continental Journal [Boston, MA] 28 October 1779.

"Strange, with all our illusion of social progress, how such things still happen today, almost on a daily basis. But, apparently, no murder ballads about them. Thanks so much for your help and for pointing people to my blog. I had no idea how much Fortean fun it would be when I started it."

Paul Slade replies: This didn't occur to me before, but I've just checked for people called Higgins who died in Connecticut in October 1779, and that's turned up quite a bit of new information.
My search produced three matches, all children and all of whom died on October 13, 1779: Jane Higgins (nine weeks old at death), Sarah Higgins (four years old at death) and William Higgins (six years old at death). All three of them are buried at Emmanuel Church Cemetery at Killingworth in Middlesex County, Connecticut, and October 13 matches the "Wednesday last" reference in your
Continental Journal clipping above.
The children's parents are given as Samuel Higgins (1742-1811) and Sarah Higgins (1746-1810), ruling out the idea that the children's mother managed to kill herself straight after the murder. The
Connecticut Gazette reported Sarah's death in its initial report, just as the Continental Journal did, but corrected this to say she'd survived in a later edition the same day.
Sarah married Samuel in 1769, and her own Find a Grave entry says they had five children in all. The other two were Ichabod Higgins (1771-1844) and Martha Higgins (1777-1859). I don't know whether she decided not to kill them on the day for some reason, or whether they just happened to be out of the house at the time.
Whittemore tells us Sarah lived close to Killingworth's Union Cemetery towards the end of her life, and Find a Grave confirms she was buried there rather than at Emmanuel Church. Like the three children she murdered, she's listed as "no headstone" on the site.
Samuel is buried at Temple Cemetery in Benson, Vermont, and Find a Grave gives a second partner for him, who was called Temperance Parkhill (1756-1831). Samuel's listed as having six children: the five I've already mentioned plus Dan Higgins (1786-1859). Temperance was buried at Benson's Temple Cemetery too, and that same Dan Higgins is listed as her one and only child.
Temperance's own headstone describes her as "wife of James Parkhill & consort of Samuel Higgins", which presumably means she and Samuel never married (and perhaps that she never troubled to get a divorce from James either). I don't suppose divorces were easy to come by in 18th Century America, so perhaps that simply wasn't possible. I can't find any record of when James died.
A different source here claims Samuel and Temperance were married, saying they wed in Poultney, Vermont, in 1781 before they moved on to Benson seven years later. This source also tells us that Samuel was a farmer all his life, and credits him with six additional children not mentioned on Find a Grave, all born between 1787 and 1802. Temperance, we must assume, was their mother.
One thing everyone agrees on is that Samuel left Sarah and moved away from Connecticut after the murders. Temperance was born in Killingworth, so presumably Samuel already knew her when he was still with Sarah, and perhaps the two of them decided to leave together. On the day of the killings, Samuel would have been about 37, and Temperance just 23.
If I were adapting this as a novel, I think my big plot twist would be that Samuel and Temperance had been conducting an affair behind Sarah's back for years and that it was discovering this betrayal which drove her to murder his children. In this scenario, Temperance could also have been cheating on James. I have no evidence whatsoever to suggest any of that's actually true, of course, but it's an interesting line of speculation.
"Sarah Higgins: The Connecticut Medea - in all good bookshops now!"

Chris Woodyard writes:
"Fantastic! One of the articles I had said the graves were not marked so I didn't check Find a Grave, which would normally have been my first step. For some reason, I didn't realize they listed unmarked graves.
"One of the articles also says there was a quarrel so I think your theory about the canoodling Samuel is correct. However, I don't think consort means anything immoral was going on. While they happened, extra-marital relationships were not usually commemorated on tombstones at this time. I need to look at that more closely. I suspect it just means that she was wife of one man and then remarried. Sometimes people did get mentioned as wife of a deceased person.
"At least one of the children was out of the house when the murders happened. Let me send you the other articles I've got and you can see what you make of them."

Paul Slade replies: "I'm sure you're right when you say I was reading too much into 'consort'. I'll send you a couple more links tomorrow when I'm fresh. It's an interesting one this, isn't it?"

Chris Woodyard writes:
"It really is! Although, of course, it would be so much better with a ballad...
"There was a similar dreadful case in Putnam County, Ohio. The mother, who had been in and out of the asylum, killed three of her children while her husband was out of the house (isn't that always the pattern?). She tucked the children's bodies into bed, with their severed heads neatly arranged in place. Then she fetched a neighbor woman, drew her to the bed, pulled back the covers and said, 'See, I've made angels'. 1907. Nearly too late for the ballads, but certainly worthy of one."


July 17, 2013. Jeffrey Bloomfield of Flushing, New York, writes:
"Miss Otis Regrets is a comic song, but you may be on to something about it hinting at the 1930s' issue of anti-Black lynchings in the South.
"There was a concerted effort to get a national anti-lynching law passed, but due to the Depression and the dependence of the Roosevelt administration on so many Southern Democrats for its New Deal legislation, this law was not pushed by the most liberal adminstration in American history.
"Cole Porter may well have considered that when writing the song. His basic humor would be that of the incongruity of the proper upper class message ('Shan't be able to come for lunch. Toodles until tomorrow!') and the horror of the grisly lynching.
"In the early 18th Century, the masterful Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift wrote a long poem, Going To Be Hanged, about a highwayman named 'Clever' Tom Clinch, who stops at an inn for some sack on his way to gallows, and promises to pay for the drink when he comes back. The crowd is ogling this hero of the gutter, with the ladies saying, 'Lack-a-day, he's a proper young man!'. Swift (like most great satirists) was a moralist, and he hated public executions because they turned a tragic ending into a time for merriment and mobs. He was right - and they could also lead to a greater tragedy on occasion.
"On February 3, 1807 (long after Swift's death), John Holloway and Owen Haggerty were being hanged in London, and a review stand used by public spectators collapsed. Twenty people were crushed or trampled to death."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for that, Jeff. I do think Miss Otis Regrets is a fascinating song, both for the exact nature of her motivation - as I discussed with Michael Grosvenor Myer below - and this question of whether Porter wanted to sneak in a more serious message beneath the fun. I wish I could remember where I first came across the idea of it being a disguised protest song, because then I could remind myself how the writer developed his argument. Alas, I've now got no idea which book I found it in.
I've just looked up the dates of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, which I see was passed between 1933 and 1936. Porter wrote
Miss Otis Regrets for a 1934 show called Hi Diddle Diddle, which suggests he must have been working on it just as Roosevelt needed those Southern Democrats' votes most of all. I've no doubt the newspapers were full of the political compromises Roosevelt had to make, so maybe their reports did feed into the song somehow.
William McBrien's definitive biography of Porter, published by Vintage in 1998, mentions a 1939 interview with Porter where he said he'd found the name "Otis" while idly leafing through the Social Register, but could remember no more about the song's genesis than that. "One American sleuth wondered whether or not Goethe's mother was Porter's source," McBrien adds. "In answer to an invitiation she replied, 'I must ask to be excused as I have to die'. Another newspaper cutting, unidentified, but among Porter's papers, claimed
Miss Otis was inspired by a bad cowboy lament he heard at a party at a private home."
That last idea sounds very likely to me, because the lynching scene in
Miss Otis does feel like something imported from a cowboy ballad. That's not to say some - or even all - of the other elements we've discussed here didn't play a part in creating the song too, of course.
I hadn't come across Swift's poem before, so thanks for telling me about it. I see it's dated at 1720, and that Clinch was a fictional character Swift used to stand in for the many real criminals hanged at around that time. The pub he has Clinch stop at is named as The George in Holborn, a district which lies directly on the route from Newgate prison, where Clinch would have been kept, to Tyburn (now Marble Arch), where public executions were held. There's still a couple of pubs called The George in Holborn today.
I found a copy of the full poem here, and I see the section you mention closes with a mention of the Gallows Ballads trade:

"As clever Tom Clinch, while the rabble was bawling,
Rode stately through Holborn to die in his calling,
He stopt at the George for a bottle of sack,
And promised to pay for it when he came back.
His waistcoat, and stockings, and breeches, were white;
His cap had a new cherry ribbon to tie't.
The maids to the doors and the balconies ran,
And said, 'Lack-a-day, he's a proper young man!'
But, as from the windows the ladies he spied,
Like a beau in the box, he bow'd low on each side!
And when his last speech the loud hawkers did cry,
He swore from his cart, 'It was all a damn'd lie!'"

The "last speech" Swift has in mind here would be an example of the entirely fictional confession ballad sheet printers would often concoct for the condemned man. They would then print up this speech as if it were his own words and flog the sheet as a "Last Goodnight" at the foot of the scaffold. Very often, these confessions were - as Clinch protests here - "all a damn'd lie".
When I was researching the ballad sheets covered in PlanetSlade's British Broadsides section, I found one example designed not to exploit a hanging, but to protest against one. It was prompted by the execution of 17-year-old Catherine Foster at Bury St Edmunds on April 17, 1847, who'd been condemned for killing her husband. The sheet's printed up as a series of increasingly sarcastic headlines, which I think Swift himself might have appreciated.
Advertising what it calls a "Grand Moral Spectacle", it announces that Foster is to be "Publicly Strangled" by "The Hangman, The Great Moral Teacher". It describes the procedure of a public hanging in unflinching detail, then concludes: "This Exhibition (the admission to which is free) is provided by 'a
Christian Legitature' for the instruction of 'a Christian People'; and is intended to impress upon the minds of the multitude an abhorrence of all cruelty, a love of mercy and kindness, and a reverence for human life!!!!"
The four exclamation marks, in case you're wondering, are there on the original 1847 sheet. Marks like this appear in modern text when the writer fears his readers might otherwise miss the irony in what's being said, and take it at face value instead. I wonder if the 1847 author added them for the same reason?


July 19, 2013. Jeffrey Bloomfield, of Flushing, New York writes:
"The postcard we discussed is enclosed. Although not a photo of the butchery or bakery models, it is based on the same Egyptian concepts regarding the dead (usually the rich and powerful, and definitely the Pharoah plus his family and courtiers).
"The idea is these people will need servants in the afterlife, so by various magical charms and prayers, the painted wooden or clay figures will come to life to serve the dead party. If this seems weird, it was at least a step forward from burying live slaves or servants with their masters and mistresses in the tombs.
"The boat was needed for the dead Egyptian to 'sail' with the sun from East to West. Pharoahs were supposed to be gods, and they were buried with real sail boats (or models such as these) to keep up with the Sun God Amun-Ra. Even before the reformer Pharoah Akhnaton came along, the Solar Disc was an important imperial religious symbol.
"I like the details of the boat model, including the ship's captain talking to the aristocrat who is seated in front of the ship's storage facility. The steersman and tiller man are interesting too. I'm not sure what the tall white object is - possibly it's for a mast if the wind blows up."

