Joseph Paul Franklin and I went way back together, to the fall of 1980 when FBI Civil Rights Section chief Dave Kohl, one of my close friends in the Bureau, asked me to do a fugitive assessment on the serial killer of African Americans, interracial couples and Jews. He had been arrested and interrogated, but managed to slip out a police station window. I thought he’d be difficult to catch because he was extremely sophisticated about police procedures and techniques, but I felt he would come back to somewhere along the Gulf Coast where he felt comfortable and our best shot at getting him would be when he needed money. He was spotted and identified from his tattoos by nurses at a Lakeland, Florida blood bank, where he’d gone to sell his plasma. FBI agents arrested him at a nearby store where he’d gone to cash the check.
Franklin died early yesterday morning by lethal injection at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Bonne Terre for the 1977 sniper style killing of Gerald Gordon outside a suburban St. Louis synagogue. That he was executed for this particular crime was almost arbitrary, though. In total, Franklin killed at least 22 and is most famous for two he only managed to wound: civil rights leader Vernon Jordan and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, whom he left permanently paralyzed.
Despite the fact that I conducted a long interview with Franklin about 20 years ago, corresponded with him, taught his case and wrote about him, I’m in no way sorry to see him go.
The interview took place while he was incarcerated at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois as part of a joint Secret Service-FBI project studying assassination. Ken Baker, one of the Service’s leading assassination experts, with whom I worked with frequently, conducted the interview with me. Throughout the exchange, Franklin remained dispassionate about his crimes, almost detached. He never showed any remorse and was completely forthcoming in explaining how, inspired by Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Charles Manson’s concept of “Helter Skelter,” he hoped to inspire other whites to start a race war.
One of the things that really annoyed him was that he wasn’t as famous as some other serial killers and assassins, whom he didn’t consider nearly as accomplished. The only time we really “got to” him was when we mentioned his young daughter, and his ex-wife’s efforts to keep him away.
Later, he would liken his three-year run of murders before his arrest to Christ’s three-year ministry before His arrest and crucifixion.
In a prison interview shortly before his execution, Franklin claimed to have seen the error of his white supremacist ways, but I received letters from him contradicting that claim. In one, he complimented Mark Olshaker and me for our analysis of him in The Anatomy of Motive, but then took us to task for a section of our previous book, Obsession, where we stated that the 1931 conviction of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama for supposedly raping two white women on a train was a gross miscarriage of justice. He suggested that if one of my daughters had been “raped by a nigger,” I’d feel differently.
The irony of Franklin’s life was that had he been content to remain a “professional” bank and convenience story robber, he might have enjoyed a long and successful career. He was a patient and meticulous planner and took the time to study previous robberies and the police responses. But fulfilling his racist agenda became more important.
What is most interesting about Franklin is that like most assassin type personalities, what it was all really about was emotional compensation. He had a miserable, poor and dysfunctional childhood and began his career of hate by bombing synagogues and Jewish leaders. But what he was really adept at was sniping. This is significant because as the result of an injury, he had lost the vision in one eye. His expert marksmanship was a means of compensating for this handicap.
Likewise, the racism. Inadequate people have to try to feel worthy, and one way to feel worthy is to find someone else unworthy or inferior. If you can’t find anyone less worth than yourself on individual merits, then you have to find them inferior by race or creed. Even his name was a means of compensation. He was born James Clayton Moore but took on a new identity. Joseph Paul was an homage to Nazi propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels and Franklin was from Benjamin Franklin. Think he may have been mixed up and conflicted?
On that score, his biggest problem with the Klan and other hate groups is that they just seemed to drink beer and jaw rather than do anything. So he decided to act on his own. Today we refer to these types as “lone wolves” and they are very dangerous because there is no definite profile that makes them stand out in a crowd.
So I think I understand the late Joseph Paul Franklin pretty well. The only thing I don’t understand is why the law allowed him to live more than 30 years longer than all of those whom he callously and remorselessly sent to early graves.