from “Fiddler’s Farewell: The Legend of the Hanged Fiddler,” by D. K. Wilgus
One of the fullest “Callahan” legends accompanying the tune was given to Alan Lomax by Oscar Parks Deuchars, Indiana, 1938. Parks, who was orginally from Livingston, Kentucky, reported that he learned the tune from an old man by the name of Bob Lehr, in Jackson Co., Kentucky. A John Callahan, as Parks told Lomax, was being hanged for the killing of a man during a feud. While on the gallows, Callahan offered the fiddle to anyone who would mount the scaffold and play the tune. No one would comply, for fear of being shot, and in his last moments Callahan “busted that fiddle all to pieces over that coffin”. Parks also recounted Callahan’s marriage, while in prison, to a girl named Betsy Larkin [Betty Likens?] who then lived with him in the jail, from four to six months, in Manchester, Clay Co., Kentucky. Parks dated the event between 1898 and 1908.
… the fiddlers in Arkansas and Oklahoma couple [“The Last of Callahan”] with the demise of a cattle rustler. Sometimes he becomes a horse thief. The story goes that he had been caught by the posse and was unwillingly standing up in a wagon under a tree. A rope had already been passed around his neck and thrown over a limb. When he was asked if he had any “last words” he said he wanted to play the fiddle one last time. In his standing position he played an unnamed tune and then handed the fiddle to one of the bystanders … and the likeness of his tune became “The Last of Callahan.”
from http://www.ceolas.org, by Andrew Kuntz
Another version of the tale was supplied by a Mrs. Herman R. Staten of Paris, Kentucky, who wrote to the Archive of American Folksong soon after World War II to say that she was a Callahan descendent and that her fiddler-father and an elderly relative told her that the Callahan of the tale was an Isaac Callahan who died in the middle of the 19th century, and “knowing he was to hang, he built his coffin, and taking his fiddle he played while his sister danced upon his coffin.”