The historical “Stagger Lee” was Lee Shelton, an African-American pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed “Stag Lee” or “Stack Lee”, with a variety of explanations being given for the moniker: he was given the nickname because he ‘went “stag”‘, meaning he was without friends; he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called “Stack Lee”; or, according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the Stack Lee, which was known for its on-board prostitution. He was well known locally as one of the “Macks”, a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black “Four Hundred Club”, a social club with a dubious reputation.
On Christmas night in 1895, Shelton and his acquaintance William “Billy” Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis’ underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. Eventually, the two men got into a dispute, during which Lyons took Shelton’s Stetson hat. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died of his injuries, and Shelton was charged, tried and convicted of the murder in 1897. He was pardoned in 1909, but returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery, and died in incarceration in 1912.
The crime quickly entered into American folklore and became the subject of song as well as folktales and toasts. The song’s title comes from Shelton’s nickname, “Stag Lee” or “Stack Lee”. The name was quickly corrupted in the folk tradition; early versions were called “Stack-a-Lee” and “Stacker Lee”; “Stagolee” and “Stagger Lee” also became common. Other recorded variants include “Stackerlee”, “Stack O’Lee”, “Stackolee”, “Stackalee”, “Stagerlee”, and “Stagalee”
From The St. Louis Globe Democrat, December 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. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee”