[This story originally appeared in the October 1994 issue of Memphis
magazine. It was re-publiished as part of the 35th anniversary issue in April.]
Homer Wells took a slow drag on a Camel, then stubbed the cigarette out in the Claridge Hotel ashtray and slid his chair closer to the table. He carefully rolled a sheet of carbon paper into the battered typewriter, then hunched over the keys. Let him have it! came the sharp command
, he typed, banging away at the keys. An automatic barked and Memphis Hot Tamale King slumped to the ground, gasping his last breath. Two shadowy figures slunk off in the darkness . . . and the big manhunt was on!
With those dramatic words, Wells began The Clue of the Gray Hat, the October 1929 cover story for True Detective Mysteries
magazine. During the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, this Memphis detective cranked out dozens of hard-hitting crime stories for True Detective Mysteries, Master Detective, Daring Detective
, and Official Detective
. Many of the thrilling tales were drawn from his own years as a county coroner, detective, railroad special agent, and inventor. He got his start fighting crime when he was just 17, by training a team of hounds to track down crooks on the lam, and earned himself a nickname that he used throughout his career.
This is the story of Homer G. Wells, The Bloodhound Man.
On a spring evening in 1921, 20-year-old Lillian McCarver and her boyfriend were strolling hand-in-hand along a deserted road in Clarksville, Tennessee. Suddenly, shots rang out from a clump of bushes beside the road, killing the young woman instantly. The sheriff promptly handcuffed the boyfriend, though cooler heads suspected the real killer had scampered away. One of the deputies finally called for Homer Wells. As the coroner of Henry County, the 23-year-old Paris, Tennessee, native was well-known to lawmen in those parts. In his off-hours, Wells and his younger brother Tazwell also ran a bloodhound service. His official coroners office stationery even advertised, Old Dogs With A Record For Catches.
When he arrived in Clarksville, Wells later wrote, I found the city in a state of great excitement, with the young ladys escort confined in the prison under charge of murder, and talk of a Southern lynching bee. He led his best dogs, Old Joe and Red, to the scene of the crime and quickly tracked down the gunman: Within five hours after my arrival there, the young fiancé was a free man, and another man occupied [his] cell. This other man was behind bars as a result of the work of my bloodhounds and some common-sense work of my own.
Wells decided to put his common sense to more profitable use, and in 1921 moved to Memphis, where he began to wear two fedoras -- as a special agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and a special investigator for the Fox-Pelletier Detective Agency.
The railroad work was lonely and dangerous business, involving nighttime guard duty in spooky freight yards. More than once, local newspapers reported that special agent Homer Wells had fired at prowlers. The detective agency, though, was considerably more exciting. When a carload of masked bandits tried to stick up the Bank of Millington on March 8, 1929, bank employees switched on an alarm. The startled robbers fled in a Ford convertible, while bank employees opened fire as they ran out the door. Wells took charge of the investigation, interviewed witnesses, and helped locate the getaway car -- which ultimately led to the arrest of the would-be robbers.
On all of his cases, Wells filed extremely detailed Special Reports, identifying himself only as Memphis Agent W-2. He began his report to the Bank of Millington in this way: I left my residence at 7:30 a.m., proceeded to the Smith Motor Coach Bus Terminal at Washington and Front St., awaited departure of the 8:00 a.m. bus, and arrived at Millington about 9:00 a.m. He also kept track of every penny of expenses. The Bank of Millington report concludes with these astonishing sums:
Street car fare to bus station in Memphis: 7 cents
Bus fare from Memphis to Millington: 50 cents
Lunch for myself and Constable Williams: 80 cents
Gasoline and oil for Constable Williams car: $1.50
Telephone call (long distance) to Millington: 20 cents.
Other reports often included an unusual expense: Wells would list 30 cents for cigars to informants.
