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Letters to Planet Slade: 2014

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

December: All change at Cross Bones

The past few months have brought some big changes to Redcross Way. Cross Bones' memorial gates have now been moved to a new spot directly fronting the site's burial area and planning permission's been granted for a new public garden there.
As anyone who's read my Cross Bones book will know, this site's use as an unconsecrated graveyard for Southwark's paupers and prostitutes dates back to the 16th century or before. It was still a working graveyard until 1853 and there remain some 15,000 people buried there today. Ever since 1998, modern-day pilgrims have gathered at the gates for regular vigils and decorated them with all sorts of offerings to our own era's outcast dead.
The recent changes were prompted by Transport for London - the site's owner - agreeing to lease the section of it containing the actual burial ground to Bankside Open Spaces Trust. BOST hopes to create what it calls a "meanwhile garden" in this area. "We will work with concerned local people to carefully cover and protect the remains of the dead and build a raised garden for all those who would like to contemplate life in a green environment," it says.
In its own statement, TfL says that giving BOST a secure site to carry out this work has meant adding a more secure fence between the burial ground and the rest of the site (which is currently being used as a car park), some repairs to the wall on Union Street and moving the memorial gates to a new spot about 40 yards down Redcross Way. "By moving [the gates] at this point, it will protect them in the longer term and, in the meanwhile, provide a viewing point into the temporary garden," TfL adds.
John Constable, a local writer who's championed Cross Bones since 1996, has given a tentative welcome to BOST's scheme. "This should eventually enable public access for community gardening and is a small step towards a permanent Garden of Remembrance," he says. "TfL have now accepted that the Cross Bones site will be protected in the future and we are close to achieving many of our objectives.
"The decision to move the gates was entirely TfL's, though it has gone some way towards meeting our concerns and, providing it honours its undertakings, the repositioning of the gates could have advantages: reconnecting them with the burial ground area and enabling people to look through them directly into the garden."
BOST has pledged to respectfully rebury any human remains found on the surface at Cross Bones when work begins. Those remains found lying on soil will be reburied where they lie. Those found lying on concrete will be reburied in a dedicated area near the site's south-east corner. These will be covered with a high-visibility orange membrane warning future gardeners or developers not to dig deep enough to disturb the layer of soil containing human remains. Southwark Council's planning permission requires BOST to have a suitably qualified and experienced archaeologist on site throughout the groundwork there to ensure all this sensitive work is carried out properly.
New features planned for the site include several raised flowerbeds, a sensory garden and an open area for community events. What BOST calls "managed access" will be provided for the public and the new paths it plans to lay made wide enough for wheelchair use. There will be a series of signs dotted around the site explaining its history and identifying areas of particular interest. BOST also hopes to offer guided tours for the public. You can find more details (including a map of the proposed new garden) in the BOST method statement here (pdf).
One feature conspicuously missing from the map is the Cross Bones gates themselves. These remain the property of TfL, which views them as part of the site's boundary. So far, TfL's said nothing about what it plans to do with the gates long-term, but BOST hopes they will either remain in place where they are or eventually be moved to a spot within the new garden. Friends of Cross Bones prefers the latter option.
The good news from all this is that August's changes have left the gates safely remounted in Redcross Way, with the Cross Bones plaque, the ivy planters and all the public's offerings still in place. The view through the gates' bars now looks directly into the burial area itself and that's a big improvement on the patch of nondescript tarmac and overgrown foliage which was all you could see behind the gates in their old spot. Cross Bones Mary has been safely repositioned behind the gates again and her own little personal shrine looks better than ever. You'll find a few more of my August 22 photographs showing the gates' new situation here.
The bad news is that it's still not at all certain what Cross Bones' ultimate fate will be. TfL makes no bones about this. "It remains our ambition to bring forward a comprehensive redevelopment of the whole Landmark Court site and we are taking steps to identifying a partner to progress a scheme on the site," it says.
"In the meantime, we will be leasing the burial ground to BOST for the temporary garden with managed public access. The burial ground will then form open space as part of a comprehensive scheme and we are hopeful that the relationship with BOST will continue with any new owner."
It's the use of phrases there like "the whole Landmark Court site", "the temporary garden" and "we are hopeful" which make me nervous about what's going to happen to Cross Bones in the long term. Even BOST's choice of the curious term "meanwhile garden" suggests it was groping for another way to say "temporary" without that word's worrying implications.
There's no doubt that the new Cross Bones will be a far more manicured site than it is right now, but perhaps that's a price worth paying for the public access BOST is promising. Personally, I'm a little sorry to see the old graffiti-laden fence running along Redcross Way replaced by pristine new boards, but all that graffiti's been so well-documented in photographs over the years that it's hard to argue much has been lost.
As I write this in November, the repositioning of the gates strikes me as being an entirely positive change and one which really has been carried out with some understanding and sensitivity towards the site's unique history. That bodes well for BOST's development. There's still plenty that could go wrong here, but so far the changes deserve a cautious welcome.

BOST plans to publish a timetable for the Cross Bones work as soon as the final details of its TfL lease have been ironed out. If you'd like to volunteer to help with the project's gardening work, please contact the trust here:

November 11, 2014: Andy Hulme (aka The Invisible Gardener) writes:
"OK. Finally read [the Cross Bones book]. Previous times I attempted to do so I was always waylaid by other stuff on your excellent site.
"The Masquerade essay cleared up a couple of things I'd been wondering about for years. The Mother's Day cartoon is a treasure. When I was living in Northampton I met Alan Moore. His proposal for the sport Great Britain should add to the Olympics: hallucinating. We're unbeatable.
"Anyway, great effort. Question not answered - when did they start calling it Cross Bones? Three or four books published round 1850 contain this phrase with no further explanation: 'The houses in Doddington Grove, Kennington, are built on the three feet of surface earth removed from the 'Cross-Bones Burial Ground' of St. Saviour's, Southwark'. Anything before that?
Your description of the vigil made me chuckle. I must admit I haven't attended for years - though they are perfectly lovely people, of course. It's been a lot of fun gardening there. I was able to try a few things you wouldn't normally be able to do. Funny to think I might be the last man to work that ground by hand before BOST puts down its orange plastic membrane and they get the machinery in."

Paul Slade replies: How nice to hear from you, Andy - glad you liked the stuff.
Doddington Grove, for those who don't know London, is a wide residential street about a mile south-west of Cross Bones. I've just found a 2003 Guardian article by Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the RSC, which suggests that Cross Bones wasn't the only Southwark graveyard which made a contribution to this street's foundations. Doran had just been to Southwark Cathedral to visit the shared tomb of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, two of Shakespeare's successors as chief writer for the King's Men.
He then consults the introduction from a Victorian edition of Massinger's plays. "I discover that, in the 1830s, the Southwark church had become so damp and derelict that there was a vote to demolish it, a vote that was ultimately reversed," Doran writes. "Repairs were begun, during which the floor was leveled. Apparently, the dust of Fletcher and Massinger was removed when 3ft of surface earth was shifted from the church and their remains now lie under the kitchen floor of a house in Doddington Grove, Kennington."
Until 1905, Southwark Cathedral was simply the church of St Saviour's and Mary Overie, which is the same parish governing Cross Bones of course. My guess is that Doddington Grove's builders discovered Southwark Cathedral alone couldn't provide enough earth for their purposes and were told to take some from Redcross Way as well.
Getting back to your question, I've had a quick scan through my original Cross Bones notes and the earliest references I can find to Redcross Way's burial ground being known by that name all come from the 1830s. The graveyard committee reporting to St Saviour's vestry (writing in 1832), the antiquarian William Taylor (writing in 1833) and the historian GW Walker (writing in 1839) all call it Cross Bones.
There may well be earlier references to it with that name too, so please don't take this as a definitive answer. I'll have a proper trawl through the rest of my material when I get the chance and let you know if I find anything earlier.

