Lawyers and Lizard-Heads

The prison letters of James Earl Ray

By Douglas Brinkley and Anne Brinkley

The special-collections department of Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library holds more than 83,000 documents pertaining to the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who received a doctorate in theology from the university in 1955 and established the King archive with a large donation of materials in 1964. Eighteen months ago Howard Gotlieb, the university's director of special collections, quietly augmented the library's holdings with the prison letters of James Earl Ray, the man widely believed to be King's assassin. Earlier this year we were the first people outside the library to be given an opportunity to examine the Ray letters.

The collection consists of approximately 400 letters that James Earl Ray wrote from 1969 to 1997—mostly to his brother Jerry. Prison regulations forbade him to write letters longer than two pages, so Ray was always succinct. The early letters are handwritten, sometimes with a green ball-point pen; as the years went on, Ray became adept at typing. From his cell at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, an hour from Knoxville, and at Tennessee State Prison and the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, in Nashville, Ray detailed his battles with wardens, police officers, and legal authorities; his views on celebrity and the news media; and his endless maneuverings to promote some self-exculpatory version of the circumstances behind the King assassination.

The Ray collection offers an intimate glimpse into the life of a criminal whose adult years were spent almost entirely behind bars. James Earl Ray was born in 1928 in Alton, Illinois, the first of seven children. His father was an ex-convict; his own career outside the law began at an early age. In 1967, imprisoned for robbing a grocery store, Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary, in Jefferson City, by hiding in a bread crate. He lived free for a year under numerous aliases in the United States and Canada. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis. Prosecutors contended that Ray fired the fatal shot from the bathroom of a rooming house. He was apprehended at London's Heathrow Airport two months after the assassination.

During the thirty years of his imprisonment Ray often sought to persuade the world that he was a fall guy framed by the FBI or by organized crime. Initially Ray had confessed to killing King; he agreed to a plea bargain and was given a prison sentence of ninety-nine years. Soon after his sentencing, however, he recanted his confession. Much of Ray's correspondence deals with his subsequent efforts to overturn the plea bargain and have his case brought to trial, which the State of Tennessee opposed. The convoluted legal battle continued until Ray's death, in 1998, and ultimately made Ray deeply conversant with the technicalities of the law.

In the following 1972 letter from Ray to Jerry, "Fensterwald" is Bernard Fensterwald, Ray's lawyer at the time, and "J.B." is J. B. Stoner, a Georgia segregationist and lawyer, who would one day be charged with the 1958 bombing of Birmingham's Bethel Street Baptist Church. The letter typifies the way Ray was always playing angles, legal and investigative. "Franks" is most likely Gerold Frank, the author of a 1972 book about the King assassination, An American Death.

That is to bad about the Judge getting sick but maybe he will get allright before to long. The business I wanted you and J.B. to see him about is more important than 1000 talk shows, I can't get any legal relief from talk shows, althoe they might help some ... We should have had the info the Judge was looking into 2 or 3 years ago. Therefore if you and J.B. goes through Chattannoga stop and see him if he is well enought, if he can't do nothing personally he might tell you who to see or, he may have allready found out something. If he can't J.B. suggested something when he was up here, but since I don't want to put it in this letter, I will wait until I see him or you. (The warden told Fensterwald that he may put you back on visiting list)

Fensterwald was here Friday the 21st. and he thinks we have an excellent chance for sueing Franks and others including the Att.Gen. but again we will need the info. I have been telling you about above.

Fensterwald seem's to think everything is going good. The state has about run out of time, of stalling time...

Concluding, I believe every thing legally is about to come to a head, the suit is now in the Tenn.Sup.Ct. and they will have to rule in a couple of months, plus the civil suit will proably force the state to do something.

Not surprisingly, in none of the letters did Ray confess to the murder of Martin Luther King. In none of them did he profess his innocence, either; the outrage of the Wronged Man is missing. Ray's attention was narrowly focused on the legal process, and on getting a trial.

