Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Unless you are an avowed conspiracy theorist, in which case "Hellhound on his Trail" will leave you kicking and screaming in disgust, Hampton Sides delivers an amazingly well-researched, fast moving story about the assassination of MLK and the manhunt to find his killer. I'll gladly take any unhelpful votes for my review by stating out of hand that after reading a lot over the years on this topic, including now this book, I remain convinced in the guilt of James Earl Ray as King's assassin and am equally unmoved by the purported civil trial, Jowers vs. King, that conspiracy theorists tout, but which contains large issues (which I won't use this review to debunk).
Essentially alternating chapters between the James Earl Ray and MLK, Sides builds a pretty thorough and detailed story of James Early Ray's (and all his assumed identities) from the time he escaped Missouri State Prison in April 1967 to his time in Mexico and California before he made his fateful journey back East to kill MLK. What emerges is the portrait of a socially awkward, racist loner, living a nomadic life in spartan and many cases decrepit flophouses while dressing fastidiously in a suit. Ray comes from a broken, down on their luck family and like his other brothers, who all wind up in trouble with the law, he is no different. He's a virulent racist, fascinated with George Wallace and his Presidential ambitions, even volunteering to get enough signatures to get his name on the ballot in California. Ray also harbors ambitions to get to Africa and fight as a mercenary in Rhodesia to ensure a white supremacist regime holds on to power. Sides meticulously and comprehensively builds a portrait of someone whose psychological profile certainly is conducive to the crime he confessed to and the mountain of evidence that points to him as the lone gunman responsible for King's murder.
In alternating chapters, Sides follows King's last months, his work on the Poor People's Campaign and his involvement in the sanitation strike that began in Memphis and which brought King to the city to join in solidarity with those workers, in spite of the concerns among his inner circle. Sides covers the growing tension and schism within the black movement during an aborted initial march in Memphis in late March that turned violent and convinced King that his reputation and that of his non-violent principles required a peaceful march in Memphis. This confluence of events and decisions ultimately kept King and the SCLC in Memphis, trying to overturn an injunction preventing them from marching as Ray came to town, setting up in a rooming house only hundreds of feet from the Loraine Motel.
We follow Ray's movements to Canada and over to Europe building new identities and growing increasingly desperate as his money begins to run out and he is struggling in his attempts to get to Rhodesia. Eventually, the significant resources of the FBI (the irony given Hoover's massive attempts to discredit and subvert King), the tools of modern detective work like the use of fingerprints, ballistics and material analysis, along with the cooperation with international units like New Scotland Yard along with pure luck, led Ray's capture as he attempted to get to Belgium from London days after the US was mourning the death of another iconic leader in RFK.
As an avid reader of Civil Rights books, including the Taylor Branch trilogy and David Garrow's classic, "Hellhound on His Trail" serves as a fittingly well researched and written book on the final chapter of King's brilliant life and tragic death at the hands of the sick and pathetic racist loner that was James Earl Ray. Sure, there are many people who detested MLK, many within federal, state and local governments along with the range of white supremacist organizations fighting out in the open against progress being made during the Civil Rights movement. Many people find it hard to believe James Earl Ray acted alone and Sides is certainly not going to convinced the most hardened doubters. For almost anyone else, he lays down a phenomenally compelling and well-researched chronicle that should satisfy all but those hardened doubters that James Earl Ray was solely responsible for murdering MLK.
on May 10, 2014
Rarely have I been so gripped by a book. The pathos that Hampton Sides generates for the central characters in the drama is wonderful. Martin Luther King, despite his flaws, was a great man. The 1960's was clearly a tumultuous decade in American history. J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Baines Johnson feature prominently in the book, as well as King and those around him. Sides paints a beautiful picture of King's right-hand man, Ralph Abernathy, and, of course, Coretta Scott King. Jesse Jackson is portrayed more negatively than the others close to King. He is presented as being driven by ego and personal ambition.
