We look to a regional newspaper, Jackson's Oxford Journal, for the bulk of coverage of the first murder, that of John Kalabergo by his nephew, Giovanni. A report printed in January 1852 begins the trail:
John Kalabergo (born Giovanni) was a well-known and well-respected jeweller and a maker of clocks, watches and barometers, resident in the area for some forty years previous. It was evidently his habit to drive a horse and cart around the district selling his wares and, on occasions he was accompanied by his nephew, Giovanni. It should be added that the young Giovanni did not speak English well.4
Referring to John Kalabergo, apropos his movements around the district, the report says:
The report described how 'Ward's van' ... 'was coming from Banbury' and one of the passengers, a Mrs Saul, was walking up the hill, presumably to save the horse, when:
Then was set in train the events that led to Giovanni Kalabergo's conviction. It was discovered, for instance, that no, 'plunder' had been taken from John Kalabergo's pockets so one line of enquiry, that of plain, immediate robbery, did not seem to be relevant.
However, Giovanni Kalabergo had fled the scene and, arriving in Banbury:
The police were, of course, called in and during their enquiries, suspicion fell on Giovanni's story.
It looks as if the principal evidence against Giovanni Kalabergo was accumulated through a physical investigation, especially of his own dwelling quarters. This emerges in Jackson's coverage of events as well as those of other newspapers. The Morning Post, for example (and this shows how the murder had attracted attention from far beyond the Banbury area), described how the prisoner's 'premises' were searched and how hats, a cravat the latter stained with blood and gunpowder and a bullet-mould were found; and then the key of the deceased's cart (the prisoner said that he knew nothing about it) 'in the soil of the privy'. The stable was searched again on the following day and a pistol bag found containing powder, 'six bullets of white metal, one leaden bullet, and seven types of bullets'. There was gunpowder in the pocket of the prisoner's waistcoat.7
At the official enquiry, various witnesses were called who, cumulatively, underlined the police suspicion of Giovanni Kalabergo's story. At the close of the enquiry, as Jackson's indicated, a verdict of 'wilful murder' was passed on Giovanni Kalabergo.8 Eventually, at the Oxfordshire Lent Assizes, the trial of the prisoner was enacted and a verdict of guilty proclaimed.9
It is worth noting that Mr Pain, on the prisoner's behalf, asked more than once for an interpreter to be brought from Italy but he was refused It does seem that the prosecutors were of the opinion that the evidence against Giovanni Kalabergo was such that the request, even if met, would add nothing to the progress of the case.
Giovanni Kalabergo had made a bid for freedom. Jackson's tells us that:
In fact, he sustained injuries that would have prevented him from moving around at all for some time afterwards. Curiously at this remove - the room in question, so we are informed, was situated in a public house.11 At any rate, a date for execution was set. Giovanni Kalabergo tried to escape again, this time from prison but was foiled.12
Subsequently, on the day of the execution:
The brief description as noted above mirrors a familiar progress of events and, predictably (given the moral tone of the time), Jackson's felt it incumbent, in its report, to add that:
We recall similar comments made on several other crowds at executions and pause only to note that it was almost standard practice to condemn the onlookers, taking care to specify their backgrounds.15
'It was estimated,' Jackson's reported, 'that there were from 8,000 to 10,000 present'. Evidently the crowd was well-behaved and dispersed quietly. Nonetheless,
Once again, familiar aspects of behaviour during attendance at hangings is revealed as noted in other articles in this series.
The execution was reported by newspapers up and down the country and confessions made by Kalabergo to his priest appeared in Jackson's and, for example, The Morning Chronicle.17
This, then, was the outline case. How did ballad-makers respond?
