This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode
Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Merry Christmas to all who are tuning in around the time I am releasing this. I want to start this cold open with a bit of a tale in it’s own right.
Having left this a little late I began to write this episode on the 10th December 2019, not intentional but there is a tale around that date I absolutely must share with you. You see on 10th December 1905, a far more accomplished writer than I will ever be found himself in a vaguely similar situation.
The writer, a man named William Sydney Porter, had quite a life story of his own. From 1891 to 1894 Porter worked as a teller and book keeper at a bank in Austin Texas, till he was accused of embezzlement. He wouldn’t be arrested for the crime till 1895, and at his first opportunity jumped bail and fled to Honduras, where he struck up a friendship with another fugitive; ex lawyer turned train robber, turned – sometime later in his life – silent film actor Al Jennings. While in Honduras Mr Porter wrote a book, and coined the term Banana republic. Porter had hoped his wife, Athol, and daughter Margaret would come and join him and all would live happily ever after– but Athol, suffering from tuberculosis, had become deathly ill. Porter returned to the USA, to be by his wife’s side, and comfort his daughter if the worst happened. Athol died in September 1897, and William was found guilty of embezzling $854.08 and sentenced to five years prison at Ohio Penitentiary- on March 25th 1898.
While locked away he turned to writing short stories, to provide for his daughter. He wrote under a few pseudonyms, but the one which stuck has many possible origins – the most likely tale though – he was reading through the society pages of a newspaper and he just stole some rich guy’s name and threw a single initial in front of it. When he was released from prison William Porter was, though known by his pseudonym, crazy popular, and the New York World – Joseph Pulitzer’s paper – we have mentioned the World in Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln and the blog piece on Nellie Bly – they offer Mr Porter a job. His job, to write a short story every week, without fail. Well this week he is hours from deadline with nothing, sitting in Pete’s Tavern, Manhattan, and drowning his sorrows. Luckily William is one of the world’s great people watchers, and he catches a glimpse of a young, loved up couple.
When I think of this couple my mind takes me to Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer, and Tommy and Gina. They are young, they are poor. They are in love – they will get by. I have to wonder just a little if William cast back to his own experience with the departed Athol, and just how, in hindsight that played for him. Would his own life be different if he had let love, not greed, guide him? Whatever the case three hours later he had his story. The writer of course was one of America’s greatest short story writers, O Henry. The story, The Gift of the Magi – an exquisitely written gem of a tale, and one of the great Christmas tales of all time. If you haven’t read it before I won’t ruin it for you – but I love Jim and Della, the tale’s protagonists – and you should really make the time to read it at some point this season. It will seem real familiar – everyone from Glee, to Sesame Street to Jackie Gleeson’s The Honeymooners has borrowed the premise. O Henry, on the drop of a hat turned out a beautiful, sad, somehow uplifting tale from the working class in the city of four million- giving voice to the often voiceless, dignity to poverty – and reminding us, the reader that if you have your one true love, then nothing else matters.
Meanwhile it is the 11th hour at the beach house – and I am doing what I do best, running the memory banks for the quirky tales often left out of the history books. O Henry wrote a Christmas masterpiece – I’ll be happy with a Gremlins 2, to be honest with you. Join me today folks as I share a short tale from Christmases’ past. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Series 1 Episode 5: Simone’s Christmas Carol.
[Theme Music – Ishtar’s The Enemy Within]
So, the next tale I want to look at today is the way in which Christmas made a legend, a hero for an oppressed people – the kind of man of whom tales would arise of battles against a repressive regime, and even the devil. A man worthy of song. This song, however is not ‘O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining.’ It starts ‘The night was clear, and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.
This tale is set on Christmas day 1895, in St Louis Missouri- a teeming city of around half a million and rapidly growing. From what I have read St Louis seems a rather dynamic, yet bitterly divided city at the time – while Missouri was on the union side of the American Civil war, opinion was strongly divided among pro secessionists often backed by those concerned an abolitionist USA would see the end of their cotton packing industry… and the pro union forces – which included a large number of African Americans in the state who would fight for the union in the war, and a similarly large number of progressive thinkers who had fled Germany in the wake of the year of failed revolutions, 1848. During the early stages of the civil war were two notable incidents, the first was the Camp Jackson affair in March 1861– where a pro union militia led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon arrested a group of pro secessionist troops. While marching them back in, they were met by an angry mob. When Lyon’s men opened fire on the mob, killing at least 28 civilians and injuring dozens more, the subsequent public outcry almost pushed Missouri towards secession. In May 1861 further violence broke out when a group of pro slavery locals attacked the Union 5th Regiment in St Louis, leading to a gunfight where six people were killed. While public shows like this lessened several social history articles record many a family were divided over the civil war, making for some tense dinner table conversations.
