Yesterday I posted Chapter Two of my narrative of the 30th anniversary of the killing of Ken Rex McElroy on July 10 1981. I described McElroy’s encounter with the then-marshal of Skidmore, Dave Dunbar. I neglected to put Dave’s photo in the blog. So here here he is, standing in front of what was the D & G tavern, where McElroy was shot. Chapter Three will be up in a week.
Dunbar was leaning up against the rail in front of the café, talking to Kermit Goslee. Dunbar had been the town marshal for a few months before McElroy was killed. He had run for marshal as a lark. The town was unhappy with its current marshal, and anyone could have beaten him. Dunbar took his duties seriously, but not too seriously. Many evenings he sat on a stool in the tavern with his badge on his jean jacket, his pistol in the glove box of the car, and drank with the locals. He had even challenged McElroy to an arm wrestling match in the tavern one night, before he knew who he was. The other patrons shook their head in wonder.
Dunbar came from an Iowa town near the Missouri border, and had moved to Skidmore to work on the pipeline. He was married, had two kids and lived in a small house near the edge of town. He was handsome with liquid brown eyes and an engaging smile, and women loved him. He had been a football player and a wrestler in high school, and he had thick shoulders and arms. You sensed that he would punch in a flurry, quick and hard, and could take a good shot himself. Maybe it was because he wasn’t from here, but the Clements and their crowd didn’t intimidate him, or anyone else who thought talking about McElroy or what happened that day in 1981 was a bad idea.
Early on, Dunbar had decided I was all right, and we became friends. Along with Kermit Goslee, we caroused together in clubs and bars in northwest Missouri and southern Iowa, and we ended up with a few good stories. The night of my confrontation with Del Clement in the Elks Club in Maryville, Dunbar and Del had gone outside to have it out, but Clement had backed down. In the early days of my presence in Skidmore, there had been a price to pay for being my friend. The Goslees and the Clements had never gotten along, any my acceptance into the Goslees household didn’t help matters. Without the Goslees there would have been no book, or it would have been a much different book.
Once Dunbar put the badge on, as a lark or not, whatever comity existed between him and McElroy evaporated. In the tavern now, McElroy gave him that penetrating, baleful stare that kept people on edge, or drove them from his presence. The day that McElroy pulled a shotgun on Bo Bowenkamp on the loading dock behind the grocery and blew half his neck away, Dunbar had been at a friend’s house smoking pot and drinking beer. When he heard the commotion, he pulled himself together and investigated. He would be called upon to testify at McElroy’s upcoming trial for assault, and McElroy was not pleased about it. McElroy had a way of getting witnesses to disappear or forget what they thought they saw—his wife’s parents could swear to that—and without witnesses, he had proven time and again over the years, there would be no case. Although Dunbar hadn’t seen the shooting, hadn’t seen McElroy stick the shotgun in Bo’s throat and pull the trigger, or even leave the scene, he was part of the lineup of witnesses. McElroy was an expert in the practical dynamics of fear: scare one witness, one juror, one DA, one judge, and the others got the message. This practical sense mixed in with a substantial strain of paranoia, and what you got was a man who would shoot someone he thought was talking bad, or even thinking bad, about him, or his family.
In the last year or so before the shooting, McElroy had gotten worse, and most people, stayed out of his way. It was just simpler not to have an encounter with him, than to try to straighten it out later. He would stop in the tavern and drop a sack full of twenties and hundreds on the bar top and invite anyone there to help themselves. He might even insist on it. You could be in serious trouble either way. If you didn’t grab some money, it might be because you thought you were too good for McElroy, that you were from one of the wealthy farm families who looked down on the McElroy family as a bunch of rag-tag pig farmers. That alone could be very dangerous for you.
That last year or so, after he had had shot Bo and was terrorizing the victims and the witnesses, the town was a like powder keg, waiting for the spark. Nobody wanted to be around when it happened. When his Silverado reached the edge of town, the phone lines would begin buzzing, and by the time he pulled into the tavern the whole town knew where he was. Like I said, it began ruining business at the D & G.
