Sunday, March 21, 2010

Frankie Baker - "He Done Her Wrong"

“Frankie and Johnny were lovers” – true, they were lovers, but his name was Allen, not Johnny. “He was her man, but he done her wrong.”— more accurately, Frankie Baker was Allen Britt’s woman, but yes, he done her wrong. He was her pimp and he abused her. Frankie caught Allen cheating with Alice Pryar and on October 16, 1899 she shot him – not in a public saloon, but in the bedroom of her St. Louis apartment. They quarreled about Alice Pryar and when he attacked her with a knife, she pulled a pistol from under her pillow. By that evening a local songwriter had composed a ballad that would immortalize the story of Frankie and Al Britt, and provide the framework for a century of misinformation.

Date: October 16, 1899

Location: St. Louis, Missouri 

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.

Verdict:  Not guilty - justifable homicide in self-defense.


As the song grew in popularity, in St. Louis and beyond, it went through a number of changes. First the name Allen Britt became Albert and the title of the song became “Frankie and Albert.” Then Albert was changed to Johnny, possibly at the request of Allen’s parents who were unhappy about their only son being remembered this way, but more likely because singers found the phrase “Frankie and Johnny” more pleasing than “Frankie and Albert.” The name “Alice Pryar” became “Nellie Bly” – more familiar and easier to sing.

As the popularity of the song grew, a number of different versions developed and there have been at least 256 recordings. Popular singers sang the published, somewhat sanitized, version of “Frankie and Johnny.” African American songsters like Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt sang grittier versions and continued to use the title “Frankie and Albert.” White country performers, like Charlie Poole sang another version, the raucous “Leaving Home.”

In St. Louis, people began singing the song when they saw Frankie on the street. A year after the murder she fled to Omaha, Nebraska to escape the humiliation. The song had already arrived in Omaha so she moved again to Portland, Oregon. There she worked as a prostitute and was arrested several times. Around 1925 she gave up prostitution and opened a shoeshine parlor.

In 1935 the movie She Done Him Wrong, starring Mae West and Cary Grant was released and Frankie was hounded again by reporters, autograph seekers, and folks who would stand outside her house and gawk. In 1938 Frankie sued Republic Pictures for damages but lost, she couldn’t convince the all-white jury that Mae West’s character was based on her. In 1942 she sued Republic again when they released Frankie and Johnnie staring Helen Morgan. She lost again.

Frankie Baker was later admitted to a mental hospital in Portland where she died in 1952. But her story, though somewhat less than accurate, will live forever.

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

Wilentz, Sean, and Greil Marcus. The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Wright, John A. DISCOVERING AFRICAN-AMERICAN ST. LOUIS: A GUIDE TO HISTORIC SITES Saint Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 2002.

Spaeth, Sigmund Gottfried.Read 'Em and Weep: The Songs You Forgot to Remember New York: Doubleday, Page & company, 1926

Gravesite (from Findagrave)

Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)


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