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Cruel Lizzie Vickers (1853)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Housekeeper bullies her way into elderly employer's will then beats him to death for the 1,000 involved. That's the ballad's version, but the Old Bailey jury found her not guilty.

The Broadside
This 1853 verse sheet is headed "Horrid Murder" and credited to an E. Hodges from Pitts' print shop in Seven Dials. It has two illustrations, one showing Vickers sitting beside the old man's bed in a show of mock concern and one with her chained to her own bed in a Newgate cell.
Unlike most ballad sheets, this one adds a note of the tune its verses should be sung to. In this case, it's an old folk song called The Wagon Train.

The Ballad
In Acre Lane, near Brixton Town,
A gentleman of late did dwell,
His age, alas, was eighty-four,
And he was killed: how sad to tell,
By the cruel Lizzie Vickers,
Whom he kindly did maintain,
And this sad deed as we may read,
Has caused excitement, grief and pain.

At Newgate she is now committed,
Lizzie Vickers is her name,
For slaying of her aged master,
In Springfield Cottage, Acre Lane.

By Mr Jones she well was treated,
A fortune to her he did make,
And for his goodness this ungrateful,
Wretch his aged life would take,
By the neighbours it's been stated,
Frequently she'd wander home,
Like a beast - intoxicated,
Cruelly beat old William Jones.

Constantly she did ill-use him,
Barbarously she did him treat,
His money spent in dissipation,
Then so dreadfully him beat,
His hoary head hung down with sorrow,
Tears they trickled from his eyes,
And she would say 'Before tomorrow,
By my wretched hand he dies'.

One thousand pounds he had bequeathed,
To this base, ungrateful wretch,
And she we learn would daily wish,
To see her master sleep in death,
Poor man: how he cried for mercy,
Then, alas, he cried no more,
She for all his kindness killed him,
At the age of eighty-four.

His body covered 'tis with bruises,
What a dreadful sight to view,
His feeble limbs by her were beaten,
Aged flesh all black and blue,
God's all-seeing eye beheld her,
And her cruelties did see,
Justice then did speedy follow,
Murderers cannot go free.

For her deeds she soon must answer,
She at Newgate's bar must stand,
Witnesses will come against her,
For she killed that poor old man,
If the jury finds her guilty,
There is nothing can her save,
Sent her kind and aged master,
With his grey hairs to the grave.

The Facts
Elizabeth Vickers was a live-in housekeeper, working for an old man called Jones at his house in Springfield Cottages, Acre Lane, Brixton. She was his late wife's niece, moved in there shortly after Mrs Jones died in 1838, and was the only other occupant. Jones was 68 when Vickers moved in, and just two months short of his 84th birthday when he died.
In May 1850, Jones asked David Key, his family doctor, to draft a will for him leaving Vickers 1,000 and Key himself 300. He was well enough to walk unaided to Key's house to sign the new papers when Key completed them in the summer of 1851. It was around this time that Vickers - until then a respectable woman - began to drink.
Early in 1852, Vickers approached her neighbour Susannah Allen at the garden fence. "She told me, as soon as the breath was out of Mr Jones' body, she could go to the bank and take the money," Allen later testified. "She said she was tired of waiting for an old man, and then she would get married to a young one."

'Still she kept hitting him and beating him. I heard her say she would kick the life out of him'

