Friday, January 11, 2013

Ozarks mystery

In 1929, a sixteen-year-old girl from the high country of northern Arkansas accused five men of murdering her boyfriend. Her melodic name was Tiller Ruminer, and she’d known the five men all her life: she was related to most of them by blood or marriage. 

The dead man was Connie Franklin, a drifter who’d come passing through six weeks earlier, and who had promised to marry Tiller. Now Connie was gone, five men were in jail, and a flock of newspaper reporters was about to descend upon the Ozark Mountains to cover a crime that turned out to be even more sensational than they realized. 

The story of Connie Franklin and Tiller Ruminer is told in Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South by Brooks Blevins. The most interesting aspect of Ghost of the Ozarks is its portrayal of the region’s culture, like this fascinating passage about the name of an Arkansas town, which was originally named Buckhorn. In 1883, the town changed its name to St. James: a memorial to Jesse James, the patron saint of disgruntled ex-Confederates and the powerless poor whose life of banditry had been cut short less than a year earlier in St. Joseph, Missouri. Local legend has it that James and his gang spent the night at the home of A.W. Canard in Dugan on their journey back to Missouri after holding up a stagecoach in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1874. There is no hard evidence that the James gang ever came through Buckhorn, and Arkansas, like other states in James’s orbit, abounds with “Jesse slept here” lore... Buckhorn residents’ memorializing and simultaneous beatifying of Jesse James reflected not only the community’s overwhelming Confederate sympathies a generation after the war but also the probability that St. Jamesians viewed vigilante terrorism as an acceptable expression of communal will. 

As for the murder of Connie Franklin - well, it’s a problematic story. In the years since 1929, the Ozarks have been transformed by Depression, war, and the march of modernization. The descendents of the people involved were far from willing to talk about the past, even to an Arkansas native like Blevins. 

And many of the documents relating to the case have disappeared, including trial records. Blevins had to rely on newspaper reports for much of his story, and these, he shows, were far from reliable. Newspapers were determined to portray the story as one of violent feuding moonshiners.  Their articles were full of preconceived notions of what mountain folk were like. 

Only one thing emerges clearly: no one in the case seems to have been deeply committed to telling the truth for long. Unusually for a true-crime book, by the end Blevins can’t even say for certain that there was a murder at all.  

Though there might have been. Depending on who you ask.

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