Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Murder Ballad - John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man

Photo of John Hardy on the Gallows
On October 13, 1893, the Wheeling Daily Register published the following article:

WELCH, W. VA, October 12. “At 8 o’clock this morning the jury in the case of the State against John Hardy, colored, for the murder of Thomas Drews, colored, at Eckman, this county, in January last, brought in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. The trouble arose over a game of craps and was a cold blooded crime. Motion has been made for a new trial with but small hopes of success on account of the Criminal Court Judge’s indisposition. A recess has been taken until Monday.”

According to former West Virginia governor William MacCorkle, the case was a “classic tale of women, cards, and liquor.” Drews beat Hardy in a game of craps and, in front of dozens of witnesses, Hardy pulled out his gun and killed Drews. (I’m not sure what women had to do with the murder although the song states that Hardy had two girlfriends as well as a wife.)

In the 1890s, the booming market for coal was bringing thousands of people to West Virginia. Hardy and Drews were part of the labor pool that helped gouge the black gold from the ground for the Shawnee Coal Company. After work, many of the miners would gamble away all that they’d earned during the day. It is said that John Hardy lost twenty-five cents to Drews before shooting him.

Hardy attempted to escape, but was tracked down on the back of an out-bound train by Sheriff John Effler. When the sheriff attempted to arrest Hardy, he fought back. Effler later recalled that they fought for several minutes before falling off the train together. Effler was injured in the fall but bystanders subdued Hardy and Effler arrested him.

Judge Herndon [first name unknown] and Walter Taylor defended Hardy. It was said that the defendant had no money and gave the judge his pistol for his fee. After being convicted, John Hardy got religion. As the song states, he was baptized a few hours before his execution. It was said that he gave an impassioned speech before being hung. Hardy expressed remorse and cautioned others about the dangers of drinking liquor.

On January 19, 1894, the Register published the following story:

“John Hardy, for killing Thomas Drews, both colored, was hung at 2:09 p.m. today. Three thousand people witnessed his death. His neck was broken and he died in 17 ½ minutes. He exhibited great nerve, attributed his downfall to whiskey, and said he had made peace with God. His body was cut down at 2:39, placed in a coffin, and given to the proper parties for interment. He was baptized in the river this morning. Ten drunken and disorderly persons among the spectators were promptly arrested and jailed.”

As with most folk songs, it is not known who penned the verses that would become one of the most popular murder ballads ever written. Eva Davis was the first to record the song. Davis, a fiddle player and vocalist, teamed with banjoist Samantha Bumgarner and in 1924 traveled from North Carolina to New York to record about a dozen songs for Columbia Records.

Hundreds of others have recorded it since, including Bob Dylan, Uncle Tupelo, Doc Watson, and Johnny Cash. As with many folk songs, every singer seems to have a different version.

I’ve linked the Carter Family version of the song. A. P. and Sara Carter along with Maybelle Carter recorded “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man” in 1928. Maybelle, who was in her early twenties at the time, said she had heard the song all her life so it didn’t take long for the melody to become popular. It not only has catchy lyrics for vocalists but is played as an instrumental by bluegrass and jazz bands.

John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man

John Hardy, he was a desperate little man,
He carried two guns every day.
He shot a man on the West Virginia line,
You oughta seen John Hardy get away.

John Hardy, he got to the Keystone Bridge,
He thought that he would be free.
Up steps a man and takes him by his arm
Saying, “Johnny, walk along with me.”

He sent for his papa and his mama, too,
To come and go his bail.
But money won’t go a murdering case
And they locked John Hardy back in jail.

John Hardy, he had a pretty little girl,
The dress she wore was blue.
She came skipping through the old jail hall
Saying, “Poppy, I’ve been true to you.”

John Hardy, he had another little girl,
The dress she wore was red.
She followed John Hardy to his hanging ground
Saying, “Poppy, I would rather be dead.”

I’ve been to the east and I’ve been to the west,
I’ve been this wide world around.
I’ve been to the river and I’ve been baptized
And now I’m on my hanging ground.

John Hardy walked out on the scaffold high
With his loving little wife by his side.
And the last words she heard poor Johnny say,
“I’ll meet you in that sweet bye-and-bye.”

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