The local cops frequently called him when confronted with a tough case. He also took fingerprints, investigated insurance claims, and escorted hand-cuffed prisoners to other cities. On one occasion, the magistrate of Nashville sent Wells a letter containing a warrant for the arrest of a man charged with fraudulent breach of trust. Wells was instructed to arrest this man and hold for me, phone or wire me at my expense, and I will come for him at once and pay you for your trouble. Sometimes that trouble didnt pay very well. Wells collected a $10 reward for arresting a man in Memphis who had escaped from the Indiana State Penal Farm, and picked up just $15 for returning an army deserter all the way to Fort Riley, Kansas.
Not all of his cases were so clear-cut. One day, Wells was hired to proceed by automobile to a clinic at 1193 Madison Avenue and ascertain whether the client is being followed surreptitiously. Memphis Agent W-2 reported, Using Studebaker automobile with speedometer reading 37391 when starting, I arrived at the designated place at 3:20 p.m. and . . . observed the client enter the clinic.
Two hours later, the mysterious client (never identified in the report) walked out of the clinic and hopped into an Oldsmobile. By all the tests used in many years experience, Wells reported, it is certain that no one followed nor attempted to follow the Oldsmobile coup between the clinic on Madison and the [clients] residence on University.
Wells soon joined a larger firm, the William Burns International Detective Agency, and was promoted to manager of the Memphis office. Throughout his detective career, he seems to have earned the respect of people he encountered on both sides of the law. In 1926, a Tennessee State Penitentiary convict nabbed by Wells after a robbery asked him to write to the governor urging his parole, since he values your letter very highly. Wells did as he asked, telling him, I think that you have learned your lesson, and do not believe your freedom would be a menace to society.
In 1924, Wells embarked on a new career when he responded to an ad seeking writers for True Detective Mysteries
. I am led to believe, he wrote to the magazine, that maybe some of own little experiences might make interesting reading. The editors agreed with him.
Working at a table in his little room at the Claridge, Wells slowly pecked out his first magazine story, The Capture of the Memphis Terror, which ran in the September 1925 issue of True Detective Mysteries
. The Memphis Terror told the story of a double murder that occurred on the night of January 28, 1923, near Highland and Summer. An unknown assassin had shot 20-year-old Duncan Waller and his companion, 18-year-old Ruth Tucker, in the head while they were parked at the side of the road. There were no witnesses, and the clues left by the murderer were so meager as to cause us to realize immediately that unless something like Divine Providence was to aid us, we were confronted by a Herculean task.
Now that he had built up the suspense, Wells walked readers through the crime scene, showing that the man had been shot point blank, then the woman had been shot, yanked from the car, and dragged through the mud. Three .25-caliber casings littered the ground. Here was the fresh and terrible handiwork of a demon incarnate, he wrote. One task was to find the owner of the death weapon, and in 1924 this wasnt as daunting as it is today: We detailed men to locate and bring to Headquarters every known gun of .25 caliber. The weapons they found, however, didnt match the slugs. Detectives were stumped until another, almost identical shooting took place a few weeks later. Here is how Wells vividly describes it: As the staccato bark of the death-dealing weapon was repeated in rapid succession, the stillness of the night was pierced by the terrified screams of the frightened girl. Five times a spurt of flame leaped from the darkness . . . .
Once again, the only evidence left behind by the midnight assassin was a pile of .25-caliber cartridges. This time, however, the killer snatched a watch from one of his victims, and that move ultimately proved his undoing. By keeping a sharp eye on pawnshops in the area, Memphis police nabbed a suspect when she tried to hock the stolen watch. The woman led the cops to her boyfriend, who eventually confessed to the shootings. Although he was ably represented by a group of learned counsel, Wells concluded the story, the verdict returned by the jury called for death in the electric chair.
