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Edgar Award Nominee
One of the Best Books of the Year: O, The Oprah Magazine, Time, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, San Francisco Chronicle
With a New Afterword
On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel. The nation was shocked, enraged, and saddened. As chaos erupted across the country and mourners gathered at King's funeral, investigators launched a sixty-five day search for King’s assassin that would lead them across two continents. With a blistering, cross-cutting narrative that draws on a wealth of dramatic unpublished documents, Hampton Sides, bestselling author of Ghost Soldiers, delivers a non-fiction thriller in the tradition of William Manchester's The Death of a President and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. With Hellhound On His Trail, Sides shines a light on the largest manhunt in American history and brings it to life for all to see.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||7.82(w) x 5.22(h) x 0.98(d)|
About 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. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Table of Contents
A Note to Readers xiii
Prologue: #416-J 1
Book 1 In the City of the Kings 11
Book 2 Who Is Eric Galt? 229
Book 3 The Hottest Man in the Country 323
Epilogue: #65477 385
Afterword: Sick White Brothers 398
A Note on Sources 409
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:
• The website for the King Center:
• PBS.org’s “Learn and Explore” section; search “Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)”:
• PBS.org's “Roads to Memphis” American Experience Film http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/introduction/memphis-introduction/
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?
20. There are many labels that have been applied to James Earl Ray, among them: insane, criminal, racist, loner, oddball. How would you characterize him?
21. What do you believe would have happened to the civil rights movement had King lived? Would anything be different today?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)