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From the Fires of Hate,
An Ember of Hope

By Paul Hendrickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Widow and son Vernon Darmer's widow, Ellie, holds his photograph, next to her son, Vernon Dahmer, Jr. (Lee Celano for The Post)
HATTIESBURG, Miss.—Ellie Dahmer's right hand has risen to the side of her neck, as if to feel for something that can't be seen in dimming evening light. "My nerves got so bad, I'd just break out," she says.

"Rashes," says another woman, much younger, her daughter, seated a few feet away on an opposite sofa. Her name's Bettie Dahmer, and on the night of her family's burning, she was a 10-year-old asleep in a back room. "Mama means rashes. She would break out in rashes. See, it was always the fear of whether they were going to come for Daddy or not."

Her mother, 73, in a white silky blouse, with red-painted nails, with dark hair combed fiercely back, nods. She's tracing small ovals on the side of her neck. She's here, not here.


It's about a widow and her family, and how they've endured through 32 1/2 years of waiting, and how justice may be rising up to greet them at last. But just as much, it's about a wizard and all his hates: the former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who once wore robes, and railed against the "whores of the media brothel," and of course the Jews and the blacks, and who had his own army to do his bidding, and who urged these fanatics to remember that "if it is necessary to eliminate someone, it should be done with no malice, in the complete silence and in the manner of a Christian act."

Look here at both – the family of Vernon F. Dahmer and the warped theology of Sam Bowers – because Mississippi seems always about the darkness and the light, the grotesque and the beautiful, the one bound to the other.

In this case the two edges are literally bound: Sam Bowers stands accused anew of ordering and orchestrating the 1966 arson murder of Ellie Dahmer's husband, Vernon. He has been accused of it before, and prosecuted, but this time may be different, this time he may not walk. Vernon Dahmer is one of the revered names in the history of the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi.

The White Knights of the KKK, Mr. Sam's self-proclaimed Christian service organization, founded and personally led by him through the bloodiest years of the '60s, was, by any other name, a terrorist paramilitary group linked to an estimated 10 murders; to the burnings of an estimated 75 black churches; to at least 300 assaults and beatings and bombings. These are statistics from the FBI and other federal and state investigative authorities. The planning presence behind all that carnage and sorrow, there can't be any doubt, was Imperial Wizard Samuel Holloway Bowers Jr. – about whom there are enough stories and rumors and myths and innuendoes to fill up a shelf of books.

You see, the wizard is exceedingly shadowy.

The anti-religion he presided over like a pope in the years of terror in the night was the most violent of all the Klan factions – so say historians and other chroniclers of the '50s and '60s South.

"The typical Mississippi redneck doesn't have sense enough to know what he is doing. I have to use him for my own cause and direct his every action to fit my plan," the wizard was once quoted as saying by one of his own disciples, Delmar Dennis, who had turned informant to the feds.

At the moment you're reading this, the wizard is just an old pouchy-eyed Baptist Sunday school teacher in a dry season, walking around free as air in a southeast Mississippi town called Laurel. He's made his $200,000 bond. He's 73. He lives in the back of a brown one-story warehouse on Maple Street, opposite a railroad track, in a poor and mostly black section. It's a domicile as well as a ratty place of business, known by the vile name of Sambo Amusement Co. For many years now, the wizard has been leasing vending machines and pinball games and jukeboxes. This is the day job. And a lot of his clientele has come from the black community: proprietors of little bars and VFW halls.

You could walk right up to this building and knock on the heavy plate-glass door (one side of the glass door is now a big piece of plywood), not that Mr. Sam would ever answer or agree to say two words to you, especially if he knew you represented "the hierarchical prostitution system of the captive press." But he is around. Everybody says it. The town gets glimpses. He goes out to the Jitney Jungle or the Waffle House or Uncle Roy's barbecue and seafood buffet to take his simple meals. He's known to hold doors for folks. Sometimes he'll be seen batting around in the cooling evening air in an old Caddy or a vintage, peeling, blue Ford Falcon with a creamy top. The man loves his cars.

"A jury would not dare convict a white man for killing a nigger in Mississippi," is something Sam Bowers once said pridefully.

His freedom may not endure. On Aug. 17, the wizard is scheduled to go on trial in Hattiesburg in the slaying-arson case of Vernon Dahmer. He says he is innocent. They arrested Bowers (along with two associates, Deavours Nix and Charles Noble) on May 28, and put the shackles on, and made him get into an orange prison suit. It was a front-page picture in the South. You could see the liver spots on that riveting, beat-up face. He stared straight ahead.

