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British broadsides: Song by song

 
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Murder Ballads
Secret London
Miscellany

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.

Click on any title to find the ballad's full lyrics and my account of the case that inspired them

I've cheated slightly with the first installment by including two songs that aren't strictly murder ballads at all. Mary Arnold maimed her baby rather than actually killing it, and The Gallows Child's Charles Elliot was condemned for nothing more serious than a little light shoplifting. Even so, these are such splendidly creepy and poignant stories that I couldn't resist including them here.
The 16 songs below complete the list of ballads I set out to cover a year ago. If you haven't already done so, please take a look at my background essay describing the London street trade which produced them.




Part One (April 2010)

Mary Arnold, The Female Monster (1843)
Former prostitute uses carnivorous beetles to blind her own infant child. Hopes to increase its value as a tool for begging, but wins only prison and transportation.

The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs (1853)
Drunken bully cuts his wife's throat in a fit of jealous rage. Bungles his own suicide attempt, and lives long enough to be hanged at Newgate.

Mrs Dyer, The Old Baby-Farmer (1896)
Reading woman takes in illegitimate babies for cash. Strangles 40 or more, then dumps their bodies in the Thames.

The Gallows Child (1820)
Nine-year old boy is condemned to death for stealing six handkerchiefs from an Oxford Street shop. Shopkeeper had paid five shillings each for them.


Part Two (June 2010)

The Life and Trial of Palmer (1856)
Boozy, gambling doctor poisons family and friends to clear his debts. Hanged at Stafford Gaol, but survives as footnote in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Silent Grove (1838)
Young man gets his girlfriend pregnant, then kills both her and the baby to avoid responsibility. One of many Bloody Miller/ Berkshire Tragedy variants - a combination of which eventually became Knoxville Girl.

The Liverpool Lodger (1849)
Evil lodger slaughters family and robs them. Victims include pregnant mother and two very young boys.

The Unnatural Murder (1618)
Disguised sailor returns home to his parents, hoping to surprise them with his new-found wealth. They mistake him for a stranger, kill him, and steal his gold.


Part Three (October 2010)

Murder at Westmill (1848)
Nine-year-old boy brutally murders his infant sister. Mother driven mad by the crime.

Streams of Crimson Blood (1829)
Burglar breaks into rich old couple's house and kills them both.

The Murdered Maid (1832)
Poverty-stricken yokels kill lodger for her savings. But it's really their own daughter.

Cruel Lizzie Vickers (1853)
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.


Part Four (February 2011)

Jones and Harwood (1851)
Two Surrey men repent on the scaffold after a local clergyman is killed while they're burgling his house. But did the real murderer escape?

The Sister and the Serpent (1850)
Cambridgeshire woman is murdered by her husband and her sister, who are already conducting an affair. They both hang.

Jealous Annie (1848)
Annette Meyers shoots dead her soldier boyfriend because she's convinced he's seeing someone else. That's the ballad's version, but Annette's real motive was rather different, and a sympathetic jury helped her escape execution.

The Foreigner's Downfall (1857)
Serbian soldier stationed in England gets dumped by his Kentish girlfriend, and kills her in revenge. Her sister's there at the time, so he has to kill her too, and is later hanged for the double murder.

The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If youíd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 balladsí 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 Iíll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   Thereís no money in this for anyone Ė least of all me Ė but I think itís a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and Iíll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen songís 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 Iíll 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, Iíd 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 Iíve 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 ďalbumĒ 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 three of the songs have already made it into the contributing bandís live set. The Jetsonics gave us our first commercial release by including Cruel Lizzie Vickers on August 2013ís EP Four, and I dare say a couple of the other tracks will make that leap in due course.
   Weíve already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please donít feel youíre too late to make your own contribution.
   Iím 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 whoíve already taken part.
   You can reach me with any questions here