The death of Delia Green has come down to us in legendary verse from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash. How did the death of a 14 year old girl in Savannah become part of Southern mythology?
Savannah, Georgia is famous for being full of eccentric stories. One of the oldest parts of the United States settled by Europeans, the city feels ancient with its many parks and statutes along its streets.
In 1900, on a cold Christmas Eve a man by the name of Willie West was throwing a Christmas party for his employees. A young girl named Delia Green was one of his employees. Before child labor laws forbade such a thing, Delia, who was only 14 years old, worked as a scrubber for Willie.
Delia was dating a boy by the name of Moses “Cooney” Houston. Cooney was 16 years old at the time according to most reports. Others say that he was also 14 years old. Regardless, by all evidence, the couple had a romantic relationship.
At around 11:30 PM a fight started after Cooney was heard to say something about “little wife”. It is unclear if he was calling Delia his little wife or alluding to his having a wife. The record is unclear.
Regardless, after a few words back and forth, Delia was heard to call Cooney a “Son of a Bitch” which was not as common then as it is among millennials today. Cooney reached for his gun and shot Delia in the stomach.
Cooney then fled on foot where he was overtaken by Willie and turned over to the police.
Delia Green died on Christmas morning of 1900.
Delia, oh, DeliaLyrics from Delia’s Gone
Delia all my life
If I hadn’t shot poor Delia
I’d have had her for my wife
Delia’s gone, one more round
Cooney, when he stood trial, wore short pants to emphasize his youth. His defense did not go well though, when he said he would have shot her again if the circumstances were the same. After serving his sentence, he lived the rest of his life in New York City.
The Resurrection of Delia Green
The story would have ended there as one of the many tragic murders of the early 1900s had it not been for music. It is unclear how her name made it into song but the unusual circumstances of her tragic murder: her youth, Christmas eve, an unrepentant killer, etc probably played a part.
By 1928, her name was so famous that a folklorist by the name of Robert Winslow Gordon reported to the Library of Congress that he had traced the origin of the songs to the murder of Delia Green in 1900.
Among the many different songs that covered her murder, the most famous is the song from the perspective of Cooney known as Delia’s Gone, which is the one we know from Johnny Cash. That version of the song appears to have begun with a singer from the Bahamas known as “Blind” Blake Higgs in the 1930s.