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“Oh, Mama”: A Mother’s Love and the Murder Ballad “Batson”

Note: This is the first in a series of posts about the murder ballad “Batson.” This one discusses previously unpublished versions of the song from manuscript collections at AFC.

Robert Winslow Gordon, first head of the Archive of American Folk-Song, at the Library of Congress, with part of the cylinder collection and recording machinery, about 1930. Library of Congress Photo from the AFC Subject Files.

Introduction

The ballad “Batson,” collected by John and Alan Lomax from Wilson Jones (whose nickname was “Stavin’ Chain”) and two accompanists, has long been a well-known and enigmatic item in the AFC archive. Like “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “Tom Dooley,” John and Alan Lomax made “Batson” famous by publishing a transcription in one of their books [1]. It has been studied by several scholars, including Joshua Clegg Caffery and John Garst, and has been performed by several revival singers, including Claire Caffery, whose version you can hear at this link [2]. But there are other versions of “Batson” which have never been published, and which are therefore neglected by singers and scholars alike. Two of these are fragments which add only a little to our knowledge of the ballad, but one is a complete and fascinating text. I’ll present them all in this post.

All of these lesser-known versions of “Batson” were collected by Robert Winslow Gordon, John Lomax’s predecessor at the Library of Congress, who was the first scholar to take note of the song. The text is about an accused murderer named “Batson” who repeatedly asserts that he “didn’t do that crime.” As Gordon was to learn, the ballad was based on a true crime and trial involving Albert Edwin Batson, which was a cause célèbre in Cajun country in 1902 and 1903. In the most complete version collected by Gordon, the song is also a powerful expression of a mother’s love for her son.

The Crime and the Trial

Albert Edwin Batson, photographed in 1902. The photo was published in 1903, in Charles Dobson’s book Guilty? Side Lights on the Batson Case. It is in the public domain.

Because some of the details are reflected in the ballad, I’ll give a brief summary of the case [3]. Batson, a young white farmhand, was accused of killing the family of his employer, Ward Earll [4]. The victims included Earll’s parents as well as Earll and three of his brothers, or six people in all. The murders were particularly gruesome; most of the victims were either shot or bludgeoned to death, and then had their throats cut to make sure. After their deaths, but before the bodies were discovered, a man whom witnesses later identified as Batson arrived in downtown Lake Charles claiming to be Ward Earll. He tried to sell Earll’s team of livestock, then visited a gun repair shop and a watch repair shop, leaving Ward Earll’s shotgun and watch. He gave his name as C.R. Batson to the gun shop and A.E. Batson to the watch shop–presumably because these merchants would be likely to know Ward Earll on sight. The suspect found a Wells Fargo driver and sent a package to Batson’s mother in Missouri. (It was later found to contain nothing but rice.) He retrieved the watch, but left the shotgun for repair and the livestock for appraisal.

The attempted sale of Ward Earll’s animals, and their continued presence in Lake Charles, caused suspicion among Earll’s acquaintances, and the sheriff’s office sent a deputy to Earll’s home to investigate, resulting in the discovery of the bodies. Ward Earll’s buggy, which had been used by the suspect, was searched, and a vest was discovered containing a bizarre farewell letter, signed by Batson, which ended “ha ha bye bye I’m gone.” The letter suggested that Batson expected to be dead when the letter was found, and many interpreted it as a suicide note. By the time the crimes and the evidence were discovered, Batson (whether or not he was also the man who had tried to sell the livestock) had taken a train to Missouri, where he was arrested and extradited back to Louisiana.

The case was difficult because the savagery of the crime and the madness of the letter did not match Batson’s apparent personality; he was reserved, polite, and well-behaved at all times when in the public eye. He seemed cheerful, and certainly not suicidal. There was also no obvious motive for all of the crimes—if robbery had been the motive, he would not have had to kill the whole family over an extended time. Some people therefore did not believe in his guilt.

On the other hand, the circumstantial evidence linking Batson to the suspect who tried to sell the livestock, including the witnesses, the letter, the names left at the repair shops, and the package to Batson’s mother, suggested that he had at least stolen the dead family’s goods and contemplated suicide, which strongly suggested his guilt. The only other explanation would be that someone had intentionally framed Batson by using his name and sending a package to his mother.

