Stagger Lee is one of Missouri‘s most celebrated characters in song. Loads of people have sung about the seemingly amoral anti-hero, but here are the facts, ma’am.
Lee “Stag” Shelton was born on March 16, 1865. As a young man he drove a carriage cab and pimped. He also operated a “sporting club,” the Modern Horseshoe Club in St. Louis’s “Bloody Third” Ward, in an area known as Chestnut Valley. Chestnut Valley and the sporting clubs located there were instrumental in the development of ragtime. Shelton was part of a pimp clique called The Macks. His trademarks included a high roller stetson, rings, an ebony cane, spats and St. Louis flats — mirrored shoes with pointy, upturned toes. Oh yeah, and a .44 Smith & Wesson.
On St. Stephens Day, 1895, Shelton and Billy Lyons were at a the Bill Curtis Saloon (described by the paper as “the envy of all its competitors and the terror of the police”) together, in the “Deep Morgan” neighborhood. Initially they were cordial, but after more drinks, began smacking each others’ hats after the conversation turned to politics. First, Shelton grabbed Lyons’ derby. Lyons then removed Shelton’s stetson. According to witnesses, Shelton demanded either the hat be returned or Lyons pay with his life. Lyons pulled out a knife he’d borrowed in advance from his friend and companion at the bar, Henry Crump. Shelton then shot Billy Lyons.
According to a witness, Lyons dropped the hat, at which point Shelton yelled, “Give me my hat, nigga!,” picked it up and walked back to his home on Sixth in “Tamale Town,” gave his gun to his landlady and hit the hay. At 4:00am, Lyons died in the hospital.
Shelton went to trial (twice) and ended up getting sent to Jeff City to serve his 25 year sentence. He was paroled in 1909 but went back two years later after robbing a house and bashing owner William Akins‘s head in with his gun. In 1912, Stagger Lee died in prison of consumption. He’s buried at the Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale.
John Lomax published the first known version of a commemorative song which he was given by Ella Scott Fisher in 1910. Mississippi John Hurt wrote what many consider the definitive version. In 1959, Lloyd Price had a massive #1 hit with his version, recorded the previous year.
It’s also been done by Beck, Bill Haley & His Comets, Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Dr. John, Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Frank Hutchison, Furry Lewis, Huey Lewis and the News, Ike and Tina Turner,James Brown, Johnny Dodds, Ma Rainey, Memphis Slim, Neil Diamond, Nick Cave, Pat Boone,Professor Longhair, Sam the Sham, Sidney Bechet, Snatch and the Poontangs, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Taj Mahal, The Isley Brothers, Tim Hardin, Tom Rush, Wilbert Harrison, Wilson Pickett, Woody Guthrie and many more…
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 Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los 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 Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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