"I just think he's a very evil man. He's very mean," the attorney general of Mississippi, Mike Moore, said recently on the phone. "If we're able to convict him, I think we'll have removed the heart of some of the mean-spiritedness that existed in Mississippi 30 years ago. Mississippi is a very different place now."

"They're scum. They're cowards," says Bob Helfrich, assistant district attorney of Forrest County, who has already put in thousands of hours on this case and will be in the driver's seat for the nationally covered trial. "I think it's time for us to cleanse this. It's a sore. We have to open it up. Okay, that's very painful." For months now, Helfrich and his boss, the district attorney, Lindsay Carter, both native Mississippians – and, essentially, just good ole Hattiesburg boys – have been toiling in a war room next door to the courthouse, amid a sea of files and documents and big sheets tacked up on the wall.

When the Dahmer family came 2 1/2 years ago and asked him to reopen the case, the DA said, "If we can get it done, we'll get it done." For three decades, the family has kept faith that someday it would get done. They've pushed before.

This will be Bowers's fifth trial in this case alone. Four times in the past he's been tried by a jury of his Mississippi peers on charges relating to the slaying of Vernon Dahmer, and he has beaten every one – mistrials or hung juries. The last time he went to trial for this case was 1969. But now there is reported to be new evidence, and at least one new and important witness, and new secret government files and – or so it is insisted – this is the new Mississippi that Sam Bowers will have to face.

And yet who can really know? Because sometimes in Mississippi, while everything seems so vastly different, nothing at all seems changed. The assistant DA acknowledged to a reporter recently that he has taken to carrying a gun in his car. Helfrich has had people come up to him, when he's paying his check at a restaurant, and say, "Ol' buddy, don't you know what you're stirring up 'round here?" Unsigned screeds from Aryan Nation types have come in the mail. But the prosecutors add that plenty of folks have been willing to pat them on the back, saying: It's time.

It's time to get Mr. Sam. But who is Sam Bowers? Who was Sam Bowers – that seems the question that rolls under all this. It's as if no one has ever known, not even the FBI, which has hounded him for years. "He's responsible for everything the Klan did back then," an investigator in the Mississippi attorney general's office, Jim Gilliland, said recently. "If you could get inside that mind, it would be something." Gilliland is one of the cops who drove him to the county hoosegow on May 28 – and waited in vain for a syllable from the back seat.

Igniting a Nightmare

History of a much different man, on the night they came.

It was 2 o'clock in the morning, Jan. 10, 1966, in a wide spot in the road called Kelly Settlement. Two carloads of brutish men, bearing guns and hoods and jugs of sloshing gasoline, rode onto the property of a farmer whose surname is pronounced DAY-mer. For years he and his wife had been going to bed in shifts, sentries over their sleeping children and land, though for some reason not this night. Vernon Dahmer was a local leader of the NAACP. He had the effrontery to own things – a house, a little grocery store (it was right next door), a sawmill business, a planing-mill operation, some cotton fields.

More than this, he looked almost white. To a bigot, especially a Deep South bigot, there are many things a black man is not supposed to do, not ever, and one of them is to look like a white person. The reason 58-year-old, 240-pound Vernon Dahmer, with his 10th-grade education and bighearted life, looked almost white is because he had some white forebears.

But these were not his greatest affronts. He had been hectoring his friends and neighbors to register for the vote. Maybe even more than the Klan or the White Citizens Council, he understood how much political power and eventual economic freedom lay in the vote – if not for his generation, for his children's. The previous August, the 1965 Voting Rights Act had been signed by the president. Just two days before the burning, the uppity man placed a notice on local radio that the sheriff of Forrest County had agreed to sign out a poll-tax receipt book to him. Instead of going all the way into Hattiesburg to the courthouse to pay their $2 tax, the residents of Kelly Settlement could now come by the general store to pay the fee and get their receipt. He'd even pay for those who didn't have the money.

It was such a nice little ramshackle country store, slung and plastered with its tin advertisements for Barq's root beer and Garrett's snuff and Holsum bread. It was about to be taken down to the level of scorched earth.

So they rode in, in a Ford and a Pontiac, with their headlamps cut off. First, they firebombed the store, in the rear of which 80-year-old Aunt Luranie was sleeping. (She got out a window and fled toward the woods in her nightclothes.) They set fire to the carport. Maybe it was a suddenly blaring horn of the family Ford Galaxie that brought Ellie Dahmer bolt awake. She knew everything before she knew anything. The visitors were now blowing out the windows along the front of the house, were throwing in torches and open bottles of gasoline.

