Category: murder ballads

The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

Walled Up Alive

Walled Up Alive

Walling up a living victim, or immurement, has been used both as a punishment and for darker, magical purposes. In this episode, we detangle the history from the folklore of this grisly act.

We begin with an instance of immurement from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 story “The Cask of Amontillado” (including a clip from a dramatization in 1954 radio show, Hall of Fantasy) and also get a glimpse of director Roger Corman’s freewheeling use of this element from Poe his 1962 anthology film, Tales of Terror, as well as 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

Tales of Terror still
Peter Lorre walls up Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962)

Poe’s interest in immurement is typical of Gothic writers and their fascination with crypt-like spaces, often including the cells and catacombs within Catholic churches and monastic communities. Tales of immured nuns, abbots, and abbesses are particularly common, with the deed understood most typically as a punishment for unchastity but also occasionally for other outrageous deeds or teachings (including a case of dabbling in the black arts).  We have a look at some cases in which actual immured skeletons were said to have been discovered in religious communities and then consider the lore explaining their presence.  We also look at  ways in which writers like Sir Walter Scott and H. Rider Haggard blurred the line between historical and literary stories.

Walled up Nuns book
An 1895 booklet debating the topic of “Walled up Nuns & Nuns Walled In”

It’s likely that tales of nuns immured for unchastity were particularly prevalent as they echo the fate of Rome’s Vestal Virgins who failed to protect their virginity.  We hear some details of immurements, not only from ancient Rome, but also Greece as well as a particularly gruesome account read by Mrs. Karswell describing an ancient Assyrian revenge spree featuring immurement.

Cornelia the Vestal Virgin
“The Death of Cornelia, Vestal Virgin” by G. Mochetti.

Medieval accounts of immurement we look at include the Christian legend of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and one recounted in Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of  Count Ugolino della Gherardesca of Pisa (and his children/grandchildren, who are involved in a particularly grisly way).

Our next segment looks at punitive immurement from a cluster of legends in Scandinavia and the Baltic states.  We begin with a story from the Swedish island of Gotland, that of the Jungfrutornet (“maiden’s tower”) in the town of Visby.  The tower’s name is taken from the story of a maiden, who falls in love with a spy from Denmark, who uses her to obtain keys to the city gate in preparation for a devastating invasion.  The maiden’s punishment for betraying her town is, as you would have guessed, immurement.

We hear a similar story from Finland, which serves as the basis of the song (from which we hear a clip) Balladi Olavinlinnasta  or the ballad of Olaf’s Castle, and also a tale from a castle in Haapsalu, Estonia, said to be haunted by the maiden immured there.  Then we look at a church in the Estonian town of Põlva, where a particularly devout maiden was said to have allowed herself to be interred in a position of kneeling devotion as a sort of religious talisman forever protecting the church.

Walled in Wife
Sculpture of the walled in wife Rozafa, an Albanian version of the stonemason legend.

This notion of self-sacrificing immurement in a Christian context figures into the bizarre legend recounted of the 6th-century Irish saint Columba and his companion Odran, who allowed himself to be entombed in the foundation of a church on the Scottish island of Iona.

Our last segment looks at further stories of living humans entombed in buildings and other structures in what’s called a “foundation sacrifice.”  A cluster of tragic legends and ballads from southeastern Europe tell similar stories of women immured in structures by their husbands who work as stonemasons.  We hear these tales illustrated by a clip from the Hungarian ballad Kőműves Kelemen (“Kelemen the Stonemason”) as well as a bit of the soundtrack from the 1985 film The Legend of Suram Fortress by Sergei Parajanov  —  it’s based on a Georgian folk tale, so geographically close, though not quite one of the stonemasons-who-wall-up-their-wives genre.  But it’s a lovely film I just wanted to include.

We then move west in Europe to hear some stories of foundation sacrifices collected largely in Germany.  These include ancient sacrifices of children to the security of city walls, castles, and bridges, including a panic around a child sacrifice presumed necessary to a railroad bridge constructed near the town of Halle as late as the 1840s.

