James Earl Ray

by Chris Bunton

I traveled to Quincy, Illinois. This is a great place to view architecture if you enjoy different styles of housing. But, the town also holds the distinction of being the home of the serial killer Michael Swango and the assassin James Earl Ray.

It seems odd that a man who ended up killing the leader of the Civil Rights Movement would be born and live in Central Illinois, instead of in the South, but that is what happened.

James Earl Ray was born on March 10, 1928 in Alton, Illinois which is a town near St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi river. It is part of what’s called “The Metro East”, which is a series of towns that have grown in size due to its nearness to St. Louis, Missouri.

His family moved up the river to Quincy, which is about 120 miles away in 1935 when James was 8 years old. They had extended family living in downtown Quincy near the brothels. They stayed there for a while before moving to a farm in Ewing, Missouri, about 25 miles across the river. It is believed that they moved from Alton because his father was being hunted by the authorities for forgery.

His family was heavily engaged in criminal activity in Quincy, and at 14 years old Ray was arrested working at a brothel. He had stolen a man’s pants.

While in Quincy I went on a self-guided tour of various famous and infamous people from the town. Ray was one of the people, and the tour showed a building on Hampshire St. that was a brothel where James Earl Ray hung out and worked.

Ray went back to Alton where he was born, to work in a shoe tannery when he was 16. He had several run ins with the police at this time. He was laid off in 1945 when WW2 ended, and went back to Quincy for a year before joining the Army in 1946. He was discharged in 1948 for disciplinary reasons. He was stationed in Germany, and engaged in black marketeering, and drunkenness. Ray claims that he was an MP and had shot a black man named Washington. Which he claims played a part in where his life would lead later on.

After the Army, he lived in Chicago for a while, and then went to Los Angeles where he was arrested and served 4 months in prison. After release he slowly made his way back to Quincy, Illinois, in 1950 where his family was.

He went to Chicago after that and was arrested for robbery. He spent 4 years in Pontiac, and Joliet prisons. When he was released he went back to Quincy for a time, and then went to stay with his mom in Alton.

Ray then stole some money orders from a post office, which is a federal crime. So, he was locked up in Leavenworth Prison, Kansas, in 1955. He served 4 years.

After his release, he robbed 3 grocery stores one in Alton and 2 in St. Louis. He apparently had no income after his release from Leavenworth. He was sentenced to 20 years in Missouri State Prison, it was 1959.

He escaped from the Missouri prison in the back of a bread truck. He made his way to St. Louis, then to Chicago where he worked at a restaurant for a while. Then, as was his habit, he went back to Quincy where he stayed for 12 days, it is assumed to visit family and seek help. It was June 1967.

He then went to St. Louis, where he is believed to have taken part in a bank robbery across the river in Alton, where he got $27,000. This money was used to travel and evade authorities, and might have helped finance his efforts to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was in July, of 1967.

In March 1968 he had arrived in Atlanta, Ga. Then, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama where he bought the rifle that would be used to kill Dr. King, or that would be traded for the rifle that the assassin used. It seemed that Ray was following King around the South prior to the assassination.

Ray went to Memphis, Tennessee, where he checked in to the New Rebel Motel under the alias Eric Galt. The New Rebel was a boarding house located across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was staying while supporting the striking sanitation workers.

On April 4th 1968, James Earl Ray stood in the bathtub, in his room. He aimed out the window, and shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at 6:01 P.M.

He escaped the area and made his way to Atlanta. Where he gathered his stuff and went to Canada. Then, he flew to England with plans to go to Rhodesia in Africa. He was captured at Heathrow Airport, after 2 months of fleeing. The man hunt was one of the FBI’s most expensive, at the time.

He waived extradition, and was taken to Tennessee. He confessed to the killing, but a few days later he recanted his confession. He claimed he was part of a conspiracy and did not act alone. He was being treated as a patsy to protect others who were involved. He talked about a government official named Raul who helped him.

On March 10, 1969, Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison without trial because of his confession. He spent the rest of his life trying to get a trial, and recanting his confession.

He and others, including his brother have written books about James Earl Ray, and the conspiracy that possibly surrounded the assassination of Dr. King. The King family have grown to believe Ray, and there was even a mock trial held that actually exonerated Ray.

He escaped from his Tennessee prison twice, once in 1977 and again in 1979. He died in prison on April 23, 1998. He had suffered from Hepatitis C in his liver and finally kidney failure. He was offered the chance to transfer to Pittsburgh, Pa for a liver transplant, and clemency, so he could die at his brother’s house.  But he refused both. He was 70.

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Bio: Chris Bunton is a writer, poet, and blogger from Southern Illinois.

Photos from the Author in Quincy, Illinois and Memphis, Tennessee.

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Publishing Editor for The Yard: Crime Blog.

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