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The Unnatural Murder (1618)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

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. When the mistake comes to light, both parents commit suicide and the boy's sister dies of grief.

The Broadside
Smeeton's broadside on this case is undated, but the crime it describes can be traced back to 1618. The prose account accompanying the ballad takes much of its wording from Saunderson's Annals of James I, but adds the new information that the victim's name was James Andrew Macauley.

The Ballad
All you who have children dear,
Now hear this tale of woe,
The history of this tragedy,
I now to you will show.

A happy couple at Penryn,
Had a son who went to sea,
And after fifteen years returned,
His parents for to see.

He to their cot disguised did go,
Asked shelter from the cold,
And ere he laid him down to sleep,
Showed all his wealth and gold.

The mother to the father went,
In anxious breathless haste,
And told of treasure she had seen,
Around the stranger's waist.

The father then, by Satan led,
Did take the killer's part,
He stole the cursed gold away,
And stabbed his own boy's heart.

And scarce before the parents yet,
Had seen the morrow's light,
Their daughter came with joy to ask,
Of the sailor there last night.

She said 'It is my brother James,
Who long at sea has roved,
He's come back home to share his wealth,
With those he dearly loved'.

Oh when they found the murdered youth,
Was their own darling boy,
Most frightful horrors seized their minds,
And bitterly they cried.

The guilty pair then slew themselves,
Their sin they could not hide,
And the broken-hearted daughter,
Sank to the ground and died.

The Facts
Smeeton's opening words on this Victorian sheet are "Some time since, there lived a man named Macauley." Technically, that's true enough, but it rather conceals the fact that "some time since" in this case means 200 years ago.
The 1618 pamphlet which gives us our first account of this young man's death is headed "Newes From Perin in Cornwall: of A most Bloody and un-exampled Murther very lately committed by a Father on his owne Sonne (who was lately returned from the Indyes) at the Instigation of a mercilesse Step-mother. Together with their severall most wretched endes, being all performed in the Month of September last, Anno 1618."

The step-mother hurries back to her husband and suggests they kill the stranger

It does not give the family involved a name, calling its characters only "the olde man", "his wife", "the daughter" and so on. Saunderson's history doesn't name them either, saying that, although the family's name is well-known locally, the author has omitted it "in favour to some neighbour of repute and kin to that family". It's unlikely that the balladeer had access to any information outside these two sources, so we must assume that James Andrew Macauley was his own invention.
The pamphlet describes a comfortably-off Penryn family whose youngest son goes off to sea and returns, after many adventures there, 15 years later. He's a rich man now, with a pouch of jewels strapped round his waist, and when he gets back to Penryn his first port of call is his sister's house. He discovers she's now married to a humble mercer, and that his parents have fallen on hard times. Not only that, but his absence for so long without news had led his parents to assume he must be dead, his mother had died from the grief this caused her, and his father married again.
The young man tells his sister he's going to his father and step-mother's house now, but that he's not going to tell them who he is until his sister gets there with her husband next morning. He'll then reveal his true identity, clear all the family's debts and everything will be fine.
Off he goes to the father's house - now a scruffy, broken-down shack - and finds Dad is compassionate enough to offer this travelling stranger a bed for the night. He entertains the old couple with tales of his adventures at sea - pirates, shipwrecks, all that - and then prepares for bed. The step-mother shows him through to a bedroom, where he gives her a piece of gold from the pouch round his waist as thanks for their kindness, and this allows her to see the rest of his fortune.
As soon as the young man is asleep, the step-mother hurries back to her husband, and suggests they kill the stranger while he sleeps and then steal his gold. He's reluctant at first, but she eventually talks him round, and he kills the young man with his own dagger. They cover the body with clothes and blankets until they can find a way to dispose of it.

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