|Sketch by Johyn Hughes Kerbert|
In my never-ending quest for murder ballads, I recently came across a prolific nineteenth century balladeer who was new to me. In the 1850s, Henry S. Backus, known as “The Saugerties Bard,” roamed the Catskills in New York State singing original ballads on the events of the day. Backus wrote songs about explosions, fires, prize fights, riots, and of course, murders.
Travelling in a broken-down wagon festooned with American flags and bells, he would enter a town, usually accompanied by a procession of barking dogs, and begin playing popular songs on flute or fiddle to the gathering crowd. He would sing his original songs then sell printed copies for a penny.
Henry Backus had been a school teacher with a wife and five daughters. When his wife died he began drinking heavily and became “rabid” with religion ending up in an insane asylum in Hudson, New York. By 1850 he was back in Saugerties and beginning his career in entertainment. In 1941, 87 year old Johyn Hughes Kerbert, drew a sketch of Backus from memory. He remembered the Saugerties Bard as “rather short, stocky, well built, long grey hair and beard, grey suit, a ‘Grant Hat’ and a wooden leg.”
In a tradition later carried on by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, he wrote new lyrics to existing melodies. Unfortunately for anyone trying to learn his songs, the tunes are not as common in the twenty-first century as they were in the nineteenth, so finding the lyrics is only half the job.
Among the murders Backus sang about were two that have already been covered at Murder by Gaslight:
- "Dunbar, the Murderer" is about Reuben Dunbar who murdered his two young stepbrothers in an attempt to protect his inheritance.
- "Dr. Burdell, or the Bond Street Murder," and "The Bellevue Baby Mrs. Cunningham’s Adopted" are about the 1857 murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell by his estranged lover Emma Cunningham. After being acquitted of his murder Emma Cunningham claimed she was pregnant with Dr. Burdell’s baby, and conspired with a doctor to provide her with an infant. The plot was quickly uncovered. Henry Backus wrote several songs about Mrs. Cunningham and the baby.
Some songs about murders not yet covered here are:
- "The Murdered Peddler" - About Hiram Williams, a travelling peddler who was robbed and murdered outside of Greenville, New York in 1853.
- "The Murdered Policeman, Eugene Anderson, Who Was Shot by the Desperate Italian Burglar, Cor. Of Center and Grand Streets, July 22, 1857."
- "The Thirtieth Street Murder, A horrible Tragedy" – A murder that occurred in New York City in 1858.
- "Hicks the Pirate" – In 1860 Albert W. Hicks was shanghaied onto an oyster sloop, then turned on the crew, murdering them all.
In addition to murder, Henry Backus wrote about other interesting events:
- "Explosion of the Steamer Reindeer. On the Hudson at Malden, September 4, 1852."
- "Bradley & Rankin’s Prize Fight for $1000 a Side At Point Abino, Canada, August 1, 1857."
- "The Queen’s Telegraphic Message and President Buchanan’s Reply."
- "Dead Rabbits’ Fight with the Bowery Boys. July 4, 1857." – The New York City gang fight immortalized in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York.
Very few songs of the Saugerties Bard have been recorded, but June Lazar’s Folk Songs of New York City, vol 1 & 2 includes five of them.
Best Thinking - The Saugerties Bard by John Thorn
Voices - Murder and Mayhem, Tra-La by John Thorn
Henry Backus "The Saugerties Bard" (1798-1861)
A Brief History of Saugerties
Library of Congress - America Singing
Burt, Olive Woolley. American murder ballads and their stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.