Hearing the song “Lillie Shull” the other day made me wonder whatever became of murder ballads. A century ago there was scarcely a small town murder that wasn’t memorialized in song. This was especially true of the non-literate musically inclined mountain folk of the Border States. It was a trait they carried with them from Scotland, but one that has not survived modernization, which is too bad.
Murder ballads seem to have died out around the time of the Great Depression. The genre underwent a brief resurgence during the ’60s folk revival — who hasn’t heard the Kingston Trio’s maudlin version of “Tom Dooley”? — though few new ballads were written. From time to time, murder ballads are dusted off by contemporary singer-songwriters, which is how I learned about “Lillie Shull.”
Murder ballads were cautionary tales, usually taking the point of view of the condemned man on the gallows as he expressed remorse for his awful deed. “Lillie Shull” is typical of the genre with its dire warnings against greed, lust, drink and infidelity.
The titular character was a young woman whose name was actually Lillie Shaw and who lived in Johnson County, Tennessee, at the turn of the 20th century. Lillie’s marriage was an unhappy one, as evidence by her affair with a local man. At some point, Lillie’s husband left her and resettled in Ohio. Lillie, for some reason, moved in with her neighbors, the Prestons. During her stay at the Prestons’ house, she was reportedly visited several times by her lover.
After filing for divorce, this man’s wife allegedly approached Finley Preston with a proposition: she would give him $100 and two acres of land if he would murder Lillie Shaw. Preston was torn. It was a lot of money, but then he had nothing against Mrs. Shaw. The wronged wife kept pestering him, however.
Here things get about as foggy as a Tennessee mountain morning. It could be that Lillie decided to break off her dalliance with her lover and return to her husband. She told Mrs. Preston she hoped to sell one of her guns and a rocking chair to a neighbor and use the cash to buy a ticket to Ohio.
Days passed and there was no sign of Lillie. Search parties were organized and a few personal items were found in the woods next to what appeared to be signs of a struggle. Eventually, on the other side of the mountain, the searchers found the burned remains of a young woman.
Because he lived nearby, suspicion fell on Preston and he was arrested. It wasn’t long before he confessed, to most of the crime anyway. The way Preston told it, he was in the woods tracking a wayward cow when he bumped into Lillie who said she was on her way to the neighbor’s house to sell a gun. The two talked. Preston said he’d like to take a look at the gun. Rather than return it to her he aimed it at her chest and fired.
Later Preston and his father went back and carried the body to the far side of the mountain and burned it.
CHARGES WERE NEVER brought against the cuckolded wife, and Preston was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. He was the last man hanged in Johnson County, Tennessee.
“The Ballad of Lillie Shaw” skimps on the true crime details and focuses instead on the killer’s remorse:
A great crowd now gathered all around the jail, to see my execution and to hear what I’ve to say.
I am to hang for the murder of Lillie Shaw
You’ll learn who I so cruelly murdered and her body so shamefully burned.
I was taken to prison for the murder I did own, and by the court was sentenced to hang for the murder done.
The cries of poor Lillie again was in my sight.
Her loving form consuming in the fire that burnt so bright.
I bowed down to Jesus in painful grief and prayed.
I prayed that he might save me as he did the dying thief.
God bless my dear parents who now my fate to mourn, likewise my wife and baby who will be left alone.
God care for my baby I’ll never see again.
I pray thee ever keep it from danger, harm and sin.
Murder ballads were written for highly superstitious folk who believed dancing a sin. Not as great a sin as murder, or cheating or drinking, but dancing could certainly lead to those other things. One night you are swinging to a jazz orchestra, the next night you are swinging from the gallows.
Today’s balladeers would likely make Finley Preston into one of society’s victims, and, in the hands of a songwriter like Steve Earle, the song would soon slip into a protest against the death penalty. I’m sure it would be a great song, but it wouldn’t be a murder ballad.