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Timber wolf: Pretty Polly

By Paul Slade
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“For the best part of three hundred years the common folk have been unable to shake this melodrama out of their imagination.”
                                  - AL Lloyd on the song’s English origins.

“America’s favourite crime story, the same tale that Dreiser used in An American Tragedy.”
                                  - Alan Lomax, Bad Man Ballads.

“The first time you hear Pretty Polly, you giggle nervously. The dark forest flowing with blood, the beautiful girl, the open grave – it makes you dizzy with a strange mixture of horror and delight.”
                                  - Rennie Sparks, The Handsome Family.





At first glance, Pretty Polly is just one more “murdered girlfriend” song. Like Knoxville Girl, it has its roots in a very old English ballad telling of a young man who knocks up his girlfriend and then stabs her to death rather than marry her. And like Knoxville Girl, the source ballad emigrated to America with European settlers where it was drastically cut from its original epic length to form a lean, mysterious and brutal folk song.

It’s clear Willie was determined to kill Polly long before he suggested their walk in the woods

So far, it’s all familiar stuff. But there are two elements which set Pretty Polly apart from any other murder ballad I know, and they combine to make its protagonist one of the most chilling the genre has yet produced. “He, unlike so many murder ballad beaus, does not murder ‘the girl he loved so well’,” says The Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks. “His love for Polly was always rotten with the desire to kill.” (1)
To see why that is, let’s start with the moment Polly first glimpses the lonely spot Willie – the young man in question - has chosen for her murder. As he leads her deeper and deeper into the woods, Polly begins to fear this is not the innocent stroll he promised. Estil Ball, in his 1959 recording, describes what follows like this:

They went up a little further, and what did they spy?
They went up a little further, and what did they spy?
A new-dug grave with a spade standing by.


Polly tells Willie she’s afraid, and he confirms her worst fears. BF Shelton’s 1927 version gives him these words:

“Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is just right,
Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is just right,
I dug on your grave six long hours of last night.”

It’s clear now that Willie was determined to kill Polly long before he even suggested that walk in the woods, and that he’s calmly prepared the ground for her slaughter. “This is no crime of passion,” Sparks points out. “He stayed up all night to dig her grave ahead of time. You can see him there, measuring the hole, straightening the sides, laying the spade just so. He may be a serial killer. He may be completely insane.”
There’s more evidence for this is in The Stanley Brothers’ 1950 recording, which gives Willie a second, equally psychotic, little speech. Realising that he plans to kill her, Polly falls to her knees, swearing to leave town and raise the child alone. If he’ll only spare her life, she says, he need never set eyes either of them again. But Willie is unmoved:

“Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, that never can be,
Polly, Pretty Polly that never can be,
Your past reputation’s been trouble to me.”

In most other versions of the song, Willie stabs Polly just seconds after they reach her grave, but the Stanley boys give him this sadistic little pause first. “He lingers there with his knife, enjoying her terror,” Sparks says. “He says he’s heard stories. He has suspicions. He’s sure that, hiding somewhere under Polly’s pure white veils, there is a dirty slut who deserves to die.”
Only a handful of the song’s later interpreters have had the stomach to include this particular verse, but Angela Correa was one of them. In her 2004 recording, she manages to make it a notch darker yet by having Willie address Polly as “Honey” when he delivers its final line. The way she sings it makes Willie sound genuinely fond of Polly, but no less resolved to kill her anyway.
I’ve picked out the most striking examples of the particular verses above, but the ideas they contain are present in just about every version of Pretty Polly. All but the Stanley Brothers’ coda can be traced directly back to the 18th century ballad which inspired the song, and so can another characteristic which marks Willie as a very modern killer. It’s what the music writer Hank Sapoznik calls Pretty Polly’s “bleak, shifting perspective”. (2)
Unlike any other murder ballad I can think of, Pretty Polly is constantly switching its narrative point of view, forcing the singer to speak as a neutral witness in one verse, as the killer in another, and as Polly herself in a third. To get the most out of the song, performers must constantly be hopping from one persona to the next, and I think the same may be true of the man it depicts.
Real murderers often speak of stepping outside themselves at the moment they killed. Stuart Harling, for example, who stabbed a Hornchurch nurse to death in 2006, said that he’d felt “as if he were watching himself stab someone in a film or a computer game”. Dakotah Eliason, who shot his grandfather dead in Michigan four years later, told detectives he’d “felt at if he were watching a movie about himself ” when he pulled the trigger. (3, 4)
The thriller writer Boris Starling describes Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in similar terms. “It’s all about how the murderer disassociates himself from the act of murder,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s written in the third person, of him watching himself perform the murder. That’s what happens.” (5)
And it happens in Pretty Polly too. In Dock Boggs’ 1927 recording for example, the killer describes his early acquaintance with Polly in frank, first-person terms: “I used to be a rambler, I stayed around in town”. But the moment he consigns her body to a shallow grave is left for the witness to tell: “He threw the dirt over her and turned away to go”. The same switch of viewpoints appears in many other versions of the song, including Bert Jansch’s 1963 recording. “I courted Pretty Polly the live-long night,” Jansch sings in his first verse. A few lines later, when the actual killing has to be described, this becomes: “He stabbed her to the heart”.
One reading of this is to assume the killer and the witness are the same man, but that Willie feels he’s watching the murder itself from a vantage point outside his own body - just as Harling and Eliason report doing. Most recordings give Polly just a single verse of narration, leaving Willie to hop between his two different perspectives for the rest of the tale. Always, it is the goriest passages where he chooses to step back and describe events from the outside.
If that seems too fanciful, then consider this discussion of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer on Adam Pearson’s Words From The Wind blog. “Both men have expressed in their interviews that they felt themselves torn between a sense of vivid first-person agency and a sense of disconnected third-person spectatorship,” Pearson writes. “It seemed at times as if they became mere spectators to their own actions, watching themselves, as if from outside, carrying out the brutal murders of innocent individuals.” (6)

All this suggests that the decades of folk wisdom that went into distilling Pretty Polly managed to intuit some truths about violence it would take scientists another 100 years to codify. For Rennie Sparks, it’s still Willie’s dark suspicions about women which link him so closely to the monsters of our own day.
“Who is this snickering psycho?” she asks. “He’s the man in the black raincoat who tried to lure me into his car with a lollipop when I was six years old. He’s Ted Bundy with a fake cast on his arm, asking women to help him load a pile of books into the back of a van. He’s Ed Gein, who slaughtered and skinned the women who wounded his heart then danced round his yard wearing their bloody faces for a mask. How pretty he must have felt, blood-soaked and screaming in the moonlight.”
No doubt he did – and perhaps that’s why some versions of Pretty Polly draw our attention as much to the killer’s good looks as to Polly’s own. Before Willie was any of the people Sparks mentions though, he was a humble ship’s carpenter in the English town of Gosport. And that’s where we’ll meet him next.


Every singer gives their own little twist to Pretty Polly’s lyrics, choosing whichever verses they prefer from the 30-odd available and tweaking the words of its key lines to suit their particular interpretation.
I have 37 recordings of the song in my own collection, ranging from the epic 13 verses used by BF Shelton in 1927 to the bare-bones three verses Sarah Elizabeth selected 80 years later. There are a handful of key incidents and images which almost everyone includes, however, and an archetypal version might look like this:

“Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Before we get married, some pleasure to see.”

He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
Polly mistrusted, and she began to weep.

“Oh Willie, dear Willie, I’m feared of your ways,
Willie, dear Willie, I’m feared of your ways,
I’m feared that you’ll lead my poor body astray.”

She went a little further and what did she spy?
She went a little further and what did she spy?
A newly-dug grave with a spade lying by.

“Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, you’ve guessed about right,
Polly, Pretty Polly, you’ve guessed about right,
I dug on your grave the best part of last night.”

He stabbed her in the breast and her heart’s blood did flow,
He stabbed her in the breast and her heart’s blood did flow,
And into the grave Pretty Polly did go.

He threw a little dirt over her and turned to go home,
He threw a little dirt over her and turned to go home,
Leaving no-one behind but the wild birds to mourn.

William persists, eventually talking Molly into a night of what the ballad calls ‘lewd desire’

This bleak little tale has its roots in the English town of Gosport in Hampshire. Gosport lies on the south coast of England, just three miles west of Portsmouth, a city that’s been the home of Britain’s Royal Navy since 1527. Gosport has always existed mostly to serve the Navy’s needs, supplying that market with meat, bread, timber, rope, beer, iron tools and labour. “Gosport can claim little that is attractive,” one 18th century visitor wrote. “The town has the narrowness and slander of a small country town without its rural simplicity and with a full share of the vice of Portsmouth, polluted by the fortunes of sailors and the extravagances of harlots. To these evils are added the petty pride and sectarian bigotry of a fortified town.” (7)
Sailors’ tales were a fertile source of material for the printed ballad sheets sold throughout Britain in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Pretty Polly grew from one of the hardiest examples. Its full title is The Gosport Tragedy or The Perjured Ship-Carpenter.
The oldest copy we have of this song is part of the British Library’s Roxburghe Collection, a series of scrapbooks pulling together about 1,500 ballad sheets printed between 1567 and 1790. I’m going to call this copy the Roxburghe Gosport to distinguish it from the many later sheets that followed, and the British Library believes it was printed in the first half of the 18th Century.
The sheet is about A3 size in our terms, printed at a shop in London’s Bow Churchyard, and illustrated with a generic woodcut of six people in a row-boat. It takes 34 verses to tell its story – 136 lines in all – separating each stanza from the next with a simple paragraph indent to cram everything in. What happens is this:
A young ship’s carpenter called William meets a bright, beautiful Gosport girl named Molly and asks her to marry him. She’s reluctant at first, saying she’s too young to wed, that she fears William will soon tire of her, and that his job means he’d spend half his time at sea anyway. Bubbling beneath all this is Molly’s clear suspicion that William’s proposed only because he wants to get into her pants and that, once he’s achieved this objective, all his promises of marriage will be forgotten. “Young men are so fickle, I see very plain,” she reminds him. “If a maid is not coy, they will her disdain.”
William persists for the next four verses, and eventually talks Molly into a night of what the ballad calls “lewd desire”. She discovers she’s pregnant in the very next line, and reminds William of his promise to marry her. By this time, the king is preparing Portsmouth’s fleet to depart on a war mission, but William assures Molly he’ll make good on his vow before the Bedford, his own ship, sets sail.

So, with kind embraces, he parted that night,
She went to meet him in the morning light,
He said: “Dear charmer, thou must go with me,
Before we are wedded, a friend to see.”

He led her through valleys and groves so deep,
At length, this maiden began for to weep,
Saying: “William, I fancy thou leads’t me astray,
On purpose my innocent life to betray.”

He said: “That is true, and none can you save,
For I all this night have been digging a grave”,
Poor innocent soul, when she heard him say so,
Her eyes like a fountain began for to flow.

“Oh perjur’d creature, the worst of all men,
Heavens reward thee when I’m dead and gone,
Oh pity the infant and spare my life,
Let me go distress’d if I’m not thy wife.”

Her hands white as lilies, in sorrow she wrung,
Beseeching for mercy, saying: “What have I done,
To you, my dear William? What makes you severe?
For to murder one that loves you so dear?”

He said: “There’s no time disputing to stand”,
And, instantly taking the knife in his hand,
He pierced her body till the blood it did flow,
Then into the grave her body did throw.

He covered her body, then home he did run,
Leaving none but birds her death to mourn,
On board the Bedford, he enter’d straightway,
Which lay at Portsmouth out-bound for the sea.

There’s another 56 lines of the Roxburghe Gosport to go at this point, but we’ll come back to them in a moment. What’s clear from the seven verses above is that just about every key element of Pretty Polly was already there in The Gosport Tragedy almost 300 years ago.
The Roxburghe Gosport alone gives us the walk to a secluded spot, the passage through hills and valleys, the girl’s growing suspicions leading to tears, the grave her killer has already prepared, the knife as his chosen weapon, her blood spilt on the ground and his casual disposal of the body. The English ballad has the same mix of narrators who later appear in Pretty Polly too. Willie’s given the slightly more formal name of William, and his victim is Molly rather than Polly, but these are the tiniest of changes.
All that’s missing is the striking moment when Polly first sights her “newly-dug grave with a spade lying by”. That enduring image appears nowhere in the Roxburghe Gosport itself, but researchers have traced it back to other English ballad sheets printing the same song just a few years later. Some date the grave-and-spade stanza to between 1750 and 1800, but the earliest example I’ve been able to find comes from an eight-page chapbook printed by the Paisley bookseller George Caldwell in 1808. He makes The Gosport Tragedy his lead song in the book’s selection and includes this couplet:

A grave and spade standing by she did see,
And said: “Must this be a bride-bed for me?”

Every key element of Pretty Polly was present in The Gosport Tragedy 300 years ago

Many early sheets suggest The Gosport Tragedy’s lyrics be sung to an old English tune called Peggy’s Gone Over Sea, but the fact that its lyrics follow a ballad’s structural rules means many other tunes fit just as well. Pretty Polly follows ballad rules too, of course, so all we need do to make the original British words fit the American tune we know today is add a few repetitions and tidy up the scansion a little. The first couple of verses, for example, could easily be rendered like this:

He said: “My dear charmer, thou must go with me,
He said: “My dear charmer, thou must go with me,
Before we are wedded, a friend for to see.”

