ST. LOUIS • Frankie Baker and Allen Britt had a lovers' spat. He went to a piano bar. She went home alone and angry, telling a neighbor she might "blow up" two rival women.
At 2:30 a.m., Britt stumbled up the back staircase of a rooming house at 212 Targee Street and burst into the apartment. Baker yelled at him to leave. He threw an oil lamp and pulled a knife. She grabbed a .32-caliber pistol from beneath her pillow and fired once, striking him in the abdomen.
Walking slowly downstairs, Baker told neighbor Tillie Griffin there had "been a little trouble." When Britt died four days later in City Hospital, Baker was locked up in the old Four Courts Building, 11th and Clark streets. A judge later freed her, citing self-defense.
Details of the Oct. 15, 1899, shooting were recited again in 1942 in St. Louis Circuit Court. By then, the world knew that Britt had done his woman wrong. Songwriters changed his name to the catchier Johnnie when they published the ballad of "Frankie and Johnnie."
Britt was a good piano player and a dandy. Baker was known for good looks, flashy clothes and skill at the "cakewalk," a black dance craze. Targee Street, a glorified alley barely two blocks long, ran south from Market Street between 14th and 15th streets. W.C. Handy, composer of the "St. Louis Blues," worked and wrote songs there.
Baker left St. Louis in 1901, claiming later she was haunted by the songs. The Targee neighborhood declined after the Ragtime era and was demolished about 1930 to make way for the Municipal (later Kiel) Auditorium, now site of the Scottrade Center.
Newspaper articles in 1899 were brief, all the more reason for songwriters to stretch their imaginations in dozens of versions of the famous ballad. Baker gave her side in February 1942, when she returned to St. Louis for her lawsuit against the producers of a 1936 movie about the old story. Baker said seeing it on the big screen, after all those years of avoiding the song, was too much.
Former neighbor Tillie Griffin and Nathan B. Young, local lawyer and music enthusiast, testified they first heard the song only weeks after the shooting. Young said it was the product of local songwriter Jim Dooley.
Republic called it a song for the ages, and the studio had the big guns, including Sigmund Spaeth, a national authority on music who had written in 1926 of its St. Louis roots.
"I've changed my mind since then," Spaeth testified, saying the song dated to the Civil War. Baker lost, and died in Oregon in 1952.
Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.