We end with a look at “church grims,” protective spirits of animals buried in church foundations (or churchyards) in Scandinavia and England, with lambs being preferred in the former and dogs in the latter — providing a connection to England’s black dog mythology.

And there’s one last story, much more modern, a 2018 news story from Houston Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#29 The Bloody Chamber

#29 The Bloody Chamber

Bluebeard and his bloody chamber full of murderous secrets is widely known as one of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, but it’s part of a larger family of folk tales and ballads we examine in this episode.

Our show begins with a brief summary of this tale in which a young woman is courted by the mysterious and strangely whiskered nobleman, Bluebeard.  After lavishly entertaining the woman and her family in his castle,  it’s agreed they should marry.  Soon thereafter, Bluebeard departs on a journey leaving his bride keys to all the rooms of his estate, all of which to which may use —  but one.  Curiosity, however, getting the better of her, she unlocks the forbidden door and must face Bluebeard’s murderous rage at her disobedience.

1870s poster for Covent Garden pantomime
1870s poster for Covent Garden pantomime

Perrault’s 1697 story, which draws upon older folk tales, is primarily known thanks to its inclusion in collections of fairy tales intended for children.  Today, however, you’re unlikely to find the gruesome yarn anthologized for younger readers.  If included at all, it may be sanitized, as it was in the 1970 children’s record from which we excerpted a clip at the show’s open.

Along with fairy tale collections and cheaply printed chapbooks, the Bluebeard story was largely preserved through theatrical representation.  We look at a number of productions from the late 18th and early 19th century that treated the story in a semi-comic or melodramatic fashion, often combining elements of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, such as Harlequin and his antics.  Wilkinson provides of some readings of the comedic dialogue as well as stage directions which often made the “bloody chamber” a lavishly designed and spooky centerpiece of the production.

Particularly important to how were think of Bluebeard today is the 1798 production Blue Beard, or Female Curiosity!, which moved the story to Turkey in order to exploit a growing fascination with the East.  This image of Bluebeard and indeed its importance in the English-language repertoire is suggested by the inclusion of the play in the 1993 Jane Campion film, The Piano, a story set during this period.  The theatrical tradition of representing Bluebeard’s wives as bloody heads severed from their bodies is demonstrated in this scene as well as many 19th-century photographs of such stagings.

1868 Harper's magazine article w/ illustrations by Winslow Homer.
1868 Harper’s magazine article w/ illustrations by Winslow Homer.

Also discussed is 1 1903 Christmas staging of Mr. Bluebeard in Chicago, famous not so much for its musical numbers (such as the song “Raving,” which we hear excerpted) but more for a landmark fire, which claimed the lives of 602 theater-goers.

While there have been dozens of films that play with the theme of women marrying men with mysteriously deceased wives, only a few have directly addressed the tale.  We very briefly discuss the 1944 Bluebeard with John Carradine, the 1972 Bluebeard with Richard Burton, and the 2009 French film, Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard), which is the most traditional of the lot.

In the next part of our show, we look at related folktales including the Grimm’s story “Fitcher’s Bird,” which features bloody chambers that must not be opened, a skull dressed as a bride, a woman rolling in honey and feathers, and a wedding that’s diverted into an execution party.  We also look at the English tale “Mr. Fox,” in which a woman spying on her bridegroom discovers his habit

The Grimms also gave us “The Robber Bridegroom,” in which a bride-to-be visits her intended’s home “out in the dark forest,” where she makes unnerving discovery similar to that in Mr. Fox (but with an added element of grisly horror thrown in).

1870s poster for Covent Garden pantomime
1870s poster for Covent Garden pantomime

As a sort of musical tonic to all these tales of women and the bloody chambers they might end up in, we close the show with two traditional ballads in which the woman more satisfyingly gains the upper hand, and ends up slaying the serial killer she is to wed.  The frist of these, is a Dutch ballad  “Lord Halewijn” and the second “Lady Isobel and the Outlandish (or “Elf”) Knight.

We close with a peculiar tidbit from modern life, a weird parallel between ancient folk ballads and a true-crime oddity.

