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Places - Berlin, NH, “Benjamin Deane”

Song: “Benjamin Deane”
Singer: Chester Price
Town: Events took place in Berlin, NH; recorded in Blackville, NB
NA 1.103     CD 142     Track 5
Collector: Sandy Ives
Date: July 11, 1961
Roud: 2271
Laws: F32

“Benjamin Deane” is a classic example of a confessional ballad, with a man in prison lamenting how he came to be there: bootlegging, adultery, and murder. The song was written by Joe Scott sometime in mid-1898, not long after the events it describes took place: Ben Deane murdered his wife on Wednesday May 4, 1898 in Berlin, NH. (Scott was almost certainly in the area on a river drive at the time, if not exactly in Berlin when the murder happened.) Before discussing the murder itself, though, a brief history of the actors in this drama may be interesting. Deane was born in St John, NB on May 6, 1854. His parents moved to Portland, ME within a year of his birth and that is where he was raised. He arrived in Berlin, New Hampshire sometime before 1881, when his first child was born, and the song says he moved into town twenty years before the murder, so that provides a reasonably good approximation. His wife’s name was Mary Elizabeth Blodgett, or Lizzie, and was nine years younger than Ben. Berlin was in a boom period due to prosperous pulp mills, as well as plenty of work in the woods and the services needed in a growing town.

With those basic details established, the real drama of the ballad starts to unfold. The song somewhat over-hyped Deane’s illicit dealings – he was indicted several times in 1890s for selling liquor, but he was always behind in his bills and never had a large fortune. He was, in other words, a minor bootlegger in a town that was likely full of rowdy woodsmen and mill workers. Some time around 1896 Deane began keeping a boardinghouse on Main Street, and through this business he became known to many woodsmen in the upper Androscoggin area, including Joe Scott. This boardinghouse included a bar and – in the words of the County Solicitor during Deane’s trial – sometimes harbored “women of questionable character.” If gold and silver flowed to Ben, though, he didn’t use it to pay off old debts. Ben and Lizzie faced increasing financial and marital difficulties through this time period. The ballad cites Deane’s illegal activities, but the oral history of the area told how Lizzie engaged in extramarital affairs, including the alleged third man who goes unnamed in the song: Jack Garland, a woodsman who was a friend of Deane’s. Despite not actually being named, everyone knew it was Garland and he supposedly held a strong grudge against Joe Scott because of this song.

P224: Front of Potluck Restaurant where Ben Deane supposedly shot his wife,1965

At this point the details of what really happened and what the song and oral record say diverge significantly. It seems that on the day of the murder, Jack and Ben had a drink together. Afterward, Ben bought a revolver and ammo in town, then went looking for his wife. He found her at his neighbor’s house (not his own, as Chester Price’s singing suggests) where Lizzie had frequently stayed while she and Ben were having troubles. Jack was there quite by coincidence, as well as Mrs. Shaver, the neighbor, and Deane’s own daughter. According to newspaper accounts and trial records, the song recounts the actual murder rather inaccurately: Ben shot Lizzie and Garland took him down before firing another shot (while the song states his gun jammed), then held Deane at gunpoint until the police arrived. Garland and Lizzie were not caught in a romantic position as Scott described; rather Garland was cradling Deane’s four year old daughter in his arms. It seems that Deane had reason to suspect his wife’s infidelity, but it was not clear that Garland was actually involved directly (though, again, the oral record of the song and its background supports the melodramatic story told in the ballad). Deane pled guilty to murder in the second degree and served ten years in prison, after which he returned to Berlin, remarried, and ran a small store until his death in 1924. The song shows a strange mix of sympathy for Ben and (even more so) sympathy for Lizzie, as if Joe Scott could not exactly determine which version was more accurate from the “barroom authorities” he probably relied on for background to the song. In actuality, however, sympathy probably tended more towards Ben’s side, as evidenced by his ability to move back to Berlin and live as a respected member of the community.

All that is left to say about “Benjamin Deane” comes in the form of a few notes. The song was, according to Sandy Ives, part of his first encounter with traditional singing. He first collected this song in a 1957 interview with Billy Bell of Brewer, ME, who also sang over a couple other old songs. “Ben Deane” is a long song, even as abbreviated to eighteen or nineteen stanzas, and singing the full version can take up to 15 minutes (Price actually moves through the song at a pretty brisk pace). The tune used by Chester Price is one of a few variants for this song, and it seems to be unique to his family; Chester’s cousin Billy Price is the only other singer who Ives knew to use this tune. The lyrics printed below are a combination of words sung by Price and pieces filled in with lyrics from an original printed copy as found in Bert Thorne’s notebook (especially stanzas 14-19 which fill in many details). The missing stanzas from Price’s singing are marked with brackets.

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P165: Gravestones of Ben and Lizzie Deane,1965

1.
You people all, both great and small,
These few lines penned by me,
‘Tis of a man and he is now
Deprived of his good liberty;
Shut up in court’s consignment
For deeds that he has done,
And here I fear he must remain
‘Til his race on earth is run.

2.
My name it is Benjamin Deane,
My age is forty-one,
I was born in New Brunswick
Near the city of St. John,
Close by the Bay of Fundy,
Where the sea gulls loud do call
As they rock with pride on the silvery tide
As the billows rise and fall.