When a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives investigated the King assassination, in 1978, it concluded that Ray had indeed killed King but may have had help. Ray himself eventually claimed that the assassination was orchestrated by a mysterious man named Raoul. A succession of lawyers for Ray—nine in all—struggled over the years to build some sort of case in his behalf. It was not easy: he was an inveterate liar. When he died, of liver failure, at the age of seventy, it seemed that the matter was at an end. But a victory of sorts for Ray occurred within two years of his death, when a Memphis jury came to the conclusion that a government conspiracy was responsible for King's assassination. The jury's decision came in a suit filed by the King family against Loyd Jowers, a retired Memphis entrepreneur who stated on national television in 1993 that he had paid someone other than Ray to murder King. Jowers maintained that he had become involved at the behest of an acquaintance who was employed by the Mafia boss Carlos Marcello, of New Orleans. The jury held Jowers liable in King's death and concluded that unnamed others, including officials of U.S. government agencies, were also implicated in the crime. The King family was awarded $100—the symbolic fee requested in the suit. "In my opinion it had to be a conspiracy," Martin Luther King III has maintained. "It's probably a fact that the intelligence community played a role." Despite such statements, the notion of Ray as an innocent party has not widely taken hold in America. The most respected book on the assassination, Gerald Posner's Killing the Dream (1998), unflinchingly points to Ray as the assassin.

James Earl Ray and his brothers, Jerry and Jack, epitomized the outlook of a certain kind of hardscrabble white world: a world of blinking ignorance, pathetic bigotry, and cramped horizons. Ray detested the influx of nonwhite foreigners into America. "I suspect if you go to Chicago or any place else right now it will be difficult to find a job," he wrote to Jerry in 1982. "There are so many illegal aliens it is hard to find work." Ray was, of course, a racist, though he tried to depict himself otherwise. As Gerald Posner wrote, Ray had picked fights with black sailors while in Mexico, tried to flee to segregationist Rhodesia after killing King, and refused to be transferred to an integrated honor farm while serving his sentence for robbery. Among his papers is a newspaper clipping that chronicles the rise of the racist politician David Duke in Louisiana. J. B. Stoner, the lawyer for the National States Rights Party, figures prominently in Ray's letters; Stoner's letters to Ray conclude "With Best White Racist Wishes." Stoner was among the first people to defend Ray after King's assassination. Jerry Ray served as Stoner's campaign manager when Stoner ran for governor of Georgia against Jimmy Carter, in 1970, and for many years was his bodyguard and driver. When Stoner was charged with the Birmingham bombing and implicated in others, James Earl Ray lamented in one letter that his friend would come to be known in the press as the "butcher of Birmingham." In a 1982 letter to Jerry he offered some legal advice to pass along to J.B. (His command of the legal process, and of English spelling, had improved considerably during more than a decade in prison.)

In respect to JB's case, I have read numerous cases where the court have dismissed habeas corpus petitions because the petitioner waited too long to file them. The court have held that witnesses have disappeared or died and it was the petitioner responsible to file habeas corpus as soon as he learned of the grounds he could file under. It seem's to me the same would apply when prosecuting. JB could have had witnesses 20 years ago that showed he was not at the scene of the bombing and they could have expired or moved somewhere. If I was him I would be checking into confinement in case his bond is revoked if the sup. ct. denied to hear the appeal. The medical issue is a good one. Sometimes you can get into a medical facility (where usually both nuts & the ill are kept like Springfield), and it is a lot better. Enclosed is a clipping wherein a pervert had his time cut because the judge said prison life would be to stressful—maybe JB could say he was gay and have his sentence suspended?

Ray was conscious of how much law he had picked up. One letter to Stoner ends like this: "When I get out could you use a research assistant? You do the talking and I the rest?"

In his letters from prison James Earl Ray never once wrote a critical word about Martin Luther King (whom he usually referred to simply as "MLK"). He knew that he had no hope of a reversal of fortune if anything disparaging of King or of any other African-American leader escaped from his pen or his lips. He succeeded beyond his expectations in his campaign to persuade civil-rights leaders to embrace his cause. He intuitively understood that he and they had one big thing in common: a visceral distrust of the FBI (which had conducted a systematic campaign of surveillance against King) and an unwillingness to believe its version of anything.

