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Most “Boomers” will recall the big hit Lloyd Price had with Stagger Lee back in the 60’s but few probably know that there is a true story of Victorian crime connected to the pop tune. St. Louis, Missouri was the place where Stack Lee Shelton and Billy Lyons had some kind of disagreement on Christmas night- whether over gambling, politics, or a woman, is not clear. The final insult came when Billy took Stack’s fine Stetson hat, and Stack pulled out his gun and shot Billy dead on the spot in a bar room.

Stack Shelton did time for the murder, ultimately dying in prison of tuberculosis in 1912.  Their story has been immortalized in song in many versions over the years.  Thanks to Murder by Gaslight for shining a  light on this case. For much more about the details visit their link at http://murderbygasslight.blogspot.com/2009/09/staggerlee_05.html

Lyrics to the Lloyd Price version

The night was clear, and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumblin’ down
. . .

I was standin’ on the corner
When I heard my bull dog bark.
He was barkin’ at the two men
Who were gamblin’ in the dark.

It was Stagger Lee and Billy,
Two men who gambled late.
Stagger Lee threw a seven,
Billy swore that he threw eight.

“Stagger Lee,” said Billy,
“I can’t let you go with that.
“You have won all my money,
“And my brand-new Stetson hat.”

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his .44.
He said, “I’m goin’ to the ballroom
“Just to pay that debt I owe.”

(bridge)
Go, Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee went to the ballroom
And he strolled across the ballroom floor.
He said “You did me wrong, Billy.”
And he pulled his .44.

“Stagger Lee,” said Billy,
“Oh, please don’t take my life!
“I’ve got three hungry children,
“And a very sickly wife.”

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so hard
That a bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender’s bar.