Stagger Lee: A Most Famous Christmas Killing

19 Dec

A Most Famous Christmas Killing: Stagger Lee Shoots Billy and an Iconic Song is Born

The night was clear and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down

I was standing on the corner when I heard my bulldog 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 seven, Billy swore that he threw eight
Stagger Lee told Billy, “I can’t let you go with that”
“You have won all my money and my brand new stetson hat”
Stagger Lee started off goin’ down that railroad track
He said “I can’t get you Billy but don’t be here when I come back”
Stagger Lee went home and he got his fourty-four
Said “I’m goin’ to the barroom just to pay that debt I owe”
Stagger Lee went to the barroom and he stood across the barroom door
He said “Nobody move” and he pulled his fourty-four
Stagger Lee shot Billy, oh he shot that poor boy so bad
Till the bullet came through Billy and it broke the bartender’s glass.



Lordy, what a great song. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve listen to it or played it on the guitar. It just never gets old.

You have to admit, the words are intriguing. Who the heck is Stagger Lee? And Billy? And did Lee kill Billy over a hat and some cash? Does this song have any basis in reality?

You bet.

Some say it was Christmas Eve, others say Christmas Day, but most all agree it was 1895, that the events that spawned an iconic American song went down. So did young Billy Lyon who was shot and killed by Lee Shelton, a cab driver and pimp who went by the moniker Stag Lee, or Stack Lee, the story has many iterations. Apparently they had been drinking, gambling, and arguing politics, and of course the money on the table and the turn of the dice. Alcohol, gambling, and guns make a toxic mix.

Stag Lee apparently shot Billy in the stomach, took his hat, and walked away. He was quickly arrested, and then tried, convicted, and sent to prison where he died in 1912. There was nothing special about this murder, just another shooting on the mean streets of St. Louis’s tenderloin district, but it was the stimulus for many songs that recounted the events of that day. A song that is truly iconic in the history of the blues and rock and roll.

I bet you can hear it in your head right now.

The song has been recorded under many names: Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stack O’Lee, Stack-a-Lee, and the list goes on. It is estimated that over 400 versions have been recorded over the last century, each with its own take on the story.

The version that most people know is the 1959 recording by Lloyd Price, which contrasts starkly with the version recorded by the great Mississippi John Hurt in 1928. It has also been recorded by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Johnny Otis, The Grateful Dead, RL Burnside, Keb Mo, and many others.



Mississippi John Hurt


Lloyd Price

Want to know more? Here are a few links:

Lee Shelton:

Stagger Lee:

Lloyd Price:


Listen to two great versions of this song. You will all remember the Lloyd Price version for sure:

Mississippi John Hurt’s Version:

Lloyd Price’s Version:


Originally Posted on Le Coeur De l’Artiste:



Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Crime Scene


7 responses to “Stagger Lee: A Most Famous Christmas Killing

  1. Richard Mabry

    December 19, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    I never knew the “story behind the story,” nor that the event happened around Christmas. Thanks for filling in the blanks.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      December 19, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      True. Most don’t. Great song and cool history behind it.


  2. M Byerly

    December 19, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Most people don’t realize that songs were the means to remember as well as sensationalize horrifying events before the modern day. “Tom Dooley” was about one such murder, and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” about a man who murdered his wife and six kids on Christmas is another. Both from my neck of the woods in North Carolina. The Wikipedia article on “Murder of the Lawson Family” has a link to the most famous song about the family murder.


  3. Molly Weston

    December 20, 2016 at 8:41 am

    I, too, love this song and I’m always glad to learn the history behind any song. Thanks for posting! My favorite is by Pat Boone, but I always sing along with Lloyd Price, too.


  4. Julia Buckey

    January 2, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Very interesting! I never even heard of this song (or the man) until I read August Wilson’s THE PIANO LESSON, in which it is referenced. Great background information.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 2, 2017 at 11:04 am

      Stagger Lee is part of rock and blues history–and one of my favorite all time songs.


  5. Alice Duncan

    December 23, 2017 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for posting this! I’ve always loved the song, but I had no idea it was based on a true story!



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