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Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of…

Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the…

by Hampton Sides

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How ironic that the very systemic and societal issues which led to the dysfunction of the Ray family were the same issues that Dr. King was addressing: through the Poor People's March. How ironic and how sad that economic issues have been so obfuscated and confounded with invented racial issues that the very people who should be cooperating to end oppression for all, instead compete, even become violent, perpetuating the cycle. Dr. King, as the author points out, was working to help families exactly like the poor family of the man who killed him. Talk about voting against your own interests, and with a gun, no less. Dr. King's call for a Basic Income, housing for all, and a revamping of our economic system would have and still will benefit every last person on earth: the poor, by bringing up the floor of poverty to a living consistent with human dignity, and the rich by preventing another inevitable turning of the tables so often seen in history, from the Helot Rebellion to the storming of the Bastille. This book is nearly a novel, written in a shifting third person style that is highly engaging, while also using just enough omniscient narrative reminders of the evidence and sources to remind the reader that this is, in fact, real. And still relevant. Please read this book, and then read the Commission report, and then, write your reps!
Let's #EndPoverty & #EndMoneyBail by improving these four parts of our good #PublicDomainInfrastructure 4: (1. #libraries, 2. #ProBono legal aid and Education, 3. #UniversalHealthCare , and 4. good #publictransport )Read, Write, Ranked Choice Voting for ALL!!!!, Walk !


February, 12019 HE

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  ShiraDest | Mar 6, 2019 |
Hampton Sides' account of the movements of James Earl Ray leading up to and following his shooting of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a portrait of Dr. King, a history of the Memphis trash collectors' strike and also the story of the FBI's surveillance of King and the manhunt for his assassin. Sides is a graceful and fluent writer who sticks to the facts so his book is both educational and enjoyable. ( )
  nmele | Aug 2, 2018 |
While this book may not be fit the preferred genre of many readers, I would have a hard time believing most readers won't appreciate what it has to say. It does cover a major American historical figure and has some interesting insight into the American civil rights movement, but it is primarily a detective thriller. The author has clean clear style that moves the story along smoothly. I have read books about many of the assassins of American presidents and other major public figures and James Earl Ray just does not fit the "normal" side of what is decidedly a very abnormal activity. You really have to read the book to appreciate how unique he was. ( )
  larryerick | Apr 26, 2018 |
Fascinating account of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last days, and of the activities of his killer, James Earl Ray, a/k/a Eric S. Galt et al., before and after the assassination until he was finally apprehended by an astute Scotland Yard detective just before he would have boarded a plane in London bound for Brussels and (he hoped) eventually Rhodesia where extradition would not have been possible. There's a lot more of interest in the book as well, and it got me thinking about how disconnected I was from the world in 1968. Although naturally I was aware of the assassination, and I remember seeing photos of Ray after he was caught and during his trial, I am amazed now to realize that I was in Washington, DC, on our Senior Class trip less than 3 weeks before the shooting in Memphis. I was probably in the National Cathedral about a week before MLK gave his final Sunday sermon there just days before he died. (I've been digging around in old scrapbooks and memory books today, and I found a ticket stub from Ford's Theater dated March 23, 1968.) There were fires and looting and race-related violence in the aftermath in Washington, not to mention, a bit later, Resurrection City in the backyard of the White House. And while that was still going on, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and his funeral. It never registered with me on a personal level until now that these things were happening in places I had so recently visited --the Mall, the White House, the National Cathedral, Arlington National Cemetery. The book is very well written, in what the author terms a "novelistic" style, without too much attribution or reference to sources in the body of the text. There is an extensive section of notes, however, and the author's references are thoroughly documented. I am now quite interested in reading more by Hampton Sides, who goes on my list of favorite non-fiction authors, along with Shelby Foote and David McCullough.
March 2017 ( )
2 vote laytonwoman3rd | Dec 30, 2017 |
Fantastic narrative nonfiction. Impeccably researched. I couldn't stop reading, and I learned a lot too. One of the best books I have ever read in this genre. Highly recommended. ( )
  Mitchell_Bergeson_Jr | Aug 6, 2017 |
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Hampton Sidesprimary authorall editionscalculated
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Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives.- Martin Luther King Jr. (1967)
And the days keep on worrying me There's a hellhound on my trail.- Robert Johnson (1937)
Book One: When I took up the cross I recognized its meaning...The cross is something that you bear and ultimately you die on. ~Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)
Book Two: For murder, though it hath no tongue, will speak with miraculous organ. Shakespeare, Hamlet
Book Three: Thy chase had a beast in view; Thy wars brought nothing about; Thy lovers were all untrue. `Tis well an old age is out, And time to begin a new. ~John Dryden, "The Secular Mosque"
For McCall, Graham, and Griffin
The future looks bright
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(Prologue) The prison bakers sweated in the glare of the ovens, making bread for the hungry men of the honor farm.
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.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385523920, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2010: It's bold to start an account of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. without a single mention of James Earl Ray. But in Hellhound on His Trail, Ray's absence is essential--in his place, Hampton Sides traces the alter egos Ray created after escaping from prison and beginning his haphazard journey toward Memphis. Sides meticulously constructs parallel portraits of two very different men--one, the larger-than-life figurehead of the Civil Rights movement; the other, a nondescript loner with a spurious and violent history, whose identity was as fluid as his motives. The narrative builds to the staggering and heartbreaking moment of King's assassination, then races on through the immediate fallout: the worldwide manhunt led by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI; Ray's nearly successful attempt to flee to Rhodesia; and the riots that erupted throughout the United States as racial tensions reached a breaking point. Sides's storytelling packs a visceral punch, and in Hellhound on His Trail, he crafts an authoritative and riveting account of two intersecting lives that altered the course of American history. --Lynette Mong

David Grann Reviews Hellhound on His Trail

David Grann is most recently the author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes as well as the #1 New York Times bestseller The Lost City of Z. Read his review of Hellhound on His Trail:

Hampton Sides has long been one of the great narrative nonfiction writers of our time, excavating essential pieces of American history--from the daring rescue of POWs during World War II to the settling of the West--and bringing them vividly to life. Now in his new book, Hellhound on His Trail, he applies his enormous gifts to one of the most important and heart-wrenching chapters in U.S. history: the stalking and assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., by James Earl Ray.

The book chronicles the terrifying collision of these two figures. In 1967, King was struggling to complete his monumental Civil Rights crusade and to maintain, amid the rise of more militant factions, the movement’s nonviolent nobility. While King increasingly intuits his own death, Ray has begun to track him down. Through Sides’ prodigious research, Ray emerges as one of the eeriest characters, a prison escapee and racist who wears alligator shoes and is constantly transforming himself, changing names and physical appearances. He is determined to become somebody, to insert himself into the national consciousness, through a single unthinkable act of violence.

Sides illuminates not only the forces that culminated in King’s assassination; he also reveals the largely forgotten story of how his death led to the largest manhunt in American history. Almost unfathomably, it is J. Edgar Hoover, the person who had long hoped for King’s destruction and had even spied on him, who ultimately brings King’s killer to justice.

Hellhound on His Trail reconstructs this taut, tense narrative with the immediacy of a novel. Yet what makes the book so powerful--indeed what lifts it into the ranks of a masterpiece--is that the story unfolds against the larger backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and the struggle to remake the country. If Ray is able to undergo a final metamorphosis, it is King, through his life and ultimate sacrifice, who enacts the greatest transformation: changing the character of a nation.

(Photo © Matt Richman)

Questions for Hampton Sides

Q: How did the idea for Hellhound on His Trail come to you? What made you decide to focus on James Earl Ray?
A: 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.

Q: 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?
A:The research nearly gave me an aneurysm. But in the end, Hellhound is a work of narrative history, not a journalistic exposé. 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.

Q: How did you come up with the title? Is there significance to it?
A: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.

Q: The King assassination, like the JFK assassination, is rife with conspiracy theories. How did you deal with them?
A: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.

Q: Can you compare Hellhound on His Trail to your previous books? Are there similarities among them?
A: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.

Q:What made you decide to pursue writing as a career? Have you always wanted to be a journalist?
A: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.

(Photo © Gary Oakley)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:10 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

April, 1967: a prison escape. James Earl Ray, nondescript thief and con man, drifts through the South, into Mexico, and then Los Angeles, where he is galvanized by George Wallace's racist presidential campaign. February, 1968: a Memphis garbage strike. Martin Luther King joins the sanitation workers' cause, but their march turns violent. King vows to return to Memphis in April. Historian Sides follows Ray and King as they crisscross the country, one stalking the other, until the drifter catches up with his prey. Against the backdrop of the resulting nationwide riots and the pathos of King's funeral, Sides gives us a cross-cut narrative of the assassin's flight and the 65-day search that led investigators to Canada, Portugal, and England--a massive manhunt ironically led by Hoover's FBI. Drawing on previously unpublished material, this nonfiction thriller illuminates how history is so often a matter of the petty bringing down the great.--From publisher description.… (more)

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