Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin

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"On April 23, 1967, Prisoner #416J, an inmate at the maximum-security Jefferson City Penitentiary in Missouri, stuffed himself into a bread-filled metal box bound for the prison farm workers. He became the first man to successfully escape in the institution's 131-year history. Fashioning himself Eric Galt, this nondescript thief and con man drifted through the American South, down into Mexico, and then to Los Angeles. His dream was to become a director of porn films." "On February 1, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, two garbage men were crushed to death by the hydraulic press of their antiquated truck. The exclusively African American workforce, which labored for long hours with little pay, went on strike. A month later, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. joined their cause. Exhausted by constant death threats and the toll of his punishing schedule, the Nobel laureate was at the nadir of his extraordinary career. Beset on the left by the Black Power movement, which felt his nonviolent methods were a form of Uncle Tomism, and viciously harassed by J. Edgar Hoover, who considered him a dangerous radical, King desperately wanted to further his faltering civil rights crusade. But the garbage workers' march down Beale Street, the historic avenue of the blues, turned violent. Humiliated, King vowed to return to Memphis in April." "Hiding in the seedier precincts of Los Angeles, his porn career going nowhere, the man calling himself Eric Galt became a follower of George Wallace, the segregationist demagogue who was running for president of the United States. Galvanized by Wallace's racial rhetoric, Galt threw himself into the campaign and began tracking the movements of King." "In Hampton Sides's account, we see these two men - one whose courage and savvy embodied one of the twentieth centuries' greatest causes; the other who lived his stunted life in the shadows - as they crisscross the country, Galt stalking King, until the devastating moment at a Memphis motel when the drifter catches up with his prey." Against the backdrop of the resulting nationwide riots, political crises, and the pathos of King's funeral, Sides deftly weaves a crosscut narrative of the assassin's flight and the massive, desperate search to find him - led, ironically, by the same FBI whose director had hoped to hound King to death. The epic chase would involve thousands of agents, traverse multiple countries, and take three months of meticulous detective work until Galt - a.k.a. Harvey Lowmeyer, a.k.a. Ramon George Sneyd, a.k.a. James Earl Ray - was captured only days before he planned to take refuge in the racist state of Rhodesia.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
…a viscerally dramatic account of the last days of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.…Remarkably, [Sides] has embroidered the facts without losing a sense of veracity. He augments the truth, but he does it responsibly. He skirts certain issues, like the question of whether or not Ray acted alone, without losing his sharp focus. And he brings to life the story of Dr. King's last days without bogging it down in too many small particulars. Both Dr. King and Ray come to life in these remarkable pages, generating great suspense without surprise, thanks to readers' terrible foreknowledge of what will happen when these two cross paths.
—The New York Times
David J. Garrow
[Sides's] depiction of his home town's role in the story is enlightening, and his efforts to present King's struggles and the FBI's behavior cover familiar ground with hardly a misstep…But the "hellhound" who rightly remains the book's centerpiece…is of course Ray…Sides draws a memorable and persuasive portrait of the amateur assassin whose motivation may be simpler to grasp than most previous investigators have realized.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The counterpoint between two driven men—one by a quest for justice, the other by an atavistic hatred—propels this engrossing study of the King assassination. Sides, author of the bestselling Ghost Solders, shows us a King all but consumed by the flagging civil rights movement in 1968 and burdened by presentiments of death. Pursuing him is escaped convict James Earl Ray, whose feckless life finds a belated, desperate purpose, perhaps stimulated by George Wallace’s presidential campaign, in killing the civil rights leader. A third main character is the FBI, which turns on a dime from its long-standing harassment of Kingto a massive investigation into his murder; in Sides’s telling, the Bureau’s transoceanic hunt for Ray is one of history’s great police procedurals. Sides’s novelistic treatment registers Ray as a man so nondescript his own sister could barely remember him (the author refers to him by his shifting aliases to emphasize the shallowness of his identity). The result is a tragedy more compelling than the grandest conspiracy theory: the most significant of lives cut short by the hollowest of men. Photos. (Apr. 27)
Publishers Weekly
Sides delivers an arresting account of the last days of Martin Luther King Jr. and the hunt to capture his killer, James Earl Ray. Sides provides not just a clear history of events, but a gripping narrative that puts readers into the room with key people including King, Ray, and J. Edgar Hoover. The author reads with a clear and strong voice that keeps a good pace and agreeable rhythm. He slips easily into the accents and only marginally invokes the speaking styles of different famous people's voices (including King himself), thereby reminding listeners of who is speaking but without hammy mimicry. While his narration is not as enthralling as the action itself, Sides maintains a solid rhythm and projection throughout. A Doubleday hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 8). (May)
From the Publisher
"Enlightening . . . a valuable contribution to the historical record [and] a memorable and persuasive portrait . . . Ray's desire to achieve something in life, Sides convincingly and originally argues, was first and foremost what sent him on his deadly trail to Memphis." —The Washington Post

"[Sides] has pieced together a viscerally dramatic account....Sides writes in forceful, dignified, obscenity-free language and creates the momentum of a tightly constructed nonfiction film....Both Dr. King and Ray come to life in these remarkable pages, generating great suspense....spellbinding....[A ]bold, dynamic, unusually vivid book"—New York Times

