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Gallows ballads

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  • Gallows ballads

    I have read in the Casebook that Catherine Eddowes and her then husband traveled the country selling gallows ballads. Do any examples of these songs exist? It would be an interesting insight into Catherine.

  • #2
    University of Glasgow Special Collections

    Hi, Vol-cat; welcome to the forums.

    Here's a link to the University of Glasgow's Special Collections; they have some excellent information on this subject.

    There are links to further information about chap-books, broadsides, ballads, etc; it's a terrific resource.
    Here is the introductory page :

    The history of crime and punishment in Britain 1790-1870

    'Hanging ballads' and sensational literature
    Glasgow University Library Special Collections has a considerable holding of eighteenth and nineteenth-century broadsheets and chapbooks (pamphlet-type publications) featuring crime and criminals. The most common are accounts of executions, and a few of these are reproduced here.

    The earliest form of ‘hanging ballad’ goes back at least to Tudor times. Public executions attracted large crowds, and ballad singers would canvass them, singing accounts of the crime and the behaviour of the condemned. Printed, single-sheet versions of the ballads were also sold by the singers, and had a wide circulation: they were carried into further parts of the country by pedlars. By the eighteenth century, this type of publication was one of the few pieces of non-religious reading available to the poor. Louis James in English Popular Literature 1819-1851 (Columbia University Press 1976), p. 38-9, describes the growth of presses producing this kind of work, and notes that by the end of the eighteenth century, every provincial town had its printer of broadsheets and chapbooks. Glasgow’s specialist was John Muir, whose broadsheets are the ones which feature most prominently in the Special Collections.

    There was a problem with this kind of literature in Scotland, in that the number of criminals executed in the whole country was insignificant compared with the heavy use made of the gallows in England. Muir’s publications collected information from all over Scotland, and also featured reports of English crimes as well. The GUL collection includes productions by English as well as Scottish printers, and a notorious crime, such as the murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn (also the subject of a popular melodrama), sold well everywhere. By the late eighteenth century the broadsheets seem to have settled into a durable format which was adopted on both sides of the border: an account of the crime, a report of the behaviour and the - usually repentant - last words of the condemned. The ballad tradition survived in concluding verses, often attributed to the condemned. The nineteenth-century broadsheets were sold in the streets for a penny.

    The printers did make some effort to report the individual circumstances of each crime and the trial, often cribbing information from local reports, but the last dying speeches, verses, etc. were written to a formula, and helped to give this sensational literature the gloss of a ‘moral’ message. In some cases, the printers used the same dying words for several criminals, with a few minor amendments. During the nineteenth century the London-based broadsheets became more elaborate, and featured grisly woodcuts of the crime. Muir’s Scottish publications did not run to this extravagance, but often featured a traditional and frequently reproduced woodcut of bodies hanging on the gallows.

    The Special Collections broadsides are scattered throughout the various collections, but holdings are particularly strong in the Ephemera, Murray and Wylie Collections. Type "broadsides" in as a subject search in the main Library catalogue to call up a complete listing of broadsides (NB. please note - records for the Ephemera Collection have not yet been added to the main Library Catalogue, but sheaf binders listing the collection in subject order are available in the Special Collections Department: please contact Julie Gardham for further information).

    Professor M. Anne Crowther
    Department of Economic & Social History May 1999

    Hope this helps. Best regards, Archaic


    • #3
      London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew has a section on these guys. Although by 1888 I suspect they weren't making much of a living. The education reform earlier in the century meant that almost all of the working classes could read by then, and the illustrated tabloid penny dreadfuls were the means by which most people slaked their thirst for awful murder. However earlier on, this kind of balladeer made good money selling lyrics at hangings. The words of the songs were generally cast as confessions by the soon-to-be-hanged. The most famous surviving song would be The Red Barn Murder whose first verse is:

      My name is William Corder
      And to you I do declare
      I murdered Maria Marten
      Both beautiful and fair

      Whereas if I recall correctly, Corder maintained his innocence to the end. And Maria Marten had more in common with Martha Tabram than would be considered desirable in an innocent young victim...

      here's a link to an excerpt from Mayhew that might prove helpful


      • #4
        gallows ballads

        Thank you all for the assistance. It seems I have allot of research to do!!


        • #5
          Hi vol_cat-
          Great name!
          Great stuff posted below by Archy and Chava- not sure that all Catharine and Conway's stuff were 'gallows ballads' though- the penny dreadfuls often covered all sorts of horrors from domestic- through social and royal nastiness- More than likely they were tales of local well known 'felons'
          'Would you like to see my African curiosities?'


          • #6
            Hi all,
            Googling gallows ballads, I came across 'The Bloody Miller' also known as 'The Berkshire Tragedy, The Cruel Miller, The Wittam Miller, The Oxford, Wexford, Lexington, Knoxville girl.
            The original 'The Bloody Miller' seems to be about the murder in 1684 by Francis Cooper of one Anne Nicholls, there is yet another version called 'The Butchers Boy' where the girls name is given as Mary Anne,all very interesting.
            The website gives more details, and an interesting composite version of The Bloody Miller and The Berkshire Tragedy.
            Hope this helps, probably another red herring but an interesting one nonetheless.
            All the best Martin.


            • #7
              And speaking of PlanetSlade - as Martin was a moment ago - I've just added a long essay about Victorian Gallows Ballads to the site.

              Sold at chaotic public hangings, these lurid songs decribed the condemned manís crime and warned spectators not to follow his example. The ballads were written and printed by the drunks, jailbirds and rogues of Londonís notorious Seven Dials slum, whose most sensational offerings could sell 2.5m copies each. PlanetSladeís latest essay has news of all this, plus an introduction to Mary Arnold the Female Monster, a gallery of the original broadsides and some Victorian sex songs like The Beautiful Muff.

              More details here.


              • #8
                I would imagine that even in the 1800's, quite a few gallows ballads would have been to do with the notorious 17th century executioner, Jack Ketch.

                Here's his Wiki page:



                • #9
                  Hello you all!

                  Well, a thought came to my head;

                  An interesting piece would be a receipt written CE herself, the faith allowing us to see a small fragment of her personality this way!

                  All the best
                  "When I know all about everything, I am old. And it's a very, very long way to go!"