Linguistic Escape Routes


Old-time American Song lyric

Last night to Dan O’Hara’s house a lot of good boys went,
We had a splendid supper, and a pleasant time we spent But
in every company there’s a fool who makes a lot of fuss,
And upsets all the harmony – ’twas just the same with us.
First we mopped the floor with him, dragged him up and down the stairs.
Then we had another go under tables, over chairs;
Such a sight you never saw-before he’d time to say his prayers.
Rags and bones were all we left of the man that struck O’Hara

You never saw such value, boys, there never was such fun,
He wanted to apologize before we’d half begun;
We wanted no apology, for that would do no good,
But to wipe out that gross insult, we meant to have his blood. (Chorus)

At first we played with him, like a cat will with a mouse,
We chased him in the corners, and, in fact, all ’round the house;
He shouted, mercy and police, it’s time that you were done!
But when he shouted murder! oh, ’twas then we had the fun.’ (Chorus)

The humour of what is almost a ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon style of violence is so well-crafted in these lyrics by popular nineteenth century Irish balladist, J.F.Mitchell, that we can enjoy, without guilt, what is basically an extremely vicious attack on a man who dared to land a punch on the landlord in his own tavern – unforgivable. We are also treated to a magnificent lithographic print gracing the music-sheet cover.

This idea of venting grievous bodily harm and possibly death through linguistic escape routes such as songs, poems and slang constructs, is a fascinating area which is too often passed over.

I did visit some  linguistic escape routes in a recent blog about Jack the Ripper – which looked at such lyrics as providing much needed poetic release of taking back control from his horrendous violence – particularly for women – and allowing them to turn such gross bodily attacks back on him and making him the victim,  ie: Give Him To The Women, They’ll Spoil His Pretty Fizz  (  

However, it is true to say, that many of the Ripper rhymes were not like this and rather than offer light relief via the escape of a tuneful song – many would use this genre to release dire details of gore and violence: For example to the tune of a Victorian melody called “The Miser“, the lyrics are clearly designed to shock:

These women have been murdered
not for the sake of gain,
They were destitute and fallen,
Suffering poverty and pain;
Their bowels were ripped open
What a terrible death to die,
So cruel to behold, they lay dead and cold
‘Neath the dawn of the morning sky.

From each one blood was streaming,
When their bodies they were found;
Each eye in death was gleaming,
Their lips gave forth no sound.
They must have all be murdered
By the one same cowardly hand,
Such barbarous crimes in our times,
Has never disgraced the land.’
(Anon: Published Nov 8th or 9th 1888)

This type of song provides a socially acceptable means of uttering aloud the sheer horror and nature of the injuries and perhaps allows some form of linguistic escape route. Indeed, one common thread through such lyrics, apart from referring to the grievous bodily harm inflicted upon innocent women, is that of indignation and apology that these terrible events are taking place in London, England of all places in the world, thereby ‘disgracing the land.’

eg: To the tune of “Captain with his Whiskers” the opening lines are:

The Indignation in London had not passed away,
When another shocking murder in the middle of the day
Has frightened all the people that in Whitechapel did dwell
This being the eighth victim in this manner has fell

Or of a song called Teddy O’Neil:

‘In the great town of London, it is almost absurd,
No clue to the murderer as yet has been given
Not one cry for help, alas has been heard.
If this had occurred in some foreign country
Where ’tis supposed that Christians dwell.
We should think that in this nineteenth century,
Such terrible crimes we could not hear tell.’

There is a fascinating publication connected to this area of interest written by Jonanthan Goodman, called Bloody Versicles: The Rhymes of Crime (Kent State University Press, Ohio, 1993). He begins by citing one of the most famous American rhymes dating from 1892 following the horrific murder of Mr. and Mrs. Borden by their daughter Lizzie.

Several versions exist, I’d like to cite the one Jonathan himself remembers chanting as a child of nine or ten when he lived in New York. Apparently you need to do this to the tune of ‘Ta-Ra-Ra-Boomdeeay’:

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
Then she stood behind the door
And gave her father forty more.’
[Goodman, J., ibid,  p.5]

Innocent fun – of course it was – but once you drill down to the real event it claims to depict, Lizzie Borden is not a role model you wish your children to admire, yet there is subtle hint of admiration in the fact she first committed matricide, followed (in fun?) by patricide.

Lizzie Borden


Children’s rhymes feature a great deal in connection with serious criminal acts and in the famous Scottish case of serial killers Burke and Hare, a skipping chant was very popular in Edinburgh, depicting these infamous characters taking yet another murder victim’s body from their lodgings to the dissection doctor who would pay them handsomely for such specimens.

First, here is a typical report from the Edinburgh Evening Courant about one of  Burke and Hare’s murders (a double murder in this case). The reference to, “murdered her in the same way” refers to suffocation, sometimes after plying the victim with alcohol. Last June refers to June of 1828. They murdered sixteen people altogether between 12th February and November 1st 1828.