"Searing…Skillfully lifts the obscure details of the assassination out of the realm of historical elegy and translates them into a complex crime mystery that shifts the focus from Dr. King to his killer. Sides’s reconstruction of the assassination itself is searing – and a reminder of how little we know about it. Relying on FBI recordes, memoirs and past historians’ accounts, Sides re-creates Ray’s journey from his prison escape in April 1967 to the moment when he fired the single shot that felled Dr. King. After the shot is fired, Ray takes flight and, like an extended episode of the old television show "Dragnet," thousands of agents begin their search. Sides’s treatment of the killing is gripping."
Wall Street Journal

"Extraordinary....remarkable journalism.....compulsively readable"—San Francisco Chronicle

Remarkable....The book is a window on the passions and contradictions of an era – the hatred stirred by the civil rights movements, the battle lines within a single presidential administration, and a martyr who died just as his own flame seemed to be flickering amid dissension and disappointment.....Thanks to the skills of historian and author Hampton Sides, readers will feel as if they are standing on the ledge at the Lorraine Motel with King....moving....a page-turner....Its story is told so effectively and efficiently that readers will want to head back in time and pluck the bullet out of the air on that April evening, when the best and worst of America met in Memphis."—Christian Science Monitor

“Impossible-to-put-down…HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL is a masterful work of narrative nonfiction, one that benefits from its author's considerable talent as both a researcher and a writer. And as a result of his efforts, we not only have a greater understanding of King and Ray, but also a book that is every bit as good as any of the fiction thrillers being written these days.  Sides has made an art form out of what Truman Capote called the "journalistic novel.  In fact, the best works in this genre are the ones that locate the dramatic within the known.  And no one does it better than Hampton Sides.”— Associated Press

"A riveting re-creation of a tragedy…HELLHOUND doggedly pursues the story of MLK’s murder. Magazines and newspapers have a name – "tick-tock" – for the kind of story that re-creates an event or decision as if it’s unfolding all over again. Sides’ compelling HELLHOUND is an extended tick-tock that reads like a tragic novel. Through Sides’ use of novelistic pacing, details and descriptions, he creates suspense that will propel readers through a slice of history."—USA Today

"A taut, vibrant account....chilling in detail and particularly haunting in evoking the confusion and pathos in the minutes following the single crack of Ray's rifle."—Los Angeles Times

"Sides is a crack research artist with a feel for both halves of the American chronicle, the grandeur and the violence....meticulous....a page turner, and something more: It brings the disquiet of an era fully alive."—Bloomberg

"Sides' account....is special for at least four reasons. First, his reporting on Ray's difficult-to-unearth squalid life constitutes remarkable journalism. Second, Sides' brand of literary journalism makes the saga compulsively readable. Third, Sides' re-creation of the effort to capture Ray, which begins on Page 166 of a book topping 450 pages, provides a law-enforcement angle that is fresh. Fourth, Sides is a Memphis native, so he writes about the killing staining his city with a passion that resonates.....Sides does, however, offer a character sketch that avoids portraying King as a plaster saint.....Compelling" —Dallas Morning News

"Hellhound unfolds like a mystery—one read not for the ending but for all the missteps, gotchas and near misses along the way."—Time

"It's as much thriller as history book and the compulsive story races along like a fugitive on the lam."—San Francisco Gate

"Sides' book, meticulously researched, reads like nothing so much as a novel....sense of immediacy.... creating plenty of plain old-fashioned suspense that makes the reader's heart pound, even though the tragic outcome is known in advance.....I have rarely read a better work of narrative nonfiction.....Sides' fine book brings [this time period] brilliantly back to life....Among other things, this memorable book serves as a chilling reminder that a single loser with his finger on the trigger and mayhem in his heart can bring an entire nation to its knees."—The Portland Oregonian

"Exhaustively researched, fast-paced and at times minute-by-minute telling....To Sides' great credit, this is a feat of shoe-leather reporting and research....astonishing....briskly alive"—Austin American Statesman

"As urgent a page-turner as any crime novel — a feat Sides accomplishes without sacrificing historical detail and insight....vivid historical context,....Sides places the King assassination in its historical context, paints memorable portraits of both killer and victim, and writes a true crime story as gripping as a fictional thriller. He also reminds us that, although King's assassination occurred more than four decades ago, some of the forces that drove it are disturbingly familiar in this era of vehemently antagonistic politics." —St. Petersburg Times 

"An authoritative, engrossing narrative....thoroughly researched but executed with the pacing of a fine novel and a dash of top-notch police procedural....meticulous....the tragedy that Sides has so ably captured is how a giant of American life was so quickly erased — and the course of history irreversibly altered — by a cretin as small as James Earl Ray."—Miami Herald

"Salute author Sides for a carefully researched and crisply written account....Sides crafts careful profiles of his major characters"—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Sides' meticulous yet driving account of Ray's plot to murder King and the 68-day international manhunt that followed is in essence a true-crime story and a splendid specimen of the genre — a genuine corker.....Sides deftly constructs the book so that the killer's character becomes the mystery" —Salon

