For the most part, the stories of would-be assassins such as John Lawrence (Jackson), John F. Schrank (Theodore Roosevelt), Giuseppe Zangara (Franklin Roosevelt), Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola (Truman), Lynette Squeaky Fromme (Ford), John Hinckley, Jr. (Reagan), and others have faded into the fog of historical arcana. Even other celebrity assassins are now just answers in games of Trivial Pursuit.
(Feel good about your cultural literacy if you know Mark David Chapman, Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Bremer.)
Its certainly been a while since the story of the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Lither King, Jr. has been recounted, and Memphis’s own Hampton Sides (Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder) has chosen to engage in a nifty piece of forensic history by unpacking James Earl Ray’s homicidal act in Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin (certainly an apt use of Robert Johnson’s famous song title).
Employing a well-tried approach, Sides explains:
The great Memphis historian, [and here I thought he was a Civil War historianR.B.] Shelby Foote once said of his civil war trilogy that he had employed the novelist’s methods without his license and that’s a good rule of thumb for what I have attempted here. Though I have tried to make the narrative as fluidly readable as possible, this is a work of non-fiction. Every physical and atmospheric detail arises from factual evidence...Sides follows Ray, who took the alias Eric Galt, from his perambulations following his release from a Missouri prison in spring of 1967 through the 65-day manhunt conducted (and noted with some irony) by a J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI, spanning Canada, Portugal, and ending with Ray’s arrest in England.
As for King’s assassin, I’ve let the story speak for itself. Whether witlessly or incidentally, or on purpose, he left behind a massive body of evidence. Much of my account of his worldwide travels comes from his own words. The rest comes from the record. The killer left his fingerprints, both literal and figurative, over everything.
Hampton Sides has admirably succeeded in his efforts by injecting a vitality and urgency into a story that can be accurately labeled a thriller.