In fact, neither Steve Roud's database nor the Bodleian Allegro archive have any mention of ballads connected to the Kalabergo case but web sources have turned up a ballad written by a William Handy (1824-1896) of Ilmington.18 Broadside ballad history, it should be said, is dotted with named contributions even if most ballads, like most songs, are without attribution. The evidence is that a number of these ballads follow the conventions of the majority. Thus, forty years after the Kalabergo murder we find C. F. Brown writing his ballad on the death of Edith Jeal (as discussed in a previous article in this series) with echoes of phraseology - 'Come listen to my painful story' found in much earlier balladry. There are pieces from the printer William Upcroft in Norwich that follow the regular-seeming pattern of approach to subject-matter and these have the initials 'W U' on them, at least suggesting that the printer made up the ballads himself. Besley of Exeter printed a song entitled A New Song Composed by Thos. Heydon of Stratton, Cornwall. On a most Dreadful Shipwreck, that happened at a place called Widemouth, near the Harbour of Bude, and the Town of Stratton, on the 23rd Nov. 1824 in which the trilogy, common in balladry, of theme, image and archetype was prominent. Steve Roud has identified some score of ballads written in familiar ballad style by one George Brown including three Napoleonic ballads (and thus, incidentally, dispelling any notion of a peculiarly Irish thrust to those texts). The extraordinary career of David Love in the north of England reveals the extent of his rather rambling ballad contributions. The Norfolk ballad-writer, Samuel Lane, is an outstanding example of a ballad 'hack' even if his talents were centred mainly on a local political scene. Certain names are referred to in the Merry (Bedford) list of ballads 'Coventry Tom', the very first subject in this series, appears to have composed ballads. To further speculation in this regard, we know that Catnach was responsible for ballads as reported by Hindley; and that Pitts employed John Morgan. None of this is news, of course; but it would help fill in the picture if more were to be discovered about ballad-writers themselves.19
The major point is that, in all cases, although one can detect individual traits in the writing, the pattern is very much as has been found in anonymous ballads.
William Handy, then, although he does write in a perhaps more self-conscious manner, sits comfortably enough in this panorama.
He actually proclaimed himself to be the 'Poet' Handy, even naming his cottage after himself, and has a fascinating other history to match this degree of self-promotion. For example, he married three times but there were no children However, his first wife, Esther Sandford, already had a daughter, Louisa, born around 1841 according to the 1851 census not, perhaps, that unusual when economic survival was of prime consideration and second marriages were common enough. Handy, at any rate, married Esther on September 25th 1849. She was aged forty-one at the time, fourteen years Handy's senior. The 1861 census records them as still married but it looks as if Esther died during the same year. By 1871 Handy had, apparently married again Eliza who herself had, one presumes, died before the 1871 census was taken, when Handy was listed as a widower. His third wife, Elizabeth, is recorded in the 1881 census and again in 1891.
An interview, conducted by a local clergyman, reveals much about Handy's life, insisting on his independent character, his intervention through short poems in affairs of the neighbourhood and his kindnesses and usually quiet demeanour sometimes, it must be said, broken (see notes).
It is known that Handy composed at least three other ballads: A March Song for a Village Tea meeting referencing a Union, perhaps the Agricultural Union founded a few miles away at Tysoe; an account of an unusually fierce hailstorm; and a ballad on a railway death at nearby Mickleton. Further, the fact that Pratt, the Birmingham ballad-printer, took on the production of these ballads, is evidence that Handy knew well enough how the process of composition and dissemination worked and how Pratt must have seen some advantage. The other three Handy ballads were, in fact, printed alongside his Kalabergo piece in a single booklet, priced at one shilling.20
As a respectable member of the community21, though, it is even more interesting to discover Handy submitting his works to a printer in a trade that was not well regarded: that is, the trade of production of ballads and its particular association with ballad-sellers who were thought to be amongst the most unreliable, perhaps even un-moral sections of society and, like other travelling people, were often harassed and, as often, exhibited behaviour that might well have drawn the eye of the police. Ballad-writers usually stayed in the background. However, the chance (for Handy) to attract attention to his work for purposes of his own self-regard - must have been hard to resist.
Further still, there is what looks like a particular clinching argument in respect of Handy's acquaintance with balladry - he was, apparently, a 'travelling seller of ballads' himself.22
His own ballad is entitled Verses composed on the murder of G. Kalabergo
It is unusual to find a direct appeal to the pocket in balladry: perhaps an indication of Handy's sense of himself.