Ray's support in the civil-rights community is astonishing. The Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote an introduction to one of Ray's two autobiographies, Who Killed Martin Luther King? (1992). Dick Gregory co-wrote an investigative book, Zorro (1977), which defended Ray and argued that King had been killed by the FBI. The Reverend Hosea Williams, one of King's closest associates, held a series of news conferences, insisting that Ray had been framed. The usually circumspect Andrew Young, after looking into the case, called it a travesty of justice. The great Gandhian teacher of King, the Reverend James Lawson (the hero of David Halberstam's 1998 book, The Children, a group biography of the leading activists of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-in movement), officiated at Ray's marriage in prison (to a courtroom artist named Anna Sandhu, who later divorced him). In March of 1997 King's son Dexter visited Ray in prison. "I want to ask for the record: Did you kill my father?" the young King asked. "No, I didn't, no, no," Ray replied. To which Dexter responded, "I believe you, and my family believes you, and we will do everything in our power to see you prevail."

There is a letter in the Ray papers from Coretta Scott King to Jerry Ray, on the occasion of James Earl's death, in which she expressed how "deeply saddened" she was by the news. "This tragedy is made even more painful by the fact that your brother was denied his day in court and an opportunity to prove his innocence," she wrote. "We want to assure you, however, that the King family will do everything in our power to press for a full investigation of all new and unexamined evidence which could verify his innocence."

Paranoia suffuses Ray's letters. Ray tried to outfox the authorities by using code names and pseudonyms—"John the Baptist," "Holyman"—to camouflage identities. He addressed many of his letters to his brother under the alias Jerry W. Ryan. He warned Jerry to beware of undercover cops, who might disguise themselves as Radio Shack repairmen. "The FBI probably has a cover on your mail," he wrote. In another letter, from 1992, he brought up the subject of wiretapping. "Pepper" is William Pepper, Ray's last lawyer; "Jack" is Ray's other brother, always in trouble if not in jail.

Speaking of tapped phones, yours is most likely tapped due to Jack's fugitive status and others things. So what ever you have said to Pepper on the phone, or anyone else that you have phoned or who have phoned you the FBI knows what has been said. I assume you tell Pepper and other callers that your phone is tapped. There is also the possibility that persons who call you phone is tapped. Anyway I would call from a pay phone and even then not say too much. I suspect Pepper is being bugged to find out what he is up too in the law suits & documentary.

Ray's suspiciousness extended to women. He gave Jerry some advice: "You can't trust everyone to far, especially the women type, never let the left hand know what the right is doing." Ray's sense of being beleaguered influenced his views on national politics. He sided with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew during their legal and political woes. "Don't criticize Dick & Spiro," he told Jerry. "The public now know that not only the press lies ... but the FBI." He felt that reporters were sometimes out to get him, just as they were out to get Nixon. Once, after an interview in which a photographer took pictures as Ray spoke, Ray expressed regret that he had allowed the photographer to do so.

Anyone should not do this since they sometimes try to get a nut-picture if they are figuring on writing some nonsence. They used to get Nixon's picture with his eyes closed and his mouth gaped open. Anyway from now on I'll let them take the pics. then, the interview.

Ray's correspondence lacks artistry, to put it mildly. This is not Jean Genet's The Thief's Journal or even Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast. Yet Ray at times displayed a feral cunning, and his slang-laden prose offers some of the demented punch of a 1930s crime drama. Money is always "loot," security guards are "pillheads," lawyers are "winos," reporters are "lizard-heads," critics are "stool-pigeons," and prisons are "lock-ups." Sending Jerry, who was living in Georgia, a Christmas letter in 1971, Ray urged his brother to "go light on the moonshine." The details of prison life provide a rich backdrop. On one occasion Ray needed a mirror, no doubt to help him see up and down the corridor from inside his cell. He gave Jerry instructions.

The next time you are at k-mart pick up a dome-mirrow and send it to Anna. They are sometimes used on outside rear view mirrow and come in different sizes. Get one for her about tthe size of a half dollar, or the smallest they have. If you can't find one small don't get any.

Another time he explained to Jerry how to sneak in some basic necessities: "Get a large box of all-bran and open the top and put in the watch you have plus the typewritter ribbon & two batteries for the pen-watch ... If you sent the watch in a small package it would be easy to steal in the mail room plus I like the all-bran."

