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 With a blistering, cross-cutting narrative that draws on a wealth of dramatic unpublished documents, Hampton Sides, bestselling author of Ghost Soldiers, delivers a non-fiction thriller in the tradition of William Manchester's The Death of a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.
Excerpted from Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides. Copyright © 2010 by Hampton Sides. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.
How did the idea for Hellhound on His Trail come to you? What made you decide to focus on James Earl Ray?
So many books have concentrated on either advancing or debunking conspiracy theories about the King assassination, but few have looked hard at James Earl Ray himself. Who was this guy? What were his habits, his movements, his motives? I found him to be profoundly screwed up, but screwed up in an absolutely fascinating way. He was a kind of empty vessel of the culture. He was drawn to so many fads and pop-trends of the late nineteen-sixties. He got a nose job, took dancing lessons, graduated from bar-tending school, got into hypnosis and weird self-help books, enrolled in a locksmithing course, even aspired to be a porn director. His personality had all these quirks and contradictions. He was supposedly stupid, but he somehow managed to escape from two maximum security prisons. Some claimed he wasn’t a racist, yet he worked for the Wallace Campaign, called King “Martin Lucifer Coon,” tried to emigrate to Rhodesia to become a mercenary soldier, and eventually hired a Nazi lawyer to defend him. He lived in absolute filth and squalor, but kept his clothes fastidiously laundered. And in the end, ironically, that’s what caught him: A tiny identifying laundry tag stamped into the inseam of a pair of undershorts found near the scene of the King assassination.
The “Notes” and “Bibliography” sections of Hellhound on His Trail total more than 50 pages—how did you begin to tackle the wealth of information that exists about Martin Luther King’s assassination? What was your research process like?
The research nearly gave me an aneurysm. But in the end, Hellhound is a work of narrative history, not a journalistic expose. I don't think I unearthed any massive bombshells that will change the world forever—like, say, proving once and for all that J. Edgar Hoover actually orchestrated the whole affair. Instead, what I unearthed were thousands and thousands of tiny details that make the story come alive on the page and make it possible, for the first time, to understand the tragedy as a complete, multi-stranded narrative. The book's packed full of novelistic detail—weather, architecture, what people were wearing, what the landscape looked like, the music that was playing on the radio. To get all this stuff, I had to do the usual sort of archival work—from the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin to the London newspaper archives—and I went pretty much everywhere James Earl Ray went, following in his fugitive footsteps: Puerto Vallarta, Toronto, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Birmingham, Lisbon, London. But my real ace in the hole was a retired Memphis cop named Vince Hughes who has compiled the most fascinating, and most comprehensive, digital archive about the MLK assassination on the planet: Crime scene photos, police reports, unexpurgated FBI files, audio tapes, and many hundreds of thousands of unpublished documents that proved a real godsend. Every non-fiction writer needs to find a guy named Vince. Thank God I found mine.
Has being a Memphis native affected your perspective on King’s death?
I think all writers sooner or later need to return to the place where they came from. In this case, I wanted to go back to the pivotal moment in the place where I came from. The King assassination is probably the most profound, most devastating, most controversial event that's ever happened in my hometown. Growing up as a kid I was always somewhat ashamed that King was killed there. The shockwaves still emanate from Room #306 at the Lorraine and still reverberate over our city, and our country, and our world. As a journalist and a historian with deep roots in Memphis, I couldn't ignore this story if I tried. I had personal connections to it, as well. My dad worked for the law firm that represented King when he came to Memphis on behalf of the striking garbage workers. My grandfather had a photographic studio downtown—the Blue Light—that was very close to the action. I majored in Southern history in college, and much of my early work at my first job—as a staff writer at Memphis magazine—focused on race relations. All of these influences made the King assassination a natural next book for me. In the end, I wanted readers to come away from the book with a sense of Memphis as a character—as this amazing, rich, somewhat tragic city perched on the racial fault-line, the only city of any size in America named after an African capital. King could have been killed anywhere, in Akron or Anaheim, for godsakes. That he was killed in Memphis, the capital of blues, cotton, barbecue, rock ’n roll, soul, and the Delta, feels almost scripted by fate. And that's the way I came to regard the story, as a slow accretion of small mishaps and local circumstances that built inexorably toward what seems, in hindsight, like a Greek tragedy.
How did you come up with the title? Is there significance to it?
It comes from the famous Robert Johnson blues song, “Hellhound On My Trail,” which is about being pursued by fate, by the law, and ultimately by death. Johnson was the greatest of the Delta bluesmen, and he lived in and around Memphis much of his short tragic life. It was said that he’d gone to The Crossroads and sold his soul to the devil to learn to play the guitar, so he was always looking over his shoulder for his time to come. When King arrived in Memphis in 1968, he was representing black garbage workers who were mostly former plantation hands from Johnson country, from the Delta cotton fields. As a title, “hellhound” seemed evocative on twin levels: For King, who was constantly being hounded by death threats and Hoover’s FBI, as well as for Ray, who became the target of the largest manhunt in American history.
The King assassination, like the JFK assassination, is rife with conspiracy theories. How did you deal with them?
