Crystal Galyean

In Defense of Stagger Lee

Crystal Galyean

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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 Shelton, a carriage driver. Lyons and Shelton 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 Shelton’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Shelton withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Shelton 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. Lee Shelton is also known as ‘Stagger’ Lee.

  -St Louis, Missouri Globe-Democrat, 1895

I have no idea why my story, of all stories, has endured. There wasn’t any fancy gunplay. It wasn’t for the love of a woman. But generations sung of those few minutes until I became, in song, the coldest, baddest man who ever walked this Earth.

In some versions, the police are too scared to come after me. In others, they hang me right off. No trial, no jury. In one record I heard just the other day, my neck is too damn strong for the noose. Another song said I was so bad the flies refused to come about my head in the summertime. Sometimes the shooting happens in Memphis. Other times it’s New Orleans. But it’s the same idea all around. Maybe it’s the joy people get out of saying my name. It does feel good coming off the tongue. Stagger Lee. Or sometimes it’s Stacker Lee or Stagolee or Stack-O-Lee or Stack-a-Lee. It seems as if everyone in the world has put down a word or two about me. Maybe it's my turn.

If this was a tale of cruelty, you would probably be more interested. But it’s not. It's a tale of faith. I don’t expect anyone to believe me. Everybody is too shrewd these days. Men are so scared of infinity they have to contain it in a symbol. Now that's just disrespectful. Because anything worth talking about is not linear. Or finite. But I am getting ahead of myself.

On Christmas Eve 1895, I quarreled with poor Billy Lyons and shot him dead. I liked the man. I even liked how he took a bullet to the gut. He was my friend. The problem is, you don't sacrifice a snake for God. You have to send up a sweet little lamb. Otherwise, it's too easy.

I'll guarantee you, though, that Abraham loved Isaac more than I loved poor Billy. You are familiar with the story aren't you? God tells Abraham to kill his little boy atop Mount Moriah. Abraham gets all set and raises his knife, but an angel stays his hand and says, "Don't you lay a hand on that boy, for now we know you fear the Lord."

Well, on the way to the saloon that night, God spoke to me. The streets were empty and the sun was setting beautiful, burning like fire. As I was walking, I got the premonitions. A carriage swerves on an ice patch, smashing me against brick. The post on the corner explodes, burning cotton fibers from my cap into my head. A tramp wild with wine steps out the alley, slashing me with a box cutter. I saw it all in detail—how I die a hundred deaths.

I can't tell you how God spoke to me, or even what he said. The sky didn't open. No burning bush. Wasn't struck by no lightning. What I can tell you is that when God speaks, he speaks from the inside, from deep in your gut. He doesn't deliver the message. He unwraps it. I fell to my knees, right there on the sidewalk, and I prayed.

When I pulled my pistol on Billy Lyons, I watched the light fade from his eyes. I did pick my Stetson up off his body, like the songs say, though putting it back on my head made me my stomach turn. But it wasn't sin, not in your narrow sense. The true definition of faith, mydefinition of faith, opens up all kinds of possibility. It demands the eternal. It demands intimacy with God. It demands you love yourself.

Of course, there are differences between old Abraham and me. Had Abraham killed Isaac, his people would have shunned him. Myself, I had no one to betray. But Abraham went home to his wife while this cell suffocates me still. Why didn’t an angel stop my trigger finger? What did I do wrong? Before I killed Billy, we did argue, it's true. I did feel anger boil my blood. Maybe that's why no angel came. If I could only go back, I would do it again, but with a peaceful heart. But I tell you that killing was no sin.

Like Abraham, I am an old man. But nobody, least of all those singing their songs, seems to notice that I’m not gone yet. Sometimes I feel that every time my story is told, I am resurrected, to explain myself all over again. Maybe if you all could find something else to sing, I could go in peace.

Like I said, I have lived a long time—much longer than my sentence, long enough to see two centuries turn. The guards say I am someone else, that I'm not Stagger Lee. But I am. I’m also Stack-O-Lee, Stacker Lee and Stagolee, and no one can take credit for what I have done. 

Crystal Galyean

Crystal Galyean is a writer, editor, and historian based in New Jersey. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, FiveQuarterly, Fiddleblack, Expound, decomP, HeadStuff, and the Village Voice, among others. You can find her work at or follow her @CNGalyean.