November 20, 2014: Andy Hulme adds: "Anybody visiting Doddington Grove expecting to find mid-Victorian houses with extraordinarily fertile gardens will be disappointed.
"It was completely redeveloped in the 1950s, as was the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens (long closed by then) which it led up to the gates of. Very wide street with some fine plane trees and dull blocks of flats. The zoological gardens were commemorated till recently by the Giraffe pub in Penton Place. Magnificent sign which I considered appropriating when the building had become a ruin."


October 29, 2014. Sue Rands of somewhere in cyberspace writes:
"This may seem like a strange question, but I really want to know where the remains of the Crossbones Girl were laid to rest after the BBC team had finished the programme about her and solved the mystery of who she was.
"Please do not dismiss my earnest question. I really would like to know."

Paul Slade replies: I wouldn't dream of dismissing it, Sue - it's just the sort of question that tends to fascinate me too. I think the only reason I failed to answer it in my book is that the BBC's programme had so many other strands to follow I simply forgot about this one. Fortunately, I should be able to clear it up now.
The bones studied in Crossbones Girl were excavated by a Museum of London dig at Cross Bones back in 1993. I passed your question along to Dr Rebecca Redfern, the museum's curator of human osteology and this is what she told me:

"The human remains from Redcross Way are curated by the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London. The site report was written by researchers affiliated with UCL and archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology. The individuals were subsequently re-examined by the centre and the data are provided online. The individual you refer to is REW92 sk1999, who was also part of the 'Skeletons. London's buried bones' exhibition held by the Wellcome Trust in 2008.

"The cemetery excavation was issued with a burial licence that allows us to keep the remains for long-term research. They are a very important cemetery population for both London and Britain - we have people from all over the world come to study them. Their histories have contributed to new research about the impact of industrialisation and health inequalities in post-Medieval London and Britain and significantly contributed to the development of methods to identify diseases in human remains."

REW92 sk1999 is the individual we call Crossbones Girl, of course.
Dr Redfern also cautions that the BBC's programme went a step too far in linking Crossbones Girl to Elizabeth Mitchell, the name drawn from its study of parish records. "They [the BBC] erroneously gave her an identity," she says. "None of the extant archaeological evidence is sufficient for a connection between parish and medical records to be reliably made."
I made a similar point in Chapter 16 of my book, but I can also sympathise with the BBC producer who needed a suitably satisfying conclusion for his very expensive programme. In the end, REW92 sk1999's name matters not a fig compared to what the indisputable forensic evidence tells us about her sad life.

[Sue later told me that she'd asked the question because a friend of hers believes she (the friend) has been visited by the disturbed spirit of the Crossbones Girl. Sue's friend hoped that Dr Redfern's acknowledgement of the BBC's possible misidentification of that individual might be enough to return this spirit to rest. I don't share this lady's belief in the supernatural, but I am glad Sue's letter prompted me to confirm where REW92 sk1999's bones now lie.]


September 13, 2014. Jeffrey Bloomfield of Flushing, New York, writes:
"Very good work [on Burke & Hare], Paul, and I hope you enjoyed the trip to Edinburgh. Next time you go it may be the capital of a reborn state.
"One film I recall of the case was called Mania with George Rose, Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing, as Burke, Hare and Knox respectively. It is not perfect - Daft Jamie's murder is supposedly due to him threatening to blackmail the two killers, with Pleasence making the comment, 'Daft Jamie may not be so daft after all!' - but it is okay.
"However the best film ever turned out on the story of the West Port Murders was based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Body Snatchers. Retitled The Body Snatcher, it is actually about the aftermath of the trial of Burke and how one John Gray (Boris Karloff) lied on the witness stand to protect a promising protégé of Knox named Dr MacFarlane (Henry Daniell, in possibly his best film performance). Gray proceeds to use his influence over an increasingly resentful MacFarlane to force him to do things he doesn't want to do.
"This film was produced by Val Lewton, directed by Robert Wise and also had Bela Lugosi in the cast. I recommend it highly. There is also a 1983 film produced by Mel Brooks called The Doctor and the Devils, which is based on a screenplay by Dylan Thomas.
"I read a book on the subject of resurrectionists and America had two or three classic situations [of its own]:

* In 1876 the body of Abraham Lincoln was nearly stolen by a gang of counterfeiters from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois, but word of the plot reached the police who stopped the crime. A Victor McLaglen film called The Abductors was made of the story in 1957.

* In 1878 the body of Alexander T Stewart was stolen from his grave at St Mark of the Bowery in Manhattan. Stewart was American's first great department store multi-millionaire. His body was only returned (they think) as bones in a bag in 1880 after a ransom was paid. These remains were buried in the Episcopal Cathedral in Garden City, New York, in a crypt that's now protected by a very loud burglar alarm.

* In 1881, the prominent politician (and future US President) Benjamin Harrison visited the newly-made grave of his father, former Congressman John Harrison, in Indiana. After reassuring himself that the grave was safe from resurrectionists, Harrison went with his party to visit the local college. He was visiting the medical school there when a cabinet door fell open and the body of John Harrison fell out. (I did not make this crazy anecdote up!)"

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for those kind words, Jeff. It's nice to hear from you again and you've got some great stories there from the American side of the whole body-snatching phenomenon.
Thanks also for your guide to Burke & Hare movies. It's a useful reminder that there are far better treatments of the subject out there that godawful Simon Pegg comedy of 2010. I knew Robert Louis Stevenson had written a story based on the Burke & Hare case, but I never realised it had been filmed.
Your letter prompted me first to look up The Body Snatcher in my Radio Times Film Guide - which calls it "a grippingly literate and macabre shocker" - and then to buy my own copy on DVD. I've watched it now and it is terrific: hugely atmospheric in the way it's filmed and full of surprisingly accurate little details from Burke & Hare's real career.
One highlight for me was the moment when the sinister cabman Gray (played by Boris Karloff) sings a couple of snatches from Poor Daft Jamie itself: "The ruffian dogs, the hellish pair / The villain Burke, the meagre Hare" and - a moment or two later - "Nor did they handle axe or knife / To take away their victims' life / No sooner done than in a chest / They crammed this lately welcomed guest."
Aside from replacing Daft Jamie's name with the words "their victims", that's a verbatim rendition of the original 1829 ballad. Not only that, but it's BORIS KARLOFF singing it. Not bad.
The other two movies you mention look interesting too. Looking at the RT guide again, I see that 1960's Mania was originally released in the UK as The Flesh & The Fiends. The guide deems it "scary and darkly atmospheric" and "an unflinching shocker". The Doctor & the Devils from 1985 has Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea and Timothy Dalton as fictional equivalents of Burke, Hare and Knox respectively - not to mention Patrick Stewart, Beryl Reid and Sian Phillips in supporting roles. "High on period detail, but low on Grand Guignol chills," says the RT guide.
If you're interested in grave-robbing generally, do have a look at chapter 17 of my Cross Bones book, which has some information on that burial ground's appeal for the Borough Boys, one of Victorian London's most notorious gangs of resurrection men. There's some good stuff there, even if I do say so myself.