The other central character is, of course, King's killer. James Earl Ray's movements prior to the shooting, as well as the weeks after, are fully documented. It's hard to know exactly what to think about Ray. King's own family didn't seem to view him with hatred. After all, he may have pulled the trigger, but it was America that killed the greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century. It was King's willingness to take time out of his enormously busy schedule to help the struggling garbage workers of Memphis that ultimately led to his death. The night before his death, King made his famous mountaintop speech at the Mason Temple. He said he wanted to do God's will, that he'd seen the promised land, but that he might not get there with them. Did the exhausted thirty-nine-year-old have a premonition of what would happen? According to Coretta Scott King, he felt a sense of mystical union with the passion of Christ at the time. It was approaching Passion Week when he was shot. As a Christian, Martin Luther King inspires me to try to make a difference in this present life too, albeit in a much less significant way than the great man. Thanks to the author for this immensely inspiring book.
on February 13, 2012
Format: Audio CD
I listened to an audio version of this, read by the author. This book traces the actions of James Earl Ray, in the months preceding the King assassination and the few months that he was on the run, before the authorities finally caught him at the London airport. It is a fairly dry, journalistic account of the assassination and the investigation and manhunt that followed. Sides favors detailed, factual descriptions (sometimes a little too much so), and a crisp picture of the killing and the events after it emerges.
What does not come through so clearly is an understanding of Ray himself, although there is an interesting discussion of his troubled, low-life family at the end of the book which sheds light on his character. But like other assassins in history (Oswald e.g.) Ray is more than a bit of a mystery. He was an apparently quiet, good-looking, nondescript fellow who did not leave a strong impression on most, but on examination is revealed to be a stealthy sociopath. But there are many questions that go unanswered, such as how did Ray make money? What was his involvement in the drug scene? Why did he develop such a twisted hatred of Black people?
I also wanted to hear more about Rev. King, whom Sides portrays as a chain-smoking, heavy 'drinking, womanizer who was also deeply spiritual and devoted to his cause. King had a strong premonition of his impending murder, and had been burning the candle at both ends for a number of years. I am sure there are some who would take offense at Sides' take on this iconic hero's life. So far as the notion of a conspiracy goes, although the author does not discuss it at length, he seems certain that Ray acted alone, and that King, due to his lack of concern for his own safety, was a very vulnerable target.
Sides also discusses the effect that the assassination had on the times and the nation, and he goes into the involvement of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. The agency aggressively hunted Ray down, even though they had been doing their best to discredit King for years by spying on him and trying to share what they found out about his sexual affairs with the media (who steadfastly refused to publish anything because it was strictly personal material - imagine that happening today!) This is a readable and riveting book that made me feel that I was now well-informed about the King assassination, even if I did not develop a great affection for the writing.
on January 10, 2012
In Memphis April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, unelected but indisputable leader of what today we call the Civil Rights Movement. In "Hellhound On His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History" (Anchor Books, 2010, 2011), Hampton Sides tells the pre and post-assassination story of the strange, smart but disturbed James Earl Ray aka Eric S. Galt aka Harvey Lowmeyer aka John Willard aka Ramon George Sneyd.
Sides writes a quite readable book, a kind of combination biography and historical novel. He digs deep on Ray: the man's odd flophouse life, prison terms, and seeming creativity in finding ways to escape prison. Sides also uncovers Ray's racism, a longtime part of his life but interestingly not often blatantly expressed--until he took one minute standing in a dirty bathroom tub to end the life of one the more gifted American orators of the 20th Century.
Conspiracy theories rage on to this day. Just google it and you'll see. But Sides lays out the overwhelming amount of evidence that points to Ray and concludes without reservation that Ray acted alone.
I was in high school in April 1968. It was a challenging year for America, to say the least. A few months before MLK, Jr succumbed to a bullet, the Tet Offensive was launched in Viet Nam. In March, LBJ said he would not run for a second term as President. A few months after MLK, Jr died, Robert F. Kennedy, RFK, joined him when Sirhan Sirhan took his life in a California hotel June 6, 1968. In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by violent protest. The Counter Culture Movement had not yet reached its zenith. All of this is seared in my memory.
