Ella Speed (A New Orleans murder ballad)


This is a new one in my repertoire, worked up in the course of researching my book, Jelly Roll Blues: Censored Songs and Hidden Histories. I had heard other versions of the song from Lead Belly, who recorded it several times, and Mance Lipscomb, and the Kweskin Jug Band, who did Lead Belly’s version, and I thought of it as a folk-blues-ballad like Stackolee or Frankie and Johnny, or Lipscomb’s “Freddie.” If I’d had to guess, I would have said it came from Texas — the people who recorded it were from there, and Lead Belly told the Lomaxes that the murder happened in Dallas shortly before he got there in the second decade of the twentieth century.

In fact, it happened in New Orleans in 1894 and was widely covered in the local press. According to the stories, Speed was an “Octoroon” sex worker — the term literally meant 1/8 African, but in common parlance tended to mean a very light-skinned Black woman who could potentially pass for white; in the Blue Book guides to the New Orleans red light district, women were labeled with a W for White, C for Colored, O for Octoroon, and J for Jewish.

Her killer, Louis “Bull” Martin, was white and perhaps Latino (the Picayune suggested his last name was a shortening of Martinez), and worked as a bartender in Trauth’s saloon at the Dryades Street market. According to the Picayune, Speed was “an inmate of [madam] Lou Prout’s establishment at No. 40 Basin Street,” and the pair had been seeing each other for several months, but at some point Martin “discovered that besides himself she had formed an attachment for another party…. He became incensed with rage and frequently threatened to do her some bodily harm, but she only laughed at him.” Prout apparently got tired of their “bickering,” and asked Speed to move out, so she moved in with a woman named Pauline Jones, at 137 Customhouse Street (now Iberville).

That was the scene of the murder. The couple had been drinking heavily all evening, but appeared to be “on friendly terms” — they had ordered a couple of bottles of white wine and some oysters, and invited another of the “inmates” to join them. The party continued through the night, and around 8am Martin ordered a couple of cocktails, telling the waiter to make them “very strong.” There was no sign of trouble, but around 9:30 Jones heard a pistol shot  and “the shrieks of a female crying out, ‘Miss Pauline, come help me: I am shot!'” Speed was standing in the hallway, “with the upper portion of her garment ablaze and her hand clasped to her left breast.”

Speed died within minutes. Martin escaped, but turned himself in the following morning. He claimed she had shot herself, but was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Pardoned five years later, he was back in the news in 1911 after he married another sex worker, they opened a lunch stand, they broke up, she opened a rival lunch stand, he was heard to threaten that he would “do again what he did a long time ago,” and she got scared and shot him.

As for the song, it seems to have originated as a ragtime ballad, popular with pianists in the District. Rosalind “Rose” Johnson, a contemporary of Jelly Roll Morton’s, remembered it as a favorite in the Basin Street houses and played a version that was recorded twice in the 1950s by Edmond “Doc” Souchon, leader of the Six and Seven-Eighths String Band. My version has the two verses and chorus Souchon sang, plus additional verses from several Texas guitarists who recorded similar ragtime versions for the Library of Congress: Homer “Tricky Sam” Roberson, Finous “Flat Foot” Rockmore,” and Wallace “Staving Chain” Chains (my guitar approach is closest to Chains’s version).

All of those are more chordally intricate than the straightforward circle of fifths Lipscomb and Lead Belly played. The lyrics diverge in various ways from the newspaper stories, and Roberson, Lead Belly, and Lipscomb in particular added a bunch of “floating” verses from other ballads — which some Basin Street pianists may have done as well. In any case, this is my assemblage from that mix of sources, all of which are well worth checking out.