For all intents and purposes, there was no law in Skidmore, at least not as far as Ken McElroy was concerned. The town was isolated; lawmen, with a few exceptions, weren’t anxious to run into him; and McElroy, who never made it beyond sixth grade, who didn’t have a social security number and had never filed a tax return, knew the rules as well as they did. Lois Bowenkamp had been calling and writing the governor and the attorney general asking for help, but all she received were form letters telling her it was a local problem. The other thing was, people in Skidmore weren’t anxious to draw McElroy onto themselves by helping her. The local minister had stopped by the house to counsel Bo after his release from the hospital, and that very night he and his family received unwanted visitors. The minister began packing, and kept packing until the day McElroy was shot.
I wonder if McElroy enjoyed this power over people, over the town, derived a satanic sort of pleasure from it, or if he was simply caught up in the bloody dynamics of the drama. I asked Trena during our interview, and she couldn’t say. I wasn’t sure she even comprehended the question. Even then, four or five years after McElroy’s death, I think her mind was still overwhelmed by him. She had been twelve when he first got a hold of her, and she spoke to me that day in the Ozarks in the voice of a twelve-year old. She seemed stuck where she had been when he found her. I left the interview feeling very sorry for her, even though, at the end, she had become a fearsome character in her own right; tilting her own shotgun out the passenger’s side window, blonde hair blowing in the wind, as the Silverado led a line of McElroy pick-ups by someone’s house.
Ask David Dunbar about Trena. The Punkin’ Show in those days was the town’s annual rite of community. For three days there were dances, tractor pulls, rodeos, bake-offs, frog jumping contests, beauty contests, barbecue competitions, parades and lots of partying, in the tavern and on the streets. Skidmore, I always said, was not on the road to anywhere; you ended up there only if you wanted to go there. A lot of people came to town for the Punkin’ Show. In the evening, people gathered on the sidewalks, and a steady, slow stream of pickups rolled down the main street.
On the Friday night of the Punkin’ Show in 1980, only a few months after McElroy had shot Bo and while he was awaiting trial, Dunbar sat for a few hours at the bar in the D & G, with his badge on his jean jacket, drinking beer. As he was leaving, he heard a voice: “Hey, Dave, come over here a moment. I want to talk to you.”
Dunbar knew McElroy’s voice. “Fuck,” he thought. “Here we go.” McElroy was standing by his truck, in the gravel drive between the tavern and the back of the bank and the grocery store. The spot was in the shadows, a little out of the glare. Dunbar walked over. McElroy stared at the badge on Dunbar’s jacket with glassy eyes.
“Are you going to testify against me?” McElroy demanded.
“I have to,” Dunbar responded. “It’s my job.”
“I’ll kill anybody who’ll put me in jail for the rest of my life,” McElroy said.
He reached in the bed of the pickup and swung a shotgun up and out into Dunbar’s face. Dunbar grabbed the barrel and held it away from him. McElroy flicked his right ear, and in his peripheral vision Dunbar saw a form begin to move behind him. Suddenly, he felt cold steel bite into the back of his neck. Trena was holding a shotgun to the base of his skull. Another flick of a finger and he was gone.
Dunbar later reported the incident to the sheriff’s office in Maryville, and was told there was nothing that could be done about it. Just keep an eye on him. Keep an eye on him? he swore. The guy was pulling shotguns on the law in the middle of a festival and the sheriff’s response was to say “Keep an eye on him?” Until he actually killed someone? The next morning he walked to the gas station which had been converted to city hall and laid his badge on the table. $240 a month wasn’t close to what it would cost to go up against McElroy.
Now, on the 30th anniversary of the shooting, he laughed as he recounted the story of his encounter with McElroy to the reporter and the small crowd that had gathered in front of the café. He added that by the time he got home that night he was really pissed, and he grabbed a rifle and got in his car and went looking for McElroy. But he couldn’t find him.
A faded mid-nineties black car slowed as it passed in front of us. Thirty yards down the hill, it stopped, then swung around into an angled parking spot.
“Watch out,” Dunbar said, “it could be an ambush.”
He chuckled as he said it, but he kept his eye on the car, as did I, as the others. Did. The gathering this morning was no secret; in my blog and on Facebook I had invited anyone in the area to join us at the café at 9 AM for a “commemoration” of the anniversary of the killing. McElroy still had a lot of family in the area—I had been in contact with some of his kids over the years—and more than a few fans and followers, some of whom considered him a sort of a Robin Hood, because he stole from rich farmers and shared his booty with his them, and many of whom used to ride with him. Another concern was the family and friends of Del Clement, a few of whom had responded with veiled threats after I had referred to him in a blog as hot-tempered drunk and suggested that he might have been a coward for shooting McElroy in the back.