This postcard shows the courthouse where Batson was tried and convicted twice. In 1902, it underwent a renovation, which delayed Batson’s second trial. In 1910 it was damaged by a fire which destroyed much of downtown Lake Charles, and the tall spire was replaced by a broad dome. This photo was published before 1910 and is in the public domain.

At Batson’s trial, his legal team put forth no plausible alternative theory of the crimes, and he was found guilty. His first conviction was overturned on a technicality, so a second trial was scheduled, but repairs to the courthouse caused a delay of several months during which he remained in jail. He was found guilty a second time and sentenced again to death.  Throughout both his trials, Batson’s mother came to the courtroom every day and expressed unwavering support for her son. After his second trial, Charles Dobson’s book Guilty? Side Lights on the Batson Case was published by the L. Graham Company in New Orleans, suggesting several alternative theories and asserting Batson’s innocence. In light of the wholly circumstantial nature of the evidence, the Louisiana pardons board recommended that the governor commute the sentence to life in prison, but the governor overruled them despite visits from Batson’s mother and his defense team. Batson was finally hanged, and his mother took his body back to Missouri.

There are persistent rumors, even today, both that Batson confessed to the crimes (but only to his mother), and that someone else made a deathbed confession years later, proving Batson’s innocence. No hard evidence of either rumor has been uncovered.

Discovering the Ballad

Mike Harrison is responsible for collecting the first known stanza of “Batson,” which he sent to Robert W. Gordon in 1924. He later amassed a significant collection of research materials related to the western United States, which is part of the library of the University of California, Davis. Photo is “‘General’ Harrison at the Grand Canyon,” from The Michael and Margaret B. Harrison Western Research Center Collection, Special Collections, University Library, UC Davis. Used by permission.

Robert Winslow Gordon’s experience with the song “Batson” began with a single verse he received in a letter dated June 21, 1924 from I. I. “Mike” Harrison, a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. This was before Gordon’s employment at the Library of Congress, when his primary connection to folksongs was through a regular column he wrote in Adventure magazine, entitled “Old Songs That Men Have Sung.”

Mike Harrison’s 1924 letter, giving the earliest known stanza of “Batson,” is part of AFC’s American folk-song collection: Gordon manuscripts, 1921-1930.

In his letter, Harrison, a regular reader of the column, refers to Adventure as “our magazine,” then introduces the song:

While in the Army, a buddy of mine from Louisiana always sang a song, the first three lines of which I still remember. Here they are:

Batson, Batson see what you have done.
You have murdered the whole Earl family,
And you’ve been sentenced to be hung.

Harrison continues the letter by giving some of his buddy’s commentary on the song, in which Batson is an African American who murders several families with an axe, before being “captured and lynched.” (None of these details matches the true crime, of course!) Harrison ends his discussion of the song like this:

I’m wondering if you couldn’t “dig” up the rest of it. Harry Shinn (my buddy’s name) sang about ten verses to the song.

Gordon responded on August 16, assuring Harrison:

I’ll sure make a try to get “Batson,” which sounds mighty interesting. If you let me know the regiment, etc., in which Shinn was, I’ll see if I can trace him and capture the song.

We can’t be sure if Gordon ever did try to trace Shinn, but in any case he didn’t succeed. When Nevil G. Henshaw wrote to him on Halloween, 1926, asking about the song, Gordon responded that all he knew about the song was in Harrison’s letter. But Henshaw’s letter added quite a bit more to that. Henshaw, a fellow contributor to Adventure magazine, was a writer who had grown up on a Louisiana plantation, and who had made his name writing regional fiction based in New Orleans and Cajun country. In his letter he professed a love of African American songs, especially songs about criminals. “I’ve often wondered,” he wrote insightfully, “if it wasn’t a sort of survival of the old English Ballads printed just before an execution.”

Henshaw continued:

Nevil G. Henshaw’s 1926 letter to Robert Winslow Gordon is part of AFC’s American folk-song collection: Gordon manuscripts, 1921-1930.

