One, two, three,
can we play the game
Of the murderess
who had no name?
Lucifer was waiting,
but Saint Francis came
And said her name is
nowhere on your deeds
So she will come to heaven
now with me.
We have a “whodunit?” of a particular stripe today: a song with secrets to uncover, and a few mysteries that will remain mysteries (always a good thing). I wanted to move out of the terrain of the purely tragic into the realm of the marginally tragicomic. Don’t be fooled though. A lighter tone can still mask a weighty message. Although our song today, with its horn section and nursery rhyme ending, is more fun than your average murder ballad, its heroine pays a price before her final redemption.
“You cannot know my name”
“The Nameless Murderess” is an original song, co-written by Jody Richardson and the Newfoundland folk trio The Once. It appears on The Once’s 2014 release, Departures. The band’s lead singer, Geraldine Hollett, is one of the best voices in contemporary folk music, in my humble opinion, and the band reliably exhibits good taste in arrangements and choice of material. I met, if you will, “The Nameless Murderess” through binge-listening to The Once’s album catalog. We’ve already heard The Once at least twice, performing “Three Fishers” and a variety of songs of seafaring women, including “Marguerite.”
I am getting in the way, though. It’s time to let our Nameless Murderess give you her confession:
In a time gone by, our heroine sought an advantageous marriage to provide financial security after her father abandoned the family. Her efforts came to naught, though, as her new husband and his parents conspired against her. They arranged for her brothers to be drafted into the army and, thereby, killed. Without a man in the household, her mother is turned out of their home. Our protagonist anticipates that her husband is about to abandon her as well, and she tells her sad tale to a barroom acquaintance to enlist his help in killing her scheming husband.
She refuses to give her name to him, or to us, or perhaps to anybody else.
No sir, you cannot know my name
There’s no fortune in my fame
There should be no memory of what I became
And when my judgement comes I will agree
But let me die in anonymity
Although the song is an invented tale, Hollett explained to me via email that it is loosely based on the story of Catherine Mandeville Snow. In 1834, Snow became the last woman executed by hanging in Newfoundland, for the murder of her husband, John Snow. John Snow disappeared on the night of August 31, 1833. The circumstances leading to Catherine Snow’s execution differ from the story of “The Nameless Murderess.” The stories share the theme, though, that the weight of justice, not to mention social opprobrium, often falls with unfair heaviness on women and the poor.
We don’t know for certain from the song if “TNM” was ever caught, tried, convicted, or executed for this crime. Indeed, she may escape earthly judgment as effectively as Bertolt Brecht’s Mackie Messer (“Mack the Knife”), although it’s unlikely. After she secures the help of the assassin, the important question is her eternal judgment, rather than her earthly one. As the children sing it, here her anonymity allows her rescue from hell. With no name on his rolls, Lucifer can’t lay claim to her, and Saint Francis, the agent of mercy invoked in the song’s opening lines, rescues her at the end.
The Picaresque and Poetic Mercy
Hollett explains to interviewer Alex MacPherson that the song was meant to invoke traditional material both in its content and its arrangement.
“It was Phil [Churchill]’s idea to write a modern day traditional song that people could relate to today. The choir gives it a feeling like it’s a story that people have been singing for years. They are singing a little nursery rhyme song about this woman who did this heinous thing who may just be a saint.”