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The Unnatural Murder: continued

Murder Ballads
Secret London

First thing next morning, the sister arrives. She asks after the sailor who stayed there last night, but the father says he doesn't know what she's talking about. The sister blurts out that this sailor is actually the old man's son, and that she knows this is true because he showed her the childhood scar on his arm which they both remember. The old man rushes upstairs, tears the clothes off the bed, uncovers his son's scar, and realises it must all be true. He grabs the knife again and kills himself with it.
His wife, following her husband up to the bedroom arrives to find him sprawled across his son's corpse. Now it's her turn to grab the knife, and she kills herself too.

The wife is very much a Lady Macbeth figure, dripping poison in her husband's ear

With so many unlikely co-incidences, the fairy tale structure and even a wicked step-mother thrown in, it's tempting to conclude this tale is pure fiction. But the 1618 author insists that's not the case. "It was the Bloodiest and most Inhumane murther the Country was ever guilty of," he writes. "At the entreaty of divers Gentlemen in the Country, it is as neere the life as Pen and Incke could draw it out, thus put in Print." Saunderson too presents it as a true story, and Cornish historians in 1824 pin-pointed the house's site at half a mile north of St Gluvias church near Penryn.
The playwright George Lillo, best known for 1731's The London Merchant, took up the Penryn tale in 1736. His version, known as The Fatal Curiosity, played at London's Haymarket Theatre in 1739, and makes several changes to the story. In these you can see the hand of a professional playwright tidying-up the plot, ironing out any improbabilities, and remembering that it never hurts to include a love story.
Lillo calls his characters Old Wilmot, Young Wilmot, Agnes and Charlot, but makes Charlot the young man's long-lost love rather than his sister. He cuts out the remarriage altogether, making Agnes the boy's natural mother.
The play starts with Old Wilmot and Agnes hearing a ship from India's been wrecked off the coast near Penryn, and Young Wilmot turning up as one of its only two survivors. The fact that his parents must fail to recognise him is helped along by having him heavily-tanned from his journey, and dressed entirely in Indian garb. "Methinks you look more like a sun-burnt Indian than a Briton," his friend Eustace remarks.
The plot then proceeds exactly as above, but this time Charlot turns up in time to hear Young Wilmot's dying groans. Old Wilmot stabs Agnes in what she now sees as a welcome death. He then kills himself, but Charlot's allowed to live.
Lillo's play seems still to have been remembered by the time our broadside was produced, because Smeeton incorporates its title into his own. The broadside's full heading reads: "The Father's Crime; or Fatal Curiosity. An affecting and true history of The Unnatural Murder of James Andrew Macauley, a Young Sailor, For his Wealth, and who proved, on the Morning after the Fatal Deed, to be the murderer's long-lost and only son!"
There's a prose account of the killing above the verses, and this takes its wording largely from Saunderson's version. The casting is inconsistent, though, using the boy's real mother (Lillo) but also his sister (Saunderson). Even so, it's striking how many phrases survive every step of the translation process to move untouched from the 1618 pamphlet to the Victorian broadside.
The 1618 account for example, describes the step-mother's suicide by saying she "ript up her owne bosome". Saunderson says she "readilly rips herself up" and the broadside that she "immediately rips herself open". Saunderson's description of the wife as being "wild and aghast" crops up intact in the broadside too, as does his reference to this "deluge of destruction". These phrases are too colourful to have been reproduced by chance, so it's pretty clear the broadside's author was working directly from Saunderson's account. As in Saunderson, the girl drops dead at the sheer horror of it all, giving listeners an extra little twist of the knife to wrap things up.
I don't know of any productions of Lillo's play since its 1739 premiere, but the story's certainly made it to the boards in other forms. Albert Camus used a very similar plot in his 1944 play La Melentendu (The Misunderstanding), and there have been a couple of new plays about the Penryn killing played on its native ground.
Bohelland is the old name for St Gluvias parish, and 1991 saw Donald Rawe's play, Murder at Bohelland, produced in the walled garden at Nansloe Manor Hotel in nearby Helston. Reviewing the play, Cornish Scene called it "a rollicking production" with "14 scenes, 13 Cornish songs and dances, and a cast of seemingly thousands." The Cornish Theatre Collective staged its own version of the tale - Justin Chubb's Bohelland - at Porthcurno in 2003, producing what The Cornishman called "a compelling illustrated chapter of Cornish history". Clearly, there's life in this old tale yet.

You can't read the Penryn killings story without thinking of Shakespeare's Scottish play. The wife/mother/step-mother is very much a Lady Macbeth figure, dripping poison in her husband's ear, bullying him into a murder he doesn't want to commit and mocking his manhood at every hesitation.
The resemblance is there in every version of the story, but particularly pronounced in Lillo's The Fatal Curiosity. Where Lady Macbeth tells her husband to "screw your courage to the sticking place", Agnes says "shake off this panick and be more yourself". Where Macbeth exits the bloody bedroom crying "Macbeth shall sleep no more," Old Wilmot stumbles out crying "Sleep those who may: I know my lot is endless perturbation".
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth around 1606, so if some element of fiction has crept into the 1681 pamphlet that got this whole saga rolling, then perhaps he was its inspiration. No wonder the critic Pol Hodge described that 2003 production of Bohelland as "very Macbethian".

To hear the UK folk duo Foxen performing The Unnatural Murder, visit the Tindeck hosting page here.

To hear the Scottish blues band meh229 playing The Unnatural Murder, visit the Soundcloud page here.

* Newes From Perin in Cornwall etc (printed in London, 1618)
* Saunderson's Annals of James I (
* The Fatal Curiosity, by George Lillo (Collected Works Vo II (T Davies, 1775))
* The Unnatural Murder (Smeeton, date unknown)
* Murder at Bohelland, by Frank Ruhrmund (Cornish Scene, winter 1991)
* The Cornish Theatre Collective (

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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

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