An Excerpt

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1899)

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 Baker in the 1890s. Courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Frankie Baker in the 1890s. Courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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 cake- walk 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. Within days of Albert’s death, it seemed that a St. Louis singer and pianist, Bill Dooley, was performing “Frankie Killed Allen.” One of the earliest published versions appeared in 1912, with “Johnny” used in place of “Albert”—probably in deference to Britt’s family, or else to avoid copyright infringement issues. The lyrics were attributed to Ren Shields and the music to the Leighton Brothers:

Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts,

They had a quarrel one day

Johnny he vowed that he would leave her,

Said he was goin’ away

He’s never comin’ home

He’s goin’ away to roam

Recordings also began to appear in the early 1920s, by Al Bernard (who used Shields’s lyrics), by Frank Crumit, and by Ernest Thompson. Within a decade, more than twenty-five versions had been issued.

One of them, recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, later became very well known. In February 1928, Okeh Records paid his way from Avalon, Mississippi, to Memphis, where, accompanying himself on the guitar, he recorded “Frankie” along with several other songs, receiving twenty dollars for each. The company pressed seven thousand copies of “Frankie” and released it that spring. (The flip side was “Nobody’s Dirty Business.”) Hurt’s version, like nearly all the others, told of Frankie paying “one hundred dollars for Albert’s suit of clothes,” hearing from the bartender that Albert had left “with a girl you call Alice Frye,” peeking through “one of the keyholes” and spying “Albert in Alice’s arm,” and shooting him “three or four times.” Love, betrayal, murder, and revenge—even, in the end, redemption, were all themes:

Frankie and the judge walked down on the stand,

Walked out side to side

The judge says to Frankie,

“You’re gonna be justified

For killing a man and he done you wrong”

The judge was telling Frankie that she would be subjected to justice for killing Albert, not that she was justified and would be exonerated.

In 1929, several other singers, some of them black, others white, recorded versions of the song. The Mississippi bluesman Charley Patton offered his ren- dition of a contrite Frankie:

Well Frankie went down to the courthouse,

To hear little Albert tried

Oh, Albert was convicted,

Frankie hung her head and cried

“Say, he was my man but he done me wrong”

 

Well Frankie went to the cemetery,

Fell down on her knees

“Oh Lord, will you forgive me,

And give my poor heart ease?

Say, you was my man but you done me wrong”

Charley Patton, ca. 1929
Charley Patton, ca. 1929

Jimmie Rodgers also sang a version, which adopted a very different tone and used a slightly different refrain after each verse, moving from Frankie’s belief that “he’s my man, he wouldn’t do me wrong,” to “he was my man but he done me wrong,” and, ultimately, to “I shot my man, he was doing me wrong”:

Frankie said to the warden,

What are they going to do?

The warden, he said to Frankie,

It’s the electric chair for you

’Cause you shot your man, he was doing you wrong

Soon after these recordings appeared, John Huston wrote a marionette play about the story. The son of a well-known actor, Huston had been an amateur boxer, a Mexican cavalryman, a painter, and a journalist before finally deciding on a career as a filmmaker (he later directed The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). In 1930, at twenty-four, he published Frankie and Johnny, after friends in St. Louis had put him in touch with Frankie Baker her- self. In the play—the setting is given correctly, 212 Targee Street in the “colored section” of St. Louis, as is the date, October 15, 1899—Johnny has died from knife wounds, and Frankie is on the scaffold about to be hanged. Asked if she has any last words, she relates what happened, telling how she used her “big forty-four”: “Ye ain’t ditchin’ me, Johnny?” she asked, and Johnny replied; “Aye, I’m a-lightin’ out for good.” Someone explains: “She’s drilled him clean. Ye can see the starlight through him.” In an epilogue, Huston offered many variations of the song.