"[Sides] masterfully recreates the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.....captivating....Like any good thriller, Hellhound on His Trail is full of movement....creates an especially riveting portrait of King’s last minutes....Though the outcome is clear, we are nonetheless rapt—and then devastated—by Sides’s treatment of this historical event."—Time Out New York

"Nailbitingly riveting"—Newsday

"Drawing on interviews and previously unpublished resources, Sides builds suspense....offers riveting details....[and]captures the zeitgeist of the 1960s....[readers] will be swept up in the narrative because Sides writes with immediacy, intimacy and the pacing of a thriller."  Booklist, Starred Review

"[An] engrossing study.....novelistic treatment....the result is a tragedy more compelling than the grandest conspiracy theory"— Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"Sides skillfully weaves his narrative as his books builds to the fateful conjunction...the results are a spellbinder that all interested readers will find hard to put down"— Library Journal, Starred Review

“A riveting account of James Earl Ray’s long quest to kill Martin Luther King, Jr. An expertly written study in true crime, vividly recapturing the mood of 1968.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

"Employing the same storytelling prowess he displayed in Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers, Sides ratchets up the tension.....reads like a crime novel worthy of Joseph Wambaugh or Michael Connelly." —Book Page

Praise for Blood and Thunder

“We see a panorama and a whole history, intricately laced with wonder and meaning, coalesce into a story of epic proportions, a story full of authority and color, truth and prophecy . . . Sides fills a conspicuous void in the history of the American West.”
New York Times Book Review

“An ambitious and sprawling account of the winning of the American West . . . A riveting account of a vast swath of history with which few Americans are familiar.”
The New Yorker

“Stunning . . . Both haunting and lyrical, Blood and Thunder is truly a masterpiece.”
Los Angeles Time

“A brilliantly realized portrait on an epic scale. . . captures a pivotal moment in U.S. history in marvelous detail. . . . Authoritative and masterfully told.”
Washington Post Book World

“A beautifully written, mesmerizing account of the greatest American story between the Revolution and the Civil War. . . . Like Shelby Foote, he has mastered the grand, sweeping style without sacrificing the well-chosen characters, events and minutiae that bring history to life.”
USA Today

Praise for Ghost Soldiers

“Few stories are as gripping as the one that Hampton Sides tells here. . . . Mesmerizing”
New York Magazine

“Riveting and patriotically stirring.”
New York Times

“Thoroughly researched and artfully told . . . . A compelling story filled with colorful characters.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“The greatest World War II story never told.”

The Barnes & Noble Review

The first thing that gets you is how smart and how witless the criminal was, both at once. Prisoner 416-J -- as he is initially known, and sequentially by several aliases, until he emerges near the end as his own contemptible self -- managed in 1967 to pull off the first escape in the history of the maximum-security Missouri State prison. Subsequently committing a far more audacious, deadly, and despicable crime than the armed robbery he had been in for, he escaped from another maximum-security facility in Tennessee after having evaded, for a time, the widest FBI manhunt to date. It would be hardly credible in a James Bond movie. Yet he was also patently dumb -- not to mention a loose cannon of a sociopath, responsible for taking the life of one of the great civil rights heroes of all time -- and so the story of James Earl Ray is, from beginning to end, a profound head-slapper.

It is also, as structured by Hampton Sides, author of the well-received histories Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers, a vigorously paced narrative of a murder that shocked the world, as well as a trenchant depiction of a place -- Memphis, Tennessee -- that even for sixties America seems bizarrely alien. The bullet from Ray's rifle that struck Martin Luther King, Jr. as he stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel cut down a recklessly courageous advocate for racial equality. At the same time, it helped blast to a sudden end an ethos of almost medieval stratification in the Old South.

Memphis was not simply the place where someone famous happened to be murdered; it was a worldview. By Sides's adroit account, this could not have happened anyplace else. Or, if it could, it would have had to have been in a town similarly cooking in the heat from the fires of acrimony that burned all over the United States in the late sixties. It would also have had to have been overtaken by the exact series of events that made the proponent of nonviolence feel the need to return to Memphis, against the wishes of his advisers, to try to keep the lid from blowing off the pot.

Many arbitrary stars need to align for an assassination to occur, and the first to blink into sight here was an otherwise local event: the exceptionally horrible deaths of two black sanitation workers in East Memphis, crushed by their faulty, antiquated truck. None of the workers -- or their survivors, when it came to that -- had recourse, power, compensation, or (needless to say) a union.

As Sides perceptively writes,

The "tub-toters" of the Public Works Department were little better off than sharecroppers in the Delta, which is where they and their families originally hailed from. In some ways they still lived the lives of field hands; in effect, the plantation had moved to the city. . . . All week long, they quietly haunted the neighborhoods of Memphis, faceless and uncomplaining, a caste of untouchables. They called themselves the walking buzzards.

But they did not aim to sustain a wordless watch at the borders of the refuse pile any longer. They organized, then called a strike. The clean fabric of the city with its own plantation-era monarchy, celebrated at an annual Cotton Carnival, was starting to show stains. The heat was now building, and soon it would be fanned into flame by the placards of the striking workers, which read, "I AM A MAN."

On March 28, 1968, King went to Memphis to lead a march of these sick and tired. It turned into a debacle, the type that King most feared: riven with angry violence. He decided to return within a week, to lead a much larger, and hopefully peaceful, demonstration. He envisioned it as a kickstart to his grandly scaled Poor People's Campaign, planned later to descend on Washington, D.C.

