20 February 2015

He done her wrong

by R.T. Lawton

Well, Valentine's Day has come and gone. I hope you remembered your significant other with at least a card on this special day which is designated for love and lovers. This particular day was also my… uh, let me do some quick math here… oh yeah, my 34th wedding anniversary. I was smart enough to deliberately pick Valentine's Day, a nationally advertised event to assist me in not forgetting when I had to come up with something for my wife in order to show that yes, I did recognize a very important date in our ongoing union.

Relationships between two people are important. And while it is difficult enough to maintain a loving and stable relationship between two people, once you add in a third or a suspected third person, the situation is apt to become deadly serious. No, don't look at me, I'm referring to that old-time, St. Louis couple, Frankie and Johnny. You've all heard the song.

     Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts
     They had a quarrel one day
     Johnny he vowed that he would leave her
     Said he was going away
     He's never coming home,
     etc.

Okay, that's probably not the version you heard; there're several versions out there. Which leads us to the point that the only things to be agreed on by historians is that a man died and he was killed by his significant other. I reiterate my statement about remembering your significant other.

Anyway, if you believe the St. Louis Ledger, Frankie was Frankie Baker, a 22 year-old single female, and Johnny was actually Albert Britt, a 17 year-old youth who sometimes resided with Frankie in her second floor apartment in a boarding house. Well, I could see right off the bat that something was wrong with the situation if Albert was using an alias. I don't know if Albert felt the need to carry a second name because of his secret life on the side, or if it was a ruse to mislead Frankie's landlord that she was keeping house with a juvenile. Love will get you into situations.

The song goes on to say that Johnny was going to leave Frankie after an argument, or that Frankie went out for a beer and caught him with another woman, or that she looked over a transom and saw him loving up the other woman. Pick your version. Other accounts say young Albert was returning from a "cakewalk" where he and a young lady had just won a slow-dancing contest. The other woman in all these scenarios could have been Alice Pryor, or she could have been Nellie Bly. So much for the reliability of witnesses in these matters. However, I do remember the excitement of slow-dancing in my hey-day and I'm sure this would have upset Frankie. Not my slow-dancing, you understand, but rather that done by her man Johnny, or Albert, or whatever his name was, when he was doing it with that other woman whoever she was.

Moving on, the song says Frankie pulled her .44 and shot him five times...or it could have been three times. One sometimes get confused with all the noise and adrenalin. Which brings us back to them reliable witnesses. In the newspaper article, Frankie goes on record as a case of domestic violence, saying that Johnny cut her with his folding knife during their little dust up, so she slid her hand under her pillow, drew out her gun and shot him ONCE with her shiny, silver-plated .32. Okay, while I was admittedly not at the scene on October 15, 1899 at 3:30 AM, I'm gonna jump in here anyway. I've seen a photo of Frankie and she is not a muscle-bound female, so if she's pulling the trigger on a .44 revolver, then the recoil is going to knock her hand back and up after every shot, requiring a certain amount of time to reacquire the target before her next shot. There would not be any of that alleged "root-e-toot-toot" shooting going on. Not three times, and surely not five times. Besides, there was an alleged eye-witness, Pansy Marvin, who claimed to have seen the whole thing, thus backing up Frankie's version of the situation.

Johnny said to roll him over, and then died on the spot, whereas Albert took one round to the abdomen, said, "You have me," whatever the hell that meant, went to the hospital and expired four days later. Frankie beat the rap at trial, spent the rest of her life being pointed out in public as "that woman," even though she changed cities several times. She filed a defamation suit against Republic Pictures for their 1938 movie Frankie and Johnny, was unsuccessful in the lawsuit, and later died in a state hospital for the insane on January 19, 1950, in Pendleton, Oregon.

So what did we learn from all this?

First, don't be caught out with any hot young thing going by the name of Alice Pryor or Nellie Bly. Second, you may have a sweet tooth for cake, but slow-dancing with another woman at a cakewalk could be hazardous to your health. But mainly, I would say that you should be sure to remember your significant other at all times. Especially if that significant other keeps a shiny pistol under her pillow.

I remembered. How about you?

6 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Frankie and Johnny was one of the earliest bluesy pieces I learned to play on a muted trumpet. I didn't realize there was a real-life couple behind the song! Thanks, RT!

janice Law said...

And if you must be reckless and get caught, try to have a super tune for the ballad!

Melodie Campbell said...

Fun post, that has given me an idea for another post (smile - thanks, RT!)

Robert Lopresti said...

Good work. Funny that you approached this (tongue in cheek) from a lawman's perspective, while i see it as a songwriter. Johnny was not an alias; the songwriter just dcided Johnny was better to sing than Albert. Ditto Nelly Bly.

Robert Lopresti said...

I just remembered that i wrote abiut this song briefly at Criminal Brief. http://criminalbrief.com/?p=145. In it I mention that Carl Sandburg argued that the song is based on material from well before 1899. So maybe the murder was based on the song.

David Dean said...

The .32 makes more sense to me, as well, R.T. Besides, if she had shot him with a .44 at close range, I doubt he would have lived for several days after.

The general public would be surprised, I suspect, at how often the female is the aggressor in domestic violence situations. During my career I found it unusual, but not rare.