MLK, Jr, was a flawed leader, as Sides doesn't hesitate to note, but MLK, Jr's essential message from his most well-known speech continues to resonate: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
If it's true that racism is not what it once was in the United States, it is also true that it yet exists. So books like this remind us we've yet got work to do.
This book is not "fun" to read because its topic is serious and sad, but I recommend it highly.
on June 30, 2010
Prisoner #416-J in Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City is a slender, fair-skinned man in his late thirties with raven hair flecked with gray at his sideburns. He is a person hard to describe or remember - a model prisoner the guards overlook. He has spent most of his adult life behind bars. Today is the day #416-J will escape (in a bread box no less) and be on the run for many months just under the radar.
It is a happy time in Memphis. Tennessee. The third annual Cotton Carnival, Memphis' answer to Marde Gras, is about to begin. The barge carrying the cotton king and queen is scheduled to arrive shortly after sunset. It is also a time of unrest. The sanitation workers are on strike. The garbage is piling up on the street of Memphis and the Major refused to negotiate. Martin Luther King Jr, is scheduled to lead a peaceful march in support of the workers.
Prisoner #416-J, or Eric Galt as he calls himself, is in Puerto Vallarta pertaining to be a photographer making a movie. The manager of the hotel where he is staying doesn't know what to make of his mysterious new guest. Gault is meticulously dressed, is a fidgety gringo who mumbles when he talks and drives a two-door Mustang hardtop.
Former Governor George C.Wallace is running for President of the United States. He is making white supremacy the centerpiece of his campaign. Wallace's hatred of the back man and King in particular is widely known. King is extremely troubled by Wallace's popularity. King is crisscrossing the country promoting his upcoming Poor People's Campaign. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover has been obsessed with King for decades. He has carried in a semi public feud with King and the SC LC.
Wallace's campaign in Los Angeles draws Galt. When did he return to the United States and under what alias? His hatred for blacks and King is growing to the boiling point. He leaves Los Angeles for Memphis and begins stalking King. Martin Luther King Jr, is shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee by an unknown assassin who escapes under the very noses of the Memphis police. At 7:05 pm at St, Joseph Hospital is pronounced dead. Who is the assassin?
Every able bodied man and women of the FBI and all police departments are looking for who. Clues point to a man named Eric Galt, but who is he? Galt, under an alias, is eventually caught by Scotland Yard trying to board a plane to Brussels. He is returned to the United States and put in solitary confinement in the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary - one of Tennessee's tightest maximum security prisons. By a quirt of faith he escapes and for several days is on the run. He is captured, by accident, in the rugged mountains surrounding the prison and returned. He later died in 1998.
The question is - who is Eric Galt? Some believe he is James Earl Ray or is he. How did an uneducated small time criminal, using so many alias, allude the FBI for so long? A 65 day search that took investigators to Canada/Portugal/England in the most massive man hunt in history. Did he have help - where did he get his money? Was there a conspiracy?
Highly recommended. A very interesting read - a hard book to put down.
This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? ) Mr. Sides' book is the kind of book I love, narrative nonfiction propelled by a historical event that we all think we know something about. After reading a book like this, though, we realize we didn't really know that much at all.
I was a child when Martin Luther King was killed, raised in a household that never discussed current events or politics. I was pretty much completely unaware of the assasination until I was older. By then, all I knew -- or thought I knew -- was that the iconic leader of the civil rights movement was killed.
This book filled in for me the broader context of the times. Until reading it, I had no clue that at the time of the murder, King's nonviolent movement was considered in decline and in danger of being supplanted by the more militant agendas of the day, led by the likes of Stokely Carmichael. I knew nothing of the inner turmoil of King's organization as younger leaders struggled to make their mark. (A young Jesse Jackson comes across as especially fractious, and ridiculous.)
I was also fascinated by the book's "hunt" theme -- the stalking of MLK and the hunt for his killer. The chapters alternate viewpoints, from King's to James Earl Ray's to the FBI's and other players. In this way, it reminded me of one of my very favorite books, Martin Dugard's Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone. Dugard brings his two protagonists together in much the same way Sides does, even noting the geographical distance between the two men as their fates converge.