Since we already know what happened within a week, the only technique left to the author who wishes to fully dramatize a tragedy -- the cold stars aligning one by one, the forces moving inexorably from opposite sides of the stage to their fateful collision in the middle -- is intercutting. It is highly effective. As used in Hellhound, the wayward wanderings of Ray -- aka Eric Galt, aka Ramon George Sneyd, aka Harvey Lowmeyer -- alternate with the more purposeful movements of King, in addition to those of what one might be tempted to consider the story's other criminal: J. Edgar Hoover. (Sides reports that Hoover, upon learning MLK was named Time's "Man of the Year" for 1963, obscenely commented, "They had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with that one.") It is but one of a few too many ironies of this vicious business that King's sworn enemy would later become responsible for sending half his 6,000 agents on a nine-week, $2-million dollar search for his killer.

After the assassination, Ray managed to cross the border (rather easily) into Canada. Then, with the FBI a ways back on the trail, he flew to Europe, en route, or so he hoped, to armed heroism as a mercenary in Rhodesia. He was finally captured, in London, by virtue of a British detective's hunch; for a moment, it looked as though he would get entirely away. Which is what he proceeded to do, a few months after being locked tight inside another "escape-proof" pen.

Although Hellhound on His Trail is exuberantly detailed -- the author is as skilled with research as he is with muscular prose -- the reader might feel nagged by one omission, a crucial one. What could possibly have motivated this small-time crook to stalk and kill a man of the stature of Martin Luther King, Jr.? To be sure, he was a racist (among those he looked up to were Hitler and George Wallace); but so were many southern whites of the time. And then you see it, not trumpeted but reading like hard, sad truth: the reason was no reason. Circumstance, only that. Ray, whose highest aspiration was to direct porn films, was the sorry product of a sordid family life with a "hundred-year history of crime and squalor and hard luck." There was nothing like a real ideology that sent James Earl Ray disastrously into the path of an inspiring, effective, and desperately needed leader; he was intellectually incapable of that. Rather, it was pre-existing anger and hate -- internal states that went free-floating into the ether of a time that was chemically favorable to them. There was unloosed anguish over the Vietnam War; there were race riots that brought up the bile of fear in white throats. It turned out to be a particularly rich period for assassination.

--Melissa Holbrook Pierson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385523929
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/27/2010
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 345,203
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

A native of Memphis, HAMPTON SIDES is an award-winning editor of Outside and the author of the bestselling histories Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

City of White Gold

In early May 1967, three hundred miles downstream from St. Louis, the citizens of Memphis stood along the cobblestoned banks, enjoying the musky coolness of the river. Seventy-five thousand people, dressed to be seen, waited in the twilight. They’d come from all the secret krewes —from the Mystic Society of the Memphi, from Osiris and RaMet and Sphinx. They’d come from all the clubs—Chickasaw, University, Colonial, Hunt and Polo, the Memphis Country Club—and from the garden societies. The good families, the old families, in their finest James Davis clothes, bourbon flasks in hand, assembled for the start of the South’s Greatest Party.

The brown Mississippi, wide with northern snowmelt, was a confusion of crosscurrents and boils. In the main channel, whole trees could be seen shooting downstream. A mile across the river lay the floodplain of Arkansas, a world of chiggers and alligator gars and water moccasins that lived in swampy oxbow lakes. On the long sandbars, feral pigs ran among graveyards of driftwood and rotten cypress stumps.

But in the clearings beyond these wild margins were hundreds and hundreds of miles of cotton fields. Cotton as far as the eye could see, row after perfect row. Gossypium hirsutum. White gold, mined from the world’s richest alluvium.

Memphis was built on the spot where the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, in 1541, became the first European to lay eyes on the Mississippi River. The city was founded 278 years later by Andrew Jackson and a group of his investor cronies, and named for the ancient Egyptian capital near the Giza pyramids. Memphis didn’t really take off, however, until the dense hardwood forests along the river began to be cleared in the mid-nineteenth century, finally making farmable the flat, rich floodplain known as the Mississippi Delta. As the country slid toward Civil War, Memphis became the capital of a region that was constructing a last frenzied iteration of Southern planter society. If the Delta came late to cotton, it came to it with a vengeance, and with all the defiant desperation of someone following a wounded creed.

Cotton had grown along the Nile near the original Memphis, and cotton was what modern Memphis had come to celebrate on this fine humid evening of May 10, 1967. In the fields of Arkansas, and down in nearby Mississippi, the little darlings had already begun to push through the dirt, the crop dusters were preparing to rain down their chemicals, and the old true cycle was in the offing. Now it was time for Memphians to pay homage and to bless another season in cotton’s splendid realm.

The thirty-third annual Cotton Carnival, Memphis’s answer to Mardi Gras, was about to begin. Later in the week, there would be luncheons, trade shows, and charity balls. A beauty contest would declare the fairest Maid of Cotton. Many thousands would visit the giant midway and attend parades with elaborate floats, some of them spun from cotton, depicting the gone-but-not-forgotten Old South and the treachery of the long-snouted boll weevil. All week there would be parties on the rooftop of the Peabody Hotel, where mallard ducks lived in a scaled-down mansion when they weren’t marching down a red carpet to splash around in the lobby fountain.