The first sign of violence came that August, when Key visited Jones and noticed some bruises on his face. Vickers was in the room when he asked how the bruises came about. "She said 'Don't tell him,' and he did not answer me," Key recalled. "She was very abusive to me for speaking to Mr Jones." William Jones, the old man's nephew, came to visit him that month too. "The prisoner was in the adjoining room," he said. "My uncle was about to make some communication to me, upon which the prisoner came into the room and prevented him."
After that, Vickers took care to ensure neither Key nor William Jones was ever left alone with the old man.
Jones seems still to have been in good health at this point, however. Key visited in October and November, and found his patient was able to walk up and down stairs perfectly well, and now showed no sign of bruises. "He walked without support," Allen confirmed. "He was able to walk some distance about the garden, and run if occasion required."
Things took a turn for the worse as Christmas approached. Annie Gray, another neighbour, was getting ready to move out of 8 Springfield Cottages on December 6, 1852, when she heard Vickers shouting next door. "I heard her say 'Give me the money and let me go,' Gray testified. "He did not make any answer. I then heard her, to all appearances, beating him. He groaned very much. I heard very severe groaning, as of a person in very great agony. [...] Mr Jones, he said: 'Pray don't leave me'. That was when she said 'Give me the money and let me go!'"
Vickers had been beating Jones with a cane for several months, Allen added, but now used a far sturdier weapon. "Since Christmas, it has been with a broomstick," she told the court at Vickers' trial. "Not a day since Christmas, but he has been beaten with a very heavy weapon. [...] It was not gentle, but very heavy, She seemed to be doing it as hard as she could."
PC Henry White was passing the house just before midnight on New Year's Eve when he saw Jones outside closing the window shutters. The old man had no hat or coat on, and White saw him fall over as turned to get back in the house. "The shutters are at the front of the house, towards the road," White testified. "He had shut them as close as he could, and turned with the intention of walking indoors. And, in doing so, he fell in a forward direction. He did not fall against the wall, I am quite sure of that. He fell on the gravel pathway, upon his hands."
Vickers came up to the garden gate just as this was happening, walking with a man named Collins from the direction of the nearby Duke of Wellington public house. Collins was a relative of Jones, who worked as a jobbing gardener. Told by White that her master had fallen down, Vickers muttered a drunken protest, then grabbed Jones under the armpits and dragged him inside. Collins and White went their separate ways at the gate.
Later that day - January 1, 1853 - Allen was chatting to Jones over the garden fence. "He had a large lump on the right temple, about the size of a walnut" she said. "And just above that, there was a large wound on the right side of his head, about the size of a moderate-sized teacup, as though the flesh and hair were cut off it. It appeared as though it had been inflicted about a day and a half. Blood was issuing from it.
"It seemed as if the hair had been knocked off by some hard weapon. I should think something of wood - as though with a heavy stick or a large, thick, walking stick. It must have been a very severe blow."
At about 5:00 o'clock that evening, Vickers came staggering home drunk. "Directly she went in, she commenced beating Mr Jones because he had shown himself while she was out," Allen testified. "She said 'Did I not make you promise me you would not show yourself out? But you have, and I will kick the life out of you.' And she kicked him. But she beat him for nearly half an hour before that. He fell down and groaned and cried most bitterly.
"And she still kept hitting him and beating him. I could hear it was with a heavy stick. I heard her say she would kick him and kick the life out of him. Then she says 'Come. Get up, get up on the sofa, for I want to go out again.' I did not hear Mr Jones speak again after that, but she went out shortly after."
Asked why she hadn't interfered on hearing all this, Allen said she'd been told she could not legally enter the house unless she heard a cry of 'Murder'. She said she knew that Key was already working with Jones' relatives on a plan to get him away from the house, and felt she should leave the matter to them. "Whenever I heard the beating, I was to tell Dr Key," she said. "The only reason I did not go to the police was because he did not cry 'Murder'."
Even if Allen had reported her fears to the police, it probably wouldn't have done much good. Gray had called a policeman when she heard particularly agonised moans from next door one Saturday night, but he'd declined to intervene, saying Jones had already refused to lodge a complaint against Vickers.
Five days after the New Year's Day beating, Vickers came up to Allen at the garden fence again. "She said that she was tired of her job waiting on Mr Jones, and that she would be glad to get rid of it," Allen recalled. "She then said that he would never go where he had been the Thursday before: that was, to take an annuity." This annuity, which gave Jones 60 a year, came from St James' Church in Clerkenwell.
"I said 'Why, Elizabeth, you alarm me by saying so. Is Mr Jones ill?'" Allen added. "She said 'Oh no, he is very well. But I tell you, he shall never go where he was last Thursday, though he eats and drinks very well. But I shall be glad to get rid of my job."
The next day, January 7, 1853, was a Friday. At about 11.00pm, Allen looked outside to see Vickers lying flat out before Jones' front door. "She was very much intoxicated," Allen said. "She could not walk when I saw her. She was lying quite drunk." Allen's lodger heard the noise and asked if it was "that woman next door drunk again", indicating just what a regular occurrence this had become. "Frequently, it had been the talk of the neighbourhood that Vickers had been brought home and lifted up over the fence," Allen explained.
A policeman was standing over Vickers, trying to silence her as she ranted about Key coming to call while she'd been out drinking and how she would have kept him out if she'd been there. From time to time, she shouted "Old Jones, let me in! Let me in!" Finally, someone who Allen could not see opened the front door from the inside, and let Vickers in. She then heard a heavy thump, as if someone had fallen to the floor. It was 11:40pm by then, so Allen went to bed.
She glanced out the window about 8:00 next morning, and was surprised to see Jones' house shut up tight - doors locked, windows shuttered, blinds drawn. It remained like that all day. Vickers emerged briefly at lunchtime to get rid of some buskers who'd stopped outside, but avoided all Allen's attempts at conversation. Allen was used to hearing Jones coughing through the wall every night, but that Saturday night she heard nothing.
The postman arrived about 9:00am on Sunday morning, and threw two newspapers outside the back door of Jones' house, where they remained uncollected all day. Allen was on her way back from church at 1:00pm, when she saw Vickers standing at the window, and nodded a greeting in her direction. She got no nod back in return, and said later that Vickers had seemed "very agitated". Allen next saw Vickers at 5:00pm, when she emerged just long enough to pick up the papers that had been lying there all day.
Gray's old house at 8 Springfield Cottages was now occupied by Maria Hammond, who reported hearing "a very great deal of angry talking" from Jones' house between 4:00 o'clock and 10:30 on the Sunday evening. "I heard that Vickers was talking to someone there," she said. "I heard no-one answer except 'Eh, what do you say?' and 'Eh, what?'. I heard that from 4 o'clock till the time I went to bed." The repeated 'Eh, what?' and so on, Hammond confirmed, were characteristic of Jones.

