Monday, May 13, 2013

Interview with True Crime Author Ron Franscell

Ron Franscell
A few years back, I wrote a book entitled, Sun Struck: Sixteen Infamous Murders in the Sunshine State.  During my research, I made a brief trip to Homosassa to visit the site where Jessica Lunsford was abducted and murdered.  While standing in front of the burned-out ruin of a shabby mobile home, chills crept up my spine.  (One or more unknown citizens had set the trailer on fire as if to wipe away the stain of murder.)  Here a beautiful, well-adjusted, and totally innocent pre-teen girl had been sadistically brutalized.  As I viewed the spot where John Couey buried Jessica alive, I recoiled in utter horror. 

In his series of state guides to the locales of infamous crimes, true crime author and award-winning novelist Ron Franscell has recorded hundreds of locations where the reader can experience the same emotions as I did on that day in Homosassa.  So far, he and Globe Pequot Press have created the following books: The Crime Buff’s Guide Outlaw Texas; The Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw Washington, DC; The Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw Rockies; and The Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw Pennsylvania, due out in the fall of this year.  These books not only describe some of the most interesting crimes in US history, they provide the reader with GPS coordinates to the sites. 

Ron agreed to answer a few questions about the creation of this intriguing series, and about future editions.

How did you come up with the idea for the Crime Buff’s Guide series?

My wife and I were traveling across northern Louisiana and I wanted to see the spot where lawmen ambushed Bonnie and Clyde in 1934.  In the nearby village of Gibsland, we asked a fella how to get to the monument on a lonely rural road. He told us, but whether the directions were bad or we misunderstood, we couldn’t find the place.  We returned to town and asked somebody else. The directions were different … but we still couldn’t find it.  We finally succeeded on our third try, but by then the afternoon was banjaxed and I was frustrated.

“Wouldn’t it be much easier if instead of counting mailboxes and left-hand turns they just gave us GPS coordinates?” I spluttered.  And in that instant, the CRIME BUFF’S GUIDE books were conceived!  So far, we’ve covered Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Maryland, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania (in October). Coming soon will be Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Nevada.

A lot of history is hidden, especially crime history. It’s so well hidden that we often dash through life blissfully unaware that some of the most startling crimes in America happened right in our own backyards—sometimes literally. By harnessing the power of satellite navigation, I wanted to help fellow history and crime buffs discover something extraordinary in ordinary places – to show how surprisingly close we live to the darker side of American history.

Why is location so important?

I’m an old-school newspaperman. I believe there’s something important to be learned from “being there.”  For example, I always imagined JFK’s assassination had been a great drama played out on a great stage – so expansive that one man couldn’t possibly have committed that heinous murder at such a great distance.  Then I visited Dealey Plaza, which was, in reality, much more intimate and small than I imagined.  When I peered down on the fateful spot from Oswald’s sixth-floor perch, I realized that any Wyoming kid who ever hunted rabbits with a .22—as I did—could have made that shot.  “Being there” changed my whole perspective of that tragic event.

Crime is part of history, part of who we are.  So the history of crime is important to understanding our culture.  And just like other historic sites where imagination, myth and history entangle, significant outlaw-related sites can also offer a glimpse beneath the surface of the present.  As every traveler knows, visiting important—and sometimes forgotten—places can enlarge our understanding of history infinitely.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre happened in a Chicago warehouse that’s now a park where children play. The Black Dahlia’s dismembered body was found in an open field that today is somebody’s suburban Los Angeles front yard. Actor Fatty Arbuckle’s debauchery took place in a landmark San Francisco hotel room—which you can still rent today.  You can eat at a Scottsdale strip-mall restaurant once owned by Gambino mob informer Sammy “The Bull” Gravano while he was in witness protection.

And without asking for vague directions, you can stand on the exact spot where Bonnie and Clyde died in a storm of gunfire.

What are some of the favorite cases you’ve researched for your books?

