Born Samuel Horwitz, Shemp Howard and his brother, Moe Howard, were two of the original Three Stooges, one of the most successful acts of the vaudeville era, and also one of the few to make the jump to cinema. Shemp would come and go from the Stooges over the years, being replaced by his and Moe’s brother Curly in the lineup. In between times, Shemp was a fairly successful stand up comedian.
His stage name was derived from how his nickname, Sam, sounded when pronounced by his mother, who had a thick Litvak accent. Shemp was famous for his ability to improvise, and his quick wits belied the foolish image of the Stooges. In his solo years, he also performed in a few dramatic roles, showing a range that few would have suspected.
Oscar Wilde was one of the greatest English writers. He was persecuted for his homosexuality, and indeed, it was a conviction for being one who enjoyed “the love that dare not speak it’s name” that led to his arrival in Reading Gaol.
Wilde had been convicted on May 25 after a trial lasting almost exactly a month. He was first sent to Pentonville, then to Wandsworth, and finally transferred to Reading Gaol. His famous work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written about his experiences in prison after his release four years later.
Reputed to be one of the deadliest men in the whole of the West, John Wesley Hardin claimed to have killed 42 men between 1868 and 1878, when he was sent to prison for his crimes.
He was pardoned in 1894, but killed by the father of an off-duty policeman in El Paso, Texas. The policeman had argued with Hardin earlier regarding a friend of Hardin’s, and then the policeman’s father also argued with Hardin on the night of August 19, 1895. Apparently a firm believer in Hardin’s fearsome reputation, this man, John Selman, Sr, shot Hardin in the back of the head, killing him.
Selman himself was killed a year later after a dispute over a card game led to an exchange of gun fire.
Lee Shelton (sometimes spelled Sheldon) killed William Lyons in a bar run by one Bill Curtis in St Louis, on Christmas Eve, 1895.
Shelton was a cab driver who moonlighted as a pimp – he was in fact a member of a group of fashion-conscious pimps called the Macks. Perhaps this explains his murder of Lyons, who, in the course of a lengthy argument with Shelton, grabbed the other man’s hat and refused to return it even when Shelton drew on him. So Shelton shot him.
He was convicted of the murder, and spent the rest of his life in prison, where he died of tuberculosis in 1912. He almost certainly heard at least one version of the multitude of variants that exist of the song about his crime.
The above selection includes just a few of my favoourite versions – there are literally hundreds out there.