This article was written and kindly submitted by Bear Rasmuson.
You’ve all heard at least two of the songs (maybe not the third), but did you know they were based on historical incidents? Over the next few days, I’ll bring you the stories behind the songs..and the connection they share.
“SHOT IN CURTIS’S PLACE
“William Lyons, 25, coloured, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan streets, by Lee Sheldon, also coloured.
Both parties, it seems, had been drinking, and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen […] When his victim fell to the floor, Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away.
He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.”
– St Louis Globe-Democrat, December 26, 1895.
Yep, the song has its roots in reality, though little of that reality made it into the lyrics as the years went by. The details of what happened are fortunately recorded in the trial transcripts. According to witnesses:
“Soon they began to exchange blows by striking each other’s hats. Shelton grabbed Lyons’ derby and broke the form. Lyons said he wanted ‘six bits’ from Shelton for damaging his derby.“Then Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson. When Shelton demanded it back, Lyons said no. Shelton said he would blow Lyons’ brains out if he didn’t return it. Next, Shelton pulled his .44 Smith & Wesson revolver and hit Lyons in the head with it. Still Lyons would not relinquish the hat. Shelton demanded the Stetson again, saying that if Lyons didn’t give him his hat immediately, he was going to kill him. “Then Lyons reached into his pocket for the knife his friend Crump had given him and approached Shelton saying ‘You cock-eyed son of a bitch, I’m going to make you kill me’. Shelton backed off and took aim. The twenty-five people in the saloon flew for the door. […] Both bartenders later testified to the coroner that they saw Lee Shelton shoot Billy Lyons”
Contrary to the original news report, there is little evidence that Stag and Billy were friends, though they certainly knew each other. Billy was a levee man–a stevedore or longshoreman unloading freight from the riverboats. Stag Lee was a carriage driver, sometime waiter and pimp. And not just any pimp, but a member of the elite fraternity known as “Macks” (And you thought that was a new term?) More importantly, Billy was a Democratic political operative and Stag Lee was a Republican operative. The bar where the killing occurred, Bill Curtis’ Elite Club, was the center of Republican politics in the St. Louis red light district. Billy Lyons was the brother-in-law of Bill Curtis’ main competitor, Henry Bridgewater. Curtis and Bridgewater competed not only for business, but for political power in the black community. What the two men were discussing that night is unknown, but it must have been important to bring Billy Lyons into “enemy territory.” While Lyons was apparently no stranger to violence himself, he was nervous enough to borrow a knife before entering the bar. It seems likely that politics was at the root of the disagreement, and politics would certainly enter into the events that followed.
Stag was arrested at a house he owned a few blocks away. Bail was set at $4,000.00–equal to about $100,000.00 now. Obviously Stag had backing, because the bail was posted promptly and he went free pending trial. The case definitely stirred up the town. The Bridgewater faction turned out 100 people to jeer and boo as Stag was brought in and out of court. Bridgewater also hired and paid an attorney to prosecute. Stag however, had no slouch for a lawyer. Nat Dryden had established his reputation as a criminal lawyer by becoming the first attorney in Missouri to secure the conviction of a white man for killing a black man. Dryden wasn’t without his faults–he was an alcoholic and an opium addict–but his vices didn’t seem to affect his courtroom performance. Stag’s choice of attorney was vindicated when Dryden got a hung jury (Seven of them voted for second-degree murder, two for manslaughter and three for acquittal), but the story wasn’t over yet. The state decided to retry Stag, and he was again held to bail–$3000.00–which again was promptly raised. Unfortunately, Dryden’s lifestyle had finally killed him and with another attorney Stag was convicted. Stag was sent to prison, but was pardoned and released in 1909–by a Democratic Governor, no less. The experience doesn’t seem to have changed his temperment, as he was again arrested and convicted in 1911 of pistol-whipping a man to death during a home invasion robbery. Amazingly, he was in line to be pardoned again in 1912, but died of tuberculosis before he could be released. He was 47 when he died.
For all the outsized reputation and legend surrounding him, Stag apparently wasn’t all that impressive in person. Prison records recorded him as being 5’7″, 140 lbs., with a crossed left eye, “mulatto” complexion and two scars on his left cheek and two on his back.
The songs about Stag probably started within days of the killing. The earliest copyright found for the song is in 1903, but as the story moved into folklore different versions formed, merged and re-formed. Ma Rainey recorded a version in 1925, but it uses the tune and much of the story line from “Frankie and Johnny.” In 1927, Long “Cleve” Reed and Little Harvey Hull released their “Stack 0’Lee Blues” (only one copy remains in existance, valued at over $30,000.00) and in 1928 Mississippi John Hurt released his version. All in all Hurt’s version is closest to the truth, though it still retains the morality play ending with Stag being hanged for his crimes. The version most familiar is Lloyd Price’s 1958 song Staggerlee, which has been covered by numerous artists. This version, which has the characters fighting over a crap game has little to do with the history, but it’s a great tune.
For many reasons, the legend of “Stag” Lee Shelton has lived and grown in the 115 years since he shot Billy Lyons. In the black community, Stag has become a symbol of unnecessary violence to some, and a folk hero to others. Stag’s spiritual descendants today can be found in Gangsta Rap, which celebrates a lifestyle of violence and excess that Lee Shelton would probably have felt right at home with.