[Jeff's referring here to his letter of June 26, 2013 (below) and the ancient Egyptian funeral customs he mentioned there. His postcard is labelled "Funerary Boat of Mekutra, Egyptian (Thebes), ca. 2000BC". It's from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection.]


Message board round-up

The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs ("Data declares.") can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.

Bleeding Cool

Moorcock's Miscellany

Pleasantry Exchange

Tangle of Thorns

Trash Film Guru

Writers' Minds



July 9, 2013. Carlyn Maw of Pasadena, California, writes: "I was wondering if you had ever heard of The Ballad of The Rhetton Family. I can't remember where it came from but I think my grandmother taught it to our mom who taught it to us. This is what I think I remember the lyrics being:

'First came Mama Rhetton,
She come to let me in,
He stabbed her with a corn knife,
And so his crimes begin,

'Next came Grandpa Rhetton,
Sittin' by the fire,
He snuck right up behind him,
And choked him with a wire.'

'Last came Baby Rhetton,
Sleepin' in his crib,
(something about kicking in the short ribs...?)
And he spit tobacco juice,
All over his golden head!'

"I know nothing else about it, if you do I'd love to know!"

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter, Carlyn. It sounds like an interesting ballad, though it's one I'd never come across before. I can't claim to have done any proper research on this tale, but after an hour or so on Google, I think I've got the basic facts together.
Family names are often the least reliable way of searching for ballads like these, because they change all the time from one singer to the next - often for no better reason than a listener mishearing what's been sung, or the new singer wanting to avoid a name they find awkward to pronounce. You often get better results by choosing an unusual phrase from the ballad's lyrics and using that as your search term instead. With this in mind, I used the phrase "stabbed her with a corn knife".
That phrase, when I tapped it into Google, produced just two results, both of which led me to Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel
The Haunting of Hill House. The story has a character called Luke who Jackson quotes singing this song:

"The first was young Miss Grattan,
She tried not to let him in,
He stabbed her with a corn knife,
That's how his crimes begin,

"The next was Grandma Grattan,
So old and tired and grey,
She f'it off her attacker,
Until her strength gave way,

"The next was Grandpa Grattan,
A-settin' by the fire,
He crept up close behind him,
And strangled him with a wire,

"The last was Baby Grattan,
All in his trundle bed,
He stove him in the short ribs,
Until that child was dead,

"And spit tobacco juice,
All on his golden head."

That's clearly the same ballad you have in mind, though Jackson gives the murdered family's name as "Grattan" rather than "Rhetton". That's pretty close, however, and just the sort of homonym that might arise from the process I mentioned above. A "corn knife", by the way - as I've also discovered this morning - is a short machete-like blade normally used for chopping rather than stabbing.
Luke calls his song
The Grattan Murders. I've looked at enough of these ballads over the past few years to develop a fairly reliable "sniff test" for those which are based on a real case, and this one definitely qualified.
I tried various combinations of "corn knife", "murder", "Gratton", "family" etc, and eventually came up with a site called Armed with the victims' real name of "Wratten" - closer to your version than Jackson's by the way - I was able to find several other sources.
The Wratten murders happened in 1893, and were reported on page one of that year's September 20
Rocky Mountain News like this:

"Horrible Butchery. An Entire Family of Six Murdered in Cold Blood.
WASHINGTON, Ind., Sept. 19 - Last night in Harrison township, nine miles from this city, an entire family of six persons were butchered with hatchets. The family consisted of Denson Wratten, his mother, wife and three children. The eldest of the children, a girl of 12, is still living, although unconscious, and with her head cruelly gashed.
"Denson Wratten was a farmer, 35 years old, a good citizen in moderate circumstances. His good mother lived with the family and drew a pension. She did not bank her money and was supposed to keep several hundred dollars about her. This money was doubtless the motive for the murders.
"The house is a log one, a storey and a half high, and has a long kitchen annex. The murderers entered by a window, breaking the sash, and there was evidence of a fierce struggle. Wratten was sick with typhoid fever and incapable of resistance. The old lady was found upon the floor, cut terribly about the head and both hands cut off at the wrists. All were found dead upon the floor except the baby, 3 years old, which was killed in bed."

When police searched the crime scene, they found a twenty-inch corn knife, which they immediately identified as the murder weapon. The RMN would have been working from the earliest, least reliable information from the scene in rushing out the story above, and I should think that's why it mistakenly mentions hatchets instead of the knife. Elizabeth Wratten, Denson's mother, was the owner of the cabin and a Civil War widow (which is where her pension came from). Other accounts say not that her hands were severed, but that they were "slashed to the bone" as she tried to defend herself.
The rest of the song takes a bit of artistic licence with the cast, and misses a trick with Baby Henry's death. According to one account, his head was actually severed in the cradle and rolled away from his body when police tried to turn him over. Ethel, the 12-year-old who'd survived the initial attack, died of her injuries soon afterwards.
The man convicted of the murders was Bud Stone, Denson's cousin, who it was discovered had turned up at the cabin's door on the evening of September 18 asking Denson for a toothache remedy. Most accounts agree Denson actually let him in by the front door, which suggests the signs of breaking in through a window which the
RMN reports were simply Stone's attempts to cover his tracks. He later named seven accomplices in the murder, some of whom seem to have burst into the cabin with him. After killing the family, they searched for Elizabeth's supposed stash of money, but found nothing.
Stone first claimed that one of the other gang members had done the killing, but later admitted he was guilty. He was hanged for the murders on February 16, 1894, at Jefferson, Indiana. A large and appreciative crowd gathered round the gallows to watch him die, and the
Cincinnati Enquirer celebrated this event with a string of cheerful headlines like: "Jerked In A Joyous Jiffy to Kingdom Come" and; "The Dangle Act".
The August 11, 1960, issue of Kentucky's
Park City Daily News tells us that first CE headline launched a long-running urban legend which has been delighting frat boys ever since. This insists that the Cincinnati Enquirer once reported a hanging with the headline "Jerked to Jesus" - but is, as we can see, quite untrue.
A more interesting footnote is provided by the fact that Stone's wife questioned him about bloodstains on his shirt when he first returned home after the murders, but he dismissed these stains as blood from his own troubled tooth. This is very close to what happens in a key verse from
Knoxville Girl:

"Saying 'Son, what have you done,
To bloody your clothes so?'
I told my anxious mother,
I was bleeding at my nose."

There's nothing to be made of that link beyond it being an interesting little coincidence - though the
PCDN does say that Stone's shirt "was finally the means of his arrest". This happened when his wife, Cecelia, told the police about his bloody clothes. She later testified against Stone in court, and it was her willingness to do this which finally made him break down and confess. The seven accomplices he named were released after Stone was hanged.
Ballads like this are always a mixture of fact and fiction, but it's clear the verse about Grandma fighting back has solid evidence to back it up. When Stone broke down and confessed, he told police the old woman had "fought like a tiger". I've found no reports which confirm the tobacco spit verse so far, which means the jury's still out on that one. My guess is that it's probably the ballad writer's invention, inserted here to underline the killer's contempt for his victims and kick listeners' outrage up another notch. Of course, I could be wrong.
I haven't been able to find any performance of the ballad on disc either, but that may be because there's still a fourth family name out there attached to it which I've yet to discover. It's got all the gory elements that usually make a ballad irresistible to folk and bluegrass singers, so I'd be surprised if somebody hasn't recorded it at one time or another.

[Carlyn later sent me a link to this Mudcat thread from November 2004. In it, Charley Noble quotes a version of the ballad above which he calls The Rattin Family. "My mother and her Greenwich Village friends used to amuse themselves in the early 1930's be singing a version of it," he explains. Carlyn says: "That makes sense, since my grandmother was also in New York in the early thirties". Carlyn herself learned the song in New York, where she lived as a child.]


July 9, 2013. Pierre Vincent of Erin in France, writes:
"I would just like to say how much I'm enjoying your website, I found you through David Pescovitz' post on Boing Boing and I'm so glad I did!
"I'm a singer/songwriter, now based in France but performing across Europe. Although I don't consider myself to be a folk artist, I generally tend to get put into that category because I perform solo with an acoustic guitar.
"Two years ago, I attempted to write the folkiest of folk songs and it ended up being called The Silence. It came to me in a dream and I wrote down what I saw in ten minutes. I'd never heard of murder ballads before, but after seeing David's post I became intrigued as the genre appears a perfect fit for my song.
"Here's the link to the song on my website: There is also a live video of the The Silence on the site. With your interest in murder ballads, I am intrigued to hear your thoughts.
"Thank you for your time and keep up the good work."

Paul Slade replies: Thank you for that, Pierre. That's a beguiling little tale you've told there, made all the more effective by the gentle, atmospheric setting you give it. I was glad to see from what I'll call the "postscript" verse that the suspicions I'd been slowly developing about the narrator's role were correct.
I think you're right when you say that
The Silence fits well with the murder ballads tradition. Stabbed/drowning girls figure quite often in the classic murder ballads, particularly so in Knoxville Girl and the 17th century English songs which birthed it. Take half a step to one side, and your own protagonist could almost be the Knoxville Girl killer himself, telling the same core story from a perspective we happen not to have heard before. There's links with Pretty Polly too, and the way that song's killer seems to step in and out of his own head as the lyrics progress.
From what you say, I'm guessing you had no conscious memories of these songs when
The Silence came to you? If so, that just goes to show how deep these bedrock tales run in our unconscious minds. We all know the templates underlying these stories - whether we know that we know them or not - and I suspect it's recognising those templates in a new tale which tells us it feels "true". None of that takes away from your own skill in composing and performing The Silence, of course, but it does show how much cultural and folkloric stuff any songwriter will have feeding into their work.

[David Pescovitz is one of the editors at Boing Boing, the web magazine/group blog. His July 8 recommendation of PlanetSlade there brought a lot of extra readers my way, sparked a fair bit of Twitter action, and produced the little flood of July 9 and 10 letters you see here.]


July 9, 2013. Sean Demory of Kansas City, Missouri, writes:
"Just wanted to thank you for your examination of murder ballads. It's wonderfully done and gets the feel for why these songs are so important.
"I came across your site when I was writing my story, The Ballad of the Wayfaring Stranger and the Dead Man's Whore. It made the Stoker and Locus recommended reading lists for 2012, and got an honourable mention in Ellen Datrow's The Best Horror of the Year Volume 5.
"The images of doomed girls and damned men have always resonated, and there's power to the senselessness of the crimes. Bad is done because there's too much good around, in many cases. Thanks for caring about the form and for your outstanding work!"