September 16, 2014. Sarah Carter of North London writes:
"I've just read your article about the Knoxville Girl ballad's origins and was so amazed at the research and info. Thank you for sharing it. Tragic Anne's story lives on - and since you found she had a son she may have living descendants.
"I found your page while looking up info for Bruton Town, another murder ballad. I've already read about the Giant's Wedding - now it's on to Tom Dooley.
"Your Secret London section reminds me of London: The Sinister Side by Steve Jones (a sociologist, I think) and his other books which are fascinating and full of illustrations/photos. I had to give a lecture in college about Thomas Hardy to an audience I knew would be bored. I knew he'd written a poem about Edith Thompson, so I used a Steve Jones article to give her history. Nobody was bored then!
"Thompson was hanged in 1923 for murdering her husband - even though her lover did it. Her execution went wrong and the hangman later committed suicide. All women hanged after that had to wear a nappy, so the presumption is that she was pregnant. There are no ballads about Thompson, but James Joyce used the story and Hitchcock wanted to film it.
"Finally, thank you for writing a ballad for Nasra - that was so touching and thoughtful."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter, Sarah. I'm glad you liked the piece - and do keep reading.
It's good to hear you say that about Nasra's ballad, because I do still worry about that piece sometimes. An old friend of mine has always felt I crossed a line with that one, arguing I ended up exploiting Nasra just as surely as the men who picked her up round Kings Cross did. I can't deny there's an element of exploitation in writing any essay (or song) like that, but I think on balance I can still defend the exercise.
I do hear from relatives of the people I've written about on PlanetSlade from time to time, even ones who have many generations separating them from my original subject. The trouble with
Knoxville Girl, I guess, is that the song's much better known in the US, but Ichabod's descendants (if any) probably still live in the UK. Still, you never know your luck - one of these mornings I might just wake up to find a letter from his great-great-great-(etc)-grandson has arrived in my inbox!
I must admit,
Bruton Town (aka The Bramble Briar, The Merchant's Daughter or Strawberry Town) had passed me by till you mentioned it. There's really no excuse for this ignorance, as I see Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy, Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior, Jon Boden, Pentangle and Bellowhead have all recorded it at one time or another.
I have found out a bit more about it now, though. Dating back to the 14th century (or perhaps even earlier), this magnificently dark and twisted tale was collected by Cecil Sharp in 1904 and has remained in the repertoire ever since.
Its plot concerns a young noblewoman who falls in love with a servant. Her two snobbish brothers decide he's not good enough for her, so they murder him in the woods and hide the body. That night, the girl dreams about the servant, seeing him dead and covered in blood, so she searches the woods next morning and finds the corpse. She kisses its dead lips and sits there mourning him for three days, but hunger eventually drives her home. Once there, she tells her two brothers they are both "bloody butchers" and announces they've murdered not only her true love, but her as well - the implication being (I assume) that she's about to commit suicide.
John Keats tackled this story too, in his 1818 poem
Isabella. Drawing directly on Boccaccio's 14th century original, he includes the scene where the bereaved girl cuts off her murdered lover's head and decides to keep it with her in a flowerpot. She plants the earth above the head with basil then waters this pot with her tears.
How folk singers have resisted adding an extra verse about this to their own renditions is something that utterly defeats me. It's not like they're normally shy about including macabre content and a mere four lines would be enough to do the job. The ending of Martin Carthy's version, for example, would require only the single extra stanza (in bold) which I've inserted here:

Three days and three nights she did stay by him,
She thought her heart would break with woe,
Till a cruel hunger came upon her,
And in despair to her home she did go.

But first she cut off the head of her lover,
So a part of him with her could always remain,
And she planted that head in a pot of basil,
And she watered it well with her eyes' soft rain.

'Oh sister, sister, why do you whisper,
And won't you tell us where you've been?'
'Stand off, stand off, you bloody butchers,
My love and I you have both slain.'

No need to thank me, Martin, really: I'm just glad to help.

[Articles about the Edith Thompson case can be found on The Guardian's website, on Wikipedia and on Capital Punishment UK. She's buried at Brookwood Cemetery, the burial ground served by PlanetSlade's own Necropolis Railway.]


August 12, 2014. Joe Turner, a freelance science writer based in Kent, writes:
"I am researching the use of bones in agriculture in the 19th century and was interested to read the reference on your website about [London's] dung wharf.
"You say that John Aubrey mentions the use of this dung wharf to take away bones and that these were later used in agriculture. As far as I can see, this is unlikely as the use of bone in agriculture was not known until the 19th century. I haven't been able to find any definitive evidence that human bones were ever used in agriculture in this way.
"Do you have a source I should be reading about this?"

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for getting in contact, Joe. The reference you mention comes from chapter 13 of my online Cross Bones book, where I quote a short passage from Professor Ralph Houlbrooke's 1998 volume Death Religion & the Family in England, 1480-1750.
I cut a few words from the relevant passage for reasons of space there, but in full it reads like this: "An alternative to the charnel house was a bone-pit like the one dug when the churchyard of St Margaret's, Westminster, was cleared in 1616. 'Our Bones in consecrated ground never lie quiet,' John Aubrey wrote, 'and in London once in ten yeares (or thereabout) the Earth is carried to the Dung-wharf' (presumably for use as fertiliser in the country outside London)."
Professor Houlbrooke's footnote to that par sources it as follows: "10: Harding, 'Location of Burials', 116-18; C. Gittings, Death, Burial & the Individual in Early Modern England (1984), 139; Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O. L. Dick (Harmondsworth, 1972), 103."
I footnoted my own mention of the dung wharf too, giving Aubrey's dates (1626-1697) and adding: "The dung wharf he mentions loaded cemetery bones on to waiting barges. These bones would later be ground into a phosphorous-rich powder for use as agricultural fertiliser".
What I had in mind with that final sentence was not the chemically-enhanced fertilisers we use today, of course, but simply a grinding to powder of the bones' own natural ingredients, which would then be scattered or dug into the soil - together with the same wharf's shipment of dung. That seemed a reasonable extrapolation from Professor Houlbrooke's material, but it is my own assumption rather than anything I can present firm evidence for. You'll be a far better judge than me of whether it's a credible assumption or not.
While we're on this subject, let me recommend Mary Roach's 2003 book
Stiff, which includes a chapter discussing just this use of human remains. She quotes a 19th century calculation showing that the 80,000 people who then died in London each year would be worth an annual total of £50,000 if their remains were sold as fertiliser.
Roach also reproduces an unidentified 1888 newspaper article discussing Dr George Hay's proposal for processing human remains. Dr Hay explains that steam-driven machines would shatter the cadaver's bones into pieces the size of marbles, then chop the flesh into mincemeat. This would produce "a pulpous mass of raw meat and raw bones". After being heat-dried to reduce the bulk and disinfect this mass, he adds, "it would command a good price for the purpose of manure".
I sent Professor Houlbrooke a few e-mail questions when researching my book (though not on the specific subject of fertiliser). He was very kind in answering these, so if you'd like me to pass your query and your e-mail address on to him with a request that he get in touch, please just let me know.

Joe Turner adds:
"That is very interesting. The bone dust/manure industry was definitely a 'thing' between about 1800 and 1850, but this is the first I have heard of a reference to it much earlier. Prior to the use in agriculture, the main use of bone was in glue, so it is possible that the barges were being used to supply different industries.
"I don't know whether we will ever be able to get a definitive answer, but the archeologists claim that there would be a lot of missing bodies if there was a large-scale export of bones from London for the agricultural industry in the 19th century, as some sources suggest. The overall bone industry by 1850 was in the thousands of tons and barges were regularly carting them around the country on the canals."

August 30, 2014. Professor Ralph Houlbrooke of Reading University writes:
"I'm sorry to have responded so slowly to your last - the 14th was the very day I set out on a fortnight's holiday.
"Of course Mr Turner is welcome to get in touch, but I'm afraid I can't tell him any more than you have done already. I simply cited what Aubrey said and my prime interest was in the disrespect shown to the remains of the dead rather than in the use to which they were put. Cf. the earlier emptying of the St Paul's charnel in 1549 and the alleged carting of an enormous quantity of bones to Moorfields, for which see John Stow."


August 5, 2014. Rebecca Shearer of somewhere in cyberspace writes:
"Hi. I just found a big stack of hell bank notes next to my daughter in a new house we moved into. I don't see where she possibly found them. Is this bad luck?"