He led her through valleys and groves so deep,
He led her through valleys and groves so deep,
At length, this poor maiden began for to weep,

I doubt if any single version of Pretty Polly includes every one of the ideas in the first Gosport Tragedy extract I gave here, but all survive somewhere in the American song’s tangled branches.
“Heavens reward thee when I’m dead and gone” – here used to mean “punish” rather than “reward” in the modern sense – is echoed on Pretty Polly discs stretching all the way from BF Shelton in 1927 to The Coal Porters in 2010. Peggy Seeger’s 1964 version has Willie declare that “killing Pretty Polly will send my soul to hell”, and Queenadreena’s 2000 recording makes the same point when it reminds us there’s “a debt to the devil Willie must pay”.
Molly’s appeal to William that he should “let me go distress’d if I’m not thy wife” has its equivalent in Pretty Polly too. The Stanley Brothers’ were the first artists to have Polly beg “let me be a single girl if I can’t be your wife”, but that plea’s been echoed by Judy Collins in 1968, Patty Loveless in 1997 and many others besides.
Molly’s “lily-white hands” have never quite gone away either, attaching themselves to Polly’s arms in versions by Dock Boggs (1927), The Iron Mountain String Band (1975) and Angela Correa (2004). Molly’s astonishment that William could “murder one that loves you so dear” is given to Polly on discs by John Hammond in 1927, Pete Seeger in 1957 and Sweeney’s Men in 1969.
The killer’s determination to hurry things along – “There’s no time disputing to stand” – is dotted through Pretty Polly’s whole recording history too. It’s book-ended in my own collection by Hammond’s “There’s no time for talking, there’s no time to stand” in 1927 and Beate Sampson’s almost identical wording 82 years later. As in The Gosport Tragedy’s original couplet, this line is almost invariably followed by one which both mentions the knife and uses “hand” as a convenient closing rhyme. Uncle Sinner’s verse from his 2008 recording is just one of many examples:

There’s no time for talkin’, there’s no time to stand,
There’s no time for talkin’, there’s no time to stand,
I drew up a hunting knife in my right hand.

Looking at all the evidence above, only one conclusion is possible: Pretty Polly comes from The Gosport Tragedy. All we have to do now is figure out where The Gosport Tragedy came from and the answer to that question lies in a Florida folklore journal published 30 years ago. (8)

As soon as Molly’s dead and buried, the Roxburghe Gosport turns its attention to William’s life on board the Bedford. He’s lying in his bunk one night, when he hears Molly’s ghost calling him:

“Oh, perjur’d villain, awake now and hear,
The voice of your love, that lov’d you so dear,
This ship out of Portsmouth never shall go,
Till I am revenged for this overthrow.”

She afterwards vanished, with shrieks and cries,
Flashes of lightning did dart from her eyes,
Which put the ship’s crew into great fear,
None saw the ghost, but the voice they did hear.

Molly’s spirit seems to hope that William will confess to the murder and turn himself in. When he refuses to do so, the ghost decides to appear directly to the crew as well:

Charles Stuart, a man of courage so bold,
One night was going into the Hold,
A beautiful creature to him did appear,
And she in her arms had a daughter most fair.

The charms of this so glorious a face,
Being merry in drink, he goes to embrace,
But to his surprise, it vanished away,
So he went to the captain without more delay.

And told him the story which, when he did hear,
The captain said “Some of my men, I do fear,
Have done some murder, and if it be so,
Our ship in great danger to the sea must go.”

This refers to the belief, common among seamen at the time, that sailing with a murderer on board your ship put the whole vessel in great danger. We have evidence of this from several other 18th Century ballads, including William Glen, which is set aboard a ship beset by inexplicable storms. Discovering their captain committed murder before leaving port, the crew throws him overboard, at which point the storms instantly subside and they sail safely on. “All young sailors, I pray beware,” the ballad concludes. “And never set sail with a murderer”.
The Gosport Tragedy’s own supernatural scenes may have been inspired by an 18th century ballad called The Dreadful Ghost. This tells the story of girl who hangs herself after being impregnated and abandoned by her boyfriend. He flees to sea in hopes of escaping the girl’s vengeful spirit, but she follows him on board and tells the captain to hand him over:

“And if you don’t bring him up to me,
A mighty storm you soon shall see,
Which will cause your gallant men to weep,
And leave you slumbering in the deep”.

The terrified crew drags her former boyfriend on deck, and the ghost forces him into a row-boat which promptly bursts into flames and sinks with him in it. The ghost then ascends to heaven, giving this final warning: “You sailors all who are left behind / Never prove false to young womankind”. Many versions of The Gosport Tragedy close with a light re-phrasing of exactly that moral. (9)
Returning to our own ballad, the Bedford’s captain knows their departure date is drawing near, so he calls all the men into his cabin one by one and confronts them with his suspicions. Soon, it’s William’s turn:

Then William, afrighted, did tremble with fear,
And began by the powers above to swear,
He nothing at all of the matter did know,
But as from the captain he went to go,

Unto his surprise, his true love did see,
With that, he immediately fell on his knee,
And said “Here’s my true love, where shall I run?
O save me, or else I am surely undone.”

Now he the murder confessed out of hand,
And said “Before me, my Molly doth stand,
Sweet injur’d ghost, thy pardon I crave,
And soon I will seek thee in the silent grave”.

No-one but this wretch did see this sad sight,
Then, raving distract’d, he died in the night,
As soon as her parents these tidings did hear,
They fought for the body of their daughter dear.

Near a place called Southampton, in a valley so deep,
The body was found, while many did weep,
At the fall of the damsel and her daughter dear,
In Gosport churchyard, they buried her there.

The ghost forces him into a row-boat which bursts into flames and sinks with him still in it

Southampton’s just 14 miles north-west of Gosport, and only 17 miles from Portsmouth, so all the locations given in the Roxburghe Gosport are consistent with one another. It offers a couple of other important clues too, telling us that the ship involved was the Bedford and that it was moored in Portsmouth harbour when the murder took place. William and Molly are both generic names, used in countless ballads of the time no matter what the real individuals were called, so there’s not much to be learned there. Charles Stuart looks a bit more reliable, though, and the ballad is clear the Bedford’s crew included someone of that name when the ghost appeared.
Armed with this information, the University of Washington’s Professor David Fowler set about researching Royal Navy records to see how many of the Roxburghe Gosport’s details he could confirm. The resulting essay, which appeared in a 1979 volume of Florida University’s Southern Folklore Quarterly, provides our best account of the ballad’s background yet. (10)
Fowler’s first problem was to decide which decade – or even which century – to begin his search. The British Library gives two different dates as its best estimate for the Roxburghe Gosport’s printing, opting for 1720 in its General Catalogue (GK), but for 1750 in its English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC). Both carry a cautionary question mark to indicate they’re only approximations. (11)
Fowler took the first of the British Library’s two dates as his starting point and quickly discovered that there really was an HMS Bedford at this time. She was the first of three Royal Navy warships to bear that name, and launched from Woolwich Dockyards in September 1698. This Bedford was what Fowler calls “roughly the equivalent of a destroyer in the modern navy”, measuring 150 feet long by 40 feet wide, with 70 guns on board and a full complement of 440 men. (12)
The ship survived in that form until 1736, when orders came to demolish and rebuild her in accordance with new Navy standards. This process was not completed until 1741, when she was relaunched from Portsmouth in her new form. The Bedford was reduced to a hulk in November 1767, and sold off 20 years later. Fowler discovered from Navy records that, except for short stays in Chatham and Woolwich, she was based at Portsmouth from 1710 until 1740.
Let’s assume for the moment that The Gosport Tragedy really was inspired by a real crime. HMS Bedford wasn’t built until 1698, so that’s the earliest that any real-life murder matching the ballad’s description could have occurred. The British Library’s dates suggest around 1750 as the latest possible date for any such crime, and that rules out all but the first warship to bear the Bedford’s name. So far, so good: we’ve got the right ship in the right port at the right time.
Fowler’s next step was to dig out the Bedford’s pay books, muster books and captain’s log from the crucial period – all of which can still be found at the UK’s National Records Office in Kew. Starting in 1699, he read down the long lists of every crewman’s name, looking for a Charles Stuart, or some alternative spelling of the same name. He hit paydirt with the entry for January 27, 1726, when the muster book notes that one “Charles Stewart” has joined the crew. Stewart remained on board the Bedford for at least two years, and he’s the only man of anything like that name Fowler was able to find on-board.
“The existence of the Bedford, and the confirmation that she was indeed in Portsmouth, as the ballad says, provides justification for taking seriously the name of Charles Stewart, the third piece of evidence from the ballad thus confirmed by Admiralty documents,” Fowler says in his essay.
The ship’s carpenter when Stewart signed up is listed as John Billson, who joined the Bedford in that post on May 1, 1723, and remained there till his death on-board in September 1726. That means Stewart and Billson were shipmates there for eight months. “Billson’s first name is not William, but William and Molly are common names in balladry,” Fowler reminds us. “Enough so to at least justify pursuing Billson a bit further.”
For the two-and-a-half years before Stewart signed up, the Bedford had been serving as a guard ship in Portsmouth harbour, with a skeleton crew of about 80 men on-board. Quiet periods like this were a golden opportunity for Billson and his gang of eight to twelve junior carpenters to carry out any repairs the ship needed. “The work of the crew, and particularly the carpenters, was primarily a matter of maintenance, which in a wooden sailing vessel of this date was a constant problem,” Fowler says. “The ship’s crew worked during the day, but had shore leave on a fairly regular basis.”

To illustrate this point, Fowler quotes a Madden Collection ballad called New Sea Song which, he says, “gives the sailor’s view of such duty”:

Our ship, she is unrigged, all ready for docking,
Straightway on board of these hulks we repair,
Where we work hard all day, and at night go a-kissing,
Jack Tar is safe moored in the arms of his dear.

Billson left no widow behind to receive his out-standing Navy pay after death, so we know he was a single man. If he really is the model for William, this spell of guard ship duty would have been his ideal opportunity to seduce Molly with the promises of marriage the ballad records and enjoy her to the full when those efforts prevailed. Ample time too, for Molly to discover her delicate condition, and remind William of his obligations to her more forcefully each day. She knew full well that a Navy carpenter had to sail with his ship when hostilities broke out – “in time of war, to the sea you must go” – and that peaceful interludes like these never lasted for long.
And so it proved. On January 26, 1726, Edmund Hook, the Bedford’s captain, received orders that he should prepare the ship for active duty. Spain had joined with Austria to threaten the British territory of Gibraltar, and was now thought to be plotting with Russia too. Acting on Admiralty advice, King George I ordered the Bedford and 19 other Royal Navy ships to stage a show of force in the Baltic and remind the Russian navy that Britain wasn’t to be messed with.
Hook’s log entry for January 26 reads: “This forenoon, received their Lordships’ direction to man and get fit for channel service as soon as possible, to the highest complement, together with four press warrants which I issued out to my lieutenant to be put into execution”. (13)
The new orders meant Hook had to get the Bedford’s crew up from the minimal 80 men it used as a guard ship to its full complement of 440, and to get this done in double-quick time. The press-gang warrants gave his men the legal powers to force any seamen they found in Portsmouth’s pubs and brothels to join the Bedford whether they liked it or not - a crude form of conscription. In extreme cases, reluctant recruits were simply knocked unconscious and dragged on board against their will. This practice was known at the time as “pressing” or “impressing” the crew.
The new orders sharply increased the workload for Billson and his gang of carpenters too, as Hook began pushing them to complete the thousand and one jobs needed to get the ship ready for active service.

If Billson did have a pregnant girlfriend ashore, she’d know his departure was looming very near

“The crisis in the lovers’ relationship comes on 26 January 1726 with the news that the Bedford is to be outfitted for duty with the Baltic fleet,” Fowler suggests. “Word goes out that ‘the king wants sailors’ (as the ballad reports), and impressing of the ship’s crew begins. Possibly at this time, the girl informs the carpenter that she is with child, in the hope that this will persuade him to marry her before going to sea.”
If Billson really did have a pregnant girlfriend ashore, she’d have known his departure was now looming very near, and that there was no guarantee he’d ever return to Gosport again. If she was going to get him to marry her – no small matter for a single girl in her condition at the time – then she couldn’t afford to let him forget the issue for a moment. Billson’s only escape from this would have been the equally relentless pressure he faced at work, so his mood would have been far from sunny.
On January 27, 1726, the day Stewart signed up, Hook’s log confirms the Bedford has already begun press-ganging new men and getting them on-board. Stewart’s own name in the pay book has the single word “pressing” noted against it, but he does not appear on a separate list of men recruited in this way. Fowler concludes that “pressing” was an indication of Stewart’s duties rather than the reason he joined.
Although he gave his signature on January 27, Stewart did not come aboard the Bedford until two weeks later, and Fowler thinks that’s because he was busy ashore recruiting others. “As a press gang member, he would have been more likely than the average to be known personally to the captain, and would spend more time ashore when the ship was in port,” Fowler says. This may help to explain why the Stewart of the ballad was so willing to take his fears to the captain, and – as we’ll see in a moment – why he’s the only crewman given his real name in full.
On January 30, the Bedford was towed alongside a hulk in Portsmouth dockyard so Billson and his gang could remove the old mizzen mast and get a new one set in its place. Next day, they began the huge job of lightening the ship by removing anything that wasn’t nailed down so she could be hauled into dry dock for her caulking to be renewed. The ship spent from February 5 to February 7 in dry dock, with Billson and his gang working on her all this time, and then returned to Portsmouth harbour, where she spent the next three weeks.
All this time, Hook’s frantic efforts to rope in the crew he needed were continuing. He’d got the total up to 410 men by the time the Bedford sailed out of harbour to the Navy’s Portsmouth anchorage at Spithead on February 26, at which point shore leave became very rare. Still, Hook was adding new men every day, eventually getting the ship up to a strength of 486 crew against its supposed capacity of 440. The Bedford stayed at Spithead for six weeks as she and the rest of Admiral Sir Charles Wager’s fleet completed their preparations, then sailed for the Baltic with everyone else.
All this suggests that any real murder behind The Gosport Tragedy – and therefore behind Pretty Polly as well - most likely happened between January 26, 1726 and February 26 the same year. Any earlier, and the Bedford would still have been months away from sailing. Any later, and its carpenter would have had no opportunity to murder Molly or anyone else in Gosport. Once the Bedford left for Spithead, John Billson would never tread on English soil again.