Paul Slade replies: And thank you, Sean, for sending me that terrific short story. It's chilling in a quietly persistent kind of a way and very memorable.
You catch the matter-of-fact understatement of the old murder ballads very well, and your quotations from their lyrics are well-chosen. The story's tailor-made for anyone who's enjoyed PlanetSlade's Murder Ballads coverage, so I hope everyone here will use the free Smashwords link above to read or download it in whichever format they prefer.
Returning to the lyrics you quote for a moment, the version of
In The Pines you use in your Fixin' To Hang chapter doesn't immediately ring a bell with me, so I wondered if those lines might be your own invention? Or perhaps it was hearing these lines in the song somewhere which inspired your story in the first place?
The classic murder ballads are all so similar in their plots and atmosphere that I sometimes think they're all just versions of a single archetypal story which has been with humanity ever since prehistoric times. We catch a glimpse of it in the original, uncensored folk tales that make up The Brothers Grimm collection too, and that ballad/folklore/fairy tale crossroads is clearly where your haint's cabin lies. The Dead Man's whore is
Pretty Polly and The Knoxville Girl, yes, but she's also Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty.
As I read your story, I kept thinking of others with a similar flavour you might enjoy. I don't mean to suggest your work is derivative of any of these authors, just that they seem to operate in the same psychic landscape. If there's anything on the list you haven't already read, you might want to check it out.

The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh. I saw this play in London years ago, and I've never forgotten it. McDonagh manages to create an utterly convincing folkloric creature from his own imagination just as you've done here. It's never been filmed, but the text is available in paperback. Includes a nice spin on the Pied Piper story.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks. It was your jar of flies device which made me think of this comparison initially, but I think it stands up.

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, by Steve Earle. Earle's first novel, set in the 1950s, has a junkie doctor in a Mexican border town communing with the shade of Hank Williams. Your Wayfaring Stranger and Earle's version of Williams are cousins beneath the skin. The man knows his way round a murder ballad too.

The Hellhound Sample, by Charles Shaar Murray. Mostly about blues music and the music biz, but with a supernatural undercurrent too. Your black guitarist made me think of the Robert Johnson legends, which Murray makes good use of. I've written a full review of the book here.

The Outlaw Album, by Daniel Woodrell. Superb set of short stories by the guy who wrote Winter's Bone. Set in the same hillbilly world as that excellent movie, and again bringing the old murder ballads' atmosphere into the present day. I was hooked from the first line of the first story: "Once Boshell finally killed his neighbour he couldn't seem to quit killing him."

Thanks again for sending me your story - I really did enjoy it, and I've already started passing the link round my friends.

July 13, 2013. Sean Demory adds: "Thanks for your kind words. I definitely wanted the haint's mountain to lie at the crossroads between fairy tale, spook story and murder ballad, as I've always subscribed to Manley Wade Wellman's view of the hillcountry as an interstitial place between the Old World and the New. Those traditions brought from the British isles shifted without warping, as you've shown in your essays.
"Have you read Genevieve Valentine's "Armless Maidens of the American West"? It's a fantastic exploration of mythforms in a world that takes them for granted. Great, great stuff.
"Thanks also for the recommendations. I thoroughly enjoyed The Wasp Factory, but I haven't read the others. Nor did I know that Steve Earle had written a novel. Definitely have to dive into that.
"Incidentally, I've attached another piece that you might find interesting. Zobop Bebop is a supernatural crime thing that's equal parts Divine Horsemen and Superfly ... at least, that's the goal. It falls into that interstitial place mode as well, as much of my work does."


July 12, 2013. Josh West, of West Auckland, New Zealand, writes: "I was reading your site a few weeks ago. I'm not sure how I got there, but I saw your piece on Chinese Hell Money and got interested.
"I was down at my local Chinese supermarket, shopping for cheap noodles, and I found a bundle of Hell notes, so I thought I'd pick a pack up for you. Do you still have any interest in collecting them? I can send you them if you want, otherwise I'm going to chuck them around and pretend I'm rich."

Paul Slade replies: That's really kind of you, Josh - thanks very much.
You'll find pictures of all the notes I've already got in the pages here. If yours is not among them, then I'd love one or two copies to add to my collection. I'm sure you'll find a way to have some fun with the notes yourself in due course, so please just send me a couple of samples and hang on to the rest.
As a matter of interest, where exactly is the shop where you found them? Is it a neighbourhood where there's a big Chinese population? Roughly how much did the shop charge you for the bundle of notes?

July 13, 2013. Josh West adds:
"I found them in a bustling Chinese supermarket in Manukau, which is a very culturally diverse region of Auckland. I was immediately interested in them because they were American dollar replicas without the picture of the Jade Emperor, and didn't look like anything you had uploaded.
"I've checked your link, and they are definitely the notes Joel Anderson mentions here: 'One of my favourites copied a US $100 bill, changing only the legend on the back. Understandably, the US Secret Service was not too pleased, and that issue seems to have been discontinued'.
"I have attached a photo . They were only a dollar-ish. Do you want them? I'll send you an envelope full.
"Hope things are well in your hemisphere. And a big shoutout to all PlanetSlade readers everywhere!"

Paul Slade replies: Thanks again, Josh - yes, I'd love a couple of those if you don't mind. They're one of the most interesting examples I came across while researching my article, but I've never managed to find any examples myself. I'm going to let Joel know they're still in circulation too, as I'm sure he'll be interested.


May 3, 2013. John Langenbahn of Durango, Colorado, writes:
"I am enjoying your book on Pearl Bryan. It is well written and researched.
"I grew up with the Pearl Bryan story as my great grandfather was a member of the Jackson Jury. John Michael Enzweiler (1860 - 1899) is the tallest man in the standing row of the photo. In my younger years, I lived in his house/grocery store in Bellevue, Kentucky. Further, the first home I ever owned was a mere two blocks from the spot of the murder, although I did not know it at the time.
"A question for you: in your research did you run across the name of the jury foreman? The oral history in our family was that John Michael was the foreman, but my brother has a law partner who argues that his great grandfather, Murty Shey, who is also in the photo, was the foreman. And now, another book says the foreman was the man standing to the right of John Michael. I told my brother that he and his partner should walk across the river to the Courthouse and settle the matter, but I think they just enjoy arguing about it.
"There was another Enzweiler in the story, who was John Michael's cousin. He was the Newport bridge's gate-keeper on the night of the murder and testified at the trial. The tollgate keeper, John Ensweiler, was found dead in his home on January 27, 1897, almost exactly one year from the date of the murder. John Michael himself died two years after the trial, at the young age of 39. It was passed down in the family that this was due to a curse Walling placed on those having anything to do with the trial right before he hanged."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for getting in touch, John. I've been lucky enough to hear from quite a few relatives of people I've written about on PlanetSlade now, and I always love getting these letters. I'm glad you're enjoying the book. Your family legend about the Walling curse sounds like a useful way to terrify the kids when they're misbehaving: "Go to bed NOW or Walling's ghost will get you!"
I got my own copy of the jury photograph from the
Images of America Newport volume, published by Arcadia in 2004. Part of their caption reads: "Jury foreman was George Peter Stegner, who is seen in the back row, fourth from the left", which would indeed put him to the right of your great-grandfather.
As a further check, I contacted Debbie Buckley, my friend at Fort Thomas Military Museum, and she's confirmed it too. "Mr. Stegner's granddaughter came to see us nearly two years ago with that information," Debbie says. "It was Mr. Stegner who was the foreman, and he owned a grocery store here in Fort Thomas."
Finally, John, as you were kind enough to say you liked the book, please consider dropping by one of its two Kindle pages (US, UK) and add a review there. Same goes for everyone else who's read it either here or in one of the Kindle versions themselves.


May 6, 2013. Michael Grosvenor Myer of Haddenham in Cambridgeshire writes:
"You use the pronoun 'his' of Timberlake Wertenbaker, author of Our Country's Good, on PlanetSlade's May 2013 letters page. This should in fact be 'her'. Timberlake Wertenbaker is a woman.
"And furthermore, Miss Otis's murder of her lover occurs the very morning after her seduction ("Last evening down in Lover's Lane, she strayed, Madam"): there is no suggestion of her being pregnant.
"'The song was written after Porter received a challenge while at lunch with some friends,' says Wikipedia. 'He claimed he could write a song on any subject. The friends challenged him to write something based on the next thing they heard in the restaurant. The waiter at an adjoining table then said to the person at that table, 'Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today'.'
"I once heard a somewhat different version of how it came to be written. Porter was at a lunch party when a sealed note was delivered to the hostess. He bet her that, given just one hour to work, he could compose a song based on whatever the note said. When she opened it, of course, it turned out to be from another guest crying off. 'But I must have a reason,' Porter is supposed to have exclaimed. 'Oh, let's say she's dead!,' the hostess replied. Porter retired to a piano in another room and returned an hour later with the song!
"I heard this many years ago in a radio documentary about Cole Porter and the anecdote has stayed with me. Both versions are most likely apocryphal, but Porter did indeed have a reputation for being able to compose quickly."

Paul Slade replies: Just to deal with the Timberlake Wertenbaker point first, that's sheer ignorance on my part I'm afraid. The fact is I just assumed Wertenbaker was a man and never even bothered to check. I've reversed her unwanted surgery now.
My own interpretation of
Miss Otis Regrets has always been that she allows an attractive man to seduce her on the understanding that they're going to get married one day, asks him to keep that promise when she discovers she's pregnant, and that's when he bolts. It's true that Porter never mentions an illegitimate pregnancy in the song, but I've always assumed that was simply a sop to the manners of his day. I went a bit too far in saying she was definitely pregnant, though, so I've softened that bit of the copy below to say she'd been seduced instead.
So, what are the alternative explanations? We're clearly meant to sympathise with Miss Otis throughout the song, and to see her as a wronged woman whose revenge is entirely justified. That rules out breach of promise as her sole motivation, I'd have thought, because that just doesn't seem a serious enough offence to make her own actions palatable.
Perhaps it was the simple fact that Miss Otis had surrendered her virginity outside marriage which she feared would ruin her future life? We know she had a velvet gown and lunched with people who kept a butler on the staff, so it's fair to assume she moved in the same rich, well-connected section of society Porter himself occupied. Back in the 1930s, I would imagine the young men in that set felt free to sow their wild oats with whatever chamber maid or cocktail waitress came to hand, but still demanded that own brides be virgins.
If so, then the cad who deflowered Miss Otis and then deserted her left her as 'damaged goods', dooming her hopes of making any desirable marriage at all. Perhaps that's the 'dream of love' which she knows she's now lost, and it's that loss which drives her to seek revenge?
The trouble with insisting on a strictly literal reading of the 'last evening' line is that you have to read the rest of the song that way too, which creates far more problems than it solves. A 100% literal reading would have her picking this bloke up, falling instantly in love with him, having sex, waking up next morning to find him gone, rushing straight round to his place (how does she know where he lives?), shooting him dead, getting arrested and being lynched - all in the space between suppertime one day and lunchtime the next.
All we can say for sure is that we're intended to view Miss Otis as a wronged woman of some kind, who takes her justified revenge and is instantly punished for it. Given the public morals of his day, Porter had to hint at her true motivation rather than spell it out, but surely we're not supposed to think it was simply being ditched after a consequence-free roll in the hay which drove her to murder?

