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The Sister and the Serpent (1850)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Cambridgeshire woman is murdered by her husband and her sister, who are already conducting an affair. They both hang.

The Broadside
Unlike most of the ballads I've collected here, this A3 sheet suggests a tune its verses can be sung to. In this case, It's an air called The Waggon Train, which I've so far been unable to track down. The Sister and the Serpent is my own name for the sheet's seven verses.
The printer has dodged the legal requirement to add his name and address to this sheet, but he does give us a long prose account of the couple's crime, trial, and execution which matches those details printed in The Times.

The Ballad
At Cambridge on the fatal platform,
What a dreadful sight to see,
On that sad and awful morning,
Doomed to die upon a tree,
Elias Lucas, Mary Reeder,
Youth and vigour, health and bloom,
Men and maidens take a warning,
From these two young creatures' doom.

Oh what thousands are approaching,
Our unhappy fate to see,
Elias Lucas, Mary Reeder,
Die in Cambridge on a tree.

My name is Elias Lucas,
I at Castle Camps did dwell,
I married Mary Reeder's sister,
Loved her and adored her well,
Mary Reeder left her service,
Came to live with wife and me,
By the serpent I was tempted,
To commit adultery.

My sad name is Mary Reeder,
To kill my sister I engaged,
Was I not a sinful creature?
Scarcely twenty years of age,
Sad the day I left my service,
Far from virtue's path to stray,
Then conspired with her husband,
To take my sister's life away.

We prepared a deadly poison,
And the meal my sister gave,
Thought our sinful deed was hidden,
When we laid her in the grave,
But Almighty God in Heaven,
Did our wicked actions see,
Sent two murderers together,
To this sad and fatal tree.

Farewell our parents, friends and neighbours,
Death indeed's a last farewell,
The anguish of our wretched hearts,
No pen can write nor tongue can tell,
We slew a tender wife and sister,
One for whom we should have cared,
In her prime deceived and sent her,
To her Maker, unprepared.

Shed for us a tear of pity,
Nothing can us hope to save,
We must die in Cambridge city,
Moulder in a silent grave,
Pray, young men, for God to guide you,
In the serpent's path don't stray,
Pretty maids, let none advise you,
To depart from virtue's way.

The Facts
Mary Reeder was no more than 20 years old when, late in 1849, she quit her job as a live-in maidservant with a Cambridge carpenter called Miller. Elias Lucas, a strong, muscular-looking man in his mid-twenties, was married to Mary's sister Susan, and worked as an agricultural labourer for Mr Cross, a local farmer. Mary and Elias began sleeping together that Christmas and, by the end of January 1850, Mary was working for Cross too.
Mary had complained of a bad chest when leaving her old job. Susan, still concerned for her little sister's health, invited her to come and share the cottage where she and Elias lived in the village of Castle Camps. "That was by her sister's persuasion," Henry Reeder, the girls' father, later said. "I had lost my wife, and she could take better care of [Mary] than I could." When Mary moved in, she was still thought to be "a well-conducted, modest girl", who everyone agreed looked a good four years younger than her real age. Elias was described as a man of "excellent character", noted for his "easy and cheerful disposition".
Elias and Susan's neighbours believed their marriage was a happy one, but the truth was rather different. Susan was already pregnant for the fourth time since her marriage to Elias in around 1846, but only their three-year-old daughter had survived. When Susan delivered the new child, Elias took the midwife to one side, told her he wished he was not married, and said that - if he'd known then what he knew now - he wouldn't have wed Susan for £1,000.
"He afterwards went to [Susan's] room and said the same to her, I believe," the midwife testified. "He then came down and went out to work. I found his wife crying. On the Sunday after, he asked me if the child was like to live or die. I said I thought it did not look like a dying child." According to the ballad sheet, Elias was displeased at this, and muttered that he hoped the child would die. "That the child did die shortly after its birth is a matter of fact," the sheet adds.

