This week’s book excerpt is taken from Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired ‘Stagolee,’ ‘John Henry,’ and Other Traditional Folk Songs by Richard Polenberg and published this week by Cornell University Press. The author describes the fascinating historical events behind more than two dozen traditional American songs, including “St. Louis Blues,” from 1914, “Joe Hill,” from 1915, and “House of the Rising Sun,” from the 1930s. Here is part of the saga that began in St. Louis in 1899 when Frankie Baker shot “Johnny” (actually Allen or Albert Britt), a shooting that inspired many versions of the song “Frankie and Johnny.” Polenberg’s book may be purchased at the Cornell University Press site or at major booksellers.
Frankie and Johnny were lovers,
Oh lordy, how they could love
Swore to be true to each other,
Just as true as the stars above
He was her man, but he done her wrong.
At three o’clock in the morning of October 15, 1899, Frankie Baker got into an argument with her boyfriend, Allen Britt. She was twenty-three, and he was seventeen. He threw a lamp at her, took out his knife, and, she later said, “started to cut me.” She was in bed, but she reached for her pistol and shot him. Mortally wounded, he somehow managed to get to his mother’s apartment a short distance away and was taken to the city hospital, where he later died. Accused of murder, Frankie stood trial in St. Louis but pleaded self-defense and was acquitted. Soon thereafter, a song was written about the event, and over the years Allen’s name was turned into “Johnny.” “Frankie and Johnny” became a popular song, and countless versions were eventually recorded. The incident would also find its way into books, plays, radio dramas, and motion pictures.
Frankie was born in St. Louis on May 30, 1876, the only daughter of Cedric and Margaret Baker, who also had three sons, Charles, Arthur, and James. A slender girl, she was just over five feet. When she was old enough to be on her own, she moved to Targee Street, a neighborhood known for its “quiet, respectable homes of substantial Negro folks.” A friend described her as a “nice, Christian woman . . . a clean girl who worked at . . . scrubbing, cleaning, washing and ironing.” But once her name made the newspapers, she was said to be “an ebony-hued cakewalker” who draped herself in silks and flashed diamonds “as big as hens’ eggs.” Later she claimed that when she was sixteen or seventeen, she had been with a man when a “perfumed colored girl broke in on us in the parlor of my home and attacked me” with a knife. Her face was permanently scarred, a “grim reminder of her first experience in the realm of love.”
Her boyfriend, Allen (sometimes called “Albert”) Britt, was born in Kentucky in 1882 and later moved to St. Louis with his parents. His father, George Britt, who had once been a slave in Tennessee and then became a freight handler on a railroad, moved his family—Allen was his only child—to Targee Street, not far from Frankie Baker. His father said that Allen attended Sunday school at a Baptist church: “Leastwise, he tole me and his mother he did. We was strict with that boy. No, suh, we didn’t ’low him to hang ’round no pool halls. He used to stay out all night once in a while. Always said he was a-stayin’ with some other schoolboys. He quit school when he was in the sixth grade and went to work.” Allen was someone “all the girls looked for,” and it appears that Frankie gave him money and clothing—mirror-toed shoes, peg-topped trousers, fancy waist-coats, gaudy neckties—and who knows what else.
Frankie and Johnnie went walking,
John in his brand new suit
Then, “oh good Lawd,” says Frankie,
“Don’t my Johnnie look real cute!”
He was her man, but he done her wrong.
Britt played the piano, but he also played the field. He had been to a cakewalk at a dance hall with eighteen-year-old Alice Pryor, and, it appears, they had won a prize. On the night of October 14 he was performing at the Phoenix Hotel, and Frankie went to hear him. Apparently, she also saw him in the hall making love to that same Alice Pryor (who would come to be known in the song as “Nellie Bly”). Frankie and Britt began to argue. She asked him to come home with her, he refused, and so she went home alone. Later, around three o’clock that night, Britt entered Frankie’s apartment, and they continued to argue.
