“From Midnight to Guntown,” by John Hailman

John Hailman

John Hailman

Reviewed by Daniel Sundahl

If I remember right there’s a commemorative statue of William Faulkner on the Oxford, Mississippi, City Hall front lawn. He’s seated on a park bench; there’s a patrician elegance to the statue, legs crossed, pipe in hand, a battered (what was likely brown) hat. What’s missing is a glass of “branch wattah” within reach.

There’s some controversy, so goes the story, because to make way for the statue an old magnolia was cut down with little ceremony. Things boiled over and, so goes the story, at a stormy city hall meeting one of Faulkner’s nephews decried the whole business as something a Snopes would do.

It’s a complex and immensely difficult labor to make sense of the South and the attempt is not dated. My own adopted state of South Carolina is in the midst of an agonized re-appraisal. I’m reminded that W. J. Cash was born near my new home and it may be time to give a re-appraisal to his The Mind of the South.

As for the Faulkner statue, the whole hub-bub business was eventually handed over to the lawyers to hash out.

Lawyers, about whom Shakespeare had some things to say.

John Hailman is a lawyer and a career prosecutor for the United States Attorney’s office in Oxford. He has also taught law at the University of Mississippi for twenty years. He’s not kin to the movie character Atticus Finch but he is a real-life lawyer which does not disqualify his literary qualifications.

Let me make a modest sidebar point here: I had a golf partner recently deceased who was a local small town lawyer. Once on the tee-box he confided that he sometimes “believed” himself to be much like the local parish priest, albeit unordained except for passing the “bar” exam. So much “confession” went on in his “chambers.” Much of it weighed on him and much of it went into good humor, stories, mostly true if a bit elaborated, but when all placed together end-to-end the makings of the whole of the “human comedy.”

Small towns are not municipal abstractions; they are places where the local constables, judges, and lawyers become as familiar to the local folks as preachers, undertakers, insurance agents and the he or she who runs the local coffee shop, or “shoppe,” which always gives an added elegance to the place. My local establishment was called “The Palace.”

People come vividly to life in rural places. Such is the case in Hailman’s book. Oxford, Mississippi, like other rural places, is not without its knuckleheads and ne’er-do-wells.

And so with good humor and good pathos and tragedy, Hailman narrates the lives of his criminal acquaintances, bank robbers, drug dealers, racist murderers, corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. It’s not, though, simply the “mind” of the South as if one were to drive into Oxford expecting the place to be darkly dysfunctional, a place of, oh, roguish charm and lurking grotesqueries so bequeathed to the place by Faulkner.

In his “Preface” to his book, Hailman notes that the idea came to him as early as 1989. The Justice Department had assigned him the task of compiling a history of his office as part of a volume commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of the United States District Attorneys. What he discovered in his “excavations” was shocking: Of the thousands of cases prosecuted by his office, most files were simply shredded after ten years. He decided to rectify what he could by reading, writing, and of course pursuing that unique Southern past-time, reminiscing.

There are two corners to his district marked by two towns: Midnight is a “predominantly” black town in the plantation country of the Mississippi Delta; Guntown is in the northwest corner in the foothills of the Appalachian range just north of Tuelo, birthplace of Elvis. Hailman notes that together Midnight and Guntown seemed to capture the vital elements of the region’s intertwined cultures.

In this same “Preface” Hailman notes his debt to Willie Morris, an old friend who encouraged him to write this book. And he references a “soft-spoken southern lady who tried for a whole year at Millsaps College in Jackson to teach me how to write.” One could not ask for a better teacher than Miss Eudora Welty.

But how to write this book without encroaching upon the literary turf of those giants? In the “stories” that make up Hailman’s book he is both actor and observer in the courtrooms and jails where he listened for and to the stories arising from “Faulkner country.” Mythological influences do not shape the book: place does as much as the customs, feelings, and the paradox of human relationships.

His favorite crime to prosecute? Bank robbery likely because of the “ease” of the prosecution, what with surveillance cameras and dye-pack devices.   Hailman notes that of all federal prisoners, bank robbers own the lowest average IQs. That seems an indisputable fact. Consider for a moment the fat robber “who fell down outside the bank and couldn’t get up because his pants were too tight.”