If I could change one thing about the book, I would have liked a straight chronological tale. The author starts with Ray's escape from a prison and his life on the lam prior to killing MLK (I guess to accommodate the "hunt" theme). But because the author doesn't delve into Ray's upbringing until late in the book -- and because there is scant information available about his racial and political views -- his killing of MLK doesn't make much sense. The idea seems to pop into his head out of nowhere, rather than being a calculated move. The way the author paints him, Ray seems almost a-political, except for some fleeting interest in George Wallace's presidential campaign. It seems highly unlikely to the reader that this pathetic drifter would have committed this crime. Maybe that's why the author chose the structure he did, though.
The other book "Hellhound" reminded me of is the journalistic classic, The Death of a President by William Manchester. His account of the killing of President Kennedy is as finely told a tale as this one. I admire the reporting and storytelling skills of both authors.
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book can best be classified as a parallel narrative, moving back and forth between events in the life of James Earl Ray, on the one hand, and of Martin Luther King, on the other--merging at the horrible intersection of the two narratives that occurred at 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Hampton Sides has divided his narrative into five parts, each of which refers to the assassin by the moniker he was using at that particular point in the story. In the first part, entitled "Prologue," we see an unnamed prisoner escaping from the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City. He is referred to simply as Prisoner #00416-J. Book One picks up the narrative at the point where the assassin has adopted the name Eric S. Galt. Sides continues to employ this name through Books One and Two, which involve the events leading up to the assassination of Dr. King.
Then in Book Three, which narrates the flight of the assassin and his peregrinations in Europe, Sides refers to Prisoner #00416-J/Galt as Ramon George Sneyed, an identity that Ray stole in Canada and used abroad. Then, in the Epilogue, Sides finally begins to use the assassin's actual name, James Earl Ray, as he discusses the capture, trial, imprisonment, escape, re-imprisonment, and death of the bland, non-descript man who changed the course of the civil rights movement and, indeed, of America itself.
In each of the three Books, the author moves back and forth between the activities of Ray, King, and law enforcement much in the way that the writers of the popular TV series *24* do, creating a rapid pace while at the same time giving careful attention not just to the actions of the men, but their personalities. We see Eric Galt in his rumba lessons, for example, and Martin Luther King on a hotel balcony in Acapulco confiding thoughts of suicide to his friend Ralph Abernathy. Each of the men comes across as a real person, not as a flat villain or a stereotypical hero. This is a triumph for the writer whose craft creates inside the reader the ability to mentally "become" both figures--the one on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the one in the bathroom window of the flophouse behind it.
Along the way, as developments in the narrative occur, Sides includes additional accounts of the perceptions and actions of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI; Ramsey Clark, attorney general of the United States; Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States; and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King's wife and later the "national widow." Again, Sides does a good job of presenting each of these individuals so they are seen as real people, not as cardboard cut-outs.
Sides has also done a good job of documenting his narrative by providing end notes for each chapter and using photos of Ray which show how his face varied as his names did.
One is hard-put to find any shortcomings in the book, but near the end, Sides falls into the trap of taking an otherwise robust, documented work and ramping it up for a popular audience by throwing in the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the word "excrement," not in a quotation but in his own narrative--not really a class act, in my opinion, but--alas!--one becoming more common in this genre.
That lapse aside, I would recommend this book not only for those who lived through this turbulent time and are looking for an integrated narrative that explains more than isolated news stories did in 1968, but also for those who approach the subject as a piece of American history. Neither will be disappointed.
on May 28, 2010
This is an outstanding, thrilling book about the murder of Martin Luther King and the subsequent pursuit of his killer, James Earl Ray. The book can fairly be characterized as closer in style to thriller fiction than history, but I dont have a problem with Sides' approach to his subject matter. He may have felt, writing shortly after the publication of Taylor Branch's masterful King in America trilogy, that he had no choice.
Also, Sides previous books Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West and Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Missionboth take an "action movie" approach to their subjects. It seems to come with the territory with him.
