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Knoxville Girl: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Instead of returning home on the Sunday, as they'd originally planned, Mr and Mrs Holly stayed at her father's for the next few days. There was no sign of Mary, but everyone assumed she was safe with one of the family's relatives across the river. On the Monday, they began asking around, but could find no trace of her. They sent a letter to one of Mary's uncles in Webb City, about 40 miles away, because they knew she sometimes stayed with him. When he replied that he hadn't seen her, the horrible truth began to dawn.
“Their beautiful daughter and sister was gone,” Sturges says. “No-one knew where, and only those who have experienced the feeling can know the agony which clung to them day and night.”
Mary's father and Mr Holly went to Joplin on the Friday of that week to make enquiries. Holly later testified that he'd seen Simmons there, and confronted him with the words: “Will, your girl's gone”.
“Simmons trembled violently a few seconds and replied ‘Is that so?’” Sturges reports. “He asked no questions concerning her and appeared to be desirous of avoiding the conversation. When asked if she came away with him he replied that she did not. They stood in silence for a few moments, when Simmons remarked: ‘You don't suppose the fool girl jumped in the river and drowned herself, do you?’”
Noel and Holly returned to Pineville and, on the morning of Saturday December 17, began a systematic search. The Noels were a prominent family in McDonald County, and hundreds of volunteers joined the effort, most now assuming that Mary had been deliberately killed. Soon, the search gravitated towards the river, where the deepest stretches were dragged and every spot searched. Here's Sturges again:

“Finally, about 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon, in a narrow, swift place in the river at the lower end of a large, deep hole of water, the body was found where some of the clothing had caught in a willow that projected into the water. It was but little more than quarter of a mile below her father's house and within a few feet of the road along which her parents had passed that fatal Saturday afternoon.
“On examination afterwards, conclusive evidence of a violent death were found. A bruise on one temple, one spot on one cheek and three or four on the other, as though a hand had been placed over her mouth to stifle her screams, finger prints on the throat, were all plainly visible. Beside a bruise the size of the palm of one's hand on the back of her head and her neck broken. The lungs were perfectly dry and all evidences of drowning were absent.”

It's as if Simmons arrived with a copy of The Berkshire Tragedy on him and set out to re-enact it

The searchers also found recent tracks made by a man and a woman between the Hollys' house, where Simmons and Mary had last been seen together, to the river's edge, near the deep area where the body was found. Their conclusion was that the couple must have walked down there together, where Mary planned to use the nearby ford.
Simmons was arrested in Joplin, just as he was getting ready to leave town, but it was feared he'd be lynched if sent back to Pineville, so he went to the jail in Neosho instead. He was tried for first degree murder in May 1893, but the hotly-contested case produced a split jury, and a re-trial had to be arranged. That came in November, when the prosecutor indicated that he'd accept second degree murder, on the grounds that the killing could have been done without the deliberate forethought and intent needed for a first-degree charge. The new jury accepted this, returned a guilty verdict, and Simmons was sentenced to ten years.
In 1927, the folklorist Vance Randolph collected a Knoxville Girl variant from a Mrs Lee Stevens in Missouri. She called this song The Noel Girl, and it begins:

“Twas in the city of Pineville,
I owned a floury mill,
‘Twas in the city of Pineville,
I used to live and dwell.” (9)

The rest of the song canters through the familiar tale, mentioning every important milestone along the way. There's the false promise of marriage, the private walk, the sudden attack, the plea for mercy, the river, the candle, the nosebleed - everything. The Pineville reference and the song's title aside, it's a straightforward reading of Knoxville Girl as everyone came to know it from Arthur Tanner's 1925 recording, with exactly the same details of The Bloody Miller and The Berkshire Tragedy left intact.
It's obviously nonsense to suggest, as some people do, that Mary Noel's death is the prime source for Knoxville Girl. Even so, you can see why her case got drawn in to the song's mythology. The real facts of this killing form an almost uncanny echo of the one described half a world away and 200 years earlier.
Just as in The Berkshire Tragedy, Simmons really did take his unsuspecting victim “from her sister's door”, beat her viciously round the head “and dragged her to the river side then threw her body in”. Holly, encountering the killer in Joplin, may well have asked himself “what makes you shake and tremble so,” just as The Berkshire Tragedy's servant asked of his master. And Mary's body really was found “floating before her father's door”. Sturges tells us Mary was “young (and) extremely handsome”, with “lady like manners”, while The Bloody Miller calls its own victim “a fair and comely maid, thought modest, grave and wise”.
It's almost as though William Simmons arrived at Mann Farm with a copy of The Berkshire Tragedy stuffed into his pocket and set out to re-enact it as closely as he could. There's no suggestion in the 1897 account that he killed Mary because he'd made her pregnant, but it's possible that Judge Sturges avoided this issue for the sake of delicacy. He was writing at a time when Mary's father was still alive, and may have wished to avoid embarrassing one of the county's leading families. Certainly he offers no alternative motive for Simmons' deed.
I've got no proof for this, but I like to think the Mary Noel story's most enduring legacy is to give Knoxville Girl's killer his modern name. Arthur Tanner's 1925 record has the line “Willie dear, don't kill me here / I'm not prepared to die”, and that's the name that's stuck ever since. Tanner's is the earliest version I've been able to find using this name, and I'm content to believe it was the William Simmons case which inspired it. All it would take to scupper this theory is a single pre-1892 version using the name “Willie”, but so far I haven't found one.

Staking my claim: continued

I was delighted. Here was documentary proof that there really had been a Shropshire murderer called Francis Cooper at the time Philip Henry made his February 1683 diary entry. Not only that, but we also had a murder victim called Anne Nicholas - a very close match to the Anne Nichols mentioned in Pepys' Ballads - and evidence that they'd had a child together.
     Whoever named that child Ichabod knew what they were doing too. The name means “no glory”, and comes from the First Book Of Samuel, where the wife of Phinehas delivers a son just after hearing its father has been killed in battle and her people defeated. She calls the child Ichabod to reflect the grim circumstances of its birth, and then promptly dies herself.
     I still couldn't explain how the Westbury Ichabod had come to be born when the ballad insisted his mother had died in pregnancy, nor the parish register's implication that Francis and Anne were married after all. But the rest of the facts fitted quite well enough to establish that they were definitely the same people described in The Bloody Miller's introduction, and that was no small beer.
     What's more, I seemed to be the first person who'd ever dug this information out of the archive. I gave myself a little pat on the back, slipped the copies into a file and thought what a cracking revelation they would make for Radio 4's Knoxville Girl episode.
      Meanwhile, Rev. Toop, still trying to help with my original query, had contacted a local historian called Peter Francis, who later posted on The Mudcat Café folk music forum.

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