We live in an era of internet memes that instantly respond to current events. The music world has had its share of them, and MTV recently published a list of 2011’s Five Best Music Memes. The music video pioneers join the legions who have dismissed one of the year’s most infamous musical newsmakers, Rebecca Black, but I personally found her song “Friday” no worse than your typical tween pop hit. I thought it was earnest and catchy, and my favorite example of the subsequent remix meme was one that looped the chorus of “fun fun fun” and transformed it into a kind of minimalist epic not unlike avant-garde composer Terry Riley’s early tape sample experiment “You’re no good.”
But I digress. This week’s featured sheet music was inspired by a case that led to the equivalent of a minor meme of the nineteenth century. On Sunday, May 21st, 1899, “Baby Marion Clarke,” as newspaper accounts of the time called her, was taken from her home in Haverstraw, New York, a town Northeast of New York once nicknamed “Brickmaking Capital of the World” for supplying the metropolis with materials for so many of the city’s then- signature brownstone and brick structures.
News of the abduction, which pointed to the Clarke family nurse, Carrie Jones (real name Bell Anderson), surely melted hardened hearts as New York police distributed circulars to hospitals and other area institutions. At one point in the saga, the family received a letter that contained a silk heart the child had been wearing. The missive was ominously signed “Mephisto Secundo, King of the American Mafia.” To the relief of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur W. Clarke, baby Marion was found on June 2, 1899, at a farmhouse fifteen miles away from Haverstraw.
These dramatic events inspired Alice Hallowell to write The stolen baby, Marion Clarke: a touching, true, and thrilling story of to-day, an epic poem combined with a melodramatic procedural about the case and its aftermath. In a climactic trial scene, the sentence handed down to the three perpetrators of the crime is punctuated with great emotion and gratuitous exclamation points:
“The Curtain falls upon their Stage of Life! Their worldly footlights have gone out! And yet, the Light of Prayer, and Penitence, is left for all!!”
Less overheated is the song “Bring back my baby girl,” composed by Charles Robinson with lyrics by George Evans. The wordsmith found inspiration in the date of the abduction, “one bright and sunny afternoon in May,” which naturally rhymes with, “as joyously the baby went to play.” The historical record does not show what became of Baby Marion Clarke, but her name lives on in song.
- “Asked Boston to assist: New York Police have as yet no clew [sic] to Marion Clarke or the nurse, Carrie Jones.” Boston Daily Globe 31 May 1889: 3.
- “Marion Clarke found at last: Discovered at a farmhouse near Sloatsburg, N.Y.” New York Times Jun 2, 1899: 1.
And visit the Haverstraw Brick Museum for information on the town’s former industry.