Fowler’s own guess is that Molly announced her pregnancy towards the end of January, just as the Bedford was getting ready to go into dry dock, and that the murder itself came around February 1. “Her news drives the carpenter to desperate measures,” Fowler writes. “He kills his mistress, buries her in a lonely place, and returns to his ship, where he is now caught up in a whirlwind of activity preparing the Bedford for sea duty.”
The six weeks at Spithead that followed trapped the entire crew on their over-crowded ship, but gave them far less work to do than the frantic preparations in harbour. Fowler thinks this is when gossip about a ghost on-board may have started circulating. Perhaps this began because someone in the crew noticed Billson was having disturbed nights, or perhaps because he was foolish enough to confide in one of the other men.
“The first stirrings of conscience start to haunt the carpenter, and the first rumour of voices heard in the night begin to come from the crew,” Fowler writes. “The ballad offers some support for the anchorage setting in the cry of the ghost: ‘This ship out of Portsmouth never shall go / Till I am revenged for this overthrow’, meaning that the Bedford shall not leave the Portsmouth anchorage [at Spithead] until she has her revenge.”
With little to do in their off-time but get drunk, rumours of a ghost swirling throughout the ship and plenty of time to swap tall stories, the Bedford’s crew must have been ready to glimpse spirits in every shadow. It’s at this point that a sloshed Charles Stewart stumbles into the dimly-lit hold and sees what he thinks is a beautiful woman holding a baby in her arms. He steps forward to embrace her, but the image instantly vanishes. You or I would conclude this was trick of the light, remind ourselves how primed we’d been to expect something like this, and swear to lay off the rum in future. For an 18th century sailor, though, a very different explanation suggested itself – he’d just seen Molly’s ghost! (14)
There’s more evidence for Spithead being the setting for this episode in the ballad’s report of Hook’s reaction. If there really is a murderer on board, the ballad’s captain says, then “our ship in great danger to the sea must go”. Partly, that line is just a reflection of the seamen’s usual superstition about murderers, but the timing it implies is interesting too.

“It does sound as if the captain wished to settle the matter as soon as possible, while at the same time conceding that the ship will probably have to sail before a verdict can be reached,” Fowler says. “On these somewhat tenuous grounds, I conclude that the affair of the ghost was reported to the captain by Charles Stewart at about the time of the fleet’s scheduled departure from Spithead (April 7), and that the eventual breakdown and confession of the carpenter came at some future time.”
The Bedford reached the Gulf of Finland at the end of June and anchored at Naissaar Island off the coast of Estonia. The fleet’s job there was simply to park somewhere in the Russians’ field of vision and stay put for a bit, radiating a quiet sense of British naval power by its presence alone. The more gung-ho Russian commanders were keen to engage the British fleet, but Vice-Admiral Thomas Gordon – who’d defected to Russia’s navy in 1714 – persuaded them this would be suicide. After three months in the Baltic, the Admiralty felt Britain’s point had been made so the fleet set off back to Portsmouth.
No actual fighting had proved necessary during this expedition, but the voyage home presented some genuine danger. On September 22, the Bedford had reached a point about 150 miles west south-west of Nargen Island – placing her smack in the middle of the Baltic Sea – when storms struck the ship. These storms tore up the Baltic for three days and, as The Weekly Journal later reported, sank no fewer than 17 ships there. It was, The Newcastle Courant adds, “a long and stormy passage”.(15, 16)
“At half past 10pm, HF topsail,” Hook’s log entry for September 22 begins. “At 6am, set fore topsail; broke one of our main shrouds HM topsail. At 8 fixed him again and set main topsail. At 10 saw some breakers bearing NNE 6 or 7 miles; fired a gun being a sign of danger, and tacked.”

‘There can be no doubt that the captain considered his ship to be in grave danger’

I asked Admiralty Librarian Jennifer Wraight to translate this log entry into landlubbers’ English for me, and she explained that the first section means Hook was hauling in sails on his fore mast and main mast respectively. “Making adjustments to the sails is normally a reaction to weather conditions,” she went on. ‘In stormy conditions, you would normally reduce the amount of sail a ship is carrying, which would be consistent with the entry you have.
“The shrouds are not sails, but part of the rigging: they provide lateral support for the masts. One of the main shrouds breaking would suggest that the mast was under strain. Taking in the main topsail would have reduced strain on the mast while the broken shroud was being repaired.”
There was a second threat too, because the breakers Hook sighted told him there was shallow water and rocks near the ship. Wraight believes these rocks carried more potential danger for the Bedford than the weather alone, adding that they would have been all the more difficult to avoid when storms were cutting both visibility and the ship’s capacity to manoeuvre. “Tacking – changing direction – would be eminently sensible,” she said. “He’s taking the ship away from hazard.”
Fowler gives Hook credit for his calm, unemotional language in the log entry, but adds: “There can be no doubt that, on 22 September, the captain of the Bedford considered his ship to be in grave danger. Three days later, John Billson, carpenter, died.”
Fowler’s theory here is that Billson, still tormented by the fear of supernatural revenge, had by now fallen prey to some unknown illness too. “If, as the ballad suggests, there was a concern on the part of the captain and crew over the possible presence of a murderer on board, the foul weather and the sighting of breakers perilously nigh may well have prompted some of them to begin looking for their Jonah,” he says.
Perhaps some of the Bedford’s men even threatened to throw Billson overboard, just as those described in William Glen had done to their own jinx. Faced with intolerable stress from both his own guilty conscience and the ill-will of everyone around him, it would be small wonder if the carpenter once again began to fancy he could see Molly’s ghost. In a man already weakened by illness, the fits these visions produced could well have proved the final straw. “The death of John Billson provides us with a fourth fact related in The Gosport Tragedy,” Fowler says. “Namely, that the carpenter of the Bedford died on board ship.”
Fowler calls his whole scenario for The Gosport Tragedy’s tale a “hypothetical reconstruction”, and I think he’d accept that Billson’s death is the point where it becomes most speculative of all. The only thing we know for certain is that Billson died at 9:00am on September 25, 1726. Hook’s log entry for that day is his usual long list of times and headings, punctuated by just six words on Billson’s death. “At 3am wove to the southward,” he writes, “at 6 wove again and stood westward, at 9 John Billson carpenter died, at ½ past tacked westward.” (17)
Hook’s log entry also tells us that September 25 began with mild winds and fair weather, continuing with clear skies later in the day. That was the first calm morning the Bedford had seen after three days of terrible storms and, if the crew really had blamed Billson for causing these, it must have seemed equally obvious that his imminent death was ending them.
Fowler argues that the ballad’s need to concertina all these events together conceals just how much patience Molly’s spectre had been prepared to show. “She gets her revenge by alerting the ship’s crew and the captain, but is not made a liar by the tardy demise of her victim,” he writes.
Hook’s terse account of Billson’s demise in the ship’s log looks callous to modern eyes, but he’d have been well-accustomed to his men dying of various illnesses on board. Fowler has collected figures showing the Bedford lost about 40 of its 486 men to illness during its seven-month Baltic mission. Seven died on the return voyage to Portsmouth alone – including Billson himself – and another five in Gosport Hospital as soon as they reached shore.
We have no official cause of death for Billson, but Fowler thinks it was probably scurvy that did for him. This disease killed more British sailors than enemy action did in the 18th century, and it was not until 1747 that James Lind proved it could be prevented simply by adding citrus fruits to the sailors’ very restricted diet. This practice was not adopted by the British Navy until the 1790s, and not fully understood even then.
In his 2005 essay Scurvy: The Sailors’ Nightmare, Grant Sebastian Nell describes its final stage as: “a terrible fever which left men raving and ranting before they died”. Once again, this does seem to match the ballad’s description: “Raving distracted he died in the night”. (18, 19)
When I put the scurvy theory to Wraight, however, she was distinctly sceptical. “There are many reasons why Billson may have died, but no apparent reason to assume scurvy,” she told me. “It would not normally have been too difficult to obtain supplies of fresh food while serving in the Baltic.” In this particular case – as Wraight also pointed out – the Bedford was on a relatively cushy mission, and within easy reach of land throughout the summer. We know Hook’s men visited Nargen Island regularly enough, because he set up a tent hospital there to handle the Bedford’s sick.
We can’t rule out the possibility that Billson died as a result of some random accident on board the storm-tossed Bedford, or even that he had his throat slit by superstitious crewmates. There’s no record of any official investigation following his death, however, so some form of illness remains the most likely explanation. Whether it was scurvy or not is a different matter.
The Bedford was over 900 miles from Portsmouth when its carpenter died, about 15 miles from the nearest land, and with over a month of her voyage home remaining. Wondering if there was any point in trying to track down Billson’s burial records, I asked Wraight how the ship would have handled his body in a case like this.
“Someone who died on board would have been given a perfectly conventional burial in the nearest available cemetery if this was feasible,” she replied. “If the ship was out at sea and this was not practicable, then the corpse would normally have been sewn up in a weighted hammock and buried at sea with due ceremony. [...] Billson would definitely be more likely to be buried at sea than brought home. Sharing a ship with a decomposing body is not pleasant, nor conducive to health and morale. Cases like Nelson’s where they did attempt it, are very rare and they didn’t find it easy then.”

Most likely, John Billson’s body ended up at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. His victim on the other hand, as the ballad tells it, was eventually buried in Gosport churchyard. Molly’s parents must have been relieved to lay their lost daughter to rest in sacred ground at last, and Fowler thinks it’s Charles Stewart who made that possible.


As soon as the Bedford’s carpenter has breathed his last, The Gosport Tragedy leaps forward in time again to deal with Molly’s burial. The two verses involved, you’ll recall, go like this:

No-one but this wretch did see this sad sight,
Then, raving distract’d, he died in the night,
As soon as her parents these tidings did hear,
They fought for the body of their daughter dear.

Near a place called Southampton, in a valley so deep,
The body was found, while many did weep,
At the fall of the damsel and her daughter dear,
In Gosport churchyard, they buried her there.

In fact, it looks as if just over a month must have passed between the second and third lines of this extract. Fowler assumes that Billson confessed all about his crime in the day or two before he died on September 25, but no-one on the Bedford would have had the chance to reach the girl’s parents until the ship docked again in Portsmouth harbour on November 4. The ballad’s wording therefore implies that her body remained undiscovered in its shallow grave for at least nine months. As the Bedford returned to English waters, all the girl’s family could have known was that “Molly” had gone missing around February 1, and that no-one had heard from her since.
Returning to the Bedford’s pay and muster books, Fowler discovered a series of new marks against Stewart’s name running from November 18, 1726, until April 12 the following year. These, he says, are “a series of check marks indicating a legitimate absence from the ship – that is, he is not being paid on board during this period, but neither is he a runaway”. We can rule out Stewart’s press-gang duties as a reason for this because the Bedford was set to remain in Portsmouth for the next five months, and would not leave Britain again until May 1727.
Instead, Fowler suggests, Hook picked Stewart as someone he could trust with a different task: find the girl’s parents, tell them what happened to their daughter and pass on whatever information Billson had volunteered to help locate her body. “I assume that the captain decided no legal action needed to be taken since, before the ship returned to port, the confessed murderer was himself dead,” Fowler writes. “Nevertheless, I think it would be in character for Hook to take responsibility for seeing to it that the carpenter’s confession was communicated to the murdered girl’s parents.”

The ballad implies that the murdered girl’s remains lay undiscovered for at least nine months

The Bedford remained in Portsmouth harbour until February 28, 1727, and then sailed back to the anchorage at Spithead, where she spent the next week. On April 9, she left Spithead for a new mooring at the Nore, where the mouth of the Thames meets the North Sea. Stewart rejoined the ship there on April 12, and a week later the marks against his name change again to indicate “paid on board”. They remain that way for the rest of the year. That gives him a spell of five months on-shore, during which he seems to have both contacted the girl’s parents and told his story to the London print-shop owner who produced the Roxburghe Gosport.
Neither The Gosport Tragedy nor the Navy’s records give us any clue to Molly’s real identity – even that Christian name is a fiction, remember – which scuppers any possibility of finding her grave. We do know that Gosport’s parish church back in 1726 was St Mary’s at Alverstoke, though, so that’s almost certainly the place the ballad has in mind when it mentions “Gosport churchyard”. If Stewart really did manage to trace the girl’s parents and give them enough information to find her remains where the killer had dumped them, that would have allowed them to rebury her at St Mary’s, just as the Roxburghe Gosport says.
Reverend Ted Goodyer looks after St Mary’s today. “We do indeed have a number of gravestones dating back to the early part of the 18th century,” he told me. “Holy Trinity Church in Gosport was built in 1695, and did have a churchyard which has now been flattened, so the records of that church may also be helpful.” (20)
Fowler searched the burial records, gravestone inscriptions and church wardens’ accounts at both St Mary’s and Holy Trinity, as well as the era’s inquest files, but found nothing of any use. It occurred to me that he may not have thought to look for a “truculenter occisa” (violent death) note like the one that tipped me off in my own Knoxville Girl investigation, but I’ve now been through St Mary’s 1726 and 1727 burial records for myself, and no such note exists.
Surviving newspapers from the 1720s are few and far between, but both Fowler and I have searched those available and turned up nothing that’s relevant. If there ever was a real murder behind The Gosport Tragedy, then the ballad itself seems to be our only record of it. But even if the tale’s based in nothing more substantive than the Bedford’s prevailing gossip, there’s good reason to think Stewart had a role in transmitting it to the wider world.
Stewart’s progress from Gosport to the Nore during his time away from the Bedford would logically have taken him through London, and perhaps to one of the many seamen’s inns there he’d have known there from his work with the Navy’s press-gangs. These joints were known as “rondys” – short for “rendezvous” – and there were a couple of big ones near the Bow Churchyard print shop where the Roxburghe Gosport was produced.
“The oldest rendezvous was at St Katherine’s Stairs on Tower Hill, the neighbourhood being frequented by seamen because of the proximity of the Navy Office where pay tickets were cashed,” Christopher Lloyd writes in his book The British Seaman 1200 – 1860. “A convenient tavern there was The Two Dutch Skippers. Other well-known places in London were the White Swan in King Street, Westminster, and the Cock & Runner in Bow Street.” Inns like these kept a “press room” on the premises – essentially a jail cell where men the press gangs had already rounded-up could be safely locked away before being taken to the ship.
We know from Henry Plomer’s dictionary of 18th century printers that the Bow Churchyard shop was operated by a man called John Cluer from 1726 till 1728, which puts him in charge there when Stewart passed through London. Fowler suggests that Cluer may have frequented pubs like the Cock & Runner hoping to gather material for future ballads, and that Charles Stewart found him there one night on just such an expedition.
That would certainly explain why Stewart is the only man given his real name in the song, why that name is spelt out in full, and why he’s described in such flattering terms (“a man of courage so bold”). Cluer would have been keen to keep such a useful source of material happy, either because he needed more than one interview to get the Gosport story down in full or because he hoped other lucrative yarns might follow. (21)
Just how much of that is true, we’ll never know. Someone must have provided the bridge that transformed The Gosport Tragedy from a sailors’ oral tale to a printed ballad, though, and the details above make Stewart a very tempting candidate. “He is my choice as the mariner who held a London publisher with his glittering eye,” Fowler says, “telling an intriguing story of love, death and the supernatural, which was then turned into one of the most popular broadside ballads of the last 250 years”. (22)

Ballad shops all over the UK continued to produce sheets with The Gosport Tragedy’s tale right through the 19th century, often adding small improvements to the scansion or cutting its length as they went.
In some cases, these refinements may have begun in the song’s oral tradition, as singers passed it from mouth to mouth and it slowly evolved in response. When that happened, the balladeers had only to transcribe what they’d already heard sung in the streets, but in other cases they’d be composing their own verses from scratch. Whatever its source, the most significant change came when someone decided William was getting off rather too easily in the original song. What was needed here, they felt, was for someone to give him a far nastier death.
It’s possible that this change appeared as early as 1805, but the earliest concrete example I’ve been able to find is a Liverpool sheet produced around 1822. This retitles the ballad Love and Murder, cuts it to just 44 lines, and sets its action in the English town of Worcester. The story is just as we know it, but the girl’s name has now morphed from Molly to Polly. Her killer is called Billy, and his entire life after escaping to the ship is condensed into the ballad’s final three verses:

One morning before ever it was day,
The captain came up, and this he did say:
“There is a murder on board that has lately been done,
Our ship is in mourning, we cannot sail on”.

