Original Gangsta

Legendary badass Stagger Lee, hailed in song by musicians everywhere, came to fame right here in St. Louis

The most extensive research was conducted by the late John Russell David in 1976 as part of his doctoral thesis in philosophy at St. Louis University. During his watershed study of the early blues ballad (along with two other famous blues songs that originated in downtown St. Louis in the late 19th century, "Duncan and Brady" and "Frankie and Johnny"), David uncovered countless documents -- the original coroner's report, a transcript of the original inquest, articles from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and more -- confirming St. Louis as the origin of the song and the myth that steamrolled their way across America.

These days, the northwest corner of 11th and Convention -- the exact site of Bill Curtis' saloon -- isn't much. NationsBank has offices there, in a brick box of a building obviously designed in the '60s. Another square building sits across 11th from the

storied corner, and on the other side of Convention Plaza lie parking lots. An American flag flies where I imagine the door to the saloon was; red paint (coincidental -- or not?) is spattered on the sidewalk. Not the locale you'd imagine as ground zero for the myth.

In 1895, though, the area was crammed with buildings -- downtown extended much farther north. Walk directly east 11 blocks along a building-lined corridor (three and four stories, tops -- the 11-story Wainwright Building had been finished just five years earlier), and you'd find yourself on the river, where warehouses and loading docks held merchandise for the entire Midwest. Walk a few blocks north, and two dozen tracks were filled with trains distributing the goods stored in warehouses throughout downtown. These warehouses were owned by companies like Globe Pickle, Columbia Incandescent Lamp, Mound City Wood Novelties, Beckfold Printing & Book Manufacturing and St. Louis Candy. It was in this world that Stack Lee shot Billy Lyons.

David's research turned up the original coroner's report of Billy Lyons and provides an "official" account of a seemingly typical shooting:

"On a 'cold and frosty night' in 1895, St. Louis police officers John Flanigan and A. Falvey were summoned to Central District headquarters. Shortly after 10:00 p.m. a violent brawl and killing involving two Negroes was reported at Bill Curtis' saloon at Eleventh and Morgan streets in the heart of the Bloody Third District. When the officers arrived on the scene, William Lyons, a Negro, was already being rushed to City Hospital. Lyons had been shot by Lee Shelton, alias Stack Lee ... At 4 a.m. on the morning of December 26, 1895, William Lyons died."

The fight, according to David's summary of the inquest held the next day, began when Lee and Lyons argued over politics. Both were drunk. "The quarrel over politics soon turned to an exchange of blows. The two men began striking each other's hats. Lee grabbed Lyons' derby and broke it. In return Lyons grabbed Lee's hat. There is no indication that Stack's hat was a Stetson." The two spit words at each other, Lyons holding Lee's hat while demanding restitution for the broken derby. Apparently Lyons stepped forward and made a motion toward his pocket, and "Shelton retreated a few paces and pulled his forty-four ... As Lyons approached, Stack fired once. The impact of the bullet, fired at close range, carried Lyons back against the railing of the bar. He staggered momentarily, still clutching Lee's hat in his fingers ... As he fell, Lee's hat rolled from his grasp. 'Give me my hat, nigger,' said Stack Lee. He picked up his hat beside Lyons' outstretched hand and walked 'cooly' out of the saloon into the brisk night air."

Lee was arrested the next day, tried and convicted. Released from jail in 1909, he committed a robbery in 1911. He was caught and sent back to jail but was released shortly before his death of tuberculosis in March 1912. During Lee's time in jail, the song turned into a folktale. "Ironically," according to David's dissertation, "the ballad of 'Stagolee' appeared in the Journal of American Folklore over six months before Stack Lee died."

So a song about a murder originated here, in the shadow of the Trans World Dome. Who cares?

In his landmark book Mystery Train:
Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music, Greil Marcus describes the magnetism and importance of the story: "It is a story that black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out, like whites with their Westerns. Locked in the images of a thousand versions of the tale is an archetype that speaks to the fantasies of casual violence and casual sex, lust and hatred, ease and mastery, a fantasy of style and steppin' high. At a deeper level it is a fantasy of no-limits for a people who live within a labyrinth of limits every day of their lives, and who can transgress them only among themselves."

John Wolford, an urban anthropologist with the Missouri Historical Society, echoes Marcus' thoughts: "This happened right after Reconstruction. Blacks felt like they had some rights and privileges that were granted to them by the Constitution, by Congress, legislation. The sorts of tensions and feelings come out in the stories -- it's folklore, and it comes out in how people express these basic cultural attitudes."

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