Homicide or Suicide- Which is it? 

The Tallahatchie Bridge
The Tallahatchie Bridge

Real Life  and then there was Billie Joe MacAllister

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of cases of homicides that initially are “tagged by the toe” and otherwise categorized as suicides.  Why does this occur?  Among the many reasons could be lack of proper experience in crime scene investigation, “politics at the highest levels,” perhaps, a law enforcement officer is the accused and therefore the true manner of death is “buried”, a crime scene is contaminated, lack of resources, expediency to “get things wrapped up” or plain old indifference about the victim for she was “that kind of girl.”

It is difficult to put a number on this, for research data never catches up with real time, so many cases go unreported and are misclassified. In addition, the homicide-suicide can be both when the perpetrator chooses to end it all AND turn the gun on himself!

As a few examples we need only to look at a few Susan Murphy-Milano Journal reports:

Homicide and suicide can be inextricably intertwined in the minds of the law enforcement and the general public at first glance until it gets sorted out with solid proof by experienced professionals.  Often a picture of depression, anxiety, lack of ability to cope is painted,” taking an abuser’s word, without really delving into the behaviors of the deceased prior to the murder.  However, what was our introduction of suicide in the year’s prior to social media and instantaneous news?

Suicide “Ode to Billie Joe” Fact or Folklore

It was a single debut song that “caused a ruckus” in the workplace and record stores everywhere in August 1967. “Ode to Billie Joe” was set against the backdrop of Lyndon Johnson sending 45,000 more troops to Vietnam, “Black Power Advocate” Stokely Carmichael calling for violent revolution in the streets and the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein dying from an overdose of sleeping pill. But, what did Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge and what did it say about suicide?

Bobby Gentry crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge
Bobby Gentry crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge

According to writer Bill DE Main, “The finished version of “Ode” was over seven minutes long. Capitol edited it down to a more manageable four minutes and stuck it on the flip side of “Mississippi Delta.” But those were the days when DJs still had minds of their own, and as in the stories of so many classic hits, the B-side became the A-side.

Bobbie Gentry stated, “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important.

Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.

In its first week of release, “Ode” sold 750,000 copies, knocking “All You Need Is Love” out of the top spot on the Billboard chart. Indeed, all you need is love in this society! As a performer, Bobbie Gentry has seemingly stayed out of the spotlight for over 35 years.

A Fictionalized “Presentation to the Jury”

Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are about to present the facts of what happened in and around the vicinity of Choctaw Ridge, Mississippi, on the day of April 22nd, 1960. These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

We’re just kidding, of course. To this day, there is not a shred of evidence to back up the events of the story told by Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 smash hit “Ode to Billie Joe.” To the amateur sleuths and wanna-be Agatha Christies out there: we’re sincerely sorry to bust your bubble. But that’s the point of Southern Gothic, to make you wonder.

Oh, sure, even though Bobbie Gentry is not her real name (Roberta Lee Streeter holds that honor), really did grow up in Mississippi, and Choctaw Ridge, Carroll County, Tupelo, and the Tallahatchie River are all real places in Mississippi. There are, in fact, seven bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, at least two of which are within reasonable distance of Choctaw Ridge. It would seem that all you have to do is go dredge the river for the body.

But, see, there isn’t any real body. And, if you insist on taking every word of the song for the Gospel truth, then you also have to allow for the fact that the whole town is talking about the suicide of Billie Joe MacAllister, including the whole family buzzing about it around the dinner table. Presumably, nearly-identical conversations are going on all over town at every family’s dinner table. The preacher, Brother Taylor, knows about it. This is not a cover-up. Everybody was seen in public, and the river would have already been dredged for the body, the body buried, and anything else that was thrown in the river would have been found, too.

People seem to have a hard time accepting the fiction of this song. In a world where novelists routinely fabricate hundreds of pages of made-up characters and events, why is it so hard to accept that a five-verse song is fiction? But then, Southern Gothic is like that sometimes. It’s meant to be compelling and intriguing.

Ode to Billie Joe

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door, “Y’all remember to wipe your feet”
Then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas
“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick o’ sense, pass the biscuits, please
There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And Mama said it was a shame about Billie Joe anyhow
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe McAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night
I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know, it don’t seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Mama said to me, “Child what’s happened to your appetite?
I been cookin’ all mornin’ and you haven’t touched single bite
That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billie Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

A year has come and gone since I heard the news ’bout Billie Joe
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus goin’ round, papa caught it and he died last spring
And now Mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything
And me I spend a lot of time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Ladyjustice Commentary:

If this song was our “first brush with the realization of suicide” was it a precursor to what we have today in so many crimes?   What was the pattern of conduct of Billie Joe and his girlfriend?  What was the significance of throwing something off the bridge?   Had this been a real case I know we would have gotten to the bottom of it.

Fictionalized or real- In 2014, we can NEVER afford to be complacent about homicide or suicide. Never say, “Pass the biscuits please”


The Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nv33eaygVDQ

Additional Resources: http://www.ovc.gov/help/tollfree.html;






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