One Christmas morn in eighty-one,
Ashland Kentucky that quiet burg,
Was startled the day had not yet dawned
When the cry of fire was heard.
For well they knew two fair ladies
Had there retired to bed.
The startled crowd broke in, alas,
To find the girls both dead.
And from the hissing, seething flames
Three bodies did rescue;
Poor Emma’s and poor Fannie’s both.
And likewise Bobby’s too.
And then like Rachel cried of old
The bravest hearts gave vent,
And all that blessed holiday
To Heaven their prayers were sent.
Autopsy by the doctors show’d
The vilest of all sin,
And proved to all beyond a doubt
Their skulls had been drove in.
And other crimes too vile to name;
I’ll tell it if I must;
A crime that shocks all common sense,
A greed of hellish lust.
An ax and crowbar there was found
Besmeared with blood and hair
Which proved conclusively to all
What had transpired there.
Two virgin ladies of fourteen,
The flower of that town
With all their beauty and fond hopes,
By demons there cut down-
Just blooming into womanhood.
So lovely and so true;
Bright hopes of long and happy days
With morals fast and pure.
Then Marshal Heflin sallied forth,
Was scarcely known to fail,
And in ten days had the assassins
All safely placed in jail.
George Ellis, William Neal and Craft,
Some were Kentucky sons,
Near neighbors to the Gibbons house
And were the guilty ones.
In this here dark and bloody ground
They were true types indeed,
Of many demons dead and damn’d
Who fostered that same greed.
A hellish greed of lust to blast
The virtuous and fair,
To gratify that vain desire
No human life would spare.
There Emma Thomas lay in gore,
A frightful sight to view;
Poor Fanny Gibbons in a crisp,
And Bob; her brother, too.
Bob was a poor lame crippled boy.
Beloved by everyone;
His mother’s hope, his sister’s joy,
A kind, obedient son.
At that dread sight the mother’s grief
No mortal tongue can tell.
A broken heart, an addled brain,
When all should have been well.
Both her dear children lying there,
Who once so merry laughed.
There stiff and stark in death they lay,
Cut down by Ellis Craft.
That dreadful demon, imp of hell,
Consider well his crime;
Although he was a preacher’s son,
Has blackened the foot of time.
There’s a sad moral to this tale.
Now pass the word around;
Pull off your shoes now and walk light;
Ashland is holy ground.
Bill Neal he came from Virginia,
A grand and noble State!
But his associates were bad
And he has shared their fate.
Bill Neal he saw Miss Emma Thomas,
So beautiful and fair
That all his hellish greed of lust
Seemed to be centered there.
Bill Neal he was a married man,
Had children and a wife;
And offtimes bragged what he would do,
If it should cost his life.
Bill Neal done what he said he would,
And yet a greater sin;
Then with a great big huge crowbar
Broke Emma’s skullbones in.
Yes, Bill Neal done just what he said,
And yet that greater sin,
For which the gates of Heaven closed
And will not let him in.
Now while his victim is in Heaven,
Where all things are done well,
There with the angels glorified,
Bill Neal will go to hell.
“This ballad was composed by Peyton Buckner Byrne of Greenup, Greenup County, KY. He is in error in writing the name of Emma Thomas; the murdered girl’s name was Emma Carico. The tragedy occurred in the early 1880s in the mill town of Ashland, Boyd County, KY, which adjoins Greenup County. Peyton Buckner Byrne was a schoolteacher in that County and one of his scholars, Miss Tennessee Smith, supplied this copy of the old schoolteacher’s ballad. Ellis Craft is buried on Bear Creek in Boyd County, not far from Ashland where he committed the crime.”
From ‘Blue Ridge Country,’ by Jean Thomas, publ. Duell Sloan & Pearce, NY, 1942