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Origins: Ella Speed / Alice B.


Related thread:
Lyr Req: *one verse* of Ella Speed (10)

GUEST, 26 Mar 01 - 01:23 PM
GUEST, 26 Mar 01 - 01:32 PM
Sean Belt 26 Mar 01 - 01:49 PM
GUEST, 26 Mar 01 - 03:32 PM
katlaughing 26 Mar 01 - 03:50 PM
GUEST,Nancy 26 Mar 01 - 09:43 PM
Rick Fielding 27 Mar 01 - 12:07 AM
Brian Hoskin 27 Mar 01 - 07:16 AM
Jeri 27 Mar 01 - 07:18 AM
Steve Latimer 27 Mar 01 - 10:51 AM
Fortunato 27 Mar 01 - 11:36 AM
GUEST,Les B 27 Mar 01 - 12:51 PM
GUEST, 27 Mar 01 - 01:35 PM
GUEST,ghost 27 Mar 01 - 08:38 PM
Joe Offer 12 Oct 12 - 02:44 AM
Stilly River Sage 12 Oct 12 - 09:34 AM
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Subject: Ella Speed
From: GUEST,
Date: 26 Mar 01 - 01:23 PM

Bruce Olson suggested to me that I post something here about my recent research into Ella Speed and Delia. I'll put Delia in another thread. Here's something on Ella. The information is mostly from newspaper accounts and court records.

On the morning of September 3, 1894, Ella Speed, a 28-year-old "octoroon" prostitute, was shot by her jealous white (Itialian/German) lover, Louis "Bull" Martin, in her second-floor room of a sporting house operated by Miss Pauline Jones at 137 Customhouse Street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She quickly collapsed and died in the hallway just outside her room.

Louis was a short, stocky bartender and local tough. He had met Ella about four months earlier when she was at Miss Lou Prout's establishment at 40 S. Basin Street. The building there had been built in 1866 by Kate Townsend and is widely regarded as the first of Basin Street's lavish bordello mansions. Louis became obsessed with Ella and they formed a "special relationship." When he discovered that Ella had other such relationships, he was enraged, and his regular threats alarmed Miss Lou to the extent that she asked Ella to leave. Ella had been on Customhouse Street only 3-4 weeks before her death.

Louis called on Ella at about 5 pm Sunday evening, September 2, 1894. At about 9 pm they took a hack to the West End, a resort area on Lake Pontchartrain. They returned to Ella's place at about 2 am, showing signs of having drunk substantially in the interim. After sharing a few rounds of drinks with Miss Pauline, Louis ordered three dozen oysters and three bottles of white wine and they retired to Ella's room with another inmate to consume these. Afterward, Louis went to bed but Ella stayed up until around 6 am. At about 9 am, Ella woke Louis up complaining of a headache and asking for a whiskey cocktail. Louis ordered these and they were received and drunk, but Ella complained that her's was too weak, so Louis got a second round, with instructions to make them strong. At about 9:30 am, Miss Pauline was awakened by Ella's screams, "Help! Miss Pauline! Louis shot me!" Miss Pauline rushed out, saw Ella standing in her doorway with her chemise "on fire" at the left breast, and ran toward her, but Louis leveled a pistol at her saying, "Look out, there, Miss Pauline!" so Miss Pauline ran downstairs where a deputy sheriff was guarding the furniture, which had been seized for slow payment. As the deputy went up the stairs, Louis came down and left the premises. By the time an ambulance got there, Ella was dead.

A massive manhunt was mounted, but Louis evaded it. At about 6:30 am the next morning, September 4, he turned himself in at the home of the acting Chief of Police, Captain John Journee. He was held without bond until his trial in early May, 1895. The New Orleans Daily Item, in an editoriald about this crime, dedicated itself to bringing the killer to justice at the end of a rope. They pointed out that it had been many years since a white person had been executed for killing a black.

At his trial for murder, the prosecution sought the death penalty. However, Louis described the shooting as an accident. Ella had been despondent over the news that he was about to move to Chicago. She needed his money to pay the room and board of one of her children. She somehow got his pistol. He was afraid that she would harm herself and tried to take it away. In the struggle, it went off.

A witness who saw Louis on the street as he fled the scene of the shooting testified that tears were streaming down his face.

