A Glamour Girl Hooked on Murder?

G. P. Putnam’s illustration for Dick Wick Hall’s first Saturday Evening Post story, “Salome, Where the Green Grass Grew.” Dick was Jane Hall’s father. He is in “jail” because his tiny desert patch of lawn caused such a public disturbance in the Arizona desert. The image reminds us of Jane’s cowboy roots and perhaps the source of her interest in true crime songs and poems.

It all began when I sang parts of a grizzly ballad to my grandsons who are into gory stuff at almost 7 and 9. We wondered where the verses came from, and what the rest of the lyrics were.   I wasn’t even sure how to spell the name of the Wratten family, but the tune is catchy and we wanted more.  I had learned the words from my mother, Jane Hall, the author and glamour girl with tomboy roots. She also taught me other brutal bits of popular culture such as the ballad, “Frankie and Johnny,” and the Robert Service poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” (Well, at least part of it.)  Is there a pattern here? Maybe my mother’s infatuation with these true crime stories explains mine with silver cap guns and a Hopalong Cassidy outfit. (Until I became a Native American warrior at about ten.)

Google research led to the website of a generous University of Kentucky law professor, Richard H. Underwood, who has just published a book about true crime stories in old American murder ballads.  He pointed me to other websites with more about the case. Turns out crimes still inspire musical renditions…listen to these songs published by Rolling Stone.

Back to the Wrattens: In the middle of the night on Tuesday, September 18, 1893, five men slaughtered an entire Indiana family hoping to find $1200. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, one of the assassins called it a “picnic” except for the “old woman” who fought them. Her name was Elizabeth Wratten. Here’s one lyrical version of what happened:

Home came old Pa Rattin,
A-drinkin’ he had been,
He knocked upon the front door,
And bellowed, “Let me in!”

First came old Ma Rattin,
She came to let him in,
He stuck her with the bread knife,
And let the daylight in.

Then came Grandma Rattin,
A sittin’ by the fire,
He snuck up close behind her,
And choked her with a wire.

Then came Grandpa Rattin,
Old and feeble and gray,
He put up an awful struggle,
Until his strength gave way.

Then came sister Rattin,
A-playin’ with a doll,
He shot her in the temple,
Just to see which way she’d fall.

Then came Baby Rattin,
Asleep in her trundle bed,
He kicked her in the short ribs
Until the child was dead,
And spat terbaccer juice
All over her golden head.

Then came play-boy Rattin,
Drove up in his limousine,
He wrapped him in old newspapers,
And poured on gasoline,
And lit him with a blowtorch
Just to hear the old boy scream.

Richard Underwood also mentioned Paul Slade’s website. Slade explains why murder ballads still intrigue us: “First and foremost, I think it’s because they’re essentially a form of journalism. Most of the songs you’ll find discussed here were written very soon after the real-life crimes they describe, and sold in the streets within hours of the killer’s capture or execution. Cheerfully vulgar, revelling in gore, and always with an eye on the main chance, these songs were tabloid newspapers set to music, carrying news of all the latest ‘orrible murders to an insatiable public.”

So if you come across any children who have reached a gorier-the-better stage, this is a bit of pop culture to investigate. I’m sure Jane Hall would love the fact that her great-grandsons now know about the Wratten family. Maybe even more than she did. Such mad fun.

Notes: Wratten has been spelled Rattin and Wrattin.