The Story Behind “Frankie and Johnny”
This story ain't got no moral This story ain't got no end This story only goes to show That there ain't no good in men ...
“Frankie and Johnny” is a traditional American murder ballad, but you might not know it was based on a true story.
Frankie Baker lived in a rooming house on Targee Street in St. Louis. In 1899, she was 22 or 23 years old and had a 17-year-old boyfriend named Allen Britt, who was sometimes called Albert (“Al Britt”). Several sources identify Francis, also known as Frankie, as a prostitute and Allen Britt as her pimp.
Britt was a ragtime piano player, and by most accounts, an attractive young man. Although he and Frankie had been an item for quite some time, he was seen keeping company with a prostitute named Alice Pryor. On October 14, Frankie caught them together at a club where Britt was playing piano. Baker confronted Britt, there was an argument, and Baker went back home alone, fuming. Early the next morning, Allen went up to her room. That’s when Frankie Baker shot Britt with a .38, wounding him in the abdomen. He was taken to the hospital and died four days later, but not before he identified Baker as his killer. She was promptly arrested.
At Baker’s trial in November 1899, she testified that Britt had beaten her before, and had pulled a knife on her just before she shot him. Judge Willis Henry Clark ruled that she shot Britt in self-defense and declared her not guilty of murder.
The early versions of the song were called “Frankie and Allen” or “Frankie and Albert.” According to eyewitness testimony in Baker’s lawsuit decades later, a St. Louis songwriter named Bill Dooley was performing the song “Frankie Killed Allen” just weeks after the shooting.
The song first appeared in sheet music in 1904 under the name "He Done Me Wrong,” credited to Hughie Cannon. That version had the same tune but different lyrics from the Dooley version. Frank and Bert Leighton published the same tune, this time named “Frankie and Johnny,” in 1912, with "Albert" changed to "Johnny" because it flowed better. Likewise, Alice Pryor’s name was changed to Nelly Bly. Nellie Bly was a well-known journalist in New York whose only connection to the case was that her name was easy to rhyme.
Over 250 versions of “Frankie and Johnny” have been recorded, with widely varying lyrics. In some, Frankie ends up being executed for her crime. In a few, Johnny (or Allen, or Albert) survives the shooting.
Francis Baker moved away from St. Louis in 1901 to escape the notoriety the song brought her, first to Omaha, then to Portland. But with several plays, movies, and a ballet written about the murder, and the many versions of the song, she was forever branded as the woman who shot “Johnny.” Some people shunned her for it, others asked for her autograph. A few thought she was either greedy or delusional to think the song was about her. At any rate, Frankie Baker never profited from the song.
Baker sued film companies more than once, over the 1933 Mae West film She Done Him Wrong (in which West sings the song) and the 1936 movie Frankie and Johnnie. She complained that the facts of her story were wrong. Music historian Sigmund Spaeth had previously written about the song and linked it to the St. Louis shooting, but testified in the second lawsuit that he had since traced the song back to the Civil War. Spaeth was paid $2000 for his testimony.
Juries weren't convinced the song, and the two movies, were about her. Baker lost the lawsuits, returned to her home in Portland, and died in a mental institution in 1952.