Over the next two decades, Wells cranked out dozens of detective mystery stories: The Crimson Crime of Glenburney Manor, about the 1932 murder of a rich spinster in Natchez; The Red Riddle of Marked Tree, about the 1929 killing of a woman in Arkansas; Trapping the Mad Murderers of Northern Mississippi, concerning the 1931 killings of a Water Valley bank president and his wife; The Mystery of the Traveling Corpse, a story of the 1934 slaying of a plantation owner near Lake View, Mississippi.
Perhaps his most famous story -- and certainly one of the most heinous crimes in Memphis history -- told of Tennessees Astounding Voodoo Slaying. In 1917, 15-year-old Antoinette Rappal disappeared one morning while riding her bike to Treadwell School. Searchers combing the Wolf River bottoms near her home the next day found the little girl -- dead. Her head had been severed with an ax. Upon the rain-soaked ground lay the stark evidence of a monstrous fiends dastardly deed, wrote Wells in the September 1934 issue of Master Detective
. All that was mortal of little Antoinette Rappal had been found! Near the body lay a clump of withered violets, apparently being gathered by the girl when she was slain: A most pathetic reminder of the sad fate that had befallen the one who had followed their innocent lure.
There were no clues, no witnesses. We didnt know if we were on the hunt for a vicious knife-wielder, an inhuman axman, or a monomaniac possessed of some devilish tool of his own nefarious design.
Detectives hauled in folks who lived in the area, including a deaf-mute laborer known as Dummy who had apparently witnessed the crime. But he was of no use: The chatterings of a jungle ape would have been quite as understandable. Through pantomimes and pictures, however, Dummy pointed the finger of guilt at two suspects, wood choppers named Dan Armstrong and Ell Parson. Both denied the crime and seemed to have good alibis.
Desperate to find the killer, the local police even disinterred the murdered girls body, pried opened her eyelids, and took close-up photographs of her eyeballs, because it was once believed that a person meeting violent death leaves mirrored in the eyes a picture of the last object beheld -- in this case, they hoped, an image of her murderer. Wells reported this measure was a last frantic endeavor to wrest the clue from the grave that might be the means of capturing this human-viper.
It didnt work. Although the photographs seemed to show a human form, they werent distinct enough to identify any particular culprit. Ultimately, Parsons own wife implicated him, and he confessed to the crime; he killed the girl because her death would serve as a voodoo charm that would ease his familys suffering.
Parsons was sent to the state penitentiary in Nashville until his trial date. He never faced a jury. While guards were bringing him back to Memphis, vigilantes pulled him off the train, hauled him to the very spot where he murdered the girl, and burned him at the stake. In the dawn of mans existence there was sprouted a tree of superstition which has been propagated through each succeeding generation of the human race, Wells concluded. I believe it was but a twig of that same age-old tree that perished in the flaming pyre which consumed the life of Ell Parsons.
The detective stories made Homer Wells a celebrity. National radio programs Calling All Cars
and Gang Busters
aired some of his tales. Local newspapers kept readers up-to-date on his most-recent articles, and Morrow Rambler Sales in West Memphis, Arkansas, even ran an ad showing Wells -- in a rumpled suit, with the brim of his hat pulled low -- standing beside a new car, beneath the headline, Homer G. Wells Buys His 2nd New Rambler. Wonder Why!
Throughout his writing career, Wells apparently maintained a good relationship with his publishers. Although one magazine editor complained in a 1933 letter to him, I have had considerable difficulty with the first three parts of the Merrill story, he bought the piece anyway. The editor of True Detective Mysteries
told Wells that his 1932 article The Clue of the Violent Heel Print couldnt be used due to the surplus of material which we have on hand, so Wells promptly submitted another story which was immediately accepted. That editor also called Wells Tennessee Astounding Voodoo Slaying a fine piece of writing. You have great ability as a writer and there is no question whatsoever about that.
Most of these magazines paid him well, especially by 1930s standards. Wells got $233 for The Mystery of the Traveling Corpse, $292 for The Crime That Rocked Arkansas, $202 for The Mysterious Fate of the Memphis Heiress, and a whopping $480 for The Clue of the Gray Hat.
