Based on a True Story

The origins of folk songs often lie in actual events, and so, the songs simultaneously report the news, entertain the listeners and often teach important life lessons. In this collection, the “Based on a True Story” category is represented by “George Collins,” “The Jealous Lover,” and “McCaffery.” “McCaffery” reports the events surrounding a murder and subsequent trial, but does so as entertainment clearly marked by artistic choices made by the anonymous authors. The song ends, as many do, with a goodnight verse: an overt warning or lesson to be gleaned from the song, delivered by the dying or soon-to-die protagonist. In this case, that is McCaffery himself, about to be hanged for murder.

The song “McCaffery” tells the story of a young Irishman, Patrick McCaffery, who quits his factory job to join the British Army, specifically the 42nd Regiment. Stationed at Fullwood Barracks, McCaffery’s troubles begin when his captain “takes a dislike” to him and “out of trouble [he] cannot be.” One day while McCaffery is standing sentry, a group of “soldiers’ children come about to play,” which, presumably, is not allowed. McCaffery takes one child’s name, “but not all three,” and is charged by his antagonist, Captain Hanham, with neglect of duty.

For this offense, McCaffery is punished with confinement to barracks for “fourteen weeks and thirteen days.” During his confinement, he is obsessed with the idea of killing the captain. Upon his release, he finds the opportunity for revenge when he sees the Captain “walking arm in arm with old Colonel Blair.” He shoots to murder the Captain but unintentionally kills the Colonel.

McCaffery stands trial at Liverpool Assizes and is admonished by the judge to “prepare yourself for the gallows tree.” In the final verse, McCaffery warns other young men to “Have nothing to do with the British army/For only lies and tyranny/Have made a murderer of McCaffery.”

Such is “McCaffery” as news report, and for the most part, the ballad sticks to the actual incident. Much of the artistry of composing a ballad, though, comes from the balladeers’ choices about what not to include. This narrative compression is a standard feature of ballads which, by their nature, must reduce an often long and complex series of actual events into an economical, rhyming narrative. So, the stylistic choices made to achieve economy are also artistic choices made to advance the plot and promote the baladeers’ particular points-of-view. “McCaffery” provides a perfect laboratory to study these artistic choices because the true story has been well documented by none other than the British regiment in which McCaffery enlisted when he took the Queen’s shilling. The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, which maintains a military museum, has put items online, including the official account of the McCaffery incident. Other accounts from various sources exist as well.

The balladeers faced a daunting task in shaping the two main characters, McCaffery and Captain Hanham. The classic idea of a plot requires a sympathetic protagonist and, naturally, his antagonist to create the conflict that drives the action. Historically, though, neither character is particularly sympathetic. Hanham is a bully who goes out of his way to provoke McCaffery, thus a good antagonist. This is also historically accurate. Evidence suggests that Hanham was “…a disagreeable, domineering martinet [a strict disciplinarian]”, 1 so “…notorious in the town [that the] townspeople are said to have turned their backs on the funeral procession taking his body to the railway station.” 2 In the end, army officials “…could not round up enough local volunteers to fire over his grave the 60 shots to which his rank entitled him.” 1

That leaves Private McCaffery as the designated protagonist, but he is no angel. It would be nice if he were the earnest young son of an impoverished but honest and loving family, but that was not to be the case. Patrick McCaffery was born in County Kildare in 1842. His father was gainfully employed as the administrator of an asylum until he was charged with misconduct. He was cleared of the charges, but then rather suspiciously “took off alone for America,” 1 in essence, deserting the family. For economic reasons, his mother then sent him to live in England to work in the mill at the age of 12. Always a loner, he ran away and “…drifted to Liverpool where he seems to have had occasional minor brushes with the police.” 1 After more drifting and more work in the mill, he lied about his age to enlist in the 32nd Regiment (inexplicably identified as the 42nd Regiment in many versions of the song). So, what’s a songwriter to do? Easy. Leave all that background stuff out. The song only has room for 243 words anyway, so just skip the details that don’t advance the plot.

Still, none of those omissions make a sympathetic figure of McCaffery. He was, after all, a premeditated murderer. An unrepentant multiple murderer, in fact, as we’ll soon find out. But even before the murders, McCaffery had little to recommend him as a would-be folk hero. He was no more a stellar soldier than he was a model citizen. “As a soldier he was undersized, reticent and withdrawn. He was frequently in trouble for his dress and behaviour, and appears to have failed to make any friends amongst his fellow men.” 1 Some hero. Once more, the balladeers employed narrative compression to leave out the unsavory details.

But you can’t compress everything, or you have no narrative at all. Eventually, the balladeers were forced to work with the facts at hand and spin them to their advantage. Clearly, McCaffery was a loner, probably due to poor temperament or lack of social skills. A loner, however, can be spun as a romantic character, and that is the impression of McCaffery during his murder trial:

I have no father for to take my part.
No loving mother for to break her heart.
I have one friend, and a girl is she;
She’d sweep the clouds for McCaffery.