"Jewell!" cried her husband, firing into the darkness with his shotgun, "get the children out while I hold them off." He was running from room to room. Jewell: He'd always loved the sound of her middle name.

His wife tried to get a coat on little Bettie. She fought her way through the choke and flame to the back of the house. The windows wouldn't budge. They were secondhand windows and never worked anyway. Ellie Dahmer put her shoulder against the frame and heaved with everything she had and the window gave. She fell through, barefoot, in her flannel gown.

Mother and child got saved, though out on the ground Bettie lay screaming from the bad burns on her forehead and forearms. Harold and Dennis, two sons who were home that night, got out okay, too. Harold even managed to save the family pickup.

The head of the household, who'd stayed behind until the last to fend off the forms he couldn't see, died in the county hospital 14 hours later: Too much smoke, too many fumes, had seared too much lung tissue: This is the way the doctor put it. "They finally got me," the big man told a friend not long before he went into cardiac crisis.

Blacks of the county nearly rioted at the courthouse. The funeral at Shady Grove Baptist was overflowing. President Johnson sent a wire of condolence and anger from Washington. Some local and decent-minded whites, outraged, set about raising money to begin rebuilding what had been burned. (In 13 months, the family was able to move back into a new and partially completed house.) Four Dahmer sons, all of whom were serving their country in the military, were there to see their father buried. Somebody took a photograph of these four soldiers on funeral leave, in full dress, standing in a line, staring downward into the charred hole that had been their family home.

The Wheels of Justice

But of course you want to know what was paid for this deed. Well, it's true, the FBI and the Justice Department and local authorities slammed down on the Klan with a speed and vengeance not previously seen in many earlier civil rights murders. At length, 14 Klansmen, including Bowers, were arrested and charged with murder or arson or both. Fifteen people were indicted on federal conspiracy charges. Three got convicted for murder, a fourth was found guilty of arson, and one – who turned state's evidence – pled to both murder and arson. His name was Billy Roy Pitts, and he seemed to have walked straight out of the moonlight from Faulkner.

None of the convicted ever served more than 10 years, and some had their sentences commuted, and some did what you might describe as pathetic time, and then got pardoned. Still others who'd been indicted were never tried, or were freed after the juries deadlocked.

And the wizard, who authorities believed from the start masterminded it all? Why, he was never convicted. He served not a day of a prison sentence, at least not for this crime. (He did go to federal prison for six years for his role in another notorious Mississippi crime, his only real hard time.) No, all of Mr. Sam's trials for the burning of Vernon Dahmer ended in mistrials or hung juries.

It should be said here that there are notes in FBI files that have Samuel H. Bowers Jr. telling an informant that he'd seen to it that – for at least one of his trials – jurors had been "contacted" by White Knights. Sometimes Mr. Sam is a genius at understatement.

No Harbor for Hate

An understated man is talking. Vernon Dahmer Jr. is trying to say what he feels about the accused orchestrator. The visitor has asked it bluntly: Do you hate him?

It's as if he hasn't heard the question. He is standing at the spot on Dahmer family ground on Monroe Road where the store used to be. You can see the cement slab of the floor, you can see faint smudges of black, you can almost smell something acrid in the still summer air. In a rusted wire soda case are a couple of mud-caked Orange Crush bottles.

He doesn't answer. Then: "That's a difficult question. From the bottom of my heart, that's where I'm speaking from, I never have been a person to harbor hate. And I can't say today that I hate Sam Bowers. I certainly hate what Sam Bowers and his fellow Klansmen did to my family. But hate, no, I don't carry that baggage, that baggage will kill you."

Have you ever seen him? "Except on the TV."

These days, if you wish to get to Dahmer country and Kelly Settlement, which is maybe 10 miles north of the county's most populous town, Hattiesburg, you need only to get on the interstate and you'll be there in a shake. At Kelly Settlement, you can find the Mississippi of 30 years ago. Dahmers live on both sides of the road. There are six family residences almost within sight of each other. At the home place, which is now made of brick, there are fine old trees set back from the road, and cars are parked in their shade. If you were a stranger just motoring past, you'd never guess what fire and terror came here on Jan. 10, 1966.

That night, Vernon Dahmer Jr. was at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif. He was a master sergeant and had already served his country in uniform for 15 years. His father's sister called him, roused him from sleep. He went out and sat by himself in the living room. Home seemed so far away.