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for your note, Rebecca. I know some Chinese people consider it bad luck to be given hell banknotes as a gift, but I think that's got more to do with the idea that the other person is actively trying to place a "curse" on you.
Set against that, there's the fact that other Chinese families will hand out hell banknotes to everyone attending a family funeral - and they clearly have no malice in mind there. Rather than adding these notes to a fire at the funeral (as a gift to the deceased), some people prefer to keep a hell banknote from every funeral they attend and retain these as a small memento of the friend or relative they've lost. They obviously don't feel there's any bad luck involved in that case.
In short, I don't think you've got anything to worry about. I've never seen any suggestion of hell banknotes being considered bad luck in a situation like the one you describe. If you ever find out where the notes came from, please do let me know.

[Rebecca later dropped me a line to explain that she eventually discovered her son had bought the hell banknotes at a novelty shop but never mentioned the purchase to her.]


July 11, 2014. Rex Berridge of Aberystwyth in Wales writes:
"Just wanted to say that I love your very thorough critique of Pretty Polly. Well done."

Paul Slade replies: And I love your very succinct letter. Thanks.

July 12. Rex Berridge adds:
"Hahaha, I deserved that. But I'm sure you wouldn't have wanted me to write a critical essay on your work.
"I just wanted to show my appreciation for your very detailed analysis and the wide range of additional material that you brought in to support your arguments. You have obviously done a lot of research on this song and I learnt far more than I expected to when I googled.
"I shall bookmark PlanetSlade and continue to look for new things there."

Paul Slade adds: I didn't mean any sarcasm in my reply, Rex. I genuinely liked you letter and thought I should reply in kind.
It's the occasional sign that someone out there's actually reading and enjoying this stuff that keeps me motivated as far as PlanetSlade is concerned, so believe me, all notes of appreciation are welcome - however long or short they may be.


June 24, 2014: Fred "Butch" Burns (aka ScrapIron Songsmith) of Tallahassee, Florida, writes:
"T'was fun and flattering to see my Pretty Polly's Revenge mentioned and complimented in your fine and interesting essay on that ancient murder ballad. Kinda found it by accident, but glad I did. Thanx! Interesting subjects and commentary at your website.
"In my ongoing pursuit and studies of the Hillbilly arts, there are Polly songs and Molly songs. 'pears Polly gets murdered (Pretty Polly's Revenge excepted) and Molly breaks hearts.
"I have 'Butchered' other traditional ballads on occasion. One is a re-write of East Virginia Blues that came out as Fair Young Molly. Nobody died, but his heart was broken, which could have eventually lead to his demise, or so we can speculate. I've since dropped it a coupla keys.
"Thanx again for the plug and good words..."

Paul Slade replies: You're most welcome, Fred. You did a great job with the song and it was my pleasure to point people towards it. I like Fair Young Molly too, so I hope people will check out both songs at the YouTube links I've added to your letter. And do have a crack at one of our Gallows Ballads Project songs if the mood should ever take you.


June 19, 2014. Michael M. of South London writes:
"I loved reading your essays on treasure hunts riots, Masquerade etc. Any plans to write about the current Hidden Cash events which have started in the USA but are coming to London this weekend?
"Seems to be yet another in a long list of well-meaning-yet-comically-doomed-to-failure attempts (Masquerade ended in a fraud, Cadbury's Conundrum cancelled after private land was dug up, etc etc). It is actually this 'flawed due to human nature' aspect which most interests and intrigues me. I am in London so might have a look myself this weekend. Anyway, thanks for reading."

[Michael gave me his full name, but asked me not to use it here for personal reasons.]

Paul Slade replies: You're most welcome, Michael, and thank you for getting in touch. I've been keeping an eye on the whole Hidden Cash thing wherever it's popped up in the past few weeks, and even pitched ideas for a background feature about the Weekly Dispatch scheme to a few publications on both sides of the Atlantic. No-one's bitten yet, but we live in hope.
I gather there have been a couple of Jason Buzi's London imitators already planting small sums around London and other UK cities, but I'm sure his official outing will put all those in the shade. Now that Buzi's on my patch, I shall be watching more closely than ever.
Tell me, have you ever read Terry Southern's 1959 novel
The Magic Christian? At one point its protagonist, a prankster millionaire called Guy Grand, buys 300 cubic feet of animal manure, 100 gallons of urine and 50 gallons of blood from the Chicago stockyards, dumps it all in a huge vat he's placed on a vacant lot in the Loop, then stirs $1m in $100 bills into the whole mess with a big wooden paddle. He heats the mixture to further increase its stench, then paints "FREE $ HERE" on the side of the vat facing the street and awaits results. Southern leaves what happens next to our imagination.
The big difference between Grand and Buzi of course, is that Grand is actively mean-spirited while the worst charge we can lay against Buzi so far is that his scheme tends to bypass the truly needy. Leaving aside a few curmudgeons like me, the reaction to Buzi's antics has been almost universal applause and the hunts he's provoked have been remarkably good-natured.
I might write about the Hidden Cash phenomenon at some point, but not until the dust has settled enough for us to see the overall contours of the thing. At the moment, there's not really much I could add to the on-going news coverage and I can't see an angle there yet that would make it right for PlanetSlade's approach. The flavour I'm always looking for here is tragedy-meets-farce and so far there's nothing in Hidden Cash that seems to fit that bill.

June 21, 2014. Michael M. adds:
"I re-read your Lobby Lud and Treasure Hunt Riots articles the other day - hugely enjoyable.
"What struck me were the rather obvious parallels between the Weekly Dispatch approach to clues - whereby anyone could simply grab a shovel and follow the crowd - and the current Hidden Cash style: grab an iPhone and follow the crowd, so to speak. As you illustrated in the article, the rather more nuanced manner adopted by Tit-Bits probably avoids the worst excesses of behaviour when it comes to getting a free lunch. But time will tell. As you can see, this whole thing fascinates me.
"Incidentally, last night I was reading the clues given so far for the London cash hunt. I had decided that 'Somewhere in London where green meets blue' was a reference to the Tube map: ie, where the District and Victoria lines cross at Victoria Station. Clue number 2 was 'name of a community in northern California' and a quick search on Google brings up 'St. Vincent's'. Aha, that must mean Vincent Square, between Victoria and Pimlico!
"Not a bit of it. This morning the 'cryptic clues' had given way to riot-friendly directions along the lines of "££££s in Kensington Gardens, next to the Peter Pan statue - CHARGE!!!!!'"

Paul Slade adds: I've been thinking about comparisons between the 1904 Weekly Dispatch scheme and our own Hidden Cash scheme too. Buzi's methods are certainly more like the Weekly Dispatch ones than the much more intricate, demanding Tit-Bits scheme, but I think there are some important differences too.
First, Buzi has very wisely decided to avoid burying any of his prizes. As I understand it, they've all been simple envelopes full of banknotes, which he or his helpers tape to the sides of waste-paper bins, statues or other street furniture. The
Weekly Dispatch medallions were pushed only an inch below the surface, but it was this element of excavation being required which led to so much property damage by overzealous treasure seekers.
Secondly, Buzi's London bounty has been limited to 20 envelopes, the most valuable of which contained £100. The
Weekly Dispatch buried 20 £50 medallions in London and in 1904 each of those would have spending power equivalent to over £5,000 today. Even the paper's least valuable medallions - the £10 ones - would be worth over £1,000 in today's money. It may be that the prospect of a mere £100 isn't enough to prompt the truly mad - and sometimes very violent behaviour - which the Weekly Dispatch scheme led to.
It's at this point that two little cartoon figures appear on my shoulders and start arguing the toss. The angel in my right ear points out that only a swine would wish for more violence and property damage, while the devil in my left counters that's just what the story needs to sex it up a bit.
Whichever figure I side with at any given time - and it does vary - there's no doubt that the lack of any trouble at Hidden Cash hunts has also tended to limit the media's interest in this whole exercise. In the case of June 22's
Sunday Times, for example, the Kensington Gardens hunt produced no more than a short news story at the bottom of page 12. Unless we see a Royal Park dug up by vandals or the odd punch-up between rival seekers, I doubt Hidden Cash will ever get the front page tabloid headlines it needs to spark Weekly Dispatch levels of excitement.
My own first impression of the Hidden Cash clues was that they tend to fall between two stools: nether clever enough to engage real puzzle fans nor clear enough to help those who simply want the cash. Let's look a bit more closely at the clues used to send people to Peter Pan's statue in Kensington Gardens on June 21 and I think you'll see what I mean.

Clue One
"London first clue: large space where green meets blue. Saturday neither early nor late."

Let's assume green and blue means the lines marked in those two colours on the London Tube map. The "green" is the District Line, so that's fine. But is the "blue" supposed to refer to the light blue Victoria Line or the dark blue Piccadilly Line? It could be either. The Victoria Line meets the District Line at Victoria Station, so that's certainly one possibility. The Piccadilly Line meets the District Line at South Kensington, Acton Town and Ealing Broadway. That narrows the possibilities down to four London areas, but gives me no useful clue beyond that.
The other possibility is that the clue refers to an area where green grass meets blue water - but there's so many areas like that in London it tells us nothing at all. I'm going to stick with the Tube theory.

Clue Two
"LONDON: An unincorporated community in Northern California shares its name with our London drop spot."

That's more like it. Wikipedia lists over 2,000 unincorporated communities in California, but Kensington's the only one on our earlier list of possibilities. So now I know I need to be looking somewhere round South Kensington. The nearest "large space" (at least in the sense of an open space) is Kensington Gardens, so that looks promising. But where in Kensington Gardens?

Clue Three (via Sky News)
"Exclusive new clue from man behind ?@HiddenCash : 'A popular children's story takes place here...' ?#HiddenCashLondon. Have you guessed yet?"

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is one of four JM Barrie novels featuring the character, though most people will just know him from the Disney movie, of course. It's pretty well-known that there's a statue of Peter right next to the Serpentine lake in Kensington Gardens itself, which makes this a crucial clue. For some reason, Hidden Cash never retweeted it, but went with this instead:

Clue Four London: Where would Peter Pan go for a swim? Head there now. Money all well hidden. Good luck! Keep it fun and friendly.

And there's our final confirmation. It's only after this clue that the first two envelopes were found and, from that point onwards, the organisers' clues give way to outright statements: "Kensington Gardens near pond and Peter Pan"; "The bit between Queen Caroline's temple and Peter Pan". A few hours later, most of the 20 envelopes had been found.
At one point in the day's exchanges, Hidden Cash asks: "Should our clues be harder?" I don't know about harder, but I think they'd certainly benefit from being crafted with a bit more care. Money's obviously not a problem for Buzi and his colleagues, so if I were them I think I'd hire a professional puzzle setter to contribute some ideas. Just off the top of my head, how about something like this:

London: Seek your reward where (dark) blue meets green. Sir George Frampton's statue beside the water-snake can never grow old. Go there.

The dark blue reference would further narrow the Tube map possibilities, Sir George Frampton sculpted the Peter Pan statue, water-snake points to the Serpentine lake and Peter's Pan's known as being locked in childhood. And all in 137 characters!

June 22. Michael M. adds:
"Your 'Sir George Frampton's statue / water-snake' adaptation is excellent. It fits nicely into the sort of Goldilocks category of clues: not too hot, not too cold. And very solvable in a short space of time.
"That's the kind of thing which should have been tweeted by Hidden Cash at 10am on Saturday morning and it should have related to one £100 envelope only. At 11am there could have been a further tweeted clue leading to £100 at, say, Trafalgar Square and so on throughout the day. Maybe ten locations, £1,000 total.
"However, the kind of thing which appeals to me doesn't necessarily have the mass appeal which Hidden Cash seem to want to achieve, so I suppose they will stick with their style of as good as telling you where to look and then it's a case of every man for himself.
"I first came across your writing about a year ago, having seen a brief mention of Kit Williams' Masquerade on TV which prompted me to search for more info. I dimly remembered the book from my own childhood - I was 12 years old in 1979 - so it was a nice nostalgic trip down memory lane. Totally unexpected, however, was the back-story: the ex-girlfriend, the deception, the skullduggery. Quite fascinating, and making the whole affair - to me, at least - so much more memorable.
"Since then I have wondered on and off - will someone attempt another treasure hunt book, possibly even something taking advantage of the internet, a kind of Masquerade 2014 update? When I first heard of Hidden Cash last week, it seemed to have a great deal of potential to become just that. Albeit a slightly less, ahem, cerebral version. Still, it's enough to be going on with."

October 28. Paul Slade adds: This newly-created twitter account might be worth keeping an eye on, Michael: The Hunt London @goldhuntlondon.
I've exchanged a few tweets with the organisers, who promise their hunt will be "exciting for anyone interested in London, history or treasure hunting." They've also told me they'll be officially launching the scheme in December, that the e-book it's built around will sell for "about the price of a pint" and that the gold bar they're using as a prize is worth "many £thousands".
More Hidden Cash style nonsense, or something altogether more intriguing? We shall see."

[The Hunt London issued a few more details of its scheme as I was preparing this page for publication. Latest details (as of November 26, 2014) here.]


Those alliterative letters page headlines in full


Ever since I started PlanetSlade back in 2009, I've been collecting whatever little compliments I can find about the site on-line and running the latest examples as a column of blurbs on each new letters page. Every time I've added a new one of these columns, I've given it one of the alliterative headlines you see in the box here.
I knew the letters pages' final running order would put the first headline I wrote right at the end, so I started with "Z" and I've been slowly working my way backwards through the alphabet ever since. I did this partly to keep myself amused and partly to provide a little Easter Egg for any readers who happened to notice what I was up to.
The letters page you're reading now, posted in December 2014, finally gets us all the way back to "A" and allows me to declare this entirely pointless project complete. The table here provides a convenient means to bask in its glory.

Message board round-up

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








March 24, 2014. C#Merle of Central Scotland writes:
"I'm not sure if your awesome Gallows Ballads Project is still going, but here's a couple of mp3s of the tracks Streams of Crimson Blood and The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs.
"Both tunes are played on some home made instruments I've made over the years. The recordings you have on the GBP Soundcloud album are brilliant but I hope you don't mind a more handmade approach.
Streams of Crimson Blood was recorded using my homemade three-string bass, four-string licence plate guitar and a reggae drum track. The toast in the middle was added by my friend Cris Portillo. My vocal was a one-take effort but it seemed to work OK.
"Nathaniel Mobbs was recorded entirely on the four-string 'lowebo' guitar I built back in 2010, featuring a cone made by Mike Lowe of Texas and it's tuned G-D-GG. I started by making a loop for the backing then improvising a couple of slide tracks to compliment the lyrics. Both tracks were relatively quickly put together - the reggae one only took about an hour."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for those, C#. Contributions to the Gallows Ballads Project have certainly dropped away since I stopped actively chasing them at the end of 2012, but I'm always delighted when someone does weigh in with a new track or two. There's no reason why the project shouldn't tick along in this low gear for years yet as far as I'm concerned, and who knows what musical wonders may result?
I like your two tracks a lot, particularly the slow, understated solo at the end of
Nathaniel Mobbs and the reggae approach you and Cris have taken to Crimson Blood. Listening to your Crimson Blood recording again a moment ago, it struck me that the dancehall-style DJ toast is a device often used by the bad boys of Jamaican reggae, so it makes perfect sense to give the 1829 killer that voice here.
Many of the straight-up folk rentions of the GBP's 16 songs are very good indeed, but plenty of other musical genres have their own tradition of murder songs too. My view is that people should feel free to draw on all of them. Given that the executed killer in
The Foreigner's Downfall is a Serbian, for example, I've always thought it be great to hear that song set to his home country's music. And yes, folks - that's a hint.

