According to Nathan B. Young (founder of St. Louis American) the song (and movie) "Frankie and Johnny" was written after New York producers came to a local club in the Chestnut Valley and heard musician and piano player, Bill Dooley, singing about Frankie Baker & Allen Britt in his song "Frankie Killed Allen".
Chestnut Valley, an early 20th century tenderloin district where sporting houses employed pianists to provide a score for their client's various activities, is where Scott Joplin heard ragtime for the first time when he arrived in St. Louis in 1885. Blind Boone, skipping school in the mid-1870s, did as well. They were at Rosebud Bar, one of the original venues for Ragtime music in the country. It was billed as the "Headquarters for Colored Professionals and Sports," and located at 2220-2222 Market Street, in the heart of Chestnut Valley,
It was also in Chesnut Valley, on Targee St. in 1899, where Allen ("Johnny") Britt got killed by Frankie Baker in a lover's quarrel, a crime immortalized in the famous song now known as "Frankie & Johnny."
At 2:00 on the morning of October 15, 1899, Frankie Baker (1876 –1952), a 22-year-old woman, shot her 17-year-old lover and ragtime piano player, Allen ("Albert") Britt in the abdomen.
The Appeal Saint Paul, Minnesota, 21 Oct 1899, Sat • Page 4
Britt had just returned from a cakewalk at Stolle's Dance Hall (once located upstairs at Kram Fish Market), where he and another woman, Nelly Bly (also known as "Alice Pryor"; no relation to the pioneering reporter Nellie Bly), had won a prize in a slow-dancing contest. Britt died of his wounds four days later on October 19th, at the City Hospital.
Upstairs from the Kram Fish Market was the well known dance hall. [Photo Source: STL Today]
On trial, Baker claimed that Britt had attacked her with a knife and that she acted in self-defense:
On Oct. 15, 1899, Allen Britt stumbled up the back staircase of a rooming house at 212 Targee Street, burst into girl friend Frankie Baker's apartment, threw an oil lamp and pulled a knife. She grabbed a .32-caliber pistol from beneath her pillow and fired a fatal shot. [Tim O'Neil, STLToday]
Frankie, with her lawyer, at the site of the murder on Targee Street. [PhotoSource: STL Today]
Pansy Marvin, who evidently witnessed the shooting, said Albert stormed into the boardinghouse and began arguing with Frankie. Frankie then when down Broadway, gun in hand and said: "Stand back, all you livin' women, I'm a -lookin' for my gamblin' man." Frankie testified in her own defense at the inquest. She had a scar on her cheek.
She was reported to have said to Albert, before he attacked her with a knife:
"Say, are you trying to hurt me? I dont want to hurt you and I dont want you to hurt me. Best place for you to go is to your mother." She explained that Albert stood there, cursed her and said he wasn't going anyplace. She then told him, "I'm the boss here. I pay the rent and I have to protect myself."
As Albert went forward with an open knife from his pocket, she told the jury: "I was standing there; pillow lays this way. Just run my hand under the pillow and shot him." She explained she only shot him once, as she stood by the bed.
Her defense must have worked, because the verdict returned was justifiable homicide, and she was acquitted and freed. However, two years later when the song went mainstream she left St. Louis due to the notoriety. When over 250 versions were being made including Hollywood movies, she sued Republic Pictures for defamation and anguish, but was unsuccessful.
During her 1942 defamation suit , the 65 year old Baker explained, "I left St. Louis in 1901 to get away from the constant annoyance and humiliation. I was a pointed-out woman at social gatherings and on the street. I'd been humiliated as the woman who shot Al Britt.
"I went to Omaha and then to Portland to seek peace and happiness. The same things happened; I was pointed out as the worst woman in the world and introduced as the Frankie of song, instead of Miss Baker.
It has never died down. You'd think it happened yesterday."
Albert Britt had a big funeral, his father, George Britt recalled years later. He did not, however, have any of the white horses and diamond rings depicted in the famous ballad. Frankie Baker died in a Pendleton, Oregon, state hospital for the insane in 1952.
[InfoSources: Wikipedia, St. Louis Post Dispatch, The Appeal Saint Paul, Minnesota, Tim O'Neal, STLToday, LakelandLedger, 1975]
Popular Musical Renditions:
Jimmie Rodgers (1929)
Duke Ellington (1946)
Sam Cooke (1963)
Starring Elvis Presley (1966)