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The Subgenre of Murder Ballads in the Street Literature of Britain

Kristen F. Culler 

The Subgenre of Murder Ballads in the Street Literature of Britain 

Department of English, University of Minnesota 
English 3960, Junior-Senior Seminar: Nineteenth Century British Street Ballads 
Spring 1997

IN THE genre of street ballads, specifically the ballads of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there exists a subgenre consisting of tales of murder, trials, and executions, all of which are often appear in the same ballad. These "Murder Ballads" seem to be of their own species when compared with the political, humorous, and romantic ballads that circulated through England's streets at the same time. My intent is to examine a sample of thirteen Murder Ballads (mostly drawn from the collections in the British Library that have been reproduced on microfilm), and to determine the specific features that characterize  a Murder Ballad. I will also notice some other authors who have discussed this subgenre of street literature. I will conclude by comparing some metrical features of the Murder Ballad with those of the traditional literary ballad.
    For the most part, the Murder Ballads were written in a set formula. The majority of the ballads are divided into two parts. The first is a narrative written in prose. This narrative typically gives details specific to the particular murder being described, such as  the date the murder occurred, the gender and name of the victim(s), the cause of death or type of murder, and the name of the murderer. The age of the victims is rarely included, unless very young or very old; and even in those cases, the age is mentioned in a fairly general way. The occupation of the murderer and the location of the murder are often mentioned as well, with the location  often figuring in the title.  In some cases, details such as the testimonies of witnesses and brief accounts of the trial are also a part of the narrative. It is interesting to note that when dates are given, the year is not. This sort of omission is understandable because the ballads were not written to last a lifetime; they were  made to be a contemporary report and temporary amusement. Street ballads in general, and Murder Ballads in particular, were usually written and printed very quickly. Sometimes they were written and printed the same day as the event they reported.
    More than one of the thirteen ballads in the sample state the cause of death as the victim's throat being cut. One of the more disturbing examples is from the ballad titled "Horrible Double Murder at Berkhamstead".  This ballad is particularly gruesome because the murderer "nearly severed their heads from their bodies."  Other causes of death include strangulation, shooting, bludgeoning, drowning, being hacked to death with an ax, and one other that cannot be described with just a few words. This ballad, titled "Horrible and Atrocious Murder of a Woman at Wednesbury" describes the cause of death this way:
    Mr. Kerr, surgeon, proved that death was caused through the insertion of stones into the body. He produced a large piece of brick and sixteen pieces of iron cinder, all of which were found imbedded in the corpse, at the time of the post-mortem examination.
    In some cases more than just the basic details are given in the narrative. Approximately half of the ballads in the sample have narratives that include the testimony of witnesses. For example, a ballad titled "Frightful Murder of the Rev. Mr. Huelin and His Housekeeper at Chelsea" contains the testimony of  four people: Henry Piper, a van proprietor; Joseph Coles, a policeman; Serjeant John Large, another policeman; and Edward James Payne, a labourer. This ballad is quite long; most of it is taken up with the testimony of these four men. The following sentences are taken from the introduction and the conclusion, all that remains once the testimony (marked here by ellipsis) is removed:
    On Friday, William Miller, was charged at Westminster police court, with the murders of Mr. Huelin and Mrs. A. B. Boss. The following evidence was adduced . . . . Edward Cugh and William Watts, detectives, proved finding the body of Mr. Huelin buried at the entrance of the closet, without coat, but otherwise fully dressed. The prisoner was remanded.
    In many cases the narratives include short accounts of the trial proceedings. Quite often, this information is given in only one or two sentences. One example is the ballad "Execution of W. and F. Tidbury, for the Murder of Two Policemen":
