The true crime story behind the American ballad more commonly known as Frankie and Johnny is included in CrimeSong, chapter two, The Girls Fight Back, “Frankie Baker (Frankie and Albert) or Frankie and Johnny.” There are hundreds of versions of the song, and various references and spellings of the name of the man—Albert, Johnny, Johnnie—who “done Frankie wrong.” Inside chapter two I have included works by two American artists—Thomas Hart Benton and John Sloan. Both Benton and Sloan correctly depict the man and woman behind the song as African-American. What happens when the story and the song move to the American stage? Here are a just a few examples:
John (Jack) Kirkland wrote a play “Frankie and Johnnie” in 1930. It was closed down by the police as indecent, and the case went all the way to the New York Court of Appeals (the State’s highest court). You can find the opinion at People v. Wendling, 258 N.Y. 451 (1932). The court of appeals threw the case out. The show went on, but the play was a flop.
The lead actress playing Frankie in Kirkland’s play was silent film star Anne Forrest, who was one of Houdini’s leading ladies. She was Danish!