Generally, throughout the piece, the language is slightly less excited, perhaps, than that found elsewhere. Yet, within Handy's narrative, there are distinct echoes, some of which suggest that Handy was familiar with the general characteristics of ballads.
The piece is long enough there are some twenty-eight stanzas and Handy dips in and out of John Kalabergo's life-history:
It is even remarked that John Kalabergo had brought his nephew across the sea:
John Kalabergo's activities are described and, unsurprisingly:
The journey up 'Willscott-Hill' is noted sort of out of sequence - and, of the nephew:
Then a familiar tone emerges:
Handy does not, then, quite bewail the deed of murder in the sometimes exaggerated terms of other ballads; but condemnation is, as we would expect, prominent enough.
At this point the ballad, presumably for dramatic purposes, turns back to allow us to re-encounter the details of William Kalabergo's life; of how:
The nephew's actions after the murder are then invoked: how he 'shortly ran for home' (the finding of the body by others has already been indicated), how, previously, he must have planned his deed and bought a pistol and a mould and then made bullets:
- my italics; but they underline how Handy knew some of the phrases that crop up in so many ballads.23 The nephew's confession to his priest is also cited and an appeal to God's mercy is imagined. Again, many murder ballads contain the same sort of self-flagellation.24
And there, Handy declares, 'This little rhyme I now must end'.
A second Kalabergo ballad can be located in the Oxford History Centre although there is no indication on it about the printer. Its full title is Lamentation Of Kalabergo For The Murder Of His Uncle, At Banbury, Oxfordshire ; and the content may be said to do very little to expand the narrative line. The piece, instead, is compounded almost entirely of familiar phraseology, more or less distanced from the actuality of events and finishing before the day of execution.
('the gallows tree' appears twice in the ballad but there is no sign of 'fatal tree'). The opening two lines are, in fact, reminiscent of The Newry Highwayman .25
There is then a switch of viewpoint where the observer not only begins a description of events but insists, with alleged insight of the nephew's relationship with his uncle, that 'To murder him the thoughts came in his mind'. 'Young' Kalabergo's secretion of a pistol is mentioned and then 'I gave my uncle his death wound' ; following which is a rather un-necessary repetition, presumably included for dramatic effect:
The next stanza yet again reminds one of much older balladry, not necessarily concerned with murder:
There is an appeal that 'none will reflect upon' the murderer's countrymen; and then, of:
And following the appeal to God's mercy, almost inevitably we find another familiar aspect: 'All you young men a warning take'; and then, as the 'solemn bell' tolls, again 'May the Lord have mercy on my soul'. All this is in direct line with expression in murder balladry as discussed in previous articles.
In a way this is a veritable potboiler, exploiting the simplest reactions of a public to known kinds of narrative. In comparison, Handy's piece is more sophisticated if, at the same time, a trifle self-indulgent. Overall, the ballads lie well within the compass of known character.
In the second murder case, dating from October 1858,
This was how Jackson's Oxford Journal began its report on the death of Susan Owen.26 An inquest (at the Three Pigeons Inn, Neithrop, underlining a similar aspect of the case that transpired during the investigation of the Kalabergo murder) resulted in a verdict of 'Wilful Murder' against William 'Badger' Wilson, 'who was committed for trial at the next Assizes'.27 Witnesses indicated that Willson (a more usual spelling of the name) and Susan Owen were not strangers. For instance, William Henson, shoemaker, living in a cottage in Calthorpe-lane, said that 'I had known them both for about twelve years; they lived together in Banbury'.28
Susan Owen and William 'Badger' Willson had indeed been living together according to the Jackson's first report cited above, for some fifteen years; and their current lodgings, at the Rose and Crown in Neithrop, then almost a separate district to Banbury, its nominal parent town, would not have been an unusual abode for those whose life-histories involved a degree of peripatetic and even casual habits. In this connection, it has been suggested, bargemen may well have rested in such lodgings.29 Neithrop, at any rate, saw a good deal of rough and ready behaviour. As instance, Petty Sessions reports for the three years previous to the murder reveal a sorry picture of drunken-ness and disorderly behaviour, assaults amongst husbands and wives and neighbours, stealing from boots and shoes to turnip tops and potatoes and personal ornaments; and there were disputes over land and fences; windows were broken amongst other minor damages; absconding from service is noted; as was conviction for begging in the streets a whole catalogue of small misdemeanours that, now and then, included reported instances (very few) of soliciting and some of attempted rape. Neithrop, it should be said, does not offer a particularly unusual example of such behaviour, as consultation of newspapers elsewhere demonstrates well.
