“Stagger Lee” was a historical personage, a black Texan, cabby, and pimp who entered into folklore when, on Christmas of 1895, he shot and killed his best friend in a drunken political debate that ended in the theft of his signature Stetson cavalry hat. According to the police report, “When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away… Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.”
Taking off as an archetypal outlaw and a symbol of African American coolness and badassery, the story of his (in)famous holiday murder was codified by a Professor Charlie Lee’s “Stack-a-Lee”, itself derived from decades of folk songs. His legend grew and grew with the telling, until he was reputed to be something of a demigod. It was said he was born with a caul over his head, had the ability to see spirits and to shapeshift, that his hat was a magic trinket which he obtained from The Devil in exchange for his soul. people said that cops and judges were afraid to try him, and he was (among other deeds) reputed to have caused the San Francisco earthquake, to have dueled Billy the Kid, and to have descended into Hell upon his death and temporarily ousted Satan from his seat of power.