It’s impossible to visit the site of the Columbine mass murder in Littleton, Colorado, and not be moved.  It’s impossible to stand in Ford’s Theatre and not feel surrounded by ghosts.  And it’s impossible to visit the crumbling site of the famous Chicken Ranch—“the best little whorehouse in Texas”—and not smile.

But many of my favorite places have told very human stories.  There’s a cemetery in Texas where the patriarchs of two feuding families, killed by each other in a fatal barroom brawl, are buried side-by-side and (by order of the sheriff) their two graves have been literally chained together for eternity. 

Then there’s the strange tale of small-time Oklahoma outlaw Elmer McCurdy, shot down by a posse in 1911.  When nobody claimed his body, the local undertaker mummified him and displayed his corpse until a few years later when some outlaw cohorts claimed the body—and promptly sold it to the carnival circuit.  Elmer’s body was a midway attraction for decades, then disappeared. In 1976, a TV crew filming a “Six Million Dollar Man” episode in a deteriorating Los Angeles amusement park found a mannequin in a warehouse. The mannequin turned out to be Elmer’s mummified corpse.  He was returned to Oklahoma and buried under two tons of concrete—so he’d never be moved again.

And in the sleepy town of Granbury, Texas, where men claiming to be John Wilkes Booth, Jesse James and Billy the Kid showed up -- long after they were all presumed dead.

In the small, overlooked stories, I often find the kind of human stories that make it all worthwhile.

One of my favorite stories is in your Guide to Washington, DC.  The grave of Edgar Allan Poe has been visited by millions, yet there is still a mystery about his death.  What do you think really happened to him?

We love our mysteries, don’t we?  And as the world’s first mystery writer, Edgar Allan Poe’s mysterious ending seems almost poetic.  Of course, I don’t know what killed Poe. As a storyteller, I sometimes lean toward the most fantastic theories because they make the best stories.  Illness is certainly a leading diagnosis (and some have suggested rabies from a rat bite).  Nevertheless, the possibility that Poe was “cooped”—forcibly inebriated and coerced by local electioneers to vote repeatedly for a chosen candidate—is a compelling theory.

Each state has a unique culture.  Does this relate to crime, too?

Yes, to a degree.  Wyoming has a very different crime history than, say, Pennsylvania because their pasts are so different.  So each state or city has its own extraordinary historic twist.

More striking to me is how the crime histories of diverse places like Wyoming and Pennsylvania overlap.  For example, one of Wyoming’s most infamous outlaws is Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid.  But did you know Harry was born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania (where his childhood home still exists)?

I have been rather amazed at how many crimes and outlaws have spanned time and space to pop up in places where you least expected to find their shadows.

This seems like a natural TV series idea to me.  Is that a possibility?

You’re right!  And some TV people agree.  An entertaining cable series based on the CRIME BUFF’S GUIDE series is on the table right now.  It could be a fascinating program that’s part history, part travelogue, part crime show.  Fingers are crossed!

Thanks for a great interview from one of the finest true crime writers alive today.  And like many of the better true crime writers, he is also an outstanding novelist.  Check out Ron’s website and buy one of his books.


MHN said...

Thank you for this - it brought a smile to my face and made me want to pack my bags and cross the Atlantic tomorrow. It's those quirky details of biography and geography and happenstance that make crime writing so rewarding for me, and Ron Franscell sounds like a writer I want to read.

Michael, London UK

Ron Franscell said...

Thank you, for such kind words, Michael! That's a very nice thing to say about these OUTLAW books. And if you decide to come across the Pond to see some of these historic places, I'm happy to give you a personal tour of a few here in Texas!

MHN said...

Mr Franscell, I'm honoured by that kind offer. If I'm ever in Texas it would be a true pleasure to take you up on it. Likewise, if you're ever here in the East End for any reason, I'd happily show you some of places of historic criminal interest here in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Regards, and best of luck, Michael.