By and large there is a knowing, tough-guy affectation in Ray's writing—as if he was angling for immortality as a cinematic hillbilly gangster. From the outset he was plainly anxious about his place in history. After the King assassination Ray headed for Canada, once risking arrest by visiting a tavern in Toronto in order to watch the popular television series The F.B.I.; he wanted to see if he had made it onto the most-wanted list. Reading Ray's letters calls to mind such ego-deformed drifters as Don DeLillo's Lee Harvey Oswald, in Libra, and Norman Mailer's Gary Gilmore, in The Executioner's Song. Ray monitored the reputations of infamous contemporaries like Oswald and Jack Ruby—he felt them to be kindred spirits, members of a fraternity of patriotic outsiders who loved America but despised the government. He paid attention to the circumstances of other notorious criminals. "If you should have a pinched nerve can't you get social security disability?" Ray asked Jerry in 1984, adding, "Son-of-Sam was getting it in prison until Reagan cut prisoners off."

He did have a bond with his brothers, and constantly offered them advice from his prison cell. To Jerry in 1986 he wrote, "Probably all thoes habits you have keeps your immune system weak. I'd give up on either the cigs or beer and start running 8 or 10 miles before breakfast every morning, plus join a back-to-nature club." It was the Ray family versus the world. By comparison with Jerry and Jack, Ray was a mastermind. A 1984 letter to Ray offers a glimpse of Jerry and his world view.

I worked nine Straight Nights, twice i put in 13 hours, twice 11 1/2 and the other five night 9 1/2 hours.

I made Two Hundred and Ninty seven dollars for five nights, but after Rabbi Reagan got through taxing me in order to send to Isreal then i took home Two Hundred and Twenty Four Dollars.

Ray urged his brother to try to find some steady kind of work. One suggestion was decidedly odd, given the family's continual run-ins with the law.

If I were you I would try to pick up on a trade, rather than scrubbing floors for ever. That lock smith course is a good one, and easy to learn. They make their money by selling keys & locks. A lock smith get a card from the school he get his diploma from authorizing him to buy blank keys that he uses to make keys to sell—you can't buy a blank unless you have the diploma card. Anyway they buy a blank for a quarter & sell it after grinding it down for 2 or 3 dollars.

Brother Jack was a harder case: "What Jack should do when he gets out is get a tavern, or both of you. However, if he can stay in jail easier than he can get along with customers than he might as well stay where he's at. I should have some loot by the time he get's out."

James Earl Ray nurtured deeply ambivalent feelings about celebrity in America. He needed to exploit his infamy in order to gain a platform for his legal battles. But media exposure was not something whose tone or direction he could dictate. Whenever Ray was hauled into public, lights and cameras lay in wait. "The only other thing I mite need is a pair of clip on sunglasses," he wrote to Jerry a year after his arrest. "They get those cameras in my face when I come and leave here and you can't even see, If they won't except them at the prison let me know. You can get a pair for 50 cents they slip on over your glasses."

Every reporter in the world, it seemed, wanted an interview with James Earl Ray. Playing cat and mouse with the media became a pastime. Ray liked seeing his name in print but was thin-skinned when reporters wrote "nut-stories" about him. He declared war against Playboy for not buying his convoluted story about the mysterious Raoul, and he wrote "Dear Scumbag" letters to offending journalists. He saw Geraldo Rivera and Tom Brokaw as "government pimps." Of F. Lee Bailey, whom he had tried to retain as his attorney shortly after being arrested, Ray wrote to Jerry in 1983,

I also have a clipping dated 3/29/79 where Bailey told a Memphis audience that I was guilty and did not desrve a trial. This guy is no good and sold out the Boston Strangler and then cooperated with Gerold Frank in Frank's book about the case. He gets out of too many jams not to be a gov. pimp.

In 1986, when Life wanted to publish a story about him, Ray threatened to "punch the photographer in the nose" and then "kick him in the ass"; he had resented an earlier Life article, which misrepresented him (on its cover) as the scowling schoolboy face in an old class photograph. His autobiographies bragged about his various prison escapes and other acts of derring-do. He had stationery printed; the letterhead read "James E. Ray: Author." Convinced that mainstream U.S. journalists were controlled by the FBI, he cultivated media contacts in Argentina, Iran, Poland, Luxembourg, and elsewhere. The following instruction to Jerry is typical:

Phone the West German Embassy in Washington DC and ask for the address of the NATIONAL ZEITUNG newspaper located in MUNCHEN. Also ask for the address of minor political parties with an address in MUNCHEN.

Ray exploited the fact that foreign journalists with an anti-American sensibility had no trouble accepting his story that the White House and the FBI had ordered King's assassination.

