Sunday, February 12, 2006

At Springfield's first public hanging

Editor's note. Shortly after New Year's I wrote this story for The Prairie Picayune, the volunteer newsletter at New Salem State Historic Site. It came out in the March 2006 issue, with the headline below and a nice graphic of shape notes on a staff, set off by a hangman's noose around a G clef. Also an editor's note by Picayune editor Carol Jenkins Shafer at the end.


When the New Salem Shape Note Singers performed at Springfield’s First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve, baritone Terry Hogg told a story that’s worth sharing. It’s about a man from Athens with “a most excellent voice,” a tune that Robert Burns didn’t much care for and the first public hanging in Springfield.

It was a good story for New Year’s Eve because the melody is what we now know as “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s a very old Scottish melody, and in frontier days in Illinois it was commonly sung to Isaac Watts’ hymn text, “Hark, from the tombs a doleful sound / Doth attend mine ear.” As we ended our last set at Springfield’s new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, we sang Isaac Watts’ text and invited the audience to join us in “Auld Lang Syne.”

According to the Rev. R.D. Miller’s Past and Present of Menard County (1905), the first person to be executed in Springfield was a Nathaniel Van Noy of Athens, convicted on charges of murder in 1826. The hanging was Nov. 26 in “the hollow just east of the new [in 1905] capitol in Springfield,” and Miller said it drew “the largest gathering that, up to that time, had ever met in central Illinois.”

Here’s the story, as Rev. Miller told it.

On the scaffold the murderer, who was a most excellent singer, asked permission of the sheriff to sing. Being granted the privilege, he stood on the platform, or cart, and sang in full, round tones that old hymn, composed by Dr. Watts, the first verso of which is:

‘Hark from the tombs a doleful sound
My ears attend the cry;
Ye living men come view the ground,
Where you must shortly lie.’

He sang the entire hymn and then the cart was drawn from under him.”

I guess I’d sing the entire hymn, too. And I wouldn’t rush the tempo, either.

Hymns and tunes got switched around pretty freely in the early 1800s. But it’s a pretty good guess it would have been sung to the “Auld Lang Syne” tune because both The Missouri Harmony and Southern Harmony print Watts’ hymn to that melody, which they call “Plenary.” Those are the two tunebooks that were most used in Illinois.

The melody itself is an old one. Maurice Lindsay in the online “Burns Encyclopedia” says it was very popular, and his discussion suggests it may go back to a 17th-century strathspey, a kind of stately dance tune, related to “Coming Thro’ the Rye.” When he polished up the words of “Auld Lang Syne” for publication, Burns recommended another melody. He said different things about the song to different people at different times, so it’s hard to sort out. But at one point he told a publisher the tune we now know as “Auld Lang Syne” was “a common Scots country dance” that wasn’t “worth your attention.”

Burns had it right, in a way. His tune is much livelier. But the publishers printed his words to the old country dance tune. They had it right, too. With words and music together, “Auld Lang Syne” is beloved worldwide. And the online encyclopedia Wikipedia notes it isn't just at New Year’s. It is played at funerals in Taiwan and military parades in India, and the Korean national anthem was once sung to its melody.

The tune was certainly common in frontier Illinois. Not only did it appear in the shape-note tunebooks under the name “Plenary.” It was sung with the words of the nursery rhyme “Old Grimes is dead, that good old man; / We ne’er shall see him more.” And in her reminiscences published as A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois, Mrs. Christiana Tillson heard a hymn by Charles Wesley, “When I shall read my title clear, to mansions in the sky,” sung to the same tune in the 1820s near Hillsboro.

What of the story of Van Noy singing at his hanging? I’m inclined to trust it, at least as a good example of a typical reminiscence of the 1800s. Miller’s early Menard County history is as reliable as any of the county histories and old settlers’ accounts (Athens was still in Sangamon County in 1826, and that’s why the hanging was in Springfield). The “old hymn composed by Dr. Watts” is certainly edifying enough in the context, and it was not uncommon to hear stories of people making music at a hanging in the 19th century.

Traditional fiddle tunes like “Hangman’s Reel” and “Coleman’s March” often picked up the motif. Even the folksong “Tom Dooley” has an “old violin” in it (at least in the version picked up by Doc Watson and the Grateful Dead). And Tom Dula (whose name was pronounced like “Dooley”)* actually lived. He “played for the local square dances and was a very popular young man around the community,” according to the Wilkes County (N.C.) Chamber of Commerce. He may have been a little too popular. He got involved in a love triangle, and eventually he was hanged upon conviction of murdering “poor Laurie Foster.” Just because a story turns up later in a song, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

For dulcimer: Music and text of "Plenary” are available online in The Southern Harmony on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. I haven’t tabbed it out since I play by ear, but I play it in DAA with the tonic on the third fret. You could also play it in DAD, if you don’t mind losing the drone by playing low notes on the A string, with the tonic on the open D string.

Editor's note (by Carol Jenkins): This pronunciation would have been common in some parts of the country. Even in the mid-20th century, my Southern Illinois grandfather pronounced virtually all names ending in "A" as though they ended in "Y." "Clara" bdcame "Clary," "Alma" became "Almy," "Noah" was even "Noey."

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