The location of Lee Shelton's whorehouse is still standing.
William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, 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, also colored. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. 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. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. He was removed to the City Hospital. At the time of the shooting the saloon was crowded with negroes. Sheldon is a carriage driver and lives at 911 North Twelfth Street. 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. Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.
-Saint Louis Globe-Democrat, December 28, 1895
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Lee Shelton (the name had been misspelled in the newspaper), both known as “Stag” and “Stack” Lee. The Bill Curtis Saloon was located in the epicenter of what was then St. Louis’ thriving vice district. The saloon was located at 1101 Morgan Street (now Delmar and at this location, Convention Plaza), at the corner of 13th Street, a few blocks away from a notorious bordello called The Bucket of Blood. Incidentally, this is also just a few blocks from where I work, at 10th and Washington.
Lee Shelton may have earned himself the nickname of “Stag” from his reputation as a pimp and a loner. But there’s also evidence that he called himself “Stack” after the riverboat Stack Lee, part of the Lee Line of riverboats, known as Cecil Brown relates in Stagolee Shot Billy, “…for speed, sumptuous cabins, elaborate cuisine—and prostitution.”
At the bar, Shelton asked “Who’s treating?” Someone pointed to Billy Lyons. Shelton sat at his table, where, according to several witnesses, they drank companionably until the talk turned to politics. They started throwing blows at each other’s hats, Shelton eventually breaking the brim of Lyon’s derby.
In turn, Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson, saying he wouldn’t give it back until Shelton paid him for his damaged hat.
Instead, Shelton pulled a .44 Smith & Wesson revolver, shot Lyons, snatched his hat, and, without a word, walked out of the bar and back to his boarding house on 6th Street. He was arrested early the next morning after police, following a tip, found him asleep in bed.
Billy Lyons died from his wounds, and Stag Lee was put on trial for murder—twice. The first trial ended in a hung jury amidst a lot of political controversy. In the second trial, Shelton was convicted and sentenced to 25 years at the state penitentiary. He was released early, but went right back to a life of crime. He ended up pistol-whipping a thug and was sent right back to prison where he died, at age 46, in 1912.
The story and, subsequently, the song traveled down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, where it took on a life of its own. The scoundrel’s name variously became “Stag” Lee, Stagger Lee, Stag-O-Lee, Stagolee, Stackolee, Stack-A-Lee, and even Stack-O-Dollars, and the song traveled around the country. The words to the song were first published in 1910 by folklorist John Lomax under the title “Stagolee.” In most versions of the song, the dispute involves gambling and the Stetson hat. One of the first recordings was by Frank Hutchison in 1927. Blues singer and guitarist Mississippi John Hurt recorded the song in 1928 under the title “Stack O’Lee Blues.” Stack O’Lee is hanged in Hurt’s version. The tune became well known throughout the South and has been immortalized in song over the last century, performed by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, PJ Proby, Pat Boone, The Grateful Dead, Champion Jack Dupree and Lloyd Price, amongst many others. There are hundreds of different versions of the song, variously called Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stack O’Lee, Stack-a-Lee and several other spellings, sung by musicians as far apart in style as W.C. Handy (“Stack O’Lee”) and The Clash (“Wrong ‘Em Boyo”).
The boarding house at 911 N. 12th Street (now known as Tucker Blvd.), where, according to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat story above, “Stag” Lee Shelton lived, is still standing; it’s the only house remaining on the block (directly across from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building). But, according to Cecil Brown, this was actually the location of Shelton’s “Lid” club (whorehouse), since police arrested him at his residence on 6th Street… but I am not sure if this “Lid” club was the same nightclub as his infamous “Modern Horseshoe Club.” While it once housed a restaurant (the Sommer House) in the early 1990s, it now appears to be a private residence. I snapped the photo above last week.
Lee Shelton is buried in an unmarked grave in Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale, Mo., and William Lyons’ grave is also unmarked. He is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Normandy.
ATTACHED MP3: Stagger Lee Podcast
Featuring the following songs:
Mississippi John Hurt – Stack O’Lee Blues
Lloyd Price – Stagger Lee
Bob Dylan – Stack a Lee
Don & the Goodtimes – Stagger Lee
PJ Proby – Stagger Lee 1965
Bassholes – Stack O Lee
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Stagger Lee
The Clash – Wrong ‘Em Boyo
(A tip of the cap to the Riverfront Times, Harry’s Blues Lyrics Online, Dreamtime Podcast, the Ill Folks blog and Associated Content for information contributing to this article.)