Then up stepped one: “Indeed it’s not me”,
Then up steps another: “Indeed it’s not me”,
At length up steps Billy, and this he did swear:
“Indeed it’s not me, I vow and declare”.

As he was running from the captain with speed,
He met with his Polly which made his heart bleed,
She stripped him and tore him, she tore him in three,
Because that he murdered her baby and she.

“This direct action by the ghost to achieve a violent revenge is unprecedented in the history of our text,” Fowler writes. “In other ballads, ghosts do tear their victims [...] but up to this point, there has been no hint of such a practice in The Gosport Tragedy.”

‘She ripped him and she stripped him and she tore him in three,’ Peter Bellamy tells us

There’s something very appealing about the dead girl being given this far more active role in her killer’s demise. William’s old “raving” death simply couldn’t compete, and was almost instantly replaced by the new scene. Oxford’s Bodleian Library has 16 ballad sheets telling The Gosport Tragedy’s story in its collection, all produced between 1815 and 1885. Some call the truncated song Love and Murder, some call it Polly’s Love and some call it The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, but every one of them gives the ghost its expanded and more vicious role.
Those sheets’ original buyers would have gained an extra little shiver from the number of pieces Polly selects for her lover’s corpse. Three was a number often encountered in beliefs about demonology at the time, which presumed the Devil and his agents used it as a means of mocking the Holy Trinity. Satan, it was said, knocked three times on the door before coming to claim your soul, so giving that number a part to play in Billy’s death made the ghost more frightening than ever.
Fowler’s a bit sniffy about the new verse, calling the folk process which he assumes produced it “a species of alchemy which converts gold to lead”. For my money, though, it brings a welcome touch of added drama to the song, and all the more so once a tidy little internal rhyme had been added. (23)
“She ripped him and she stripped him and she tore him in three,” Peter Bellamy sings in his 1969 recording. I’m not sure when that phrasing was introduced, but it’s now become a fixture in its own right, appearing also in recordings by Waterson:Carthy in 2009 and Jon Boden two years later. Boden included the song in his 2011 A Folk Song A Day project and adds a note there applauding the fact that it gives Polly such a satisfying revenge.
The fact that we have so many surviving copies of this song’s various ballad sheets is testament to just how many were produced, and hence of how popular the song remained. They also allow us to trace quite small details of its development through the years, as various ballad shops polished up the verses’ logic and flow from one edition to the next. Take this rather awkward line, which we can watch being gradually improved over a spell of about 20 years:

There’s a murderer on board has lately been done. (Pitts, London, circa 1831).
There’s a murderer on board, he has it lately done. (Hodges, London, circa 1850).
There’s a murderer on board, and he must be known. (Harkness, Preston, circa 1853).

As this process continued in Britain, copies of the original ballad were still being produced in America. The earliest version we have printed on that side of the Atlantic is titled The Gosport Tragedy and appears in a collection called The Forget-Me-Not-Songster, editions of which were produced in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. The particular copy I’m looking at here comes from a Boston print shop called Deming’s, and has been dated to about 1835. (24)
We don’t know quite when the song first appeared in America, but Fowler suggests one interesting route that may have got it there. The Bedford served a second tour of duty in the Baltic in 1727, with Charles Stewart once again on board, returning to Portsmouth in August of that year for a month’s stay in its home port. “During this time, the Bedford sent 38 men to Gosport Hospital, and we know that one of them was Charles Stewart,” Fowler writes. “The musters show that he left the ship on 26 August and returned from Gosport on 8 September.” Throughout this period Stewart, like the other men sent for treatment has the letters “ss” noted against his name to indicate “sick on shore”.
Fowler identifies the hospital used as Forton Hospital at Gosport, which had also treated some of Hook’s men after the Bedford’s 1726 expedition. Just 50 years after Stewart’s stay there, the British Navy needed somewhere to house its captives from America’s Revolutionary War, and turned Forton Hospital into a POW camp.
“Thanks to the preservation of a journal and songbook kept by American prisoners there, we know a great deal about life in Forton Prison in Gosport during the Revolution, including some of the songs they sang” Fowler writes. “Unfortunately, The Gosport Tragedy is not preserved in the American songbook of 1778, but the existence of this collection, which includes British as well as American songs, suggests one path by which our ballad may have found its way to America.”
Our first American text for the song – let’s call it the Deming Gosport – starts by naming its characters William and Molly, then switches to calling the girl Mary half-way through from what seems to be sheer carelessness. It takes a leisurely 108 lines to tell the story in its traditional form, frankly describing Molly’s unwanted pregnancy and with William raving himself to death rather than being torn to pieces by the ghost. The ship he flees to is not named, but it’s said to be preparing to “set sail from Plymouth to plough the salt sea”. Plymouth is another British naval city, about 150 miles west along the coast from Portsmouth, and I imagine it’s just the similarity of the two names which accounts for this confusion. (25)
“Prints like the Boston one helped keep the American version alive,” Fowler writes. “This, together with some form of the shorter version known as The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, combined to determine the future development of the ballad in American oral tradition.” The Deming Gosport’s main contribution to that development comes in the new wording it introduces for some key scenes.
Often, that wording would remain in place for well over a century. As William’s lining Molly up for her fatal walk in the woods, for example, the Boston sheet makes his promise of marriage more explicit than ever: “And if that tomorrow, my love will ride down / The ring I can buy our fond union to crown”. That couplet was still appearing as late as 1962, when the Canadian Leo Spencer phrased it as: “If it be tomorrow, and you will come down / A ring I will buy you worth one hundred pound.”

When it all goes wrong and Molly’s begging for her life, it’s not her the Deming Gosport describes as “so comely and fair”, but her assassin. This idea appears again in a 1957 recording of Pretty Polly by the Kentucky banjo player Pete Steele, which Sparks singles out in her 2005 essay on the song. “He calls Pretty Polly’s murderer ‘Pretty Willy’,” she writes. “They are both beautiful – the killer and the killed.”
The Deming Gosport’s re-imagining of William’s confrontation on board ship is particularly striking, swapping the English ballad’s somewhat stilted language for a far more conversational tone. Stewart reports his own ghost sighting to the captain, and then:

The captain soon summoned the jovial ship’s crew,
And said “My brave fellows, I fear some of you,
Have murdered some damsel ‘ere you came away,
Whose injured ghost haunts you now on the sea.

“Whoever you be, if the truth you deny,
When found out, you’ll be hung on the yard-arm so high,
But he who confesses, his life we’ll not take,
But leave him upon the first island we make”.

Then William immediately fell on his knees,
The blood in his veins quick with horror did freeze,
He cried “Cruel murder! Oh, what have I done?
God help me, I fear my poor soul is undone.”

The traditional verses resume at this point, explaining that William’s the only one glimpsing the ghost this time, describing his lonely death and getting Molly’s remains properly interred at Gosport in just 12 swift lines.

After a century in print, The Gosport Tragedy was so familiar it produced a music hall parody

By 1850, after a century or more in print, The Gosport Tragedy was familiar enough to make it worth parodying in London’s music halls. A version called Molly The Betrayed or The Fog Bound Vessel was produced for the comic singer Sam Cowell. The ballad shops quickly printed up sheets using Cowell’s lyrics, hoping to capitalise on the popularity of his performance, and by 1855 it had some official sheet music too.
Cowell had begun his stage career as a child, touring America in various Shakespeare plays with his actor father. Sometimes, he would perform ‘coon’ songs front of curtain to keep the audience entertained while scenery was being changed behind him. Returning to England in about 1840, and still just 20 years old, he decided there was more money in this burlesque side of his act and ditched the Bard to make room for more comic songs.
“By 1850, he had abandoned the legitimate stage entirely in favour of the songs and supper rooms of the West End,” says The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. “An ugly little man with a lugubrious expression, he specialised in cockney song-and-patter acts.”
And that’s exactly what Molly The Betrayed is. Spelling out its words phonetically in an attempt to mimic Cowell’s bizarre stage accent, the parody tells the same core story as The Gosport Tragedy but mixes its narrative passages with a string of silly jokes. Its targets include the ballad sheets’ sometimes rather strained rhymes, their reliance on highly melodramatic plots and the conventions of rural folk songs at the time. (26)
This last element suggests audiences in 1850 were just as likely to have encountered the original tale in its folk song form as they were to have found it on a printed ballad. Certainly, Molly The Betrayed would have meant nothing to anyone who didn’t already know the original song in one form or another, which testifies again how popular it had become.
What emerges from all this is something very like the comic monologues Stanley Holloway made famous in the 1930s. A few extracts will give you its flavour:

In a kitchen in Portsmouth, a fair maid did dwell,
For grammar and grace none could her excel,
Young William, he courted her to be his dear,
And he by his trade was a ship’s carpen – tier.

Singing doodle, doodle chop, chum, chow choral li la.

Now it chanced that von day, ven her vages vos paid,
Young Villiam valked vith her and thus to her said,
“More lovely are you than the ships on the sea”,
Then she hugged him and laughed, and said”Fiddle-de-dee”.

[...]

Then up came the captain with “Unfurl every sail”,
He guv’d his command, but to no avail,
A mist on the hocean arose all around,
And no vay to move this fine ship could be found.

[...]

Then he calls up his men with a shout and a whoop,
And he orders young Villiam to stand on the poop,
“There’s summat not right,” he says, “‘mongst this here crew,
And blowed if I don’t think, young Villiam, it’s you”.

Then Villiam turned vite and then red and then green,
Vile Molly’s pale ghost, at his side it was seen,
Her bosom vas vite, the blood it vas red,
She spoke not but vanished, and that’s all she said.

This version added a fifth title to the song’s growing collection. Already, it was variously known as The Gosport Tragedy, The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, Love and Murder and Polly’s Love, but now Molly The Betrayed joined the list as well. The first evidence we have of it taking the name we know today comes in another parody, which seems to have been current in the 1890s.
That’s when a woman identified only as Mrs MM says she learned the song she performed for collectors at her Missouri home in August 1938. She called this song Pretty Polly, and its four verses form a bawdy parody of our own ballad:

“Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, oh won’t you come to me,
Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, oh won’t you come to me,”
“Oh no, my young man, I’m afraid you’ll undo me,
Oh lay your leg over me do.”

Her drawers they was tied and he couldn’t undo ‘em,
Her drawers they was tied, and he couldn’t undo ‘em,
She snorted and cried “Just take your knife to ‘em,
Oh lay your leg over me, do.”

And then they began like lighnin’ and thunder,
And then they began like lightnin’and thunder,
On the green, green grass, with Polly layin’ under,
“Oh lay your leg over me, do.”

In about nine months, Polly went to weepin’
In about nine months, Polly went to weepin’
And then she remembered that crawlin’ and creepin’,
“Oh lay your leg over me do.”

The structure there is very much like Pretty Polly’s and the opening lines are almost identical. Both songs include a knife, both have Polly weeping at some point along the way, and both give her an unwanted pregnancy. The fact that Mrs MM knew her song as Pretty Polly, coupled with the very prominent use of that phrase in its opening lines, suggests the real ballad may already have adopted that name when the parody was produced. If so, no printed copy seems to have survived.

‘Who can explain the terror that made us remove all mention of sex from Pretty Polly?’

More reliable evidence emerged in 1917, when the English song collector Cecil Sharp heard an unusual version in North Carolina. Sharp had already expressed some interest in The Gosport Tragedy, saying in 1907 that it was one of the few supernatural folk ballads still popular among the rural singers he interviewed. (27)
Sharp’s North Carolina find was titled The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, and sung with a new twist to William’s death:

He entered his ship on the salt sea so wide,
And swore by his maker he’d see the other side,
While he was a-sailing in his heart’s content,
The ship sprang a leak: to the bottom she went.

While he was a-lying there, all in sad surprise,
He saw Pretty Polly appear before his eyes,
“Oh William, oh William, you’ve no time to stay,
There’s a debt to the devil that you’re bound to pay”.

William’s victim had first been called Polly almost a century before, and retained that name on and off ever since. If you discount the Missouri parody, then Sharp’s is the earliest version I’ve seen to call her “Pretty Polly” in full. Once Molly became Polly on that 1822 Liverpool sheet, the temptation to attach “Pretty” in this way was always going to prove irresistible. The fact that several unconnected folk songs sometimes called themselves Pretty Polly already did not prevent our own ballad being re-titled in her honour. (28)
Song collectors still find the odd American version calling the girl Molly rather than Polly today – another reminder of the song’s roots - but these are very much the exception rather than the rule. Less than a decade after Sharp noted down the lyrics above, the song’s first commercial discs appeared. By 1927, John Hammond, BF Shelton and Dock Boggs had all released recordings of the song they called Pretty Polly, and all its earlier names simply dropped away.