[C#Merle has his own page over on Handmade Music Clubhouse, where you can learn more about his instrument-making skills. It's well worth investigating for the pics of his tea box guitar and cigar box ukulele alone. In his alias as meh229, he also has some non-GBP tracks available on this SoundCloud page.]


May 7, 2014. Blaine DeLancey of Portland, Oregon, writes:
"I ran across a link to your site on Mudcat and you seemed like a person who might know the answer to this question: Do you know the title or any lyrics to a song about the Homestead Murders in Eastern Oregon at the turn of the 20th century?
"I've been reading a book called Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks by Brian Booth. It's a collection of historical anecdotes about the Northwest, which were written by a local reporter from the late 'teens to the mid-sixties. One of them is about the Homestead Murders, a case that happened out in the backcountry of Oregon in 1904. He mentions that a ballad was composed about the murders and quotes two verses:

Oh, Williams built a fire,
And he throwed the bodies in,
He thought he'd covered up,
His bloody trail.

But he left a couple hairs,
A-buried in the ground,
And they hanged him at the,
Wasco County jail.

"Thank you in advance for any help you might be able to offer. I'm very curious, but have been unable to find any other mentions of the ballad anywhere."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for getting in touch, Blaine. You've got me beat with this one, I'm afraid, as I've never come across either the case or its ballad until now.
I've searched around a bit online, using what look to be all the most promising phrases from the lyrics, but found very little except your own post about the song on Mudcat and the Oregon Encyclopedia page you link to there. My Murder Ballads reference shelf here at home came up blank too. I do have a couple of suggestions on other sources you might want to try, but first let me bring everyone up to speed on what the case involved.
As the Orgeon Encyclopedia page explains, the killer in this case was a man called Daniel Norman Williams. He'd already served three years in a Nebraska prison for nearly killing his sister-in-law when he moved to Iowa and met Alma Nesbitt in 1894. The couple travelled to Oregon where they filed adjoining homestead claims 20 miles from Hood River.

Filing these claims before they were married allowed them to take one plot each, instead of the single shared plot allocated to a married couple. It was not until July 1899 - when they presumably felt both plots were safe - that they finally wed. Norman (as everyone called him) was then 42 and Alma just 36.
They built houses and various outbuildings on their respective plots and, after a brief spell working in Portland, Alma brought her elderly mother Louisa home to move in. That was the last time either woman was seen alive and here's how the encyclopedia explains what happened next:

"Williams soon encountered two problems: marriage did not give him the right to Alma's land, and his house and barn had been mistakenly built on Alma's claim. In desperation, he forged Alma's name on a relinquishment and presented it to the land office on June 23, 1900. An employee recognized that Alma's signature was a forgery, and the federal court issued an indictment for D. Norman Williams.
"In early 1904, George Nesbitt arrived in Oregon to investigate the disappearance of his mother and sister. While digging around on Williams's property, he discovered bloody gunnysacks, chunks of long gray hair and a piece of scalp with long brunette hair still attached.
"The Wasco County grand jury issued an indictment for first-degree murder against Williams. He was arrested in Bellingham, Washington and escorted to Hood River. An investigation revealed that he was still married to a wife in Nebraska and that two of his six wives had died of poison."

Finn John, writing on the Offbeat Oregon website fills in a few gaps from this account. Drawing on a contemporary account from the Portland Morning Oregonian, he explains that George's suspicions had been raised when Alma's regular letters home suddenly dried up.
When he wrote to Williams himself, George got a reply claiming the two women had moved out after Alma took up with a younger man, but he refused to believe this. Williams had already fled to Washington state by the time George got to Hood River, questioned the neighbours, and discovered that Williams had been seen setting a large bonfire on the site shortly after Alma and Louisa's disappearance. Most likely, he used this to cremate the two women's bodies, then buried whatever was left in the ashes. In her 2005 book
Necktie Parties, Diane Goeres-Gardner adds that Williams was also suspected of killing Jessee and Martha Tuman, an elderly Iowa couple, in 1902.
Williams used the life insurance payout from his fifth wife's death to hire a renowned lawyer called Henry McGinn as defence attorney at his trial. McGinn built his whole case round the argument that there could be no murder without a body. Prosecutor Frank Menefee responded by producing a young Portland chemist called Victoria Hampton, who demonstrated that the hair George had discovered was human and testified it belonged to Alma. Hampton was also able to prove through newly-developed scientific tests that the blood on the gunnysack George excavated was human.
The jury found Williams guilty of murder - a verdict supported on appeal by the Oregon Supreme Court - and he was sentenced to hang. Aware it was setting a precedent, Oregon's Supreme Court ruled as follows:

"Where, as here, the circumstances point with one accord to the death of the person alleged to have been murdered, the finding of fragments of a human body, which are identified as part of the body of the alleged victim will be sufficient, if believed by the jury, to establish the fact of death when this is the best evidence that can be obtained under the circumstances."

That precedent remains important, and has led to the case of Oregon v Williams still being quoted in US courts today. Williams was executed on July 21, 1905, making him the last man to be publicly hanged in Oregon. Both those facts make the case a significant one and just the sort of killing that does get a ballad written about it.
If you want to find out more, it might be worth contacting one of the big public libraries in Oregon and asking them to check their own archives for information on the case. If you're lucky, you might just hit on someone at the library who finds it as intriguing as we do, and often people like that will move Heaven and Earth to try and help you. I've benefitted enormously from the help of kind library staff in the past so I know what a fantastic resource they are.
I'd also ask the library people if they can recommend a local historian or folk music expert you could contact. If you have the time, consider making a personal visit to the most promising library too. A case like Williams' must have attracted a lot of press coverage at the time and you may find they have 1905 newspaper reports on file.
As far as online research is concerned, you've already tried Mudcat and that's generally a good source for stuff like this. It might be worth also placing a thread on the
No Depression board here. That's a US magazine specialising in Americana and music. You won't find the same folk song experts there you get on Mudcat, but it's just possible someone might recognise the Homestead Murders lyric from a cover version in their own record collection.
Finally, we'll keep your letter up here on PlanetSlade and hope the lyrics might ring a bell with one of my own readers. If I do get any further information in, I'll certainly pass it on.


May 18, 2014. John Gallon of Whitby in Yorkshire writes:
"Hi Paul. Just an update on the speedway cartoon book project, as it was your site that made it possible for me to trace Reg Smythe's family and get permission to reprint it.
"Attached is a self explanatory notice that I am using to publicise the book. The income after expenses is £5 per copy, which will to go directly to the riders at Redcar Bears. Anyone interested in more information or purchasing a copy please contact
"Thanks again for your help in making this possible."

Paul Slade replies: That's a great little book you've produced there, John. I know from my own experience how much work a project like this can take to pull together, particularly if you're tackling it almost single-handed.
You're to be congratulated for getting this chunk of Smythe's early work back into print and I hope your beloved Redcar Bears speedway team can now get all the funds they need to continue. If PlanetSlade's played some small part in making that happen, then I'm delighted.
Once again, that e-mail address to buy the book is I've already filed my copy away with my Andy Capp volumes and I hope many other PlanetSlade readers will do likewise.


March 14, 2014. Nicholas Hiley of Kent University's British Cartoon Archive writes:
"By a strange co-incidence, I am researching a man named Walter John Randall, who turns up in your item on the Treasure Hunt Riots as 'WJ Randall, the general manager of Manchester's Trade Protection Office' in 1904. Do you have a copy of the Tit-Bits article that mentions him? I'd love to see a copy if you have an e-mailable one.
"Randall ended up doing some undercover work for the Admiralty during the First World War, which is where he crosses my radar. I don't know a great deal about him at the moment, but the evidence shows that he worked for the Admiralty in South Wales from July 1915 to December 1916, investigating pacifism and revolutionary socialism and reporting to the Naval Intelligence Division. I am trying to track down his reports, which will show more clearly what he was up to."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for letting me know abut that, Nick. It was Randall who found one of Tit-Bits' original hidden cylinders of gold sovereigns, and there's something very pleasing about an accomplished puzzle-solver like him later exercising his skills on behalf of Naval Intelligence. Much the same thing happened in WWII, of course, when Bletchley Park recruited crossword experts to help break the Germans' Enigma code.
I've e-mailed over a copy of
Tit-Bits article you wanted, which I hope you find useful. Please do drop me a line again if you find out any more about Randall's wartime career. I'm sure PlanetSlade readers would love to learn more about him.


