Not to be confused with the uptempo Henry Paul composition from the 1970s, the original "Knoxville Girl" is a murder ballad. The history of the song is traced by Paul Slade in his 2015 monograph Unprepared To Die: America's Greatest Murder Ballads And The True Crime Stories That Inspired Them.
The first commercial recording (by Arthur Tanner) was made in 1927, but the song dates to the 1683 murder of Anne Nichols/Nicholas by her lover Francis Cooper in the village of Hocstow, England, (what is now Hogstow). The English Broadside Ballad Archive in California gives the victim's name as Anne Nicols and the date of the publication of The Bloody Miller as 1684; it was collected by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys.
By the time the ballad morphed into "Knoxville Girl" it had been somewhat bowdlerised, something that is not uncommon for songs that jumped the Atlantic; the listener is not told why the narrator would have brutally murdered a young woman, but the obvious motive was an unwanted pregnancy, unwanted by him at any rate. Curiously though, the victim was not pregnant but had recently given birth, because three weeks after her burial, a boy was baptised in the parish. His name was given as Ichabod and his parents: "Francis Cooper, homicide, and Anne." The rare Biblical name Ichabod means literally inglorious or "There is no glory," which completes the puzzle.
The Bloody Miller is also thought to be the source for a number of similar songs including "The Berkshire Tragedy" and "Flora Dean", the latter of which was collected by Cecil Sharp and is said to be the missing link between the original and "Knoxville Girl."
Suggestion credit: Alexander Baron - London, England