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Streams of Crimson Blood (1829)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Burglar breaks into rich old couple's house and kills them both.

The Broadside
This sheet printed by Thomas Birt of Seven Dials, is mostly taken up by a prose account of a Portsmouth murder in March 1829. It's illustrated by a simple cut-out of a hanging man, and Streams of Crimson Blood is my own title for the four untitled ballad verses which Birt squeezes in below his main copy.
The sheet's full title is: Particulars of the trial and execution of John Stacey for the willful murder of Mr Langtrey and his Housekeeper at Portsmouth, who was Executed on Monday Morning before the House where the Murders were committed.
We have transcripts of the victims' inquest, a good account of the trial's highlights and at least one contemporary newspaper account, all of which confirm the facts which both the broadsheet and its ballad relate. Birt's telling adds some lurid language - "The brains had splattered across the room," for example - but it's otherwise reliable enough.

The Ballad
A barbarous foul and horrid deed,
I shortly shall recite,
Which did occur in Portsmouth town,
Upon a Sunday night,
An aged man of 80 years,
his housekeeper likewise,
Were there most basely murdered,
By a monster in disguise.

All in the night so dark and drear,
His entrance he obtained,
And with a deadly hammer he,
Beat out the old man's brains,
His throat he cut from ear to ear,
Most horrible to view,
And streams of crimson blood did flow,
The bedroom through and through.

The aged housekeeper likewise,
Lay butchered on the floor,
Her face and hands most cruelly,
Were cut and stabbed full sore,
Her head was nearly severed,
From off her body quite,
Those who beheld it shivered,
So dreadful was the sight.

When at the bar the killer stood,
Could not deny his guilt,
'Twas clearly proved that he the aged,
Couple's blood had spilt,
The jury found him guilty and,
The Judge to him did say,
'You must prepare to end your life,
Upon a hanging day'.

The Facts
Samuel Langtry was an old man - nearly 80 at the time of his death - who lived in Prospect Road, Portsmouth, with his 60-year-old housekeeper Charity Joliffe. They'd lived together there for several years before the murders, and neighbours understood her to be Langtry's niece. For the past 14 months, Langtry had employed a local woman called Ann Dyatt to come round twice a day to get him dressed or undressed and help him in and out of bed.
Langtry was very frail, and confined to the house's two upstairs rooms. He could move between them only with the aid of a stick, or by getting Joliffe to push him around in a chair with castors on its legs. Birt tells us that he was "deaf, nearly speechless and could hardly hobble about". Joliffe left the house only long enough to visit the local market and pay household bills there on Langtry's behalf.
Langtry owned several properties in Portsmouth, drawing rent on all of them, but never seeming to spend any more than was needed for bare survival. Many of his neighbours assumed from these frugal habits that he must have money stashed away in the house - perhaps quite a lot of money.

'We discovered Samuel Langtry lying dead on the floor, and a great quantity of blood'

