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Knoxville Girl: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

We know this notion was still current when The Bloody Miller was written, because 1684 also produced The Island Queens, a play by the restoration dramatist John Banks with this exchange:

“DOWGLAS: ‘No sooner was I laid to rest, but just three drops of blood fell from my nose, and stain'd my pillow.’
QUEEN MARY: ‘That rather does betoken some mischief to thyself.’
DOWGLAS: ‘Perhaps to cowards, who prize their own base lives. But to the brave, ‘tis always fatal to the friend they love.’”

Anyone who beats a woman to death while she's carrying his child would certainly count as a coward rather than a brave man, so perhaps that's the idea The Bloody Miller's original composer was trying to convey. Then again, maybe Francis Cooper really did suffer a nosebleed in the dock, and this was included in the ballad merely as a nice little authenticating detail for those who'd heard accounts of his trial elsewhere. Either way, the nosebleed is now cemented deep into Knoxville Girl's foundations, and it's still the surest sign of every variation's parentage.

Once The Berkshire Tragedy had got the process underway, The Bloody Miller quickly spawned a dozen competing versions of its basic story. These had titles like The Cruel Miller, Hanged I Shall Be, The Wittham Miller or Ekefield Town, and all reported the killer's nosebleed when he returned home. All these songs circulated in parallel with one another, and continued to sell well. The Berkshire Tragedy itself was still being hawked around London as late as 1825, when a printed copy was fraudulently retitled to claim the crime had happened just a few months before.
Recycling like this was part and parcel of the ballad seller's trade. “The ballad printers of America and Britain ransacked the old ballad sheets for anything that was usable,” Laws says. “Frequently, an archaic ballad could be given local application, or could be redesigned to fit a predetermined amount of space.”
It's anybody's guess which version of the song reached America first, but the strand I'm going to follow is the one which started with The Berkshire Tragedy's description of its victim as “an Oxford lass”. We don't know exactly when a version called The Oxford Tragedy first appeared. But, given The Berkshire Tragedy's unambiguous setting in Oxfordshire and the fact that the two counties are right next door to each other, the transposition must have suggested itself almost immediately.
Laws suggests that The Oxford Girl appeared full-blown in the US, perhaps as a variation of Ireland's similarly-named Wexford Girl, which again derives from The Bloody Miller. To me, it makes much more sense to imagine an English version of the song called The Oxford Tragedy morphing into The Wexford Murder for Irish consumption, and then both songs crossing the Atlantic to establish a foothold there. Singers in the New World would presumably have been imagining Oxford, Mississippi, rather than Inspector Morse's dreaming spires, but the song was none the worse for that.

Americans needed a home-grown murder they could tie into the song. In 1892 they found it

The first proven American original we have is The Lexington Miller, printed as an early 19th Century broadsheet in Boston, and currently held by the Harvard College Library. This describes a miller in Lexington, Kentucky, who promises to marry a local girl if she'll sleep with him. We all know what happens next, and events here unfold just as they did in The Berkshire Tragedy a century before.
Unlike later American versions, The Lexington Miller retains many of The Berkshire Tragedy's less important details, such as the Devil tempting our narrator to commit murder, the victim's sister accusing him and the killer's final execution. Once again, though, it's got exactly the same metre we know today from Knoxville Girl, as a couple of sample verses will demonstrate:

“Now she upon her knees did fall,
Most heartily did cry,
Saying ‘Kind Sir, don't murder me,
I am not fit to die’.

“I would not harken to her cries,
But laid it on the more,
Till I had ta'en her life away,
Which I could not restore.”

My own theory is that the various places where the song touches down - Oxford, Wexford, Lexington, Knoxville - are determined more by that “X” sound in their names than by any more subtle consideration. Once The Berkshire Tragedy's Oxford lass found her way into the title and lyrics, any place name lacking that distinctive consonant simply sounded wrong, and it's a tradition the song's offspring have obeyed ever since.
Whatever the reason for its precise location, by the early 1800s America's singers had a bloody miller of their own. All they needed now was a home-grown murder they could tie into the song and, by the end of the century, they'd found one.

Mary Lula Noel lived with her parents in Pineville, Missouri, about eight miles from the town which bore her family's name. On Wednesday, December 7, 1892, she was staying with her sister, Mrs Sydney Holly, at the Holly family's nearby home, when a Joplin man named William Simmons arrived to visit her. Simmons was still there on Saturday, December 10, when Mr and Mrs Holly left for a trip to the town of Noel itself. That meant spending the night away, and the Hollys suggested that Simmons might like to accompany them part of the way and then return to Joplin alone. Perhaps they feared what the two young people would get up to if left alone in the house overnight.
Simmons said he'd rather walk as far as Lanagan and then take a train home from there. Mary said she'd stay with him at the Hollys' Mann Farm home until he left, and then cross the Elk River back to her father's house if the water was not too high. If the crossing was impossible, she'd stay on that side of the river with one of the many relatives the Noels had scattered about there.
Judge JA Sturges, who tells this story in his 1897 History of McDonald County, tells us the river's ford was then too flooded for vehicles, but could be negotiated on horseback. “About 8:00 o'clock in the morning Holly and his wife started away, leaving Simmons and Miss Noel together at their house,” he adds. “This was the last ever seen of her alive.” (8)

Staking my claim to 1683's parish register nugget

I first researched Knoxville Girl back in early 2005, when I was hoping to sell BBC Radio 4 the idea of a series about murder ballads.
     In June of that year, it occurred to me that I should check the burial records for Hogstow in Shropshire to see if there was any trace of a Francis Cooper or an Anne Nichols being interred there in 1684.
     I worked out that the closest surviving church was the Holy Trinity in Minsterley, told Alan Toop, the vicar there, about The Bloody Miller, and asked him if he had any churchyard records going back that far.
     Reverend Toop said any records from that era would be stored at the Shropshire Archive, so I e-mailed them with all the details I had and sat back to await results. On June 30, 2005, I got a reply from the Archives' Jean Evans saying:
     “I have searched the transcript of the Westbury Register for 1683 and found an entry for the burial of Anne Nicholas, murdered (truculenter occisa – ie a violent death), and then later a baptism of a child, Ichabod, son of Francis Cooper, homicide, and Anne.
     “There is no entry for a burial of Francis Cooper, and the child baptised would be the child of Francis and Anne Cooper.”
     Jean sent me the documents she'd consulted a few days later, enclosing a photocopy of both the Westbury Parish Register's hand-written original and a printed transcript. These showed that Anne had been buried on March 1, 1683, and Ichabod baptised on March 24.
     The lack of a burial record for Francis Cooper was disappointing, but I'd half-assumed the church would have refused to bury an executed murderer on holy ground anyway.

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