    After the examination of a great number of other witnesses, the Judge summed up, and the Jury, after an absence of about an hour and a half, returned a verdict of wilful murder against Henry and Charles Tidbury. . . . The learned Judge then assumed the black and in an impressive speech passed sentence of death in the usual form.
    Another item frequently included in the narrative section of a ballad is a letter  which was supposedly written by the murderer to his or her sweetheart or family. The letter often contained appeals to the sweetheart and family members to forgive the murderer for the crime that he or she had committed and apologies for any disgrace that may have resulted from the crime, as well as any last wishes the murderer might have. One such letter is included in the narrative of the ballad "The Horrid Murder Committed by Mary Wilson, Upon the Body of George Benson, Through Disappointment in Marriage":
    Dear Father and Mother,
        With feelings of the deepest anguish I write to youónot that I am sorry for what I have done,ófar from it. Locked up in my solitary cell, I am  rather glad than sorry, for I never could have lived to see him the husband of another. It is with feelings of the deepest regret that I have brought trouble and disgrace upon your aged heads, and an everlasting disgrace upon my children. May God in his infinite mercy guard and protect them and may my dear girl never come to the same unfortunate end her poor mother has. Nothing can save me from the scaffold, and I am willing to die, but never let my dear children know my untimely end, is the sincere prayer of,
                                                                                    Mary Wilson.
    Many of the same sentiments that are expressed in the letter are also to be found in the usual second half of a Murder Ballad: the verses. These verses often include a plea or direct address to  "Feeling Christians" and "Good People"; such appeals usually appear within the first few stanzas of the verses. In fact, in the seven ballads that include such a plea, only one does not occur in the first stanza (and it appears in the second).  Some examples of these entreaties are "Attend you feeling Christians," from "Horrible and Atrocious Murder of a Woman at Wednesbury"; "Good people all I pray draw near," from the ballad "Shocking Murder of a Wife at Oving"; "You feeling Christians pay attention" from "Frightful Murder of the Rev. Mr. Huelin and His Housekeeper at Chelsea"; and so on.  There are also two other ballads, which, even though they did not have variations of either of the two previous phrases, do call out to their readers to listen to the tale they have to tell. The first ballad, "Dreadful Murder at Eriswell," asks that "Both young and old, where'er you be, I'd have you list awhile to me." The second ballad, "The Berkshire Tragedy, or the Wittam Miller," begins with the words, "Young men and maidens give ear, unto what I shall now relate." The purpose of many of these appeals is to play upon the Christian sympathy of the readers. It its as though the criminal is saying "Don't forgive the criminal or the crime but at least listen toóand learn fromóthe story."
    Many of these ballads were supposed to have been written by the murderers themselves, in the condemned cell, usually the night before the execution, and "found" the next morning when the jailer came to bring the condemned criminal to the scaffold and the hangman's noose. However, few believe that the ballads were actually written by the criminals; in many cases, printers would publish a Murder Ballad as soon as there was any hint of a story. For example, James "Jemmy" Catnach of Seven Dials, London, who was probably the most well-known  ballad monger of the early 1800s, ran his print shop with the help of  his mother. While he as serving six months in prison for an unrelated crime, his mother printed a broad-side about a murder that had never happened.  The ballad contained specific details regarding the murder of Thomas Lane and his family, a tragedy that did not occur. Mrs. Catnach was brought before the magistrate for circulating false news. This "news" was most likely a rumor that Mrs. Catnach heard and wanted to get on paper ahead of any other printer.
    The verses typically include warnings to the reading public not to allow themselves to fall into the same traps that the murderers have. Although only three of the thirteen ballads in the sample include verses written from the point of view of the criminal, all thirteen contain warnings. Often the moralizing is broad: there are verses against greed, lust, and drink, all often implicated in  murder.  "The Berkshire Tragedy"  contains a stanza  warning young men against the dangers of lust:

