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

by Hampton Sides

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Wow!!!! I loved this book. An amazing account of a man who is what I would call a brilliant idiot. Additionally, as someone who was an infant when King was shot, it vividly depicted the era and reminded me of how bad things were in this country only a short time ago. ( )
  Scarchin | Nov 12, 2013 |
At the time of his assassination, Martin Luther King was working on a poverty initiative. He was arranging an occupation that would draw attention to the dire conditions in which some Americans were forced to live thorough lack of wage and opportunity. King asserted that poverty and inequality was the ruination of society. That the inequality spawned resentment, anger and violence.
His assassin was born of the same inter-generational, any-race poverty that King was trying to alleviate.

The story of King's murderer and his journey through time and space from his jail-break to Memphis, is -inappropriately- exciting. We follow his progress to where King is, and in thriller style, we are still rooting for Martin Luther King right up to the time when he is shot. There is so much information in this book. So much feeling and so much research has gone into it. It reads so smoothly, and the information is layed down from the different perspectives turn-about to keep us up with the play with everyone concerned. We have the King himself, the FBI who were watching him closely and of course the murderer, his life and his hunting down, who's story this really is. ( )
1 vote Ireadthereforeiam | Sep 25, 2013 |
Forget about spoilers. Hampton Sides has done the seemingly impossible: created a heart-pounding, electrifying account of the stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the manhunt for his killer. But everyone knows the outcome. King was shot dead by James Earl Ray who was arrested several weeks later in London’s Heathrow Airport. Everybody knows that. So how exactly did Sides keep the suspense ratcheted up until the very last page? This is a true crime story like no other.

I’m still fairly numb from reading this driving narrative non-fiction of a time I remember very well. Sides did a superb job of getting at the psychology of the man found guilty of killing the African-American icon. Throughout the book, James Earl Ray appears to be a cypher, a non-entity. As the narrative opens, the prisoner who escapes underneath a truckload of bread is only identified as prisoner 416-J. From then on, we only know him by the many assumed names he goes by for the next year. We never see the name James Earl Ray until close to the end of the book. By doing this I think Sides has managed to show what an insignificant being this man was, shrewd one moment and horrendously stupid the next. After escaping he wanders from Missouri through the American South to Mexico and California, with no visible means of support, before returning a year later to Alabama/Georgia and Memphis where he stalks King. Along the way, we get to not know a guy who says very little, gets to know no one and has an unending supply of funds. He manages to stay in one sleazy motel room or flophouse after another. He’s drawn to the seamy side of life but doesn’t really fit in there either, in his neat suit coat, white shirt and tie.

Sides alternates this compelling narrative with descriptions of King’s frustrations with the pace of the civil rights movement and dissension within the ranks, his vitriolic disagreements with President Lyndon Johnson’s spending on the Viet Nam War while poverty runs rampant in the U.S., and J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of King’s activities and his visceral hatred of King.

Once Ray commits the crime for which he initiated the greatest FBI manhunt in history, Sides highlights his every move, his apparent mistakes, his flight to Atlanta, Detroit, Windsor, Toronto, London, Portugal and his final apprehension by Scotland Yard at Heathrow where he is trying to board a plane for Brussels so he can eventually escape to Rhodesia, which has both apartheid and no extradition policy. At no time does the suspense let up---the driving narrative is palpable.

Hampton Sides apparently does not buy any of the conspiracy theories out there but his narrative did bring up some questions. Where was Ray getting all the money he needed to survive? Someone must have been helping him. Who? How does a man shoot a high-powered rifle, that he purchased just a couple of days before King was shot, with deadly accuracy, while standing in a cramped bathtub in a rooming house? And if the FBI was keeping King under surveillance, as has been documented, where were they while King was being stalked? But this book doesn’t address those questions. It just sits in Ray’s back pocket and follows along and oh my, what a ride it is. Highly recommended. ( )
10 vote brenzi | Sep 1, 2013 |
This book is one of the few definitive works on the assassination of Martin Luther King. One of its predecessors, Gerald Posner's Killing the Dream debunks claims that King's murder was the result of an elaborate conspiracy. Hampton Sides' Hellhound... gives the backstory into who (the assassin) James Ray was, what motivated him, how he planned and carried out the murder, and how he managed to evade capture for the two months afterwards.

The book carefully traces the events leading up to the assassination -- the weeks during which the Rev. King traveled from city to city, struggling to maintain the commitment of the civil rights movement to non- violence, while Ray stalked his intended victim, culminating in that tragic day in Memphis. Following the murder, Ray (under the name Eric Galt) barely manages to elude the city police, and what results is the most massive manhunt in US history. Piece by piece the FBI builds its file, follows Ray to Canada, and finally to England, where he is captured by Scotland Yard. Although some argued the FBI did not pursue the case aggressively, such claims get absolutely no support here. In Sides' account, the search for the killer involved thousands of agents, multiple countries, and every investigative resource that could be brought to bear. Ray himself gets much attention, and he fits the mold we Americans have come to know well -- uneducated, unintelligent, a loner, a petty criminal who is in and out of prison -- yet to my mind (as a reader) he remains an enigma. The question of where he got the money to survive during his desperate flight is not explicitly addressed; presumably Ray had enough saved from his previous criminal exploits.

Hampton Sides adopted a matter - of - fact journalistic style that sticks closely to the established facts. I am grateful that the author refused to use such devices as made- up dialogue, unwarranted speculation, and accounts of what the protagonist was (supposedly) thinking. The result is low key in tone but exciting in content. Endnotes to the book offer detailed documentation of the text. I doubt that this work will change the minds of conspiracy theorists (who, in Sides' words, believe that "every organization this side of the Boy Scouts of America was involved in King's death.") However, for readers interested in a detailed, responsible, and well- paced account of the assassination and its aftermath, they could hardly ask for more than this excellent book ( )
3 vote danielx | Jun 17, 2013 |
This book opens with the escape from Missouri State Penitentiary “Jeff City” at Jefferson City of Prisoner #416J on April 23, 1967. Through out the book we follow his travels to Mexico, where he is going by the name Eric Starvo Galt. We follow him as he travels north to California, then west to New Orleans, Atlanta and Memphis. He bought a gun using the name Harvey Lowmeyer and rented a room in Mrs. Brewer’s rooming house as John Willard. From the bathroom of the rooming house he shot Martin Luther King while Dr. King was standing on the balcony of his room in the Lorraine Hotel.

Narrowly escaping the police in Memphis Galt travels to Canada where he obtains a Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd due to Canada’s policy of “Welcome to Canada, We Believe You”. By this time due to the mountain of physical evidence Galt had left behind and an enormous amount of manhours the FBI had discovered that his name was really, James Earl Ray. Ray was trying to get to Rhodesia, he was arrested by Scotland Yard detectives minutes before he was about to board a plane to Brussels, Belgium.

With interviews and consulting published works the author is able to recreate the movements of the principal members of this narrative. He details the massive efforts made by the FBI in their search for Dr. King’s assassin, as well as the help provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Scotland Yard. He chronicles what was happening in King’s live at the same time and also the effect his death had on his movement and the country, the riots, Resurrection City and the signing of the Civil Rights Bill.

Mr. Sides has a way of writing that carries you along, while not being ‘thrilling’ or ‘suspenseful’, I found this to be an absorbing read. The narrative never lags and while detailed is not repetitive or boring. I stayed up to 2 a.m. to finish it and highly recommend it. ( )
3 vote BellaFoxx | Jul 17, 2012 |
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Sides, HamptonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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"
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:02:35 -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)

» see all 6 descriptions

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