Northwest Missouri was a more civilized area now than it was in 1981, when McElroy met his infamous end, but there was still an outlaw element, and there was still a lot of bad feelings about what had gone on that summer, and how it come to an end on the morning of July 10. The car sat there, in the growing heat, it’s occupants invisible in the harsh light. Close to a minute passed, and Dunbar repeated his comment, without a chuckle this time. I kept my eyes on the driver’s door, thinking it couldn’t be good, someone sitting in the heat that long. Finally the door swung open, and boots hit the ground.
James Ford Seale, the Klansman convicted of murdering two black youths in southwest Mississippi in 1964, died yesterday in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. I told the story of his trial in The Past Is Never Dead, and in it I recounted how ill he looked in the courtroom and how many illnesses he had. It surprised everyone that he lived as long as he did. You might remember that he came within one vote of becoming a free man a few years ago. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals split 18-18 on overturning his conviction. Only one vote the other way, and he would have been released, to die a free man in Roxie. The only person remaining alive in this tragic story is Marcus Edwards, who admitted to being involved in kidnapping and beating the two boys, and who testified against Seale at his trial. Seale’s second wife believed in her husband’s innocence to the very end.
I have to admit to some guilt in putting one of my books up on Amazon as an e-book. I’m one of those who has always cherished the feel of a book in my hands. I worry for the future of bookstores and and publishers and libraries. I resisted buying a Kindle despite the stories of ease and convenience told by my friends. I have no particular love for the publishing world, and yet it had done fairly well by me. Now they’re scrambling like frightened children.
A friend finally pointed out to me that my second book, “Once Upon A Time,” has essentially been abandoned by the publishers. It was no longer in print. Only used used hard covers and paperbacks traded on Amazon, none of which inured to the benefit of the author. I always believed that the book had a much larger audience than it had found. It was a true crime book, but it was much more than a true crime book. As an e-book it would have a new life, eternal life, so to speak.
And I found that Amazon only takes a 30% royalty, as opposed to the 92% publishers take on paperbacks. My concern for the publisher vanished. I approached Harper Collins for the rights, and they gracefully relinquished them to me. I was lucky; rather than having to go through the scanning and formatting and cover design process, crime writer Gregg Olsen stepped forward and offered to handle those processes and put the book on his new true crime publishing site, crimerant.com. It looks good up there. I’m pleased that it’s now available. I actually feel a little lost pride in it.
As for what happens with the next non-fiction book, where I work as an undercover guard in a max security prison in Delaware, I’m not sure. A draft of the book is finished, but it has not been sold.. It’s tempting to go it alone in cyber world and print on demand. J. K. Rowlings is now doing it. It’s a dilemma many authors are facing. Do we really need publishers any more? I’m slowly getting used to the feel of the Kindle in my hands.
I am really pleased that my most recent book got an excellent review from a renowned literary magazine, The Journal of African American History. Just when I think the publicity has died down, and the book is ready to fade, up it pops again. These journals only come out quarterly or yearly, so there’s a delay, but I’m appreciative and grateful. The book is also now up as a e-book.
The review is posted below.
I will be posting my second installment on the 30th Anniversary of the Killing of Ken McElroy this weekend. Stay tuned.
The Journal of African American History
March 22, 2011
Harry N. MacLean, The Past Is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi’s Struggle for Redemption. New York;
BYLINE: Williams, Michael V.
SECTION: Pg. 271(3) Vol. 96 No. 2 ISSN: 1548-1867
LENGTH: 1044 words
Basic Civitas Books, 2009Pp. 290. Cloth $25.95.
On 2 May 1964, nineteen-year-olds Charles Moore and Henry Dee were hitchhiking just outside of Meadville, heading to Roxie, Mississippi, when James Ford Seale offered them a ride. Instead of taking them to Roxie, Seale drove to a remote location where he and fellow Klansmen tortured both men before weighting them down and dumping them aliveinto the Mississippi River. The bodies, in advanced states of decomposition, were discovered in mid-July 1964. In The Past Is Never Dead, Harry MacLean provides a thorough examination of Mississippi’s turbulent past, focusing on this racial drama that culminates with Seale’s2007 indictment for conspiracy and kidnapping.