        Young men take warning by me,
            All filthy lusts defy
        By giving way to wickedness,
            Alas this day I die.

"Murder of a Child, Near Measham" warns young women against straying from the straight and virtuous path:

        Young women all mind what I say,
            By me a warning take,
        And strive to walk in virtue's ways,
            Lest you fall into disgrace.

Both of these ballads conclude with pleas from the murderers to God, beseeching His forgiveness and mercy. "The Berkshire Tragedy"  ends with the lines "Lord wash my hateful sins away,/ Which have been manifold,/ Have mercy on me Lord I pray,/ and Christ receive my soul." The ballad "Murder of a Child Near Measham"  concludes with the following lines, "And may God in His great mercy,/ Take pity on my fall,/ To him alone I trust for peace,/ To him I make my call." "Trial and Sentence of William Miller, for the Horrid Murder of a Clergyman and his Housekeeper at Chelsea," also concluded with such a plea:

        Let none my family 'ere upbraid,
        When I am laid within my grave,
        For the warning bell soon for me will toll
        May God in mercy save my soul.

    Not all of the blame is assigned to greed, drink, or lust; one ballad, "Dreadful Murder at Eriswell, gives an unusual explanation. Two men, caught poaching in the King's preserves, murdered the gamekeeper that caught them. Rather than telling the public how horrible it is to murder someone, and to receive a death sentence for it, the ballad gives this explanation and warning:

        Now these two men do lay in gaol,
        And bitterly they do bewail,
        And Rutterford he cannot fail,
            To look forward to his doom.
        But those cursed Game Laws,
        Has been the cause,
        Of many a life's blood to be shed,
        And a warning voice comes from the dead;
        Saying, repeal the laws, or live in dread,
            Of the great Judgment day.
    Many of the ballads were supposed to have been "written" by the criminals themselves, but in fact they were usually written by men employed by printers such as James Catnach and John Pitts. One of these writers was John Morganóunsual because he often signed his name to his work. Morgan also corresponded with Charles Hindley as Hindley prepared The History of the Catnach Press (1887), and some of his letters survive there. Hindley reports that there were "Seven Bards of the Seven Dials" (40) who supplied the printers of the Dials area with many of the ballads they needed. Many of the authors supplied ballads to both Catnach and Pitts, despite their rivalry.
     There are some exceptions to the structure that I have described as the "standard" form of a Murder Ballad. Not all of the ballads begin with a prose narrative. Two of the twelve ballads in the sample do not include such a narrative, and consist only of the verse section of the "standard" form: "The Berkshire Tragedy," and "Horrid Murder of Seven Persons." Both ballads do include the appeal that was previously described, and  "The Berkshire Tragedy," contains the warning to the public, specifically young men, that I have already cited.
    The thirteen ballads here examined include four ballads that are especially interesting because they are related as pairs. That is, the four ballads, published separately, in combination tell the complete stories of two murders and the ensuing trials and executions. One pair comprises the ballads "Horrid Murder of Seven Persons" and "Execution of John Jones, alias Owens, at Aylesbury, for the Murder at Denham, Near Uxebridge, on May 22nd." The first ballad of this pair consists only of verses describing the murder of a family. It describes the murder of a 75-year-old womanóa woman who was "Expecting soon to be made a wife,/ But by the murderer's hand she died,/ And a corpse lay the expectant bride"óand also the murder of Marshall, the patriarch of the family. The ballad describes his rather gruesome death:

        Poor Marshall's body they soon found,
        Covered with sacks upon the ground,
        His poor head by the monster had been smash'd
        With a sledge hammer or an axe.

    The second ballad's narrative gives details about the trial of the murderer, background information regarding his character, and information about his execution. This ballad also includes verses that describe the crime, the murderer's life before and directly after the murders. The verses also describe the execution:

    Hark! the solemn bell does summons,
        The wretched murderer to his fate,
    Let us hope he sincerely repented,
        His sins, before it was too late.
    See the hangman is approaching,
        No power on earth now can him save,
    But while his victims are in Heaven,
        John Jones fills a murderer's grave.
    The second pair of ballads is made up of  "Frightful Murder of the Rev. Mr. Huelin and His Housekeeper at Chelsea," and "Trial and Sentence of William Miller for the Horrid Murder of a Clergyman and His Housekeeper at Chelsea."  Both of these ballads begin with narratives that are nearly identical. It appears that the printer, Henry Disley of St. Giles, London, merely changed a few sentences from one narrative to the other. In fact,  the only differences are that the phrase, "On Friday, William Miller, was charged at West minister police court..." was changed to "On Wednesday, July 13th, at the Old Bailey, William Miller was indicted..." and the last sentence of the first ballad, "The prisoner was remanded." was changed to read, "The evidence being gone through, the Judge summed up, and the Jury, after an absence of about ten minutes, returned a verdict of Guilty. The Judge then put on the black cap and passed a Sentence of Death on the prisoner." Other than these slight differences, the narratives are exactly alike. The verses however, are rather different. The verses of the first ballad, "Frightful Murder," recite an account of the murder, the discovery of the bodies, and in general, describe the murderer as a "heartless wicked monster" who is so greedy that he killed two elderly people. The verses for the second ballad, "Trial and Sentence," supposedly were "written" by the murderer in the condemned cell. It expresses the shame he feels for having murdered those two people, and for succumbed to the temptation of greed. These two paired ballads are the only ones of this sort that I encountered in my search for my sample.
    An interesting aspect of the Murder Ballad that needs to be discussed is the question of "who kills who," and the question of motive. For the most part, in the ballads being examined, the murderers are men, with two exceptions.  They are  "Murder of a Child Near Measham" and "The Horrid Murder Committed by Mary Wilson"; the murderers in both cases are young women. Who the victims were and why they were murdered is more diverse, but only slightly more so.  In two of the ballads, the victims are children, two of whom are killed by their father because he could not feed them. The child victim in the second ballad is murdered by her mother, because  the mother's  husband is  not aware that the  mother had had a child before they  were married.  The other eleven ballads in the sample are similar; in about half of them , the victims are women, and in the other half the victims are men. A few of the ballads stand out because the reasons that the murders were committed. One man is killed by his sweetheart because he would not marry her after he had promised her marriage, seduced her, impregnated her, and then refused to marry her. One woman is killed by her boyfriend after a similar sequence of events. This seems to be a common theme.  As was mentioned previously, a clergyman and his housekeeper were killed as a result of the murderer's greed, two policemen were killed by poachers, as was a gamekeeper, and three women were murdered for reasons that were not specified, except that one woman was a prostitute, and another had a drinking problem.
    Murder Ballads have attracted occasional critical interest during the last century and a half. The author of "Street Ballads," National Review (1861), gives his views regarding various subgenres of street literature; regarding the Murder Ballads he remarks, "After the usual detailed description of the crime, interspersed with moral reflections, the ballad ends" (403)óthat is, it ends with a discussion of the anguish suffered by the prisoner because he or she has committed a horrible crime. The author then quotes from three different ballads, and notes that, even though they originate from three different publishers in three different towns,
    they all have the same stamp. And the whole of the last dying speeches and confessions, trials and sentences, from whatever part of the country they come, run in the same form of quaint and circumstantial detail: appeals to Heaven, to young men, to young women, to Christians in general, and moral reflections. (405)
    Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor (1865), discusses Murder Ballads under the title "The 'Gallows' Literature of the Streets." He states that the information given in the narrative, such as the biography, trial information, and other details, are "usually prepared by the printer, being a condensation from the accounts in the newspapers" (303). He also mentions other structures of the ballads, such as the "Love Letter" and how one broadsheet, the "Last Sorrowful Lamentation" containing the narrative and verses, can be slightly altered to become the "Life, Trial, Confession, and Execution" broadsheet. (The ballads about the murders of the clergyman and his housekeeper mentioned above are examples of such adaptability.) Regarding the verses of the Murder Ballad, Mayhew gives some insight into why those appeals to the sympathies of the readers, and the moralistic warnings are included: "they seem to me to contain all the elements which made the old ballads popular . . . the homely reflections, though crude to all educated persons are, nevertheless, well adapted to enlist the sympathy and appreciation of the class of hearers to whom they are addressed" (304).
    In his book The Ballad Revival Albert B. Friedman remarks that :
    A peculiar and distinctive type of topical ballad was the "goodnight" or "hanging ballad" in which a condemned man confessed his crimes and, in greater amplitude, his contrition, warning the reader against duplicating his fate. These were always "fakements" of the ballad-writer's imagination, but the formula seems never to have palled on the populace, and as late as the 1840's street "chaunters" found the "goodnights," or "sorrowful lamentations" as they were then called, their most profitable commodity. (50ñ51)
    Finally, something should be said about the stanzaic and metrical structure of Murder Ballads. The traditional ballad form has a fairly set structure, which the Murder Ballad observes more or less closely. The Norton Anthology of Poetry and The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics give a general definition of the ballad stanza: it is a quatrain made up of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. The lines usually rhyme in an abxb pattern; sometimes abab. Most of the Murder Ballads bear some relationship to that traditional stanza. Ten of the ballads in the sample are in eight-line stanzas; however, these readily divide into quatrains. Three of the ballads are in the simple quatrain form. Most of the ballads alternate lines of iambic tetrameter with lines of iambic trimeter. In some cases, two lines were put together to form one line, yielding a line of iambic heptameter; for example, the line "Oh, list awhile good people all, Oh list and you shall hear," the first line of the ballad "The Horrid Murder Committed by Mary Wilson." The entire ballad is made up of  seven stanzas in iambic heptameter. If it were divided into the traditional alternating tetrameter and trimeter quatrains, the ballad would be fourteen stanzas long, and its rhyming pattern would be the traditional abxb. It is possible that the printer lengthened the lines of this ballad to save space, and that it is not because of any poetical device.   The majority of the rhyme schemes in the ballads fall into the abab or abxb categories, although there were one or two that had a rhyme scheme of aabb. An example of one of these ballads is "Horrible Double Murder at Berkhamstead"; the rhyming pattern will be given here in italics and the stanza will be divided into quatrains with a dashed line:
      A most shocking murder we have to relate,   [a]
      How two little children have met a sad fate,  [a]
      Killed by their father in a most cruel way,  [b]
      Near the town of Berkhamptead, we're sorry to say ;  [b]
      He gave himself up when the crime he had done,  [a]
      Oh, how could he murder those dear little ones ;  [a]
      One was eight months, the other three years,  [b]
      What a villain to murder these innocent dears.  [b]
Technically, many of the Murder Ballads them are closer to the traditional stanzaic form than appears at first glance; a little analysis will usually discover a basic conformity.