The first man to put Pretty Polly on disc was John Hammond, who cut it for Gennett Records at a Richmond, Indiana session in April 1925. Gennett stressed his roots as an East Kentucky banjo player by calling the song Purty Polly on its 1927 release.
Hammond’s lyrics show that the process of Americanising Pretty Polly still had some way to go. He sets the story in London for a start, and allows himself a leisurely 11 verses to get it told. No trace of the maritime setting remains, but there’s still the odd line which retains a flavour of English folk songs, such as his description of Polly “with her rings on her fingers and lily-white hands”. Others carry a distinct whiff of American puritanism: “A love of her body has sent her soul to hell”.
This last element is characteristic of many American adaptations of British songs, which often erase their source ballads’ frank acknowledgement that an unwanted pregnancy caused all the trouble. Hammond comes as close as he dares to suggesting Polly’s indiscretion in his fourth verse:

“Come and go Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Come and go Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Before we get married, there’s pleasure to see.”

In the English ballads, which spell out the nature of that pleasure elsewhere, Willie needs only to tell Polly that he wants them to visit some friends. The much shorter American song has to make each verse work that bit harder, though, and Hammond’s coinage is a clever way of nodding towards sex while also allowing him to insist that wasn’t what he had in mind at all.
Two other banjo players released their own versions of Pretty Polly in 1927, and both were as careful as Hammond to skirt around this sensitive issue. BF Shelton, another Kentucky native, and Dock Boggs from the next-door state of Virginia, both use the “pleasure to see” verse, but only Shelton gives this additional hint of what Willie and Polly have been up to:

“I courted Pretty Polly one live-long night,
I courted Pretty Polly one live-long night,
And left the next morning before it was light.”

All this careful evasion falls a long way short of The Gosport Tragedy’s unblinking gaze: “At length with his cunning he did her betray / And to lewd desire he led her away”. It takes quite a determined search of Pretty Polly’s lyrics to reveal even a hint of that idea in the American song, and for most casual listeners the result is that Polly herself emerges as a rather baffled virgin.
“Who can ever completely explain the cringing terror that made us remove all references to sex in Pretty Polly?” Sparks asks. “Our Polly is a mannequin, and an empty shell. [...] She’s too weak to lift her arms in an embrace. Her lips are too slack to kiss. She can only be entered with a knife.” Later she adds: “Our Polly seems utterly unaware of sex. She does, however, know a grave when she sees one. Her only sin is recognising her grave, having knowledge of death. In America, this may be sin enough.”
The most obvious manifestation of this idea comes in the song’s “spade lying by” verse, which is a direct transplant from the English original. Hammond shies clear of that stanza, but replaces it with a suggestion that Willie is somehow testing Polly as they walk through the woods:

He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
Polly, she mistrusted, and then began to weep.

For Sparks, this is the moment when Polly realises her faith in Willie is unjustified, and it’s witnessing this loss of her innocence which finally resolves him to kill her. The switch in Willie’s head flips from “madonna” to “whore”, and in that instant his virgin Eve is banished from the Garden. “I sometimes wonder if Pretty Polly might have lived if only she had looked at her grave and seen an innocent hole in the ground,” Sparks says. “The knowledge that kills her is the knowledge of life and death.”
Far from weakening its impact, Pretty Polly’s terror of sex makes it a much more mysterious and haunting song than The Gosport Tragedy ever was. “Like the wordless unspeakable parts of our own psyche, murder ballads hold secrets that loom larger the further down they’re pushed,” Sparks says. “Pretty Polly only gained magic as we whittled her down and wrapped her in veils.”

That’s unquestionably true. By avoiding any hint that Willie’s victim was pregnant, the American song removes all clues to his motive for killing her, and so denies us the chance to neatly rationalise his crime away. In the American song, Willie kills for no reason at all, and seems to consider it a trivial act. That makes him a far scarier figure than his English ancestor.
In 1938, The Coon Creek Girls became the first women to record Pretty Polly. They were a string band led by Lily May and Rosie Ledford, a pair of Kentucky sisters recruited to provide music for an Ohio country music station. Their rendition sticks too closely to their male predecessors’ lyrics to offer any striking new perspective, but they were the first recording artists to let Polly speak for herself as Willie draws his blade:

“Oh Willie, oh Willie, please spare me my life,
Oh Willie, oh Willie, please spare me my life,”
So deep into her bosom he plunged that fatal knife.

Lily May Ledford sings most of the rest from Willie’s point of view, showing no greater empathy with Polly than any of the male singers had managed. She’s certainly a good deal tougher than Dock Boggs, who coyly insists that the dead Polly has merely “fell asleep” in his own version. (29)
The Stanley Brothers recording followed in 1950, underpinning Ralph Stanley’s high lonesome vocals with a stately stand-up bass to fatten out the sound. It’s notable not only for the slurs on Polly’s past reputation which we’ve already discussed, but also for a masterly bit of misdirection in the opening verses, which depict Willie as a rather gentle figure:

“Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind,
Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind,
Let me sit down beside you and tell you my mind.

“Oh my mind is to marry and never to part,
My mind is to marry and never to part,
The first time I saw you, it wounded my heart.”

Butter wouldn’t melt. Even as he’s giving Polly these loving assurances, though, Willie knows full well that the grave he’s just dug for her is waiting, and that it won’t be empty for long. The Stanley Brothers skip both the “spade lying by” verse, and any description of Polly’s murder itself, perhaps fearing they’d put off the record buyers of the day, but Ralph Stanley re-instated both these scenes when he returned to the song in 1997 for a duet with Patty Loveless. (30)
So far, the musicians recording Pretty Polly had all come from the adjoining bluegrass states of Kentucky and Virginia, with even the Coon Creek Girls’ radio career taking them no further than neighbouring Ohio. Pete Seeger, a New Yorker, broke that regional monopoly in 1957, edging the song across a genre boundary too from country into folk. Seeger used a canny selection of Shelton’s and Boggs’ verses which helped confirm a clear trend in the song’s development so far.

Ball tells it all in the third person, then whips back the curtain to say ‘and that killer was me’

Taking the period from 1927 to 1960 as a convenient snapshot of Pretty Polly’s first third-of-a-century on disc gives us seven different recordings to consider. The performers are, in chronological order: John Hammond, BF Shelton, Dock Boggs, The Coon Creek Girls, The Stanley Brothers, Pete Seeger and Estil C. Ball. The first three of these average out at 11 verses each, the middle three at nine verses, and the final three at eight. We’ve seen already that the more you prune Pretty Polly, the stronger it becomes, so its no coincidence that Ball’s version is both the shortest recording of the song so far and arguably the best. (31)
Ball was a white gospel singer from Virginia who often performed with his wife Orna. “The Balls’ repertoire was legions deep, and was open to all manner of material,” says the record producer Nathan Salsburg. “Not just hymns and country gospel, but play-party songs, blues, ballads, self-composed comic numbers and EC’s sui generis guitar instrumentals.” (32)
As Salsburg adds, Ball’s rich baritone voice and unhurried guitar playing contrasts sharply with the keening vocals of many bluegrass singers and the frantic picking they rely on. To modern ears, he sounds far more like a blues performer than a country one. “Like the best of artists, the music he made was just a reflection of who he was,” Salsburg writes. “In his case, thoughtful, diligent and honest, with severity, gentleness and humour in equal measure.”
Often, it was the severity that came to the fore. Ball’s best-known for his song Tribulations, a hair-raising catalogue of what we sinners can expect when the Book of Revelations plays out. “The Beast with horns will come upon you,” Ball promises. “And the blood shall fill the sea”. He peoples the rest of the song with angels pouring their wrath on humanity’s head, men begging fruitlessly to die and Christ resolutely turning his back on anyone marked for damnation. This is a very vengeful God indeed, and Ball takes some relish in acting as his prophet.
There’s a touch of the same Old Testament fervour in the Library of Congress recording Alan Lomax made of Ball in 1959. Performing solo this time, Ball distills Pretty Polly down to just six stark verses:

“Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Before we get married some pleasure to see.”

She got up behind him, and away they did go,
She got up behind him, and away they did go,
Over the hills to the valley so low.

They went up a little further and what did they spy?
They went up a little further and what did they spy?
A new-dug grave with a spade lying by.

He stabbed her through the heart, her heart blood it did flow,
He stabbed her through the heart, her heart blood it did flow,
And into the grave Pretty Polly did go.

He threw something over her and turned to go home,
He threw something over her and turned to go home,
Leaving nothing behind him but the girl there to moan.

Gentlemen and ladies, I’ll bid you farewell,
Gentlemen and ladies, I’ll bid you farewell,
For killing Pretty Polly will send my soul to hell.

Strip out the repetitions, and this takes just 12 lines to have Willie collect Polly, take her to the grave he’d already prepared, kill her, throw her into the ground and accept his own damnation. He doesn’t even have the decency to give Polly a quick end, leaving her instead to choke slowly to death on the dirt of her own shallow grave. She’s still moaning there as he walks calmly away. (33)
Ball’s lyrics mark one of the best uses of the song’s shifting perspective too. That opening quote from Willie aside, he tells the whole story in the third person, whipping back the curtain only in his final verse to say “and that killer was me”. At half the length of Shelton or Hammond’s versions, this is the tale’s most brutal telling yet, and made all the more so by its refusal to offer any hint of the killer’s motives. “Don’t ask for the comfort of an explanation,” Willie sneers as he strolls away. “There isn’t one.”
Lomax chose Ball’s recording to represent Pretty Polly on his Bad Man Ballads collection, describing it on that record’s sleeve as “America’s favourite crime story, the same tale that Dreiser used in An American Tragedy.”

The Theodore Dreiser novel Lomax mentions, published in 1925, fictionalises a notorious murder case of 19 years earlier. In the real case, Chester Gillette drowned Grace Brown, his pregnant girlfriend, in a New York State lake because she kept pressing him to marry her. He was executed in the electric chair for this crime, and Dreiser recycled the tale as fiction a few years later. His novel’s been filmed many times since, most notably as 1951’s A Place In The Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor, and never quite lost its place in America’s imagination.
That Lomax compilation introduced a whole new generation of musicians to Pretty Polly, including Jake Speed, who heads a Cincinnati band called The Freddies. “I learned Pretty Polly when I was about 22, just figuring out everything about folk music,” Speed told me. “I had just come across murder ballads and I learned the tunes so I could flood myself with their legacy.
“I put Pretty Polly on the first album to show people the tradition my original music was attempting to emerge from – the dark, ballad-based storytelling tradition. There’s a desperation to the song that I always liked. Maybe the killer in the song is just so pathetic and desperate that I wanted to feel a little of that.” (34)
Sid Griffin of The Coal Porters, a London bluegrass combo, admits to taking this approach a little too far when recording Pretty Polly for their 2010 album Durango. Griffin shares vocals on the song with the band’s Carly Frey, parcelling out the two roles just as you’d expect.
“In the studio in Colorado, I was singing my part of Pretty Polly in character – rather a Stanislavski method,” Griffin told me. “I guess I went a bit over the top, as I heard the producer Ed Stasium come over the talkback to me with: ‘Hey Sidney, could you dial it back a little? Sounds like a meeting of the Durango Amateur Dramatic Society!’ So I sang it from then on with a bit more restraint.” (34)


Pretty Polly's American career moved into overdrive with the folk revival of the 1960s, adding the first really famous names to her list of biographers and reaching a global audience for the first time as a result. Bob Dylan, Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, The Byrds and Judy Collins would all perform the song before the 1960s were out, and only Bob failed to find it a place on one of his albums.

Bob Dylan included Pretty Polly in his early New York sets, and later borrowed its tune

Dylan did include Pretty Polly in his early New York sets, though, and also borrowed its melody for his own 1962 composition The Ballad of Hollis Brown. His hero Woody Guthrie had already used the tune to fuel his own Pastures of Plenty in 1941, so we know it was well-established in America’s national folk canon by then. Peggy Seeger and Tom Paley teamed up for their own recording of Pretty Polly itself in 1964, followed by both The Byrds and Judy Collins four years later.
Perhaps because of Dylan’s interest, the song soon started to make itself felt on this side of the Atlantic too. The Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch included it in his set at a 1963 Glasgow folk club gig which later surfaced on a live album, and Sandy Denny cut a studio version in 1967. Sweeney’s Men, a Dublin band, and Leicestershire’s Davy Graham both put mournful versions of the song on their 1969 albums.
Of all these artists, none outshine Denny and Collins. Both women start the story gently but build to full-throated anger and pain as Polly meets her death. Although both versions include snatches of direct narration from Willie and Polly themselves, the singers come across as quoting these characters rather than choosing to inhabit either one. Instead of speaking directly for Polly’s killer in the final verse – a hard trick for any female singer to pull off – Collins consigns Willie to hell with these words:

A debt to the devil Willie must pay,
A debt to the devil Willie must pay,
For killing Pretty Polly and running away.