The more striking feature, to which we return, is the longevity of what was clearly an abusive relationship between Susan Owen and William Willson; but, it seems, the neighbourhood was, as it were, used to their quarrels.
As to the immediate circumstances, Mary Fairfax, wife of John Fairfax, also living in Calthorpe-lane, said that:
The gist of the immediate occurrence is that Susan Owen had been drinking locally on two successive nights, the first in company with a 'young man' when Willson had attempted to fetch her 'home'. On the night in question, Mary Fairfax, a witness, indicated that Susan Owen had been 'tipsy' and, indeed, that she'd fallen over. Willson had tried to persuade her to go back from where they were drinking to their lodgings at the Rose and Crown. Evidently Willson got home before her and went to bed, only to rise again and enquire of the landlord if Susan Owen had come in. Later still, the landlord heard the two talking and Willson urging her to go upstairs to bed. Willson, according to the landlord of the Rose and Crown, Edward Rann, had sounded very kind to the woman.
The next morning, however, according to Edward Rann, Susan Owen appeared with her face in 'a dreadful state'. She took to her bed again and subsequently died.31
In evidence, Mrs. Rann, of the Rose and Crown, said that Willson had been beating Susan Owen 'very much'. On the crucial day, Susan Owen had come in to the Rose and Crown and has asked Mrs. Rann for two-penny-worth of rum and:
This supports the evidence given by two other witnesses such as John Simmonds who said that he had encountered Willson:
Willson's response may, perhaps, have been made on the spur of the moment but a picture of the man's treatment of Susan Owen had been drawn. Willson further remarked to Edward Rann that 'If she dies, they will be sure to hang me'. 34
Susan Owen lingered from the assault on Tuesday 12th October 1858 until the following Sunday before she died. The trial followed.
However, there was a codicil. The 'dent' at the back of Susan Owen's skull that Mrs. Fairfax had been privy to seems to have been a crucial element in her death. The surgeon had found a blood clot and declared that Susan Owen had had an unusually thin skull. The clot could have been 'activated' by anything, let alone blows such as that administered by Willson; so the jury, after deliberation, acquitted the man and it was only intimated that the treatment that Willson meted out to Susan Owen could have caused her death.35
One Susan Owen ballad has emerged so far.36 Entitled Copy of Verses On The Murder of Susan Owen at Banbury , it is predictably partial in the sense that it does not encompass the eventual verdict in the case and, whilst 'literary' standards do not really apply, even in ballad terms it is rather clumsily put together with elements of bathos in the rhyme:
There is an interjection that must surely imply the opportunity, at least, for the possible singing of a chorus, an indication, at least, that the ballad-maker had a process of dissemination in mind:
Here, the giving of the wrong name is clear enough and it may as well be said - Susan Owen was actually thirty-four when she died.37
Half of the ballad is then used to describe the lives that the principals led
At least no punches are pulled. The Handy ballad on the Kalabergo case, in comparison, is decidedly mild in its condemnations. Perhaps the vicious circumstances of the relationship between Susan Owen and William Willson engendered that degree of horror that is absent from both Kalabergo ballads examined above but the linguistic phenomenon of dramatic and sometimes squalid recounting itself, even if we find it to be un-necessarily exaggerated, is striking. And the unknown composer of the Willson ballad must have been privy to information that does not appear (for instance) in newspaper reports. Handy, because he looks to have written after the full development of the Kalabergo case, is more circumspect. This points up a contrast with the Handy poem on the death of William Kalabergo which is much more measured and emcompasses the whole case from the time of the murder itself until the execution of Giovanni Kalabergo the degree of self-consciousness in the writing being proportionate to a reflective process.
