One of the points that was frequently made in the newspapers in the aftermath of the later Whitechapel murders, once the infamous “Dear Boss” letter had bestowed the moniker of “Jack the Ripper” upon the miscreant responsible for the crimes, is that the mood on the streets was almost carnival-like as people began to make their way to the scenes of each of the atrocities.
There were food-sellers, souvenir-sellers, and the people whose properties overlooked the crime scenes are recorded as having let out their windows in order to allow people to gaze down on the spots where the killings had occurred.
There are also frequent mentions of ballad-sellers and ballad-singers doing a roaring trade at the crime scenes.
However, the balladeers weren’t just a London phenomena, for there are numerous mentions of itinerant performers making their way around the country singing of the East End crimes to anyone who would give them a few pence for their efforts.
NOW LONG FORGOTTEN – ALMOST
Sadly (or, probably, thankfully) the actual words of the majority of these ballads have long since been lost to us.
But, in February, 1889, a correspondent for The Inverness Courier encountered one of these balladeers and conducted a little on-the-spot research in the course of which he purchased two of these ballads, and went on to publish the lyrics in his subsequent report, which was published on 15th February, 1889:-
JACK THE RIPPER BALLADS
“We have long been a diligent collector of Popular ballads; always ready with the necessary coppers to invest in literary merchandise of this sort whenever the opportunity offers.
When a ballad-seller finds his way into a district so quiet and imperturbed as ours, he (sometimes it is a she) is rarely in a hurry, so that we usually manage to have an interesting crack with peripatetics of this class when they come our way.
A PATHETIC STORY
The ballad-seller is oftener than not a ballad-singer also; and the personal history of a ballad-seller and ballad singer is very often a pathetic story of ups and downs in earlier life, but always of steady decadence, the downs predominating, lower and lower still, until there is nothing for it but a sheaf of broadside ballads at threepence the score, and a tramp round the country to sing and sell them at a halfpenny the piece – rather more than two hundred per cent to be sure, but, considering the small amount of sales and the individual toil of the peripatetic, not a farthing too much.
SUPERIOR TO THE ORDINARY TRAMP
The ballad-singer, as we have known him, is as a rule very much superior to the ordinary tramp.
The latter is either a whining rascal, incapable of telling a word of truth, and ready to steal whatever he can lay his hands upon: or he is a coarse, foul-mouthed brute, whose oaths and objurgations, if you refuse the copper which he demands rather than begs, are enough to set your hair on end, and make you sick and uncomfortable for the remainder of the day.
The ballad-singer, on the contrary, is always polite, and with enough of professional pride about him to deter him from saying or doing anything rude or unseemly.
A SOBER MAN
Our experience of him would lead us almost to say that he is invariably a sober man. We do not remember ever meeting with a tipsy ballad. singer. As in the case of the acrobat, sobriety is probably a necessity of his life: a drunkard would have no chance at all as a peripatetic rhapsodist.
A ballad-singer, whom we questioned on the subject, once told us that be didn’t drink, and that indeed he didn’t dare to drink. It would very soon ruin his voice, he said and nobody would throw a penny to one of his profession who was seen to be under the influence of liquor as he sang.
It is amusing to find a marked distinction of caste even among peripatetic balled-singers.
A BALLAD SINGER’S REBUKE
Several years ago we went out, as in similar circumstances we very often do, the better to hear a man who was singing on the road opposite our door; and when he was done we entered into conversation with him.
In the course of our talk, we happened to ask him how long he had been a ballad-singer?
The reply was instant, and so unexpected and curious that it was with difficulty we refrained from laughing in our collocutor’s face.
“A ballad-singer, sir: I never was a ballad-singer; I am a vocalist. I neither sing nor sell ballads. I sing songs! the best songs of Burns and Hogg and Tannabill: I consider myself something better than a ballad-singer, I can tell you, sir. I occupy respectable lodgings wherever I go and would be ashamed to associate with ballad singers, who,” he added in a tone of mingled commiseration and contempt, “are but a seedy lot.”
We felt rebuked of course, and could only plead ignorance of the distinction in mitigation of an offence that was as unintentional and unpremeditated as it well could be.
It was then, and for the first time, that the knowledge came home to us that there are thus two classes of itinerant singers – the singer of songs, who calls himself by way of distinction, a vocalist, and the ballad-singer proper, who, as has already been said, is usually a ballad seller also.
A ROADSIDE CONFABULATION
It was with one of this latter and less aristocratic class of itinerants that we had a long and interesting roadside confabulation the other day.
He was a wiry little man of middle age. He belonged, he told us, to Newcastle-on-Tyne. He had practised for many years as a “horse doctor” in Newcastle and neighbourhood – without any veterinary college qualifications, he confesses!; but he was making a fairly comfortable living of it, until the regular, certificated “vets” took away his business, and drove him off the field.
Having a good voice, he turned ballad-singer, and tramping the country in all directions, was able, he assured us, to make a modest living of it, besides sending postal orders for small sums now and again to his “Missus” in Newcastle.
In his hand, he carried a voluminous sheaf of the most gruesome bloodcurdling literature perhaps that ever was printed.
To our horror, we noticed that on the brown wrapper sheet in which his bundle of ballads, when not exposed for sale, was tied up, there was printed for outside title in large capitals, “JACK THE RIPPER BALLADS!”
HE SINGS A GRUESOME BALLAD
“Shall I sing you one of them, sir”, he asked; and already so far committed, we could only reply as cheerily as we could, “Oh, by all means: strike up!”
