Shelton's casual attitude after the murder - he walked a few blocks to a house everyone knew he used and went upstairs to get some sleep - suggests he wasn't too worried about police pursuit. He may have assumed, with some reason, that one black man killing another in that particular part of town would simply be ignored. If so, he reckoned without Henry Bridgewater.
Bridgewater was one of the richest black people in St Louis, owning not only Deep Morgan's Bridgewater Saloon, but also other property worth nearly $15,000 in 1895 money. He was also a prominent Republican at a time when black Americans' initial loyalty to that party was starting to drop away. The Civil War had brought an end to slavery in 1865, and this was achieved under the Republican President Abraham Lincoln. That was enough to ensure that most blacks voted Republican when first given the chance to do so in 1870.
But, by 1895, few of the Republicans' promises had materialised and disillusionment was setting in. Democrat activists began recruiting crucial black voters in St Louis by arranging what they called “400 clubs” in the local bars. One of these clubs, headed by Shelton, is said to have met at Curtis' Saloon. Just a few blocks up the street, Bridgewater was hosting Republican meetings at his own bar.
Bridgewater's Saloon was a much more upmarket affair than Curtis', often entertaining the black celebrities of the day, and able to attract a wealthier clientele. But it was also rough enough for the St Louis Globe-Democrat of September 12, 1902, to call it “a den of vice” when reporting a recent murder there(9).
The picture at Curtis' and Bridgewater's alike seems to be one of wild debauchery progressing on the ground floor while sober political meetings were conducted in an upstairs room. It's a difficult juxtaposition for us to understand. How did pimps and saloon keepers at the worst joints in town end up playing such a pivotal part n the political process?
The answer lies in the city's ward system, which relied on informal “mayors” in each neighbourhood to organise the local vote and see that it was cast the right way. Saloon keepers were ideally placed to fill this role because they provided accommodation for the itinerant workers passing through town. Even though these workers had no interest in St Louis politics, they were given a vote in city elections. The saloon keeper had only to offer them a few free drinks at the bar for those votes to be cast any way he liked.
Membership of the 400 clubs and the sporting clubs where Shelton pimped his girls often over-lapped, allowing him to extend his influence over both. We know he was politically active because, just after his arrest, the financial secretary of Shelton's own 400 club wrote a letter of support to the St Louis Star-Sayings, calling him “our captain [...] our unfortunate member and brother” (10). The St Louis Post Dispatch of March 17, 1911, writing while Shelton was in jail, said he was “formerly a Negro politician” (11).
Take all these facts together, and it starts to look like Bridgewater might have dispatched Lyons to Curtis' Saloon that night to broker some kind of deal between Deep Morgan's Republican and Democrat factions. That would explain why eyewitnesses thought Lyons and Shelton spoke in such a friendly way at first, and also why things turned ugly when they started discussing politics. Bridgewater was married to Eliza Lyons, Billy's sister, and may have decided that only a member of the family could be entrusted with such a delicate task. The police knew Lyons as a “rowdy bully” who had once threatened drinkers at Curtis' Saloon by waving a big knife around, so Bridgewater would have felt confident he could defend himself.
When the police arrested Shelton on Boxing Day they took him to Chestnut Street police station and held him there. Next day, he was taken to the coroner's office on Eleventh Street for Lyons' inquest. Waiting at the entrance was a crowd of about 300 blacks from what one paper called “the Henry Bridgewater faction”, who hissed and cursed at Shelton as he approached. Even when the police summoned reinforcements and drew their weapons, the crowd refused to disperse. “Throughout the entire hearing, a large crowd of negroes was in attendance,” reported next day's St Louis Globe-Democrat. “As many of them as could pushed their way into the Coroner's office, while the others crowded the hallway and congregated near the Eleventh street entrance” (12).
One un-named informant at the inquest told coroner WJ Wait that Lyons had been shot as part of a vendetta which began five years earlier. He pointed out that Lyons' step-brother, Charles Brown, had killed a man called Harry Wilson in Bridgewater's Saloon back in 1890, but never been convicted of the crime. Shelton, he claimed, had sworn to avenge Wilson's killing, and that was why he shot Lyons. There's no other evidence to support the revenge theory, however, and Wait refused to take it seriously.
Bridgewater's men remained in place when the inquest was over, agreeing to go home only after Wait had assured them Shelton would be held in custody pending charges of first-degree murder. He was taken first to a holding cell, and then to jail. Judge David Murphy signed a warrant for first-degree murder against him on January 3, 1896, and bound him over to await trial.
Bridgewater's role did not stop at dispatching his men to the coroner's office. John David, author of 1976's Tragedy in Ragtime, has uncovered a sheriff's letter to Judge James Withrow saying Bridgewater had pushed for Shelton to be prosecuted. He also hired Orrick Bishop, the city's formidable Assistant Circuit Attorney, to prosecute the case. Without Bridgewater's influence - and money - it's also unlikely doctors at the city hospital would have gone to so much trouble to try and save Lyons' life. When those efforts proved fruitless, he ensured Lyons was buried in the Bridgewater family plot.