3.
I was raised by honest parents,
Brought up in the fear of God,
But they have long been slumbering
Beneath that native sod;
Side by side they’re slumbering
In that quiet cemetery,
As the willows weep before the breeze
Way off the deep blue sea.

[4.
Farewell unto my native home,
I ne'er will see it more,
No more I'll watch the billows break
Upon it's rock bound shore,
No more I'll watch those ships go by
With sails as white as snow,
Bound for some port far o'er the sea
Before the winds that blow.]

5.
When I arrived in Berlin Falls
Just twenty years ago,
Berlin was not near as large
What that it is now,
Men of every nationality
They were working there,
For work was plenty, wages good,
And each man got his share.

6.
The businessmen of Berlin
Were making money fast,
I thought that I would invest
Before the boom had passed.
Buildings bought on German street
And into business went,
I ran a fruit and candy store,
Likewise a restaurant.

7.
My business proved successful,
I did the right by all,
Gained the favors of the rich,
Likewise, the great, the small.
To my surprise before a year
Had fully rolled around,
In glittering gold did I possess
‘Twas near two thousand pounds.

8.
The coming year I wed with one,
The fairest of the fair;
Her eyes were of a heavenly blue,
And dark brown was her hair,
Her cheeks were like the early rose,
Her form graceful and fair,
Her step was like the early light,
Her breath was light as air.

9.
I own I loved this fair young bride,
She proved a prudent wife,
Little did she ever think
Someday I’d take her life;
The day I gained her promise,
Her hand to me she gave,
It would’ve been better far for her
Had she went to her grave.

10.
She was raised by honest parents,
And raised most tenderly,
But little did they ever think
That she’d be slain by me.
As the years rolled swiftly by,
Down on the heels of time,
I found the fields of pleasure
And to the fields of crime.

11.
‘Twas then I began my wild career,
All for the thirst for gold,
My business up on German street
For a goodly price I sold.
Buildings bought on Main street
I paid a handsome sum,
And ran a free and easy house
Went right to selling rum.

12.
My former friends of high degree
My company did shun,
But still I was contented in
This life that I’d begun;
Gold and silver like a brook
Came flowing in to me,
By glitters I was blinded
And the danger could not see.

13.
My wife she often told me
My steps I should retrace,
She said, “Dear Ben, this path you trod
Leads to death and disgrace.”
Had I her warning heeded
I would not be here now,
And she might too be living
With no stain upon her brow.

[14.
I soon began to associate
With men of low degree,
My business kept me constantly
In their base company.
I quickly went from bad to worse,
Did many a deed of crime
That never will be brought to light
In future years of time.

15.
Kind fortune that had been my friend
Began to frown on me;
'Twas then my eyes were opened,
I could see my destiny.
Black clouds were gathering o'er me,
That with fury soon would break,
I faint then would retrace my steps,
But, ah, alas, too late.

16.
All I possessed in real estate
To my wife it was made
Over in legal writing
When kind fortune's smile did fade.
But her regard and love for me
Did gradually grow cold
When she found my heart and soul
Were bound with glittering gold.

17.
The storm it came; the house I built
Upon the sands did fall,
With it my name, my wife and children,
Ill got wealth and all.
And on the verge of deep despair
I saw them drift from me
Upon the tide of justice
Towards the sea eternity.

18.
Then under forty thousand
Dollar bonds I soon was placed,
To respect the laws of man
That I had long disgraced.
And then to add unto my many
Troubles that had come
Were four indictments that appeared
For selling beer and rum.

19.
My fair wife she had fled to one
Whose name I will not write,
Whose character was blacker
Than the darkest hours of night.
To persuade her to return to me
It was my whole intent,
Unto the house where she then dwelt
My steps I quickly bent.]

20.
I carefully approached my house
And opened the hall door,
Made my way to my wife’s room
‘Twas on the upper floor.
The very fiends of hell it seemed
Were stamped upon my mind,
For on the bosom of a man
My fair one’s head reclined.

21.
I drew a loaded pistol
And I aimed it at her breast,
When she saw the weapon
It was loudly she did cry,
“For God’s sake, do not shoot me, Ben,
I am not fit to die.”

22.
I heeded not her warning,
In a moment she was dead;
“For God’s sake, Ben, you shot me!”
Was the last words she ever said.
The trigger of my pistol,
It moved too quick or slow,
Or another soul would have passed that day
Unto the fields of woe.

23.
The last time that I saw my wife
She was laying on the floor,
Her long and wavy dark brown hair
Stained with the crimson gore.
The sun shone through the windows
Upon her clay, cold face,
As the officers led me away
From that polluted place.

24.
I have two daughters living,
They’re orphans in a way,
And should you chance to meet them
Treat them kindly I pray.
Don’t chide them for this crime I’ve done,
For on them it will rest
In future years long after when
I am moldering back to dust.

25.
Now come all young men, a warning take
From this sad tale of mine,
Don’t sacrifice your life
For the gold and silver kind.
Let truth and honor be your guide,
Oh, you’ll success to climb,
Success the ladder to the top
And don’t a stain like mine.

—–

Sources: Ives, Edward D. Joe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978, 228-66; & Laws, G. Malcolm, Jr. Native American Balladry. Revised Edition. American Folklore Society, Bibliographical and Special Series, 1. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1964, 207 (F32).


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