The jury was 9-3 in favor of conviction. They compromised on manslaughter. Judge John H. Ferguson presided. He was the carpetbagger from Massachusetts who had made the original ruling that "separate but equal" facilities are constitutional, a ruling that was eventually upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Plessy vs. Ferguson. Ferguson gave Louis the maximum sentence the law allowed, 20 years hard labor in the state penitentiary. Louis was back at his old job as a bartender at D. Trauth's Saloon, Dryades Market, in 1901.

According to newspaper accounts, Ella had two children, perhaps boys aged approximately 4 and 7, at least one of whom was boarded out. Her maiden name was given as "Cherwiss" (as far as I can tell, no one ever had this name) and she is said to have been married to Willie Speed. She was "petite," "plump" (about 150 lb.), and "bright" in skin color. Her 7-year-old son was Monteville, or Mandeville, Speed.

Louis continued to be in occasional trouble with the law, gambling, stealing, serving liquor to minors, etc.

I would like to find living relatives of Ella and Louis, but so far I have not succeeded.

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: GUEST,
Date: 26 Mar 01 - 01:32 PM

P.S. - John Cowley has gathered all the versions of Ella Speed, about a dozen, that he could find. He and I are collaborating on writing this material up. We have a short article that has appeared, or is about to appear, in Sing Out! We hope shortly to write something more scholarly for a blues or folklore magazine or journal.

The front facade of Miss Pauline's house, where Ella was shot and killed, still stands on Iberville Street, the first street parallel to Canal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The numbering system was changed in the 1890s and shortly thereafter the name of the street was changed from Customhouse to Iberville. Ella lived at Miss Pauline's place at 137 Customhouse. This became 829 Iberville. In the 1960s, the front facades of three townhouses that had been built together in 1850 were incorporated into the D. H. Holmes Department Store parking garage. All of the property of the garage seems to be subsumed now under the number 817 Iberville. You will recognize these three townhouses by the elaborate ironwork on their balconies. Ella lived in the one nearer Bourbon Street.

John Garst

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: Sean Belt
Date: 26 Mar 01 - 01:49 PM

Fascinating stuff, John. I'm always intrigued by the stories behind songs of this nature. Thanks for posting it.

I was fortunate enough last year to spend some time with a descendent of the sherriff who captured Tom Dula ("Tom Dooley") after he'd killed Laurie Foster. I was amazed at how immediate this story was to her, even though to me, it was just a song I'd heard for years.

I'll look forward to your post on "Delia", which is one of my favorite songs. Shame on me that it had never occurred to me that Delia was a real person!

- Sean

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: GUEST,
Date: 26 Mar 01 - 03:32 PM

P.P.S. - Tune relationships, timing, and subject matter lead me to the hypothesis, which I consider to be likely true, that "Ella Speed" was the original that Charles Trevathan recomposed as "The Bully Song" for May Irvin for her late 1895 Broadway musical theater production, The Widow Jones. Most people know this song as "Bully of the Town."

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: katlaughing
Date: 26 Mar 01 - 03:50 PM

Thanks so much for posting all of this information and thanks to Bruce O. for encouraging you to do so. Fascinating story! I look forward to more of your postings and have already really enjyed the Delia on, too.

Max, the owner of the Mudcat, sings Delia quite often on the Mudcat Radio show, so I know he will find that thread of great interest, too.

Thansk, again!


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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: GUEST,Nancy
Date: 26 Mar 01 - 09:43 PM

Thanks so much for this interesting background. I am especially happy to have the bartender's real name...all these years I've been snging it as Billy Martin...


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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 27 Mar 01 - 12:07 AM

My Gawd, this is fantastic! Thank you SO MUCH. Ella Speed is close to my all time favourite song, and the recording by Huddie ledbetter with Paul Mason Howard on Dolceola (not Zither as the liner notes say) is simply Leadbelly at his very best. I first heard that recording when I was 14 and 40 years later it still sends chills up my spine. "Bull" Martin eh? That'll take some getting used to....better start now.

Bravo John Garst, and Bravo once again Bruce Olson.

Rick Fielding

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: Brian Hoskin
Date: 27 Mar 01 - 07:16 AM

Fascinating work John, please be sure to let us know when your work with John Cowley is published.


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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: Jeri
Date: 27 Mar 01 - 07:18 AM

If you can get the current issue of SingOut (Vol. 45 No 1), there is a column titled "Behind the Song," about Ella Speed, written by John Cowley and John Garst.

Thanks for sharing your work, John. It's fascinating to read the history behind these songs!