#25 Death by Mother

#25 Death by Mother

For Mother’s Day this year we examine murderous mothers and maternal instincts gone very, very wrong in folklore, legends, and ballads.

We begin with a look at the Latin American legend of La Llorona (“the weeping woman”). We begin with a snippet of the trailer from the recently released film The Curse of La Llorona and also hear a clip from a 1961 Mexican film released in the US as The Curse of the Crying Woman. We also here an alleged recording of La Llorona herself captured in one of many such user videos uploaded to YouTube.

Still from "The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961
Still from “The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961

La Llorona’s story is that of a mortal woman who drowns her two children to avenge herself on faithless husband. In the afterlife she becomes a remorseful ghost and fearsome child-snatching bugaboo. We learn that this form of the legend is relatively modern, with the name “La Llorona” earlier attaching itself to a variety of tales that ascribe rather different motives and actions to the figure. Wilkinson reads for us a few of these earlier descriptions.

Next we have a look at some possible antecedents to the figure including the Aztec Cihuateteo (deified women who die during childbirth later becoming child-snatching spirits) as well as a water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, a figure sometimes associated with drownings.  Somewhat less credibly, a connection to tales brought by 19th-century German settlers in Mexico has even been suggested, namely that of the Weisse Frau (“White Lady”) who haunts the Hohenzollern Castle of Baden-Württemberg.  She also does away with children in the context of a thwarted love relationship (in a particularly gruesome way).

Cihuateteo sculpture
Cihuateteo sculpture

Whatever the source of the Llorana legend, it is not difficult to find parallels.  Our next example is the Greek myth of Medea, who kills the children she’s had with Jason to punish him for taking a new lover. Her revenge on her rival, Princess Glauke of Corinth, is also dreadful, and dreadfully interesting in the description Euripides provides in his play.  We hear Wilkinson read this passage and also hear a snippet of dialogue and the startlingly original soundtrack from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea.

"Medea" by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 17th century.
“Medea” by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 17th century.

Our next segment looks at some legends and songs about unwed mothers who kill their unwanted newborns.  We hear a bit about the numerous “Cry Baby Bridges” of North America.  This modern urban legend associates certain bridges, usually in rural areas, with the ghosts of infants drowned in the rivers the bridges span.  Often, particularly in older stories, the infants are illegitimate newborns.

In the Scottish or English ballad “The Cruel Mother” (also known as “The Greenwood Side”), we encounter a mother who has murdered her illegitimate children and later meets their spirits, learning from them the fate that awaits her on the other side. We hear a mix of various renderings of this folk song including: The Owl Service,  Anna & Elizabeth, Fiona Hunter, Rubus, 10,000 Maniacs,Lothlórien, and Addie Graham. We also hear a bit from the nearly identical song “The Lady Dressed in Green” which serves as the basis of a macabre childrens’ song-game.

In the song, “The Well Below the Valley” (also known as ‘The Maid and the Palmer”) describes a meeting between a mother who has given birth to and killed a number of illegitimate babies and a mysterious holy man who visits her at the well and displays supernatural knowledge of her deeds.  The song seems to originate with the biblical story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well and likewise displaying supernatural knowledge of her checkered past.  This story is also the basis of the gospel song “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” from which we hear brief snippets by The Fairfield Four and Nick Cave.  The version of “The Well Below the Valley” we hear is by Shanachie.

La Llorona’s child-snatching aspect is anticipated by the Greek myth of Lamia, a woman with whom Zeus was said to have fallen in love, who was then punished by Zeus’ wife Hera.   who either kills Lamia’s children or causes her to do so.  Thereafter Lamia becomes a monstrous creature devoted to stealing or killing the children of mothers everywhere.  We hear how this story later merges with medieval witchcraft beliefs.

The show ends with two stories involving cannibalism and murderous mothers.  The first is that of Gudrun (or Kriemhild) from the Germanic Völsung saga upon which Wagner based his Ring Cycle (we hear a bit of Wagner here, music from The Twilight of the Gods. The second story is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, involving a grisly vengeance exacted by Procne on the Thracian king Terseus, an act of vengeance for the rape of her sister Philomela. Wilkinson here again provides a dramatic reading from Ovid.