Tonight was the high pageant that kicked off the whole week—the majestic arrival of the King and Queen, sitting upon their thrones with their sequined court all around them, on a great glittery barge that was scheduled to nudge into the Memphis harbor shortly after sunset. It was a celebration not only of cotton but also of the peculiarly settled life that thrived on it—the life of dove hunts and pig roasts and debutante balls, the genteel agrarian world that could still be found in the fertile realms surrounding Memphis.

Cotton, cotton everywhere. Crane operators, hoisting dozens of five- hundred-pound cotton bales, had constructed colossal arches that spanned the downtown streets. All attendees were urged to wear cotton, and they did: party girls in crinoline dresses, dandies in seersucker suits, children in starched oxford cloth. People even ate cotton candy while they waited with the crowds for the Royal Barge to arrive.

Representatives from all echelons of the Delta cotton world had joined the masses on the river—the factors, the classers, the ginners, the brokers, the seed sellers, the plantation owners, the compress owners,

the board members of the Cotton Exchange, the loan officers from the Union Planters Bank, the chemical engineers who’d learned how to tease out the plant’s oils and secret compounds for every industrial purpose Mammon could devise.

Cotton’s presence, and cotton’s past, could be felt everywhere along the shadowed waterfront. Behind the cheering crowds, high on the magnolia-lined bluff once occupied by Chickasaw Indians, sat Confederate Park, with its bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, who’d made his home in Memphis after the Civil War. A block from the park was the place on Adams Avenue where Nathan Bedford Forrest once operated a giant slave market, said to be the South’s largest, that boasted “the best selected assortment of field hands, house servants, and mechanics . . . with fresh supplies of likely Young Negroes.”

Running lengthwise along the same bluff lay Front Street, cotton’s main drag. In the upstairs classing rooms, sharp-eyed savants still graded cotton samples by pure intuition under north-facing skylights— judging according to quaint industry distinctions like “strict low middling” or “strict good ordinary.” Memphis remained one of the largest cotton markets in the world, with massive fortunes made and lost and made again. Many of the names were legends—Dunavant, Cook, Turley, Hohenberg, Allenberg—high rollers in a vaguely druidic enterprise. In October, during harvest time, the skies above Front Street still swirled with snows of lint.

Cotton cotton cotton. Memphis couldn’t get enough of it. Cotton was still king. It would always be king.


In truth, though no one wanted to talk about it on that roistering night in 1967, the old world of Delta cotton was in serious trouble. Life on the plantations had changed so fast it was hardly recognizable. Soybeans had made inroads as the new mono-crop of choice. Polyester had encroached upon the American wardrobe. Massive mechanized cotton pickers, along with new soups of pesticides and herbicides, had rendered largely obsolete the life of the Delta sharecropper. Thus demoted by petrochemicals and machines, many thousands of black field hands and their families steadily left the plantations over the decades and came to Memphis—the nearest city, and the only American city of any size named after an African capital.

Other than mule skinning or chopping cotton, though, most Delta field hands had little in the way of marketable skills when they came to the city. Some found success playing the blues on Beale Street—the central thoroughfare of black Memphis. But most settled into low-end jobs that merely recapitulated the racial and socioeconomic hierarchy they’d known on the plantations. Many became maids, janitors, waiters, yardmen, cooks, stevedores. Some had no choice but to take the lowest- end job of all: they reported to the Public Works Department and became garbagemen.

At least they’d come to a city with a history that was rich and gothic and weird. Memphis, this city of 600,000 people wedged in the southwestern crotch of Tennessee, had always had a touch of madness but also a prodigious and sometimes profane sense of humor. It was a town known for its outlandish characters and half-demented geniuses: wrestlers, riverboat captains, inventors, gamblers, snake-oil salesmen, musicians high on some peculiar native vibe that could be felt but whose existence could not be proved. For 150 years, all the pain and pathos of the river seemed to wash up on the cobblestoned banks. In 1878, the city was nearly completely destroyed by a yellow fever epidemic, but the Metropolis of the American Nile had recovered, madder and stranger and more full of brawling ambition than ever. Memphis, as one writer famously put it, “was built on a bluff and run on the same principle.”

It was a city that, since its very inception, had been perched on the racial fault line. The first mayor, Marcus Brutus Winchester, created a major scandal by falling for, and eventually marrying, a “woman of color.” One of the area’s most fascinating citizens in the late 1820s, a Scottish-born utopian named Fanny Wright, created an experimental commune of slaves whom she sought to educate and bring into full citizenship. Several generations later, Memphis gave the world Ida B. Wells, an early titan of the civil rights movement, a woman of profound courage who, in the 1890s, repeatedly risked assassination with eloquent protests against lynching. Then there was the ever- cryptic Mr. Forrest, who quit his slave mart and took up a sword in the Civil War, becoming one of the most wickedly brilliant generals in American history. After the war he returned to Memphis, where, after briefly serving as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, he apparently experienced an epiphany—renouncing the Klan with seeming genuineness and calling for racial reconciliation shortly before his death.

