Could a man testify at his own murder trial?

Scanned photograph of Tiller Ruminer
Scanned photograph of Tiller Ruminer

HOLLIS TURNED TO THE OTHER REPORTER and said, “This beats anything I have ever seen, and I have covered a lot of stories. It is like we have landed on another planet inhabited by only possums, bears, beavers, skunks, coons and wild, wooly two-legged wildlife that don’t even speak English. Is that the way you see it, Arch?”

“Yep. We are in another world all right,” the St. Louis reporter replied. “I must admit that I have been privy to some of it before. Many of us from St. Louis come down to these parts to fish and hunt, but we usually go a little further north in more populated areas. This is hard for even me to handle.”

“Speaking of “privy,” I don’t care to ever see another one. There was a huge black snake in the one I visited yesterday.”

“That would be enough! Enough to head on back to New York City, fast if I were you.”

The two big city reporters were stewing in the backwoods area surrounding Mountain View, Arkansas. They had come to cover one of the most unusual crimes of the century.

Connie Franklin, the ghost of the Ozarks
Connie Franklin, the ghost of the Ozarks

Hollis continued his rant. “This place, these people are creepy. They remind me of something out of Washington Irving or Edgar Allan Poe. They don’t even have electricity yet—aren’t electrified. And no phones! If I want to call in my updates in a timely fashion, I would be better off driving thirty miles down the road to phone it in.”

They were standing in a long line to use the one phone in the whole area that had a long distance line and everyone was using that line: the sheriff’s department, the police department, the lawyers and relations of all involved.

They and many reporters were now situated in a wild area sandwiched between the White River and the Arkansas River. Perhaps they got the sense that it might be similar to Mesopotamia situated between the Tigris and Euphrates—but Eden it was not. There were two darkly mysterious bayous meandering into the outskirts of Stone County, Rocky Bayou and Wolf Bayou, adding to the dismal atmosphere.

The sensational murder trial they had been sent to cover was generating headlines in national newspapers. One such headline was “Four Held for Killing Boy and Attacking Girl.” The people of the backwoods area were both resentful of the privacy invasion and basking in it while showing off at the same time. Vendors hung out around the courthouse in Mountain View selling their wares.

The sensational headlines would run for about four weeks in 1929 and tantalize a nation on the verge of The Great Depression. When the whole thing ended, it would fade from memory and grandchildren living in the immediate area of the events would not even know they had ever happened.

There are many side trips and back stories to this true tale, but the basics boil down to this: A teenage girl, Tiller Ruminer, had fallen in love with a young itinerant man, Connie Franklin. Tiller was convinced they were about to get married. They went for a walk in the woods, holding hands. They were on the way to find a justice of the peace.

On the wilderness trail they were accosted by four men that Tiller knew. After this meeting, Tiller went silent and the young man had disappeared. Some concluded “lovers’ spat,” but some different information began trickling in to the law. The rumor had it that Connie, was beaten to a pulp when he tried to prevent the four men from raping Tiller. They say he was then burned alive. This gesture was interpreted as a backwoods statement: “Outsiders cannot mess around with our women. They are our property—to do with what we will.” It was the code.

After a long while, there was one witness who was coerced into coming forward. He had witnessed the whole crime from behind the cover of a bush. A female witness who bore a grudge against the four men added fuel to the fire. She was still angry because the same four men had once beaten her and her husband with switches over a disagreement. She was not a true witness to the crime, but she had been the only one to be able to milk some information from Tiller.

This grudge-bearing woman came forward with a bloody hat. Tiller had buried it in a jar after the crime, and the young girl was still afraid of the men. The bush-peeper man told the law where to look for the pile of ashes and bone that was all there was left of Connie Franklin, Tiller’s lover.

When they found this pile of ashes—it did contain a part of a human skull—the law decided they had enough evidence to put the four men on trial.

It would be hard pressed to find any electricity wired into that part of Stone County at that time, but there was electricity in the air. Tensions mounted as preparations for the trial got underway and began on December 17th. News reporters from all over the country descended on the scene.

One Elmer Wingo, who lived in the Arkansas delta, observed the headlines with interest. He believed he had known the murder victim. In fact, he had hired the little man a few times to work on his farm. He stayed in hobo camps as he did his itinerant work. Elmer knew him by the name of Frank Rogers.

The atmosphere mounted to a fever-pitch. The families of the four men grew agitated. Their boys were going to the electric chair, if convicted. The girl, Tiller, feared for her life, as did some of the other witnesses, and they were given protection by the authorities.

Crowds jostled, pushed and elbowed to get into the courthouse on the day of Tiller’s testimony. One of the defendants testified that “Connie was lickered up and fell off his mule and cut his haid—all they were to it.”

Toward the end of the trial, a surprise witness took the stand. “Order in the court!” the judge exclaimed over and over as Frank Rogers took his seat and testified to the events as he knew them. Frank Rodgers, you see, was the man known as Connie Franklin. He had appeared to testify at the trial for his own murder! He is sometimes known as the Ghost of the Ozarks.

How did this ever happen? Elmer Wingo had realized that he had seen Connie after he was reported dead. He had finally decided to contact the authorities. Connie’s (Frank’s) explanation was that he had one day woke up in the woods after sleeping off a drunk and didn’t really remember how he got there. He traveled on to find more work.

Was he or wasn’t he the missing Connie Franklin?

The jury didn’t know and remained deadlocked, but the judge demanded a verdict. After all, he said, the trial had already cost the country $800, and he wasn’t about to spend another penny.

A verdict was promptly delivered: not guilty.

The covering of these incidents in the national press contributed much to the stereotypes of Ozarks Mountaineers as being inbred, backward, ignorant, moonshining, bootlegging, feuding, clannish, sexist, ridge-running beasts.

As one myself, I can say that most are not angels, most are not devils. The truth is somewhere in between.

Please click the book cover image to read more about Sara Marie Hogg and her books.

ScavengersSong

 

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