The best known song was “Batson.” Batson, a young man, was supposed to have killed a whole family at Lake Charles, with an ax. After a hard legal fight he was hanged, protesting his innocence to the last. The field hands would sing of him for hours to a special minor tune. I recall two verses:

Mamma brought me coffee,
Mamma brought me tea;
Brought me every single thing,
Except that jail house key
Singing Batson, I didn’t doer the crime.

You can dress in purple,
You can dress in black;
Dress in anything you want
But you can’t bring Batson back,
Singing Mamma, I didn’t doer the crime.

In his response, sent on November 7, 1926, Gordon pumped Henshaw for more information:

The songs of outlaws are a pet of mine, and your reference to “Batson” makes me eager to get still more information from you, – any scrap that might put me in touch with versions of it or with any accounts of the actual man and his crimes. When did you first hear it? Have you any idea of the approximate date of Batson’s execution? Do you know any persons with whom I might correspond about it? Where would the criminal records be likely to be kept?

In fact, Gordon already had everything he needed to continue his research. Henshaw had specified Lake Charles as the place of the crime, and it was such a famous case that a letter sent to the local authorities there would certainly have reached someone who knew about the case. Apparently, Gordon or someone acting on his behalf (for reasons still unclear) wrote instead to Robert Mouton, who was then the mayor of Lafayette, 75 miles to the east of Lake Charles. This letter does not survive in Gordon’s collection [5], but luckily Mouton or one of his staff sent it on to the district attorney’s office in Lake Charles, where it was answered by S.H. Jones, the assistant district attorney. Jones prefaced the song with a brief letter:

S.H. Jones’s 1929 letter to Robert Winslow Gordon is part of AFC’s American folk-song collection: Gordon manuscripts, 1921-1930.

Dear Sir:

In response to a letter addressed to Mr. Robert Mouton, Lafayette, Louisiana, which somehow came to my attention, dated February 9, 1927, I am enclosing herewith 11 stanzas of a song relating to the famous Batson murder case.

These, as stated on the attached sheet, were dictated by an old negro of this city who sang them.

I do not know whether you still want this, nor whether you are still engaged in collecting and gathering American folksong as you then were, but they are sent on with the hope that they may be of some use.

S.H. Jones’s attention to detail, and his willingness to help a far-away folksong collector, suggest he was a hardworking, helpful, and intellectually curious person. We can see also that he was perceptive and intelligent; his questions about whether Gordon still wanted the song were well founded. It had taken the response almost three years to reach the folksong collector, and in that time he had ceased to edit his Adventure magazine column.

Given all this, it may not surprise you that assistant district attorney of Lake Charles was not Sam Houston Jones’s last or most prominent job. In 1939, Jones campaigned against and defeated Earl Long, the governor of Louisiana. Jones took office as governor in 1940.

Gordon, too, went on to bigger things since sending his query, becoming the first head of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk-Song, which is now the AFC archive. This change of venue from a magazine to a library ensured that the manuscript S.H. Jones sent to him was preserved permanently here at AFC. On the other hand, it prevented this version of “Batson” from being published—until now, that is.

The Ballad

Sam Houston Jones, photographed in the 1940s. Jones was assistant district attorney for Lake Charles in 1929, when he collected the ballad “Batson” and sent it to Robert Winslow Gordon. Eleven years later, he became governor of Louisiana. The copyright to this photo resides with the State of Louisiana, which has licensed it for “nonprofit educational usages.”

What follows is S.H. Jones’s introduction, followed by the 11 stanzas of this early version of “Batson.” Although the stanzas are not numbered in the manuscript, I have numbered them for ease of reference.

(I’ll also just note Jones’s quotation marks around the word “song.” Given his perceptiveness and attention to detail, they certainly make you wonder what he thought of the ballad!)

In re: The Batson Case – Lake Charles, La. – The following “song” was gotten from an old negro, who said it was sung in this section of Louisiana:

1. Mrs. Batson says to her son Batson
Son Batson ain’t you shamed
Come all the way from Missouri
To scandalize my name
Chorus: He cried, Oh Mama, I didn’t do that crime

2. Mrs. Batson went to Lake Charles
Just about the setting of the sun
She said to Mr. Johnny Perkins*
I came here to see my son
Chorus

3. She went down to the jail house
She fell upon her knees
And cried, Oh Speak, Son Batson
And give my heart some ease
Chorus

S.H. Jones’s text of “Batson” is part of AFC’s American folk-song collection: Gordon manuscripts, 1921-1930.

