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.
John,what do you think of the recent evidence in the Boston Strangler case? You briefly covered this with Mark in your earlier book, The Cases that Haunt Us. Despite the DNA there are two things that should be explained. First as you brought up in the previously mentioned book,violent criminals do not deescalate in violence which would be the case. Even stranger is the fact that DeSalvo got many of the facts wrong in the Mary Sullivan case that he should have known if he was the murderer.
You thoughts would be interesting.
There are a few explanations that came to mind. If you think any of them are unreasonable then feel free to say that. You are the expert here. One possibility was he teamed up the actual killer but was only involved in the rape and left when the murder occurred. Another,was he personally was involved with her prior to the murder. Less plausible in some ways but still possible. Are either of these possibilities that would explain the all the facts forensically and behaviorally?
There is no dna that links De Salvo to the Boston Strangler case. They tried this same thing years ago, when De Salvo was still alive. He was tested when he was ALIVE and it didn’t match. Everyone seems to have forgotten that. De Salvo was a pervert and a rapist, but he was not the Boston Strangler. This recent dna testing was conducted at first through clandestine retrieval of dna from a supposed De Salvo family member, which was supposed to have “matched” to sample retrievals from evidence. This is junk science and not viable for admission in court for a reason, which is why they got a court order to have the body exhumed and said they had a match. A match to what? The supposed nephew to De Salvo? Y haplogroup? They never said and my opinion is they won’t either because this testing was done already when he was ALIVE and it did not match to anything. That is why this story came out once and then not a word again. There are ways to spin dna results just like there are any kinds of research.
That is interesting.What kind of tests did they do? He died in 1973 before they had DNA testing. You also might remember when they exhumed Desalvo for the first time in 2001 they found unknown dna in the pubic region that did not match his or Mary Sullivan’s DNA. That was not mentioned. Also the autopsy showed he had the time of death wrong in his confession. Were you surprised that Casey Sherman has turned around in his views? He wrote two books saying Deslvo did not do it and now he believes he did. To be fair I have not read either of his books and do not know why he changed his opinion.
Another interesting article on the internet tells how some tests of this type mistake cousins for siblings. The question really comes to down to how unique are these Y chromosome patterns?
I’m a Fort Waynian, and remember the Vernon Jordan assassination attempt. Too bad it has taken so long to execute him. I’m for a higher standard of evidence necessary for execution to do as much as possible to avoid executing an innocent human, but each day they live after the horrendous crimes these people commit is a day too long.
Give me a serial killer any day of the week rather than a KKK member. At least the serial killer is particular about who he hates.
It’s tragic the inner turmoil that can cause someone to want to cause such an insurrection. Our legals system is a bog. I hope one day some powerful politician will make it their goal to pare it down to something that makes sense.