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).