In 1936, Thomas Hart Benton, one of the best-known American artists, depicted the story on a wall of the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City as part of A Social History of the State of Missouri. The mural scene, set in a barroom, shows Frankie shooting Johnny as he tries to avoid the attack. His hat has fallen to the floor. The other customers are fleeing, as Johnny crashes into a table and chair. Apparently some legislators wanted to paint over the mural, regarding it as too controversial, but their effort was defeated. Benton, a native Missourian, who also used themes from other folk songs, defended his portrayal of Frankie and Johnny, stating: “Anyhow the story is a part of Missouri mythology like the Jesse James and Huck Finn stories.”

In June 1938, “Frankie and Johnny” was performed as a ballet in the Great Northern Theater in Chicago, as part of a program sponsored by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Dance Project. Choreographed by Ruth Page and Bentley Stone, it portrayed Frankie as a woman who was wronged, who stood up for herself and was vindicated. Page commissioned twenty-five- year-old Jerome Moross to compose the music and the libretto, and three women acted as a latter-day Greek chorus, commenting on the action and playing tambourine, bass drum, and cymbals. In the production, Frankie tried to hang herself from a lamppost but was saved by Nellie Bly, only in the end to be left alone by Johnny’s coffin. Critics hailed the ballet as “arresting” and “vital.”

Having made its way onto records, on the stage, on a mural, and as a dance, the story eventually turned up in motion pictures. The actress Mae West had heard the song “Frankie and Johnny,” and in 1933 she performed it in the Republic Pictures release She Done Him Wrong. In fact, it became one of her trademarks. In the film, she played Lady “Diamond” Lou, a role that added to her reputation for sexual innuendo and double entendres. (West also arranged for a black actress to appear in the film, as part of her effort to combat racial discrimination in the industry.) Singing many of the usual verses to the song, she had Frankie toting her gun and seeing Johnny lying on the floor, where he pleaded,

“Turn me over, Frankie,

Turn me over slow

Turn me over on my right side, Frankie,

Why did you shoot so low?

I was your man, and I done you wrong”

In 1936, Republic Pictures tried again, this time with a film entitled Frankie and Johnnie, starring Helen Morgan, who had recorded the song years earlier but did not sing it in the movie, and an all-white cast.

It was the movie with Mae West that naturally attracted the largest audience. Frankie Baker had seen it in Portland and believed that it depicted her in a demeaning way—to the extent that even strangers, passing her house, were starting to stare at her. “I’m so tired of it all, I don’t even answer any more,” she told a reporter. In April 1938 she filed a lawsuit, the first of several, against Republic Pictures, asking for damages amounting to $200,000, contending the character played by Helen Morgan in the 1936 film was based on herself, and that the film depicted her as a “woman of unchaste character, a harlot, an adulteress, a person of lewd character, and a murderess,” invaded her privacy, and held her up to “ridicule, scorn and contempt.”

The pretrial proceedings began in October 1939. One of Frankie’s first witnesses was Richard Clay, a local movie producer, who said that his friend, Albert Britt, had “a roving eye for the girls, but he didn’t live up to his song and movie reputation either.” Clay testified that Frankie was a good girl, “a woman just like the rest of them,” who resided in a decent, respectable neighborhood. Under cross-examination, when asked if Frankie had behaved like a lady, he simply said Frankie was Albert’s “main girl.” He also said Benton’s painting was not accurate, since Frankie had shot Albert in her bedroom, not in a barroom.

The next witness, Tillie Griffin, was an assistant pastor of the Weatherford Christian Spiritual Temple in St. Louis. She testified that Frankie had a good reputation “and lived with her younger brother and another girl friend named Pansy.” Britt was a “fine looking, dark-skinned boy,” she said, not a drinker, but rather someone “all the girls looked for.” The song had become popular shortly after the shooting, but when Britt’s family “raised a racket,” his name was changed to “Johnny.” Frankie, she said, was brokenhearted after the slaying: she “wept over it and grieved about it. I don’t think she ever got over it.”