On the morning of Saturday, February 28, John Stacey, the local barber's young apprentice, called at Prospect Road to give Langtry his twice-weekly shave. This was a regular visit for the 20-year-old Stacey whose master, Thomas Weeks, doubled as one of the area's constables.
Next morning, March 1, Dyatt arrived at the house as usual at about 9:00am, helped Langtry dress, and left for her Sunday church service at about 9:45. The afternoon service got out at around 4:00pm, at which point the Blue Bell's landlady, Mary Sheaves, would open the gates at the end of the alleyway past Langtry's yard - presumably so worshippers could make their way quickly from the church to the pub. While doing this, she saw Langtry at his upstairs window and exchanged a few words with him.
Meanwhile, Stacey and John Cuddamore, another of Weeks' apprentices, had been into Portsmouth to buy a penny Book of Martyrs. Stacey borrowed the money from Cuddamore, promising to pay him back later. The two men then went to Stacey's father's house, arriving there between 3:00 and 4:00pm. Stacey gave his father the book to read, and then set about sharpening his knife. "It was a razor-bladed knife," Cuddamore later testified. "With a kind of horn handle."
At some time between five and six o'clock, Stacey began preparing to go out. "I asked him if I should go with him, and he said No," Cuddamore later testified. "He said 'What row I get into I may be able to fight my way through without you'. He said he wanted to show the Book of Martyrs to a person, and should get some money for it. When he left the house, he was absent about two hours."
At about 6:00pm, Dyatt returned to Prospect Road and again found the door fastened. "It being rather before my usual time, I did not knock, but went home and returned about seven," she later said. "The door was still fastened. I shook the door and called Charity Joliffe by name, but received no answer." Dyatt returned to the house several times after 7:00pm, but with the same result. "The neighbours looked out and observed to me that it was strange I could get no answer," she recalled.
Cuddamore was still waiting at the Staceys' house when John returned there between 7:00 and 8:00pm. "He ran quickly across the room, called his father and went upstairs," Cuddamore testified. "He said 'Father, I want to speak to you'. His father followed him. He was upstairs about a quarter of an hour. At the end of that time, they both came downstairs and went into the kitchen. I heard water splashing as if someone were washing." Birt calls this "a great sloshing of water, as if a great body of clothes was being tumbled about", and adds that Cuddamore later saw Mrs Stacey washing her son's shirt.
Stacey's father then gave Cuddamore a shilling and told him to go out and buy some bread and cheese. He got back half an hour later to find John standing bare-chested at the fire, watching his shirt dry in front of the flames. As soon as the shirt was dry enough, he ironed it and put it back on. "Part of the shirt had been washed," Cuddamore told the inquest. "The wrists had been washed."
At about 9:30 that evening, Stacey and Cuddamore went out together to get some supper. "He said he had been fighting and that his nose had been bleeding," Cuddamore explained. "He showed some blood to me, on the trousers below the knee, the instep of the stocking and the shoe."
Next morning, Dyatt was still concerned about Langtry and Joliffe, so she returned to Prospect Road at about 7:30am, knocked at the door and called again. Once again, there was no answer. Knowing the door would normally be unfastened at this time, she went to find a builder called James Hendy, who sometimes worked for Langtry. Hendy fetched a lad called William Raggett, and the two men used a ladder to climb into Langtry's yard from the Blue Bell's alleyway. They found the back door and the window next to it open, with no signs of any forced entry.
"We went from the kitchen and from thence into the back lower room," Hendy told the inquest. "I immediately discovered the deceased, Charity Joliffe, lying dead on the floor, and a quantity of blood on the floor. We immediately left the house, and returned into the Blue Bell passage. I sent William to Weeks, a constable." He also alerted William Lipscomb, the pub's landlord.
Hendy, Weeks and Lipscomb climbed over the wall again and went back into the house together. They moved gingerly from one room to the next, finally reaching Langtry's upstairs room. "We discovered the deceased, Samuel Langtry, lying dead on the floor, and a great quantity of blood," Hendy said. "I observed that his throat was cut, and in the room I saw a hammer, such as is used by bricklayers when putting on tiles. It was smeared with blood, and some hair adhering to the point of the hammer. The bed in the room had not been laid on. I saw a box, or chest, in the room with the lid open, some silver spoons lying in or near the box, and a silver cream jug on the bed. We found some deeds, five half-sovereigns and five half-guineas at the bottom of the box."
The three men also found Langtry's watch hanging by the fireplace. His pockets had been turned out to find the key which someone had left in the chest's lock after opening it. Returning downstairs, they checked the house's front door, finding one of the two bolts closed but the door itself unlocked.
Next to arrive on the scene was a doctor called George Martell, who got there between 9:00 and 10:00am. Examining Joliffe's body, he concluded that she had been severely beaten round the head with a blunt instrument and stabbed in the face with a knife before having her throat cut. Her hands were badly cut too, suggesting she had used them to try and shield her face as the killer stabbed away.
"I observed her throat divided from ear to ear," Martell told the inquest. "The trachea and oesophagus (were) completely divided, as well as the whole of the large vessels. The wound was ten inches in length and, in depth, as far as the vertebrae of the neck would allow it. [...] I am of the opinion that the immediate cause of her death was the division of the throat."

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