May 6, 2013. Michael Grosvenor Myer adds:
"I feel you neglect the all-important fact that it is a comic song: it's all meant as a hyperbolical joke. [.] I accept your suggestion that her seduction could have included a promise of marriage as a possibility, but in this black-comic context it is not a necessity. Surely unbridled lust simply overwhelmed her?
"The vital point is that it's all meant to be funny - from the incongruous extremity of her reaction to loss of honour in the cold light of the morning after, to the even more incongruously deadpan tone of the formal announcement of her apologetic but unavoidable absence from the lunch party."

Paul Slade replies: From what I've read about Hi Diddle Diddle, the song was certainly delivered as a comic number in the original show, but my impression is that it's more often sung with tragic overtones today.
My own collection includes a 1934 version by Ethel Waters which is clearly meant to be funny, but also Ella Fitzgerald's 1956 recording which makes it sound like the saddest story on Earth. Kirsty MacColl's 1985 version with The Pogues sounds pretty mournful too.
The further we get from its year of composition, the more Porter's original comic intentions are forgotten, I think. It's the fact that both singers and listeners can interpret it in so many different ways which makes this such a fascinating song.

May 6, 2013. Michael Grosvenor Myer adds: "My Uncle Alec and I both used, at different times, to sing it in the 1950s in the French restaurant he owned in South Kensington, to much hilarity and mirth. Diana Dors I recall once being particularly appreciative. Likewise Gilbert Harding. (Sorry about that, but I shall be 81 on Sunday, and if I can't drop a name or two at my age ...)"

[Michael has his own YouTube channel, where you can see and hear him singing. I'd like to particularly endorse his sentiments in The Working Week.]


June 26, 2013. Jeffrey Bloomfield of Flushing, New York, writes:
"Great article about Hell Money.
"It put me in mind of how the Pharaohs and their highest courtiers would be buried with possessions for their comfort in their afterlife (those wonderful diorama figures of bakers in bake shops, butchers in meat stalls, and figures cultivating fields or rowing boats, were to come to life in the tombs and take care of the Pharaoh's needs).
"Later, into the age of Roman control of Egypt, the dead could be buried with prayers (on papyrus) requesting such servants in the afterlife."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks, Jeff. I'm really curious to see some pictures of the dioramas you mention now, but so far I haven't been able to find any. Someone out there will have a link they can send me, though, I'm sure.


Message board round-up

The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs ("Erudite essays excite.") can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.



Fortean Times


Media Infidel



Spirit of Nine


March 11, 2013. Jeff Bloomfield (aka Mayerling) of Flushing, New York, writes: "I was reading a book entitled Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones that I have owned for two decades but never read. It's by Penny Griffin, and is part of a series called Modern Dramatists, and I came across this on pages 153-155:

"The last of Pinero's 'serious' plays, Dr Harmer's Holidays, written in 1924 (but not performed until 1931 in New York), is one of the strangest pieces he ever wrote. In 1892 he had witnessed a trial at the Old Bailey in which three men were charged with the murder of a young doctor who, up to the events that led to his death, had possessed an irreproachable character.
"The young man, drunk, dirty, and disheveled, had been found by the three thugs in a public house in the Borough. They had led him away from the pub into an alleyway, where they had beaten him up and robbed him. In his struggles, the young doctor was throttled. The events were seen by a witness and men were caught and brought to justice.
"In his foreword to the play, Pinero wrote: 'What interested me at the moment, and continued to interest me thirty years later, was the problem of the respectable young doctor - the trusted assistant of an older practitioner in the City - apparently living a sober, honest and cleanly life, who met his end in such an ignoble fashion: and I set myself to the task of forging a chain of circumstances, intensifying rather than diminishing the tragedy of his death'."

The play is a type of "Jekyll and Hyde" plot in nine scenes, ending with the murder. Not quite what the evidence suggested, but then again it may be on the mark."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for that, Jeff. I'd never heard of the Pinero play until now, but he clearly based it on the real-life murder of William Kirwan, which I wrote up earlier this year as The Borough Mystery.
The British Library has copies of both Griffin's book and the play's full text, which I've now had a chance to read. It's good to see the case still had a grip on Pinero's imagination 30 years after Kirwan's death. He describes the killing and the trial in great detail, both in his foreword to the play and in the text itself, suggesting either that he'd kept some newspaper clippings from the trial all that time, or that he went to a good deal of trouble in researching it again before he started writing. The play's plot boils down to this:
Dr Walter Harmer lodges in Balham (about two miles from Kirwan's Stockwell) with his landlady Mrs Nethercliff and her niece Elsie. He's a saintly doctor for 49 weeks of the year, but every August he disappears for a mysterious three-week holiday, laying a false trail to suggest an innocent seaside break.
In fact, he spends that three weeks every year in the same neighbourhood of Southwark where Kirwan was killed, staying with a whore called Lilian Dipple and drinking himself stupid in her squalid surroundings. It's during one of these trips that he meets three thugs called Gorham, Kelk and Crickway, who sponge drinks off him every chance they get.
Harmer is consumed by guilt at these episodes, but thinks he sees a way out when Elsie is jilted by her selfish young fiancé Oswald Birkett. Harmer asks Elsie to marry him instead, she accepts, and he looks forward to spending that August on a Swiss honeymoon with her rather than slumming it in Southwark as usual. At last, he thinks, he's found a way to break the Borough's terrible spell over him.
At the last moment, however - July 31 as it happens - Elsie and Birkett get back together, plunging Harmer into despair and sending him off to Southwark again for the biggest bender yet. We know he's lost for good this time, because his final visit has him speaking in the same phonetic underclass accent Pinero's used for the Southwark characters all along.
Harmer is in Lilian's room when Gorham sees him flashing some money, and decides to pounce. Lilian leaves the two men alone there while she helps a sick friend get to Guy's Hospital, and the scene closes with Gorham beckoning his two friends in to help him subdue the already confused and weakened Harmer. Next time we see the doctor, he's lying dead on the floor of that same room, amid signs of what Pinero calls "a desperate struggle". Curtain.
Pinero slips several details of Kirwan's real case into his story. He has Harmer buy some roses for Lilian in Great Dover Street, for example, and describes him taking up with a woman named Roberts in the One Distillery, where the three thugs are already following him. But Kirwan's own death, which Lilian describes in great detail, is said to be something which happened nearby some time ago. "Theer was a re-spectable bloke murdered close by 'ere years ago," Lilian warns Harmer. "Gen'leman jes' like yew - an' by igsac'ly th' same clarss as Alf Gorham an' 'is pals".
The closest Pinero comes to explaining Harmer's compulsion about Southwark is a conversation with his friend MacGill in the play's first scene. Harmer claims at first that he's simply relating what an anonymous patient has told him, but later confesses it's his own behaviour he's describing.
"At intervals - once a year perhaps - he'll slink away from his wholesome surroundings - where he's regarded as a model of rectitude - and abandon himself to a course of utter depravity," Harmer tells MacGill. 'The individual I speak of dives into the foulest quarter of London he can find - the heart of the Borough or east of Aldgate Pump, among the Chinks; and there for a term he'll swelter and soak, living, as I say, the most bestial life conceivable. My dear MacGill, he favoured me with details that would have revolted even a Thames-side police magistrate."
That's not so much an explanation of Harmer's behaviour as a simple description of it. If this acclaimed dramatist had any particular insight into Kirwan's motives which escaped the rest of us, I'm afraid he chose not to share it here.

As I write this in Spring 2013, Pinero's work is enjoying something of a revival in London, with a recent staging of The Magistrate at the National Theatre and Trelawny of the Wells getting rave reviews in its current Donmar Warehouse production. Maybe Dr Harmer's Holidays will be next?

[I started a thread at, a Ripperologist site, to promote my own William Kirwan piece, and Jeff's letter originally appeared as a response to that thread. You can read the full discussion here.]


March 25, 2013. Peter Norris of Spilsby in Lincolnshire writes: "I am writing the biography of my relative, Gus Elen, who was a music hall star, reaching the peak of his career in the late 1800s/early 1900s. My research led me to investigate the treasure hunt craze, which featured in one of his songs, which he first sang in early 1904, and which was entitled The Lucky Treasure Seeker.
"Your excellent article on London's treasure hunt riots is most interesting, but leaves me with one question, which I hope you may be able to answer. The events that you describe relate to The Weekly Dispatch, but in the song to which I refer, The News of the World is cited thus:

'A-going along to work to-day I looked upon the ground,
Right underneaf my off-side shoe was a thing for fifty pound,
The News of the World 'ad dropt it see? I went and got the cash,
Bought this 'at, and stick, and gloves, I mean to make a splash.'

Do you know if The News of the World was involved in a similar scheme to that of The Weekly Dispatch, around the beginning of 1904?"

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for your letter, Peter. I'd heard of Gus Elen, of course, but not of that particular song, which I'm glad to learn about. I see the lyrics were written by Eric Graham, with music by Charles Moore.
Looking at the verse you quote, my guess is that Graham had the
Weekly Dispatch scheme in mind all along, but used the News of The World in his lyrics either because it was a more famous newspaper (and hence ensured that people got the point), or because he thought the name scanned better.
The Dispatch, like the NotW, was a Sunday newspaper, and both ploughed a similarly sensationalistic furrow, so it's possible he simply got the two papers confused - just as people recalling the Lobby Lud scheme of the 1920s tend to wrongly attribute this Westminster Gazette promotion to the Daily Mirror today.
We can assume this was a topical song when Elen first sang it, and the
Dispatch scheme ran from Jan 3 - Feb 12, 1904, so that aspect of the timing fits the Dispatch too. The most valuable Dispatch medallions were worth 50, just as the song says, and the words "a thing for 50" suggest it's a token Elen's singing about rather than actual cash.
Having said that, I know there were several other newspaper treasure hunt schemes running from about 1900 to 1905. I've never come across a
NotW one at that time, but I can't rule it out. I have read a lot of magistrates' court reports from 1904, relating to damage done by the Dispatch treasure hunters, but I can't recall one that mentions a NotW reader instead.
If you want to be sure, why not spend a day at the British Library's Newspaper Collection in North London? They'll have either microfilm or paper copies of the
NotW's 1903 and 1904 issues there, and it would be fairly simple to check these for any editorial promoting the sort of scheme you're looking for. The Dispatch splashed its own scheme on the front page of every issue, and I imagine the NotW would have done something very similar. Colindale's got a good collection of newspaper reference books which may help you too.

April 26, 2013. Peter Norris adds: "I have now been to British Library Newspapers in Colindale, and I thought you would be interested to know what I discovered regarding the Treasure Hunt competitions during my four days there.
"The News of The World not only ran a Treasure Hunt, but claimed to be the first paper to do so, and to be offering the largest amount of prize money. The front page of the 22nd November 1903 edition declares "First Clues To Hidden Gold In This Issue".
"The clues appeared each week on page 5, until the 14th February 1904 edition, when an announcement which referred to the intervention of the Attorney General closed the competition. By 31st January 1904, it was claimed that £4,000 worth of coins had been buried in the capital, and across the country."