The fact that it’s a woman singing these lines makes it easy to read a certain grim satisfaction into their account of Willie’s fate.
Crispin Gray discovered Pretty Polly in the Collins recording, introducing it to singer Katie Jane Garside when they put their own band, Queenadreena, together in 1999. “I’ve heard recordings of the song by women that sound remarkably close to male versions in terms of attitude,” he told me. “But not so with the Judy Collins version or Katie Jane’s rendition, which I think are both very female. I don’t mean just because they’re obviously female voices. As the song portrays violence done to a woman by a man, I’m not sure a man could ever approach or understand it in quite the same way.
“That’s not to say Judy Collins and Katie Jane sound the same either, because they don’t. To my ears, Judy Collins’ delivery is pure and wistful while Katie Jane, particularly in our later live versions, is more wild, unhinged and traumatised – although I think they both manage to inject a certain ghostliness.” (34)
Kristin Hersh of the rock band Throwing Muses has recorded Pretty Polly too, so I asked her to what extent a female performer must channel Polly herself as the song progresses. “I find I can avoid an empathy stomach ache if I divorce myself from the meaning of the words when I sing it,” she replied. “I guess it’s more like reporting, which would bring it into the realm of myth. That’s nice. Myth is important.”
The Byrds reclaimed Pretty Polly from the folk singers who’d made it their own when they included it on the band’s classic 1968 country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Garlanded with the outfit’s trademark chiming guitars, this was one of the first male versions to completely avoid calling the killer “I”. Roger McGuinn quotes Willie and Polly both, just as Denny and Collins had done, and imports Collins’ third-person damnation stanza verbatim, but never quite steps into the killer’s head.
The result is less sinister than many earlier versions, but it’s a gloriously pretty record, and that’s made it an enduring template for the song. “Roger McGuinn is a friend of mine, and he was here two or three Januarys ago to perform at The Barbican for a folk series they had with Judy Collins, Eric Anderson and so on,” Griffin told me. “The Coal Porters played Pretty Polly, and we really did well.
“Backstage, I was speaking to Roger about The Byrds cutting Pretty Polly for Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968 and how I loved that version – actually, both versions, as they did it totally acoustically and then with electric 12-string guitar. Roger reminded me that he also cut Pretty Polly for his solo LP Cardiff Rose in 1976, and then 30 years after that for his Folk Den site on-line. So he’s cut the song four times!
“I like The Byrds’ unreleased version from Sweetheart of the Rodeo the best, though of course I never heard it till that CD was reissued in 2003 with extra tracks from the sessions. McGuinn’s electric 12-string really grooves on it and it sounds like nothing I've ever heard before.”
Folk Den adds a few of McGuinn’s own thoughts. “I’d known the song since my days at the Old Town School of Folk Music [in Chicago] and had always loved the modal tuning on the banjo and guitar in spite of the morbid lyrics,” he says. “This is a good example of a song used for spreading the news of the day, way back before radio, television or the internet.” (35)
Griffin made a similar point when I asked him what it was about the song that made him want to add it to The Coal Porters’ repertoire. “The fact that it is a modal sound, a true mountain song based on one chord,” he replied. “Only Bo Diddley did that kind of thing regularly in the rock and roll world. Not even any of the country rockers did one-chord, purely modal stuff to my knowledge.”
While Pretty Polly danced in the 1960s’ spotlight, it was left to amateur musicians to keep her English source songs alive. Song collectors found The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter still being sung in Canada as late as 1962, and nabbed one of our ballad’s missing links with a 1963 rendition telling Polly’s modern story under her old name. Fran Majors, the singer who performed this last song for collectors in Wichita, Kansas, called it Molly Pretty Molly.

Three years later, Gwilym Davies and Pete Shepheard found a Gloucestershire verion called The Ship Carpenter’s Mate. Wiggy Smith and Denny, his uncle, both performed their own take on the song, and each featured some unique lines. Wiggy, for example, has William’s father pressing so much drink on him that you have to wonder if both the walk in the woods and the murder were originally Daddy’s idea:

He drank and he drank till he drank all his store,
“Dear Father, dear Father, I can’t drink no more”. (36)

In Denny Smith’s version, I particularly like the girl’s plea to her killer just after the stabbing, and his almost tender response:

“Barbarous is Billy, don’t pierce me no more”,
And he covered her over, so safe and secure.



London’s Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, has field recordings of The Gosport Tragedy from as far apart as Northern Ireland and Aberdeen. In 1969, on the island of Orkney, Ethel Findlater sang all nine minutes of it for the School of Scottish Studies’ Alan Bruford. Rather sweetly, Ethel’s version has Molly worrying as much about William’s soul as her own:

“And don’t take my life, lest my soul you betray,
And you to perdition would be hurried away”.
(37)

The valleys here are dry rather than deep, suggesting all compassion has been left behind

Once in a while, the best of these amateur efforts made their way on to disc. One example was Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s field recording of a fisherman called Sam Larner singing what he called The Ghost Song. This turned out to be yet another name for of The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, and Larner’s recording was released on a 1961 Folkways album which later inspired both Peter Bellamy and Jon Boden to cover it professionally.
Love and Murder scored a commercial release too, thanks to Jon Raven cutting it for his 1968 album with The Halliard. The following year’s Comin’ Round the Mountain compilation included a rare Kentucky version of Pretty Polly by a singer called Paul Wiley. His lyrics give a conventional American reading till we get to Willie’s escape, then suddenly we’re flipped into the world of The Gosport Tragedy:

He caught a ship a-sailing down by the seaside,
He caught a ship a-sailing down by the seaside,
He said to the captain he wanted to see the other side.

He sailed upon the ocean, for many days they went,
He sailed upon the ocean, for many days they went,
Till the ship struck an iceberg: to the bottom she went.

This seems to be related to the 1917 version of The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter which Cecil Sharp found in North Carolina. My guess is that the iceberg reference was added to give a topical flavour when the Titanic sank in 1912. “The unique ending of this version of Pretty Polly is the way Paul says he always used to hear it,” the album’s sleeve notes say.
The Iron Mountain String Band unveiled another unexpected twist to the lyrics with their 1975 album Walkin’ In The Parlor. The band had been making field recordings in Virginia’s Grayson and Carroll counties ever since 1956, and the Pretty Polly lyrics they found there gave almost every verse a new slant:

Oh it’s Polly, Pretty Polly, yonder she stands,
Oh Pretty Polly, yonder she stands,
With a ring on her finger, her lily-white hands.

“Well, a ring on her finger shining like gold,
A ring on her finger shining like gold,
And I’m going to have Pretty Polly before she gets too old”.

Rode her over hills and valleys so dry,
He rode her over hills and valleys so dry,
And Polly looked up and she begin to cry.

“Oh Willie, oh Willie, I’m ‘fraid of your ways,
Willie, oh Willie, I’m ‘fraid of your ways,
The way you been angry you make me afraid”.

“Oh Polly, Oh Polly, your guess is ‘bout right,
Oh Pretty Polly, your guess is ‘bout right,
I’m digging your grave the best part of last night”.

He opened her bosom as white as the snow,
He opened her bosom as white as the snow,
Stabbed her through her heart and her blood it did flow.

Then he jumped on his stallion, rode away with great speed,
He jumped on his stallion, rode away with great speed,
“Farewell, Pretty Polly, from your bondage I’m free”.

Now Willie, oh Willie, a debt he must pay,
Willie, oh Willie, a debt he must pay,
For killing Pretty Polly and running away.

There’s so much in this version that we’ve seen nowhere else. Making Polly’s ring singular rather than plural, and specifying that it’s made of gold, suggests a wedding band – although perhaps one that exists only as a dire prospect in Willie’s mind. It’s sex that Willie’s interested in not marriage, and he states that desire in unusually direct terms.
The valleys he takes Polly through here are dry rather than deep, suggesting they’re passing into an arid region where all thoughts of compassion are left behind. It’s not only the realisation that Willie has been lying to her that makes Polly afraid, but his outright anger towards her. Has he been shouting at her? Screaming in her face?
After the murder, it’s not merely a horse Willie escapes on but a stallion, symbolising the renewed potency of a young man no longer facing the prison of marriage and family life. No wonder he cries out with such celebration as he rides away: “From your bondage I’m free!”
This version’s final stanza appears in many other other recordings too, and it’s one which Sparks doesn’t much like. “It always seems like the nervous chatter of a singer uncomfortable with the outcome of his own song,” she says.
Tagged on to such a merciless account, the Iron Mountain String Band’s ending certainly runs that risk, but who could blame the song’s original composers for demading a little spiritual justice when crimes like Willie’s struck so close to home? “Such acts were not rare in the remote and sometimes lawless mountains,” the album’s sleeve notes remind us. “They were frequent topics of conversation as well as ballads”.

By 1970, the folk revival was just a distant memory, and Pretty Polly found few takers in the rock scene that replaced it. The song remained as popular as ever among bluegrass musicians and their fans, but dropped out of sight for almost everyone else. If you ever did hear it on the radio at that time, it was likely to be on a programme devoted to music for toddlers.
Pretty Polly has always had this parallel life as a children’s song. Posting to the folk music board Mudcat in September 2001, Marymarymary recalled hearing a version called Little Molly during her own childhood. “When I was little, the woman who took care of us when my parents were at work used to sing it,” Marymarymary says. “She was an older lady, and we kids were all terrified of her, but she was the only woman around who would babysit that many kids until midnight every night.”
The lyrics she quotes on Mudcat include all of the song’s goriest details, complete with the waiting grave, the stabbing and the heart’s blood. In this version, throwing a little dirt over the girl is not callous enough for Willie, so he chooses an even crueller blanket:

He buried her deep, and he strew the grave with thorns,
He buried her deep and he strew the grave with thorns,
And left no-one behind but the wild birds to mourn.

That’s the tradition Jill Trinka was following when she included Pretty Polly on her 2006 album Bought Me a Cat. “Folk songs, singing games, and play parties for kids of all ages,” the album’s sleeve promises. “Enrich children's lives with this delightful collection of traditional music.” To her credit, Trinka makes no attempt to censor Pretty Polly’s tale, cantering through its every murderous detail in her sweet, high-pitched and very folky voice. For all the feeling she imparts to its lyrics, however, she might as well be singing about puppy dogs and rainbows.

Just this once, it’s Willie who ends up in a shallow grave, and Polly who gets to walk away

Kristin Hersh’s version on her 1998 album Murder Misery and Then Goodnight is much more successful. Mixing murder ballads and lullabies in equal measure, the album springs very much from Hersh’s own childhood. “My father and grandparents taught me all the folk songs I know,” she told me. “Pretty Polly was in my dad’s repertoire of songs he’d play me waiting for the school bus and on the front porch in the afternoon.
“When I made Murder Misery and Then Goodnight, I sat my kids down and gave them a Looney Tunes style lecture on the realities of violence versus impressionistic violence, and they looked at me as if I was nuts. They then went on to sing along, bang on the piano, play the mayonnaise jar and anything else they could get their hands on.
“They had a ball. Really, they made that record with me, rather than dozing off on the studio couch which is what they usually do when I’m working. Kids grasp the value of story, I think.” (34)
Indeed they do. For Hersh, though, Pretty Polly’s tune is just as important as its words. “It’s the dark lyrics in contrast to that bright melody,” she told me. “I always like to hear inherent sadness beneath a brave front.” Jon Boden made a similar point on his website last year. “Of all the girlfriend murdering songs, this must be the one with the most inappropriate tune,” he wrote. “Somehow, that makes it all the more horrific.” (38)
Bluegrass music returned to mass attention when the Coen Brothers released their movie O Brother Where Art Thou in 2000. Its accompanying soundtrack album sparked a brief craze for any vintage recording with a banjo and a fiddle on it, but also helped to fuel the growing Americana/alt.country movement and its fascination with murder ballads. “I’ve spoken to many happy listeners who thought they didn’t like folk music because they only knew protest songs,” Hersh told me. “Songs like Pretty Polly are so creepy and cool in comparison.”
This realisation led Americana fans to form a whole new sub-genre called Hillbilly Noir, which encompassed not only music, but crime novels and movies too. Bands playing every level of venue from a neighbourhood bar to the local sports stadium realised that adding an old murder ballad to their set could add that crucial whiff of sulphur mainstream rock had lost long ago.
And audiences responded well. The London rock band Queenadreena’s average fan must have been 30 years younger than most Ralph Stanley listeners, but the reception they give Pretty Polly on the band’s 2005 live album marks it as a crowd favourite. “It never failed to get a great response,” Crispin Gray, the band’s guitarist, told me. “We often used it as the last song in the set or as an encore – the song the whole gig would build up to. It was one of the very few songs that we played right from the outset to the last Queenadreena performance in 2009.”
Since O Brother’s release, we’ve had other rock treatments of Pretty Polly from the likes of Throttle and Bone Orchard, plus indie ones from The Anarchist Orchestra, Black Strap Molasses Family and Muleskinner Jones. Little Toby Walker and Beate Sampson have both given the song a blues favour, and Bill Frisell’s jazzed it up as highly-polished instrumental. The Crooked Jades, The Elkville String Band, Sarah Elizabeth and Mark Erelli have all ensured its folk and country roots are regularly refreshed.
The Gosport Tragedy and its many aliases haven’t been forgotten either. Jackie Oates included The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter on her 2006 debut album, as did Damien Barber and Mike Wilson on their 2011 CD The Old Songs. Waterson:Carthy cut an excellent version of Polly’s Love on their 2009 album Common Tongue, and Jon Boden revived those old Sam Larner/Peter Bellamy lyrics for his own rendition of The Ghost Song in 2011.
A few songwriters have taken things a step further, and penned their own response to Pretty Polly rather than simply covering the original track. Josh Ritter took this route in 1999, as did Sweet William in 2003 and Fred Burns in 2011. Ritter and William both call their own songs Pretty Polly, but Burns opts for Pretty Polly’s Revenge. “What if the seemingly helpless Polly had been packing heat that fateful day?” he asks.
It doesn’t take long to find out. Burns, deftly accompanying himself on eight-string guitar, sets the scene with a couple of Ralph Stanley’s verses. But when Willie shows Polly her waiting grave, he gets a response he didn’t expect:

“My Momma warned me, Willie, you had evil in your eyes,
She warned me, Willie, you might try to take my life,
So she packed me this pistol, she packed me a pistol,
In my purse last night.”

Well, Willie pulled his dagger, but Polly grabbed her gun,
He pulled his dagger to kill her, but Polly grabbed her gun,
She shot him through the heart, Lord, the bullet pierced his heart,
And his evil blood did run.

In the grave he dug for Polly is where Willie fell,
In the grave he dug for Polly is where Willie fell,
Now he lies in Polly’s grave, Lord, he lies in Polly’s grave,
He’s dead in Polly’s grave, but his soul burns in hell. (39)

It’s a neat twist, and one which returns Pretty Polly to the vengeance her older sister’s ghost wrought on Willie three centuries ago. It took us 100 years from those beginnings to give the murdered girl a hands-on role in Willie’s death, and another 200 after that to produce a version of the song she’s allowed to survive all the way through. Just this once though, thanks to Fred Burns, it’s Willie who ends up in a shallow grave, and Polly who gets to walk away.
Whisper that news to the mud of a Gosport churchyard, as I did just a few days ago, and your answer will be Molly’s sigh of gratitude from far below: “That’s for the murder of my baby and me”.