At the outset of my research, I took very seriously the idea that there might have been a conspiracy. I read all the conspiracy books, examined every angle. The only problem with the conspiracy theories that are out there, I found, is that they invariably fail the most basic test: They raise more questions than they address, they create more problems than they solve. And they’re so monumentally complicated: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, the Green Berets, President Johnson, the Memphis Police Department, the Memphis Fire Department, the Memphis Mayor’s Office, the Boy Scouts of America—everybody killed Martin Luther King! But as I got into it, it became clear that the evidence against James Earl Ray was overwhelming. He bought the rifle, the scope, the ammo, the binoculars. He checked into that rooming house three hours before the murder. He peeled out from the rooming house one minute after the murder, in the same getaway car described by eyewitnesses. He admitted to every one of these things. His only defense was that some other guy—a mysterious man he called Raoul —pulled the trigger. Well, there’s not a shred of evidence that Raoul ever existed. So in Hellhound, I take the clear position that Ray did it, but I leave many doors ajar as to the question of whether he had help, whether he was working in the hope of winning bounty money, whether members of his own family abetted him. When in doubt, I generally err on the side of Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is usually the right one.
Ray appears to have been inspired by George Wallace’s racial rhetoric. What effect did it have on him?
Demagogues often fail to understand what happens when they put out their poison. Wallace and other segregationist politicians weren’t literally saying, “Go kill King.” On the other hand, they created an environment in which a disturbed but also ambitious man like Ray could think it was OK to kill King—could think that the society would smile on his crime. The culture of hate was intense in 1968, just as it is now. And Ray was powerfully drawn to it, so much so that he moved to Alabama for awhile and even volunteered for the Wallace campaign.
Can you compare Hellhound on His Trail to your previous books? Are there similarities among them?
I don’t concentrate on any one period of history, I like to locate my stories in wildly different eras and places. I seem to be drawn to large, sprawling, uncomfortable swaths of American history, finding embedded within them a tight narrative that involves strife, heroism, and survival under difficult circumstances. My histories tend to be character-driven, with a lot of plot, a lot of action. I don’t think you’d find me writing about, say, the Constitutional Convention or the Transcendental Movement. A friend once told me I’m interested in “human disasters”— social storms of one sort or another, and the ways in which people survive them, through courage, ingenuity, grace under pressure, luck. That’s true of the Bataan Death March, with the conquest of the West, and now, here, with the end of the Civil Rights era.
Aside from the amount of time required, how does writing a book differ from writing a magazine piece (such as you’ve done for Outside, among other publications)? Is it easy for you to move between these mediums?
I find there’s a thin, permeable membrane between journalism and history, and though some academic historians take a dim view of it, I gather a lot of strength and professional inspiration from passing back and forth across it. I approach my histories like a journalist, in fact. I look for the stress points, the controversies, the points of clashing and collision, and I look for subjects that still have a pulse in contemporary life. And when I finish a book, I like to jump right back in and take on a bunch of magazine assignments to clear my head and cleanse my palate. I think my journalism buttresses my history books, and vice versa.
What made you decide to pursue writing as a career? Have you always wanted to be a journalist?
The first writer I ever met growing up in Memphis was Shelby Foote, the great Civil War historian, and he gave me certain ideas at an early age about what narrative history can aspire to be. My other deep influence was John Hersey, who wrote Hiroshima, and was my teacher in college. But really it all started when I was just a kid. By the age of nine or ten, I knew that I loved history and writing. It got hold of me and never turned loose.
Some of the early reviews have described Hellhound as a non-fiction thriller. How do you feel about that?
A number of people who've read it have told me it reads like a big detective story—like Day of the Jackal, or something. If it is a thriller, then I suppose a critic could say that I've taken a national tragedy and turned it into an entertainment of sorts, and I don’t like the sound of that. On the other hand, I don't apologize for trying to make history fluid and enjoyable to read. In fact, I work hard at it. I really wrassle with the structure and the architecture, the interweave of characters, the plot-lines and the pacing and all the thousand-and-one details that keep the story humming along. But if this book’s a thriller, it's also a requiem—the story of the last days of a great man and the end of his movement. When it comes to the passages on King, I think it's quite evident to readers that, though I show him warts and all, I'm absolutely in awe of the man and his ferocious eloquence and his otherworldly courage. I think he was the closest thing we've had in our history to a heaven-sent agent of social change. People like King only come along every thousand years or so.
One of the most compelling things about Hellhound is the role of the FBI. In the first third, the FBI is something of a villain, but by the last third, it’s the protagonist.
There's good and bad in all people and all institutions, and in this book, as with my previous ones, I’m more drawn to graduations of character than to absolutes. I don't wrap King and his movement in a halo-glow, as so many books have done. I've tried to make him human on the page—which means flawed, vulnerable, full of doubts, uncertain about the future, and buffeted by the stresses of his position. By the same token, I don't operate under the assumption that all FBI agents are evil, as so many of the conspiracy books have done. I find it absolutely fascinating that Hoover's FBI, the very agency that had done everything within its power to ruin and smear King, was then commissioned with the responsibility of finding King's killer. And once embarked on that task, they did an extraordinary job. It was the largest manhunt, for a single criminal, in American history. It got down to the level of fibers, fingerprints, laundry tags, and the microscopic numbers on a transistor radio. The field agents were doing the job they were created for—solving crimes important to the nation. It was one of the FBI's finest hours.
From the Hardcover edition.
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
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?
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