Such stories become the stuff of local legend.

One bank robber neglected to pull down his ski mask. To temper his bad day, he stopped for a six pack. The police followed the trail of beer cans to find the culprit sitting beside a lake.

Melvin Calvary decided to enhance his bank robbing chances by turning to good luck charms. “Calvary performed a black mass by sacrificing a goat . . . . It didn’t work.”

Robbers have been identified by their powerful and distinctive cologne. One clerk called such a fragrant masked robber by his first name.

Tellers these days sit behind bulletproof windows. One robber approached a teller’s window and whispered “‘This is a robbery,’ . . . . The teller was a veteran of other robberies and was sitting behind a bulletproof window. She whispered back, ‘Show me your gun.’ When he shook his head no, she yelled out, ‘You little snot, get out of here.'”

And it goes on, story-by-story compounding-and-compounding.   There’s the Preacher in the Volvo story, the story of Thunder Eagle Ghost Dancer, the Stuttering Bank Robber, the Honey Bun Bandit, and the “wooing” robber who noticed that the teller was young, blonde and quite attractive. When she handed him the cash, “Smiling . . . he looked at her more closely. ‘You look really good. Would you go out with me this weekend?'” Nonplussed, the lovely teller said calmly, “‘I don’t think that would be a good idea under the circumstances.'”

We lived in Arkansas for a little over four years. I taught at a small college in Johnson County; it’s a French word, Arkansas, and there’s a little bit of a British common law system still in place, including to whom one pays one’s taxes: the high sheriff. Just west was another county. The differences were not oblique. The high sheriff next door had a pair of good-old-boy sons who drove brand spanking new matching Pontiac Firebirds and which were gassed up nightly at the county’s municipal pumps.

In the second part of his book, Hailman delineates corruption in positions of trust, including sheriffs, supervisors, judges and even lawyers. There are delightful fiascos to go around including the famous Mississippi Beef Plant Fiasco, the life and times of Dickie Scruggs, Chief Judge J. P. Coleman before his own court, jury tampering, and the tale of John Grisham Senior, one of Hailman’s oddest cases.

The elder Grisham, a county supervisor, who also owned a heavy equipment business, found himself in financial difficulties. It’s an elected position which Hailman argues is peculiar to Mississippi. Statistics he notes can be misleading, but using even a small sample reveals that more Mississippi elected officials have been prosecuted for corruption than appointed officials. The senior Grisham, a case in point, took advantage of his position to sell his own county some worthless construction equipment neglecting an obvious conflict of interest. The irony in the story? John Grisham Senior was at first defended by John Grisham Junior. Things, though, do work out, and convicted Grisham Senior served his eight months at night in the federal jail in Memphis; daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., he worked to salvage his business, resting each night in the Memphis pokey. He had no more legal problems.

On August 28, 1955, Emmett Louis Till was murdered in Mississippi at the age of fourteen, after reportedly making comments to a white woman. Till was from Chicago and visiting relatives. The trial is part of American History and part of a section in Hailman’s book titled “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs.” An all-white jury acquitted the two defendants after an hour’s deliberation.

In 2004 the United States Department of Justice re-opened the case, one of a number of cold cases dating to the Civil Rights era. Hailman notes that Mississippi has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful and peaceful states but “has been stained by our history of racial prejudice and violence.” He became part of a very good team confronted with the emotional fires that had been smoldering for decades. As a result, the emotional tone of Hailman’s book becomes profoundly sober when the Emmett Till case was re-opened, and Hailman explains what made it worth reopening.

It’s likely the most difficult chapter to read, compounded by Hailman’s belief that the story is still an “active part of [Mississippi’s] culture, as I can attest from personal experience.”

Hailman has been a journalist and a wine, food, and travel consultant, or so reads his resumé. He has to his credit a biography, Thomas Jefferson On Wine. He’s at work on a law school text, Law and Literature from Confucius to John Grisham, junior not senior.

He’s retired from his day job but there are more war stories to be told.   His Return to Guntown, thirty-five more excavated boxes of cases and trial stories, is due to be published October 1, 2015.

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