Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stagger Lee's house

   There are a lot of things said about Lee Shelton. A lot of really sensational things that people made up. That's what being legendary is, I suppose, the made-up stuff is more well known than the real stuff. But Shelton was a real man living in St. Louis around the turn of the century. He wasn't a gang boss, nor involved in prostitution, and he didn't own a nightclub.

  And Lee Shelton never owned a house. He lived by the day or by the month in tenement houses in St. Louis. One such place was 914 North Twelfth street, where he was living in December of 1895. That's the address that the police had for him when they arrested him for the murder of Billy Lyons and that's what the St. Louis Globe Democrat newspaper printed the next day, December 26, 1895.

  But just about everytime someone writes about Shelton's shooting of Lyons they say the house at 911 North Twelfth street is Stagger Lee's house. But that's the wrong address. 

The mistake first appeared around 2002 when someone transcribed the newspaper story into a Usenet posting. The number could be misread as 911, but if you look up the microfilm copy it's obviously 914.

   Then in 2004, a book titled, Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown, used the wrong address from Usenet. Then a comic book titled, Stagger Lee, repeated the error from Brown's book. And since then the wrong address has been reposted too many times to count.*

   The building standing today at 911 N. 12th street looks pretty old, but the 1895 fire insurance map shows that there was no 911 address at that time. Across the street, the even-numbered side, is where the tenement house stood where Lee Shelton had rented a room.

   The song of Stagger Lee is mostly made up by people over the years and that's how it became a great American folktale. And the folktale is an important part of St. Louis' music legacy - a long history of very important contributions to American culture. But sadly, the city has few landmarks left standing to show for it. 

"Ledgendary" shouldn't mean that all the real stuff is gone and only the made-up stuff remains, but sometimes it seems like that's what we're doing.

* (Some repostings on the web of the wrong address found in Brown's book):

A number of published books copied the error including True Crime: Missouri, and Wicked St. Louis,
and the wrong address was repeated by the St Louis Police Veteran's Association:

1 comment:

  1. Great information! I have made this map of addresses from the events that you might like.