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The Strange Case of the Arkansas Ghost Trial
Brent Swancer October 27, 2021
In January of 1929, a man by the name of Connie Franklin drifted into the town of St. James in Stone County, Arkansas. He seemed to appear from nowhere, an aimless wanderer who had no past that anyone knew of, and indeed no one knew anything about him at all other than his name and that he claimed to be 22 years old. He was in most respects pretty unremarkable and nondescript, keeping to himself and doing work as a farmhand and cutting timber. No one really paid much attention to him until he started an inappropriate relationship with a local 16-year-old girl by the name of Tillar Ruminer. This didn’t go down well with some of the more conservative-minded folk in town, but they continued dating and even made plans to get married, and after whirlwind romance in March of that year they went to tie the knot. Not long after this, Franklin would vanish, going on to become a rather weird mystery that would reach the courts and prove to be one of the stranger trials the nation had ever seen.
At the time, Franklin had by all appearances just sort of disappeared into thin air, there were no witnesses to what might have happened to him, and it was assumed he had just moved on to another town, despite the fact that he had been just about to be married. It was also a little strange in that he had left all of his few belongings behind, as well as his knapsack, which was odd in that it seems that if he had simply continued with his wanderlust and drifter lifestyle, then he would have wanted to take his stuff. Nevertheless, it was sort of brushed over by authorities and life went on. No one gave much more thought to Connie Franklin except maybe his new fiancé, but this would change.
In the fall of 1929, a local lady by the name of Bertha Burns came across a bloody hat in the woods near her house at a place called the Spring, which she immediately recognized as the one Franklin had always worn at all times. She also recalled having heard a scream on the night Franklin had disappeared, and she also found a fire pit nearby containing a large pile of ashes that she was now beginning to suspect were of the body of the man the hat had belonged to. Convinced that she had found evidence that Franklin had met with foul play, the Sherriff was notified, and he found some bone fragments and teeth among the ashes, confirming the suspicions that Franklin had likely been murdered. This would only be further bolstered when the Arkansas state health officer, Dr. C. W. Garrison, verified that not only were the teeth and fragments human, but that there were also fragments of skull among them. With this evidence, a renewed investigation was launched into the vanishing of Connie Franklin.
One person who was pursued was his wife, Ruminer, who had never really been properly questioned when the man had first gone missing. Although at first she denied having any knowledge of what had happened to him, she finally caved under pressure and came out with a shocking revelation. According to her, on March 9, 1929, the two had had been on their way to the Justice of the Peace to get married when they had been jumped by a gang of local men known for being delinquents and persistent trouble makers, who she identified as Hubert Hester, Herman Greenway, Joe White and Bill Younger. She tearfully told the Sherriff that she had been raped by Hester and Greenway, after which they had beaten and tortured Franklin before burning him alive in that pit in the woods. When asked why she had not come forward with this information sooner, Ruminer claimed it was because one of the attackers had threatened her life and her family if she were to tell anyone. Corroborating this account was another witness that came forward, a young deaf-mute named Reuben Harrell, who happened to be Ruminer’s cousin, and who claimed that had seen a group of men carrying a body through the woods on the night of the alleged murder.
With this new testimony, Hester, Greenway, White, Younger, and another suspected accomplice named Alex Fulks were all arrested on suspicion of murder and put on trial in December, but there was very little concrete evidence to hold against them. Not only did they deny that any murder had taken place, but they also denied that they had ever attacked the couple. There was also no evidence that the remains were of Franklin, and nothing at all to tie the men to them. In fact, the state health officer was unwilling to even swear under oath that the remains were human after all. The only evidence that any crime had occurred at all was the word of Ruminer and her cousin, and they refused to testify, meaning that there was nothing to make the charges stick. On top of all of this, the suspects insisted that Franklin was still alive, and this would coincide with a series of sightings of the supposed dead man, as well as witnesses who swore they had met him after his “death.”
Now under the impression that Franklin was possibly still alive, there were rewards offered and people started keeping their eye out for him. One of these was a cotton buyer named F.K. Marks, of Humphrey, Arkansas, who believed he had found him when a farm he was visiting had a worker they called “Connie,” and at one point was referred to as a “Mr. Franklin.” Convinced that this was the missing man, Marks and a friend talked to him and convinced him to stop hiding and come back to St. James with them, where they introduced him to one of the defense attorneys in the case. When the defendants saw him, they recognized him, or at least acted like they did, and “Franklin” recognized them back, but there was something a little off about it all. There was no clear reason for why he would have wanted to skip town so fast, and there was still the matter of the horrific story Ruminel had told of his brutal murder. Why would she have said such things if he was still alive? Speaking of Ruminel, things would get even weirder when he met her and seemed to recognize her and know personal details about her and their relationship, yet she claimed that he was a stranger and not Franklin. Indeed, What was going on here?
Adding to all of the confusion was that it would be found that this man claiming to be Connie Franklin was actually a man named Marion Franklin Rogers, who had a wife and was the father of three or four children who he had left to fend for themselves, and that he had escaped from the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases a few months after he had been admitted there in 1926. This would make sense in a way, as it would have given him a reason to become a drifter, and changing his name would have made sense. Yet it was confusing because no one could seem to agree with whether Rogers was Franklin or not. Some townsfolk swore he was, as did the defendants, yet Ruminer, her father, and two cousins all insisted he was not, and a man named Coleman Foster, who had been one of Franklin’s few friends in St. James, also said Rogers was not Franklin. However, Rogers seemed to know a lot about the people Franklin had known, including details that it seems unlikely a stranger would have known, and he was able to pick people out of a line-up. Since there could be no way to tell from these conflicting claims, it was decided to convene a grand jury to establish the identify of Rogers once and for all.
During this trial, a lot of new details would emerge. Ruminer started to back away from her original story, now saying that she had in fact not seen Franklin killed and burned, only beaten, although she still was adamant that everything else was true. When Rogers himself took the stand, he presented his own version of the events from that night. According to him, he had gone out with the accused men, who were in fact his friends, and they been going to pick up his marriage license to Ruminer. Along the way, he said he had gotten drunk and fallen off his mule, injuring himself and unable to continue. Ruminer had then said she wanted to postpone the marriage, but Rogers threatened to leave town if she didn’t marry him as promised, and so he had left and worked at a farm in nearby Humphrey only convinced to return when he heard that his friends were on trial for his murder. Adding to all of this, there was also a dentist who took the stand and testified that the teeth found in the ashes were in fact not human, but rather those of a dog or sheep. It was starting to look as if not only was Rogers indeed Franklin, but also that someone with a grudge against the defendants had used Franklin’s disappearance as an opportunity to frame them, with Ruminer having a big part to play, as it was mostly her and her friends and family trying to paint Rogers as a stranger and distance themselves from him.
If Rogers was indeed Franklin, then it was an incredibly bizarre case of a man attending the trial for his own murder, but it was never established for certain that this was the case. In the end, the defendants were acquitted of the charges of murder, but it was uncertain just who Rogers was or what part to play in all of this. After the trial, Rogers would go back to his vagabond lifestyle, drifting from place to place until he was found passed out by the side of a road outside Clarendon in December of 1932 and died of exposure three days later. The trial has gone on to be known as the “Arkansas Ghost Trial,” and it is one of the weirdest legal journeys in United States history. What was going on here? Was Rogers really Franklin or not? Who was trying to frame those men and why? Did Ruminer have anything to do with it? Why would she lie about the assault and murder, and more importantly, why would she finger her boyfriend for it when she knew that he was still alive and it could all come back to haunt her?