Elias helpfully told Mary that all it took to kill someone was enough arsenic to cover a shilling

Mary Butterfield was the midwife's daughter, and would sometimes visit Susan as she recovered from the delivery in February 1850. Occasionally, she'd also feed the eight pigs which Elias kept there. "He came home one day during the week, and said he thought his pigs grew well," Butterfield told the court. "He would keep the little cad-pig till he married again and have a green leg of pork for his dinner.
"He said he would marry Mary Reeder, and went into the house. So did I. He told the deceased he would keep this cad-pig till he married her sister. She said that would never be, for they would never allow him to marry her sister. He said 'They can't help themselves if I go a little way from home'."
One Sunday at around this time, Elias and Susan were returning from church together, when Elias mentioned he had been having bad dreams recently - dreams that he would soon be either hanged or transported. Susan told him to put such thoughts out of his mind. "She was a good and affectionate wife," the ballad sheet tells us. "The prisoner acknowledged she had been a good, kind-hearted and unsuspecting woman."
Even so, Elias clearly wasn't happy. It was also in February 1850 that he was walking his horses along the road from Haverhill when he ran into Anne Ives and her sister. Elias knew Anne, so he placed her bundle up on one of his horses' backs, and they all walked on together for the next half hour. "He said he wished to get rid of his wife," Anne later testified. "He wished she would go away, for he had a bastard child coming. [...] He told me he did not like married life."
Mary later recalled asking Elias if he thought there was any harm in "poisoning for love". She said Elias replied there was no harm in such a deed, and helpfully added that all it took to kill someone was enough arsenic to cover a shilling. As it happened, Elias had some arsenic stored away in the family pantry, which he'd kept for himself after Cross gave it to him for disposal.
By Thursday, February 21, Susan was back to full health, as a neighbour who chanced to meet her shopping that afternoon would later confirm. That evening, Mary prepared herself, Susan and Elias a "mess" for the evening meal, this being a term of the day for any liquid or semi-liquid food. A mess like this would typically be made from shredded bread and water, plus butter or dripping to thicken it, and seasoned with salt or pepper.
The three sat down to eat together, but Susan complained her portion tasted of slack-lime. She gave Mary a spoonful of it to taste, which Mary spat out again. Twenty minutes after forcing her food down, Mary said, Susan stumbled to the front door, lent against its open hinges and vomited into the garden, saying "I am a dead woman".
Next morning, Mary went next door to Thomas Reeder's house, gave him three pence, and asked him to go and buy some brandy for her sister, who was sick. Thomas did so and then, as he was eating his lunch, Mary called his wife to come over to help her with Susan, who'd now fallen out of bed. "I went and found her on the floor in the bedroom," Thomas said. "She was undressed. I helped to put her into bed."
Thomas sent a man called John Casbolt to get Elias from work, and fetched Susan Potter, another neighbour, to help care for the sick woman. "I went to Elias Lucas to say his wife was dying, and he must come directly," Casbolt testified. "He said 'I can't come yet - I ain't got time'. He was doing nothing at that time. I ran all the way after Reeder told me to fetch him. I had got half way back when the prisoner overtook me."
Meanwhile, Potter was doing her best to make Susan comfortable. "She was in bed, and rose up and began to retch violently," Potter said. "She brought up very little, and asked me for drink. I gave her warm tea. She drank it [and] then began to retch again violently."
Elias arrived about 20 minutes after Potter had got there, and Susan quickly told him to go and get a doctor. "He left the room immediately," Potter said. "He did not speak to his wife."
Thomas Pledger was working on the road between Castle Camps and Haverhill when he saw Elias riding hard towards a Dr Robinson's place at about two o'clock that afternoon. A little after 2:30pm, he saw Elias again, this time riding back towards Castle Camps with Dr Martin's assistant, Frederick Cramer, accompanying him in a buggy. Elias explained that he'd come to Martin's place before Robinson's, and decided to grab the first doctor he could find. Pledger confirmed that the geography of that made sense.
By the time Elias and Cramer reached Castle Camps, Susan was already dead. "I was with her when she died," Potter said. "she died five or ten minutes after he [Elias] left the room." Cramer was told about half an hour had passed between Susan's death and his arrival at the cottage.
"I asked the cause of death," Cramer said. "Reeder said her sister had been poorly from disease of the chest, [and] that she became suddenly worse about seven or eight o'clock the evening before. She also said they had a mess of water and bread the evening before. Elias Lucas came in and went out again. He said she had been very sick; she had complained very much of pain in her chest.

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