*****

Appendix I: Sixteen great versions of Polly’s tale


Purty Polly, by John Hammond (1927). This Kentucky banjo player, the first man to put the song on disc, sets his coldly matter-of-fact vocals against a growing frenzy of clawhammer banjo playing. The more evil Willie becomes, the more Hammond’s picking threatens to spiral beyond control. The second his tale’s done, he snaps the music to a halt as sudden and irrevocable as Polly’s death itself. Available on: People Take Warning (Tompkins Square, 2007)

Pretty Polly, by Hobart Smith (1956). Liam Clancy recorded this fiddle instrumental during a song-collecting trip to Virginia. Smith, a veteran of his local community’s square dance celebrations, was mostly a banjo player but proves equally proficient on the fiddle here. He saws up a storm, conjuring up a picture of happy dancers whirling merrily around him to the steady beat of Smith’s own stamping foot. Available on: Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalacians (Tradition, 1997).

Pretty Polly, by The Stanley Brothers (1950). Ralph Stanley’s keening, high-lonesome vocals join with banjo, fiddle and stand-up bass for the song’s single most essential recording. In just two-and-a-half chilling minutes, Willie moves from an apparently sincere marriage proposal to calmly stabbing Polly because he thinks she’s put it about a bit. “You can’t beat that mountain sound,” Ralph Stanley said when he revisited the song 50 years later. This record is the living proof. Available on: Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers (SBME, 1996).

Pretty Polly, by Estil C Ball (1959). Ball was white, but he learned his trade as a fire-and-brimstone gospel singer. That apprenticeship serves him well in this bluesy rendition, with its deep, resonant vocals and unhurried banjo accompaniment. Ball makes expert play of the song’s inherent drama, painting Polly’s killer as the starkest, most inexplicable figure we’ve yet seen. No wonder Alan Lomax chose this version to represent Pretty Polly on his own murder ballads compilation. Available on: Southern Journey vol. 5: Bad Man Ballads (Continental, 2000).

Pretty Polly, by Sandy Denny (1967). The Fairport Convention singer’s piercingly clear voice starts gently, but builds steadily in force throughout. Denny stares the song’s violence straight in the eye, relishing the tale it has to tell. But her grim tone as Willie walks away makes it clear his damnation is utterly inescapable. Each line is decorated with a little flourish of Spanish guitar at its close as the other acoustic instruments drive things on beneath. As with many of the best Pretty Pollys, there’s not a hint of drums. Available on: It’s Sandy Denny (Saga, 1970).

Pretty Polly, by Judy Collins (1968). Collins’ voice is every bit as lovely and powerful as Denny’s. She takes the song much more slowly, however, lingering over its every development with a haunting sense of regret. Stephen Stills and James Burton share guitar duties, edging the track subtly towards rock territory. It’s very much a full-band treatment, so folkaphobics will find nothing to scare them off here. Available on: Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (Elektra, 1990).

Pretty Polly, by The Byrds (1968). Pretty Polly’s never been a chart hit, but if The Byrds had released this version as a single, it surely would have been. Packed with the band’s trademark chiming guitars, it’s a gloriously pretty record. Like The Kingston Trio’s Tom Dooley or Sam Cooke’s Frankie & Johnny, McGuinn & Co pull off the tricky task of including all the gore without offending even the most pious listener. Available on: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Sony, 1997).

Pretty Polly, by The Iron Mountain String Band (1975). Using rare lyrics uncovered during the band’s own Virginia field research, this is my favourite of the song’s hardcore traditional recordings. Eric Davidson’s quick, snaky banjo is the highlight, aided by reedy mountain vocals and what sounds like someone slapping their legs to serve as percussion. You can almost picture a spitoon set next to the mike as they recorded it – which is just as it should be. Available on: Walkin’ In The Parlor (Folkways, 2009).

The Death of Polly, by Mick Harris and Martyn Bates (1994). Hailing from Napalm Death and Eyeless in Gaza respectively, Harris & Bates offer one of the song’s most original readings yet. Dotting eight of its standard verses over a generous 14 minutes, they fill the rest of their time with doomy atmospherics and wordless groans. Something of an acquired taste, perhaps, but true to the song’s spirit and an intriguing glimpse into Willie’s mental landscape as he leads Polly into the woods. Available on: Murder Ballads: The Complete Collection (Invisible, 1998).

Pretty Polly, by Kristin Hersh (1998). Hersh’s version, using just her voice and her own acoustic guitar accompaniment, is an object lesson in the virtues of simplicity. Cutting all but the song’s five most crucial verses, she allows nothing to distract attention from the tale itself. The sweet, slightly breathy vocals give us a matter-of-fact account of Polly’s fate, with the guitar stepping carefully back as each line is sung. It’s only when a verse has safely concluded that Hersh allows herself a decorative little pattern on the strings to ensure its content sinks in. Available on Murder Misery and Then Goodnight (4AD, 1998).

Pretty Polly, by The Whistling Hangmen (1998). Another unusual version, this one from Oren Bloedow’s New York jazz group. They give Polly the full film noir treatment, complete with late-night bluesy ambiance and blaring car-chase horns. It’s entirely instrumental, with only the briefest snatches of Pretty Polly’s melody picked out here and there on guitar to tell you its source. In the imaginary movie they’re soundtracking here, Willie and Polly are played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Available on: Barhopping (Avant, 1998).

Pretty Polly, by Bill Frisell, Ron Carter & Paul Motian (2005). Vituoso guitar, bass and drums trio treat themselves to seven minutes of jazz noodling. Frisell scatters shards of the familiar melody through this wordless improvisation. The results come perilously close to dinner party music at times. But, like the Hobart Smith recording above, they’re also proof that Pretty Polly can stand on its tune alone. Available on: Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch, 2006).

Pretty Polly, by Uncle Sinner (2008). Gutbucket hillbilly blues from Winnipeg’s Mike Bodner and Matt McLeod. Barbed-wire banjo, a scratchy mandolin and the steady stomp of percussion join with surly, growled vocals for one of the song’s darkest versions yet. Bodner stays firmly in the killer’s head throughout. “I loved up her body and sent her soul to Hell,” he boasts. “I stabbed her to the heart and her life blood did flow”. “I think there’s something kind of anti-social about the music,” Bodner told one fan. “It’s agitated, probably because I tend to be agitated.” Long may he remain so. Available on: Ballads and Mental Breakdowns (Devil's Ruin, 2008).

Pretty Polly, by Ruby Throat (2008). Queenadreena’s Katie Jane Garside was on a train from Paris to Marseille with her Ruby Throat partner Chris Whittingham when they happened to meet a fiddle player among the other passengers. The impromptu on-board gig that followed included this magical version of Pretty Polly, which someone was wise enough to film. Garside seems almost possessed as she twists and squirms her way through the song in a packed carriage speeding through the French countryside. Available on: YouTube.

Polly’s Love, by Waterson:Carthy (2009). The first family of English folk give Pretty Polly’s 18th century source song a rare outing. Norma Waterson drips melancholy with every word of her vocals, while Martin Carthy’s acoustic guitar provides slow and understated backing. After William’s killed Polly, we get a full account of his fate on-board ship, including the “ripped him and stripped him and tore him in three” verse as Polly’s ghost takes revenge. Available on: Common Tongue (Topic, 2009).

Pretty Polly’s Revenge, by Fred “Butch“ Burns (2011). “What if the seemingly helpless Polly had been packing heat that fateful day?” Burns asks. The answer, it seems, is she’d have blown Willie’s head off and kicked him into the same shallow grave he’d prepared for her. Burns accompanies himself nimbly on eight-string guitar in what’s unquestionably the best of Polly’s various answer songs. Available on: YouTube.

*****

Appendix II: ‘A rage that’s so blissfully pure’


One of the singers I talked to for this piece was Katie Jane Garside, who’s sung Pretty Polly with both Queenadreena and her new band Ruby Throat. I’m running our short interview in full here.

PlanetSlade: What was it about the song that first made you want to sing it?
Katie Jane Garside: Pretty Polly sought me out. She settled in for the night: many nights. We are cut from the same piece of cloth, so she is very comfortable stitched down with me. I am a more than willing canvas - I have a friend.”

PS: How does it feel to sing Pretty Polly on stage? Is it gruelling? Liberating? Or just one more exercise in telling a story?
KJG: “She excites me. She pulls me down right into the primal - even primordial - heat ... combustion. I feel this song at the base of my spine: a singer’s song. She takes over and shows you how it’s done, a glorious fucking song.”

PS: Do you feel you’re "channelling" the characters as you sing it, or that you’re telling the tale as a neutral witness?
KJG: “Perhaps it’s the other way round - the song channels me. I’ve always been greatly lacking in a sense of self, but somehow this song brings me up against something I seem to have lost. Polly saved me: she was screaming and sign-posting.”

PS: Do you sing the song from a single point of view, or move from one character's mind to the next as it progresses?
KJG: “Hopefully, I am not present to be able to answer this question.”

PS: Is Pretty Polly a different song when a woman sings it? If so, how?
KJG: “The rape, ransack and murder implied in the question transmute into a splitting seed. Horrors and broken bodies become innumerable seedlings: there is life. Some nights, the song comes with a rage so blissfully pure my mouth is 100 miles wide, crashing through forests, armies and deserts.”

PS: How did Queenadreena's audiences react to the song when they saw it played live?
KJG: “I see wild-eyed horses breakdancing in slow-motion.”

PS: Is the song still a part of your life now that Queenadreena's no longer gigging?
KJG: “As long as Polly wants me, I am hers.”

When I asked that last question, I didn’t yet know that Katie Jane was also singing Pretty Polly with her new band. See main feature for more details.

*****

Appendix III: ‘Like some kind of forced confession’


I also sent some questions to Muleskinner Jones, whose own version of Pretty Polly appears on his 2001 EP Terrible Stories.

PlanetSlade: What attracted you to the song in the first place?
Muleskinner Jones: “Mainly the over-the-top 'gothic' nature of the piece. It's a very Roger Corman / Hammer Horror type of scenario. Very visually rich. I also like the droney nature of the tune, it's pretty much just one chord. This gives it a haunting incantation-like quality. I'd wager the tune was a major influence on The Violent Femmes’ awesome Country Death Song, which was the tune that got me into murder ballads and country/acoustic music in a general way back in the mid-eighties.”

PS: Was there a particular recording which first sparked your interest in the song?
MJ: “The Stanley Brothers’ version on Long Journey Home from 1972. It was quite a shock when I first heard it - I wasn't expecting that type of content and the first few verses of the Stanley Brothers’ version play out like it might be some kind of love song. Ralph Stanley's voice is just perfect for it. I think it's pretty hardcore actually: the banjo switching between drone and stinging icepick runs and a voice that sounds like it could shatter glass, or belong to a 1,000-year old insane preacher.”

PS: If you had to pick just one recording of Pretty Polly, which would you choose?
MJ: “It would be extremely difficult to choose between The Stanley Brothers’ one and Dock Boggs’ version. Dock Boggs would win out for pure weirdness! They both have that droney, timeless, spectral quality that I love. Dock Boggs seems to be rushing through it as if he's guilty about singing it, like some kind of forced confession.”

PS: Do you feel you're inhabiting the characters as you sing it?
MJ: “I sing the song predominantly from the POV of the murderer who I imagine to be drunk and pretty much beyond redemption. I don't view my version as particularly serious: it's a kind of camp Victorian gothic melodrama. The few lines that Polly speaks I guess I try and sing from her perspective.”

PS: Pretty Polly is often used as a children's song. Why do you think that is?
MJ: “Children do tend to enjoy this type of stuff. My kids (from about 7 and 9) loved that Decemberists LP The Hazards Of Love. I was a bit worried that they might find the contents of The Rake's Song (about a father who does in his children in various ways) rather disturbing, but they loved it. “There's a song called Little Dead Riding Hood on my new LP which contains the line 'Howled out loud at the moon / as the worms crawled cross her skin'. That freaked my daughter out more than any murder ballad.”

PS: Anything else you’d like to say about Pretty Polly?
MJ: “When I was researching my version I listened to a lot of the Max Hunter recordings. That site is a treasure trove of cool stuff.”

Find out more about Muleskinner Jones at his own website here. His new album, A Dying Man Can Sure Sing The Blues, is out now.

*****

Appendix IV: Polly’s five (unrelated) sisters


Untangling Pretty Polly’s family history begins with discarding the many old folk songs with a similar title but a completely different plot. Here’s a few examples:

Pretty Polly Oliver (17th century). A girl dresses up as a man so she can follow her soldier boyfriend to town (or sometimes to war). He befriends this young “chap” and gives him lodging for the night. When Polly reveals herself, the soldier is so impressed with her moxie that he marries her. Blackadder and “Bob” enjoyed a very similar affair in the Elizabethan series. Pretty Polly Oliver has been recorded by Ollie Gilbert, Jody Stecher and Emily Portman.

The Ship’s Carpenter (c1737) Jane Reynolds is engaged to James Harris, who gets press-ganged before they can marry. Three years later, he’s reported dead, so Jane weds a ship’s carpenter instead. She stays with the carpenter for four years (making a mystical seven years in all), and bears him at least one child. Then the spirit of James Harris returns to claim her, and the couple sail off on a spectral ship. One of Pretty Polly’s ancestors is The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, but this song is not related to either.

The Cruel Ship’s Captain (c1800) A workhouse lad is forced to serve as cabin boy on board a Greenland whaling ship. He displeases the captain, who lashes him to the mast through a freezing night and then kills him next morning rather than endure the boy’s pitiful cries. This song was based on the real case of the Loyal Briton’s Captain Mills, who killed cabin boy Thomas Brown by striking him over the head with a handspike in 1798. Mills was brought back to England and jailed for the crime. Whalers adopted this song as their own, adding several inventively sadistic verses to prolong the cabin boy’s pain. AL Lloyd recorded it in 1967, and his record’s sleevenotes confused matters further by wrongly calling it The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.

Pretty Polly (c. 1850) I’ve never been able to find this song, but it’s mentioned in both JB Cox’s Traditional Ballads, Mainly From West Virginia and C. Kirk Hutson’s 1996 essay Whackety Whack, Don’t Talk Back. Cox links it to a Buck Creek, Kentucky, murder of the early 19th century. “One Polly Aldridge was murdered by William Chapman, who was convicted and executed in Martin Co, KY,” he writes. “This ballad was being sung about the killing c. 1850”. Maybe so, but it seems to bear no relation to the Pretty Polly we know today. Hutson mentions a copy of the Chapman/Aldridge song which “described how Chapman viciously cut open her abdomen, filled the empty cavity with rocks, and tossed the weighted corpse in Sug River”. Those elements appear in no other version that I know. Given the clear proof that our own Pretty Polly has much older roots, I think the Chapman/Aldridge tale is better viewed as an entirely separate song. (40)

Pretty Polly (1920) Olive Flora Bryson’s name for a very old English ballad called Lady Isabel and The Elf Knight, which she performed for song collectors in Virginia. Lady Isabel is tempted from her home by an evil knight, who tries to kill her. She kills him instead, often by magical means. When Isabel returns home, her pet parrot (presumably the Polly of Bryson’s title) agrees not to wake her father, and she rewards it with a golden cage. Lady Isabel has been recorded as The Elf Knight by Steeleye Span (1996) and as The Outlandish Knight by Bellowhead (2006).

