In January 1929 a man calling himself Connie Franklin drifted, apparently by chance, into the hamlet of St. James, Arkansas, and inadvertently proved that even the most nondescript people can, in the blink of an eye, be thrust straight into The Weird.
Franklin found work as a timber-cutter and farm hand, and found entertainment in the person of a local girl, sixteen-year-old Tiller Ruminer. The two became so close so quickly that, Ruminer later swore, on March 9 they set out for the nearest Justice of the Peace to get married.
Instead—so she later told authorities—she and Franklin were attacked by a gang of local men, Hubert Hester, Herman Greenway, Joe White, and Bill Younger. She stated that Hester and Greenway raped her, after which she was forced to watch as the others beat Franklin, killed him, and burned his body in the woods.
Ruminer initially told no one of this horrifying incident—out of fear of reprisals, she later claimed. Some in St. James assumed that Franklin had, as such rootless types do, simply wandered out of town as aimlessly as he had wandered in. Others, however, found his abrupt departure highly suspicious. If Franklin had left voluntarily, they wondered, why did he leave his knapsack holding all his possessions behind? Why did his mail continue to be delivered to the local post office?
Chief among the St. James skeptics was a Bertha Burns. She did a bit of amateur detective work and found a bloody hat in the woods that she identified as Franklin’s. Details of what happened next—who said what to whom when—are conflicting, but it’s most likely that Burns went to the local sheriff who, after conducting a rather lackadaisical investigation, presented what little he knew to the grand jury. Ruminer declined to testify, so in the absence of any other evidence—not to mention a body—the jury refused to grant an indictment.
The mystery of Franklin’s disappearance remained dormant until that summer, when a woman claiming to be Franklin’s sister came to St. James in search of him. That inspired Burns to excavate the bloody hat—supposedly, the still-fearful Ruminer had buried it in a jar—after which she led the sheriff and some of his deputies into the woods near her home. Burns triumphantly presented them with a pile of ashes and charred bones which was, she declared, all that remained of Connie Franklin. She also told of hearing a dreadful scream coming from that area on the night Franklin disappeared. Sheriff Johnson confronted Ruminer with these new findings. Finally, after “long and tedious questioning,” and promises that she would be protected, the girl told her ghastly tale. Soon after that, a cousin of Ruminer’s, a young deaf-mute named Reuben Harrell, came forward. He gave a written statement claiming that he had seen Connie Franklin’s dead body being carried through the woods on the bloody night in question. He explained that, like Ruminer, he had been too terrified to tell anyone of what he had seen.
While the bones were sent to the state crime lab for examination, the grand jury immediately issued indictments for Franklin’s murder. Although a townsman named Alex Fulks had not been named in Ruminer’s initial accusation, he was now included in the list of indictments. (It should be noted that just a few months previously, Burns had successfully pressed charges against Fulks and several other men for beating her husband in retaliation for some bit of wrongdoing. This example of “frontier justice” earned Fulks and the three other defendants a fine of $40 each.) It may—or may not—be significant that the five men charged with Franklin’s murder were all known vigilantes. Even more suggestive is the fact that the very day after Franklin disappeared, four vigilantes—including Bill Younger—made a raid on the Ruminer cabin. They accused Tiller’s father, Charley, of stealing from one of them. The men beat the entire family, and then hauled off Tiller’s brother Hoyt to the aggrieved party's farm to work off his father’s crime. Tiller later said that Hoyt was also kidnapped to make sure she “didn’t squawk”—a clear suggestion that the raid was also connected to the Franklin killing. The defendants, of course, claimed just the reverse—that Tiller accused them of murder and rape in revenge for the attack against her family.
Fulks, Hester, Greenway, White, and Younger stood trial in December 1929. The defendants maintained not only that they were innocent, but that there had never been a murder at all. They all swore that “Connie ain’t dead,” and their relatives and supporters were determined to prove them right.
During the trial, Elmer Wingo, a resident of the nearby town of Morrilton, came forward with the claim that Franklin had spent the night at his house some days after he was supposedly killed and cremated. Many Arkansas newspapers ran Wingo’s story, along with publishing Franklin’s photograph. Relatives of some of the defendants offered a large reward to anyone who could deliver a living Connie Franklin.
This publicity garnered highly astonishing results. A cotton buyer named F.K. Marks was in Humphrey, Arkansas, visiting a farm owned by a family named Bryant. While there, he heard one of the hired men being addressed as “Connie.” When Mr. Bryant later referred to a “Mr. Franklin,” Marks put two and two together and added them up to mean a jackpot was within his grasp. He and Jack Applewhite, another of Bryant’s farm hands, resolved to persuade Franklin into returning to St. James, after which they would split the reward money.
The next morning, they somehow convinced Franklin that he could not allow such a miscarriage of justice, bundled him in Marks’ truck, and sped off.
They soon found they had some competition for their little golden goose. The Bryants, it seems, had also been trying to persuade Franklin to come forward so they could collect the reward. The two parties made a frantic race of it, but the Marks team won and triumphantly presented their prize to one of the defense attorneys in the case.
