Folk song inspiration dies at Pendleton mental hospital – in 1952

published – January 27, 2016

An African-American woman who died January 8, 1952, at the age of 75 at the Eastern Oregon State Hospital in Pendleton claimed to be the inspiration for “Frankie and Johnny,” a popular folk song in the early 20th century whose notoriety continued long after her death.

According to an Internet article by Paul Slade, Frankie Baker was a 24-year-old prostitute working the St. Louis, Missouri, vice district the late 1890s, and Allen (Albert) Britt, 17, a talented ragtime piano player, acted as her pimp in addition to being her lover. The couple shared an apartment on Targee Street and Baker took care of Britt financially.

In Baker’s version of events she and Britt had a “misunderstanding” in their apartment about 2 a.m. on Oct. 15, 1899, after she caught him with another prostitute, Alice Pryar. At the murder trial Baker claimed she shot Britt in self-defense, saying he came after her with a knife during a heated argument, and had also beaten her up a few days before the shooting. She was acquitted, and the judge returned her gun.

The song “Frankie Killed Allen” was written by St. Louis balladeer Bill Dooley shortly after the shooting and was making the rounds of the neighborhood even before Britt died on Oct. 19. A variant of Dooley’s song was published by Frank and Bert Leighton in 1912 as “Frankie and Johnny” with the words that appear in modern folk song books. At least 256 recordings of the song have been made including folk, country and jazz versions.

The story of Frankie and Johnny also inspired several films starring the likes of Mae West, Cary Grant, Elvis Presley, Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, and actor John Huston wrote and produced a puppet play in 1930 titled “Frankie and Johnnie” after interviewing Baker and Britt’s former neighbor in Missouri.

Baker left St. Louis in 1900 and eventually ended up in Portland, Ore., where she worked as a prostitute for a few years before opening a shoeshine shop in 1925. She always deplored the fact that money was being made from the song, and that she never received a dime. Baker also claimed that the song and subsequent movies were defamatory, and sued twice for damages; she lost both times.

Frankie Baker was committed to the state mental hospital in 1950, and hospital officials in Pendleton described the tiny Baker as a gentle, docile patient. She died after suffering a paralytic stroke and was buried in Los Angeles by her brother.