Stagger Lee

Lee Shelton(1865 – 1912) was a black carriage driver and pimp convicted of murdering William ‘Billy’ Lyons on Christmas night, 1895 in St. Louis. The crime was immortalized in a popular song that has been recorded by numerous artists. Stagger Lee (also ‘Stackalee,’ ‘Stackolee,’ and ‘Stagolee’) ultimately becomes a folk figure of the trickster type as numerous legends accumulated around him. Lee Shelton was not a common pimp, he belonged to a group of pimps known in St. Louis as the ‘Macks.’ The Macks were not just ‘urban strollers'; they presented themselves as objects to be observed. Shelton died in prison in 1912, of tuberculosis. Stagger Lee has become an archetype, the embodiment of a tough black man;one who is sly, streetwise, cool, lawless, amoral, potentially violent, and who defies white authority. Within thirty years of Shelton’s death, Benjamin Botkin records stories of his having been born with a caul (a membrane) over his face (signifying one with the power to see spirits and destined for trouble), or of having sold his soul to the Devil (in exchange for the hat, said to be magic, over which he killed Billy Lyons). Additional legends credit him with the ability to transform himself into animals, of having caused the San Francisco Earthquake, and of having fought a duel with Jesse James.

A story appearing in the ‘St. Louis Globe-Democrat’ in 1895 read: ‘William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, 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, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. 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 withdrew 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.’ Lyons eventually died of his injuries. Shelton was tried, convicted, and served prison time for this crime. This otherwise unremarkable crime is remembered in a song. In some older versions of the song, the name of the other party is given as ‘Billy Deslile’ or ‘De Lion.’

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One Comment to “Stagger Lee”

  1. …and lives on in some really great blues tunes.

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