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M-384: St. Louis Ballads Collection


St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
St. Louis Ballads Collection
Date [inclusive]
0.5 Linear feet One clamshell archival box
Mixed materials [Box]
Box 1
The St Louis Ballads Collection has assembled documents related to events in St Louis that were later set down and sung as popular ballads. The bulk of official records relates to "Stagger Lee" and its real-life hero, Lee Shelton. Some material about "Frankie and Johnnie" also appears. Some folders contain material for which no link can be seen with any ballad.

Preferred Citation note

The preferred citation for this collection is "From the collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri - St. Louis."

Scope and Contents note

About 80 percent of the St Louis Ballads Collection pertains to the short life of Lee Shelton, whose nickname was "Stack Lee," comparing his height to that of the smokestack of the steamboat Robert E Lee. In the oral tradition, Stack Lee transformed into Stagger Lee, Stack O' Lee, even Stoge Lee or Stag O' Lee. Occasionally official prison records refer to Shelton by one of the nicknames.

Lee was a well-known African-American pimp in late 19th-century St Louis. On Christmas Day, 1895, while drinking with friends in Curtis' Saloon, he quarreled with business rival William (Billy) Lyons. Eyewitnesses testified that the disagreement was about a bowler hat. It ended with Lee shooting Lyons, who died during the night at the hospital where he had been taken.

Lyons left behind a wife and three young children. The children were adopted into separate homes to avoid going to an orphanage.

The collection traces all the legal steps required to arrest and convict Lee, many of which are fragile original records. Lee was convicted of murder and sent to prison. He did not do well in prison, constantly rebelling against the rules. But in 1909 friends petitioned for clemency. He was released, but apparently was by now ill. In 1911, he robbed a man called Aikns of $60 and went back to prison. There he was diagnosed with the final stages of TB and died in 1912.

In 1919, Reedy's Mirror printed a long version of "The Ballad of Stagger Lee;" the collection includes an original copy of the issue. An Atlantic Records version of Wilson Pickett singing a later version is also included in the collection.

Regarding the ballad "Frankie and Johnnie," two items appear to be connected with it.

Two prints of onetime St Louis theaters do not appear to have any link to any song. Other items for which links need to be established are records of Charles Stark's court cases, a list of jury clerk's fees, and two sets of photos of unidentified persons.

Arrangement note

The collection is arranged chronologically by date.

Administrative Information

Publication Information

St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections

Thomas Jefferson Library Building
One University Boulevard
St. Louis, Missouri, 63121
(314) 516-7247

Conditions Governing Access note

This collection is open for research. Due to the rare and fragile nature of this resource, use of the collection’s materials must be reviewed by library staff. Please contact the Library at 314-516-7247 for more information.

Conditions Governing Use note

Due to the rare and fragile nature of this resource, use of the collection’s materials must be reviewed by library staff. Please contact the Library at 314-516-7247 for more information.

Copyright Information: The researcher assumes full responsibility for observing all copyright, property, and libel laws as they apply.

Fee Services: Fees associated with staff research time, cost recovery in reproductions processing time and materials, and licensing may apply.

Collection Inventory

 1 Newspaper picture of Standard Theater (reproduction) 1886-03-23 

General note

Old Xerox of newspaper clipping. Also 2 photocopies.

 2 Charles Stark Circuit Court; Court Cases He Handled 1887-04   Fragile. Original document is in six pieces. Photocopy available to researcher.

General note

J. Milton Turner v Charles Starkes. List of Sheriff's fees. One good photocopy. Dated "April Term 1887"

 3 Jury Clerk's Fees 1893-04-11   Fragile original document. Ink, handwritten. Year date has crumbled away, so 1893 is uncertain. Could be 1895 or 1903.

General note

Clerk's Fees and Sheriff's Fees record.

 4 Frankie Baker Death Certificate 1894-12-19 

General note

judging by the date, might be the incorrect Frankie Baker

 5 Billy Lyons Death Certificate 1895-12-25 

General note

Certified copy of death certificate issued during the 20th century by the City of St Louis Bureau of Vital Statistics. Certificate No. 9322 for death of "Male Negro William Lyons" on Dec 25, 1895

 6 Coroner's Inquest for body of William Lyons 1895-12-27   Photocopies of original typescript and handwritten documents that are so old they are fragile in themselves.

General note

Old Xerox of the handwritten attending doctor's account of postmortem of "Lee Stoge" [sic?] who died of hemorrhage at 4 am Dec. 26, 1895. Document dated Dec 27, 1895. WJ Wait, MD, was coroner.

Testimony taken about the fight over a hat at Curtis' Saloon from: Thomas Edward Scott Frank Boyd Officer John Flanigan Officer Falvey George G Mc'Faro L Stevenson Dr. Otto Sutter

Testimonies are old Xeroxes of original typed court transcriptions

 7 Complaint Against Lee Shelton for Murder 1895-12-28 

General note

Old photocopy of criminal complaint dated Dec 28, 1895, for killing William Lyons

 8 Warrant for Arrest of Lee Shelton 1895-12-28   Is original document! Still in good shape, but probably needs a photocopy made for use by researchers. Handle with great care

Other Finding Aids note

Original document dated Dec 28, 1895. "Alias Stack Lee." Charge is Murder 1st Degree

 9 Arraignment of Lee Shelton 1896-04-01   Original fragile document in pieces. Photocopy available for researchers

General note

Original fragile document. Dated Jan 4, 1896. Before Judge David Murphy. Bail set at $4,000

 10 Lee Shelton Bail 1896-01-04   old, fragile photocopy

General note

Photocopy of original cover of the Lee Shelton's indictment, setting bail at $4,000