The newcomer immediately recognized relatives of the defendants, and they joyfully recognized him. (Of course, they probably would have done so no matter who the man was.) It was looking like there would be a speedy, if highly bizarre, end to the case.
Or, rather, there would have been, if not for certain unanswered questions. If this was Franklin, why had he left St. James so suddenly? Why would Tiller Ruminer concoct such a gruesome story of torture, rape and murder in order to cold-bloodedly send to the gallows men she knew to be innocent? And what of the bones? And the bloody cap? And the eyewitness testimony of Mrs. Burns and Reuben Harrell?
In short, many people were convinced that this man posing as “Connie Franklin” was a hired ringer.
The Sheriff prepared a lineup for the newcomer, posing Tiller in the midst of a bevy of similar-looking girls. The new Franklin was challenged to pick out his old sweetheart. He immediately walked up to the right girl and said matter-of-factly, “Hello, Tiller.”
Tiller, clearly very shaken, insisted that this man was completely different from the Connie she had known. He responded by glibly rattling off any number of personal details about their relationship. By the end of the interview, the girl was practically in tears, but she stubbornly maintained that this man was a stranger to her.
Hugo Williamson, the understandably irritated prosecuting attorney, announced ominously that if this man indeed turned out to be Franklin, “somebody had lied and somebody was going to jail.”
It was soon learned that among the leading liars in this story was Franklin himself. It turned out that his real name was Marion Franklin Rogers. Although in St. James he had claimed to be twenty-two years old, he was actually thirty-three. He had been placed in the state mental hospital in 1926. He escaped three months later, and had been on the run ever since. Oh, and he also had a wife and several children that he had abandoned.
The murder trial continued while the grand jury struggled to establish whether or not a murder had been committed at all.
Rogers’ identity was established on the basis of testimony from witnesses—including family members--who had known him before and after his “murder,” as well as through handwriting, fingerprint, medical and dental evidence obtained from the Arkansas State Hospital.
Ruminer now conceded that she had not actually witnessed Franklin being killed or burned. She had only seen him being beaten by the other men. However, she insisted that the rest of her story was true. Tiller, along with Burns and Harrell, continued to assert that Rogers was not the man they had known in St. James. Coleman Foster, who had been one of Franklin’s few friends in St. James, also said Rogers was a complete stranger. Meanwhile, the state health officer announced that the bone fragments and teeth found in the woods were too incomplete for him to be able to state if they were Franklin’s—or even human. A dentist took the stand asserting that the teeth were those of a dog or sheep. The defense argument was that enemies of the defendants had exploited Franklin’s disappearance as a means of framing them for murder.
Trial onlookers got to see the highly unusual sight of a man taking the witness stand in his own murder trial. Rogers testified that he and three of his accused murderers got drunk together on the night he was supposedly killed. They were all on their way to get the marriage license, when he fell off his mule, injuring himself badly enough to keep him from completing the journey. (He also hit his head on a rock, which was how his hat got bloody.) The following day, Tiller told him that the marriage was being postponed until fall. He said he replied that if she did not marry him that very day, he would leave town and never come back.
She didn’t, so he left.
This Ozark Martin Guerre was too much for the jury. They announced they were hopelessly deadlocked, but after the judge urged them to bring this long and expensive trial to some sort of conclusion, they acquitted the defendants of murder. However, the judge held Hester and Greenway under $2500 bail on the charge of rape. (The charges were dropped a year later, for reasons unknown to us.) It is said that the judge was so appalled by the whole embarrassing mess that he ordered that all the records in the trial destroyed.
This is one of those cases that may have been settled, but was by no means resolved. If the defendants were innocent, why did Ruminer bring such dreadful accusations against them? If Franklin had abandoned her, surely he would have been the target of her revenge? And if she knew Franklin was not dead, why run the risk of saying he had been murdered, knowing that at any time, he could be brought forward to prove she had perjured herself? And what motive did Burns and Harrell have to lie? Did someone with a grudge against the five defendants somehow force them all to deny that Rogers was Franklin? If so, who? It was also never explained what motive the defendants would have to murder Franklin so savagely.
The man they found in Humphrey was most likely Marion Rogers. But was Rogers the man who had been in St. James? Could the friends and family of the defendants have found this plausible-enough lookalike and bribed him to play a role? Franklin was not in St. James long enough for the townspeople to be sufficiently familiar with him to make a positive identification. Ruminer, who had known Franklin better than anyone in that town, maintained to the end that Rogers was not her ex-fiance.
After the trial, life resumed its old dreary course for everyone involved. Tiller Ruminer married and raised a family in the same crushing poverty she had known all her life. Rogers went back to his nomadic existence. In 1932, he was found lying unconscious along a road in the Arkansas delta. He died a few days later, of a combination of exposure and appendicitis.
“Already enough has been said and enough opinions expressed to fill a library,” one reporter grumbled during the trial. “And still nobody seems to know anything about anything.”
We still don’t know. The “Arkansas Ghost Trial,” as it was called, remains one of American history’s most perplexing judicial episodes.