A Six Pack of Stagger Lee

We may earn money or products from the companies mentioned in this post.

This article originally appeared in an old incarnation of The Death Cookie. Since Stag’s hat is one of the items described in American Artifacts, this seemed like a good time to reprint it.

If you’re a music fan (especially a blues fan), there’s a good chance you’ve heard at least a song or two about a man named Stagger Lee, or maybe Stag O’Lee, Stacker Lee, Stack-A-Lee, or any of the many names Stag’s been known to go by. Songs about Stagger Lee have been recorded by over 200 different artists, including Mississippi John Hurt, Lloyd Price, The Grateful Dead, and Nick Cave. The details vary from song to song, but the basic story goes something like this:

Stagger Lee is shooting dice (or sometimes playing cards) with Billy Lyons (sometimes Billy DeLyon, Billy Lyon, Billy the Lion, etc.). Either legitimately or through cheating, Billy wins Stagger Lee’s hat (usually a Stetson). Stagger Lee demands that Billy return the hat, and when Billy refuses Stag draws his gun. Billy (or occasionally Billy’s wife or sister) pleads for his life, reminding Stagger Lee that Billy’s got a family to provide for. Unswayed, Stag blows Billy away, picks up his hat, and leaves the scene. The police, who know of Stag’s reputation as a badman (or, in modern terms, a “Bad Mother Fucker”), are initially afraid to arrest him. Eventually, however, Stag is brought to justice and sentenced to death. Even as he’s about to be hung, Stagger Lee shows no remorse for his cold-blooded murder of Billy. In some accounts, Stag goes on to take over Hell and turn it into his own twisted paradise.

Stagger Lee’s story first appeared in the final years of the 19th century, but the story has been retold, altered, and added to by hundreds of artists. Over the last century, Stagger Lee has gone from evil, cold-blooded murderer to semi-sympathetic tragic figure, become identified with the civil rights movement, hung out with Jesse James, and even picked up a handful of magical powers. In all his forms, Stagger Lee has great potential as a character in a role-playing game, but because of the huge number of variations, it’s hard to pin down a single Stagger Lee. Therefore, in the interest of presenting the most common variations (and in the interest of a snappy title for this article), I’ve come up with six different versions of Stagger Lee that you can use in your games.

The “Real” Stagger Lee

There are a number of possible origins for the Stagger Lee story–the “real” Stagger Lee may have been, among other things, a confederate officer (Stacker Lee), a Memphis man who worked for the Lee Line of boats (owned by the confederate officer’s family; according to some accounts, the Memphis man was the officer’s illegitimate son), or a river boat (the Stacker Lee, owned by the Lee Line and the setting for Edna Ferber’s book Showboat). However, the most likely origin of the tale comes from St. Louis, where a man named “Stag” Lee Shelton (or Sheldon) killed a William Lyons when Lyons grabbed Shelton’s hat during a heated political debate. The sheer number of similarities to the story suggests that this event was the origin of the Stagger Lee legend.

There is one small detail that contradicts the Shelton story, however. A Mississippi bluesman named Charles Hatler claims that he first sang about Stagger Lee in 1895. Since the St. Louis event happened near the end of December that year (the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported the story on December 28), it seems unlikely that news of the event traveled to Mississippi in time for Hatler to write the song. Still, some sources suggest that Shelton had heard the song and took the nickname “Stag” from it to make himself seem more intimidating. However, another bluesman, Will Sparks, says he first heard the Stagger Lee story in a St. Louis labor camp around 1897. Additionally, according to Cecil Brown in his book Stagolee Shot Billy, Shelton was a member of a politically active group of pimps known as “the Stag Party,” and that was the source of his nickname. These facts suggest that Shelton was the original model for Stagger Lee, and that Hatler’s claims were merely an attempt to establish authorship. Even if Stagger Lee previously existed in folklore, the details of Shelton’s murder of Lyons obviously got added to the mix and became an important part of the legend. Therefore, we’ll use Shelton as our historical model for Stagger Lee.

While the newspaper gives a number of details about Shelton, Cecil Brown provides much more detail in his book. According to Brown, Shelton’s job as a carriage driver merely facilitated his real source of income as a pimp and hustler (thus his membership in the “Stag Party”). Though the newspaper article says that the hat incident happened when a political debate got out of hand, Brown says that according to some eyewitnesses the two were indeed playing craps at the time, just like in the song. Brown also points out that the two men were political rivals (Lyons was a member of the Republican party), and that neither was a stranger to violence. One of Brown’s sources said that the real reason Shelton killed Lyons was to avenge the death of a friend, who had been murdered by Lyons’ step-brother.