Seated in the living room of the home place now, the eldest surviving child of six, Vernon Jr., and the youngest child, Bettie, and the widow of Vernon Dahmer, Ellie, are talking. Spread out on the table before them are old albums full of telegrams and expressions of sorrow from famous and unfamous people. LBJ's Western Union wire is preserved in cellophane and clear tape. On a mantel is a photograph of the patriarch: He's on one knee, holding up a string of perch he's caught. He's got his big straw hat in his hand, and he's wearing a checkerboard open-collared work shirt that looks soft as lanolin.

"Well, I started to leave right after it happened," Ellie Dahmer says. "I would have left, yes. I wanted to get out. But some of my children didn't want to go. I stayed for them."

"Mississippi is all I know," says Bettie, 42 now, who works a desk job for the state. "I've lived here all my life. You could say I am getting to love Mississippi."

In a while the talk turns to Bowers.

"It was a very satisfying event to see him taken off to jail," Vernon Jr. says.

"Didn't look like he's been resting that well in that picture," his sister says. Her jaw tilts upward, some acid gets out in spite of itself: "Well, I do believe he rested well for a good while. It's been 32 years. No, I think he rested fine for a long time. But lately I get the feeling he hasn't been resting very well at all."

Ellie Dahmer: "This time he wasn't grinning. Other times he had that little grin on."

On the Case

There are so many stories connected to this tragedy. There are twists that seem outright comic, in the category of Keystone Kops, except that nothing at all is funny. There are intrigues and burlesques here that one wants to say could only happen in Mississippi.

The saga of Billy Roy Pitts, for example. He'd been working as an upholsterer of some kind and fancied himself good with leather. He decided to sew his own holster for the raid. Only thing, the holster didn't work for beans and Pitts's gun fell out at the scene. That was a handy clue.

One of the getaway cars had to be abandoned that night, because – in their lampless creeping in – the thugs apparently shot out two of their own tires and were trying to escape on rims.

It gets funnier, only it doesn't. One of Sam Bowers's lead attorneys, who is scheduled to defend him in court, is a man who was originally charged with arson in this case. His name is Travis Buckley. Buckley was never tried, at least not for this crime. (He was tried and convicted in another case involving alleged Klansmen. It was a celebrated kidnapping and beating charge; the state Supreme Court reversed the conviction.) Buckley did not return repeated calls for this story.

But Billy Roy Pitts – we were speaking of him. He pled to murder and arson in the case three decades ago and received a life sentence – and never served a day of that time. It was as if his life sentence, handed down by the state, was somehow overlooked or forgotten – or as if an unwritten deal was cut. That is what leading journalists and investigators in the state really believe. Pitts had been the key witness in the earlier trials that resulted in convictions in the Dahmer case. It's true he had risked his life in going against the Klan. It's also true he served nearly four years of a federal conspiracy conviction before his release in 1971.

Pitts, in captivity now, will be a witness at next month's trial, if all goes off as scheduled. Stories are sure to be resurrected by the defense about how tainted he is: tales about the feds giving him money at the time of the earlier trials, and that tawdry business of the FBI allegedly supplying him with Hollywood starlets. The prosecutors don't deny these things, not exactly. They say they will put this information right out on the table, because they are such puny items next to a man's burning.

The Ascent of Mr. Sam I

There are stories about him giving the Nazi salute to his old dog. There are stories about him hoo-haa-ing up and down in joy when JFK died. "I'm a Pauline, Galilean, Calvinist, reformed Lutheran Christian," he once said. "I believe that the empirical resurrection of Jesus Christ is the one single and central fact of manifested history."

The strange sketchy life of Mr. Sam gets only stranger and more fragmented the more you study it. He must have understood implicitly that in all his secrets lay so much of his power. And maybe he just liked the allure of being personally unknown.

He was born in New Orleans on Aug. 6, 1924. His father was a salesman; his mother came from wealthy planting stock. His paternal grandfather, Eaton J. Bowers, was a Mississippi attorney who served in Congress, from 1903 to 1911. He was a hero for the grandson who became twisted.

His parents split when he was 14. He dropped out of high school and went into the Navy and became a machinist's mate first class. His mother, who had a rage for grammar, for books, had already instilled a fierce and lifelong need for courteous forms of address and, above all, for a mercilessly punctilious elocution.

