Who Was Delia Green?



Delia Green was buried in an unmarked grave in Savannah's Laurel Grove Cemetery South among thousands of slaves and freed blacks from coastal Georgia.

I first learned about Delia Green at a recent David Bromberg concert. As the folk icon introduced his next song, Bromberg described the heartbreakingly sad saga of a 14-year-old African-American prostitute who was murdered in cold blood by her pimp on Christmas Eve in 1900 Savannah.

Maybe it was Bromberg's moving words or maybe it was his mournful guitar lilting in the background as he spoke, but many in the audience wept. I quickly became captivated by Delia's story before Bromberg even slipped into the song of the same name. But its melody and lyrics further haunted me— I became determined to discover who Delia Green was.

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Turns out, there are at least 28 versions of "Delia," which is considered an important part of the traditional American songbook. Although some list the author as "Anonymous," the 1924 song is generally attributed to Blind Willie McTellBob Dylan, Pete Seeger and many others have recorded it since then. There's also Harry Belafonte's achingly beautiful "Delia," which cites her disappearance as a mystery rather than a murder.

A slightly different take, called "Delia Gone," is written by Blake Alphonso Higgs.

There are no fewer than four recordings of "Delia's Gone" by Johnny Cash, beginning in 1962 and ending in 1994. His version is told from the killer's POV and includes light bondage.

"…found her in her parlor and I tied her to her chair…"

Cash's more-than-slightly macabre video features him carrying the recently-departed Delia (played by none other than Kate Moss) to a freshly-dug grave and shoveling dirt onto her body.

* * *

Accounts differ about exactly what happened in the Harrison Street house on December 24, 1900. Some said a party was going at full throttle, most of the attendees women. Others say the home of Willie and Emma West was a "rough house" or bordello. Some name Delia as a scrub girl at the West home. Others point to the line:

"Delia was a gambler, gambled all around" as a polite reference to prostitution.

The version of "Delia" David Bromberg told specified that the girl was well-loved in Savannah's impoverished Yamacraw neighborhood where she met her demise. "Delia's murder by her pimp caused a riot," Bromberg said between guitar strums. "The people of Savannah came out in full force and hunted down her killer. He fled along the rooftops. The police finally caught him and brought him to justice."

Trial transcripts describe the moments before Delia was shot. They detail that she became angry when a 14-year-old ne'er-do-well named Moses "Cooney" Houston referred to her as his "little wife," intimating a sexual relationship. (Moses may or may not have been her boyfriend—or her pimp.) Delia called him a "son of a bitch," a term which carried much more weight at the turn of the century than it does today. After the argument, Cooney pulled out a pistol and shot Delia in the groin. She died at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning at her mother's home a block away on Ann Street.

According to court documents, though, it was Willie West who chased Cooney, caught him and turned him over to patrolman J.T. Williams. The policeman testified that Cooney (who is often named "Cutty," "Curtis" or "Tony" in musical renditions of the tale) not only confessed to killing Delia, but said that he'd do it again.

At his trial in the spring of 1901, Cooney showed up wearing short pants in a feeble attempt to emphasize his youth—he was being tried as an adult. Cooney also changed his story in court, swearing that West sent him to retrieve a pistol and it went off by accident in a tussle with a man named Cohen who wasn't even there at the time. Although the jury found Cooney guilty and recommended mercy, the judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Curtis said to the judge, "What might be my fine?"
Judge says, "Poor boy, you got ninety-nine."

The Savannah Morning News described Cooney as leaving the courtroom "calm and as debonair…as if the experience through which he had just passed was a matter of every day occurrence and of no particular importance."

"Life" for Cooney turned out to be only 12 years. He was paroled in 1913 by Governor John Slaton. It's known that Cooney moved to New York City, where he died in 1927, at age 40, after many brushes with the law.

As for Delia's fate, the lyrics say:

"Delia she's in the graveyard, may not never wake up."

Delia Green was buried in an unmarked grave in Savannah's Laurel Grove Cemetery South among thousands of slaves and freed blacks from coastal Georgia.

Not much has changed in the 115 years since Delia Green's murder. Prostitutes are still killed in cold blood but little, if anything, is ever written about them. No photograph exists of Delia Green. If not for the songs, it's like she never even existed.

Was the cause of this fatality an altercation between pimp and prostitute? Or an early 1900s Romeo and Juliet-esque gang-banger scenario played out in a Savannah ghetto? Or merely two stubborn teenagers arguing over something petty? Between conflicting stories and the passage of time, we might never know the real answer.

Except that Delia's death—like millions before her and surely, sadly, millions more to come—was senseless and tragic.


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