Feb 24, 2014. Joe Foster of St Louis, Missouri, writes:
"You have a story about a Mrs. Higgins who killed her children in Killingworth, CT on your site.
"Her husband Samuel Higgins was my fifth great-grandfather and his second wife Temperance Kelsey was my fifth great-grandmother. His first wife had been Sarah Blatchley. You wrote that Temperance was the 'consort' of Samuel Higgins. That simply means she had remarried after Samuel Higgins died. She had been his wife.
"Samuel Higgins died in 1811 and she married the widower James Parkhill in Benson, VT after that death. Your theories on Samuel and Temperance 'cheating' on James are just plain wrong. When she died she was buried next to Samuel Higgins and listed as his consort, which again indicates she had remarried after his death. I've visited their gravestones which reside on an overgrown graveyard now on a private farm. James Parkhill was buried in a different graveyard next to his first wife.
"Another fact is that Temperance and Samuel had seven children not just Dan. These included another daughter named Jane (who was named after Samuel's mother Jane Snow)."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for getting in touch. I always love hearing from descendants of the people I've discussed on PlanetSlade and I'm grateful for any extra information they can provide. My original account of the Killingworth case appeared in the July 2013 exchange of letters here.
Let me tackle your points one by one:

* I did make it clear in my original account of this case that the "consort" interpretation was pure guesswork on my part and Chris Woodyard instantly put me right on the fact that I was reading too much into the word. He made exactly the point you do about it simply indicating a second marriage and I quote him doing so just a few lines after my initial speculation.

* What I actually said about Samuel and Temperance cheating was "if I were adapting this as a novel" I'd have them conducting an affair as part of the plot, but that "I have no evidence whatsoever to suggest any of that's actually true". That makes it very clear I'm not suggesting any affair actually took place.

* On the question of Dan Higgins, I was discussing the information available on, where I reported Dan was "listed as her [Temperance's] one and only child". That's true, as you'll see from the Find A Grave page here.

If I seem pedantic, it's only because I don't want anyone to get the impression that I carelessly get my facts wrong or engage in speculation without clearly flagging that up. Thanks again for the extra information.


February 6, 2014. Mike Bodner (alias Uncle Sinner) of Winnipeg in Canada, writes:
"Your piece on Pretty Polly was a pleasure to read.
"Regarding the switch in perspective in the lyrics, I think the songs can be as big or as small as you want them to be. That, to me, was the point of the liner notes of [Bob Dylan's 1993 album] World Gone Wrong - the only limit to the complexity of so-called minimalist folk songs is your own imagination. Thus, the lyrics are absolutely capable of bearing an interpretation that speaks to a killer's dissociative state of mind.
"As to the historical reasons why singers like John Hammond might have switched their perspective, some of it might be confusion - the first quoted speaker is the killer, therefore that perspective is also used prior to the first quotation even though an omniscient narrator would make more sense.
"I don't think confusion over perspective is the whole story, though. The southern US was (and still is) a profoundly religious place. Singing "I stabbed her to the heart" etc may have felt too much like sin. At a time when many people believed that Jesus or the devil could be summoned by merely naming them aloud, declaring that you murdered your lover could be controversial, to say the least. The perspective therefore shifts when it becomes too uncomfortable to continue in the first person."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter, Mike - I'm really glad you enjoyed the article. Your 2008 version of Pretty Polly is a cracker, so I hope some of the people who read my essay also scoot on over to your Bandcamp page and buy the album.
I dug out my copy of World Gone Wrong just now and I see what you mean about Dylan's stream-of-consciousness sleeve notes. I think it's particularly interesting that he sees Stack-A-Lee primarily as a song about fame. "What does the song say exactly?" he asks. "It says no man gains immortality through public acclaim. [.] No Rights Without Duty is the name of the game & fame is a trick."
Only someone who's been pursued by paparazzi for half his life would detect that in the song, I suspect, but so what? For Dylan, just like everyone else, the song's meaning resides where its written lyrics meet his own unique personal experience. In helping we ordinary civilians to see this aspect of Stack-A-Lee too, he's making the song a bit bigger for all of us.
I take your point about seemingly significant discrepancies in the lyrics often springing from no more than a casual blunder at the mike. I know my PlanetSlade essays occasionally over-interpret simple blips like these, but there are times when even that can be fruitful. The mass of alternating narrators in Pretty Polly would still be an aspect of the song worth thinking about, even if the thing that started us down that road eventually turned out to be no more than a long-dead singer garbling the lyrics.

Feb 7, 2014. Mike Bodner adds:
"Yes to all of that. The song is a combination of the performance, the text and what we bring to it. The intent of the author no longer trumps everything else and some would go so far as to say it is irrelevant. I prefer to think of it as one piece of the puzzle.
"Even historical details and interpretations are informed, and sometimes governed, by our experiences and assumptions; for example, my theory about the desire to switch to third person for the killing of Pretty Polly may say more about me than anything.
"As to Dylan, fame and Stack-A-Lee: I think he is also saying that Stack has been immortalized, but not because he has done anything good. More often than not, it is the wrongdoers who are remembered. We remember what is sensational.
"Another interesting bit of historical context regarding Anglo-American performances from the Shelton/Hammond era is that the vocals tend to be very plain. Adorning your voice with vibrato, or changing its natural tone, would be giving in to the sin of pride. I think that's why that sort of pinched and nasal singing style was so prevalent - it was seen as being the most plain, the least proud."

Paul Slade replies: That's a fascinating point about the singing style on those early bluegrass records. It had never occurred to me before, but given the central role their rather bleak religious views played in these guys' lives, it makes perfect sense. Most of the settlers who first brought this music to the USA were either Calvinists or Presbyterians, two groups not noted for their sense of carefree joie de vivre.
I forgot to mention earlier that your point about words bearing real consequences - in this case accidentally calling up the devil - reminded me of an
As You Like It production I saw a few years ago. In the scene where Orlando and Rosalind ask Celia to conduct a pretend marriage ceremony for them, they hit on an interpretation I'd never seen before. Celia's normally quite playful in this scene too, but in this particular production she was utterly appalled at the idea.
The programme notes explained that, for many people in the play's original 1599 audience, Celia pronouncing the words of the marriage service in this way would have been just as valid as any priest doing so. The director decided this belief should apply in the world of the play too and that's why he encouraged Celia to show her reluctance so strongly - she was scared that Orlando and Rosalind's daft game would result in them really being married at the end of it and that was a consequence she didn't like to see taken so lightly.
This idea may also explain why Shakespeare has Rosalind herself derail the fake marriage ceremony after just a single line's been spoken. This would not only have allowed the audience to relax again, but could also be read as a sign that even the mischievous Rosalind feared this particular joke was being pushed too far.


January 10, 2014: Ken D'Ambrosio of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, writes:
"First, the thanks: as someone who really likes, enjoys and even sometimes takes seriously his comics, it's a wonder to see a really in-depth article on any of them, much less the oft-overlooked Andy Capp. Thank you kindly for such an deep, well-written article!
"Now, my point of order: Blondie may have changed after Dean Young took over, but Chic Young [his father] really had a strip that bent the rules. Dagwood was originally an upper-class guy smitten by the flapper, Blondie. While he eventually won her heart, there was real social commentary going on, as well as some in-depth study of contemporary America. Dean didn't make the strip bad ... but he certainly made it less daring and less pertinent.
"With the exceptions of Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County, I'd have to say that American newspaper comics took a distinct downward turn in the 60's and 70's.
"Thanks again for the wonderful article."