In this case, Sides is investigating an incident that took place in his home town of Memphis, and his familiarity with the scene and the times is helpful.
The book breaks roughly in half, the first half following Ray and King as the killer stalks the civil rights leader and the second describing Ray's efforts to escape the clutches of the FBI and the police in Canada and England. In the early sections of the book, I often found myself asking where did this guy get his money, and I have noticed that a couple Amazon reviewers raised the issue as well. But Sides does cover it, or at least offers a pretty likely explaination. Like so much with Ray, the truth is pretty elusive.
A final note, though I hate to close on a negative with regard to a book I enjoyed quite a lot. Sides refers to Ray by his aliases throughout the book - Eric Galt for much of the pre murder section and Ramon Sneyd while on the run in Toronto and England. I suppose the intent was to give the reader a sense of immediacy, but it was off putting for me.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This book is a fast easy read. The in retelling the events he alternates every few pages between what Martin Luther King was doing versus James Earl Ray. The book is 397 pages, the assassination takes place on page 166, from there the book alternates between the personalities in Kings entourage, the authorities investigating the murder, and James Earl Ray. The book is VERY well researched covering minute detail that had been reported by store clerks, motel owners, laundry mat workers, prison guards, FBI agents from low level to high level etc. This covered James Earl Ray escaping prison about 1 year before the assassination to the time he get captured about 2 months after the assassination.
One very interesting aspect of this story is how James Earl Ray did not plan out his escape from the MOMENT he pulls the trigger. But he still was on the run for about 65 days, gets to Canada, then England, then Portugal, then back to England!
However, there is a style the author used that did not embellish on important detail, but is a style to retell the story. Here is an example from page 138 (Galt is James Earl Ray):
"The desk clerk, Henrietta Hagermaster, put him in room 34. After paying the nightly rate in cash, Galt pulled his car through the narrow enteranceway and parked directly in front of his door. He inserted the key into the lock, turned it, and stepped inside."
There also is a fair amount of dialogue by all parties in the book.
I will repeat - there is a massive amount of detail in this book that I assume is correct - things like James Earl Ray `picked up a six-pack of Schlitz beer at a bait shop in Southhaven Mississippi.'
The reason I don't give the book 5 stars, is it is unclear where James Earl Ray got money while living for a year as an escapee from prison. It was barely touched upon, but I wanted more. Also, James Earl Ray was a racists clearly from the information given in the book - but no analysis on why a petty thief was motivated to commit a political assassination. However, I still highly recommend this book.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2010
Hampton Sides does a masterful job assembling the record of newspaper articles, memoirs and other files to tell a compelling narrative of the stalking, assassination and search for the killer of Martin Luther King. Perhaps most compelling is the first sixty percent of the book in which King's and Ray's paths are tracked separately, back and forth, with interesting period details--giving excellent perspective on the historical context--as they head towards the terrible collision the reader knows is coming. Sides is a writer, and the narrative sometimes assumes or fills in a little more than a historian would be comfortable with, in terms of the thoughts, feelings and motivations of characters, but certainly not to a problematic degree and Sides' balanced presentation (no saints here) more than offsets this and leaves the truly heroic King legacy all the stronger for presenting the human being. The killer is also extremely interesting, a mixture of smart and stupid, with an unusual amount of access to an assassin's thinking.
Some additional observations: (i) Ray's turn from small-time drifter/cracker/crook enjoying his freedom, to King stalker committed to assassination is clearly marked but also completely unexplained. The record does not provide the reason, so the book doesn't either; (ii) much of Ray's thinking described in the book comes from King's killers own account, the net effect is to avoid demonization, but also to diminish the despicable horror of his actions; (iii) was Ray part of a conspiracy? The book left me thinking probably not, with a better understanding of how the answer could really be "no," but some (nongovernmental) "conspiracy" possibilities are also suggested; (iv) the FBI manhunt is also interesting, for the large and small techniques they used and in contrast to what they would do today, where fingerprint evidence and electronic searches would have led to a much more rapid identification and because how easily Ray could have gotten (further) away.