BURKE_HARENow all this horror of suffocating, writhing, drunken bodies murdered and put into boxes of various kinds such as tea chests & herring barrels to be carried to Dr. Knox – transforms into the innocence of  a children’s skipping song, more concerned with the rhythm of the rope swing and the wonderful gift of a rhyme with Knox:

‘Burke and Hare
Fell down the stair
With a body in a box
Going to Dr. Knox’

For those of you not of Scottish origin, who wish to try this in a Scottish burr, here it is again:

‘Burke an’ Hare
Fell doun the stair,
Wi’ a body in a box,
Gaun to Doctor Knox.’
(19th century Edinburgh jumping-rope rhyme)

Other popular representations are sometimes claimed to be in the authorship of the villain themselves as in the celebrated case of The Murder in the Red Barn where on Saturday 18th May 1827, William Corder murdered his bride to be, Maria Marten.


William Corder awaiting trial (Anon: 1888)

Here is Corder’s confessional song of extraordinary detail from this Suffolk murder and now revered as a traditional folk song, leaving a warning for others not to follow in the footsteps of the perpetrator. As in this case,these representations are often wedded into folk traditions long after the details of the case are forgotten, the entertainment value of the song lives on:

Broadside ballad entitled 'The Murder of Maria Marten'

Source: Palmer, R (1979) Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs London, Dent & Sons

I suspect this song was actually written by the very clever and street-wise character James Catnach, famous for his Broadsides and street ballads and he then attributed it to Corder – claiming Corder wrote it on the night before his execution as his farewell message to the world. You will notice the first person changes to the third person in the fourth verse, ‘He murdered her all in the Barn.…’ etc. He may well have received Corder’s blessing to do so, it’s not known. [I’ve looked at Catnach’s tricks before in Fake News: The Sensational Murder That Never Was]  (

Its purpose to merely to recount a terrible tragedy with a strong moral tone is achieved but it has more cachet if thought to be written by the murderer himself. This sold over one and a half million copies very rapidly indeed and many plays have followed the theatrical gift of a plot that can have the title of The Murder in the Red Barn and everyone already knows what it is about.

I have a very rare copy of one play entitled ‘Maria Marten – or – The Murder in the Red Barn‘, published in 1928 – over one hundred years after the murder – by Gerald Howe in London, that purports to be ‘A traditional acting version for the first time’ – of course it probably isn’t, but the script provides exactly the melodrama of release that people sought at the time in such a theatrical production despite the sheer horror of the reality: For example, Corder has lured Maria to the Red Barn and ensured that no-one knows she is there with him. Maria has already been forced to bury her illegitimate child with Corder unaware that he had poisoned it.

CORDER   Now look what I have made here!  [He drags her to the grave.  Slow music]

MARIA     A grave. Oh William what do you mean?

CORDER   To kill you, bury your body there. You are a clog upon my actions, a chain that keeps me from reaching ambitious height. You are to die.

MARIA [Kneels] But not by your hand, the hand that I have clasped in love and confidence. Oh! think William how much I have sacrificed for you, think of our little child above, now in heaven pleading for it’s mother’s life . Oh spare me, oh spare me!

CORDER  ‘Tis useless, my mind is resolved, you die tonight [Thunder and lightning]

After he has done the dirty deed and the audience are enthusiastically hissing and booing, he shows remorse at what he has done and exclaims:

Oh may this crime for ever stand accurst
The last of murders, as it is the worst.’



Part of the fascination with the long history of people, young and old, using the rhythm and timbre or certain words and phrases to celebrate a moral story such as Corder’s or relate a terrible crime in a semi-comedic way such as Lizzie Bourden is when it is used as a form of communication rather than recitation.

I have already visited the world of  criminal argot often called cant and slang language in a couple of earliers blogs, ie: Spanking the Glaze and Other Tricks  (  and also Being Flash, (

Most of the examples cited tend to be from the nineteenth century, when publishers became interested in the entertainment value of revealing to their readers, the ‘secret language’ of the underworld.

I have recently discovered some 18th century examples of so-called ‘cant’  language in an original publication written by a trickster known as John Poulter, alias Baxter a notorious robber and fraudster. Take note of his full publication title and message of  reassurance to you – the public:  (Note: for  ƒ  substitute  s  where appropriate)POULTER

So, Poulter, the notorious robber, now becomes Poulter your savior so ‘every one who reads this book, may certainly know them (fraudsters etc) at any time and to be upon their guard against being cheated…’  

Here you have a variety of promised escape routes from the very many fraudsters & tricksters that Poulter identifies that are about to plague your eighteenth century everyday life!

We’ll maybe look at his advice in a later blog, but here’s a few cant phrases provided by Poulter that somehow make the horror of murder and serious assault seem less serious:


Mill the rattling gloke  translates as  Kill the coachman
Mill his nob                         ∼                   Break his head
Chive his muns                   ∼                   Cut his face

At the softer end of ‘cant communication’ we have:

Tis a rum darky and Oliver shows ∼ ‘Tis a good night and the moon shines.
Between her carriers       ∼                 Between her thighs


I think we’ll leave it there until the next time!















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