Paul Slade replies: And thank you for your letter, Ken. No-one pays me anything for the PlanetSlade material I turn out, so feedback like yours plays a huge part in keeping me motivated.
Blondie has never had much of a syndication presence in the British newspapers - at least, not during my lifetime - so I'm afraid I do have a bit of a blind spot where that particular strip's concerned. I knew the bare bones of the class issues you mention between Dagwood and Blondie, but the vast majority of the actual material I've seen would have come from the strip's later (and lesser) years. That may have caused me to short-change Chic Young's work in my description of it and, if so, I'm glad to redress the balance a bit with your letter here.
Turning to your search for more in-depth articles about comic strips, I wonder if you're familiar with The Comics Journal? They've run very long interviews and a lot of thoughtful, intelligent analysis on many, many classic US newspaper strips over the years. Much of their archive is available (even to non-subscribers) on the magazine's website here. RC Harvey is their main man on the newspaper strip front, so look out for his name in particular. There's an example of Harvey's Blondie articles here.
It's also worth taking a look at the Fantagraphics website. That's the company that publishes the Journal and they've put out a lot of beautifully-curated, meticulous collections of classic US newspaper strips in recent years. Have a browse through their newspaper strip catalogue and I'll bet you find something you can't wait to buy. They're doing a glorious job with their current Complete Peanuts run and with Carl Barks' Disney duck strips too - which happen to be the two series I'm following - but from what I can gather all their other books are produced with equal loving care.
We're in a real Golden Age for classic strip reprints at the moment, both in terms of the sheer number of old strips available and the standards brought to bear in collecting and reproducing them properly. Fantagraphics is one of the companies at the forefront of this, but many other publishers are doing excellent work too. If only some enterprising company would take on the task of producing Reg Smythe's complete run of Andy Capp strips to that same high standard, I'd be delighted to buy the material all over again - and I bet a lot of other people would too.


January 3, 2014. Mike O'Brien of Melbourne, Australia, writes:
"Just a brief note to mention how much I enjoyed your article on Andy Capp. I've been a fan of the strip since I was about ten and I'm 46 now. I'd already read a wee bit about Smythe, but your piece just blew me away!!!
"My Dad got me into Andy, as he was always a fan. Andy was very popular in New Zealand (where we lived after emigrating from the UK in 72) but now, having lived in Australia for a long time, I've noticed just how unpopular he seems here. You ask almost anyone and they have never heard of the strip. Also, a browse through most second-hand book shops only throws up a single copy once in a blue moon. Mind you, I was collecting in New Zealand up to 35 years ago, so maybe it's just a case of all the books simply becoming rarer.
"You mentioned in youe essay about there being 62 Andy Capp collections. Does that include all the Australian specific ones that I believe we produced in the 70s & 80s? I only ask as I think I have close to 50 different books (various sizes, bumper collections etc etc...) and I'm wondering if I only need to fluke another 12 to complete the collection."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for that. Mike. It's always hugely cheering to hear from someone who's enjoyed a PlanetSlade piece and appreciated all the work I put into this stuff. In fact, one thing I've learnt from doing the site is that I should always write and tell someone when I've particularly enjoyed their work, because I know now just how encouraging those letters can be.
My figure of 62 covers the British Reg Smythe collections alone, not including reprints or the handful of magazine editions. I've no idea what the total would be for any of the foreign collections, I'm afraid, though I see Tony's Trading lists 48 Australian collections (in various different editions) here. That site's certainly the most reliable guide to the UK collections I've ever managed to find, so I think it's probably your best bet as a checklist for the Australian ones too.


Message board round-up

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

Amazon Kindle store


Comic Book Plus

The Comics Reporter

Go Comics


Lost City of London


Plymouth Local History

Radio Nouspace

Shadow Manor

Straight Dope


Awed audience applauds apt & articulate articles

On PlanetSlade
"I like this site, which has looked at the story behind some [murder ballads]." - Barbara Gordon, Twitter.

"Most excellent and a very welcome resource. Great stuff." - Blackpebble, Metafilter.

On Hattie Carroll
"I admire [.] this great piece of history." - Jochen, Twitter.

On Cross Bones
Very good." - Peter Legrove,

On Burke & Hare
"Well done." - Steve Gardham, Mudcat.

"Your page on Burke's execution and your examination of the illustration are excellent." - Archaic,

"Fabulous." - Kim Seabrook of POEternity, Twitter.

"A nice slice of the times." - Q, Mudcat.

"Excellent lecture and I liked Steve Byrne's music."- Jeff, Casebook.

"Excellent." - Diarmid Mogg, Small Town Noir, via e-mail.

"Nice one." - Jim Carroll, Mudcat.

On Black Swan Blues
Nice!!!! - Kwame Kwei-Armah, Center Stage, via Twitter.

On Lobby Ludd
"Great story." - Sage Herb, Melodeon.

On Masquerade
"Voici l'histoire complète 'après coup'."- Mickey,

On Andy Capp
"A wonderful insight into Andy Capp, Reg Smythe and the Hartlepool connection." - Stan Laundon,

On Moshpit Memories
"Keep 'em comin'. You entertain me." - Punxvillan, via Twitter.











Bountiful band bestows buckets of big bouquets

On Murder Ballads
"Interesting article." - Shadow Manor.

On Frankie & Johnny
"Tons of info about the song's history." - Greg Vandy, KEXP Seattle.

On Tom Dooley
"I highly recommend that you read this." - Elon Green, Twitter.

On Pearl Bryan
"This book is superb." - A. Reviewer, Amazon Kindle store.

On Broadside Ballads
"Great work!" - Julie Mainstone, via e-mail.

On Secret London
"A wonderful series of long essays." - MFA Visual Narrative, Twitter.

On First Great Radio Hoax
"An excellent article." - Radio Nouspace.

On Treasure Hunt Riots
"Fascinating story." - Derek Tait, Plymouth Local History.

"Nice read." - Domino, Tweleve.

On Cross Bones Graveyard
"A fascinating book-length tale." - The Lost City of London.

"Wonderful work." - Scarlet Stitches, via Twitter.

"Loved it." - Emily Quinn, via e-mail.

"A fascinating little insight into an obscure corner of Southwark." - Tim Murray, Twitter.

"Very interesting and great stuff to know." - Minda Powers-Douglas, via Twitter.

"Fascinating [and] poignant." - Susie D, Twitter.

On Masquerade
"Very long and very interesting." - Faimon Roberts, Twitter.

"Interesting article." - Steven, Cookdandbombd.

On Insect Horror Comics
"Nice!" - Arthur Wyatt, via Twitter.

On Andy Capp
"After reading the essay, I've come to a new appreciation of Mr Capp, his exploits and the actual artistry involved." - Dave Coates, staff blogger, Go Comics.

On The Unknown Alex
"These [strips] are great." - Parmanparman, Metafilter.

"I enjoyed looking at them." - Tom Spurgeon, The Comics Reporter.

"Fab article." - John Freeman, Down The Tubes, via Twitter.

"I loved it." - Jody Avirgan, Twitter.

"It's a great strip." - Paw Broon, Comic Book Plus.

"Lovely piece." - Taxbriefs, Twitter.

"Hatchet job." - Alex Masterley, Twitter.

On Jimmy Riddle
"Pretty clever." - Skammer, The Straight Dope.

"Nicely done!" - The Hamster King, The Straight Dope.

"That is some genuinely clever word-smithing." - Gagundathar, The Straight Dope.

On @MoshpitMemories
"Interesting project." - Push, editor of Electronic Sound magazine, via Twitter.

"Brings back memories. Cheers." - Punxvilla, via Twitter.