4. The next morning the jury went into the box
And the hour was about three
Come out with the verdict
It read murder in the first degree
Chorus

5. She telegraphed to the Governor and he said
It’s just for fun,
Batson has killed the whole Earl family
And Batson must be hung
Chorus

6. She went back to the jail house
And she fell upon her knees
And cried, Oh Speak, Son Batson
And give my heart some ease
Chorus

7. She said to her son, Batson
What do you want to eat
He said, Mama, I don’t was no coffee [sic]
And I don’t want no tea
All I want in this wide world
Is a Priest to Pray for me
Chorus

S.H. Jones’s text of “Batson” is part of AFC’s American folk-song collection: Gordon manuscripts, 1921-1930.

8. The jury went into the box again
The hour still limit three
And came out with another verdict
That read murder in the first degree
Chorus

9. His lawyer rose and said Judge Miller
Judge I don’t think that’s right
I’ll appeal this case to the Supreme Court
And give him a chance for his life
Chorus

10. They telegraphed to the Governor and
He said let me be
Batson has killed the whole Earl family
And Batson’ll never go free
Chorus

11. Mrs. Batson went up to the Court House
She went there dressed in black
Says to Judge Miller Please let me
Take his body back
Chorus

* The Sheriff

Connections and Reflections

Nothing in his previous experience with the “Batson” ballad could have prepared Robert Winslow Gordon for the song Sam Houston Jones sent to him. All three stanzas contained in the fragmentary versions of “Batson” he had previously known are formulaic verses well known in the blues repertoire.  The first, for example, which rhymes “look what you have done” with “sentenced to be hung,” is similar to many versions of “John Hardy.” A ballad well known in Louisiana, “John Hardy” was in the early repertory of the great Louisiana songster Lead Belly, among many others. Hear Walter Williams’s Kentucky version below, in which the similar line is:

His brother stepped up to the jailhouse door
Saying, “Johnny, what have you done?”
“I’ve killed a man in the Dorsey bar
And now I’m sentenced to be hung.”

The stanza linking coffee and tea and the jailhouse key, likewise, echoes a number of well-known blues pieces. For example, Henry Thomas’s commercial side “Don’t Ease Me In” (which really should have been titled “Don’t Leave Me Here”) contains the following lines:

She bring me coffee, and she bring me tea
She bring me everything, ‘cept the jailhouse key.

(Hear it on YouTube)

Finally, the lyrics about dressing in black not bringing Batson back recall many songs, including Maceo Pinkard’s “Those Draftin’ Blues,” where the line is:

To dress in black won’t bring him back.

(See the sheet music)

In contrast to these very formulaic stanzas associated with “Batson,” S.H. Jones sent a song with a wealth of detail and specificity. The detail does not concern the crime itself, which is a main focus of the later version collected by the Lomaxes. Instead, the Lake Charles “Batson” begins after the crime has been committed and Batson is in jail. It mostly involves Batson’s mother, who comes to visit him in jail and tries to help his case by communicating with the Sheriff and the Governor. Most of the names in the ballad are accurate; John Perkins was the real name of the Sheriff, and the judge in the case was Edmund D. Miller. Throughout the song, however, Batson’s mother is referred to as “Mrs. Batson,” while in real life she was known as Mrs. Rachel Payne, or Mrs. Joseph Payne, having divorced Batson’s father and married again.

These two photos show Batson on the left, and Sheriff Perkins and Deputy Fontenot on the right. They were published in the New Orleans Picayune in 1903, and are in the public domain.

Making “Mrs. Batson” the heroine of the song (despite the inaccurate name) comports well with what people in the community knew about the case: Batson’s mother really was a visible spectator, really did visit him many times, and really did make several attempts to influence the authorities. All of these actions were reported in local newspapers and would have been known to local songmakers. In fact, the scene repeated in stanzas 3 and 6, in which Batson’s mother questions him about the case, and in which he replies with the refrain “oh mama, I didn’t do that crime,” might conceivably have come directly from a story in the March 13, 1903, St. Louis Republic:

This headline, teaser, and photo of Batson’s mother accompanied an article in the March 13, 1903, St. Louis Republic. Find the full page here.

