Themed Set: The Ballad

The ballad and the scaffold go together like Jack and Ketch.

Narrative popular poetry, the ballad lyricizes precisely the sort of public spectacle and collective drama that brings the crowds to Tyburn. And with identifiable sub-genres like the murder ballad and the outlaw ballad, it only stands to reason that there’d be hanging ballads too.

It’s such a perfect marriage that balladeers hardly feel constrained to wait on flesh-and-blood hangings for inspiration but readily memorialize (frequently in the first-person voice of the doomed) a fictional, idealized crime where all the pathos and tragedy can be arranged just so.

Of course, it’s also the artist’s prerogative to just fictionalize real-life source material.

“Sam Hall,” for instance, was adapted in the mid-19th century from a ballad about the 1707 hanging of Jack Hallfinding in common between these two very different times “the social need to believe that it was possible to face death with such insouciance.”

If not all such rise to the literary level of, say, “The Ballad of the Hanged Man,” ballads’ demonstrable popular appeal has made them the metrical vehicle of choice for the crime du jour. Naturally, when the ballad opera conquered the stage, its first subject was the gallows-bound criminal underworld.

Whether commemorating doomed revolutionaries or doomed criminals, the ballad remains a part of our collective memory-shaping to give we who remain behind purchase on the timelessness of those launched into eternity.

Join Executed Today as we explore a few ballad-worthy events in the rich history of the death penalty.

On this day..