In the Susan Owen ballad, the manifestation of Willson's behaviour is outlined in the stanza following that given immediately above and where it was indicated how Willson beat and kicked Susan Owen once too often and how 'In a little while she was no more' (a feeble enough conclusion). Then comes another imaginative claim, that 'To escape from Justice, the victim tried'. In fact, as far as can be gathered, Willson (unlike Giovanni Kalabergo) made no such attempt either physically or in verbal defence of his actions.
There follow three stanzas incorporating conventional lines, noting the 'dreary dungeon' in which Willson was resident and that he could expect nothing less than 'the fatal tree'; giving a stern warning to 'Young men and maidens to shun distress' brought on by prostitution and drunkenness and urging young people to lead sober, honest lives. Thus, familiar features in ballad output can be seen to have been adopted.
Of Susan Owen, finally and rather clumsily put:
The piece is peculiarly flat despite the horrific details which is not, perhaps, how it appeared when it was issued in Banbury
In the end, the piece takes its place well within the confines of what we expect when compared to the greater part of murder balladry available to us. Its major exclusion is that of the verdict of the court, with nothing to suggest the startling outcome To re-iterate, Willson was acquitted because of the condition of Susan Owen's skull before she was attacked. This acquittal and others like it could well be explored further. In several cases, men and women involved in murder did not hang We think immediately of Constance Kent, William Graham, Edmund Pook (actually found not guilty of murder, contrary to reports in newspapers and to balladry).38
In a third Oxfordshire murder case, dating to 1872, Edward Roberts, enamoured of one Anne Merrick and thinking that she was as sweet on him, then being disillusioned by her refusal to countenance anything other than a casual relationship, quite suddenly took an axe and chopped at her head. Anne Merrick lingered for several days before dying of the stroke. Jackson's Oxford Journal carried full reports of the affair and extracts are given below.
Apparently, in the lodgings that Roberts shared with one John Godfrey, on Sunday 30th July 1871, Ann Merrick was washing the floor, when:
Roberts, seemingly quite calmly, walked out of the house and towards the local police station: 'I be come to give myself up'.40 Eventually, the police took Roberts back to the scene of the crime, meanwhile sending for both a surgeon and Anne Merrick's mother (from church).
It transpired that Roberts had more than once complained about Anne Merrick's evident indifference. Indeed, one witness, Selina Lambourne, gave evidence that the day before the murder he had 'told me he was going to murder Ann Merrick, and then he was going to kill himself '.
After the incident, at the police station, Roberts admitted to his actions and, as Superintendant Cope avowed:
At the Oxfordshire Lent Assizes, Roberts was 'charged with the wilful murder of Ann Merrick'.43 In one report, Roberts was referred to as 'Robins' a mistake in newspaper reporting that goes with those found in the case of the Susan Owen murder.44 The law took its course and Roberts was sentenced to death. Jackson's commented on proceedings as follows:
In fact, a petition for a reprieve was submitted but 'met with no favour'. Roberts was hanged on Monday 18th April 1872.46
We would guess little of this from the surviving ballad, printed by Disley, and which, like that concerning the murder of Susan Owen, takes us only up to the point where, after the initial enquiry, proceedings the Assizes - were still to take place. There is a prose introduction, a summary of events and some quotes, including the following (clearly lifted from Jackson's ):
Then, "she has served me badly, I hope she is dead ".
Similarly, the rest of this introduction taken up by the testimony of Mrs. Lambourne, 'who lives next door to Merrick', and to whom Roberts declared that 'he ment (sic) to kill Ann that night or the next morning' and, further when Mrs. Lambourne demurred: 'Let him think of his soul and Ann's too' 'Prisoner replied that as to his soul he did not care hell was his portion '; and, finally, spoke out again against Ann and her supposed 'man at Oxford'.47
Thus, because of this relatively comprehensive introduction, any impact that the ballad itself might have had would appear to have been reduced already. This did not stop Disley, the London printer who, as it happens, seems to have been particularly enamoured of the murder ballad genre.48 Just like newspapers, Disley seized on what was, considering his domicile in London, a relatively distant event and there must have been a strong commercial element in this, exploiting a well-worn appeal to a prurient public much in the way that newspaper reports sometimes did.