Years later, Frankie vividly recalled the night. “I jumped up out of bed and says, ‘What’s the matter with you, Al?’ and he says, ‘What the hell are you doing in this bed?’ ” She replied that she was sick, whereupon Britt cursed and then attacked her. She said, “I’m the boss here. I pay the rent and I have to protect myself.” Frankie reported that, as he wielded his knife, “I was standing here. Pillow lays this way. Just run my hand under the pillow and shot him. Didn’t shoot but one time, standing by the bed.” “The bullet entered Britt’s abdomen,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “penetrating the intestines. The woman escaped after the shooting.” But Frankie did not remain at large for long. Britt, who had been taken to the hospital, presumably gave her name to the police. She was brought to his room so he could identify her, and then she was arrested. She later explained: “I felt terrible, of course, but I simply had protected myself. I had nothing to cry about. I didn’t feel smart about it, either. I didn’t go to his funeral because I couldn’t. I was in jail.”
The jail in which she was held was known as the Four Courts. “A magnificent building,” “grand and imposing,” it housed the city courts, the grand jury rooms, the city marshal, the sheriff, and the offices of the prosecuting attorneys. Police headquarters were there, too, and so were the police stables, the dead animal contractor’s office, the coroner’s office, the morgue—and, of course, the jail, which could hold 325 prisoners and was built in a circular form with a large court to afford the prisoners ample room for exercise. There were special rooms of detention for women on the third floor. The gallows were located in an open yard between the jail and the morgue.
Although a coroner’s jury found that Frankie had acted in self-defense, and the slaying therefore could be considered justifiable homicide, she nevertheless went to trial on November 13, 1899, in the court of criminal correction. The judge, Willis Henry Clark, was a Republican who had practiced law for ten years before his appointment to the bench. Frankie pleaded self-defense, claiming, truthfully, that Albert had attacked her with a knife. “You know, I was afraid of Albert,” she recalled. “He beat me unmercifully a few nights before the big blow-off. My eye was festering and sore from that lacin’ when I went before Judge Clark. He noticed it, too.” The judge not only acquitted her, but also apparently returned her gun. “Don’t know what I did with it,” she said. “Guess I pawned it or gave it away. Everybody carried a gun in those days.”
Frankie, however, did not remain in St. Louis for long. She left in 1901, she later said, “to get away from the constant annoyance and humiliation.” First she went to Omaha, Nebraska, but there, too, “I just couldn’t get away from it. . . . It was humiliating and harrying. I just got sick and tired of it. I heard it on the street and I heard it on the phonograph and I heard it on the radio.” So, after visiting Portland, Oregon, in 1913, she decided to settle there, “to seek peace and happiness.” She had read about the roses in the city, she said, and “somehow they meant peace to me.” By the mid-1920s, after some early run-ins with the law, she opened a shoeshine parlor and then began working as a chambermaid at a hotel. Eventually, however, she became ill, required surgery, and by 1935, no longer able to work, lived by herself. Autograph seekers occasionally bothered her, she said, when all she wanted was “an opportunity to live like an ordinary human being. I know I’m black, but even so I have my rights.”
By then, many versions of the song had been published and recorded…
Here’s a final note on the story…
“I’m the one they wrote that song about,” Frankie once said. “They are all making plenty of money out of that song and nobody ever gave me a nickel.” True enough, a great many others—artists and writers, musicians and choreographers, actors and actresses—had profited from a heartbreaking event: a teen-age boy’s life lost and a young woman’s devastated. More than a century has passed since Frankie Baker spied Allen Britt making love to Alice Pryor, began arguing with him, and, fearing for her life, shot him, yet the tragedy still remains compelling:
Frankie heard a rumbling,
away down in the ground
Maybe it was Albert,
where she had shot him down
He was her man, but he done her wrong.
Excerpted from Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired ‘Stagolee,’ ‘John Henry,’ and Other Traditional Folk Songs by Richard Polenberg and published by Cornell University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Cornell University. Published with permission of the publisher.