Works Cited
Allison, Alexander, Herbert Barrows, Caesar R. Blake, Arthur J. Carr, Arthur M. Eastman, Hubert M. English, Jr., eds. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. New York:  Norton, 1970.

Collection of ballads, songsheets. 2 vols. London : J. Pitts, 1805-1840?. Department of Special Collections and Rare Books, University of Minnesota Libraries.
    "The Berkshire Tragedy, or the Wittam Miller."

Friedman, Albert B. The Ballad Revival. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.

Hindley, Charles. The History of the Catnach Press. London, 1887.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. 2nd ed. 4 vols. London: Griffin, n.d. [1865].

Popular Literature in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Britain. Reading, Eng.: Research Publications, 1985ñ1990. Reel 17.
    "Dreadful Murder at Eriswell"
    "Execution of John Jones"
    "Execution of W. and F. Tidbury, for the Murder of Two Policemen"
    "Frightful Murder of the Rev. Mr. Huelin and His Housekeeper at Chelsea"
    "Horrible Double Murder at Berkhamstead"
    "Horrid Murder Committed by Mary Wilson"
    "Horrid Murder of Seven Persons"
    "Murder at Cambridge"
    "Murder of a Child Near Measham"
    "Murder of a Woman Near Wednesbury"
    "Shocking Murder of a Wife at Oving, Near Aylesbury"
    "Trial and Sentence of William Miller for the Horrid Murder of a Clergyman and His Housekeeper at Chelsea"

Preminger, Alex, and T. V. F. Brogan, eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and  Poetics. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1993.

"Street Ballads." National Review (Oct. 1861):  397ñ419.

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Michael Hancher
Department of English, University of Minnesota
URL: <http://umn.edu/home/mh/culler.html>
Comments to: mh@umn.edu
Created 29 June 1997
Revised 30 June 1997