Date: December 25, 1895
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Victim: William "Billy" Lyons
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Accused: "Stack" Lee Shelton
"Stack O'Lee Blues" - Mississippi John Hurt
"Staggerlee" - Lloyd Price
Stack Lee Shelton was the owner of a St. Louis saloon/brothel called the Modern Horseshoe Club and was a well-known figure in the black neighborhood of Deep Morgan. He belonged to a class of St. Louis pimps known as the "macks" who were famous for sporting a mode of dress that commanded attention. This is how Cecil Brown, in his book Stagolee Shot Billy, described Stack Lee's entrance to Bill Curtis's Saloon the night of the murder:
"Shelton was dressed in a pair of tailored shoes known as 'St. Louis flats,' with almost no heels and long toes pointing upward. On the top of the toes were tiny mirrors that caught the electric light hanging overhead and sent sparkles upward. A pair of dove colored spats covered Shelton's shoe tops. Gray-striped pants hung over his spats. The flaps of his black box-back coat fell open to reveal an elaborately patterned red velvet vest and a yellow embroidered shirt with a celluloid standing collar that kept his chin high in the air. Knuckle-length sleeve's almost covered the gold rings on his manicured fingers; his left hand clutched the gold head of an ebony walking cane. the other hand took a long cigar out of his mouth. On his head was a high-roller, milk-white Stetson. Along the hatband was an embroidered picture of his favorite girl, Lillie Shelton."
Shelton saw his friend Billy Lyons standing at the bar and joined him for a drink. Lyons worked as a levee hand and did not dress with the flash of the macks. He was not a wealthy man but he was well connected, his sister was married to Henry Bridgewater, one of the richest black men in St. Louis, and a leader in the Republican Party.
Stack Lee Shelton was home sleeping when police came to arrest him. He was released on $4000 bail.
Trial: July 15, 1896
Verdict: Hung Jury
Shelton hired Col. Nat C. Dryden, one of the finest criminal lawyers in St. Louis. The trial opened on July 15, 1896 and lasted two days. Dryden argued that Shelton had killed Lyons in self defense. The jury deliberated for twenty-two hours but could not agree on a verdict. Their final polling had seven jurors for second degree murder, two for manslaughter, and three for acquittal.
Nat Dryden died on August 26, 1897, before Shelton could be retried. Though there is no surviving record of the second trial, it must have happened soon after because on October 7 Stack Lee Shelton began serving a twenty-five year sentence at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
Shelton was paroled on Thanksgiving Day 1909, possibly helped by petitions from influential St. Louis Democrats. But two years later he was back in prison for robbery and assault. He died in prison of tuberculosis on March 11, 1912.
Even before his death, the killer of Billy Lyons, in song and story had morphed into Stagolee, that mythic bad man who would not be refused. Since the murder, the song of Stagolee in all its versions and titles has been recorded at least 285 times. times. Gaslight recommends Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 recording Stack O'Lee, and Lloyd Price's 1959 recording Stagger Lee
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