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The song was inspired by one or more actual murders. One of these took place in an apartment building located at 212 Targee Street in St. Louis, Missouri, 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 Allen (also known as "Albert") Britt in the abdomen. Britt had just returned from a cakewalk at a local dance hall, where he and another woman, Nelly Bly (also known as "Alice Pryor" and no relation to the pioneering reporter who adopted the pseudonym Nellie Bly), had won a prize in a slow-dancing contest. Britt died of his wounds four days later at the City Hospital. On trial, Baker claimed that Britt had attacked her with a knife and that she acted in self-defense; she was acquitted and died in a Portland, Oregon, mental institution in 1952.
In 1899, popular St Louis balladeer Bill Dooley composed "Frankie Killed Allen" shortly after the Baker murder case. The first published version of the music to "Frankie and Johnny" appeared in 1904, credited to and copyrighted by Hughie Cannon, the composer of "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey". The song has also been linked to Frances "Frankie" Stewart Silver, convicted in 1832 of murdering her husband Charles Silver in Burke County, North Carolina. Unlike Frankie Baker, Silver was executed.
Another variant of the melody, with words and music credited to Frank and Bert Leighton, appeared in 1908 under the title "Bill You Done Me Wrong;" this song was republished in 1912 as "Frankie and Johnny." At least 256 different recordings of "Frankie and Johnny" have been made since the early 20th century. The earliest country recording of a Frankie song is Ernest Thompson's 1924 Columbia recording of "Frankie Baker", which is listed in Tony Russell's Country Music Records A Discography, 1921-1942. Thompson was a blind street singer from North Carolina. A 1966 recording by Elvis Presley became a gold record as the title song of a Presley movie.
****REVISED August 25, 2019 - SR****