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Song Parodies -> "John Coon, Executed For Murder"

Original Song Title:

"Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

Original Performer:

Gordon Lightfoot

Parody Song Title:

"John Coon, Executed For Murder"

Parody Written by:

Patrick McWilliams

The Lyrics

In 1843 the Wyandot tribe, remnant of the once mighty Huron people, were removed from their lands in Ohio and shipped westward as part of a government program to settle the Eastern Indians beyond the Mississippi. The boat carrying them up the Missouri dropped them off on the river bank near what is now downtown Kansas City, Kansas. The promised land and provisions were not there and many suffered greatly from disease and exposure until a proper town could be built. Some members of the tribe who had the funds to do so spent the winter in Westport, the largest town in the area, now part of Kansas City, Missouri. Those who died that first year were buried on high ground above the river. In November 1852, a young man, John Coon Jr, killed Curtis Punch in a drunken brawl. The prosecutor, William Walker, would state in his diary that John Coon's mother was a "wicked" woman who had caused him to go bad. There is no mention of a John Coon Senior, so I am speculating that he died during the epidemics shortly after arrival. Though Walker and defense attorney, Silas Armstrong pleaded for a verdict of manslaughter, the tribal council voted for the death penalty. On January 18, 1853, John Coon Jr, said to be 15 years old, was taken to a spot just north of the town of Wyandot and executed by a firing squad of tribal members. The best contemporary account I could find said he was buried where he fell. Janith English, Chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, says that Coon is buried in one of many unmarked graves in the historic Huron Cemetery in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. So, apparently, the family had the body relocated some time after the execution.
On a cold afternoon a young fellow, John Coon
Sits alone in the back of a wagon
A party of men, mostly neighbors and friends
Were performing their task, 'twas a sad one
As their shovels rebound from the hard, unyielding ground
They would scrape out a small excavation
A hole they'd soon fill in the name of the will
Of the court of the Wyandot Nation

Some ten years before, on this very same shore
Where the Kaw River meets the Missouri
A large vessel arrived, there on the Kansas side
With a captain and crew in a hurry
The last stage of a trip from the wide Mississip'
And beyond that, Sandusky, Ohio
As the summer winds blew, their longing grew
To head south for a New Orleans bayou

The wooden gangplank made a loud crashing sound
The passengers stood at the railing
Their panic would grow as the captain said "Go!"
"'tis as far as this vessel is sailing".
With fear in each heart, all would have to depart
There to hunker down where they had landed
The boat sailed away, some were heard to pray
On the mud flats six hundred souls stranded

This once-mighty tribe had been fraudulently stripped
Of farmland they need for survival
All the government aid they'd been promised in trade
Absent upon their arrival
As the winter winds roll and disease takes its toll
Those with money, to Westport* are ferried
Still others will be found up on much higher ground
That's where little John Coon's dad was buried

Every young lad needs the help of a dad
To stay on the path straight and narrow
Walker* would say his mom led him astray
And he put the blame squarely upon her
A long walk to church, but the Blue Goose Saloon
Was close by to sell him fire water
Then the skull of Curt Punch made a sickening crunch
'neath an iron bar, a terrible slaughter

Armstrong* would plead, the court would not heed
While the jury's in no mood for mercy
"Curtis lies dead, John Coon's blood must be shed
To serve as a warning to others"
Due process applied, appeal was denied
Then six men with muskets assembled
And though every one knew what they had come there to do
'twas not just from the cold that they trembled

With the pride of his race, John stood steady to face
The stern sentence the court had assigned him
Three thirty on the dot, a volley of shots
And his short, troubled life was behind him
The passage of years and the Corps of Engineers
Have erased every trace of this drama
The tribal chiefs say John lies buried today
Near the graves of his papa and mama
A contemporary account, published in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania newspaper, and reprinted in a book "Legal Executions in the Western Territories 1847-1911" gives his age as 15 and states he was buried where he fell. Native American men had a reputation of being able to face death bravely, and I assume that John Coon would have tried to live up to that image in his final moments. William Walker was the provisional Governor of the Nebraska Territory, which included Kansas and parts of Colorado. An adopted member of the Wyandot, he prosecuted the murder trial. Silas Armstrong, another prominent Wyandot, served as defense attorney. The first church in the new settlement was located a couple miles to the west of the river, an hour or so walk uphill for people used to walking. The Blue Goose Saloon was located in the middle of the town site. Bootleg liquor was a problem on the reserve, and led to much violence. It is believed the tribal council ordered Coon shot as an example to other wayward youth. A few years after the execution, and with the border wars over slavery creating a lot of trouble in Kansas, some of the Wyandot, the more assimilated, English speakers, accepted US citizenship, while the traditionalists, Wyandot speakers, were relieved of their lands and removed to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The scene of the execution has been altered by flooding, river channel work by the Corps of Engineers, and a City project to refurbish Jersey Creek. I don't believe it is possible to even access the site today, if it can be found, due to fences, levees, and railroad tracks.

