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Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Scandal in the Hills

Cover of Ghost of the Ozarks, Hardback. Photo credit: Brooks Blevins
Cover of Ghost of the Ozarks, Hardback. Photo credit: Brooks Blevins

For our local history series, Sense of Place, we bring you stories about how our past has influenced the culture we live in today. For this installment, KSMU’s Emma Wilson interviews the author of a new book that tells the story of a crime so rife with scandal it shocked the nation at the time, and had lasting repercussions for this region and its image.  We’d like to advise you in advance that this report contains a mention of a brutal crime.

83 years ago, the story of a gruesome murder in Stone County, Arkansas, exploded across the front pages of regional and national newspapers. The elements of the case itself dripped with intrigue. The jazz-age press of 1929 had the perfect story to sensationalize further, playing on well-known stereotypes of those people living in that that remote area of the Ozarks.

Dr. Brooks Blevins is the Noel Boyd Associate Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University. He recently wrote Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South, a true-crime and southern history book that delves into the details of this notorious mystery.  

“My story starts in November of 1929 when five men are arrested for allegedly murdering a drifter—kind of a farm hand—by the name of Connie Franklin.”

The murder supposedly occurred when Franklin and his fiancé—a local teenager by the name of Tiller Ruminer—were on their way to get married. According to several witnesses with varying degrees of reliability, Connie Franklin was dismembered and burned alive; his wife-to-be raped, brutalized, and held captive for several days. There had been reports of vigilantes trying to keep their brand of order in the community. Some thought this may be connected, as the Ruminer family had had a run-in with those vigilantes around the same time.

“Ten days before the trial is to start, a fellow shows up, claiming to be Connie Franklin…the man who was allegedly murdered.”

The case became a media circus.

“Press coverage is very sensational. Reporters come from St Louis and Kansas City, and Memphis, the Associated Press, the United Press, International News Service…all these news wires send reporters to this little bitty country courthouse in Mountain View, Arkansas. Connie Franklin, or the guy playing Connie Franklin, whatever your viewpoint was, testifies at his own murder trial,” Blevins says.

Blevins says the media latched on to the details of the case and used the popular hillbilly stereotype to characterize the area as backward. They had a lot to work with. From the young sheriff and his gun-slinging deputy (who also happened to be his wife) to the two brothers squaring off in the courtroom—one was the prosecuting attorney, and the other, the lead council for the defense. The man claiming to be Connie Franklin was an escapee of the Arkansas state mental hospital in Little Rock. And of the primary eye witnesses, one was a mysterious French mountain man and the other, a deaf-mute young boy who was cousin to Tiller Ruminer.

“The story just has all these little sprouts that grew out of it in this very short period of time. This whole thing plays out in the press basically over a four week period.”

Blevins says that his book evolved out of previous works on the evolution of the image of this region and its people. In fact, he came across this story in an old issue ofTime Magazine while researching for another book. Ghost of the Ozarks explores many details overlooked or exaggerated by the press. It also investigates the repercussions of the sensational media coverage of this story.

“It certainly was something that added to the nation’s idea that this was just a uniquely strange and dangerous place in the middle of America. And that ‘Ozarks people just aren’t like the rest of us.’”

Here, he reads a passage from the beginning of the book that describes one reporter, Harry Brundage, as he comes into town to cover the murder trial, far from his life rubbing elbows with celebrities.

“…The contrast between glitzy southern California and glum northern Arkansas must have been jarring, even for a man accustomed to freneticism. So here he was in the middle of the godforsaken Ozarks at some flea bag motel called the Dew Drop Inn. Every two-bit burg between Lindsborg and Winslow had a Dew Drop Inn, the pinnacle of small-town wordplay. But Brundage was determined to bring a little Hollywood with him. At night he pranced around the Dew Drop in his silk orange striped pajamas, usually draped with his favorite Japanese Kimono. The local boys had doubtless never witnessed such a site. Only the receding hair line reassured them that the person beneath the flowing garment was indeed a Harry and not a Harriet.”

Blevins says the details of the case are difficult to find. Many of the records are lost and it’s still a very contentious piece of community history.

“Even though I’m a native of the Ozarks and grew up, as the crow flies, probably 25 miles from where all this happened, I didn’t know about the story until I was in my thirties. And as far as the people of this one little community in Stone County, Arkansas, were concerned, I was just as much a foreigner as if I had come in from New York or Los Angeles.”

The jury deliberated for a day and a half over who killed Connie Franklin.  The trial resulted in no convictions.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.