Unfortunate Rake, The
DESCRIPTION: The singer meets a young man/woman wrapped in flannel. The young person says that he/she is dying, originally of syphilis but in some versions of wounds or unspecified disease. The young person requests an elaborate military funeral.
EARLIEST DATE: 1790
KEYWORDS: disease death dying funeral lament whore
FOUND IN: Britain (England(All),Scotland(Aber)) Ireland US(Ap)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
GreigDuncan7 1404, "Disordered" (3 texts, 3 tunes)
Vaughan Williams/Lloyd, p. 108, "The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime" (1 text, 1 tune)
SharpAp 131, "St. James's Hospital, or The Sailor Cut Down in his Prime" (2 texts, 2 tunes, but the "B" text really belongs with "Streets of Laredo")
Silber-FSWB, p. 217, "Young Man Cut Down In His Prime (St. James Hospital)" (1 text)
Darling-NAS, p. 5, "The Unfortunate Rake" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Kenneth Lodewick, "'The Unfortunate Rake" and His Descendants,'" article published 1955 in _Western Folklore_; republished on pp. 87-98 of Norm Cohen, editor, _All This for a Song_, Southern Folklife Collection, 2009
Harry Cox, "The Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime" (on FieldTrip1)
Texas Gladden, "One Morning in May" (AFS, 1941; on LCTreas)
A. L. Lloyd, "St. James's Hospital" (on Lloyd2, Lloyd3)
Pete Seeger, "St. James Hospital" (on PeteSeeger16)
Murray, Mu23-y4:039, "The Unfortunate Lad," unknown, 19C
cf. "The Streets of Laredo" [Laws B1] (tune & meter, plot) and references there
cf. "The Bad Girl's Lament (St. James' Hospital; The Young Girl Cut Down in her Prime) [Laws Q26] (tune & meter, plot)
cf. "The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime" (tune & meter, plot)
cf. "My Home's in Montana" (tune, floating lyrics)
The Unfortunate Lad
The Whores of the City
NOTES: Syphilis first appeared in Europe in epidemic form, with devastating effects, in the early 1500s. It was often treated with compounds of mercury, mentioned in some versions of the song.
Clearly this is the ancestral ballad to "The Bad Girl's Lament", "St. James Infirmary", "The Whore's Lament", "Streets of Laredo", "The Dying Marine", etc. -PJS
Silber & Silber subtitle their text "St. James Hospital," since the name is mentioned in the text. This title, however, seems to be associated primarily with the "Bad Girl's Lament."
Archaeological findings indicate that syphilis had a long history in the Americas, but what seem to be the oldest cases in Europe date from 1494-1495, during a French incursion into what is now Italy (Kohn, p. 106). It has been speculated that Columbus's sailors brought it back from the New World after their extensive relations with the women of the Carribean.
At least a few versions refer to dosing syphilis with "arsenic and salts of white mercury." Mercury as a cure is older, as Paul notes; according to Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 187, the earliest use of mercury against syphilis apparently go back to about the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was a cure nearly as bad as the disease: "[M]ercury could hardly be considered a magic bullet for syphilis, as it often killed its patients. Victims died of heart failure, dehydration, and suffocation during the process of being heated in an oven while breathing mercury fumes. If one survived this procedure, typical symptoms of mercury poisoning -- loss of hair and teeth, uncontrolled drooling, anemia, depression, and kidney and liver failure -- took their toll" (Le Couteur/Burreston, pp, 186-187).
Consumption of mercury salts was perhaps slightly better, but not much. The use of the "corrosive sublimate" of mercury (i.e. HgCl2) as a treatment for syphilis goes back to the late fifteenth century (Emsley-Blocks, pp. 255-256). Henry VIII and Robert Burns are among those found to have had high levels of mercury in their bodies at the time of their death, possibly due to treatments for venereal disease (Emsley-Blocks, p. 257). Emsley-Elements, pp. 15-19, offers strong evidence that Charles II also died of mercury poisoning, although in this case he does not suspect a treatment for venereal disease.
Arsenic was also used in various medicines during the nineteenth century and earlier, some of them effective but mostly, like mercury, more dangerous than helpful. Arsenic as a true remedy for syphilis came into use in 1909, when Paul Ehrlich found arsphenamine (Salvarsan) to be effective; it remained in use until the coming of penicillin (Emsley-Blocks, p. 42; Timbrell, p. 224). It sometimes had dangerous side effects (Emsley-Elements, p. 108), but it sure beat syphillis!
Ehrlich had earlier discovered dyes which stained some cells and not others; he thought it would therefore be possible to find the "magic bullet" which could attack bacteria or diseased cells while leaving ordinary cells alone. (He eventually called this "chemotherapy.") He didn't have much luck; arsphenamine was his #606, which failed to do any good against the target organisms (trypanosomes) -- but a few years later was found to be effective against spirochaetes, the syphilis organism (Porter, pp. 204-205). This obviously dates the arsenic and mercury stanzas before 1909, when the first real cure came out. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.6
- Emsley-Blocks: John Emsley, Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, Corrected edition, Oxford, 2003
- Emsley-Elements: John Emsley, The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, Oxford Univeristy Press, 2005
- Kohn: George C. Kohn, The Wordsworth Encyclopedia of Plague & Pestilence, first published 1995 by Facts on File (I use the 1998 Wordsworth paperback)
- Le Couteur/Burreston: Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreston: Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History, 2003 (I use the 2004 Tarcher/Penguin edition)
- Porter: Roy Porter, consultant editor, The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, second edition (first edition published in six volumes, 1983-1985, as The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists with volumes on Biologists, Chemists, Astronomers, Physicists, Engineers and Inventors, and Mathematicians), Oxford, 1994
- Timbrell: John Timbrell, The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes, Oxford, 2005
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2015 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.