The Gandy Dancer Song
By: Dawn DeBraal
John Dowling and his daughter Mary, sat on a park bench watching his granddaughter playing with her friends.
"There is that song again." Mary shook her head. "It's so inappropriate, where does that song come from, Dad?" John was taken back when he listened to the girls and their sing song voices.
"It's a song about a murder by a gandy dancer, in this town. This was where he was caught."
"What's a gandy dancer?" Mary asked.
"A gandy dancer is a railroad man. Men were hired to follow the tracks refilling gravel between railroad ties, replacing rotten wood and worn rails, driving spikes pinning the tracks to cross ties."
"What does the song mean?"
"The song is about a man named Talmadge Gaul, who took care of his mother Mabel. She died in 1925 and soon after women who looked like her, were murdered along the B & O line.
"That's a horrible story, but now I'm intrigued." Mary turned toward her father.
"Tal, as he was called, was Mabel's sole support after his father committed suicide. Tal told people that his father ending his life like that, was the only way the old man found to get out from under his overbearing and unforgiving wife.
Mabel guilted Tal into staying with her after she became incapacitated. The last three years of her life, she was bedridden. Mabel was desperate for company; her world shrank to the four walls of her bedroom, and Tal, who claimed his mother blamed him for everything.
Mabel Gaul had become a burden he was happy to unload, no one is certain whether or not she was his first victim, she choked to death on a piece of meat. They never exhumed her body to find out. At the time, no one had any reason to suspect foul play, he'd been caring for his mother for all that time.
Soon after she died, Tal sold the house and took a job with the B&O Railroad as a gandy dancer, working long days in a crew of fifteen men. They stayed in boarding houses near the railroad tracks in town or slept in a boxcar bunkhouse when they were too far to get anywhere.
There was always some kind of liquor available despite prohibition being in its fifth year. Speakeasies and whore houses sprang up along the tracks, catering to the worker's needs. Tal's co-workers spent their money on both, but not Tal, he kept to himself.
While at a diner, he met Sarah McCann his first victim they claim. Sarah looked and talked like his mother. Tal said he was taken with her the first moment they met.
She was a little on the heavy side, and not a hot to trot dame like the kind his friends spent their money on, foolishly. The following day Sarah was found strangled in her room at the Dover Boarding House. There were no suspects at the time.
Tal continued to ride the rails running between Baltimore and Ohio. During the day, he was a model worker, at night he prowled through the towns looking for the one who reminded him of Mabel. Newspapers carried stories of the murders, but no one had ever connected them.
In the months following Sarah's death, he claimed seven more victims, each case getting more violent with the destruction of the corpses.
Sarah's murder was mild in comparison to the last few women, her death was simple strangulation. Soon after, Tal escalated his tastes.
The man could drive a rail spike with three blows of his sledge. He took the hammer with him, pretending to have a bum leg. You see, the hammer handle went up his pants leg.
When he killed the women, he used three quick blows. The women were unidentifiable. Tal said after he killed them, he would wade into a pond or stream using the water to purify himself and clean the driver that, 'knocked them into next Sunday,' as his ma used to say.
Detective Thomas Dowling investigated the woman bludgeoned to death on Second Street, right here in this park." Mary gasped.
"Great Grandpa, Thomas?"
"Yes, you've heard the story that my grandfather was a detective killed in the line of duty, but we never told you how.
The murdered woman's face was so destroyed, that your great grandfather had to wait until a missing person report crossed his desk, before he could identify the victim. Thomas correctly determined the marks on her body were made with a large hammer.
Disguising himself, Dowling frequented speakeasies and listened to the clientele and musicians who sang songs about the railroad. Rolly Jennings sang the song "Nine Pound Hammer," and my grandfather thought the person doing the murders could be working for the railroad.
He sent several letters out to the towns along the B & O Railway asking for any information involving unsolved murders, receiving several responses. All the letters shared the same description of a murder in their town, involving a heavyset woman, bludgeoned to death no witnesses.
Dressed as a hobo he followed a man who appeared to be a loner as he left the boxcar later than the others. Dowling caught up with the man who was talking to a woman by the name of Annabelle Temple. They were sitting on this very bench."
"No!" Mary stood up.
"According to Annabelle's account of what happened that night, she said the man told her to call him Tally." The exposed hammer rose over Tal's head. He was ready to strike Annabelle, but Detective Dowling was quicker, pushing the woman out of the way, only he wasn't fast enough. The driver came down, hitting Dowling on the head; Annabelle ran away, screaming but not before she witnessed what Tal and his nine-pound hammer could do.
Detective Dowling was on his knees, trying to recover from the blow that left him disoriented, when the second hammer blow struck the other side of his head, he went down again. The third and final blow crushed Dowling's skull into an unrecognizable pulp.
Talmadge cursed, running after Annabelle. He wasn't able to hide the hammer without losing precious time. He was sloppy, leaving a witness. Running through the alley with a hammer covered in blood and brain matter.
When Tal came through the alley and out onto the crowded street, people shouted and drew away from him. He was covered in Dowling's blood.
Annabelle would be the end of him. As the crew roused for breakfast outside the bunkhouse the following morning, the police picked Talmadge out of the group. At the station, Annabelle Temple identified him as the killer of my grandfather, Detective Dowling.
After his confession, Talmadge, left alone in his cell, tore his shirt into strips fashioning a noose for himself. They found him dead, and the Gandy Dancer Murders became a legend in Ohio.
"Dad, that's a horrible story," Mary watched her daughter and friends.
"But a true one," her father responded. The whirling double-Dutch jump ropes made sounds on the sidewalk the very place where Dowling was murdered. The girls arms spun in large circles, singing the song,
"Gandy dancer, gandy dancer, move along
Gandy dancer, gandy dancer, sing this song,
up and down the railroad track.
Everyone hit with a sledgehammer, whack!
How many times did they take it to the head?
Twenty-five whacks until your dead."
The ropes moved faster and faster until the jumper became entangled. The girls laughed and giggled, never realizing the song they'd help immortalize, resulted from the murder of eight people: seven short women and the brave detective who gave his life to solve the crime.