Still, it certainly wasnt easy. True Detective Mysteries
turned down one story because it does not seem to be an outstanding case, or one especially desirable. That same magazine rejected one Wells manuscript because the victim is a minor, and added to that is the fact that the perpetrator himself is also a minor. The editors killed another piece because it is very seldom these days that we publish a story in which a Negro is the principal character.
The editor of a pulp magazine called Official Detective Stories
continually urged Wells to add a sex angle to the stories he submitted: I would stress the waywardness, which means the sex laxity of the girls. Will you look into this? The editor felt he could improve another Wells story in this way. If we are privileged to take liberties, this story can be made saleable, he wrote Wells. The liberties I refer to apply to the girls involved. Can we substantiate the business of the girls having lived with the men, and if possible, the fact that they were prostitutes?
Wells also showed a bit of shrewdness when dealing with certain editors. When True Detective Mysteries
returned his manuscript, Trapping Water Valleys Human Cougars, and asked him to cut it by more than 1,500 words Wells instead sold it to Master Detective
Wells last detective story ran in the October 1950 issue of Saga
magazine, but he had stopped most of his writing by the early 1940s. Other issues caught his interest, including World War II. During the First World War, Wells had served in the Tennessee National Guard, but the war ended before his application for the Army Tank Corps came through and he never got to fight. When Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, Wells -- at age 45 -- was too old for active duty. He spent months trying to convince the mayor, congressmen, the governor -- anyone who would listen -- to let him organize a special commando unit. These handpicked men, he argued, would go wherever needed, to carry out raids against the enemy, police occupied territory, form sniping squads, and fight with a spirit that seems to be lacking among some of us who are not warriors by choice. He even wrote to Sergeant Alvin York, the hero of World War I, to ask for his support: I feel you will agree that some sort of bunch of hell-hounds-of-the-USA ought to have a place in this war. To no avail; Wells stayed in Memphis for the duration.
There were other frustrations. In 1951, Wells designed and built a bizarre cigarette vending machine shaped like a miniature camel. It was designed to sit on drug store counters; customers slipped a penny in the mouth of the creature, and a cigarette dropped from a slot in its belly. Wells wanted the Camel cigarette company to buy thousands of these gadgets as promotions for their brand, but they werent interested. Wells wrote to his lawyer, Fool that I am, Im still hopeful of doing business with R.J. Reynolds sometime in the future. Instead, the camels gathered dust in his apartment for the rest of his life.
Wells continued to work as an investigator and special agent for the railroad. In the 1960s, he became advertising director, then associate editor, then editor, of The Lawman
magazine, the official publication of the Tennessee and Mississippi Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Ill health eventually forced him to retire. Wells died on November 18, 1973, and was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery.
Theres a personal element to this story: Homer G. Wells was my great uncle. I never met him, and never knew much about him. Theres a lot of things nobody ever knew about him because he was such a loner, says Dale Wells, his nephew (and my uncle). He never came around us. For most of his life, I probably saw him about once every five years or so.
Not many people, says Dale, knew that Homer had once been married, to a woman he met in Paris, Tennessee. She came to Memphis with him, but that didnt work out, and she moved right back home. They never had any kids, and never got divorced, but he never saw her again.
Its a safe bet that Homer was hard to live with. He was just one of those tough old guys, remembers Dale. When hed come in at night, hed just sling his pistol and holster over the headboard, and the hotel maids wouldnt come in there.
Homer Wells was a tough guy to the end. When the ambulance came to take him to the hospital during his last days, he insisted that the attendants cover his face with a sheet. He didnt want anyone to see him being wheeled through the hotel lobby on a stretcher.
[Born and raised in Memphis, Michael Finger earned a masters degree from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and has worked as a writer with the Center for Southern Folklore, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Archer/Malmo Advertising. He is currently senior editor of Memphis
magazine and The Memphis Flyer