The Story of Frankie & Johnny — Happy Missouri Day

Frankie Baker
In recognition of Missouri Day, here’s a brief breakdown on Missouri’s second most famous couple (after the fictional Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher), a real-life couple usually referred to as Frankie and Johnny. After Frankie caught her man in flagrante delicto with another woman, Alice Pryor, and shot him dead, it was commemorated in numerous songs and films.

Frankie Baker was a 22-year-old St. Louisan dancer who was dating 17-year-old Allen “Al” Britt. Britt had another girlfriend on the side. Britt’s friend Richard J. Clay warned Britt about dating two women at the same time but Britt carried on. Then, on October 15th, 1899, around 3:30 in the morning, Baker headed home to her apartment at 212 Targee Street in Chestnut Valley and

caught Britt in bed with Pryor. An argument ensued with Baker’s roommate, Pansy Marvin, testifying that Britt threw a lamp at Baker and cut her with a knife. In return, Frankie shot him once with her Harrington & Richardson .38. Britt died of his wounds two days later. Baker claimed in her trial that she’d acted in self-defense. She was acquitted but didn’t escape notoriety.

Britt Allen's Grave

Al Britt’s grave

In 1899, St Louis songwriter Bill Dooley composed “Frankie Killed Allen.” The song was an immediate hit in Chestnut Valley clubs and on steamboats. Things got so bad that Baker actually left Missouri in 1901 to live in Omaha, claiming she wanted “to get away from the constant annoyance and humiliation.” As with all things in Nebraska, her neighbors eventually caught wind of the events in Missouri and she decided, after reading about Portland, Oregon‘s Rose Festival, to move to a house at 22 North Clackamas, as she loved flowers.

Frankie Baker's Home

Meanwhile, the first published version of “Frankie and Johnny” appeared in 1904, credited to Hughie Cannon. Other versions followed, including 1908’s “Bill You Done Me Wrong.” The Leighton Brothers‘ version in 1912, “Frankie and Johnny,” changed the name of Johnny’s mistress to “Nellie Bly,” which is the name given in most subsequent versions, known by a variety of names including “Frankie and Johnnie,” “Frankie and Albert” and “Frankie.”

Ultimately, the song has been recorded at least 256 times by artists including Benny Goodman, Big Bill Broonzy, Bob Dylan, Brook Benton, Bunny Berigan, Charlie Patton, Charlie Poole, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, Fats Waller, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Lead Belly, Lena Horne, Lonnie Donegan, Louis Armstrong, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Taj Mahal, Van Morrison and many more.

To make ends meet, Baker eventually turned to hooking. By 1925, however, after several stints in jail, she went respectable and opened a shoeshine parlor. Meanwhile, the events of her famous lovers quarrel inspired films, including Her Man (1930) and Mae West inserted a performance of the song into She Done Him Wrong (1935). After that, her legend spread nationally and people hounded her for autographs and prank called her. Frankie and Johnnie (1936) followed. She sued Republic in 1938 and 1942 (once for each film based on her crime). She lost both cases. After a stint working as a chambermaid at the Royal Palm Hotel, she took ill and quit working.

Baker’s crime again inspired a film with the Elvis vehicle Frankie and Johhny (1966). I’m pretty sure that the 1991 movie Frankie and Johnny, with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, was secretly a sequel to Scarface and had nothing to do with the Missourian squabblers.

Frankie Baker was ultimately committed to a
Pendleton insane asylum, where she died January 10th, 1950.

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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