Paul Slade replies: That's really interesting, Peter - thanks for letting me know.
If we set aside the
Tit-Bits scheme (which launched in June 1903) as a magazine affair rather than a newspaper one, then I think the NotW's claim is probably fair enough. The November 1903 date you give suggests its own treasure hunt launched about six weeks before the Weekly Dispatch one. The Dispatch scheme never got above a total of £3,790 in prizes, so it seems the NotW had them beat on those grounds too. I've made a couple of small changes to my article reflecting this new information.


March 23, 2013. Jason Steel of North London writes: "I've just been reading your research on the ballad of old Tom Dooley. The version I am most familiar with is by Abner Jay - I insist you track it down if you have not heard it!! The way he says 'venereal disease' is something else.
"Keep up the good work on the site: a fine way to spend time, reading those tales."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for that, Jason, and thanks for the two EPs I'd ordered from your website. The postman did his best to damage them by cramming that day's post through the letterbox in one hefty pile, but no harm was done and I'm looking forward to listening to them soon. If they're as good as the two CDs of yours I've already got, I shall be very happy.
Abner Jay was a new name to me, and I hadn't heard his telling of
Tom Dooley (or VD, as he calls the track) till you mentioned it. It is a bit of a gem though, isn't it? Spoken word, with inflections that recall the most theatrical black preachers, and determined to include all the sordid details that more tasteful versions omit. I've just bought the track from iTunes, with his One Man Band compilaton to follow from Amazon soon. After all, you did insist!
"Abner Jay was an itinerant one-man band who travelled across the American South in a converted mobile home that opened up into a portable stage, complete with amplification and home furnishings," Chris Campion writes in this
Guardian profile. "He was almost certainly the last living exponent of the 'bones' - a musical tradition that involved playing percussive rhythms using various cow and chicken bones that had been dried out and blanched in the sun. Jay claimed to have a repertoire of over 600 songs, which he sung in a bone-shaking basso profundo voice."
My kind of guy. I'm particularly partial to one-man-band bluesmen for some reason, and I was huge fan of Jawbone back in the noughties. So much so, in fact that, when Seasick Steve came along a few years later, I immediately resented him for grabbing all the acclaim I felt Jawbone should have had for himself.


March 9, 2013. Judith Green of Adelaide, South Australia, writes: "I am entranced with your accounts of Broadside Ballads because I live in Australia and many of your London criminals ended up here -

'True patriots all, for be it understood,
We left our country for our country's good.
And none will doubt but that our emigration,
Has proved most useful to the British nation.'

"This poem is from Geoffrey Ingleton's True Patriots All, News from Early Australia as told in a Collection of Broadsides.
"I have related the story of my great x4 grandfather John Vandenbergh, a receiver of stolen goods from a Westminster gang and I have been tracking the lives of the young thieves. Two of them, John Durham and Edward Crowther (or Crowder) were transported to Australia, and I have contributed their stories to the Convict Stockade section at History Australia. I am tracing the fate of all my connections."

Paul Slade replies: How nice to hear from you again, Judith. Just in case you haven't seen the Old Bailey transcript covering Crowther and Durham's trial, it's here.
As you say, tales of transported convicts make a very good fit with my own gallows ballads essays, and I've often wondered what happened to some of the people I write about after they sailed. If you should ever stumble across any details of PlanetSlade's own deportees in your research, I'd love to learn more.
The St James Theatre here in London has just staged Timberlake Wertenbaker's play
Our Country's Good, which I went along to see a few weeks ago. It's based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker.
Wertenbaker takes her title from the poem you mention, of course, and quotes precisely that verse in one of her scenes. The action's set in a New South Wales penal colony in 1789, where an idealistic young British officer has organised a group of convicts into a theatre company for the camp. They stage a performance of George Farquhar's
The Recruiting Officer, a 1706 play which mocks British officers just like the ones guarding them.
It sounds far-fetched, but this really did happen. The performance took place on June 4, 1789, and formed part of the colony's celebrations marking King George III's birthday. Wertenbaker's play uses many of the real convicts involved and the British soldiers running the colony as its characters, and I found it a fascinating evening. It helped me imagine the lives these convicts faced after leaving Britain, which breathed a little extra life into them for me.
Mary Brenham, for example, one of the real convicts depicted in the play, was an 18-year-old domestic servant, convicted in 1784 of stealing 39 shillings worth of goods from her employer, and sentenced to seven years transporation for this. In 1791, she had a daughter by Lieutenant Ralph Clark, one of the officers running the colony, whose diary gave Keneally a key source for his book. Brenham seems to have chosen to remain in Australia after her sentence was complete, but Clark went on to serve in the West Indies, where he died in 1794.
In Wertenbaker's play, Clark is the man who directs
The Recruiting Officer, and it's Mary's audition which brings them together, though the programme notes caution this may not have been what really happened. You can read more about the London production and see photographs of the cast in action on Out of Joint's website here.

March 10, 2013. Judith Green adds: "I've never seen Our Country's Good, but I know Tom Keneally's novel. The Recruiting Officer was often performed in convict days. The earliest Australian broadside, in a collection at New South Wales State Library, is an 1800 playbill of The Recruiting Officer found between the pages of a bound volume of Sydney Gazette back issues."


April 6, 2013: Tony Pressley of Worksop in Nottinghamshire writes: "During a random Google search for the Mandy comic strip in the Mirror (don't ask), I came across your Andy Capp article. Then I read your Superheroes in Court article. Then I read about Frankie and Johnny. My weekend is now ruined, because I can't seem to stop reading your website. Is there an organisation I can go to for help, before my family report me missing from my own life?
"I like your site, because I have a seemingly random brain, and my tastes jump from one thing to another in a heartbeat: from Captain America to Captain Scott. That's how the internet ruined my life. I can be reading about Hitler, then suddenly want to read about uniform makers, and was that true about Hugo Boss designing the SS uniform, and were Muller yoghurts really a Nazi invention?
"I would say keep up the great writing, but I really need my life back."

Paul Slade replies: Too late. You belong to me now. Instructions will follow.
Seriously, though, thanks very much for the kind words, and I'm delighted you're enjoying the site so much. I've still got four more essays I definitely want to tackle on my PlanetSlade list, and by the time those are done I'm sure I'll have come up with a few more. So I'm afraid there's no end in sight just yet.


April 9, 2013. Loni Kate English of Santa Paula, California, writes: "Your website has proved invaluable to me as a jumping off place for my Senior Capstone Project at university. Thank you!
"I am researching murder ballads, but have found very few scholarly articles to go on. I am wondering if you have any help for me in this department. Or specific books you believe I should look for?
"Since most of these songs are about men murdering women, one way I focused my research was to look for murder ballads where a woman perpetrates the violence - although I may have narrowed my research pool too drastically by looking in this way. I wrote a paper comparing Frankie & Johnny to Norah Jones' recent take on the form, Miriam. I am wondering if you have any suggestions for me on more ballads in this vein.
"I am also trying to formulate a thesis statement and I would love any input on interesting threads or themes you have picked up on in your research. I am not married to my original focus. If you have time to reply I would greatly appreciate it."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for your letter - I'm glad you've found the site helpful.
Many of the best-known ballads have had whole books devoted to them, which you'll find mentioned in the sources section of my various essays. The best two anthologies I know are Sean Wilentz & Greil Marcus's
The Rose & the Briar (WW Norton, 2005) and Jonathan Goodman's Bloody Versicles (Kent State University Press, 1993). Both these have material on a lot of different ballads, and you should be able to track them down in a library without too much trouble. Have a look through Albert Friedman's Penguin Book of Folk Ballads too, which has details of a terrific old Scottish ballad called Mary Hamilton's Last Goodnight.
I always think the trick with this vast subject is to pick one fairly small area, and focus in very sharply on that. Otherwise, you tend to find yourself spinning off in 20 different directions at once and nothing really gels together. In my case, for example, I've stuck to ballads based on real, identifiable murders which can be tracked back to their original press reports.
With that in mind, I'm going to concentrate on your theme of ballads about female killers, and restrict myself to those I know are based in fact. I pitched an idea for a programme about these songs to a Radio 4 producer once, and part of my proposal ran:

"Ian Brady was a greater villain than Myra Hindley, and yet the tabloids reserved most of their bile for his female companion. Is it always the case that female killers attract an extra measure of fear, hatred and revenge? If so, does this imply a greater degree of unhealthy excitement at their activities too? Do women find these powerful she-devils appealing (in the way that many black men have come to champion Stagger Lee)? Or must the female killer be wronged in some way (like Frankie Baker) to "justify" her actions?"

My programme idea got no further than that, but maybe there's some ideas there you can use. As far as individual songs are concerned, I suggest:

Tom Dooley
A lot of people prefer to believe Laura Foster's real killer was not Tom, but Ann Melton, another of his ex-lovers. The appeal of this theory is that it would mean Tom allowed himself to be hanged for a crime he didn't commit rather than see Ann punished for it. It's a romantic notion which some people can't resist and, although I personally think Tom's the more likely culprit, we'll never know for sure. Ann's certainly a colourful character, though, so she'd be fun to write about at the very least.

Frankie & Johnny
Most of what I know about
F&J is in my essay, and this has to be a prime song for you. If you want to go a bit beyond the normal sources, try to track down a copy of John Huston's play, or Daniel Clowes' comic book adaption of the very rude "toast" version. Again, you'll find details in the sources section of my essay.

Fall River Hoedown
Also known as
The Ballad of Lizzie Borden. Lizzie killed her father and her stepmother with an axe in 1892. There was huge media interest in this killing and even an opera produced telling its tale. Rick Geary's included an excellent volume about it in his Treasury of Victorian Murder series.

Banks of the Ohio
Most famously recorded by Olivia Newton-John, who took it to number 6 in the UK charts in 1971. The song has the same plot as
Knoxville Girl, but - in Newton-John's version - is narrated by the betrayed pregnant woman instead of her feckless man. Rather than letting him murder her to avoid marriage, she kills him in revenge: "I held a knife against his breast / As into my arms he pressed / He cried 'My love, don't you murder me / I'm not prepared for eternity'." See also page 14 of my Pretty Polly essay for Fred Burns' answer song, which has Polly blowing her would-be killer's head off with a concealed pistol of her own.

Miss Otis Regrets
A typically elegant song from Cole Porter, written for a 1934 show called
Hi Diddle Diddle. It tells of a society woman who gets seduced by her lover and then shoots him when he announces he has no intention of marrying her. She's later dragged from her cell and lynched in the town square. White-on-black lynchings were still happening in the American South at that time, and some believe Porter wrote the song to remind rich Broadway audiences of this uncomfortable fact. I'm a bit skeptical about that idea myself, but it's an interesting song nonetheless and including it would certainly make your readers sit up and take notice.

