The printing, selling, and singing of broadsides and ballads were an important part of how people experienced public executions in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. Whether rough, bawdy, sentimental, or humorous, murder balladeers took the bare facts or assumptions about a crime and transformed it into a moveable – “viral”, even – form of communication. The ballad worked in several ways: it was a piece of news available to purchase in print form by those far from the event; it was a story shared on the streets through singing and sharing; it was an imaginative representation of a crime that made wider moral points about power, violence, gender, class, and sexuality. As Vic Gatrell puts it in The Hanging Tree: “Broadside morality aimed only to make sense of the world, after all. It presumed a sequence of criminal cause and punitive effect which was rooted in the commonsensical ethics of the people, giving life an intelligible structure, as much as suspicion of rich men’s law might be rooted”. This multiplicity of meanings in the ballad reflects the way that public executions were complex events with a scaffold crowd that could be alternately sympathetic, bloodthirsty, or nonchalant.
"The ballads gathered here are just a few of the hundreds of crime ballads available in print and digital collections such as The Word on the Street collection at the National Library of Scotland and the Broadside Ballads Online at the University of Oxford. Reading them in conjunction with newspaper reports and legal testimony about a murder should encourage us to address another set of questions. What words were on the lips of most people attending an execution? Who created and sold these ballads? What does their disappearance from everyday life tell us about the changes in how crime was carried out and represented? As an experiment, I sang and recorded some of these ballads to get an idea of what they sounded like. Doing this reminded me that sometimes it was not the musical ability of the singer that counted – and here I bow to my critics – but the duty to relay information or emotional content in a memorable way" - Shane McCorristine (Project Fellow)
ANNETTE & THE SOLDIER
In February 1848 the 26 year-old Annette Meyers was charged with shooting dead the soldier Henry Ducker in St James’s Park, London. The trial at the Old Bailey heard that Meyers, a servant, had been courted and then abandoned by Ducker, who apparently demanded that she prostitute herself. The case was sensational and inspired several ballads. Some portrayed her as a villain but in this ballad Meyers’s story is told in a sympathetic manner. There is a clear conservative moral message in the ballad: women should “take caution when men flatter you”, and “Let them keep strong in virtue”. The jury at the Old Bailey found Meyers guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death. However there was a large degree of public sympathy for her and in May her sentence was commuted to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.
THE MURDER OF MARIA MARTEN
The murder of Maria Martin in 1828 was one of the most sensational criminal cases in British history. It inspired broadsides, moralistic pamphlets, fictional retellings, theatrical productions, and even mass-produced pottery. This ballad is the best known of the many that were circulating at the time. It told the story of William Corder, the young man convicted of killing Martin in the notorious “Red Barn” in Polstead, Suffolk. It first appeared as part of a news sheet issued by the publisher James Catnach and it was claimed that sales of this sheet reached 1,166,000 copies, meaning most people’s knowledge of the case came via Catnach. The ballad covers the most sensational aspects of the case, including the brutality of the murder and the dream vision.
A NEW SONG ON THE MANNINGS
In 1849, husband and wife Frederick George and Maria Manning were hanged in London for the murder of the Irish gauger Patrick O’Connor. O’Connor was a wealthy moneylender who was romantically involved with Maria and visited her home in Bermondsey for dinner on 9 August. Here he was murdered by the Mannings and buried under the kitchen. Fearful of arrest, Marie and Frederick fled in opposite directions, but were eventually apprehended. Known as the “Bermondsey Horror”, the case attracted national attention because of its brutality and the character of Maria Manning, who was seemingly motivated by greed. This ballad tapped into the public revulsion at the murderers, who were executed in front of a crowd of between 30 and 50,000 people.
“If it bleeds, it leads” has long been a journalistic motto and it is clear from the wealth of sources available that people in nineteenth-century Britain were fascinated by stories of murder and violence. Murder was a daily occurrence, but the spread of literacy and the penny press meant that particular kinds of murder (such as premeditated murders, serial killings, murders with a sexual element, and murders involving women) received prominence in newspapers, broadsides, and ballads. Satirised in this ballad as “horrible news”, crime reporting was in its infancy during this period and journalists out-competed one another to provide salacious and gruesome details about killings.
BANNER IMAGE: Mary's ghost or the favorite anatomy song.' Being No. 1, of The Ballad Singer, A Collection of Comical Comic Songs, set to Music by J. Blewitt. Wellcome Images L0078236