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: Steve Latimer
Date: 27 Mar 01 - 10:51 AM

It's amazing what you can learn at the Mudcat. This and the Delia thread are fascinating. Keep up the good work and please share any other stories that you might have.

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: Fortunato
Date: 27 Mar 01 - 11:36 AM

great work!

with respect, Fortunato

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: GUEST,Les B
Date: 27 Mar 01 - 12:51 PM

Boy do I love this forum ! Just when you get jaded, a thread like this comes along.

I first heard "Ella Speed" by Ian and Sylvia, and, like Rick says, it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

What I find really interesting is the link to "Bully of the Town" which is a real favorite of mine - now I'm going to have to break out the guitar and look at those chord structures more closely.

Great work - bravo !

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: GUEST,
Date: 27 Mar 01 - 01:35 PM

>What I find really interesting is the link to "Bully of >the Town" which is a real favorite of mine - now I'm going >to have to break out the guitar and look at those chord >structures more closely.

Try correlating the second phrase of Bully with the first of Ella Speed.

John Garst

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Subject: RE: Ella Speed
From: GUEST,ghost
Date: 27 Mar 01 - 08:38 PM

You gotta love this place!

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Subject: Origins: Ella Speed
From: Joe Offer
Date: 12 Oct 12 - 02:44 AM

Here's the Traditional Ballad Index entry on this song:

    Ella Speed (Bill Martin and Ella Speed) [Laws I6]

    DESCRIPTION: Ella Speed goes out to "have a li'l fun." Her man, Bill Martin, finds out and shoots her because she has been unfaithful to him. He is sentenced to (hanging/life imprisonment).
    AUTHOR: unknown
    EARLIEST DATE: 1927 (Sandburg)
    KEYWORDS: murder punishment death trial
    FOUND IN: US(So)
    REFERENCES (5 citations):
    Laws I6, "Ella Speed (Bill Martin and Ella Speed)"
    Sandburg, pp. 28-29, "Alice B." (1 text, 1 tune)
    Lomax-ABFS, pp. 117-118, "Bill Martin and Ella Speed" (1 text, 1 tune)
    Cohen-AFS1, pp. 348-349, "Ella Speed" (1 text)
    DT 658, ELLASPED*

    Roud #4175
    Huddie Ledbetter [Lead Belly], "Ella Speed" (AFS 120 B5, 1933)
    File: LI06

    Go to the Ballad Search form
    Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
    Go to the Bibliography
    Go to the Discography

    The Ballad Index Copyright 2012 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.

Roud Index Search

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Subject: RE: Origins: Ella Speed / Alice B.
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 12 Oct 12 - 09:34 AM

In Sandburg's The American Songbag (1927) the song "Alice B." appears on pages 28-29. The words are posted here at Mudcat but Sandburg's notes are absent.

Joe pointed out to me that "Alice B." and "Ella Speed" sound almost the same (say them out loud), and the content describes a similar murder of an octaroon prostitute. Sandburg's notes show that this version has travelled and changed in the process. Alice B.'s murder takes place 1,100 miles west in El Paso instead of Ella's New Orleans.

This is arranged from the ballad as sung by Arthur Sutherland and the buccaneers of the Eclectic Club of Wesleyan University. Sutherland, who is the son of a lawyer in Rochester, New York, first heard of Alice B. when he was with the American Relief Expedition in Armenia, riding on top of a box car to Constantinople with a friend who came from New Orleans, Louisiana, and who in that gulf port one day paid $1.50 to a hobo to sing Alice B. as he, the hobo, had just heard it a few days previously in Memphis from a negro just arriving from Galveston, Texas. This is as far back as we have to date traced the Alice B. ballad. Though the verses have wicked and violent events for a theme, they point a moral and adorn a tale in their conclusion. In a sense it is propaganda in favor of the Volstead Act.
Arr. A. G. W.

I also refer to the front matter in Songbag to include some of his information about A.G.W. On page xvi Sandburg notes that this is Alfred George Wathall, "Composer, violinist, pianist, organist, conductor; Chicago, Illinois. Born Bulwell, near Nottingham, England. Came to America with parents in 1890. Studied under Franz Esser, William Middleschulte, Peter Christian Lutkin' and in London, England, under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Sir Frederick Bridge. . . . As master-arranger and composer for WGN, the Chicago Tribune radio station, 1926 and 1927. . ."

Sandburg's reference to the Volstead Act (Prohibition - 1920-1933) was timely and topical, but I can't make the case for it one way or another at this distance from those years.


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