The impression of McCaffery as orphan creates sympathy, no matter that historically he was deserted by his father and sent away by his “loving mother” to work in the mills. I’ve found no evidence to suggest he had a girl friend at all, let alone one so devoted she’d take on the impossible task described in this version of the song, or as she’s portrayed in other versions, “Who’d lay down her life for McCaffery.” 3

Yes, evidence confirms the balladeers’ claim that McCaffery was bullied by his captain and was charged with neglect of duty after an incident with some soldiers’ children, but that incident wasn’t so innocent as the ballad suggests. In the song, all we learn is that some children came out to play, and McCaffery didn’t take all their names which resulted in his punishment. That is true, but those facts were selective and intended to leave the impression that McCaffery’s punishment was unwarranted. The facts artistically omitted by the balladeers show that the children’s “play” included vandalism and that the private was directly ordered to take action but failed to do so. According to the official account:

…the young soldier was on sentry duty outside the officers’ quarters when the Adjutant ordered him to take the names of some children who were suspected of breaking windows. McCaffery obeyed, but with obvious reluctance and consequent lack of success. He was accordingly charged, and sentenced by Colonel Crofton the following day to be confined to barracks for 14 days. 1

An even more detailed account reports that the children had been breaking windows in the officer’s mess several times over several weeks and McCaffery was assigned to

…keep people away from the area round the officers’ quarters.  During the afternoon children belonging to soldiers of the battalion came out to play nearby. Out from the mess stormed Captain Hanham [saying] “Why have you allowed those children to play there?” 4

In a clear act of passive aggression, the private replied, “Got no orders against them being allowed to do so.”4

As for the sentence, perhaps 14 days confinement is stiff, perhaps not. To solidify McCaffery as a sympathetic protagonist, though, the sentence is upped to the excessive “Fourteen weeks and fifteen days.” In the song, that cruel and unusual sentence is the cause of the madness that takes control of McCaffery and forces his hand. McCaffery is portrayed as a victim! As he serves his time he laments, “The sentence rose and it turned my brain/To shoot my captain all dead on sight/Was all that I resolved to do each night.”

In reality, McCaffery did not serve any of his sentence. Again, according to the official account, McCaffery was sentenced, and his punishment was to begin the next day, but later that same morning, he saw Hanham and Crofton walking and took his shot. In fact, he took two shots; the first was a misfire, so he loaded up again, moved in closer, aimed and fired. 1 In the song, this is McCaffery’s undoing and his big mistake:

I saw him [Captain Hanham] standing in the barracks square,
A-walking arm in arm with old Colonel Blair.
I raised my gun, and fired to kill;
I shot my poor Colonel against my will.

In a bold act of narrative compression, there is no mention in the song of Captain Hanham’s fate. The listener is left to believe only the Colonel died, the victim of dramatic irony, and irony makes for a satisfying story. But in fact,

A bullet from the rifle of the assassin had passed right through Col. Crofton’s lungs then through the chest of his companion and one of his lungs and lodged in his back; when it was extracted it was found to be quite flat. Col. Crofton died instantly and Capt. Hanham a few days later. 1

The story is better, though, and more ironic if the evil Hanham lives; facts only get in the way.

A poor orphan. A romantic loner with a devoted girl. A victim. Line by line, McCaffery grows more sympathetic. He’s still a murder, but that fact is softened by casting him as a repentant murderer. In the song, McCaffery shows remorse, saying, “I shot my poor Colonel against my will.” Dorsett Life Magazine reports an altogether different impression of the felon: “He was said to show no remorse, saying that he had only intended to kill Capt. Hanham but that the death of Col. Crofton did not matter.” 5

So, Private Patrick McCaffery must die, and what better way to elicit a compassionate response from the audience than to give him the last verse…which he uses to put the blame squarely on someone else:

Now all young soldiers take a warning by me:
Have nothing to do with the British Army.
For only lies and tyranny
Have made a murderer of McCaffery!

Another version of this goodnight verse employs a good dose of class warfare by specifically calling out officers as the culprits and bestowing martyrdom on McCaffery:

So come all you officers take advice from me,
And go treat your men with some decency.
For it’s only lies and a tyranny
That have made a martyr of McCaffery. 3

And a martyr he became. On January 13, 1862, the Liverpool Mercury reported:

Calcraft [the executioner] completed his disgusting task amid yells, hisses, and fearful imprecations from the mob. It is supposed that there were between 30,000 and 40,000 persons on the ground. It was remarked that there were only three or four soldiers present to witness the execution. 1

In the end, life imitates art. The balladeers created a romantic martyr from a solidly lackluster individual. Soon after his execution, “McCaffery,” the song, appeared and was widely distributed as a broadside, a large, single printed page produced on cheap paper, usually sold for a halfpenny. There are many reports that the “…lyrics were rumoured to have been ‘banned’ by the military authorities, while the ghost of McCaffery is said to haunt the old Officers’ Mess.” 1 The song became well known and very popular, especially among the Irish immigrant community in England, promoting Private McCaffery to the rank of folk hero, a status he retains to this day.

“Take Warning!’ Procede to the next essay at your own risk.

Based on a True Story

  1. “A ‘Fearful Tragedy’ and The Ballad of Private McCaffery.” The Museum of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.” Col_Hugh_Crofton.htm  Retrieved 1/28/12.
  2. “It was my Captain I Meant to Kill.” hanhamFolder/hanham.html  Retrieved 1/28/12.
  3. Kochlin, Henry. “McCafferty.” Henry’s Songbook. mccaffer.html Retrieved 1/28/12.
  4. “Captain John Hanham.” Retrieved 1/28/12.
  5. Perry, John. “Wimbourne Has Their Bones.” Dorset Life. 2006/10/wimborne-has-their-bones/. Retrieved 1/28/12.

What’s This?

Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School is one folk musician's effort to document, honor and share a collection of folk songs I love and my personal history with them through research, essays, and performance. Read the essays here and watch this site for future performances.

What’s New?

Tara McGovern and I, joined by uilleann piper Jon Cooper, have completed the album version of Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School. For a taste of the CD listen to "Oh, the Wind and Rain/The Quail It Is a Pretty Bird" and "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme."

Oh, the Wind and Rain/The Quail It Is a Pretty Bird
Let No Man Steal Your Thyme