 11 Lee Shelton Defense Lawyers' Instructions 1896   Fragile handwritten original notes from Shelton's lawyers. Badly needs to be scanned before researchers work with it

General note

Undated, but context puts it into 1896, which was the year of his trial. Original document labeled "State v Stack Lee"

 12 Indictments of Lee Shelton 1897-05-13   Consists of original typescript carbon copy, which is crumbling, and one old photocopy, still in reasonable shape, for use by researchers

General note

Original fragile document, dated May 13, 1897. Original carbon copy signed and annotated indictment of "State of Missouri Against Lee Shelton alias Stack Lee." Also one photocopy

 13 Description of Convict (Lee Shelton) 1897-10-07 

General note

Fragile very old photocopy of original document, also newer photocopy. Dated Oct 7, 1897. Description of Convict form from Missouri State Penitentiary. Shelton whipped three times for persistent craps shooting and theft of a ham. In 1905, confined to solitary.

 14 Charles Stark Circuit Court: Pauline Starkes vs Oliver Starkes 1897-11-15   Fragile original carbon copy of typescript. Also a clear photocopy available for use by researchers

General note

Carbon copy (fragile!) of complaint dated Nov 15, 1897. Also clear photocopy. Unclear why this complaint is included in this collection

 15 Death Certificate No. 2018, for Nat Shelton 

General note

Original typescript of death certificate for one Nat Shelton, died March 20, 1907, of cirrhosis of the liver. Also a photocopy for use by researchers. Why is this document in the collection? Possible father of Lee Shelton? This person born 1840, so it's possible.

 16 Offer of Employment for Lee Shelton 1909-06-17 

General note

Old photocopy, but still in good shape. Letter from William H Fields dated June 17, 1909, offering Lee Shelton employment and noting that Shelton probably had TB

 17 Lee Shelton's Fingerprints 1909-11-24 

General note

Two photocopies of Lee Shelton's fingerprints. Old, but in good shape.

 18 Petition for Clemency for Lee Shelton 1909 

General note

Photocopy of typescript of petition to governor of Missouri, signed by 29 people. No date, but probably some time during 1909.

 19 Complaint Against Lee Shelton, 1911 1911-03-15   Original photocopy, now at least 80 years old, is fragile.

General note

Old photocopy, and four newer ones, of complaint from William Aikns (no 'e' in name) against Lee Shelton for robbery of $60 on Jan 26, 1911. Complaint itself dated March 15, 1911.

 20 Prison Diagnosis of Lee Shelton 1912-01-20   Old, fragile photocopy looks torn from a loose-leaf notebook. Strongly suggest that it's scanned for use by researchers as soon as possible.

General note

Fragile old photocopy of diagnosis of final stages of pulmonary tuberculosis.

 21 Prison Notation of Lee Shelton's Record 1912-03-11 

General note

Two photocopies of Shelton's prison summary. Includes his date of death.

 22 Stack Lee-Prison Record-Entry-Description 1912-03-11 

General note

Original typescript and one photocopy, annotated in red ink. Summarizes Shelton's prison record, commutation of sentence in 1909, return to prison May 7, 1911, and death on March 11, 1912, about 42 years old old.

 23 Reedy's Mirror, 'Ballad of Stacker Lee' 1919-01-03   Magazine originally printed on newspulp; after 97 years, is brown and crumbling. Probably should be handled as little as possible.

General note

Reedy's Mirror magazine printed "The Ballad of Stacker Lee" in ful in its issue dated jan 3, 1919. Additional original letter from Mrs. Pat Pratt of the St. Louis Public Library, dated Sept 7, 1973, gives provenance of the newspaper.

 24 Metropolitan Life Insurance Co letter re Lee Shelton 1973-09-24 

General note

Photocopy of original letter dated Sept 24, 1973, from Fred Kleiman of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to Russ David, saying the company's records for 1912 have been destroyed.

 25 Ellen Harris Article About the Real Frankie's Life 1999-11 

General note

Xerox of St Louis magazine November 1999 issue article titled "They Done Her Wrong," by Ellen Harris. Harris researched the life of the real Frankie Baker, who was the basis of the character Frankie in the song, "Frankie and Johnnie."

 26 Printout From www.staggerlee.com/pgs 2016-01-07 

General note

This printout from a website gives timeline of the murder and song lyrics derived from it. PLEASE NOTE that the dates presented disagree with the original documents.

 27 Photo of Billy Lyons' Three Children No date 

General note

Original photo and two copies of an undated photo of Billy Lyon's three children: Florence, Buddy and Marie. Also signed model releases and notes on the back of the large envelope that stored the pictures. After Billy's murder, the children were adopted into separate homes, to avoid having them go into an orphanage. No. 1 of 5 undated folders

 28 45 RPM record of Wilson Pickett singing 'Stagger Lee' No date 

General note

Vinyl record issued by Atlantic Records. No date. Flip side is 'I'm in Love.' No. 2 of 5 undated folders

 29 Photo of Unknown Lady--Pauline Starkes? No date 

General note

Original undated photo of lady in 19th-century clothing. Three additional photocopies. Envelope it was stored in said, "Starkes Pictures." No date. No. 3 of 5 undated folders

 30 Photo of Unknown Man No date 

General note

Original mid-20th century photo of an unidentified man, four photocopies. Envelope it had been stored in said "Starkes Pictures." No date. No. 4 of 5 undated folders

 31 Print of Pope's Theater No date 

General note

Undated old photocopy, also one newer Xerox, of a print of Pope's Theater. No date, no explanation. No. 5 of 5 undated folders