*****

Appendix V: The case for John Billson’s defence


There’s no question that David Fowler’s research on The Gosport Tragedy is impressive. He’s shown conclusively that The Bedford really did have a Charles Stewart on board shortly before the ballad was produced, that Stewart served on the ship while it was moored at Portsmouth, that the ship was then preparing to sail for action, and that its carpenter’s name was John Billson.
Any one of those facts in isolation could be dismissed as a mere coincidence, but proving they all came together like this adds huge support to Fowler’s account. The trouble is, I suspect they’ve also led him to convict the wrong man.
I say this because of two nagging doubts, the first of which concerns Billson’s age. Glance through those Gosport Tragedy lyrics again, and ask yourself how old you imagine the song’s protagonist to be. He’s a man who’s very keen to sleep with Molly, but absolutely terrified at the prospect of having to marry her. Fatherhood is either a prospect that doesn’t interest him at all, or one which he’s content to postpone for a good few years yet. Faced with the danger of being forced into family life when he doesn’t want it, his response is to kill the girl and his own unborn child too.
To me, that paints the picture of a young man, governed far more by his animal impulses than by any mature deliberation. His main concern in life is to have plenty of fun right now, and to avoid responsibility for as long as he can. I’d guess he’s in his late teens or early twenties – perhaps 30 at most.
Billson was far older. When I sketched out Fowler’s research on The Gosport Tragedy for the Admiralty’s Jennifer Wraight, she consulted some records of her own. “I have checked on John Billson, master carpenter, and his first appointment as such was 1702,” she told me next day. “He was clearly not a young man, as the murderer in the ballad is implied to be.”
When Wraight checked a database covering Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, she found that the youngest master carpenter whose age is given there was 25, and that most were considerably older. Even if Billson was as young as 20 when he qualified as a master carpenter, he’d have been in his mid-forties when The Gosport Tragedy’s events played out, and the man the ballad depicts sounds a good 20 years younger than that.
Next, we come to the fact that the Roxburghe Gosport calls William a “ship-carpenter’ in its first verse, but a “carpenter’s mate” when it describes him fleeing after the murder. The relevant lines span two different verses but, taken together, they read: “On board the Bedford he entered straightway / Which lay at Portsmouth out-bound for the sea / For carpenter’s mate he was entered we hear / Fitted for his voyage, away he did steer”.
This discrepancy persists on various Gosport Tragedy sheets well into the 19th century, and in folk music versions of the song long after that. Wiggy Smith, a Gloucestershire singer recorded by song collectors in 1966, called his own version The Ship Carpenter’s Mate, and performed it with these lines: “And just to make certain he went straightaway / For to ‘list for some soldier, some ship carpenter’s mate”. All this makes me wonder if the real killer whose exploits inspired The Gosport Tragedy was not Billson, but one of the eight to twelve junior carpenters he had working for him on board.
Billson was only one of about 40 men who died through illness on board the Bedford during that Baltic expedition. If any of the others happened to be in the carpenter’s gang below him, then their death would fit the ballad’s account as neatly as his own. Probably only one or two men in that gang carried the formal title of carpenter’s mate – the rest being known simply as “carpenter’s crew” – but any of them could have been casually described that way.
Chances are, they would have been a good deal younger than Billson too, as Wraight’s Trafalgar figures demonstrate. “Of the 40 carpenter’s mates [listed at Trafalgar], the youngest is 21,” she told me. “And the same is true of of the 216 men listed as carpenter’s crew.”
I can quite see why Cluer – or any other balladeer – might amend a real job description of “ship carpenter’s mate” to “ship’s carpenter” when writing his verses. It’s a small enough change to convince even the most conscientious writer he’s not distorting the essential facts, and gives him a phrase to play with that’s shorter, punchier and easier to rhyme than the original. All these factors become more important than ever in the ballad’s opening verse, and that’s exactly where the Roxburghe Gosport uses “ship’s carpenter” most prominently. The fact that a “ship carpenter’s mate” slips through instead right down in verse 19 is evidence only that our scribe was by then getting tired or lazy.
Applying the same logic in the opposite direction is far harder to do. Why would you deliberately make the killer’s real job title longer, more cumbersome and less forceful by adding the word “mate” for no good reason? The only possible justification I can think of for that would be a situation where “mate” was needed to rhyme with some absolutely crucial word you couldn’t accommodate in any other way. But, as the examples above show, that simply isn’t the case here.
With these doubts in mind, I went out to the UK’s National Archive at Kew myself to examine the same muster books and pay books Fowler had studied there 30 years ago. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that it’s only a handful of the ship’s most senior or specialist crew who have a job title listed alongside their name in the Bedford’s records. Billson’s identified there as the ship’s carpenter, of course, alongside Edmund Hook as the Bedford’s commander and James Bruce as ship’s master.
The cook, surgeon, clerk, coxon and boatswain are all identified by name too, but the over 400 men remaining get just “Ab” or “Ord” noted against their names to indicate they’re either an able or an ordinary seaman. Every member of Billson’s carpentry gang must surely appear somewhere in that undifferentiated mass but, with no chance of plucking out their names, we hit a dead end.
Even so, I think it’s only fair to consider Billson innocent until proven guilty. Any competent defence lawyer, would be able to convince a jury that the questions above are enough to introduce a reasonable doubt, and therefore make any murder conviction against him impossible. Taken as a whole, Fowler’s account remains a very convincing one, and I think he’s right to finger the Bedford in 1726. But hanging John Billson as the specific individual behind the murder would be a step too far.

For more on Pretty Polly, please go to this Amazon Kindle page (US / UK). The version of my essay there adds an exclusive interview with The Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks, who delves deeper into the song’s strange sexual charge and nominates what she believes is its creepiest recording ever. The price is just £1.49 ($1.85 in US). Amazon has a free app allowing its Kindle titles to also be read on smartphones, tablets and computers.

*****
Sources & Footnotes
1) Pretty Polly, by Rennie Sparks. Published in The Rose & The Briar, edited by Sean Wilentz & Greil Marcus (WW Norton, 2005). Sparks’ essay was one of my two key sources for this piece, and anyone with an interest in the song should be sure to read it.
2) Sleeve notes to People Take Warning (Various artists, Tompkins Square, 2007).
3) The Unthinkable: Children Who Kill, by Katherine Ramsland (www.trutv.com).
4) No Remorse, by Rachel Aviv (The New Yorker, January 2, 2012).
5) Author interview, Harper Collins website. (www.harpercollins.com).
6) Words From the Wind, by Adam J. Pearson (http://philosophadam.wordpress.com).
7) Quoted in A Brief History of Gosport, by Tim Lambert (www.localhistories.org/gosport.html).
8) Pretty Polly’s roots in The Gosport Tragedy come as news to many people on both sides of the Atlantic – as Kristin Hersh discovered when she included the American song on her 1998 album, Murder Misery and Then Goodnight. “My English label back then was so confused by this record that they declined to put it out conventionally,” she says. “I remember telling them, ‘These are your songs. It’s not that weird!’”
9) Josh Ritter released a song of his own called Pretty Polly in 1999, which seems to be a response to The Dreadful Ghost. He sings: “Pretty Polly please come down / From your home high above the ground / In the tree dark and forlorn / Where the rope hangs bruised and worn”. The girl in The Dreadful Ghost is never named, so perhaps Ritter was inspired by a version of Pretty Polly which incorporates that song’s hanging scene. If so, I’ve never found it.
10) The Gosport Tragedy: Story of a Ballad, by David Fowler. Published in The Southern Folklore Quarterly volume 43, issues 3 & 4, 1979 (University of Florida). The second of my two most important sources, and well worth reading in full. Cecil Sharp House in London has SFQ's bound volumes, and I’m sure many US university libraries have them too.
11) I asked Karen Limper-Herz, the British Library curator who looks after its 18th century printed documents, to clarify the Roxburghe Gosport’s conflicting dates for me.
“Both dates are guesses to some extent,” she replied. “In a lot of cases, a date of 1750 was suggested by ESTC if the cataloguer was not sure whether an item was printed in the first or second half of the 18th century. The ESTC cataloguer was therefore no more or less sure about the dating than the cataloguer who created the record for GK. On balance, and from typographical evidence, I would go with the dating suggested by ESTC, possibly slightly earlier or later, but round the middle of the 18th century.”
The ETSC catalogie was started only in 1976, she added, so it’s perfectly possible that only the GK date existed when Fowler researched his own essay. If both he and Limper-Herz are right, then as much as 25 years may have have passed between the killing that inspired The Gosport Tragedy and the Roxburghe sheet itself being printed. There’s no reason to assume this is the first Gosport Tragedy sheet of all though – it’s simply the earliest that’s survived to our own time – and the ballad may have already been in print for a decade or more before Roxburghe’s sheet was produced.
12) The Royal Navy had one earlier Bedford, strictly called HMS Bedford Galley, but she was far too small to qualify as a ship of the line. She was built in 1697, converted to a fireship in 1716, and sunk to form a foundation at Sheerness in 1725.
13) Captain’s log of The Bedford, 1723-1728. Original held at The National Archives, Kew (item ADM 51/132).
14) As Fowler points out, this implies that Molly – pregnant when killed – had somehow given birth in the after-life. Killing a pregnant woman generally means killing her foetus too, so you can see why a sailor expecting Molly to haunt the ship might envisage her spectral form with a baby in its arms.
15) Weekly Journal, October 15, 1726.
16) Newcastle Courant, November 19, 1726.
17) Hook actually spells the carpenter’s surname here as “Bellson”, but it’s clear he has the same individual in mind. Everyone took their own guess at how any particular surname should be spelt at this time, and I’ve changed Hook’s spelling to “Billson” here just to avoid confusion.
18) Scurvy: The Sailor’s Nightmare, by Grant Sebastian Nell (http://grant-sebastian-nell.suite101.com).
19) The only US version I know which has Willie raving to death after seeing the ghost appears in a 2001 Mudcat post from Clint Keller. He recalled his grandmother singing Pretty Polly with these lines: “He was taken with fits the very next night / And died in the morning before ‘twas daylight / Saying ‘Polly, Pretty Polly, over yonder she stands / With rings on the fingers of her lily-white hands’.”
20) Other sources claim the oldest surviving gravestones at St Mary’s go back as far as 1666. One of the people buried there is Captain GM Bligh, who served on board the Victory at Trafalgar and was related to the Bounty’s Captain Bligh.
21) If Cluer really was the man who first put The Gosport Tragedy in print, then he had precious little time to enjoy that triumph. He died in 1728, long before he could have any inkling how popular the ballad would become.
22) This scenario would make the Roxburghe Gosport a little older than Karen Limper-Herz’s estimate (above), but only by a few years. It’s still well within the British Library’s general range of 1720-1750.
23) Fowler’s quoting Joseph Ritson’s verdict on the folk process here.
24) When George Malcolm Laws surveyed US ballad sheets from around this time, he found 45 examples which recycle The Gosport Tragedy in one form or another. Most of his sample was drawn from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
25) Perhaps the fact that Plymouth plays such a central role in America’s foundation myths about the Mayflower meant it was always likely to blot out the less familiar Portsmouth in this US writer’s mind.
26) Everything I’ve read about Cowell’s performance of Molly The Betrayed says he delivered it in a comedy cockney accent, which is evident in the verse sheet’s spelling of words like “hocean” and “hinnercent”. Lines like “It chanced that von day ven her vages vos paid” suggest stage Jewish instead, so perhaps his act included an element of that caricature too.
27) Sharp actually phrased this as “...still popular with country singers”, but it was not Nashville’s hat acts he had in mind. The song’s modern status as a country & western staple now makes his remark look rather prescient.
28) Examples of the other Pretty Pollys include the 17th century’s Pretty Polly Oliver and some versions of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. See Appendix IV for details.
29) Dock Boggs took a slightly tougher line when singing the song live. At concerts, he’d replace the words “At last Pretty Polly she fell asleep” with “He threw her in the river where the water’s twenty foot deep”.
30) It was The Stanley Brothers’ 1950 recording which prompted Mudcat’s Steve Latimer to coin a useful new rule of American popular music: “If the woman’s alive at the end of the song, it ain’t bluegrass”.
31) If my own collection of 37 recordings is anything to go by, then Pretty Polly has been shrinking pretty steadily ever since it was first committed to disc. On that sample, the song averaged ten verses during the first third of its history (1925-1954), eight verses during the second third (1955-1983) and just seven-and-a-half verses in the final third (1984-2011).
32) Sleevenotes to Face A Falling World (various artists, Tomkins Square, 2009).
33) Little Toby Walker underlines this point in his own 2003 recording: “He covered her with dirt and he turned to go home / And only the birdies could hear her dying moan”.
34) Personal interview via e-mail, January 2012.
35) Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den (www.ibiblio.org/jimmy/folkden-wp/).
36) When George Dunn performed a similar set of lyrics for other song collectors in 1971, he recalled singing the The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter during his youth as a Herefordshire hop-picker. “I sung beautiful in the hopyard,” he said. “The others joined in. When you came to the chorus, they’d join in. The hopyard was full of singing.”
37) This notion also appears in Little Toby Walker’s recording: “Willie, oh Willie, I fear for your ways / I fear that your rambling has led you astray.”
38) A Folk Song A Day (http://www.afolksongaday.com/2011/06/11/the-ghost/).
39) Pretty Polly’s Revenge, by Fred “Butch“ Burns (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGRoKm98WUo).
40) Whackety Whack, Don’t Talk Back, by C. Kirk Hutson (Journal of Women’s History, volume 8, issue 3, 1996). Published by Binghamton University, New York State.