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Stagger Lee: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Small wonder, then, that the St Louis of 1895 ended up as a city of only 500,000 people - about the size of Leeds or Albuquerque today - where six murders could take place in a single night. Translate that rate to London's modern population of about 7.5 million, and you'd have 90 corpses littering the streets by dawn.
About ten blocks south of Chestnut Valley, St Louis had another red light district called Deep Morgan. The two main bars in this part of town were the Bridgewater Saloon on the corner of Eleventh Street and Lucas Avenue, and Curtis' Saloon on Thirteenth and Morgan. The two saloons were bitter rivals, and not only because they vied for the same business. Henry Bridgewater was a prominent black Republican, while Bill Curtis' saloon seems to have served as a meeting place for Democrat activists.
Curtis' joint had a particularly bad reputation. The St Louis Post-Dispatch counted it among the “worst dens in the city”, calling its clientele “the lower class of river men and other darkies of the same social status” (3). Lyons had good reason to think of this place as enemy territory. He was Bridgewater's brother-in-law, and had been attacked at Curtis' before.
Cecil Brown, author of 2003's Stagolee Shot Billy, has used the witness statements from Lyons' inquest to compile an account of the night's events. We know from these statements that Lyons left Bridgewater's Saloon with his friend Henry Crump, and that the two men walked the few blocks to Curtis' together. Lyons paused at the entrance to borrow a knife from Crump, and then they went in. He bought himself a drink at the bar, turned round, and saw Shelton walking in.

Lee Shelton joined Lyons at the bar. Everything was fine until the discussion drifted to politics

Shelton was a local carriage driver who sometimes moonlighted as a waiter at Curtis'. He was also one of the flamboyant St Louis pimps known as the “Macks” or “Macquerels”, using his two legitimate jobs to find potential clients for his stable of girls. He also ran his own Deep Morgan “lid club” called The Modern Horseshoe, which used an apparently legitimate bar out front to conceal illegal gambling and prostitution in its back rooms.
Shelton's prison records show he was 5' 7” tall with a crossed left eye and a light enough skin to suggest mixed parentage. He seems to have been dressed in full pimp regalia that night including - perhaps - the fashionable John B. Stetson hat which all the black dandies of Chestnut Valley considered essential wear.
Shelton joined Lyons at the bar and the two began drinking together in what onlookers thought was a friendly way. Everything was fine until, as the Globe-Democrat put it, “the discussion drifted to politics”. Here's how Brown reconstructs what happened next:

“Soon they began to exchange blows by striking each other's hats. Shelton grabbed Lyons' derby and broke the form. Lyons said he wanted 'six bits' from Shelton for damaging his derby.
“Then Lyons grabbed Shelton's Stetson. When Shelton demanded it back, Lyons said no. Shelton said he would blow Lyons' brains out if he didn't return it. Next, Shelton pulled his .44 Smith & Wesson revolver and hit Lyons in the head with it. Still Lyons would not relinquish the hat. Shelton demanded the Stetson again, saying that if Lyons didn't give him his hat immediately, he was going to kill him.
“Then Lyons reached into his pocket for the knife his friend Crump had given him and approached Shelton saying 'You cock-eyed son of a bitch, I'm going to make you kill me'. Shelton backed off and took aim. The twenty-five people in the saloon flew for the door. [...] Both bartenders later testified to the coroner that they saw Lee Shelton shoot Billy Lyons”

Shelton calmly left the saloon, walked to a house he used on Sixth Street, left the gun with a woman there, and went to sleep upstairs. The police tracked him there and arrested him at about 3:00am on Boxing Day. Lyons was taken to the City Hospital where, after an operation to remove his lacerated left kidney, he died at about 4:00 o'clock the same morning. His death certificate shows he was 31 years old and unmarried.

Shelton may have taken his 'Stack Lee' nickname from a white man called Stacker Lee, whose father owned the famous Lee Steam Line of riverboats. Stacker Lee joined the Confederate army at the age of 16, became a cavalryman, and fought Yankees for the next two years. He was still only 18 when the war ended in 1865, and returned to civilian life determined to have some fun. When his father, James Lee, started the Lee Line a year later, he gave his son one of the boats to captain and Stacker set about making up for lost time. Travelling up and down the Mississippi between St Louis and New Orleans, he became well-known as a gambler, a hell-raiser and a ladies' man. He made a habit of fathering illegitimate children wherever his boat put in, often by black or mixed-race women. In his 1948 book Memphis Down in Dixie, Shields McIlwaine reports that Stacker's popularity meant there were “more coloured kids named Stack Lee than there were sinners in hell” (5).
It's very unlikely that Shelton was really Stacker Lee's son - the dates and locations are all wrong for that - but he may well have adopted his nickname to hint at that possibility. Shelton's light skin, described by Jefferson Penitentiary as a “mulatto complexion”, would have made it easy for people to believe he had a white father. Who could blame him for hinting that father was the glamorous son of a powerful, rich family?

Shots in the dark: continued

Stagolee's Victory, by The Savage Rose (1972). This Danish cult band pulls out all the stops for a full-on gospel treatment which makes Stag a metaphor for every oppressed black man in America. There's the hint of a New Orleans funeral march in there, some splendidly macabre lyrics (“Stagolee ain't got no eyes”) and a promise at the end that vengeance is coming. No wonder Bobby Seale's Black Panthers loved this band. Available on: Babylon (Universal, 1972).

Stagolee, by Dr Hook (1978). A disco-country take on the song by an international chart act sounds unlikely enough on its own, but the men behind Sylvia's Mother go a step further. This is one of the very few versions to foreground Stag's magic hat, explaining how the devil gave it to him and the powers of immortality it conveys. Available on: Vintage Years (EMI, 2003).

Stack O Lee Aloha, by Bob Brozman (1992). Brozman's isn't the first version to use the Hawaiian slack-string guitar style - that honour went to Sol Hoopii in 1928 - but it is the best. Based on an old Ray Lopez jazz tune, this jaunty instrumental conjures images of Stag with a .44 in one hand and a mai tai in the other. Irresistible. Available on: Truckload of Blues (Rounder, 1992).

Stack-O-Lee, by Tom Morrell & the Time Warp Tophands (1994). Morrell and his western swing pals canter through Billy's slaughter, Stag's hanging and his take-over of hell with the aid of a saloon piano and a perky pedal steel guitar. Murder, execution, damnation and revolt have never sounded so jolly. Available on: How The West Was Swung Volume 5 (WR Records, 1994).

Poor Man's Stagger Lee, by Stagger Lee (2007). The eponymous singer warns a woman that the no-good waster she's with is nothing but “a poor man's Stagger Lee”. Why can't she choose a hard-working good ol' boy like himself instead? A barbed-wire banjo accompaniment underscores his point, but we all know she isn't going to listen. Available on: Nashville Starfucker (NNMaddox, 2007).

I've got 142 versions of Stagger Lee in my own collection, but that pales beside the 280 which David Hirsch has amassed in the US. For details of Dave's collection and an invaluable guide to Stag on record, go to