Hello again Readers. Still busily researching my historical crime novel. Its amazing how research can easily take you away into a wonderful journey back into very very different times. Just recently I stumbled upon some amazing information about people who were variously called ballad or broadside sellers and sometimes even … …..death hunters. Let me explain…
From Saxon times an execution was often an excuse for a celebration indeed the word gala day derives from gallows day. At first people were content to turn up and watch an execution or two. As the populace became more educated and sophisticated more and more people could read and some could even write. The time was now right for the ballad trade to begin.
The trade began in the Seven Dials district of London in the 17th Century. Enterprising printers began producing single sheet publications of a week’s crimes and scandals and the more sensational and bloody the better. These sheets were roughly A3 in size and were also called broadsides…. for obvious reasons. In essence they were like the modern Sunday Newspapers of today – well maybe the more downmarket examples. A good murder was always good for circulation, a bloody murder the more so and then hopefully there would be a trial followed by a public execution. The sheets would often include details of the killer’s crime and some would include illustrations. The ballad sheets were set in verse and were designed to be sung to the structure of well-known hymns of the day. One example used was based on what is now known as Old 100th , commonly used to sing the lyrics that begin “All People That on Earth Do Dwell,” based on Psalm 100, which originated in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter (1561) and is attributed to the Scottish clergyman William Kethe . The pedlars selling the ballads and broadsides would often work in pairs, put their ballad sheets on a board behind them and then begin chanting or singing a few verses to attract attention. Some would be accompanied with music, usually a fiddle or penny whistle. Execution and Gallows tales were a very important part of the ballad sellers trade and those specialising in these became known as “death hunters” for their pursuit of the latest deadly event. Truth was sometimes a casualty of the reports and whole parts of one tale or ballad could be lifted from an earlier example as indeed could some of the illustrations of gallows or bloody deeds!
English law required that murderers must be executed within two days of their conviction until 1832 Faced with this problem , the first ballad-printers had time to produce one single account, telling the whole story from the criminal’s background to his final punishment in one go. “It was sentence o’ Friday and scragging o’ Monday,” one 1830s ballad-seller recalled. “So we had only the life, trial and execution”. In time the gap between sentence and execution lengthened giving the ballad sellers more time and opportunity to sell their papers and produce different examples. Finally when the execution was over and the story fell out of topical interest some verses made up for one crime could be tagged onto the end of a whole series of others creating a very good value for money long-song. Those buying the ballad sheets would then take them home or to a local Inn and entertain those who could not read with a verbal account of the proceedings, likely adding their own flourishes. After a jug or two ale a crowd could join a version being sung out, stamping their feet and joining in with the chorus.
The ballad-sellers days came to an end with the rise of popular newspapers and the ending of public executions in England in 1868. So now the obvious question…. are there any death hunters in my first novel? Absolutely yes, yes and yes and I have even discovered where they gathered to ply their murky trade.