You’re a Bad Man, Stagger Lee

Dec
04
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stagger-lee

On Christmas Day, 1895, Billy Lyons took St. Louis pimp Lee Shelton’s Stetson hat. In return, Shelton shot Lyons, took his hat back and walked away. The event was commemorated in a popular murder ballad that took Shelton’s nickname, “Stagger Lee.”

It was Stagger Lee and Billy

Two men who gambled late

Stagger Lee threw seven

Billy swore that he threw eight

The murder had overtones that ran deeper than a game of craps gone wrong. The shooting happened in the Bill Curtis Bar in the Deep Morgan vice district. The bar was a Democratic hangout. Shelton was the president of a local 400 Club, a social organization that he used both as a pimp and to solicit Democratic votes. The Bill Curtis Bar maintained a rivalry with a bar owned by Henry Bridgewater. Bridgewater was a St. Louis Republican and Lyon’s brother-in-law. By entering the Bill Curtis Bar, Lyons was on shaky ground.

Shelton and Lee had a friendly history, but three years prior, in 1892, Lyons’ stepbrother Charles Brown killed Shelton’s friend Harry Wilson in Bridgewater’s bar. On the fatal Christmas Day, Lyons arrived first. Shelton brashly entered with a call of “Who’s treating?” The two men drank and talked, but the discussion became heated when the discussion turned to politics.

Stagger Lee told Billy

I can’t let you go with that

You have won all my money

And my brand new Stetson hat

They scuffled and Shelton broke Lyons’ derby. Lyons demanded six bits (seventy-five cents) to pay for a new hat. Shelton refused, and Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson in return. Shelton threatened to shoot if he didn’t get the hat back. Shelton continued to refuse. Shelton drew his .44 Smith & Wesson and shot Billy Lyons.

Stagger Lee went home

And he got his forty-four

Said, I’m goin’ to the barroom

Just to pay that debt I owe

Stagger Lee went to the barroom

And he stood across the barroom door

He said, nobody move

And he pulled his forty-four

Stagger Lee, cried Billy

Oh, please don’t take my life

I’ve three little children

And a very sickly wife

Stagger Lee shot Billy

Oh, he shot that poor boy so bad

Till the bullet came through Billy

And it broke the bartender’s glass

Lyons clung to the bar. Shelton snatched the Stetson from the bleeding man’s hand and announced, “I told you to give me my hat!” He strode out of the bar and went home to sleep.

The first Stagger Lee may have been a gadabout named Samuel Stacker Lee. He inherited his wealth from the Lee Steam Line riverboats. Lee Shelton’s nickname seems to have evolved from “Stag Lee” to “Stack Lee.” The earliest evidence of songs came from the August 21, 1897, edition of The Kansas City Leavenworth Herald when it announced that pianist Charlie Lee would be playing Stack-a-Lee variations. The first recording came out in 1923 when Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians released “Stack O’Lee Blues.” Lloyd Price had a 1958 hit with “Stagger Lee,” but it had to be sanitized for a performance on American Bandstand. Hundreds of versions of the tale have been recorded, including the Clash’s take on the Rulers’ “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” and Nick Cave’s profanity-laden version.

 

Billy Lyon’s died at 4am on December 26, 1895. Lee Shelton was convicted, paroled, and convicted again for more crimes. He died in prison on March 11, 1912.

The lyrics above come from Lloyd Price’s original version. More information on Stagger Lee can be found in Unprepared to Die: America’s Greatest Murder Ballads and the True Crime Stories That Inspired Them by Paul Slade (Soundcheck Books, 2015) and Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown (Harvard University Press, 2003).

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Topics: History, Music

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