Ray read everything about himself he could get his hands on. He kept a nine-inch Philco television set in his prison cell and had Jerry send him a shortwave radio so that he could listen to an all-night white-power radio station. He became his own booking agent, juggling television appearances with skill, and keeping track of the schedules of various journalists. In a 1989 letter he wrote, "I'm not going to see 20/20 until late summer. The producer said there was no hurry & that Barbara Walters was going on vacation from July until late August." He developed working relationships with HBO and the Morton Downey Jr. Show. "I got a letter from a TV magazine called 'Hard Copy' about an interview," he wrote Jerry in 1991. "I'm going to let the publisher handle the interviews since I doubt if he would want to give one to 20/20 & another station at the same time." When television programs did not turn out the way he wanted, he was quick to say so. The anniversary of King's assassination generally prompted retrospective news programs every April. Ray was likely responding to one such program when he wrote, in April of 1991,

In re to the interview of me by NBC-cable, I understand the interview was aired over CNN too, wherein the old Bat Barbara Neven who conducted the interview touted the gov. version of the MLK case. Since most of the MLK homicide records are classified one might ask how she knows so much about the case. In addition to being a zealot what with her ranting here about Iran, Iraq & gun control she apparently had some sort of personal conflict with my brother Jerry Ray while she worked for an Atlanta TV station ... so she is not exactly an impartial operator ...

Concluding, I made a mistake in granting the interview & should have stayed with the foreign media. And while I understand that you are just a mouth-piece for the Scumbag behind the scene, you might tell him not to bother having any more of his pimps, or whores for that matter, phoning down here or asking for interviews.

Ray was mindful of his physical image. He asked Jerry to smuggle "a can of pump hair tonic" into Brushy Mountain, where most aerosol cans were banned, so that he could groom himself for upcoming TV appearances. In 1985 he sent his brother a recent photograph taken of him in prison by a journalist: "The photographer took it of me on the yard when I wasn't looking. They are suppose to get the prisoner's consent but the photographer a crazy acting girl snuck behind the guards to get it. If I had of knew I would have been punching a bag on the yard acting like I was getting in shape."

Parlaying infamy into profit was never far from Ray's mind; he needed money to pay his various lawyers. One scheme was to sell his paintings. "The government gave some guy out in town a grant to sell convicts pictures," Ray wrote to Jerry in 1986. "I'll get about 75$ a piece for two and will send them out early next month." His price soon climbed to $400 apiece. Ray bought boxes of his own books at bulk rate, signed them, and then sold them at jacked-up prices through advertisements in the tabloids. When Jerry suggested that he also take out ads in a Washington, D.C., newspaper, to sell audiotapes he was making about his case, Ray pointed out the realities: "About the ad, the wash. paper has a circulation of about 350,000 while the Enquirer has about 7.000.000 so you don't have to be a mathematician to see more people would read it in the Enquirer."

Ray began keeping track of the value of his signature to determine his ranking in the celebrity hierarchy. He sent Jerry a page from The Price Guide to Autographs that showed his signature to be worth $25 whereas Oral Roberts's went for $10, Diane Sawyer's for $5.00, and Pierre Salinger's for $3.00. His signed photograph fetched $35 more than a photograph signed by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ray expressed hope that Oliver Stone, whose movie JFK he admired, would make a movie based on his case. "They are trying to have an agent speak with Stone," he wrote to Jerry. "When contacting a producer an agent is required." When Ray was still alive, Stone was at one point in negotiation with William Pepper, Ray's lawyer.

What is startling about the Ray letters is their largely unemotional tone. The central event in Ray's life, the death of Martin Luther King, comes up only in shorthand references, as if Ray had to mention it only because it was germane to his attempts to get a trial. There is no acknowledgment of King as a person, no acknowledgment of the significance of the assassination, no expression of empathy for any person outside Ray's tiny personal circle. Ray's sensibility was narcissistic. He existed in prison, physically apart, but in a late-twentieth-century America that allowed him to sustain a web of activities in the outside world. Ray hired lawyers, filed lawsuits, wrote books, managed money, arranged interviews, ordered supplies. It was a swirling enterprise, directed by and toward himself, and played like an elaborate game. And in a now familiar dynamic, often the outside world played along.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/05/lawyers-and-lizard-heads/307875/