It is worth pointing out, all the same, that newspapers did not take up the case in the same widespread fashion as they had done with the Kalabergo murder an inexplicable phenomenon.
At any rate, the ballad begins in familiar fashion:
We might note the opening line and the final lines that echo several others in the corpus of murder balladry.49
There follows a somewhat bathetic four-line 'chorus':
The presumption in the second line here is notable and is just as imaginary as are the lines in other ballads and akin to the scene in Oxford jail where Kalabergo also bemoaned his fate. Once again in murder balladry, a febrile Christian context is invoked. Otherwise, the storyline has already, as it were, come to a halt. Despite this, the ballad proceeds to recount the circumstances of the murder from its setting in 'the quiet town of Witney' and to introduce the personnel firstly, Esther Merrick, mother of the murdered girl; then Ann herself; and then 'the murderer Roberts'. The mother, indeed,
And, with even more teasing out, bearing in mind that Roberts has already been introduced, in a further stanza we learn (my italics) that:
Roberts' actions are described in an abrupt and rather colourless manner and not before a typical journalistic detail (accurate, mind) makes its appearance when the:
Roberts 'was taken'; and 'now he lies in Oxford gaol' (it is interesting that this spelling is adopted as against the previous usage of 'jail').
This is, then, a modest piece, revealing standard practice in its opening lines; in its employment of an equally standard suggestion of how the murder might impact on the reader - only a slight pause so as to record reaction to the event 'Oh! Shocking to relate'; incorporating advice to young men along with advice to young women and, indeed, to the public in general; and, finally, in giving the motive for murder as jealousy.50
We would probably assume commercial haste at work in issuing the ballad although the Witney Express, in the course of noting that, during the Witney feast of that year, 'The dancing booth was extensively patronised by country lads and lasses', and that there were various showmen and gipsies, 'all plying their several vocations with more or less success', also added that:
There do not appear to be any more extant ballads that might recount anything to do with the trial and execution of Roberts.
So, as these three ballads on Oxfordshire murders and the Berkshire ballad considered in the previous article in this series all show, the stream of murder balladry that continued right through the nineteenth century and onwards rarely stepped outside convention in description; and as frequently opened a salvo only to cease fire before any denouement was reached. Almost incidentally, there are no header blocks on any of the ballads discussed as there were, for instance, in numbers in Norfolk collections as described in previous articles in this series and, indeed, in general murder balladry. Such additions would seem to have been very much a matter of whim.
It is worth remarking that, throughout murder balladry, a suspicion that, apart from some form of recounting of the particular affair, what was then written was written in expectancy of an established procedure much as newspapers referred to the behaviour of crowds and, specifically, to ballad-sellers who paraded at executions selling the last dying confessions of murderers. By the same token, the state of a prisoner's mind could only have been guessed at; yet routine - imaginary - exposures were common enough.
Always, too, social pressures are present: an outward urge towards Christian values, perhaps distended; and an equally strong adherence to social hierarchy. These more so to modern eyes, one would think are combined in a deliberate, titillating exploitation of what are normally regarded as lesser instincts that skewed an age-old ritualistic view of the world and of relationships within it.
Roly Brown - 22.8.13
Oradour sur Vayres, France
and The Lamentation Of Alexander Thomson (1864):
and Shocking Murder of a Policeman at Snodland, near Rochester (1873):
and Shocking Murder of a Wife At Oving, near Aylesbury (also dating from 1873):
and, yet again, pieces 'set' in Ireland, such as The Lamentation of John Holden (1860): 'You tender hearted Christians, I hope you will draw near' and A Lamentation on the Execution of Dennis Dillane (1863): 'You feeling hearted Christians, I mean both young& (sic) old '. For closing lines, see again, for instance, Murder of Mr O'Connor (the Mannings case of 1849); then Gleeson Wilson's Lamentation (another case in 1849); and a ballad on the murder of Clara Bruton (1872)
It is a similar story in the Wainwright case of 1875 All these references can be found in previous MT articles in this series for instance, 156 and 157.
See, further, MT articles 156 and 157.