But music was the city’s greatest gift and particular genius: the blues of W. C. Handy’s Beale Street, the soul of Stax Records, and a certain interracial sound stew that a redneck wizard named Sam Phillips cooked up in a tiny studio on Union Avenue, less than a hundred yards from where Forrest lay buried. At its essence, the music of Memphis was about the fecund intermingling of black and white. Elvis Presley, coaxed and prodded by Phillips, found a way to transmute the raw sound of Beale Street into something that would resonate across the world. The stars, white and black, who had passed through the studios and nightclubs of Memphis were as numerous as they were legendary: not just Elvis, but Rufus Thomas, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Albert King, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Roy Orbison, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, Memphis Slim. The phantom- like Robert Johnson, perhaps the greatest of the Delta bluesmen, lived in and around Memphis much of his short, tragic life. It could be argued that over the decades, Memphis’s musical ferment had done more to integrate the country than a hundred pieces of legislation.

In a way, cotton was at the center of the ferment, for cotton had spawned the blues, and cotton had built the city that gave the blues its first wider expression. But there was no mistaking the fact that most black folks in Memphis were good and done with cotton, and they hated most everything about the hairy prickly shrub that had so long enslaved them. Certainly not many black people were to be found on the banks of the river on that May night in 1967, awaiting the arrival of the Royal Barge.


The skies over Arkansas ripened to a final brilliant red before closing into darkness. It seemed as though the sun had literally buried itself in cotton fields. An orchestra played strains of Vivaldi, and the heavens crackled with fireworks.

Then, from under the bridge, the dazzling vessel slipped into view, with the crowds gasping in wonder. At first it was just a burst of bright light, a diaphanous vision floating out on the currents. As it drew nearer to the harbor, the ravishing details began to emerge. The barge was the size of a football field, with a giant art deco cotton boll rising over the sparkling set. Egyptian motifs were woven into the decorations—pyramids, sphinxes, hieroglyphics: the Old South meets the land of the pharaohs.

Seated on their thrones high up in the towering boll were King Joseph and Queen Blanche, 1967’s monarchs, wearing their crowns, holding their scepters. As always, they’d been chosen in secret, by some obscure protocol known only to the Mystic Society of the Memphi. As always, he was an older man, a business potentate, while she was a nubile paragon of Southern pulchritude, college aged and presumably a virgin. They were blindingly white people, in blindingly white clothes, sitting high in their resplendent perch. In unison, they cupped their gloved hands and gave the crowds tiny swiveling waves, as if to say, Here we are! . . . There you are! . . . We’re all here!

More than a hundred people made up the royal court, all posed together on the barge like the largest wedding party ever assembled. There were the duchesses, the counts, the pages, the princesses and their tuxedoed escorts. There were the young girls, who curtsied with labored formality and attended the train of Her Majesty’s gown. There were the weevils, the masked green jesters whose identities were unknown. On one side of the Royal Barge stood the Ladies of the Realm— belles from plantation towns all over the Mississippi Delta. On the other side were the Ladies-in-Waiting—belles from the city, from good families, and of marriageable age.

The court moved about the barge in a carefully choreographed promenade. Everyone was smiling, bowing, waving, beaming. “Don’t get wise with me,” the king warned, “or I’ll have you all beheaded.” When the music reached a fever pitch, King Joseph and Queen Blanche rose and took a bow. All along the bluff, the seventy-five thousand loyal subjects erupted in thunderous cheers: Hail, King Cotton and His Queen!

Then, in a swirl of lights, the court began to parade off the stage, and off the barge, and onto the old cobblestones, the royals closely gaurded by uniformed young men dressed as Confederate colonels. Like Peabody ducks, the revelers strutted down a long red carpet to a waiting convoy of Cadillac convertibles and were whisked away to the first parties of the season.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: #416-J 1

Bk. 1 In the City of the Kings 11

Bk. 2 Who Is Eric Galt? 229

Bk. 3 The Hottest Man in the Country 323

Epilogue: #65477 385

Acknowledgments 399

A Note on Sources 403

Notes 407

Bibliography 449

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Hellhound On His Trail.

1. In Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides examines a notorious moment in American history— the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., by James Earl Ray—and provides many never-before-revealed details about Ray, King, and the fateful events leading up to April 4, 1968. To fully appreciate the context of this tragic event in our nation’s past, your discussion group might consider reading about the civil rights era in the 1960s and the larger issues that surrounded King’s death. Here are some resources that offer interesting and useful information.

   • Britannica Online entries for the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination:

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/119368/Civil-Rights-Movement http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/318311/Martin-Luther-King-Jr

   • The website for the King Center:


   • PBS.org’s “Learn and Explore” section; search “Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)”:

            “Roads to Memphis” American Experience Film

2. Which characters came alive for you in Hellhound on His Trail? Did you learn anything new about some of the figures involved in this period of American history, or have you come to think about certain individuals in a different way based on what you’ve read about them?

3. In his “Note to Readers,” Hampton Sides writes, “All writers sooner or later go back to the place where they came from.” Having been a child living in Memphis when Martin Luther King was shot, do you think Sides separated himself from the events he reported on in this book? Consider this question in context to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 or the tragic attacks of 9/11: Is it possible to be a journalistic observer of an occurrence like this when it happens in your hometown?

