Execution Ballads Once Spread the News of Punishment to the Public

The grisly tunes deliberately pull on emotions to discourage crime

public execution
The execution of pirates in Hamburg, 1573 Sebastian Sonntag/ Flugbatt Nachrichtensammlung Wick (Jackob Wicks news collection) via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Throughout human history, those who transgress face death doled out by the state, often in horrifying ways. The presumed power of death as punishment requires that the public knows what fate awaits them if they break the law. Today, the tale of the crime and the execution disseminates through headlines and stories printed and online, but before most people could read, the news needed another way to spread.

So in Early Modern Europe, news spread through song, writes Una McIlvenna for The Conversation. Execution ballads were often sung to the tune of well-known ditties to enlighten those who didn’t attend the public event. McIlvenna writes:

Rhythm, melody, and rhyme allowed songs to be more easily memorized than a prose version of events and therefore more likely to be shared. Like news reporting today, crime and punishment fascinated audiences, and so execution ballads were the most popular sub-genre of news songs, offering details of the crimes and the often brutal and gory punishment of the criminal.

At the time, as now, it was thought that the knowledge of horrific deaths would keep people from committing crime. However, that assumption may not be correct, as statistics show.

Often, the lyrics were done in the first person — singers would put themselves in the shoes of the person accused, set for death and often expressing remorse as they expire. Take the song written for the execution of Judith Brown, a maidservant condemned in 1684 for conspiring with her master to poisoning her mistress:

Too late I do lament,

  my very heart doth bleed,

That ever I did give content

  to that most wicked deed.

The singer goes on to describe the deed (Her Life we did betray, to satisfie our will…) and as the song ends:

In this devouring flame,

  my life must now expire,

Alas my sins I needs must blam[e]

  I end my days in fire.

To you that come to see,

  a woful sinners fall,

O let those cruel flames now be,

  a warning to you all.

Those lyrics come from the the University of California, Santa Barbara’s English Broadside Ballad Archive, which aims "to archive all of the surviving ballads published during the heyday of the black-letter ornamental broadside ballad of the 17th century—estimated to stand at some 11,000 extant works." 

Such ballads were published and sung from roughly 1500 up until 1900. McIlvenna heads a project at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. She is investigating the emotional responses such song may have stirred. "When something is just text on the page it is almost sort of fixed, it’s permanent, it’s not as open to interpretation as when you start to sing," she says in a program for Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National. "They come alive for me."

Ballad writers were very conscious of the emotional associations old tunes carried, and so would use that to their advantage when writing the execution ballads, she says. The American Civil War tune "Just Before the Battle Mother," for example, features the voice of a soldier saying goodbye to his mother. The tune was exploited to create the ballad for the execution of military schoolteacher Richard Coates, who was put to death in England for raping and murdering 6-year-old Alice Bougham.

"Oh you’ll not forget me mother," becomes "He killed the soldier’s little daughter," a replacement that McIlvenna argues is a deliberate parallel — a parent losing a child, though in an "utterly different way."

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