Monday, November 2, 2009

That Bad Man Stagolee

The story of Stagolee has been sung by troubadours for more than a hundred years. Each singer seems to know a different version and tell a different story of its origin. Under a variety of names - Stagolee, Staggerlee, Stack O' Lee, Stack O' Dollars - this outlaw has become an American legend and an archetype of African-American folklore. But his story is true. When Stack Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons, in a fight over a Stetson hat, in Bill Curtis's Saloon, on Christmas night 1895, the legend was born.

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 and Billy Lyons drank and talked amiably most of the evening, but when the discussion turned to politics the exchange became heated. Billy was a Republican like his brother-in-law, Stack Lee was aligned with a growing faction of black St. Louis Democrats. Shelton grabbed Lyon's derby hat and broke the form. Lyons demanded six bits from Shelton to replace it. When Shelton refused, Lyon's grabbed Shelton's Stetson hat. Shelton drew his .44 Smith and Wesson and the saloon patrons scattered. He threatened to blow out Lyons' brains if he did not return the hat.

Lyons called his bluff, pulled out his knife saying, "You cockeyed son of a bitch, I'm going to make you kill me."

But Shelton wasn't bluffing. He shot Billy Lyon's, snatched back his hat and coolly left the saloon.

Billy Lyons was taken to an infirmary, then moved to a hospital where he died at around 4 AM.

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

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century

De Lyons sleeps tonight: Stagger Lee
Stagger Lee / Stag-O-Lee / Stagolee/ Stack-A-Lee / Stack O'Lee

Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy. Harvard University, 2004

McCulloch, Derek. Stagger Lee. Image Comics, 2006.

Gravesite (from Findagrave)
"Stack" Lee Sheldon

Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)
"Billy Lyons and Stack O'Lee"

(and from Harry's Blues Lyrics)
"Stack O Lee Blues"


M. Logan Ham says:
January 9, 2018 at 10:06 AM

just another St. Louis celeb!!!

Unknown says:
October 22, 2019 at 1:02 PM

What's amazing is not just that this story and the songs have survived this long, but they keep getting new versions. The Grateful Dead did one in which Billy Lyons wife goes down to the bar and shoots Stagger Lee in revenge. The Clash did a version blaming Billy for trying to cheat Stagger at dice.

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