Eventually, Allen Britt’s aged father, George, took the stand. He testified for an hour, describing his son’s childhood and admitting that Frankie was a “right nice-lookin’ woman,” who, he believed, was thirty or thirty-five years old in 1899—old enough, that is, to be Allen’s mother. When asked, “Did Frankie pay $100 for making Albert’s clothes?” he replied: “Al never wore no such stuff as that. His mother bought his clothes and they was showed to me. His suits cost about $7 or $8 the size he was.” When asked if Allen wore a diamond ring, his father said: “No sir. He didn’t even have a brass ring, let alone a diamond one. And he didn’t have a walking stick.” His son’s funeral had been well attended, he said, but there were no “milk-white horses,” as the song had it.

The trial itself finally got under way on February 17, 1942, in the Civil Division of the St. Louis Circuit Court. The judge was William H. Killoren, and the jury consisted of “clerks, accountants and factory employees.” Joseph McLemore represented Frankie, and Hugo Monnig the film company. (When Frankie arrived, she parried the reporters’ questions. “Al was a conceited piano player, not a sporting man,” she said. Had she bought him hundred-dollar suits? “Not necessarily.” What had happened to Alice Pryor? “I heard she passed out,” she said.) McLemore called as an expert witness Nathan Ben Young, a black attorney and newspaper publisher, who testified about the song, saying he was convinced that it was written by Bill Dooley, who also wrote “the topical, gay and ribald songs which emanated from the Negro quarter.” The song became popular, he said, after Frankie shot Britt.

On February 20, 1942, Sigmund Spaeth took the stand for the defense. A Princeton-trained musicologist and the author of many books, he had served as the host of a popular radio program, The Tune Detective. He testified that he had first heard Frankie and Johnny in 1901 when he was a college student. “I’m glad to see Frankie is such a nice woman,” he said: “I always thought she should have been punished severely.” He testified for nearly two days—although, as Nathan Young saw it, “Spaeth didn’t testify, he lectured. He knew every- thing. . . . Spaeth just took over the trial” and talked “incessantly.” One of the jurors, however, later commented that Spaeth seemed “sharp,” while Frankie, by contrast, made a poor impression, her memory weak, and unable to recall dates.

Frankie’s lawyer decided to have the jury view the 1936 Republic Pictures film, with its white cast, a move that may have backfired by making it difficult for the jurors to identify with a black woman. Other observers believed that the lack of evidence supporting Frankie’s claim was key to the jury’s verdict. In his summation, Frankie’s lawyer, McLemore, called the case “one of the most picturesque in the history of American law suits,” and predicted that the jury’s verdict would be quoted “a thousand times by authorities and writers.” Arguing on behalf of the motion picture company, Hugo Monnig pointed out that the film depicted an earlier time, the 1870s, that all the characters in it were white, and that the setting did not resemble Targee Street. He added: “If you give her a verdict, she will have a claim against everybody who ever sang the song. Send her back to Portland, Oregon, and her shoeshine business; for an honest shine, let her have an honest dime. Don’t make her a rich woman because forty years ago she shot a little colored boy here in St. Louis.” The ballad, he concluded, had become “the common possession of the people of America.”

In the end, Frankie lost the case, and even had to pay $250 in court costs. Although the song “Frankie and Johnny” had become well-known, she felt for- gotten. “It’s funny,” she commented, “but most people think of me as being dead a good many years.” She returned to Portland, where she eked out a living, finally having to rely on relief. She became the first lifetime member of the city’s Urban League. When interviewed, as she occasionally was, she appeared “a lit- tle infirm of tooth and eye, and a little old-fashioned in her ways.” She some- times wandered around with a shopping bag, or, when the weather was bad, sat peering out her window. She usually wore a ragged gray sweater and a cap fashioned from an old stocking. In 1950 she was sent to a hospital at Pendleton, Oregon, where she was examined for mental illness. Then she lost her home, and went to the Multnomah County Home and Farm for the mentally dis- turbed. Officials reported that she had a persecution complex, was a danger to others, and sometimes “frightened and attacked persons at the farm.” Finally she had to be hospitalized. Frankie Baker passed away on January 6, 1952, and was buried in Los Angeles.

“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 choreog- raphers, 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.

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