Cruel Stack O’Lee

I loved Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues long before I knew it was based on a real murder.

Click here to listen to Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues!

Police officer, how can it be?
You can arrest everybody
But cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Billy DeLyon told Stack O’ Lee
Please don’t take my life
I got two little babies and a darling loving wife
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

What I care
About your two little babies and your darling loving wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat, I’m bound to take your life
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Boom boom boom boom went that .44
When I spied Billy DeLyon
He was lying down on the floor
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Gentleman of the jury, what you think of that?
Stack O’ Lee killed Billy DeLyon
About a five-dollar Stetson hat
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Standing on the gallows, his head way up high,
At twelve o’clock they killed him
They was all glad to see him die
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

The place was St. Louis, Missouri; the year, 1895. It was Christmas night and the air was frigid but it was warm inside the saloon where ‘Stack’ Lee Shelton was drinking with a friend.

Stack, whose nickname was derived from a riverboat with an unsavory reputation, was a flamboyant dresser and often seen in his white Stetson hat. When he was arrested the next day, Stack identified himself as a carriage driver, but that wasn’t true. He was actually a very successful pimp and a leader in the Democratic party.


Billy Lyons was the man drinking with Stack. Billy came from a well-to-do family and his sister was married to one of the most powerful Republicans in St. Louis. Though Lyons lacked the notorious reputation his companion wore like a crown, he also dabbled in politics. Billy was an organizer for the Republican party.

Around 10 p.m., a political argument sprang up between them. Billy shrieked: “You cock-eyed son of a bitch!” and snatched Stack Lee’s prized Stetson hat.

Stack demanded Billy give the hat back, and Billy refused. Apparently this was all the provocation Stack needed: he calmly drew a revolver from his waistcoat and fired, hitting Billy Lyons in the abdomen. The younger man staggered for a moment before dropping to the floor.

Stack took a few steps to the place where Billy lay gasping on the floor and retrieved his hat. Then he turned and calmly left the saloon. Dozens of onlookers watched the pimp disappear into the night, then they rushed to help Billy Lyons to a nearby infirmary.

The doctor shook his head and pronounced the wound too serious to be treated at an infirmary. Billy was moved to the City Hospital where he died a few hours later. He was 25 years old; his murderer, Stack Lee, was 30.


Stack Lee was arrested the next day and taken to Chestnut Street police station, where he posted $4,000 bail – a princely sum. In February 1896, Stack was indicted for first-degree murder.

The trial was in July.  Stack retained Nathaniel Dryden for his defense. At the time, it was unusual for black defendants to have white lawyers. Dryden was an alcoholic and drug user, but he was not called “the wickedest man in Missouri” for nothing. He knew his stuff.

William Lyons - St Louis City record of deaths

At Stack Lee’s trial, Dryden argued Stack shot Lyons in self-defense, and he was convincing enough to divide the jury. His client would be retried the following year, but he was free for now.

We don’t know if  Dryden celebrated this as an achievement or mourned it as a defeat. Celebrations and self-medications were indistinguishable to the attorney, and a month after the trial ended, the town whispered that Nathaniel Dryden was on another bender.

The attorney had more on his mind than Stack Lee Shelton. Dryden had foolishly left a love letter in his pocket, and his wife discovered it. This revelation led to a chain of events that forced Dryden to admit a secret to his wife and four daughters: a few years earlier, he had made a second secret marriage. He had another wife and children living nearby.

Whatever the reason, Dryden’s last binge proved fatal. He died on August 26.

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

Stack Lee’s troubles weren’t over. He was tried a second time in October 1897, and the jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree. Judge James Winthrow sentenced him to 25 years in Jefferson penitentiary.

When he was pardoned by Governor Folk in 1907, Stack had already served 10 years. You might think that was enough for one lifetime, but Stack didn’t stay out of trouble long. He was robbing a home one night in January 1911 when the home owner unexpectedly awakened. Rather than attempting to flee, Stack assaulted and killed the man. He was convicted of murder a second time and returned to jail in May 1911.

In February 1912, Herbert Hadley, the weak new Republican governor, bowed to pressure exerted by Stack’s friends in the Democratic party and pardoned Lee Shelton.


The grim facade of Jefferson Penitentiary

This time, Stack did not take flight the instant the cage door opened. He was being treated for tuberculosis and was too ill to leave the prison hospital. He died there on March 11, five days shy of his 47th birthday, and was buried in North City.

Local papers did not publish a notice of his death.

Click here to listen to Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues

One thought on “Cruel Stack O’Lee

  1. Pingback: Mysterious, Imperfect, and Fascinating: the American Murder Ballad – Old Spirituals

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