Mrs. Payne came to Lake Charles early last week to be present at the trial. She is still the same helpful, shrewd little woman that she was last year, and is as firmly convinced of her son’s innocence as ever. Speaking of the case, she said: ‘I have not the slightest doubt that my boy will be acquitted of this horrible charge, for I know he did not commit it. I have questioned him time and again about it, but he has always taken me in his arms and said, “Mother, you know that I could not have committed that crime.”‘

The events described in the ballad are also remarkably close to the facts. Batson’s lawyer brought the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court, as in Stanza 9. This resulted in the first verdict being overturned, and in a second trial and verdict, as in stanza 8. Governor Heard refused twice to commute the sentence, once responding to Mrs. Payne (the “she” of stanza 5) and once to Batson’s defense team (the “they” of stanza 10). Surprisingly, the events are in exactly the correct chronological order, except that stanzas 5 and 9 are reversed. (In the appendix, find the ballad with those stanzas reordered, along with the dates of the real-life events they describe.)

There are some other minor discrepancies between the ballad and the facts. For example, both Mrs. Payne and Batson’s lawyers visited the governor personally rather than sending a telegram. They did so within three days of one another just before the execution, which doesn’t match the sequence of the ballad. (As I mentioned, verses 5 and 9 are reversed.) Still, this version of “Batson” clearly has a remarkable level of accurate detail.

Governor William Wright Heard, elected in 1900, rejected the pardons board’s recommendation to commute Batson’s sentence, then met with Batson’s mother and his legal team, each time refusing to budge. This photo by an unknown photographer dates to his term as governor in the early 20th century. Copyright is claimed by the state of Louisiana, which has licensed the photo for “criticism, comment, teaching, scholarship, educational research, all other nonprofit educational usages.”

Focusing on Batson’s mother was a shrewd decision on the part of the ballad’s author. Mrs. Payne was certainly the most sympathetic character in the Batson saga, and brought the pathos of the story before the public in a way no one else could have done. Newspaper writers also understood this, and often made Mrs. Payne’s reactions to the case central to their stories.  For example, the March 13, 1903, St. Louis Republic included the following paragraphs:

Batson’s mother was seated at his side when the Jury came In. When the verdict was read by the court neither mother nor son gave any sign of emotion. A few minutes afterward, however, Mrs. Payne was seen to quiver from head to toe. Then she sat upright, her chin in her hind, for about five minutes and suddenly fell back in her chair with a groan. Her face assumed a deathlike pallor, her form became rigid and everyone thought her dead.

Deputies went to her assistance, but her condemned son was the first to administer to the poor woman, his dearest friend. He opened her clothing at the throat and chafed her hands in an effort to revive her.

COT BROUGHT IN COURT

A cot was brought into the courtroom and the woman placed upon it. Stimulants were administered and in a few minutes she revived. Her first words were: “Are we still in the courtroom?”

Then she called for her boy. He leaned over her and their lips met. She pressed him to her breast and wept aloud. The deputies called on Batson to go back to the jail and she pleaded with them not to separate her from him.

Concentrating on Batson’s mother also allowed the ballad ”Batson” to conform to the generic conventions of folksongs. In particular, it fits into a thematic subset of traditional song that we might call “prisoner visiting songs,” in which a loved one visits a prisoner in jail or in court, and they discuss his fate and his options. Songs in this genre include English-language American ballads such as “The Boston Burglar” and Cajun French songs like “Les Clefs de La Prison,” in both of which, like in “Batson,” parents fall on their knees in despair while visiting a child in prison. Hear Aunt Molly Jackson sing “The Boston Burglar” below, including the lines:

You ought to saw my father
A pleading at the bar
Likewise my dear old mother
Come tearing out her hair

And pulling of her old gray locks
Til her tears come twinkling down
Saying, “Son, my, son, what have you done?
You’re bound for Franklintown.”

The Lomaxes collected “Les Clefs de La Prison” in New Iberia on the same trip during which they found “Batson.” The whole song is a conversation between a prisoner and his family members, with the closest lines to the above being:

Grandpère
Mais, qui s’a mis à genoux
En s’arrachant les cheveux
En s’arrachant les cheveux

(Grandpa
He has fallen to his knees
While tearing out his hair
While tearing out his hair)

(Hear the recording at this link.)

On a purely practical level, Batson’s mother being the song’s main character sheds light on the refrain. In the language of the blues and other African American vernacular song, the nickname “Mama” can be addressed to any woman, not just one’s mother. It often refers to a lover or the object of the speaker’s affection. In other versions of “Batson,” it’s unclear just who the singer is addressing, but in this version it’s clearly Batson’s mother. The closeness of the line “Mama, I didn’t do that crime” to the Missouri newspaper account (“Mother, you know that I could not have committed that crime”) suggests that the newspapers informed the refrain, which in turn suggests the earliest versions of the song were about Batson’s mother. If so, this text might be close to the song’s original form.

A final interesting thing about the decision to write a song focused entirely on Batson’s mother is that it allows the song to remain ambiguous about whether Batson actually committed the crime. As the ballad audience, we know that Batson claims he didn’t do it. We also know his mother at first suspects that he did; the first stanza involves her accusing him of coming “all the way from Missouri to scandalize my name.” Although he manages to convince her that he is innocent, she has to question him not once but (as she told the newspapers) “time and again,” asking him to “give my poor heart ease,” after which he repeats that he is innocent. We also know that his lawyer thinks he is innocent. On the other hand, we know that the jury thinks he is guilty, and that the governor is strongly convinced of—or at least committed to—Batson’s guilt.

What are we to make of this disagreement and controversy? No omniscient narrator tells us what to think. All we have are the diverse opinions of the characters in the song. The most commonly repeated line in the ballad is “oh mama, I didn’t do that crime.” Still, taken as a whole, the song suggests he might well have done it after all.

Conclusion

What we might call the “Lake Charles Batson,” the version of the song sent to Robert Winslow Gordon by Sam Houston Jones, is an entirely different song from the version recorded by the Lomaxes. It shares only a few stanzas with the later song, and differs in that it concentrates on Batson’s mother rather than on the accused himself. The author or authors of the Lake Charles ballad correctly identified one of the strongest connections between their intended audience and the Batson story: Mrs. Payne. By maintaining the ambiguity about Batson’s guilt, they strengthened the connection between the audience and the main character: neither knows if Batson did it. After all, Batson’s mother doesn’t arrive on the scene until well after the crime is committed. Like the public, she suspects that he is guilty. Like the public, she has to rely on his own denials of guilt, since she has no inside information.

What “Mrs. Batson” does have is a strong emotional stake in both the truth of the case and the outcome of the trial. If her son is innocent, her suffering is unimaginable; if he is guilty, it’s even worse. This is the principal power of “courtroom visit” ballads as a genre, and the principal power of news stories about Mrs. Payne. I’d suggest that the ballad authors saw a powerful emotional connection between prisoners and their parents, both in other traditional ballads and in the newspaper accounts of this case. I think they were trying to access this connection in writing their song about “Mrs. Batson.” Finally, I think they were trying to establish this emotional connection between the song’s characters and the audience, to allow the audience to feel a mother’s love for her son.

Apart from a few researchers, we are the song’s first audience in almost a hundred years. Only we can say if they succeeded.