British Broadsides
These were the songs knocked out overnight by jobbing hacks on the night before any big public hanging in Victorian London, and sold as printed lyrics at the foot of the gallows. Have a look at the Songs page in that section of my site, and you'll find several featuring female killers.
Mary Arnold, Mrs Dyer, Lizzie Vickers and Mary Reeder (of The Sister & The Serpent) are all out-and-out villains, but Jealous Annie is a much more sympathetic figure.

Women killing children
Mrs Dyer and Mary Arnold (above) are good examples of songs which break a triple taboo: the murder itself, a child victim and a female killer too. There's also a long tradition of Scottish and Irish infanticide songs, in which young mothers vent some pressure and frustration by listing all kinds of violence - sometimes fatal violence - to inflict on their babies. Kristin Hersh sings one called What'll We Do With The Baby-O: "Every time the the baby cries / Stick my fingers in the baby's eyes / Every time he starts to grin / Give the baby a bottle of gin".

That's about all that springs to mind at the moment. If you'd like to find some fictional songs about female killers too, why not start a thread on Mudcat asking for suggestions and see what that turns up?


March 4, 2013. Muleskinner Jones of Winsley in Wiltshire writes: "Please find enclosed a copy of the new Muleskinner Jones CD A Dying Man Can Sure Sing The Blues. These are all songs I penned myself and, though musically it's probably more restrained than previous releases, the body count is still fairly high.
"Black River Wood is probably the track most obviously inspired by the old murder ballads. I wanted to give things a bit of a twist so in this case it's the woman who does the deed, cold-bloodedly getting rid of her working-class lover in order to retain the lifestyle provided by her rich husband.
"The CD's title song was largely inspired by the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce, Too Many Horses by a news article in Michael Lesy's fascinating book Wisconsin Death Trip. I'd also been reading a lot of 'weird tales', so the likes of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and Lord Dunsany were a great influence on many of the songs.
"As usual it's very much a no-budget homespun affair. Apart from the two tracks with a real drummer all the drums and percussion are from me banging various household items in the garage. To my amazement, my parents church singing group agreed to sing backing on a number of the tunes. I recorded them in a freezing cold church in the Somerset countryside with one microphone and no way of them hearing what they were actually singing along to - a somewhat bizarre experience!
"Anyway, I hope you enjoy the CD."

Paul Slade replies: I did enjoy it, Mr Jones. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit and I can quite see why The Independent called you Britain's answer to Johnny Dowd. Time for me to catch up on your back catalogue too, I think, so look out for a PlanetSlade cheque in the post soon.
Thanks also for sending me another copy of your answers to the
Pretty Polly questions I sent you back in 2012. I still don't know why the original copy never reached me, but I've now added your comments as a Late Bonus Interview on this page of the feature.
When I heard
Too Many Horses on your new CD - one of my favourite tracks by the way - I noticed you'd sub-titled it "a true story". That prompted me to dig out my own copy of Wisconsin Death Trip and find the State newspaper's November 11, 1892 clipping which inspired you:

"James McDonald, a drayman, went to his barn in Eau Claire to feed his horses and found two of them dead with their throats cut. On the barn door was pinned a note saying there were too many horses around and that 15 more would have to be killed. McDonald has no enemies. It is believed to be the deed of an insane man. McDonald is a poor man and had to mortgage his home to buy the horses."

Next day, the State added that McDonald and his wife had been arrested for killing the horses themselves in order to make a fraudulent insurance claim on their value. Presumably, they bought the horses with borrowed money hoping they could make them pay, and hit on the insurance fraud idea only when it became clear that wasn't going to happen.
As anyone familiar with
Wisconsin Death Trip will confirm, that's not even close to being the darkest or most twisted story in this extraordinary book. It seems to be back in print again at the moment, and anyone who's enjoyed PlanetSlade's murder ballads stuff should definitely check it out. The BBC Arena film adapting the book is well worth tracking down too.


March 24, 2013. Bill Prothro of Lubbock, Texas writes: "I wanted to let you know that I very much enjoyed reading your history of Tom Dooley. It was very thorough and interesting.
"However, I also wanted to let you know about a small error. The picture you have of Doc Watson is a reverse image. It shows him as a left-handed guitar player. Doc played right-handed. You can also tell it is reversed by the way his shirt is buttoned."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for that, Bill. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.
You've got me bang to rights on the Doc Watson pic, though flipping it was actually a conscious decision on my part rather than a mistake. For the sake of the article's layout, I wanted to have Doc looking in towards the centre of the page in that image and, after worrying about the left hand/right hand issue for a while, I decided that reversing it would be acceptable.
For what it's worth, that Tom Dooley article has been up on-line since November 2010, and you're the first person to raise it with me. I'm going to run your letter next time I update PlanetSlade's letters page, which will let me 'fess up about the changed image and acknowledge you as the first person to spot it.


February 24, 2013. Jaan Kolk of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, writes: "I enjoyed reading your article about Tom Dooley. I think you are in error, however, when you write (of Frank Proffitt's lyrics): 'The 'Yander's Valley' reference is a particularly nice touch, locating the song firmly in its real setting alongside the Yander River.'
"LauraFoster was killed near Elkville, which is in the valley of the Yadkin River. Tom Dula was executed in Statesville, which is not near any river. I have trouble finding reference to any river known as the Yander. So I'm not sure what 'Yander's Valley' refers to in those lyrics-unless it is a corruption of 'yonder valley'."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for getting in touch, Jaan. As with Bill's letter above, you're the first person to spot this particular mistake. That includes me, as I not only made the error in the first place, but also managed to miss it when reading both the raw copy and the screen proofs. D'oh!
I've just listened to that Frank Proffitt recording again now, and the weird thing is that he very definitely does sing"Yander's valley". "Yander" I could believe as the local accent's pronunciation of "yonder", but adding that "s" on the end still seems very odd.
I think I must have been so determined to find an explanation for that when I wrote the piece that I managed to get "Yadkin" and "Yander" mixed up in my mind as the name of Tom's local river, and dreamed up the rest of my theory from there. I knew perfectly well it was the Yadkin River really, as you can see from the references elsewhere in my piece.
In all probability, you're right and Proffitt did simply mean "yonder valley". I've corrected the copy now, so at least that'll save me looking quite so silly in the future. Embarrassing as it is when someone catches me out in a boneheaded mistake like this, it does give me a chance to gradually purge the site of factual errors, and I'm always grateful for that.


February 18, 2013. Joe Hollow of somewhere in cyberspace writes: "Just found you and your Tom Dula essay. My first impression: what a cool way to drill down into history. I shall consume your entire site, probably not in one sitting."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for that, Joe. The little glimpses of social history are half the fun of PlanetSlade for me, and I'm always glad when readers enjoy them too.
You reminded me of something PG Wodehouse said in his introduction to a 600-page Jeeves omnibus published in 1967: "I would not recommend anyone to finish this volume at a sitting. It can be done - I did it myself when correcting the proofs - but it leaves one weak and is really not worth doing just for the sake of saying you have done it. Take it easy. Spread it out. Assimilate it little by little."


Message board round-up

The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs ("Fans feedback flies flag.") can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.

Anorak Forum


Haunted Ohio

In a Gist

Kingston Crossroads


Murder Ballad Monday

Museum 2.0






Spirit of Nine



PlanetSlade broke all its previous traffic records in 2012, and that's mostly thanks to the fact that recommend several of my essays. In December, the site ranked my Andy Capp piece as one of the ten best articles it had seen all year - not too shabby when you consider the rest of that Top Ten is filled by prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's and GQ.
Longform's editors scour the web for new and classic non-fiction articles of 2,000 words or more, and point their readers towards the three or four best examples they find each day. The site also lets you save the articles you choose in a suitable format for later reading via Readability, Instapaper, Pocket or Kindle. This all comes as a free service, courtesy of the site's partnership with Pittsburgh University writers' programme.
Until 2012, nothing on PlanetSlade qualified for inclusion there, simply because I'd always run my essays in multi-page format, with no more than about 1,200 words to a single web-page, and a dozen or more click-throughs needed to complete the whole article. I had a chat with one of Longform's editors early in the year, who suggested I might want to think about adding a "single-page view" option, particularly on the articles that he most liked. Reformatting long articles like that is quite a lot of work, though - particularly for a one-man band like myself - so initially, I did nothing about it.
That changed in August, when I first posted my Andy Capp essay here as 15 separate pages. In the week that followed, I heard from several would-be readers protesting at that format, and these calls eventually accumulated to a point where they pierced even my thick skull. Most trenchant of all was Kit on The Comics Journal website, who noted the number of click-throughs required and asked: "Did you have some extra internet you needed to use up?"
I bridled a bit at first, but Kit and I continued our conversation, and I had to admit he had a point. "Fifteen separate pages have no benefit either to you (as you're not selling ads) or to the reader (as it's not 1997 and we can load 36,000 words at once without needing to go and do a load of washing or have a cup of tea)," he wrote. "Anyone who Instapapers or sends to Kindle or suchlike won't bother reading it at all."
One click-through every 2,400 words still didn't seem terribly excessive to me, but the Kindle point far outweighed that, so I bit the bullet and added an additional version of the Andy Capp essay in single-page format. Longform recommended it a few days later, and my traffic figures went through the roof. Since then, I've also added single-page options on Masquerade, Hattie Carroll, First Great Radio Hoax and Stagger Lee, scoring two more Longform recommendations along the way, and a pleasing traffic spike each time. That Top Ten ranking in December was the icing on the cake.
The result is that PlanetSlade beat its previous unique-visitors-per-month record by 41% in December 2012, its previous visits-per-month record by 38% and its previous page-views-per-month record by 26%. The average number of unique visitors per month was double 2011's figure, the visits average up by 85% and the page views average up 67%. One effect of all this has been the renewed life it gives some of the site's earlier pieces, producing a batch of new letters like the Stagger Lee ones I'm running below.
I'm going to continue adding single-page options to the existing essays as time permits, and make all my new articles dual-format as a matter of course. Anyone who prefers to read my stuff in multi-page format will still be able to do so. Naturally, I shall also make sure Longform hears about it whenever another essay goes up in a format they can use, and hope the editors there don't get bored with me anytime soon!


January 21, 2013. Helene Elysee, Reg Smythe's niece, writes:
"Trawling through the web, I found your excellent articles on Andy Capp. As a long-ago journalist, I really appreciated the in-depth research and crisp writing - as Reg Smythe's niece I was thrilled to find a fan.
"I have written my own story of Reg and Andy, Dancing Bear, which I am hoping to publish this year. My take is probably more memoir than biography and I am lucky to have early material from Reg's formative drawing years which illustrate the links to Andy.
"I first mooted the story when Reg died but, despite interest from both Penguin and Little Brown, they concluded there was not enough interest in him at that time . Now there appears to be a resurgence, thanks not only to the adroit management by The Daily Mirror but also to websites such as your own."

