“Hellhound on His Trail”: The creep who killed MLK

The seedy true-crime story of how James Earl Ray assassinated a great American hero

Topics: What to Read, American History, Civil rights movement, History, Martin Luther King, Jr., Our Picks, Books,

"Hellhound on His Trail": The creep who killed MLKJames Earl Ray after being arrested for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man,” said the civil rights leader James Bevel of James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Even if you aren’t inclined to credit the conspiracy theorists on this one — and Hampton Sides, the author of a new book about Ray, “Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin,” is not — you can see how the pairing of killer and victim would stick in the craw. Ray was a nonentity, a toxic loser from a long line of the same, incapable of forming even the most basic relationships, while King had the power to capture, embody and mobilize the better self of a nation.

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. At its center is the enigma of James Earl Ray, who could be crafty one moment and appallingly stupid the next. For Sides (the author of such popular narrative histories as “Ghost Soldiers” and “Blood and Thunder”), the King assassination has the added interest of being “the pivotal moment in the place where I come from,” Memphis, Tenn., although it must be said that the chapters about King himself are the book’s weakest aspect. There’s really only one point where the worlds of two men as different as Ray and King could intersect, and that’s a bullet.

As for Ray himself — whose real name doesn’t appear in “Hellhound on His Trail” until Page 321, in the last line of the 40th chapter — Sides deftly constructs the book so that the killer’s character becomes the mystery. Ray starts out in the first chapter as a nameless convict, “Prisoner #00416-J,” who escapes from the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City by hiding in a crate of freshly baked bread. After that, Sides refers to him by whichever of the many aliases the man used as he wandered from Puerto Vallarta to Los Angeles to Atlanta to Toronto to Lisbon and finally to London, where he was apprehended by a sharp-eyed Scotland Yard detective while trying to board a plane for Brussels.



Sides’ ingenious method ensures that a reader who hasn’t already made a study of Ray can judge him only as did the people whose lives he glided through: by his behavior. He always dressed fastidiously in suit and tie, though he invariably lived in cheap hotels and flophouses. “No matter where he was in the world,” Sides writes, “his radar for sleaze remained remarkably acute.” He avoided socializing or having his photo taken, cultivating a “bland and retiring” appearance and personality that made him eminently forgettable; even the plastic surgeon who gave him a nose job couldn’t remember anything about the guy.

Ray had a penchant for shabby and crankish self-improvement schemes, enrolling in a bartending school and taking dance classes and a correspondence course in locksmithing. He carried a battered paperback copy of a self-help book, “Psycho-cybernetics,” by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, everywhere he went and tried both psychotherapy (a treatment no doubt impaired by his reluctance to admit he was a fugitive from justice) and hypnotism. One of the hypnotists he consulted (an individual with the extraordinary name of the Rev. Xavier von Koss) pegged Ray as belonging to “the recognition type. He yearns to feel that he is somebody.” Yet by both necessity and (at least some of the time) inclination, he avoided making any impression on anyone.

Wherever Ray lived — and for much of “Hellhound” it’s in Los Angeles — he frequented whorehouses, strip joints and red-vinyl-upholstered “lounges” with names like the Sultan Room or the Rabbit’s Foot Club. This is the same Angeleno demimonde that James Ellroy often writes about; Sides evokes it vividly, but without Ellroy’s skeevy relish and the longing for several hot showers that Ellroy novels frequently inspire. Whenever he can, Sides imparts the details that make Ray’s seedy life palpable, from the groceries with which he stocks his hideout in an Atlanta boarding house (canned milk, bottled French dressing and frozen lima beans) to his splurge on the $6.24-per-night New Rebel Motel just outside Memphis on the eve of the assassination. (Though a true aficionado of cheap motels would know that the brand of miniature soap they provide is not “Cashmere,” but Cashmere Bouquet.)

The people Ray associated with (“knew” seems an overstatement) during the year between his escape and the assassination were a sundry assortment of misfits and kooks (he made a road trip with a fellow who talked to trees and claimed to have cured a woman’s arthritis by burying her panties in the backyard). He most likely supported himself with petty crime: stickups and low-level drug deals. But he also became passionately involved in the presidential campaign of segregationist, and former Alabama governor, George Wallace.

Ray’s enthusiasm for Wallace — a trailblazer for Sarah Palin and similar demagogues capitalizing on white working-class resentment — is what makes his story more than just the tale of a hate-fueled creep who struck down a great man (though it’s that, too). Sides notes that Ray must have had help on two or three occasions, probably from his brothers, but perhaps also from equally racist wingnuts who shared his so-called values, whether or not they actively collaborated on his one major crime. In Wallace’s California campaign offices, Ray found reinforcement for a paranoid political mind-set that was, as Sides puts it, “composed of many inchoate gripes and grievances.”

Something similar could be said of the obsessions of J. Edgar Hoover, King’s great nemesis within the government. The portions of “Hellhound on His Trail” devoted to Hoover and the FBI are, tellingly, far more organically integrated into the book’s main narrative than the chapters on King could ever be. You don’t have to believe that the government played an active role in King’s assassination to recognize that Hoover was really just a more effective and powerful version of James Earl Ray. Exalted and cleaned-up bigots like Hoover provided tacit moral support for fringe dwellers like Ray, just as they do today.

King and his lieutenants and friends, for all their shortcomings and infighting, were operating on a different historical level than the likes of Ray and Hoover. They were heroes, trying to redraw our shared image of humanity into something bigger, braver and nobler than it had ever been before. This truth shines through even as “Hellhound” moves past King’s assassination and into the investigation, recounted by Sides as a tense police procedural. When reporters at the funeral for Robert F. Kennedy informed Coretta Scott King that her husband’s killer had finally been caught, she didn’t waste a word on James Earl Ray. She simply “smiled the sad, wise smile she had perfected through two months of widowhood” and walked away.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>