Arch Madness

A rough guide to St. Louis

Listerine's birthplace, on Locust Street.

Make a U-turn and come back across the Eads into downtown. On a clear day, a view of the Arch and its grounds from the bridge is dazzling. Before making the colossal -- and some say catastrophic -- decision to bulldoze the central riverfront's buildings and replace them with the monument and park, the area housed a tenement and warehouse district that spread goods throughout the country. Globe Pickle neighbored Columbia Incandescent Lamp, which was down the street from Mound City Wood Novelties, Trask Fish Company and St. Louis Candy. There were few empty lots.

Dan Zettwoch
Dan Zettwoch

Nestled at the west end of this neighborhood, at 307 Locust Street, an antiseptic was born in 1881 in the rear end of an old cigar factory. Dr. Joseph Lawrence, publisher of a medical journal, concocted what became known as Listerine. He sold the recipe to Lambert Pharmaceuticals, and a mint was made. Now the lab is home to a parking lot.

Fun fact: Listerine wasn't initially conceived to combat bad breath. According to a 1908 medical study called "The Inhibitory Action of Listerine," the antiseptic was used to kill germs in many different orifices, "especially as a purifying and healing agent in inflammations and ulcerations about the genitals." Ouch!

Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons, Eleventh Street and Convention Center Plaza.

On Christmas night 110 years ago at Bill Curtis' saloon, a pimp named "Stack" Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons. The fight began when Lee and Lyons, both drunk, started arguing over politics. Shelton grabbed Billy's derby and smashed it. Lyons then snatched Shelton's hat and demanded restitution. Shelton pulled out his .44. "Give me my hat, nigger!" he screamed before gunning down Billy Lyons. He picked up his hat and walked out.

Within ten years, the crime evolved into one of the most recorded songs in history. "Stack" had morphed into "Stagger," and the song became "Stagger Lee." Over the course of the next century, the murder became an archetypal legend. Mississippi John Hurt sang about Stagger. The Clash's "Wrong 'Em Boyo" is based on the song. Lloyd Price made it a hit in 1959. The Grateful Dead sang it, along with Nick Cave, Duke Ellington and Neil Diamond. One Web site identifies 217 different versions of the song.

The saloon and its building have long since vanished, but the spot, a block west of the Edward Jones Dome, still endures its share of turmoil; the St. Louis School Board owns the building. In fact, the sidewalk near the mark where Stagger is said to have pulled the trigger is stained with a splotch of red paint -- or is it blood?

Stagger Lee lived just down the street, at 911 Tucker. Noted photographer Drew Wojchik now owns the building, and he has transformed the former brothel into an art gallery. Wojchik says he doesn't see any ghost-whores or Stagger spirits in the building, "but I'm not receptive to that sort of thing. Maybe if I was more into this kind of music, or knew more about it, I'd see the ghosts. But I don't see anything."

Superman debuts, 420 De Soto Avenue.

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1. It was printed in north St. Louis, down from the Grand Avenue water tower that was designed by Walt Whitman's brother. What has taken the inkshop's place is a prefab garage, seemingly unoccupied. But with a healthy imagination, perhaps you can conjure pallet upon pallet of comics rolling off the presses.

This was World Color Printing, born in St. Louis in 1904 as the official printer for the World's Fair. In the first half of the twentieth century, World Color printed the majority of comic books sold in America; debut issues of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and many others first landed on paper here. The landmark has been demolished.

Other cities are better about preserving their heritage, says Lorin Cuoco, who along with writer William Gass compiled and edited Literary St. Louis. The publication is a fountain of fanciful information, identifying such sites of interest as the homes of William S. Burroughs, Howard Nemerov, Stanley Elkin, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Pulitzer, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin and Irma Rombauer of The Joy of Cooking fame.

"Other cities in other older countries are much better about noting not only their literary history, but their cultural history," says Cuoco. "In France, they put plaques at spots of interest." St. Louis can't seem to demolish these sites fast enough.

The Exorcist at Alexian Brothers Hospital, 4624 Lansdowne Avenue.

In 1949, Satan visited and took possession of the body of a fourteen-year-old boy at Alexian Brothers Hospital in south St. Louis. Once inside, the Dark Master forced the kid to spit across a room with pinpoint accuracy. He wrote expletives in his skin, which rose in bloody welts. The boy convulsed and contorted, moved bookcases across rooms, and propelled vases with his eyes. Satan made the boy howl like a wolf.

The Exorcist was modeled after this young demon. Many doctors and priests -- the last of whom, the Reverend Walter A. Halloran, recently died -- witnessed the possession, and all recounted a similar saga.

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