“Stag” Lee Shelton
Body: 12
Brain: 13
Nerve: 14
Job: Hustler (13)
Gimmick: Allies (Stag Party) (14)
Weakness: Hot-Tempered (14)
Skills: Carriage Driver +3; Politics +2; Firearms +1
H.P.: 12
Yum Yums: 2
Tag Line: “Don’t mess with Stag.”
WWPHITM? Ving Rhames

Stagger Lee, Blues Badman
Nearly all of the early versions of the Stagger Lee story identify him as a badman. In the blues culture of the Jim Crow South, the badman was a ruthless figure who refused to live by society’s rules. He was able to do this because most people, including law enforcement officers, feared him. While his ability to ignore society’s rules (especially where the racist laws of the white man were concerned) earned the badman a certain level or respect, he was not a heroic outlaw figure like Robin Hood or even Jesse James. The badman preyed on his own community (while Billy later became identified as a white man, in early versions both characters in the story are black) and was usually a cold-blooded killer (Stag refuses to let Billy live despite his pleading). Therefore, Stagger Lee in his badman persona is best suited for the villain role in most RPGs.

Stagger Lee
Body: 13
Brain: 11
Nerve: 15
Job: Thug (14)
Gimmick: Reputation (14)
Weakness: Reputation (14)
Skills: Petty Criminal +3; Intimidation +2; Gambling +1
Yum Yums: 2
Tag Line: “I’m the bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee.”
WWPHITM? Samuel L. Jackson

Stagger Lee, Occult Dealmaker
In addition to being an enormous badass, according to some versions of the story Stagger Lee had occult powers. In most versions of the story, these powers were derived from Stag’s Stetson hat, which the Devil had traded him for his soul. According to B.A. Botkin in A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People, the hat was “an oxblood magic hat that folks claim he made from the raw hide of a man-eating panther that the devil had skinned alive.” The hat allowed Stag to do “all kinds of magic and devilish things.” Of course, since this was a deal with the Devil, there was a catch: if Stag ever lost the hat, he would “lose his head, and kill a good citizen, and run right smack into his doom.”

The exact powers of the hat aren’t clear, but according to Mississippi John Hurt, Stag couldn’t be killed while he was wearing the hat, and in another version of the story Stag won’t die when the police attempt to hang him. He just hangs there for an hour, complaining that the rope tickles, until they let him go. Therefore, at the very least the hat seems to make Stag invulnerable. In addition to the curse, Stag’s hat may have other negative side-effects. For example, many versions of the song mention dogs barking when Stagger Lee approaches, which may indicate that the animals can sense Stag’s “taint of evil,” similar to the way they can sense vampires and other unnatural creatures in some stories.

When the magical hat and its curse come into play, Stagger Lee becomes a more tragic and slightly more sympathetic character. His murder of Billy becomes prophecy fulfillment rather than cold-blooded murder. In one version of the story (mentioned in Got The Blues For Mean Old Stack O’ Lee by Max Haymes), Satan actually takes on the appearance of Billy and steals the hat in order to trick Stag into killing Billy, thereby giving up his soul. While Stag’s still ultimately responsible for his own fate, since he’s the one who traded his soul to Satan, this version of the story allows for a more morally ambiguous character.

For our occult version of Stagger Lee, I’ve decided to make him a doomed bluesman instead of a badman who’s dealt with Satan. By not typecasting Stag as a badman, we open the character up to even more moral ambiguity, and hopefully more role-playing possibilities. While the decision has a lot to do with my own fondness for the “cursed bluesman” story of Robert Johnson, it does have some basis in folklore. According to Mississippi John Hurt, “Stack was popular with the women folks cause he could whup the blues on a guitar, and beat out boogie woogie music piano bass and the like of that.”