Paul Slade replies: How lovely to hear from a member of Reg's family. I was hoping one of his relatives might eventually see the article, but also slightly nervous that they'd feel I hadn't got him right. I'm relieved to hear that wasn't the case with you.
Good luck with your own book - and please do let me know when it's out so I can get a copy. Have you seen the Ian Smyth Herdman family memoir I mention in the article? You may find that covers some of the same ground you have in mind, though I think it probably reached too small an audience to interfere with your own project. Please do keep in touch.


December 5, 2012. Clifton Royston of Honolulu, Hawaii, writes:
"I thought you might be interested in adding another classic American murder ballad, John Hardy, to your list - also based on an actual murder from the late 1800s. John Hardy was hanged in 1894.
"The first version I knew of it was sung by Cisco Houston, one of the great American folk singers, and contains the verses:

'John Hardy was a desperate little man,
He carried two guns every day.
Shot down a man on that West Virginia line,
You oughta seen John Hardy gettin' away, Lord, Lord,
You oughta seen John Hardy gettin' away.'


'The second one to visit John Hardy in his cell
Was a little girl dressed in red.
She came down to that old jail cell,
And said 'Johnny, I would rather see you dead, Lord knows,
Johnny, I would rather see you dead.'

"And there's Stagger Lee's woman in red again! John Hardy was a black railroad worker, not a pimp, so there goes that connection in this case.
"As I was writing this, I realized that several different elements of the real history for this case seem to have ended up in many of the Stagger Lee songs. In most versions of John Hardy, it says that he was arrested by a policeman who simply 'took him by the arm, and said 'Johnny, won't you come along with me?'' - which fits with the version you noted about the policeman stopping Stacker Lee, who sasses him to his face.
"The story of Hardy's actual arrest was much more dramatic and would have made a good couple of verses:
"Even more to the point, John Hardy did shoot his victim after a drunken argument over a game of craps, which became the motive in most versions of Stagger Lee:
"It's a good song too, even if its cultural effects aren't as pervasive as Stagger Lee. You should check it out."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter, Clifton, and thanks also for those John Hardy links, neither of which I'd seen before. I know the song a little, but I've never researched it properly, so please don't take anything that follows as gospel.
Gadaya's excellent site The Old, Weird America, has a useful piece on the song here. Hardy, it explains, killed a man called Thomas Drews at the Shawnee Coal Company's workcamp in Eckman, West Virginia in January 1893. Both the killer and his victim were black, and the disagreement really did break out after the drunken Hardy lost his last 25c to Drews in a craps game.
Hardy fled and was captured, just as you say, by Sheriff John Effler after a struggle on the train. He was convicted of first-degree murder at Welch, WV, on October 12, 1893, and hanged there before a crowd of 3,000 people on January 19, 1894. As some versions of the song mention, he asked to be baptised on the morning of his death, and this was duly done.
The first version of the lyrics I've been able to find dates from 1927, and is reproduced in The Penguin Book of Folk Ballads with this verse:

"John Hardy had a loving little wife,
And the dress she wore was blue,
She was hanging around John Hardy's neck,
Saying 'John Hardy, I've been true to you, Lord, Lord,
John Hardy, I've been true to you'."

There's no mention of the girl dressed in red in this version, but there is in The Carter Family's 1928 recording:

"John Hardy, he had a pretty little girl,
The dress that she wore was blue,
She came skipping through the old jail hall,
Saying 'Poppy, I been true to you'.

"John Hardy had another little girl,
The dress that she wore was red,
She followed John Hardy to his hanging ground,
Saying 'Poppy, I would rather be dead'.

If the song really did start with the blue verse alone, that would seem to suggest that the colour was chosen simply to provide a convenient rhyme with "you", and the red verse added later to give the blue one a satisfying twin. Replacing his wife with two different girlfriends adds the idea that Hardy was not to be trusted, but I don't know what to make of it beyond that.
Some versions extend the line to make it clear the red dress girl would rather be dead than lose Hardy to her blue dress rival. Blue is often associated with the Virgin Mary of course, so perhaps we're supposed to conclude one of his girlfriends was virtuous and the other one not? Even I'm not really convinced by that, though, and I suspect it's just my imagination working overtime.
That's the tricky thing about these songs: you never know which bits are there because they contain genuine factual information and which are there simply to serve the song's structure. Often, lines or whole verses would be inserted from somewhere else by a singer casually improvising at the microphone, or find their way into a song simply because someone happened to think they sounded good there.
Unlike Stagger Lee or Duncan & Brady, Hardy's ballad doesn't raise the subject of prostitution, and I think we'd need a bit more evidence before we interpret it that way. If the red dress girl alone was mentioned, or if both girls were wearing red, I could believe this was intended as mourning clothes for Hardy's very imminent death, but that doesn't seem to make sense here either. My hunch is that, in this particular case, the dress is coloured red simply because it rhymes with "dead", but I'd love to be proved wrong.
The other Stagger Lee mystery I raised in my piece was the reference to a bulldog in its lyrics, and why that bulldog's bark is given so much significance. I concluded that a bulldog here meant the so-called "British Bulldog" revolver, a very popular Webley handgun of the 1890s. There's some support for that idea in another vintage song I heard for the first time in December 2012.
Gene Autry's Stay Away From My Chicken House, recorded in 1929 is narrated by a farmer swearing revenge on whoever's been stealing his hens. The key verses go like this:

"Stay away from my chicken house, boys,
If you figure your life worthwhile,
Stay away from my chicken house, boys,
Or I'll cut you down Mexican-style.

"I've got a long keen razor, a Bulldog too,
You'll never look like nothing when I get through with you,
You're not invisible or still as a mouse,
So stay away from my chicken house."

Coupling the Bulldog with the razor like that strongly suggests he's got a weapon in mind rather than a dog, and that this is the tool he's planning to use in cutting the thieves down. "Mexican-style" is a term still used in the gun world, where it refers to an illegal gun carried in the waistband of the pants rather than in a holster. The idea is that a gun carried like this is quicker and easier to ditch if you see a police search coming your way.
The first mention on disc of a bulldog barking in Stagger Lee comes in Frank Hutchinson's 1927 recording. Autry's 1929 song is one more bit of evidence that "Bulldog" was being used to mean a gun at about that time, and makes me even more convinced that's what it means in Stagger Lee too.


December 5, 2012. Michael Morgan of St Louis, Missouri, writes:
"I greatly enjoyed your piece on Stagger Lee. I have followed the song and legend myself for a while on my blog here.
"As a musician, citizen of St. Louis and fan of many Stagger Lee performers. I learned yet more from your story. A row house reportedly owned by Lee Shelton is still standing at 911 North Tucker Boulevard, formerly 12th Street, across the street from the Post-Dispatch, and there's a Google Maps photo here. I'm working on a map of Stagger Lee sites as they are today, so please let me know if you have other sites I should add.
"I want to add to your section on dressing in red. Mississippi John Hurt's murder ballad Louis Collins has the following lines:

'When they heard that Louis was dead,
All the people, they dressed in red.'

"I had thought it part of the African funeral tradition, and I had read of it as connected to the ancient tradition of using red ochre in burials. Philip Ratcliffe's recent biography Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues contends that Louis Collins could have been a Louis Cobbins who lived in MJH's area. I made a MJH map several years ago too.
"Thank you for adding to the tradition."

Paul Slade replies: And thank you, Michael for getting in touch. I wish I'd had your Stagger Lee map in front of me when I was researching that essay, as it would have made picturing his progress round town much easier.
I had no idea there was property associated with Lee Shelton still standing in St Louis, so I was particularly interested to see that pic. One more bit of evidence that Stag had rather more money and political power behind him than is generally assumed, don't you think?
I love Mississippi John Hurt, and Louis Collins is one of his most beautiful songs. Again, I've never researched it in any depth, but I've learned enough this evening to know he wrote it in the 1920s, based on the details of a real murder which Hurt had seen reported in the press. I've seen suggestions that one of the real killers was called Bob Angels, which would give a pleasing extra layer to the song's refrain, "The Angels laid him away".
There's never just one answer to things like the "dressed in red" question, so all one can do is make a judgment from the context of each individual song. As far as Louis Collins is concerned, I agree with you that it's the African mourning tradition which Hurt has in mind. Making it clear that all the people dressed in red suggests that Collins was an important man in his community too, and popular enough to be widely mourned.
Looking at the MJH biography you mention, I see Ratcliffe also raises the real-life murder victim Lewis Collins of Litwar, West Virginia, who was shot dead in June 1924. Hurt first recorded Louis Collins in his 1928 Okeh Records session, so the timing there seems to be about right.
Ratcliffe reports that Hurt, talking with the musicologist Tom Hoskins at his later Piedmont sessions, confirmed that the song was about a real event, but added that it did not happen locally. By 'locally' I take him to mean near Hurt's hometown of Avalon, Mississippi.
"John added that 'He (Collins) was a great man. I know that, and he was killed by two men named Bob and Lewis. I got enough of the story to write the song'," Ratcliffe continues. "Another source states that John made up the song after hearing people talk about the murder, which suggests that it was a well-publicised event."
I found a few Welch Daily News reports of the case on the West Virginia Archives & History site, one of which says Collins, a Litwar merchant, was "one of the best beloved men of the community, counting all as friends. He was a man of many splendid qualities, charitable and kindly disposed".
Collins was found shot dead in the bedroom at the rear of his store on the morning of June 10, 1924, and his son-in-law George Conley arrested for murder. Police guessed that Conley was trying to hurry along an inheritance Collins had promised him.
The case was tried in November 8, 1924, but everyone agreed the prosecution had a weak case, and the jury found Conley not guilty after only a few minutes' deliberation. "The trial attracted a large crowd from the Litwar and Iaeger communities, where the principals were prominent," the Welch Daily News reports.
There's no reference to anyone named Bob Angels in the newspaper reports I've seen, nor any report of others being charged with this killing later. Even so, the timing of the case relative to Hurt's first recording, Collins' status in the community and the high-profile trial all suggest it could well have been Hurt's source.
I don't have time to chase it down any further just now, but maybe someone out there can tell us more?


December 6, 2012. Scott McKnight of Alexandria, Virginia, writes:
"I just found, read and enjoyed your articles on Stagger Lee, Frankie & Johnny and Knoxville Girl. The first two had me thinking of The Ballad of Ella Speed, and I wondered if you had considered writing about it.
"The version I first heard was recorded by Ian and Sylvia in the 1960s. It contains the lines:

When the women all heard that Ella Speed was dead,
'They went home and re-ragged in red.'

