The lyrics, over the rock anthem’s pounding heartbeat, are gruesome – and likely horribly familiar to anyone who has ever worked with victims of domestic violence.
She won’t give him what he wants. So he’s tied her to the railway in the path of an oncoming train. And so on. The night of crime only comes to an end when he throws her off a cliff.
You wouldn’t think so, but it’s a moral tale – almost a ballad. The man is eventually hauled in and ‘given the third degree’_
How many times have I, or anyone else, used the expression ‘third degree’ at someone who’s asking too many questions and sort-of wondered what it meant, but not thought any more of it?
The tale, of course, is fascinating. And particularly topical given this week’s Supreme Court situation…
‘Third degree’, meaning the extreme of something, is a term with a long pedigree. It turns up in places as varied as Shakespeare’s plays and old medical manuals – ‘Rue is hot and dry in the third degree…’ (1578). It’s also a term in Masonic ceremonies, and in the Spanish Inquisition.
Aha: now we’re getting closer.
Of all the theories about how the phrase came to be used about asking questions, this one has to be my favourite:
New York at the turn of last century was a brutal place. Crime rates in the USA at the time were said to be anything from four to ten times those in Europe. Into this den of iniquity strode the impressive figure of one Thomas F. Byrnes. A former engineer and firefighter, he became notorious for beating suspects in order to extract confessions from them. His colleagues – or possibly himself – awarded him the nickname ‘third degree’ as a pun on his surname. All right, officer I confess: I can’t resist a story with a pun.
With such an impressive record of finding and putting-away the guilty he rose rapidly through the ranks.
As Inspector, he faced a case not unlike that of London’s ‘Jack the Ripper’. Unlike his counterparts across the Pond, though, he caught his man.
Except he didn’t.
Eleven years later, the evidence against him being his confession and hardly anything else, Ameer ‘Frenchie’ Ben Ali was pardoned. Meanwhile Byrnes had been forced to resign. Better ways of catching criminals – ones which would not also indiscriminately sweep-up witnesses and other innocents – were needed.
Sad to say that incidents like the one that opened this story are still with us and so – and not always in the metaphorical sense, either – is the ‘third degree’.
But we’re one step nearer to Portsmouth – and to Kate.
(Oh and, bonus points if you know the ‘ballad’.)