Peter Paul Rubens "Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itys," 1637
Peter Paul Rubens “Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itys,” 1637

The show also includes a short bit from Henry Burr’s 1916 song “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means the World to Me)”

#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children

#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children

This episode looks at some particularly gruesome fairy tales and folk ballads telling of murderers convicted of their crime through magical intervention of the bones or blood of their victims.

We begin with a look at the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street as it shares a common theme of accidental cannibalism with Grimm fairy tale central to our episode, “The Juniper Tree.” Some Victorian urban legends are identified as possible sources of the story, which first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful entitled The String of Pearls, a Romance.  We also hear a snippet of a song about the Demon Barber written by R.P. Weston and sung by English music hall revivalist Stan Holloway, the artists who also gave us the song about Anne Boleyn’s ghost  “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm,” featured in our “Lost Heads” episode.

We then have a look at  “The Juniper Tree” published in 1812 in the original edition of Grimm’s collection Children’s and Household Tales, that is, what we call Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The grisly tale would never lend itself to the Disney treatment, though it did serve, extremely loosely, as inspiration for an Icelandic film of the same name, starring a young Björk.

Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1812 edition
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812 edition

“The Juniper Tree” tells of an evil stepmother who contrives to kill her stepson in a particularly brutal way, covering her crime by cooking the child’s remains into stew served to the family.  The tale also includes of blood, a vengeful bird, and a fiery, magic juniper tree. English, Austrian, and Romanian version of the tale, are also noted for noteworthy bits of horror, and we hear a a musical rendition by the Russian ensemble Caprice of the song sung by the bird in this Grimm story.

Illustration for "The Juniper Tree," artist unknown.
Illustration for “The Juniper Tree,” artist unknown.

The next story, introduced via an audio oddity from the 1962 film, The Wonder World of the Brothers Grimm, is “The Singing Bone.”  Like “The Juniper Tree,” this one revolves around the outing of a murderer though a song.  In this case, the song telling the tale of murder of one brother by another produced by a flute made of a bone of the murdered brother.   We also have a look at a number of variations on this tale and a tool used by folklorists,The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type registry, where one can find synopses of tales listed the “Singing Bone” (#780) category, such as:

“780B: The Speaking Hair: A stepmother buries a girl alive. Her hair grows as wheat or bush and sings her misfortunes. Thus she is discovered and dug up alive. The stepmother is buried in the same hole.”

Just as bones communicate the identity of their murderer, the blood of a victim in other tales can bring a killer to justice. We hear a number of tales of this sort, including the Icelandic “Murder Will Out,” featuring a bleeding skull impaled with knitting needles.

The idea that human remains could identify their killer was not just the stuff of folk tales. The idea that a corpse would bleed in the presence of its murderer (called ‘cruentation’ from a Latin word for “staining with blood”)was, in past centuries, an accepted element of criminal law in Germany, Denmark, Bohemia, Poland, and Scotland, and even the United States.  We hear a snippet from Shakespeare’s Richard III, featuring the practice as well as an example of cruentation used as late as the early 1800s in the US.

The “Singing Bone” story has parallels in the world of folk music.  The murder ballad “Two Sisters” (also  “Twa Sisters,” “The Cruel Sister,” “Binnorie,” or in America, “The Dreadful Wind and Rain”) tells of the murder of one sister by another over an issue of romantic jealousy.  Like “The Singing Bone,” the victim’s bones are found and made into a musical instrument that produces a song convicting the murderer.  Often the hair, or in an older version dating to the 1600s — veins, are turned into the strings of a harp.  We hear a version of the song by The Askew Sisters and by the German group Broom Bezzums, and American versions by Kilby Snow and Tom Waits, also a rather different take on the song from Sweden, where more than a hundred versions also exist.

We saved a final tasty morsel for the end of the show, a surprising historical account, which precisely parallels the Sweeney Todd story, not from 19th-century London, but a place and time far, far removed.