Stagger Lee

Originally posted 12/17/2010.

From the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Dec. 26th, 1895:

William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, 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, a carriage driver.

“Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. 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. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away….

“Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.”



My childhood neighbor
was a fine painter
who painted nothing
but landscapes and barrooms.
In every landscape there was a stream,
in every barroom there was a hat,
in every painting there was a figure
with its back turned,
facing a corner
or a hanging tree.

One night he got drunk,
started screaming about the President,
and shot all his canvases
with a 12-gauge.

no cop gunned him down, 
and he was singing “Stagger Lee”
when they shoved him hard 
into the cruiser.


On Christmas Night, 1895, in a St. Louis bar,
Billy Lyons and Stag Lee
were arguing over politics.
Billy fell gut shot by Stag,
eventually died, and
they put themselves on the hit parade

There was rumor back then that Stag
was a sheriff’s bastard son
and no one dared touch him.
It was a fact that he was a Black man
but a myth that he got away with murder —

he went to jail
but didn’t swing,
didn’t die for it before arrest,
or before a judge could have his say.


The moon was yellow,
the leaves came tumbling down.

I remember hearing
my neighbor call out,
you son of a bitch,
keep your hands off
my damn hat,”

and thought I saw
a lean ghost in the shadows
making sure
the man was safe before

he coolly walked away
humming that sacred song.


About Tony Brown

A poet with a history in slam, lots of publications; my personal poetry and a little bit of daily life and opinions. Read the page called "About..." for the details. View all posts by Tony Brown

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