In CrimeSong, Chapter Two, “Real Murdered Girls,” I briefly discuss an obscure Cajun tune called “Belair Cove” (“Lanse Des Belaires”). In discussing it, I got off on a tangent and mentioned the fact that the branch of the mulberry tree contains latex, which is a toxin. Lawyers learn weird stuff like this along the way. Legend told of a Javanese tree—the Upas—which poisoned all life within its broad reach.
I should have also mentioned an improper argument that lawyers used to interject if they wanted to rile up jury prejudice against an opposing party or witness—the Upas Tree Declaration. Here is an example from an old Illinois case styled McDonald v. People, 126 Ill. 150 (1888). The State’s Attorney attacked the brother of the defendant, a person not connected to the case:
“They say there is a fabled tree that grows in some torrid clime; that the birds of the air which fly near its branches, influenced by the aroma of it, fall beneath it and die. That is the influence of M. C. McDonald in this and all matters connected with the administration of justice.”
If you are a lawyer, don’t try this. It will get you in trouble.
There actually is an Upas tree in parts of Indonesia. The tribesmen dip their arrows in the sap of the tree to stun their game. You can read more about it in “Ipoh Poison of the Malay Peninsula,” Royal Gardens, Kew. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, No. 50 (Feb. 1891)
Lord Byron includes a reference to the Upas tree myth in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Canto IV, St. 126:
Our life is a false Nature—’tis not in
The harmony of things—this hard decree,
This ineradicable taint of Sin,
This boundless Upas, this all-blasting tree,
Whose root is Earth—whose leaves and branches be
The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew—
Disease, death, bonding—all the woes we see,
And worse, the woes we see not—which throb through
The immedicable Soul, with heart-aches ever new.
Nineteenth century artist Joesph Ferdinand Keepler (1838–1894) used the myth of the Upas tree to represent the “plagues” (greed and corruption) of Wall Street in The Deadly Upas Tree of Wall Street. This print appeared as a centerfold illustration in Puck (Aug. 30, 1882). As I note in the Preface to my new book Gaslight Lawyers: Criminal Trials & Exploits in Gilded Age New York (forthcoming September 2017)—which examines the rough and tumble of criminal trials in the Gilded Age—the period had its economic ups and downs. “The economy reeled from the Panic of 1893 and would not begin to recover until 1897, when a period of growth would run up to the Panic of 1907.” The art work references a slightly earlier but similar downturn, and Keppler painted coins with $ hanging from the branches, with blossoms labeled “…Bribes for Lawyers, Bribes for Judges…”
Also for your edification and delight (if you like to recite poetry) you might take a look at a poem by Pushkin titled the “Upas Tree.” There is a blogspot “Poems Found in Translation” which you can tap to hear it in Russian!
“Belair Cove” is listed as “Lanse Des Belaires” in the collection People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913–1938, Josh Rosenthall, Christoper King, and Henry Sapoznik, Producers (Thompkins Square LLC 2010). You can find the tune on YouTube and purchase the collection on Amazon. If you have more information on this song and the true events upon which it is based, please leave your comments. I would love to hear from you.