Being on the border of union and confederate states St Louis in particular would pick up a great many African American refugees from the civil war, former slaves left homeless and looking for new opportunities. Now being the gateway to the West, a hub where a lot happened, the city was booming post war. It may not surprise you however not all opportunities were open to all. To highlight the segregationist nature of the state – itself a former slave owning state, one only needs look at the education system in St Louis. The first schools for black children were opened in 1820, and promptly burned down. In 1845 the state banned schooling for black children, so a number of brave teachers set up schools on river boats, as the river was a kind of no mans land where legislators would have no say on anything. Educational segregation was still in force at the time this tale was set in. One could also point to the segregation in housing in the area. As ex slaves flooded into the growing city they were blocked from the white neighborhoods, and largely found themselves crammed into the blacks only slums. 85 percent of the black inhabitants were crammed into an area approximately 2 percent the size of the city, and at around the time of this tale the legislators were taking measures to bar black people from living in areas then 75 percent white or higher. separate? Yes. Equal? When is it ever?. St Louis was a place of much discrimination and segregation, where opportunities existed aplenty for a certain sector of the city. It was also a place of racial tensions, and inequality, and rife for it’s own folk hero.
So… it’s Christmas 1895. To borrow again from Mr. Lloyd Price in 1958, rock and roll singer of such songs as Lawdy Miss Clawdy and Personality, the night was clear and the moon was yellow… and the leaves came tumbling down.
On this night, two men were in a heated conversation. Often the legend has it they were shooting dice, though the truth seems they were discussing politics at the Bill Curtis Saloon. One of the men William ‘Billy’ Lyons was a 25 year old levee hand. He worked loading and unloading boats as they came into dock. He was also allegedly a dangerous underworld figure in St Louis. The other man, Lee Shelton, aka Stack Lee, in some tales he was tall – but prison records had him at 5 foot 7… or Stag Lee, because he was always ‘Stag’ perpetually a loner, and eventually ‘Stagger Lee’ – was very much an underworld figure. Though a carriage driver, Stagger Lee was a well known pimp and gambler in the area. Often he would pick up well to do white male passengers and convince them to drop by his club and gambling den The Modern Horseshoe Club, or spend a little time with one of his girls. He was active in two networks. One was the Macks – a group of extravagantly attired pimps. Picture if you will on the night in question Stagger Lee is wearing a black dress coat covering a high collared yellow shirt and patterned red velvet waistcoat. Gray, striped slacks, pointy toed shoes, rings galore on his fingers. A cane with a glistening gold cap on it, and, most importantly to this tale, a white Stetson hat- it’s hatband embroidered with an image of ‘Lillie’ one of his girls. I’m not one to say in 1895 Stagger Lee was the height of sophistication but his bling certainly gave the impression he was doing pretty well for himself.
The other network Lee Shelton belonged to was a sporting club with close ties to the Democratic party, known as the 400 club. The 400 club professed to be established for the betterment of young black men, and had a strict policy governing their members’ morals- yeah I know – Stagger Lee was, according to some sources I’ve read, one time president of the 400 club. At the age of 30 he co-owned a few bars, lived in a large brick house far away from the slums, and was on the way up. In a city full of opportunities, forbidden to most black men, Lee Shelton was willing to climb the crooked ladder to power, influence and prosperity. So what was it that happened?
If you are to go by most of the songs, Lloyd Price’s included, Stagger Lee and Billy were gambling, and Lee lost. Not only did Billy Lyons take his last dollar, but he took his beloved Stetson hat, the very symbol of his prosperity. Lee goes off and gets his revolver and shoots Billy Lyons. You don’t mess with a man’s hat after all. The truth is a little different.
Now the real story is the two men, apparently former friends but now bitter rivals, came across each other at Bill Curtis’ Saloon. They had a few drinks together that night, and talk turned to politics. Now as much as Stagger Lee was a staunch Democrat, Billy Lyons was an equally staunch republican. The two men had been talking and drinking for some time when talk became heated. Lee was the first to lose his temper, denting Billy’s hat, a derby. Billy responded by grabbing Lee’s Stetson off his head. Lee pulled his 44 caliber Smith and Wesson and demanded the return of his hat. Lyons pulled out a knife saying quote
“I’m going to make you kill me”.
Lee first pistol whipped Billy with the butt of his gun, and when that had no great effect, he shot Billy in the stomach. Stagger Lee calmly retrieved his hat and walked out of the Saloon. Billy Lyons would die of his wounds the next day. This was one of five murders that day in St Louis, and on the face of it nothing terribly out of the ordinary. Lee was caught, tried, sentenced to 25 years. The authorities let him out in 1909 but he was soon back inside, and would die in prison in 1912 from, the disease of this podcast episode, tuberculosis.
