The Lonesome Death of Billie Grayson and Other Killings in Early-Day Lincoln County

As law and order arrived, the West became less hospitable to outlaws, forcing them like Huck Finn to head for the territories--Indian and later Oklahoma Territory. Just as in a drought the streams dry up and the fish collect in pools, so Oklahoma was the last pool for the outlaw.

As of this writing (7 May 2017), the publisher has failed (moral bankruptcy) and the book is out-of-print. It is now available in a second, enlarged edition from

   Foreword to the Book

This book wrestles with the angel of “true crime” and refuses to surrender. Though it is about crime and it is as true as as the evidence allows, it does not seek the thrills and chills of  the conventional genre but the more ordinary passions of everyday life. By “everyday” I mean the lives of the poor, for it is the poor who define us all, and yet they leave no monuments. Their graves are marked by fieldstones or by sand rock, the latter soon washed illegible by wind and rain and then later chopped into bits by the brush hogs that nowadays mow the rural cemeteries. Newspapers, which sometimes provide partial trial transcripts, may offer a few words from the killer, but none from the killed.

In The First Man, the autobiographical novel that Albert Camus left incomplete at his death in 1960, the protagonist contemplates the mystery of the his father, who had died in WWI when his son was two. It was “a mystery he had wanted to penetrate. But after all there was only the mystery of poverty that creates beings without names and without a past, that sends them into the vast throng of the nameless dead who made the world while they themselves were lost for ever.” Like most of the people in the stories that follow, the family was illiterate, or if they could write their names they had no functional literacy. They left no documents.

The principal actors in my stories are not always illiterate, though usually they are, but always they are poor (with the exception of the doctor who sucks their life’s blood). The killed are ordinary people: a postmaster, a choir girl, the chief of a small tribe, a farm mother and her daughter, a baby girl belonging to a single mother. Their killers too are average: a resentful cotton farmer, a confused mother, an itinerant roughneck, a black farm hand, an Indian mad at his father-in-law, and a country doctor who enriches himself by foreclosing on the farms of his dead patients. In the case of the mother who killed her child, the story made the headlines for two weeks before getting moved to the society pages. With the choir girl killed by the roughneck, the story ran longer because the first jury deadlocked and the case had to be retried. The rest made only the social column, usually under a rubric like “Local Happenings.”  
The interest of the stories, if they claim any, is social. Crime, we all know, bares a society’s underbelly, but more than that. As with drops of blood on a Scandinavian snowbank, it is the blankness of the background that makes the red dramatic. But a society is never a blank. It is a compost of dead beings without names and without a past, the vast throng who made the world while they themselves were lost forever. Their names litter the cemeteries of  rural America.

Why Lincoln County? No very good reason at all. It is a county that at most represents an average iniquity in Oklahoma, a state known first for outlaws before there was bubbling oil and Bud Wilkinson football (undefeated in 56 games, or was it 47?). Only the accidental reason that Lincoln is the county where I was born and reared, and my ancestors before me who came from Missouri (an earlier “home of outlaws”) to make the land run of 1891, opening the Sac and Fox country. It is the place of childhood memories, and from half a century and half a hemisphere away, I revisit it bringing blood to the ghosts. Blood allows the ghosts to speak, however brokenly, and to have their stories told. I know these people, I think, and they know me.

Because my primary source material for the stories is old newspapers, the facts of each case are fragmentary, so that the writer and the reader have to draw on imagination to fill the gaps between the fragments of information. Of course, that is generally true of murders that go to trial: if there were no doubt, there would be no need for a jury to decide. And sometimes the gaps become so wide that there is no case to try, as though murders were seeds tossed and winnowed in the wind. 

My father, born to a Lincoln County farm family in 1918, used to tell me that when he was a boy everyone worked too hard to have time to think about the past. I suspect that he is right. The truly poor speak little of the past--they are too concerned with surviving in the present. Hence Camus’s character Cormery is unable to find his roots through his family. “What I must do,” he thinks, “is tear this impoverished family from the destiny of the poor, which is to disappear from history without trace.” Though I am not writing of my own family, in a modest way something similar motivates the pages that follow.

Wayne Pounds
Tokyo 2014

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