Notes

  1. “Batson” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” both appeared in the Lomaxes’ book Our Singing Country. ”Tom Dooley” appeared in their book Folk Song U.S.A.
  2. Joshua Clegg Caffery’s research appeared in its most polished form in his book Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings. He has also discussed the song in two blog posts, here and here. Claire Caffery’s performance is on the Valcour Records CD I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country, Volume 1. John Garst contributed his research to Richard H. Underwood’s article “The Other Batson Case,” and he advised Bradshaw and Miller as well. For these references see note 3.
  3. For the brief history of the Batson case, I have relied primarily on the book Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: The Hanging of Albert Edwin Batson by Jim Bradshaw and Danielle Miller, which has a handy chronology on pages 171-173. I also consulted Richard H. Underwood’s article “The Other Batson Case,” which appeared in Legal Studies Forum, vol. 31 (2007), p. 765-800, and which provided the information about rumors at the end of my summary of the case.  Finally, I used newspaper articles from the Library’s Chronicling America collection.
  4. Newspaper accounts spelled the name “Earll” inconsistently as “Earl,” “Earle,” or “Earll,” sometimes employing more than one spelling in the same article. The family is recorded in the 1880 federal census as “Earl,” but the 1885 Iowa state census as “Earll.” The surviving brother, Fred, was recorded up to the 1940 federal census as “Earll.” The legal documents I have seen involving the family’s land call Ward’s father “Lemuel S. Earll.” I have therefore elected to use the spelling “Earll” when I am not quoting from other writers.
  5. Since Henshaw was a prominent Louisiana native who grew up near Lafayette, it’s likely that he wrote to Mouton on Gordon’s behalf. Perhaps he was a personal friend of Mouton’s and mentioned Gordon’s search in the course of a longer letter. That would explain why a letter went to Mouton instead of directly to Lake Charles, why Jones referred to the query vaguely as “a letter” rather than “your letter,” and also why there is no record of this letter in the Gordon collection.

Appendix

Robert Winslow Gordon’s “Batson” with Stanzas 5 and 9 reversed, along with the dates and events described by each stanza:

1. Mrs. Batson says to her son Batson
Son Batson ain’t you shamed
Come all the way from Missouri
To scandalize my name
Chorus: He cried, Oh Mama, I didn’t do that crime

2. Mrs. Batson went to Lake Charles
Just about the setting of the sun
She said to Mr. Johnny Perkins
I came here to see my son
Chorus

3. She went down to the jail house
She fell upon her knees
And cried, Oh Speak, Son Batson
And give my heart some ease
Chorus

4. The next morning the jury went into the box
And the hour was about three
Come out with the verdict
It read murder in the first degree
Chorus

5 [9 in original]. His lawyer rose and said Judge Miller
Judge I don’t think that’s right
I’ll appeal this case to the Supreme Court
And give him a chance for his life
Chorus

6. She went back to the jail house
And she fell upon her knees
And cried, Oh Speak, Son Batson
And give my heart some ease
Chorus

7. She said to her son, Batson
What do you want to eat
He said, Mama, I don’t was no coffee [sic]
And I don’t want no tea
All I want in this wide world
Is a Priest to Pray for me
Chorus

8. The jury went into the box again
The hour still limit three
And came out with another verdict
That read murder in the first degree
Chorus

9 [5 in original]. She telegraphed to the Governor and he said
It’s just for fun,
Batson has killed the whole Earl family
And Batson must be hung
Chorus

10. They telegraphed to the Governor and
He said let me be
Batson has killed the whole Earl family
And Batson’ll never go free
Chorus

11. Mrs. Batson went up to the Court House
She went there dressed in black
Says to Judge Miller Please let me
Take his body back
Chorus

Stanzas 1-3 (April 12-13, 1902): Batson’s mother, Mrs. Rachel Payne, arrives in Lake Charles, and meets with both her son and Sheriff Perkins. She questions Batson, as she later told the paper she had done “time and again.”

Stanza 4 (April 14-21, 1902): The first trial occurs and a guilty verdict is returned.

Stanza 5 [9 in original] (June 10-June 21, 1902): Batson’s lawyers go to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which overturns the verdict and orders a new trial.

Stanzas 6-7 (June 22, 1902-March 5, 1903): Months pass, during which Batson remains in jail and Mrs. Payne visits him many times.

Stanza 8 (March 6-March 19, 1903): The second trial occurs, and Batson is convicted again.

Stanza 9 [5 in original] (August 10, 1903): Mrs. Payne visits the governor, who refuses to commute the sentence.

Stanza 10 (August 13, 1903): Batson’s lawyers visit the governor, who once again refuses to commute the sentence.

(Batson is executed on August 14, 1903.)

Stanza 11 (August 15, 1903): Mrs. Payne claims Batson’s body and takes it by train to Missouri for burial.

One Comment

  1. Eric M. Bram
    June 16, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Thank you for your excellent research into and analysis of this song!

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