It was then that, first clearing his throat by a preliminary cough or two, and putting his hand to his necktie, to feel, we suppose, that it wasn’t too tight, he sang the following ballad:-
“The demon Jack the Ripper,
Has begun his work once more,
His hate for women is bitter,
He delights in human gore,
The last victim Mary Kelly,
But twenty-six year of age,
Has been served much worse by London’s curse
You will say I will engage
The demon Jack the Ripper,
Is at work once more,
In Spitalfields Mary Kelly he killed
and left her in her gore.
In the room where she was living.
Her naked body was found
The Ripper no clue was giving
To those who lived around
Her body was cut in pieces.
And portions taken away
Her flesh ’tis shown stripped from her bones
A terrible sight she lay.
Poor girl, she was a native of
Limerick we are told
But, by poverty and degradation,
Her young days had been sold.
In Cardiff, and in Carmarthen,
She passed many of her early years
She fell into shame when to London she came
And caused many unhappy tears.
The alarm so very quickly spreading
Around the fear-stricken place
Thousands the news was leading
To look upon her face.
But those who saw her body
Looked on with bated breath
They can see her yet, and will ne’er forget
Poor Mary Jane Kelly’s death.
Where’s the noted bloodhounds,
That such wonders were to do,
That Jack the Ripper is not found
It must seem strange to you.
The authorities in London,
must adopt some more secret plan
Without bloodhounds to hunt him down
For he must be Satan and not a man.
SUNG IN AN EARNEST WAY
Although slightly “cracked,” as the phrase is – by so much open air singing, we suppose – our ballad-singer’s voice was still powerful and good; and veriest doggrel as are the lines when read, it is marvellous how effective they were when sung in the terribly earnest way in which the peripatetic ex horse doctor now sang them.
Into the popular Music Hall air he threw a wondrous amount of pathos, the result, it was clear, of genuine feeling and earnestness on his part, with here and there some slight histrionic touches to make the gruesomely tragical story come home with all the more effect.
DO YOU KNOW JIM CROMER?
When we had sufficiently complimented him on his voice and style, as an effective ballad singer, he asked if we knew Jim Cromer.
We had to confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that we did not know Jim Cromer; that we had not the honour and happiness of Jim Cromer’s acquaintance: who was he?
“Oh, Jim Cromer is the head of us all,” he went on with great enthusiasm, “the best ballad singer out, our champion!” and with a look that was meant to be overwhelming, “he makes ballads himself!”
Well, we could do nothing less than acknowledge that the said Jim Cromer, as champion ballad-singer and capable of making ballads “himself,” must be a distinguished genius, indeed: an admission on our part which was evidently most gratifying to our collocutor, whose admiration of Jim Cromer was manifestly unbounded.
His good humour now took the direction of a compliment to ourselves.
“You have a good ear for music, sir, as I can clearly see; you understands a good thing when you hear it. Do you know the air of “Poor Little Joe?”
We had again to confess our ignorance, and he looked pityingly upon us, as if sorry that our musical education had been so sadly neglected, when we had to make reply that we had never even heard of the melody in question.
“I have here one of Jim Cromer’s ballads sung to that air he went on; shall I sing it for you, sir?”
“I should like to hear it very much,” we replied. “Go ahead!” and with a long drawn preliminary inspiration and another touch at his cravat, he sang the following:-
THE LONDON MURDERER
The terrible story that I have to tell.
Causes a shudder as on it we dwell.
This murderous history has spread thro’ the world.
Of all these poor women to Eternity hurled.
“The murderer escaping makes London feel,
They can’t tell a moment other lives he may steal.
Women to leave home are almost afraid,
in case an attempt on their lives should be made.
Where are the great men of our modern times,
Who fail to discover these cowardly crimes.
Women are slaughtered, not a cry or a sound.
Till in some hole or corner their bodies are found.
Five millions of people cannot rest in their bed,
The murderer’s knife seems to hang o’er their head,
This demon is hiding in a mysterious way
Pray Heaven the villain is taken today
The world has ne’er known such cruelty before,
Not even abroad on some savage shore,
Tho’ for a time this monster may flee,
Burnt at the stake this fiend ought to be.
Think of the poor soul found in Mitre-square,
The rivers of blood surrounding her there.
Think of the cruel mutilations they found.
What a scene it would be for those standing around.
The crimes so secret so quickly are done,
No help for the victims is likely to come,
In the east end of London that spreads far and wide
Little notice was taken if murder was cried.
The Berner street victim was done just the same,
Whitechapel people were crying out shame,
It shows that policemen in London today.
Can’t help a murderer from getting away
They are talking of bloodhounds, it’s too late we say.
All trace of the murderer has long passed away.
If good men can’t do it I think you’ll allow.
No dog in the Kingdom can hunt him down now.
Great is the terror these murders will cause,
Done in defiance of all human laws.
As the winter comes on with darkness and gloom
We hope no one else will meet this sad doom.
The villain who these deeds have done,
To denounce him is the duty of everyone.
Until before justice convicted he’ll stand,
His life’s a disgrace to a Christian land.
A LUGUBRIOUS THEME
The ex-horse-doctor sang this second ditty with an amount of fervour and “go” that showed how thoroughly he understood and appreciated and was in accord with its motif.
The air, “Poor Little Joe,” mostly in minor key, seemed well adapted to the lugubriousness of the theme: and it is but justice to our friend the ballad-singer to say that he sang it uncommonly well.
AN HONEST DETESTATION OF THE CRIMES
The reader will not fail to notice that in these ballads, with all their fault, of versification and grammar, there is an honest detestation of the crimes on which they are founded and a hearty desire for the capture and adequate punishment of the criminal.
Investing a shilling in ballads. and giving him something besides, we parted with the ex-horse-doctor on very friendly terms; and, as he was bound for the north, you may possibly have the honour of a visit from him at Inverness.”