4. Every fact and incident in Hellhound on His Trail is impeccably sourced, yet it has the narrative drive of a thriller. What did you think of the author’s treatment of the subject matter? When reading about a major historical event such as this one, do you prefer a narrative like the one Sides has constructed, one that re-creates the immediacy of the time, or a more straightforward timeline of events? How might this book differ from other nonfiction titles you may have read on the subject?

5. There are many who believe that James Earl Ray was part of a larger conspiracy and was set up to be the “fall guy” for King’s assassination. Based on the evidence the author presents in Hellhound on His Trail, do you believe Ray was the sole person responsible for King’s death? If so, why do you think theories of a conspiracy have persisted?

6. Talk about Ray’s escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City and his time on the lam before arriving in Memphis. Would he have been able to remain as anonymous today as he did then? Talk about how society has changed since 1968: are people more or less trusting of loners like Ray nowadays?

7. In Chapter 2, the author describes King as having reached a point in his career where he had “slipped in stature, even among his own people.” Were you aware of this dip in King’s popularity, and if so, was it surprising to you? Talk about history’s perpetuation of legend: in highlighting the achievements of a man such as King, do any cracks in his reputation become repaired, or disappear, over time?

8. Chapter 4 details FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta against King and his determination to expose King’s personal transgressions. But while Hoover and his staff regularly tried to leak salacious details to the press, in Sides’s words, “the media never took the bait.” Why do you think this was the case? How has the media evolved in the last 50 years, especially in matters regarding the private behavior of public figures?

9. Consider the political rise of George Wallace during this period, and the number of people—including James Earl Ray—who were galvanized by his presidential campaign, particularly his pro-segregationist, if not outright racist, positions. Does Wallace bear some responsibility for King’s assassination?

10. Do you see parallels between any of today’s political movements and George Wallace’s campaigns for office?

11. The manhunt that organized in the hours and days after King’s assassination was epic; most notably, more than 3,000 FBI agents took part, and it cost upwards of $2 million (which, adjusted for inflation, would be more than $13.6 million today). Considering how much Hoover despised King, was it startling that he mobilized the bureau to such an enormous extent to find his killer?

12. Martin Luther King “believed nonviolence was a more potent force for self-protection than any weapon,” (page 159). Given the threats he routinely faced—including the firebombing of his home in 1956 and being stabbed by a deranged woman in 1958—why did King nonetheless ban his staff from carrying guns or other weaponry?

13. “The bureau was well aware of the existence of bounties on King’s head,” (page 343). By not better protecting King in light of these threats, and for not realizing the impact his death would have on the nation, should the FBI have shared the blame for King’s death?

14. Book Two of Hellhound on His Trail opens with this quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “For murder, though it hath no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Why did the author choose to include this quote? What do you think this quote says about Ray?

15. Was it surprising to read about how easily Ray was able to slip out of Memphis after the shootings? Could he have been stopped sooner? Do you think Ray could have gotten away with his crime if he committed it today?

16. As Ray flees Canada for Europe, his desperation becomes acute and he begins to make mistakes that leave him exposed. Why was he was able to remain on the run for as long as he did? Think about his two critical errors in London as he entered Heathrow Airport to board a flight to Brussels. Considering his meticulousness at other points while in hiding, why did Ray try to walk through customs with two slightly different passports and a loaded gun in his pocket?

17. Shortly after Ray pled guilty to killing King and was sent to prison, he began to recant his involvement in the assassination and asked to be put on trial. And in the late 1990s, members of King’s family—notably his son Dexter and his wife Coretta—came out publicly to urge that Ray have his day in court. Should Ray been given a trial?

18. “Throughout James Earl Ray’s life, the despair was panoramic. The family suffered from exactly the sort of bleak, multigenerational poverty that King’s Poor People’s Campaign was designed to address.” Consider this paradox that the author highlights. What led Ray to his life of crime? If King’s efforts had made a difference in the life of someone like Ray, would Ray have taken another path in life?

19. What would have happened if Ray himself was murdered, much like John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed by Jack Ruby? What benefits, if any, have come from Ray’s remaining alive (until 1998) and speaking out? If Ray had died in the act of killing King, would the collective reaction of the country—riots, unrest—have been the same?

21. There are many labels that have been applied to James Earl Ray, among them: insane, criminal, racist, loner, oddball. How would you characterize him?

22. What do you believe would have happened to the civil rights movement had King lived? Would anything be different today?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 101 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 102 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2010

    A peculiar book

    This is a book that treats a common murder as an equal contest between the killer and the victim, and even that is not the oddest thing about it. The book is basically an apology for the FBI that uses its investigative work after the killing to vindicate COINTELPRO activities before the killing. Very odd indeed. But the most disturbing element is the picture drawn in the first half of the book, with the (as he is portrayed here) bloated, orgiastic, angry, confused, no longer relevant King, being stalked by the Zen-like, implacable, driven, focused Ray (or rather Galt, since Ray is never named). The intention is clearly to demonstrate the superiority of Ray to King, and the portraits drawn here are barely recognizable when compared to what is in the historical record. The end result is a strange, unsettling book that is steered by undercurrents as mysterious as those that drove Ray. A serious drawback is huge gaps in the historical record, especially with regard to activities of Ray between the escape from Jeff City (where according to the book he has already become the ascetic, yoga practicing, relentless, calculating planner) and time in Mexico. One would never learn from reading this book that he had already been to Canada. That struck me as a huge omission from the story. I don't know what the author was trying to achieve here, but I know it bothers me. A lot.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2010

    Stellar writing...

