Book explores stereotypes of Ozarks through murder case

By DANIEL MARSH Published April 22, 2012 at 3:01 a.m.
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— Izard County native Brooks Blevins has written a book that not only explores a notorious Stone County murder trial but also examines — and, in some cases, dispels — certain stereotypes of early 20thcentury Arkansas.

The book also explores several sensationalized aspects of the 1929 case — including reports of the alleged “ghost” of the alleged murder victim.

Blevins, the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University in Springfield, is the author of Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South (University of Illinois Press). He said he first ran across the tale of the gruesome murder — and the headline grabbing trial that followed — while finishing up another book he’d been writing.

“It was about five years ago, and I was in the latter stages of working on my previous book, Arkansas/Arkansaw,” Blevins said. “It was about stereotypes of Arkansas [in] the national media, and I just happened to stumble across a two paragraph news item in Time magazine from 1929 about this Connie Franklin story.”

Franklin was a harmonica playing farmhand who was engaged to a Stone County teenager named Tiller Ruminer. Before they could be married, they were allegedly set upon by five men, who brutally killed Franklin and raped Ruminer. The five men were later arrested.

The attack on Franklin and Ruminer occurred in March 1929, but the case captured the nation’s attention when a Kansas City reporter came down to Mountain View and wrote “this string of yellow, stereotypical newspaper stories about the hillbilly life in the Ozarks,” Blevins said.

“About 10 days or so before the trial, a fellow shows up claiming to be Connie Franklin,” Blevins said. “He was brought back down to Mountain View. Tiller and her father and everyone who’s on that side of the story says, ‘This is not him. This is not the real Connie Franklin.’ All the five men in jail, of course, say it’s Connie, so you’ve got this person who is potentially an impostor who divides the community.”

Blevins said the trial attracted “all kinds of national headlines. In the end, the jury acquits the men of murder, and that’s how the story comes to an end. It lived on in the folklore of the community.”

He did not include any of the story in Arkansas/Arkansaw, he said, but did more research.

“First thing I knew, I had a whole folder full of photocopies,” Blevins said. “It just kind of hooked me.”

Blevins knew that, from an academic standpoint, he had the opportunity to tell a larger story.

“The murder trial was odd enough, but the thing that first drew me was the sensational newspaper coverage that it had garnered in 1929,” he said.

“I was interested in the ways that these papers — in Kansas City, Memphis, St. Louis — had really delved into stereotypes about people living in the Ozarks.

“Part of what I was interested in was not only talking about the case itself, but also trying to dig beyond all that into what life was like in a place like Stone County, how accurate or inaccurate [the reports] were about the people and their lifestyle.”

He said Arkansas at that time had a particularly negative image in the national press, and the Franklin story perpetuated that image.

“By 1929, it was a well-established stereotype that [Arkansans] were backwards and illiterate, and life had basically stood still since the very earliest settlers and was completely different than life elsewhere,” Blevins said. “Life in the Ozarks was a lot more complex than that, and I was able to disprove some of the more blatant stereotypes.”

He said that although life in the rural Ozarks “wasn’t as advanced as in even the larger towns in the region, it wasn’t the timeless, backward place that the newspapers made out. It wasn’t the kind of place where there were no schools, where no one knew what Thanksgiving was about and barely knew anything about Christmas.”

Blevins researched a variety of sources for years.

“I looked at public documents, census records, court records, tax records. I used old tax books from Stone County — all kinds of things to see how people made a living, how advanced the region was compared to other places, how common automobiles were,” he said.

“The tricky part was … trying to tell this really unusual and interesting story and at the same time make it relevant to history beyond just the basic facts. It’s kind of a tightrope to keep the general reader interested and do the academic stuff on the side.”

Blevins said he has not written a comprehensive history of the region, but one that “complements the main story — the alleged murder and the trial. We historians just have a natural need to teach people while also telling stories.

“There were kernels of truth buried deep within these [sensational reports], and there were class divisions, just as you would see in any community. The most sensational stuff — the claims that these ‘barons’ exercised first rights on the teenage girls — those were complete fabrications put in for who knows what reason. It was just yellow journalism.”

Ghost of the Ozarks is available through online booksellers.

Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or dmarsh@arkansasonline.com.

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