Book review: “Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of America”

Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of America

This book isn’t your typical nostalgic road trip down Route 66.

Instead, Jim Hinckley’s “Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of America” (paperback, 256 pages, Rio Nuevo Publishers, photographs) exists as a travelogue of the horrific wrecks, disasters, gangsters, race riots and mad-dog killers along even bucolic towns on Route 66.

Subtitled “Tales from Bloody 66,” Hinckley’s book dives into a long-overlooked part of Mother Road history, adding to a truer picture than many overly sentimental books have.

“Murder and Mayhem” goes the traditional east-to-west voyage on Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica and points out peaceful, even delightful, highlights and landmarks along the way in eight chapters from each state on the road. These small episodes serve as a respite from the tales of violence and misfortune to follow.

Route 66 begins at scenic Grant Park in Chicago. The book begins there with the tale of Lester Harrison, a now-apparent serial killer whose crime spree lasted nearly 30 years.

Instead of dwelling much over the well-trod ground about Al Capone, Hinckley devotes several pages to the nearly forgotten turf wars that engulfed Chicago and even St. Louis among taxicab companies during the 1920s.

That serves as a reminder that much violence flared up in Illinois over labor strife during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — such as the Battle of Virden and other companies’ efforts to break strikes with imported labor. Hinckley also uncovered a tale where many Irish immigrants who literally were worked to death by the railroad were buried in donated church ground in Funks Grove, now famous for its maple “sirup.”

The relative absence of Capone doesn’t mean Hinckley ignores gangland activity, either. He digs up plenty from St. Louis, Tulsa and even Kingman, Arizona.

Hinckley also reports extensively on crime stories of note:

  • The killing of two women on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis before the span was reopened to the public as a pedestrian and bicycle path. Four men were indicted, but police and prosecutorial misconduct irreparably damaged the death-penalty cases.
  • The kidnapping and killing of young Bobby Greenlease in 1953 that involved the Art Deco masterpiece but long-gone Coral Court Motel in St. Louis. The perpetrators were caught, but about half of the $600,000 ransom never was recovered.
  • The Young Brothers Massacre in which six law-enforcement officers were slain during an ambush near Springfield, Missouri.
  • Two Midwest couples — George and Laura Lorius and Albert and Tillie Heberer — who disappeared while traveling together somewhere in New Mexico. The case remains unsolved.
  • An explanation of why Bucket of Blood Street in Holbrook, Arizona, got its name, mostly because of an unflappable lawman by the name of Perry Owens.
  • The heroism of Oklahoma marshal Oscar “Blood Hound” Morgan, who ended an outlaw’s killing spree despite being shot in the shoulder.
  • The killing of Tex Thornton in Amarillo that involved a hitchhiking couple and a bar in San Jon, New Mexico. Thornton had gained regional fame for his ability to snuff out even the most stubborn oil-well fires.

Hinckley also reports on so-called race riots that touched a handful of Route 66 towns during the early 20th century. Not only does that include the now-infamous Tulsa Race Massacre, but riots in Springfield, Illinois; East St. Louis, Illinois; and even the towns of Erick and Texola, Oklahoma, where African-American residents were driven out by a mob after the beating death of a rancher’s wife.

The “Bloody 66” moniker is justified simply from the terrible traffic accidents that occurred during the highway’s heyday. Almost all the states endured some sort of wreck that killed five, six, even eight people at one time. Several train accidents adjacent to Route 66 in the West killed more.

What’s startling about the book is how violence pops up in what appears to be quiet towns. Quapaw, Oklahoma, for example, has seen two murders. Alanreed, Texas, saw an entire family of four slain. Glenrio, now a ghost town on the Texas-New Mexico border, experienced a fatal stabbing in 1973. Toonerville, Arizona, saw two instances of homicide.

Hinckley doesn’t write of many crimes in the big cities along Route 66. After all, most criminal activity wouldn’t be unusual there. He focuses mainly on sensational crimes or those that shockingly occurred in small towns.

Hinckley mostly writes in a just-the-facts style, with an occasional aside into astonishment — especially over obviously violent criminals being freed after relatively few years in prison, only to commit more heinous crimes. Apparently the complaints a half-century ago or more about a naive justice system letting mean crooks out early was more justifiable than even now.

I’m sure there are more crimes along Route 66 than Hinckley detailed in his book. One that comes to mind is the Scott Eizember case in Depew, Oklahoma. Another is infamous gangster Whitey Bulger, who ordered a hit on a guy at a posh golf club in Tulsa. Maybe Hinckley is saving those back for a sequel.

I wouldn’t say “Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of America” is an enjoyable read, given the subject matters. But it is a well-constructed and engaging one. And the market for true-crime books is a substantial one, and this one might find a sizable reader base.


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