Songs menu: A feast of facts and all the lyrics

The menu below lists a few of my favourite ballads from the British Library's collection and elsewhere. Click on any title to find the full lyrics and my account of the case that inspired them. And, if you haven't already read it, do take a look at my background essay describing the London industry which produced these songs.

Part One (April 2010)

Mary Arnold, The Female Monster

The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs

Mrs Dyer, The Old Baby-Farmer

The Gallows Child

Part Two (June 2010)

The Life and Trial of Palmer

The Silent Grove

The Liverpool Lodger

The Unnatural Murder

Part Three (Oct 2010)

Murder at Westmill

Streams of Crimson Blood

The Murdered Maid

Cruel Lizzie Vickers

Part Four (Feb 2011)

Jones and Harwood

The Sister and the Serpent

Jealous Annie

The Foreigner's Downfall

Bonus songs

The Tyburn Jig

Corkery's Farewell

The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If you'd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 ballads' public domain lyrics to your own music and record yourself singing and playing it?
   Any music you write would remain your own property, of course, as would the recording itself, and I'll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   There's no money in this for anyone - least of all me - but I think it's a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and I'll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen song's page here.

2) Post the recording online at your own site or the hosting service of your choice. Let me know where it can be found, and I'll add a link telling people where to go. Please remember that some hosting sites allow access to members only.

3) Film yourself performing the song, and post the video to YouTube. Once again, I'd be delighted to add a link here telling people where to find it.

4) Write your own song from scratch, based on the true story that inspired one of the ballads, then follow whichever of the above options suits you.

   Check PlanetSlade Music for a taste of what I have in mind. I spent all of 2012 recruiting contributors for this little project, and I've now accumulated at least one new recording of each of the 16 original ballads I selected. You can find links to all this audio on the PlanetSlade page above, or hear the whole "album" in the Soundcloud set here.
   The styles people have chosen range all the way from unaccompanied traditional folk singing via acoustic guitar ballads to full-on rock workouts with a whole band.
   Contributors so far include Sean Breadin of Rapunzel & Sedayne, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Fred Smith, Tim Radford, Big Al Whittle and South County.
   Three continents are represented in all, and at least one of the songs has already made it into the contributing band's live set. None of the tracks have achieved a commercial release yet, but I dare say a couple will make that leap eventually.
   We've already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please don't feel you're too late to make your own contribution.
   I'm all for people adding second, third or even fourth interpretations of a single song, using as many different musical genres as we can muster. Many, many thanks to all those who've already taken part.
   You can reach me with any questions here