Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Christmas Murders

This week; The Legend Of Stagger Lee

Christmas has always been a time of merriment, socializing, and conspicuous consumption. People get thrown together who normally don’t spend much time together, passions rise and so do tempers. It’s no surprise that divorce figures rise just after Christmas and that there’s a spike in violent crime. 

In the countdown to Christmas I’m going to present you with some of the infamous 19th century murders of the season and this week we’re going to look at the crime which inspired the old blues song  ‘Stagger Lee’.

Amazingly enough, the song may be the most re-recorded in history, with well over four hundred separate recordings to its name. A brief search of the Stagger Lee name could reveal recordings from Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Lloyd Price, Professor Longhair, The Black Keys, Samuel L. Jackson, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Wilson Picket, Taj Mahal, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Beck, Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, and a great many others

Lee Shelton was born March 16th 1865, the same year as John B. Stetson rented a small room and bought ten dollars worth of tools and fur. The Stetson hat company was established and it was pivotal to the crime which made Lee Shelton infamous.

In the late 1800s St. Louis was a hothouse for the new musical craze  ‘Ragtime’. The stylistic ragged syncopation  merged with the music of black people in the South and created popular songs which changed music forever. One song, “The Bully Of The Town” was a huge hit and Mama Lou, the house singer of an upmarket brothel, was famous for belting out her version of the song.  Madame Babe was also famous for throwing Oscar Wilde out of her establishment.

In 1894 a On a train from Chicago to San Francisco, white sports writer, horse judge and amateur musician, Charles E. Trevathan, played the song to amuse fellow passengers. Making no mention of St. Louis brothels, he claimed to have learned the tune from Tennessee blacks. The passengers encourages him to put lyrics to it and he goes off to do just that. It became a success.

                                                                           May Irwin

That takes us to 1895 and Trevathan’s then girlfriend May Irwin sung what is now known as “The Bully Song” in a Broadway show called “The Widow Jones.” The genre and lyrics would now be considered wildly racist and but are of interest as a social history of attitudes of the time.  At that point there was no mention of Lee Shelton in the song.

By this time ‘Stag’ or ‘Stagger’ Lee had grown up and become a successful pimp in St. Louis. There are various explanations for the nickname including the notion that he ‘went stag’ meaning that he was without friends. Later developments would show that he did indeed have friends, and some of them were in high places indeed. Another version says he took the name from a riverboat  called the ‘Stack Lee’ which was basically a floating brothel. He was known as a ‘Mack’, a group of violent pimps who stood out due to their love of flashy clothing and extravagance.

On Christmas night in 1895 Shelton was drinking with William "Billy" Lyons in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of the St. Louis underground, and both men were rivals both professionally and politically. The conversation turned to politics and an argument ensued, during which Lyons snatched the Stetson from Lee’s head and refused to give it back. The precious hat was damaged and a ransom was demanded for demanded for its return. An enraged Lee drew his gun and shot his rival in the abdomen, picked up his hat, and left.

The story was first covered in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on December 28th, 1895. In 1896, the political scene was extremely tense, and with Saint Louis being one of the largest cities in the country, it was necessary for politicians to get every vote, including the black vote. This was increasingly relevant because the republicans were losing their stronghold, and because Shelton was a democratic organizer, and Lyons a Republican one. Stagger Lee hired one of the most prominent lawyers in the state, Nathanile Dryden, and the trial resulted in a hung jury. 

                                                                  Nathaniel Dryden

Shelton’s case was retried in 1897, and Stagger Lee was found guilty of murder and sentenced to the notorious Jefferson penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. It only took until 1902 or 1903, depending on the source, for the first printed lyrics referring to the Stagger Lee murder.

                                                                Joseph Wingate Folk

Missouri governor Joseph Wingate Folk gave Shelton a full pardon on Thanksgiving day 1909, but Lee was not to remain free for long. In 1911, Shelton broke into a man’s home,  murdered him, and was sent to prison, but by 1912, Shelton received yet another pardon from another governor, apparently due to political pressure. Before he could be released, the infamous Stack-O-Lee died in prison of tuberculosis.

By this time, folk versions of the Stagger Lee song were cropping up all across the South. The next year, legendary Library of Congress musicologist John Lomax received a partial transcription of what was called “The Ballad of Stagalee”, from a woman in Texas. She claimed that “this song is sung by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and unloading the river freighters.”

Duke Ellington recorded a version in 1927, and in 1928 Mississippi John Hurt recorded what is perhaps the most famous and most definitive version of Stagger Lee’s song in history.

Police officer, how can it be?
You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, “Please don’t take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife”
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

“What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?
You done stole my Stetson1 hat, I’m bound to take your life”
That bad man, cruel Stack O’ Lee

…with the forty-four
When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was lyin’ down on the floor
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

“Gentleman’s of the jury, what do you think of that?
Stack O’ Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat”
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

And all they gathered, hands way up high,
at twelve o’clock they killed him, they’s all glad to see him die
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

Stagger Lee has been sung nearly countless times. His story has appeared in movies, poems, and even as it’s own comic book. Through every generation and nearly every musical style, Stagger Lee has made an appearance. Punk, Hawaiian, Heavy Metal, Disco, Rock, Blues, Folk, Bluegrass, Country, and Soul have all seen recorded versions, often with great popularity and by names as wildly famous as Elvis and the Isley Brothers. The story of bad Stagger Lee has continued to capture American’s, and then the world’s, imaginations for over 100 years. The history of the song tells many stories. It is an anthem of the dispossessed. It expresses fear of the scary black man, the evolution of modern music, culture theft from black to white, hero worship of the outlaw, the origins of a legendary character and the writing of a Myth.

It is also our first Christmas murder from the 19th century in this series. 


Piott, Steven L. (1999). Lawrence O. Christensen, ed. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. pp. 307–310. ISBN 0-8262-1222-0.

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