MacLean’s careful attention to detail is an overall strength of the book. He skillfully uses personal interviews, participant observations, archival materials, and newspaper accounts of the murders and subsequent trials to argue that the Dee and Moore lynchings were critical to statewide introspection. For MacLean, these two murders forced white Mississippians to confront the state’s atrocious past and helped instigate public dialogue conducive to improving race relations. In”Mississippi, everything is about race sooner or later,” MacLean argues, and the willingness of black and white Mississippians to discusspublicly racial issues proved crucial to Mississippi leaders’ battleto repair the state’s image.
The Past Is Never Dead provides a more humane, yet tragic, approach to understanding race relations in the 1960s and the oppressive nature of these interactions for African Americans. With vivid language, MacLean transports the reader back in time when “words or looks could get you killed.” Since the interrogation and killing of Moore and Dee allegedly revolved around white fears that African Americans were smuggling guns into the area, MacLean demonstrates the terror some whites felt regarding the growing black freedom struggle, a nationwide movement challenging white racist dogma and practices. The Past Is Never Dead, however, excels when highlighting the determination black and white Mississippians exhibited in 2007 in meting out punishment for past racial transgressions. Yet MacLean is quick to point out that murder, no matter how long ago, remains a stain on the state’s record that often clouds national recognition of the progress Mississippians have made.
MacLean argues that in 2007, there “could have been two defendants in the case, James Ford Seale and the state of Mississippi. Seale for kidnapping and murder and Mississippi for … conspiring with, fathering, and furthering James Ford Seale.” In many ways Seale’s trial served as another indicator that the state was desperately “trying to claw its way out of the devil’s pit in its drive for acceptance in the civilized world.” Much like district attorney Bobby DeLaughter’s Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case (2007), redemption proves the underlying motivation in this story as well. In his attempt to convict Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Wiley Evers, DeLaughter believed that it “is never too late for that which is right, just, and brings honor to one’s home state, to the human race itself.” Much like DeLaughter, MacLean wants to cast a new light on Mississippi and readily admits that his goal is not “to present a new, complete picture of Mississippi as much as … to peel away the layers of perception and challenge the old images and stereotypes.” As a result, The Past Is Never Dead contrasts the negative images of Mississippi with ones that present the state as more progressive socially, economically, and politically than many had believed.
The story unfolds smoothly, as though told by a deft reporter present on the scene whose copious notes allow those not privy to the inner sanctum of the courtroom a play-by-play account of the proceedings. Although MacLean uses feature films such as Ghosts of Mississippi and Mississippi Burning to demonstrate the ways Hollywood helped form negative views of Mississippi, one also gets the sense of how important the media proved to be in bringing old civil rights murder cases to light. Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell’s articles had proven instrumental in redirecting attention to Byron de la Beckwith, leading to his conviction in 1994. Harry Phillips and Connie Chung’s television program 20/20 presented an expose of old civil rightscases that helped refocus the nation’s attention on Seale. The Past Is Never Dead demonstrates the diverse ways television has been used as the medium for Mississippians seeking redemption.
If “reconciliation” serves as a key word for MacLean, “forgiveness” completes his argument. Racial reconciliation stands as the lasting theme of the book. In the end, areas where civil rights tragedies occurred in Mississippi–Money with Emmett Till, Jackson with the Freedom Rides, and Franklin County with Moore and Dee–serve as testing grounds for attempts to address the past and initiate the healing process. MacLean underscores the delicate balance struck by white and black residents in addressing racial issues and gathering the energy and patience required to maintain a productive dialogue. In addition to the tragic murders, The Past Is Never Dead introduces a series of interesting minor characters such as bluesman Cadillac John and the ways in which race, sorrow, and oppression affected the lives of ordinary people.
Although MacLean provides an informative discussion, the book’s overall structure leaves something to be desired. The book is comprised of forty-seven chapters and an epilogue. Some of the two-to-three-page chapters proved frustrating, and MacLean’s constant shifts from 1964 to 2007, and from the Emmett Till memorial battle in Sumner, Mississippi, to the Seale trial in Franklin County, required a form of mental gymnastics that proved tiring at times. It would have also proven beneficial if MacLean had included a note on sources or a bibliography for those interested in further engaging the topic. However, these are only minor complaints that only diminish somewhat the important work MacLean has produced.
Michael V. Williams Mississippi State University
LOAD-DATE: July 22, 2011
DOCUMENT-TYPE: Book review; The Past is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi’s Struggle for Redemption (Nonfiction work) Book reviews
JOURNAL-CODE: 0OMB ASAP
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All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2011 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.