This song about the murder of David and Stephen Lester in 1850 by their stepbrother Reuben Dunbar was written by Henry S. Backus—known as “The Saugerties Bard”—and published in 1855. The original ballad had twenty-four stanzas. The consensus of those who have read it is that at least ten stanzas are superfluous. This version, from American Murder Ballads by Olive Woolley Burt, reduces it to seven.
The story: An Unfortunate Organization
Dunbar, the Murderer
By Henry S. Backus (“The Saugerties Bard”)
Awake, sad muse awake and sing,
And softly touch the mournful string;
In solemn tones, in accent low
Tell the sad tale of death and woe.
Oh, brutal man, how can it be
You’re guilty of such perfidy?
Two blooming children you have slain,
A little paltry gold to gain.
The mother dear the lads did send,
To Dunbar’s home, some months to spend,
But ere they long with him had stayed,
Silent in death they both were laid.
The mother was distracted quite,
To think Dunbar would so requite
The kindness to him always shown,
Such brutal act scarce e’er was known.
For from his house he did them send,
Their precious lives he there did end.
An awful club his hand did hold,
To slay these lads but few years old.
Young Stephen deep beneath the ground,
He put to keep from being found.
And David high on tree he hung
Where the night-bird lonely sung.
This brutal deed was brought to light
By beasts that roam abroad at night;
And now in filthy loathsome jail,
Does Dunbar’s form grow death-like pale.