Stagger Lee
Body: 13
Brain: 12
Nerve: 13
Job: Blues Man (14)
Gimmick: Magical Powers (14)
Weakness: Cursed (14)
Skills: Gambling +3; Ladies’ Man +2; Firearms +1
H.P.: 13Yum Yums: 2
Tag Line: “Watch the hat, ladies.”
WWPHITM? Joe Morton

Stagger Lee, Civil Rights Symbol
The story of Stagger Lee’s transformation from feared badman to positive role model is described in detail in this essay by James P. Hauser. According to Hauser, Stag’s transformation was largely influenced by Lloyd Price’s hit version of the song. In the Price version (based almost directly on a version by Leon T. “Archibald” Gross), Stag’s cruelty and Billy’s begging for his life are downplayed. Perhaps more importantly, in this version Billy wins Stag’s hat through cheating. Stetson hats were popular with black men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, especially early on, symbolized freedom and manhood. In this light, Stagger Lee (the black man) goes from being a simple thug to being a man who is willing to fight and even kill for what is his (the hat, representing freedom) when Billy Lyons (the white man) tries to cheat him out of it.

Whether or not Hauser’s theories about the Price version of the song are correct, Stagger Lee did become identified with the civil rights movement. Black Panther Bobby Seale identified strongly with Stagger Lee, once referring to himself and other black leaders (Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver) as “Stagger Lee figures”–former hoodlums and criminals who used their “badness” to fight white oppression. In his foreword to Seale’s Autobiography, A Lonely Rage, James Baldwin writes, “The beacon lit, for his generation, in 1956, in Montgomery, Alabama, by an anonymous black woman, elicited an answering fire from all the wretched, all over the earth, signaled the beginning of the end of the racial nightmare–for it will end, no lie endures forever–and helped Stagolee, the black folk hero Bobby takes for his model, to achieve his manhood.”

Stagger Lee
Body: 12
Brain: 14
Nerve: 14
Job: Civil Rights Activist (14)
Gimmick: Reputation (14)
Weakness: Reputation (14)
Skills: Reformed Criminal +3; Self-Defense +2; Public Speaking +1
H.P.: 12
Yum Yums: 3
Tag Line: “We must rise up against the oppressors!”
WWPHITM? Denzel Washington

Synchronicity Alert!: Spike Lee’s movie about “Stagger Lee figure” Malcolm X features a scene in which a man steals Malcolm’s hat during an argument at a night club. Spike Lee’s given name is Shelton Lee. Turn it around and you get Lee Shelton, the likely historical basis of the Stagger Lee myth.

Stagger Lee, Gangsta
Stagger Lee has not (at least to my knowledge) been mentioned by name in any rap songs, but he’s still around. The gangsta of rap music is a direct descendent of the badman of the blues. Therefore, it’s relatively easy to transfer Stagger Lee from the Jim Crow South to the modern Inner City.

Stagga Lee
Body: 12
Brain: 13
Nerve: 14
Job: Gangsta (14)
Gimmick: Allies (Gang) (14)
Weakness: Enemies (Police, Rival Gangs) (14)
Skills: Bustin’ Rhymes +3; Intimidation +2; Pop Culture +1
H.P.: 12
Yum Yums: 2
Tag Line: “If you fuck with me, I’ll put my foot in your ass.”

Stagger Lee, Dark Super-Hero
Since pop culture has largely replaced folklore and mythology in today’s culture, it seems like a good idea to let Stagger Lee join all the other characters from those realms who have been reworked into modern super-hero comics. While the traditional Stagger Lee would work nicely as an occult super-villain, it’s a little more challenging (and fun) to try to make him into a full-fledged super-hero.

We’ll start with the “occult” version of Stagger Lee–deal with the Devil, magic hat, etc. We’ll also keep the part about him going to Hell and attempting to take over the place. In our version, however, the Devil evicted Stag before he could turn Hell into his own private playground. Since Stag’s way too much of a bad guy to get into Heaven, he ended up back on earth. Initially, Stag resumed his evil ways, but eventually he got tired of life. Stag decided that the only way he could experience the sweet release of death was if he redeemed himself and was allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In order to redeem himself, Stag has tried to become a force of good in the world, using the magic of his Stetson hat (not to mention that whole “can’t be killed” thing) to fight evil. While Stag’s long life as an evil man (not to mention the Satanic origin of his magical powers) make it hard for him to stay on the right path, he’s working hard to be a good man.

Stagger Lee
Body: 13
Brain: 13
Nerve: 14
Job: Super-Hero (14)
Gimmick: Immortal (20); Magical Powers (14)
Weakness: Old Habbits Die Hard (14); Taint of Evil (16)
Skills: Reformed Criminal +3; Gambling +2; Religion +1
H.P.: 20
Yum Yums: 1
Tag Line: “My spirit is broken, my days are extinct, the grave is ready for me.” (Job 17:1)
WWPHITM? Delroy Lindo