The Seed and the Story: Ghost of the Ozarks by Brooks Blevins

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column published in the Post Dispatch, and syndicated in the Courier, exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, storytelling, human rights,and community in Yell County (and surrounding areas), Arkansas.

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This new work from Ozarks scholar Brooks Blevins will be of interest to readers wanting to learn more about Arkansas history, the formation of Ozark stereotypes, and the changing economy of the rural south.   A 2012 publication, Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South, tells the story of Tiller Ruminer and her would be-husband Connie Franklin, both residents of rural Stone County, Arkansas in the early 1900s.

Part murder mystery and part historical treatise, this book attempts to untangle the story of what happened to Connie Franklin after his disappearance from the area, a man who was presumed violently murdered only to later return to testify at his accused murderer’s trial some nine months later.  Blevins combs through the historical record, attempting to make sense of the newspaper accounts from around the state and country (including the Post Dispatch’s coverage) that tell the story of the rape of Tiller Ruminer and supposed violent killing of Franklin, the trial in Mountain View, and the eventual discovery of the supposed murder victim hopping trains in the Arkansas Delta.  Some accepted the returned Franklin as the man himself, while others, including Tiller Ruminer herself, deemed him an imposter, propped up by the accused’s relatives.

If this all sounds rather confusing, well, that’s because it is.  The story twists and turns and Blevins’s narrative, intentionally perhaps, gives the reader a sense of the confusion surrounding the nearly 100 year old event. I’m not giving anything away to say that Connie Franklin was probably never actually murdered, but perhaps what’s most interesting is how the story is still somewhat taboo in the region even today.  Even after Blevins in-depth research, many of the mysteries remain.

Blevins approaches the research as someone interested in how the Ozarks—both as place and as concept—were portrayed in the popular media’s telling of the event.  Like the rest of the nation, in the 1920s the Ozarks were in a state of flux.  Prosperity was declining; the timber industry was on its way out, as was the subsistence living that had sustained the Ozark residents for at least a few decades.  In that sense, argues Blevins, the Ozarks and their decline in what he calls “occupational vibrancy,” were a microcosm of a nation on the brink of the Depression.  Yet to the outside media, the Ozarks were a mythical and anciently backward place, a perfect backdrop for presenting a story about whiskey rings, feudal style vigilante violence, and a general lack of worldliness.  Blevins argues that the story is as much about the character of the mythical Ozarks as it is about Connie, Tiller, or any of the other long-dead historic figures that are at the center of the tale.

One of my favorite parts of the book is what Blevins dubs the “Musical Coda” at the end.  Containing the transcription of four early 1900s murder-style ballads written about the mysterious Connie Franklin, Blevins hypothesizes on why these songs, although known and perhaps sung locally, were never sung for the numerous folk song collectors who documented thousands of songs in the Ozark hills in the mid 1900s.  Blevins poses the question: Did these songs just slip through the cracks or did local residents purposefully keep them out of the public repertoire?

The book is available through the University of Illinois Press and can be found in most bookstores and online.  Blevins is the author of numerous books and articles on Ozark history, life, and culture including A History of Arkansas Ozarkers & Their Image and is the Noel Boyd Associate Professor of Ozarks studies at Missourri State University. So, have you heard of the man called Connie Franklin or Tiller Ruminer?