Date: October 16, 1899
Victim: Allen Britt
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Accused: Frankie Baker
"Frankie and Johnny" - Mae West
"Frankie and Albert" - Mississippi John Hurt
"Leaving Home" - Charlie Poole
In his 1927 book Read 'Em and Weep: The Songs You Forgot to Remember, Sigmund Spaeth wrote:
"But everybody that knows anything at all about "Frankie and Johnnie" is likely to have a version of his or her own, and there is nothing so rabid for righteousness, so bristling with self-defense, as the dyed-in-the-wool Frankie-and-Johnnie fan."In the early 20th Century the origin of “Frankie and Johnny” was the subject of heated debate among folklorists. Carl Sandberg claimed the song was widespread before 1888, Leonard Feather said it was sung at the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863, others linked it to Frankie Silver, who was convicted in 1832 of killing her husband. But “Frankie and Johnny” never appeared in print before 1925.
Today there is almost universal agreement that the song is based on the 1899 murder of Allen Britt by Frankie Baker in St. Louis, Missouri. Frankie, in her mid-twenties, was a prostitute, famous in the black “sporting area” of St. Louis, for her beauty and flamboyant elegance. She wore diamond earrings “as big as hen’s eggs.”
Allen Britt was Frankie’s 17-year-old pimp. Britt was well known in St. Louis as a ragtime pianist. The night of October 15, He was playing for a cakewalk at the Phoenix Hotel. Frankie went to the hotel to hear him play and caught him in the hallway making love to an 18-year-old prostitute named Alice Pryar. They began arguing in the street outside the hotel and Frankie begged Allen to come home with her. He refused and she went home alone. Around 3 A.M Allen entered Frankie’s apartment and the fight continued. When he pulled out his knife and started to attack her, Frankie grabbed a pistol she kept under her pillow. She shot him once in the chest.
Allen was taken to the hospital and Frankie was arrested. The police took her to the hospital where Allen identified her as the shooter. Though Allen Britt didn’t die until three days later, the evening of the murder, “barroom bard” Bill Dooley was performing a ballad he wrote called “Frankie Killed Allen.”
Trial: November 13, 1899
In many versions of the songs Frankie is executed, sometimes in the electric chair, but in reality, the coroner's jury called the killing justifiable homicide in self-defense. She was still required to stand trial and on November 13, 1899 she was acquitted by Judge Willis B. Clark.
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