When I did a CrimeSong presentation in June 2017 at the Washington County Public Library, in Abingdon, Virginia, as a part of the 2017 Mountains of Music Homecoming festival and the Washington County Public Library Summer Reads program, one of the book discussion participants asked me if I knew the true crime story behind “Pretty Polly.” That was not the first time someone had asked me about this ballad.
I mention “Pretty Polly” in the Preface to CrimeSong. As far as I have been able to determine, “Pretty Polly” is not traceable to any specific, documented murder—unlike the ballads (“Omie Wise,” “Lula Viers,” “Ellen Smith,” “Stella Kenney,” “Pearl Bryan,” and “Henry Clay Beattie”) that I discuss in Chapter One of CrimeSong—but there seems to be agreement that its roots are in England. I think the scariest and most compelling recorded version of “Pretty Polly” was done by Dock Boggs, who was a coal miner and clawhammer banjo player from Southwest Virginia. The ballad is pretty sparse, and relates the story of a premeditated murder. Most versions hint at no motive whatever. The heartless killer takes Polly into the woods where he has already dug a grave.
Here are some excerpts from a version of “Pretty Polly” that is attributed to a P. J. Moses, collected in Harvey H. Fuson, Ballads of the Kentucky Highlands, 69-70 (1931):
Oh, come, Pretty Polly; come go with me;
Before we get married some pleasure we’ll see.”
We went a piece further, and what did we spy,
But a grave dug deep and a spade lying by.”
Paul Slade notes that the Stanley Brothers version adds this teaser:
“Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, that never can be,
Your past reputation’s been trouble to me.”
It has been mentioned to me that “Pretty Polly” figures into the American version of “House of Cards,” (Netflix 2013–) which stars Kevin Spacey as the fictional, sinister President Francis Underwood. Not sure I appreciate the use of the name Underwood, but the writers had to come up with the initials FU, as in the British version (BBC). Could some of the questions I have been getting possibly be prompted by scenes from one or more episodes of the American version of “House of Cards?”
Anyway, there is a strange episode in which it is reported that candidate Underwood’s wife Claire had an abortion some years back (opposition research, and all that), potentially a big problem for Frank Underwood’s campaign. Claire comes up with a cover story (in which she conflates two separate events and time periods in her life) to reveal that she had had an abortion, but it was after she had been raped back in her college days, and she proceeds to disclose the identify of her assailant during a live television interview. No real problem with the past anymore. The bizarre episode ends with Frank and Claire sharing a smoke as he sings “Pretty Polly.” You can find clips of this scene on YouTube®.
In another episode there is a scene in the series which suggests (?) that Underwood’s “evil henchman,” Doug Stamper, killed Rachel Posner (I can’t tell you the whole story here) and buries her body in a grave he has already dug for the purpose. Was he inspired by the ballad, “Pretty Polly?” Does Rachel live on? For further reading on this “Doug-Rachel” question, you might enjoy Jefferson Grubbs’s piece.
How creepy is all that? Perhaps it’s all coincidence.
Although the Pretty Polly may not have been a real murdered girl, she has been the inspiration for a number of paintings, including this one by Lexington, Kentucky, artist Christine Kuhn, whose art also appears in my book CrimeSong, and these by Asheville, North Carolina, artist Julyan Davis.
To fully appreciate the depth of depravity of Pretty Polly’s killer, lister to the Doc Boggs rendition of “Pretty Polly.”
Sorry to close this way. I have to get in my little Honda and pick up a bottle of 19 Crimes.