So how the hell does this guy become a folk hero you may ask? We’ll get to that. First, yes, he does become a folk hero.
Within two years of the killing it is noted black workers employed in what can only be described as extractive labour – backbreaking work in the fields for far too little pay like picking cotton- were singing a line holler in honor of Stagger Lee the length of the Mississippi. That year, from Kansas, word of a song on Lee by a “Prof Charlie Lee, the piano thumper” appeared in a local paper. His legend spread via oral tradition, all the way till 1910, when folklore expert and musicologist John Lomax got a written copy of “The Ballad of Stagalee” from a Texan woman named Ella Fisher. Various songs on Lee spread, as did Prison Toasts, poems lionizing the subject for his badassery. In 1923 Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians made the first recording of a Stagger Lee song. They would be one of over 400 acts to record a song about the man. I mention Lloyd Price because of the versions I have heard his would have to be my favourite – but it is also noteworthy because his was the first to go to the top of the charts, hitting number 1 on the Billboard hot 100 in February 1959. It was out over Christmas 1958 but at that point languished around number 51 – and nothing was going to boot …… Alvin and the Chipmunks, from the top spot. In legend Stagger Lee had become an outlaw; all the women wanted him, all the men wanted to be him. He took no crap from nobody, not least of all the white man. He lived by his own credo. He was stylish, cocky, successful. The segregationist rules of the white man meant nothing to him. Tales of Stagger Lee went as far as telling how when he died St Peter turned him away from heaven as they don’t want no gamblers here, so he went down to hell and beat down the devil, proclaiming himself the new boss here. Other tales had him fight a duel with the outlaw Jesse James, gave him the power to transform into animals. One even claimed he caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
When the Blaxploitation films of the 60s and 70s needed a cool, tough, amoral lead or anti-hero the Stagger Lee archetype came to the fore, perhaps the two most famous examples are the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks – John Shaft of 1971’s Shaft, and Youngblood Priest, the pimp and drug dealer gone straight in 1972’s Super Fly. Even pro wrestling borrowed from the archetype – Both Koko B Ware and the Junkyard Dog – two of the biggest stars of the Rock and wrestling era borrowed the Stagger Lee moniker at some point in their career.
But why the hero worship? Well I think it is often fair to say people may not always get the heroes they deserve, but, touch wood – they often get the heroes they need at that time. Those of you who read my blog will have maybe read my piece on Tanna Island in Vanuatu and the cargo cult of John Frum. Now there is an element of magical thinking in the Frum tale, the American soldiers came in with thunder and lightning, flying birds, magical talking boxes, and more importantly cargo – manna from heaven. They needed a savior from the cruel plantation owners, the ships trawling the pacific blackbirding off their men to South American plantations – and the soul destroying, extractive labour they were subjected to. A messianic army officer promising to save them, and to restore life to a golden age of cargo for all must happen – and if it wasn’t going to happen by itself the people would think John Frum into being. Similarly one can imagine the same kinds of thought processes in Czechoslovakia during World War Two. As in the tail end of my podcast on Spring Heeled Jack, the Czechs resurrected the Spring Heeled Jack archetype – particularly the strain that popped up in the Aldershot Barracks incidents – in the character of Perak, a demonic prankster who regularly owned the occupying Nazi soldiers for sheer bedevilment. Similar things could be said for England’s Robin Hood under the evil King John, Switzerland’s William Tell under the thumb of the Holy Roman emperor and it’s cruel administrators like Mr Gessler, Australia’s Ned Kelly- and any number of bank robbers in the Great Depression – Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde… the list could go on for days.
One does not have to imagine too hard how a downtrodden group of people, repressed through various means – centuries of being chattels through to disenfranchisement, discrimination and subsistence wages – might look at the guy who climbed the crooked ladder to prosperity and lives life by his own rules, no matter how bad he is, and see something heroic. Stagger Lee Shelton may have been a pimp and a cold hearted murderer but to many he is the guy who stuck it to the man.
Ok, I did have a plan to tell a couple of short tales but this one did get away from me a little. I’ll save those other tales for later, like a miserly parent who hides Christmas presents in the attic for the kids’ birthdays. Thank you for tuning in (or reading, blog readers). I wish you all peace, love, happiness and all that other good Christmas stuff. On the blog page, http://www.historyandimagination.com I will leave links to Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee and an Amazon link to some O Henry. Season’s Greetings all, I’ll be back on the podcast in a few weeks’ time. I’ll drop a blog post next week. Music by Ishtar, whose first incarnation back in 2001 cut a cover of the Eagles track Please Come Home for Christmas. It has yet to surface, so we’ll lead out with their 2012 demo of ‘Space Radio, as we always do. Enjoy the holiday season.
The Gift of the Magi
by Amazon Digital Services LLC