The seedy true-crime story of how James Earl Ray assassinated a great
By Laura Miller
Apr 18, 2010
"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
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.