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Pacing: 5.0
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Overall Rating: 5.0

Total Votes: 8

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User Comments

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Callmelennie - January 18, 2013 - Report this comment
Masterful work, Patrick
Rob Arndt - January 18, 2013 - Report this comment
555 for the state historian! Maybe one day I will write something about Kansas during WW2 ;-)
Old Man Ribber - January 18, 2013 - Report this comment
Patrick - This goes beyond usual (but exceptionally well-done) entertainment. This is a true history lesson in the best style of of the French troubadores/trouveres or the balladeers from the British Isles. My compliments. ;D
Patrick - January 18, 2013 - Report this comment
As I write this response to your welcome comments, it is about one hour from the moment 160 years ago that Matthew Walker gave the command to the firing squad. Gordon Lightfoot's melody was well suited to the troubadour style narrative this story deserved. Rob, I bet most people don't realize that Kansas City, Kansas was a major supplier of naval landing craft, built not far from where this story unfolded. The Navy also had a training base for pilots in nearby Olathe, Kansas, about as far from an ocean as you can get in the US. KCK also built B-25 bombers, cannon, and gliders. Lake City Arsenal in Independence, Missouri was and still is a major supplier of small arms ammunition.
Patrick - January 18, 2013 - Report this comment
A friend of mine who liked the poem is circulating it to local officials. Maybe someone with the Wyandot Nation of Kansas or the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma will see it. I'd be curious to see how it agrees or diverges from their history as they know it.
Lifeliver - January 18, 2013 - Report this comment
This is all new to me, and fascinatingly retold to an appropriately tragically-toned OS. Your background documentation is commendable and first-rate. By the way, I want you to know your various astute political comments around the board do not escape my attention and respect, though I usually prefer not to engage on controversial issues, especially American ones. Very well done 555
Tommy Turtle - February 05, 2013 - Report this comment
Sorry I'm late to the party, but it was better to set aside time to appreciate what indeed turned out to be a masterpiece. Unknown bit of history, not taught in our "white man" schools, of course, and a lot of interesting background.

Extremely thorough research, and as you noted, TOS's tragic sound is well suited for retelling another tragedy in OS's ballad style --- which you adapted perfectly here. Your magnum opus to date. 555+++
Patrick - February 06, 2013 - Report this comment
This was one I had thought about for a long time. Jan English, Chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas gave a tour of the historic cemetery in downtown KCK. She mentioned the execution and said the murderer was buried there. The cemetery is located on the highest point of ground in downtown. She was able to show how the settlers had moved up from the river, about 6 or 7 blocks away and built the modern community. The Huron Cemetery was a bone of contention for decades. The tribe gave the corners of the block to four churches to secure the property. These were later sold off and the cemetery itself threatened with being dug up and subjected to commercial development. The Connelly sisters built a "fort" in the middle of the grounds and guarded it with their dad's (unloaded) shotgun. After being arrested several times and the shack torn down, Helen Connelly, who was an attorney, pleaded the case before the Supreme Court, and saved the place. In the early 1900's a Carnegie Library was built in the center of the block. A new library replaced it in the late 1960's. Some of the garden is still there. The entrances to the cemetery were rebuilt in the late 1970's and plaques outlining the history of the Wyandot were placed there. I remember attending the dedication ceremony. Ironically, the economic decline of downtown KCK is probably what saved the site, since the land no longer had any commercial potential. After another decade or so of court battles, the tribe converted the former Scottish Rite Temple on the southwest corner of the block into a casino. The City, which had fought the tribe, now lists the 7th Street Casino in its promotional literature as a significant attraction to KCK. I've tried to locate the execution site, but the topography has changed too much over the years to be really sure of the exact location. Based on the time that John Coon was removed from the jail and the time of the execution, I speculated that the grave was dug first. I don't see it taking 2-1/2 hours to get from downtown to Jersey Creek, even on foot and horse-drawn wagon. I don't know what happened to John Coon Senior, but Walker mentions the boy's "wicked and ungodly" mother. Speculation: the father died. She became a prostitute and or bootlegger to support herself. This is just my logic. How else could a woman be "wicked and ungodly" in those days? Glad you liked my effort. Hope I can come up with something equally good in the next few months.
TT - February 06, 2013 - Report this comment
This would be awfully good even for "once in a lifetime".

So many Indian burial grounds have been violated without a thought. Imagine if someone suggested building a casino, or condos and a shopping mall, on Arlington National Cemetery, or any other place where *white* people were buried.
Dave W. - February 07, 2013 - Report this comment
What can I say ? You write with the heart and soul of a great author...And you are mindful in what you do...Pardon the pun, but this one definitely should go down in history as one of the best .

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