This is similar to women dressing in red in versions of Stagger Lee and Frankie & Johnny. One of the things I found interesting was the fact that the event happened in New Orleans in the late 1800s but seems to have been kept alive by people singing it in Texas a few years later - people who believed it to have been more local, and more recent, a story than it actually was.
"As a songwriter, what tickles me about the 're-ragged in red' line is mostly the alliteration. It sounds like it would be fun to sing."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for that, Scott. I do have a 1944 Leadbelly recording of Ella Speed, though I had to check my CD shelves even to be sure of that, and it's not a song I know at all.
A bit of Googling reveals this item on the song from Mike Ballantyne's website: "In 1894, Ella Speed, a married octoroon with two children, was employed as a prostitute in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She was apparently having an affair with Louis "Bull" Martin, an Italian immigrant, who was one of her customers and who had become obsessed with her. Both were 28 years old."
The lyrics go on to describe Martin shooting Ella dead in September 1894 while she was "havin' her lovin' fun" and includes the "re-ragged in red" verse just as you give it above. The song, Ballantyne adds, was first collected in the 1930s, from a group of black prisoners on a Southern prison farm. John Lomax was making field recordings on prison farms at about that time, so I dare say it's one of his.
An octoroon, it seems, is someone who's one-eighth black. There's an interesting Mudcat thread on the song here.
I like the phrase "re-ragged" too, which makes that simple act of changing your clothes sound so much more dramatic. Given Ella's trade, I guess you could interpret the colour here either as an act of female solidarity towards her or as simple sorrow at her death. Martin claimed the shooting was an accident, and ended up being convicted of manslaughter rather than murder. He was sentenced to 20 years hard labour, but seems to have served only seven.
To sum up, then, I'd suggest the default assumption when we find red-clad women in a murder ballad should be that it indicates mourning dress. If the song uses prostitutes in any kind of pivotal role, then its worth considering that as an alternative explanation and, if neither of those ideas fit, then it's probably just there for the sake of a rhyme. Precisely what Chris de Burgh was trying to tell us in 1986 - beyond the fact that she was dancing with him - remains a mystery.


Message board round-up

The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs ("Garrulous gang gladly grants.") can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.

Bob Dylan Encyclopedia

The Comics Journal

The Daily Saw

The Gear Page

Go Comics



Ravens & Writing Desks!/page2

Victorian Gothic

Correspondents chorus clear contentment

On PlanetSlade
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"A great site." - Tenn Jim, Talk Music.

On Murder Ballads
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"Everything about the genesis and popularity of American murder ballads." - Michael Cala, Twitter

On Stagger Lee
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On British Broadsides
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On Cross Bones Graveyard
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On Andy Capp
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Data declares diverse disciples deeply delighted

On Murder Ballads
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"Everything about the genesis and popularity of American murder ballads." - Michael Cala, Twitter

On Stagger Lee
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On Tom Dooley
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On Masquerade
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On Andy Capp
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On Heartbreak Hotel print
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Erudite essays excite endless encomiums

On PlanetSlade
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On Murder Ballads
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On Stagger Lee
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On Knoxville Girl
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On Pretty Polly
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On Pearl Bryan
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On British Broadsides
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On The Blues Professors' Mary Arnold recording
"Ha! Yes, enjoyed that." - Lee Jackson, The Cat's Meat Shop, via e-mail.

On Masquerade
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On The Borough Mystery
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"I'm a sucker for this kind of thing." - Reihem Roy,

"This is one weird story." - Stephen Hargrove, Spirit of Nine.

"A creepy, puzzling tale. In other words, just my line of country." - Undine, Twitter.

"Quite interesting." - James C O'Leary, Sherlock Holmes Social Network.

On Chinese Hell Money
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"I loved it." - Musikhuntr, Reddit.

"Very nice article. [.] I enjoyed it." - Joel Anderson, banknote dealer, via e-mail.

"Fascinating." - Mythopoeika, Fortean Times.

Fans' feedback flies flag for fine factual features

On PlanetSlade
"You ought to follow @PlanetSlade. He defies description." - Elan Green, Twitter.

"Great website. The murder ballads articles are really interesting." - Jonny Carson, Twitter.

"Outstanding site." - Patrick Blackman, Murder Ballad Monday.

"Neat website." - Catie Rhodes, Twitter.

"I enjoyed your website quite a bit." - Dave, Casebook.

"Fascinating website . deliciously gothic reading." - Folk Police, Twitter.

"Murder ballads. Could there be anything more interesting?" - Beatonna,

"Cool essays." - Katie Blvd, Twitter.

On Stagger Lee
"Fascinating true story." - Jennifer Bringle, Twitter.

"An in-depth look into the story." - Toryal, Reddit.

"Fascinating history." - On The Media, Twitter.

"This is just great." - Marcin, Twitter.

On Knoxville Girl.
"Interesting history." - Sarah Battersby, Twitter.

On Tom Dooley
"Astounding research and a very good read." - Stephen Hargrove, Spirit of Nine.

"Slade's writing is absolutely riveting." - Jim Moran, Kingston Crossroads.

"Well-reported and well-written." - John Carvalho, Twitter.

"Delightful." - Nina Simon, Into The Deep End.

"A great find and terrific piece of erudite research! [A] detailed, expert account." - John, Kingston Crossroads.

"This is great." - Gabe Talton, Twitter.

"Brilliant writing. Thoroughly enjoyed it." - 'Yorz, QI.

On Pearl Bryan
"An admirable account of this case." - Chris Woodyard, author, Haunted Ohio.

On Gallows Ballads Project
"Good music." - Joe Offer, Mudcat.

"Grim but interesting reading." - Londonist, Twitter.

On Necropolis Railway
"My repressed inner goth was intrigued." - Kofi, Anorak Forum.

On The Borough Mystery
"Very well done." - Mayerling, Casebook.

"Really interesting, and very readable." - Adam Donovan, The Jetsonics, via e-mail.

"What a fascinating case." - Cogidubnus, Casebook.

"Great read. It really drew me in." - Kanata, Metafilter.

"An interesting read." - Lechmere, Casebock.

"Fascinating article." - Jon Guy, Casebook.

On Masquerade
"A fantastic story." - Gamutalarm, Twitter.

"A longform gem." - Tero Kuittinen, Twitter.

"A great tale." - Dharma Rascal, Twitter.

On Andy Capp
"Really excellent article." - Catherine Bernard, Twitter.

"A long read, but well worth the time." - Robert Pincombe, Sequential.

"Weirdly fascinating." - GaelFC, Twitter.

"Fascinating reading." - DD Degg, Newsgroups.

"Exhaustive." -

"Fascinating (and really long)." - Bob Tarantino, Twitter.

"That rules." - mhny,

'Comprehensive." - Stephen Miller, Twitter.

"All Aaron Lammer's talked about for two weeks." - Max Linsky, Longform, via Twitter.

Insect Horror
"Unusual." - John Freeman, Twitter.

Garrulous gang gladly grants great gratitude

On PlanetSlade
"A really exceptional article on Stagger Lee, and an equally great piece of research on Harry Pace." - Patrick Ford, Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.

"Great website." - Dr Una McIlvenna, University of Sydney, via e-mail.

On Murder Ballads
"I find this stuff fascinating." - McKnigs, The Gear Page.

"An extremely well-written and well-documented body of research." - Walter-Luke, Victorian Gothic.

"These essays on popular murder ballads are fascinating." - Kim, Ravens & Writing Desks.

On Stagger Lee
"I've been humming Stagger Lee for years, but didn't know the story behind it. Fascinating!" - Laura Candler, radio producer, via Twitter.

"An interesting history lesson."- Stagger Lee,

"Great essay." - Kevin Parnell, via Twitter.

"Interesting read." - WD Saw, The Daily Saw.

"Very long, incredibly detailed, extremely worthwhile." - Ken Hirdt, via Twitter.

"Anyone who loves Mississippi John Hurt, you gotta read this." - James Hawkins, via Twitter.

"More than you probably want to know." - Roy Kenagy, via Twitter.

On Knoxville Girl
"Very cool." - Carly Harrington, via Twitter.

"THE most complete history of that song I have ever read." - Rudy Ryan, via Twitter.

On Gallows Ballads Project
"Thanks for this project, it's a great idea." - NormanD, Sound of the World.

"There is too much good there to take in at once." - The Whelk, Metafilter.

"These are excellent." - Marguerite, Metafilter.

On Masquerade
"Love the stuff about Masquerade on your site." - Nancy Wallace, folksinger, via Twitter.

"Great job, great story!" - George Gierer, South County, via e-mail.

On Andy Capp
"An excellent piece of work." - Briany Najar, The Comics Journal.

"The most complete essay on Andy/Reg." -

"I've enjoyed reading your piece on Andy Capp" - David Orme, author, via e-mail.

"A fascinating look at the sexual politics of Andy Capp." - Richard Shaw, via Twitter.

"I enjoyed the heck out of that Andy Capp article." - Daniel Parmenter, The Comics Journal.

On Capp's Banned Book
"Well done!" - Patrick Kearney, author, via e-mail.

"Another wonderful Andy Capp story." - Roger Kettle, cartoonist, via e-mail.

"Informative and entertaining." - RLDavies,

"An interesting read!" - Awitt,

Happy hordes here hail humble hack's histories

On PlanetSlade
"Really enjoying your writing on all manner of topics. Love the depth you go into on the murder ballads." - Jamie Macphail. No Depression.

"So many interesting and off-the-wall stories." - Lisa Mauthe, Fort Thomas Military Museum, via e-mail.

"Your site rocks." - Crow Jane, Sing A Song of Murder, via Twitter.

On Masquerade
"Lovely piece." - Robert Cottrell. The Browser, via e-mail.

"Got a great response." - Aaron Lammer,, via e-mail.

"Fascinating! A must for anyone who had Masquerade on their childhood bookshelf!" - Anna Vincent, Twitter.

On Gallows Ballads Project
"This is a killer project. [...] I love it." - Reverend Peyton, Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, via e-mail.

"Congratulations for digging deep and doing the research on this perverse phase of entertainment history." - Fred Smith, songwriter, via e-mail.

"Interesting idea." - AndyM, Sound of the World.

"Consider me on board." - Doc Bowling, The Blues Professors, via e-mail.

On The Jetsonics' Cruel Lizzie Vickers recording
"Just played it twice, and I like it!" - Digladwin, Mojo.

"Love it. A cautionary tale of brutal murder that you can slamdance to. What a combination!" - Lonesome EJ, Mudcat.

"Sounds like The Jam, circa David Watts. By no means a bad thing." - Geoff Wallis, fRoots.

"Great song." - Poonjive, Basschat.

"I can't stop listening to this. Just can't stop it." - Mamaloochie, Mojo.

"Nice track! Well done." - Jacko, Reaper Forums.

"I dig your song." - Camerondye, Basschat.

"Excellent!" - Hungry Joe, Mojo.

"An excellent brand new track." - Retro Man.

"Really like the song. I love this style." - Wolffman, Basschat.

"Sounds great." - Atsib, Mojo.

"Nice one." - Clauster, Basschat.

"Excellent stuff." - Tubesnake Boogie, Mojo.

"Brilliant. Well done!" - Bluejay, Basschat.

"Just what the doctor ordered." - Fingerprince, Mojo.