    This guy can write! Just finished Hellhound and my verdict is that Sides has produced a masterpiece. Sides tracks a killer and his victim in the days, weeks, and months before the murder in a way that is compelling in a simple, understated way. Had this book been written about two men we had never heard of, it would have been a fantastic read. But the narrative tracks two men we thought we knew and presents them as flesh and blood human with weaknesses, pathologies, and incredibly interesting lives. One of the reviewers complained that both men are presnted as equals-- this is not true. Instead, MLK is portrayed as the human being that he was who drank too much, was a terrible womanizer, and was filled with self-doubts. Imagine that: a human who is actually presented as a mortal man! Ray, is presnted as a deeply disturbed, racist career criminal-- this is hardly a positive presentation. The writing style is this book's best quality; it's very hard to put down and the reader will devour it in large chuncks!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 12, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Who is Eric Starvo Galt?

    Ask most people "Who is Eric Starvo Galt?" and you will receive a not unexpected blank look. But mention James Earl Ray and you will receive a much different reaction.
    This book chronicles the interwoven lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray during the few months prior to Dr. King's assassination, through the heinous act itself, until Ray is finally hunted down and brought to justice.
    I have to commend the author for neither deifying Dr. King; nor stereotyping Mr. Ray. Chapters alternate throughout the book, telling the different stories as they happened. I thought the story was even handed and fair throughout. Well researched and documented, even though I am aware of what transpired, I still found myself turning the pages as if this was a thrilling novel.
    My feelings are best summed up by the following exchange between Andrew Young and Dexter King, Dr. King's seven year old son."Uncle Andy, this man didn't know our Daddy, did he?" speaking of King's killer. "Why do you say that?" Young asked. "Because if he had, he wouldn't have shot him. He was just an ignorant man who didn't know any better." Out of the mouth of babes...
    A fascinating inside look into one of America's darkest hours and the struggle to provide some measure of closure to an act that had the potential to turn America's racial struggle into a full blown civil war.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 3, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    WOW!!!!Simply Wow.

    Talk about a book one cannot put down. The writing is superb and you feel that you are in a mystery novel and you realize that IT HAPPENED.
    Hampton Sides does a simply AWESOME job of telling the story of RAY and KING. Even though you know what is going to happen and how the story ends - it is told in a riviting and dramatic style which adds so much to the reader's UNDERSTANDING of the events.
    I can nonestly say that this book is one of the best I have ever read. I plan to work the material in this book into my History classes at the high school and community college.
    Thank You, Mr. Sides.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2014


    D: Nathan! What do we do? Nat: Im thinking! Nick! Whats your suggestion?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2014


    Lezz ki<_>ll em

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2014

    Good book

    It has allot of history that you might not have known about the incident but unfortunately no actual interviews with the assassin himself so some of it is speculation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2013


    Amazing read! Insightful.

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  • Posted August 3, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting narrative

    Fast paced and well written account of the murder of MLK and its aftermath. Particularly absorbing is the story of Ray's flight from the scene and his efforts to escape the authorities.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2013

    A Haunting Study of a Killer

    Told (almost) in first person narrative, the story seen move by move through the eyes of James Earl Ray, the stalking, leading up to the assassination of MLK, his escape after and the police investigation.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 30, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    A riveting account of Dr Martin Luther's shooting by James Earl Ray, with a historical account of the events leading up to it and the dragnet conducted by the FBI in locating and capturing Ray. In addition the author gives us a factual event documentary of Ray's escape again from prison. Tha examination of both Ray's and King's character and background makes for a trully excellent historical perspective. The book is excellent in examining and pain staking documenting all the various conspiracy theories as they relate to the murder and scholarly debunks all the myths from reality. The only thing we really don't learn is how Ray was able to accumulate money to conduct his odysssey.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2012


    *turns to smoke when hes touched then reforms behind you* over here.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2012

    The kit

    Hides in Kakidans smoke cloud.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2012

    A kit

    Stumbles in. She is very weak

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2012


    Can i join? Will we steal kits? Attack blazeclan.?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2012


    A silvery shecat with red eyes glides in. May i join rivetstar?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2012


    The well-built black she with a red blackwidows pattern in her side and a smaller one on her forehead padded in "i received word of a clan i feel i would fit well in" she said in a slow deadly tranquil voice "what requierments would one need to fofill to join?"

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2013


    He looks around at the empty camp. "So this is what happens when you don't visit for a few months," he muses. He walks over to the old leaders den. He peers inside. "Anyone hear?" He calls. There is no answer. He shrugs and settles down in the middle of the clearing to wait for the missing Clan.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2012


    Poisenstar growled he seemed to grow larger his smie grew scary "oh you made a very big mistake." He lpt amd dug his teeth into the demons throught.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2012

    Starclancat(well actually i came back to life...)

    Brown tabby she-cat looks around and walks off

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 102 Customer Reviews

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