By Chris Bunton
When I travel I typically add “Crime” as point of interest at my destination. This is what I call “Crime Travel”. So, along with museums, restaurants, and all the normal travel sites, I will also look for crimes or infamous criminals that might have been in the area.
So, I was traveling to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I decided to see if there were any serial killers or famous crimes in this river community.
What I discovered were a couple of crimes committed by a serial killer named Joseph Paul Franklin. James Clayton Vaughn was his real name.
He was born into a rough family, in Mobile, Alabama, where he was subjected to extreme abuse according to the defense testimony at his trial. It was also claimed that he was a borderline schizophrenic.
Franklin claimed that he was racially motivated in his crimes and that he wanted to start a race war. He associated himself with KKK and Neo-Nazi leaders in political action groups, and his crimes reflected this ideology.
He traveled the country committing his crimes, in what appeared to be a self-imposed race war, which he funded with armed robbery.
Here are a few of his crimes:
In St. Louis, Missouri he opened fired on a synagogue, killing Gerald Gordon and wounding others.
He shot and killed Alphonse Manning, Jr. and Toni Schwenn, who were an interracial couple in Madison, Wisconsin
In Salt Lake City, Utah he shot and killed two black men, Ted fields and David Martin.
He confessed to shooting civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, for dating a white woman and to shooting Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine, for printing pictures of interracial couples. Flynt was left paralyzed by the shooting. However, Flynt pleaded for Franklin at his trial, saying “that a government that forbids killing among its citizens should not be in the business of killing people itself. “
So, that brings us to Chattanooga. Where he shot an interracial couple to death in 1978, and blew up a synagogue in 1977.
I went to look at the synagogue, and it still sits there empty. It’s off Brainerd Street on Pisgah Avenue. It’s a normal neighborhood, houses around, and a hotel next door.
I was not sure if I had the right place, because it just looked like a very small church or office building; like some place a dentist would practice. So, we looked it up online and found an article that verified our location and what happened.
On the night of July 29, 1977, the blast destroyed the building and blew holes in the wall of the hotel. No one was hurt. A few Jewish worshipers had been there earlier, but had left because not enough people showed up to have a minyan for prayers.
The bomb went off under the table where the Scrolls were read, and the scrolls were unharmed. It is considered a miracle to this day. The scrolls are still used once a year in the congregation’s new location.
The hotels around the empty re-built synagogue are what appear to be locations for long term low income use. There is no sign of what happened here on that night.
Franklin was captured on Oct. 28, 1980, and had several trials in different states where he had committed crimes. He confessed to the bombing in Chattanooga which brought closure to the congregation there.
He was sentenced to death in St. Louis, Missouri for the synagogue shooting where Gordon was killed.
Franklin was credited with killing 8-20 people in his life.
He was put to death on Nov. 20, 2013 in Bonne Terre, Missouri, by lethal injection. His execution was almost halted when a drug manufacturer in Europe refused to allow their drugs to be used in executions. But, Missouri decided to try a new system and Franklin was the first to receive it.
While locked up he said “I saw they were people, just like us.” In reference to the blacks he had met in prison.
To me, Franklin doesn’t seem to fit the normal description of a serial killer. He was not a John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy, or Jeffery Dahmer type. But, this shows that the thing that causes people to become serial killers can manifest in various ways; perhaps determined by the personality, upbringing or environment of the killer.
It makes us wonder, what that thing is that makes a killer. Abuse?, Genetics?, Environment?, Mental illness?, Demons?, Or maybe a combination of all these things. A perfect storm, or can anyone become a killer?
(Bio: Chris Bunton is a writer, poet, blogger, and publisher from Southern Illinois.)