December 25, 1895
On Christmas night, 1895, Billy Lyons came to this location (then 1101 Morgan Street) when it was known as the Bill Curtis Saloon. The establishment had a nasty history of crime associated with it so Billy asked his friend Billy Crump for a weapon to be safe. Crump produced a knife and they entered the saloon. Shortly thereafter, a man named Lee "Stack Lee" Shelton entered the saloon. Shelton was a well-known pimp from the area and was reportedly dressed extravagantly, highlighted by a milk-white Stetson hat on his head. Witnesses say that Shelton asked aloud, "Who's treating?" For some reason or another, someone pointed Lyons way.
Despite what the ballad says, it didn't start with gambling. By all accounts, the conversation was friendly at first. Shelton and Lyons laughed and drank together for some time. Then the conversation turned to politics and the two men began arguing. Suddenly, they took turns trying to strike one another's hats when Shelton grabbed Lyons derby off his head and broke the form. Lyons demanded money for the broken hat and when Shelton refused, Lyons grabbed the Stetson off of Shelton's head. Shelton demanded it back and Lyons refused. Then Shelton produced a .44 Smith & Wesson and again demanded that Lyons return his hat. Lyons again refused and received a pistol-whip to the head as result. Even then, he still refused to return the hat and Shelton announced that he should return it immediately or he would shoot. At that point Lyons produced the knife his friend had lent him and reportedly said, "You cockeyed son of a bitch, I'm going to make you kill me."
Stagger Lee Shot Billy
The other people in the saloon headed for the doors, save for a few occupants and the bartenders. Those left recounted that Shelton backed up, took aim and fired. Lyons was hit in the abdomen and slumped against the bar, still grasping the hat. One witness reported that Lyons looked like he suddenly became weak and the hat fell out of his hands. Shelton walked over and snatched the hat, put it on his head and then walked calmly out of the bar. Lyons was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died shortly thereafter. Shelton was arrested several hours later for his murder.
Though the crime and the circumstances behind it were hardly unusual for the area, this event would become legend. No one knows quite how the ballad started, or even what the original lyrics were, but the man known as Stack Lee (Stagger Lee, Stag O'Lee, Stagolee, Stack-A-Lee, etc.) would become an African-American icon because of it. Depending on which version you hear, he is either the ultimate hero, the villain, "Poor Stagger Lee", or simply, the baddest man ever to walk this Earth (the original "gangster"). Through countless variations of the events in the saloon that night, Stagger Lee would become one of the most well known American murder ballads ever told.
The Location Today
The Bill Curtis Saloon has long since been torn down. The buildings there today are office buildings that resemble nothing like it would have been in 1895. It is interesting to note that if you stand at the current building and towards the parking lot structure beside it, you can see where the birth of the murder ballad Duncan and Brady took place one block over at the former Starkes' Saloon on 715 N. 11th Street. Several blocks over is the location for the birth (one of the two stories said to have influenced the song) of the murder ballad, Frankie and Johnny.