06 March 2015

Life to Art and Almost Back


by R.T. Lawton

Life and art, sometimes one imitates the other.

St. Louis 1895

It was Christmas night. Two friends, Lee Shelton and William "Billy" Lyons were drinking in Bill Curtis's saloon down at 11th and Morgan Streets. Shelton, known by his nickname of Stag Lee or Stagger Lee, was a flashy pimp, part of a group of pimps called The Macks. He also worked as a carriage driver, was the Captain of the disreputable 400 Club and a political organizer for the Democrats. Billy Lyons worked as a levee hand, was part of the St. Louis criminal underworld and was a political organizer for the Republican Party. After several drinks, the two men began to argue. Some say it was over a gambling situation, some say it was politics and others say it had to do with the Stetson hat Stagger Lee was wearing.

Stagger Lee (#1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959)
   ~first written lyrics appeared in 1912

     The night was clear and the moon was yellow
     And the leaves came tumbling down

     I was standing on the corner when I heard my bulldog bark
     He was barkin' at two men who were gamblin' in the dark
     It was Stagger Lee and Billy, two men who gambled late
     Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight
     .........

Kansas City 1973

Twin was standing on the corner with a small group of street gangsters in a bad part of Kansas City on the Missouri side. They were throwing dice for money when an old friend, Thomas, decided to join the group. Thomas was one of our informants against the heroin trade. He had already testified in federal grand jury for a second wave of indictments and was now working on his third wave of smack dealers. We'd arrested the first two groups of dealers and some of them had gotten out on bond. By now, everyone knew Thomas was our snitch, but he was slick enough to make them believe that was "then," in order for him to stay out of jail, and this was now. Supposedly, he was finished with working for the man and had returned to his old ways of dealing smack. Could have sold sand to an Arab.

Meanwhile, being involved in prostitution, gambling, dope dealing and bank robbery, Twin was a hard-core member of the old Black Mafia, as was his recently incarcerated brother with the nickname of Twin Brother. They'd both been involved in a bank robbery, but Twin Brother volunteered to take the fall, leaving Twin out on the streets to make some money for their future. However on this night, the dice were running against Twin and he was in a bad mood. Some say a killing mood.

                                                                          #

St. Louis  1895

The story on Stagger Lee and Billy was first covered by The St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Allegedly, when Stagger Lee and Billy got into their argument, Billy grabbed Lee's Stetson hat and refused to give it back. It's also possible there was some mutual hat bashing between the two. In any case, Stagger Lee became enraged, pulled his .44 and shot Billy in the gut. He then calmly picked up his hat and left. Billy was taken to the Dispensary where his wounds were pronounced as serious and he expired shortly afterward.

Stagger Lee

     Stagger Lee told Billy, "I can't let you go with that"
     "You done won all my money and my brand new Stetson hat"
     Stagger Lee went home and he got his forty-four
     Said, "I'm goin' to the barroom just to pay the debt I owe"
     Stagger Lee went to the barroom and he stood across the barroom door
     He said, "Nobody move" and he pulled his forty-four

           *                     *                     *                    *

     Stagger Lee shot Billy, oh he shot that poor boy so bad
     'Til the bullet went through Billy and it broke the bartender's glass

Kansas City 1973

Back on the street corner, Twin's mood was dark and getting darker. With the dice running Thomas's way, he kept on taking what little money Twin had left. The other gangsters, glad to have someone else as the object of Twin's wrath, slowly backed away until it was only Twin and Thomas in the game. Both men were wearing their pimp Stetsons. Twin angrily accused Thomas of cheating. Thomas loudly denied it as he reached for the money lying on the sidewalk. Twin drew his pistol and aimed at Thomas's face. Still bent over to get the money, Thomas reacted with exaggerated street cool and did the one thing that saved his life. He thrust his index fingers into his ears and screwed up his face as if the loudness of the gun going off would hurt his eardrums. Twin broke up laughing and the crisis passed.

                                                                  #

St. Louis  1895 - 1912 The Aftermath

Stagger Lee was arrested, bond set at $4,000 and a grand jury subsequently indicted him for first degree murder. Six months later, pawnbroker Morris H. Smit paid a $3,000 bond and Lee was released. At a July 18th trial, the jury came back with a split decision. Seven voted for second degree murder, two for manslaughter and three for acquittal. In August of 1897, Lee's successful attorney, a morphine addict, died after a drinking binge. Six weeks later during a retrial with a different defense attorney, Lee was quickly found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in the notorious Jefferson Prison in Jeff City, Missouri. The governor saw fit to pardon Lee in 1909, but the die was cast. After two years of freedom, Stag Lee committed a fatal home invasion and got sent back to Jeff City. The governor pardoned him again, but it was too late. This time, Lee left his prison cell in a casket.

Kansas City  1973 Aftermath

Twin went off to federal prison for delivering a quantity of cocaine to a house where my partner and I met him at the door. Happened that a different informant had made a phone call and ordered up the coke. Twin's luck ran bad again.

Thomas went on to be shot a couple of times by his cousin while they were standing on opposite sides of the cousin's screen door. Seems Thomas was upset that his cousin was poaching on Thomas's woman. Thomas, decked out in his best pimp Stetson, showed up on the cement porch and banged on the door. His cousin, whose repose was rudely interrupted that early morning by the loud banging, was clad only in his black, silk boxer shorts during the time that the two men blew holes at each other through the screen. Both combatants came up ventilated, but went on to survive the experience.

Life and Art

Shortly after the latter incident, I left KC for another post of duty. Never did hear what finally happened to Twin and Thomas, though I expect with their life style, sooner or later they were going to come up short.

However, I did wonder about one set of circumstances. If Twin had shot and killed Thomas that night on the street corner, would Twin have ended up with his own folk song? He was already a legend in the criminal world. So, would some blues writer have felt the urge to compose a parallel to the popular Stagger Lee ballad?

Guess we'll never know.

7 comments:

DoolinDalton said...

Great post, R.T.! I had no idea about the origin of the song!

Brian

Robert Lopresti said...

Lovely column. My favorite version of the song may be "Mrs DeLion's Lament," which I believe was a reworking by the great David Bromberg.

Hey R.T. Congrats on having the cover story in AHMM in May!

David Dean said...

Great post, R.T., and let me add my congrats to Rob's on the AHMM cover story.

Dale Andrews said...

Congrats also from here, and a very interesting post.

St. Louis was my childhood home. It is always sort of amazing how many songs arose out of downtown St. Louis. But the city's historic claims to nefarious fame are not only musical. The first day of law school my torts professor began the class with the following factoid: In the late 1800s, at a time when there were only three automobiles known to exist in the continental United States, two of them managed to collide in downtown St. Louis.

Eve Fisher said...

Congratulations, Rob! And I'm so glad to know a fellow David Bromberg fan.

R.T., I'm always fascinated by how songs get going and how they keep going. Stagger Lee... who knew it was real?

Leigh Lundin said...

I'm impressed, RT. Great article and juxtaposition. And Dale's comment makes me grin.

Julia Bauwin said...

Great post and I loved Ground Hog Day in AHMM.