"I have become rather 'bored' with the contemporary efforts of Pagan Academic Savants Heathen Media hysterics: In their published efforts to: Twist my meanings, impugn my motives, ridicule my patriotism, correct my attitudes, define my personality and instruct my behavior," he once wrote.

Bowers used to belong to the Mississippi chapter of the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Louisiana. But he veered off from them, organized his own faction. Two hundred Klansmen assembled at Brookhaven, Miss., on Feb. 15, 1964. He was the ranting high priest of the meeting. Freedom Summer was nigh. "The events which will occur in Mississippi this summer may well determine the fate of Christianity for centuries to come," he said. By the end of summer '64, membership in the White Knights was thought to be somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000.

From Charles Marsh's 1997 "God's Long Summer": "From 1964 until his conviction in 1967 on federal civil rights violations in the triple murder of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, Bowers was the animating force behind white Mississippi's journey into the heart of militant rage, the Kurtz at the heart of darkness of the anti-civil rights movement."

In the '70s, he served six years of a 10-year prison term for the Neshoba County murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, which are perhaps the most known of all the Mississippi civil-rights murders. At McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, the unknowable man finished formal theological studies through Pacific Lutheran University's prison outreach program. He is reported to have been a model prisoner. Afterward, to quote Taylor Branch in "Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65": "Bowers returned to Laurel as a reclusive theologian of racial purity."


He isn't answering. You knock again. Nothing. You shield your eyes and peer inside. It's dark in the front room, but you can see jukeboxes and old pinball machines in states of disrepair. Maybe he's in the back, watching from a two-way mirror. Perhaps he'll emerge and get into one of his Ford Falcons, on his way to supper.

But Sam Bowers doesn't emerge.

This is the wrong side of the tracks. Mr. Sam's business, at 113 N. Maple, is a few blocks away from a convenience store where Jesse Hare, 55, is sipping on a bottle of pop. He just got off work at the Masonite plant. "Yeah, I know him," he says. "Used to work for him a little when I was a kid. He had a theater, the Lincoln Theater. It was for blacks. I'd clean out the place, sometimes sell stuff at the counter."

Did he talk to you? "Didn't much talk to anybody."

He adds: "You've got to ask yourself why he lived over here all this time in the first place. You know how it is: He hates us, and who does he make all his money off of? Black folks."

Cater-cornered from the old Lincoln Theater (which in later life turned into a general store and trading post) is VFW Lodge 5055. Arthur Winston, 72, manager and quartermaster, is cleaning up inside. Nobody else around just now, although tonight the 5055 will be jumping. "Saw him a year ago, last time," says the World War II veteran. "Came in to fix the jukebox. He nodded hello to me and did the work and then left. . . . I hear he belongs to a church now, teaches in the Sunday school. That doesn't cut any custard with me. What he did, he did. All his sins come back on him eventually, that's the way I look at it. The tail has turned around."

Do you hate doing business with him? "I don't like it at all. Don't have any choice. He's got it sewed up around here."

Out on the street it's beginning to cool a little. At the wizard's place, one of the old beat-up cars is gone.

The Witness

A measure of how much the attorney general of Mississippi himself is vested in this trial is that Mike Moore – who was 14 when Vernon Dahmer died – keeps a photograph of the Dahmers over the visor in his car.

The local prosecutors acknowledge how daunting the task is: It's a 32-year-old crime, with everything that suggests, including the fact that some people who might have greatly aided the case are now dead. And yet one of the things that may put momentum on the prosecution's side is that this case marks the second time in recent years that Mississippi has used new evidence to go after the walking-free. In 1994, the state was able to convict, after so much trying, Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers. The Dahmer family has taken tremendous hope from that conviction.

The surprise witness this time is a confidential informant who began approaching the Dahmer family several years ago. (Vernon Dahmer Jr. confirmed it for this story.) He is believed to be someone who was a teenager back then, in the employ of Sam Bowers, who maybe was sweeping up around the place when he overheard the murderous plans handed down from the wizard himself.

The prosecutors have pored over the recently released files of the State Sovereignty Commission, which was a state-financed spy agency monitoring the civil rights movement. There are something like 170 pages in the files on Vernon Dahmer, but they apparently do not contain anything vital to the case. They are merely nasty.

There is also the matter of three taped oral-history interviews that Sam Bowers gave to state history-and-archive officials in 1983-84. He gave them on the condition that they be sealed until his death. But a judge has overturned that stipulation, and the interviews are now in the hands of the prosecutors. Could he have incriminated himself in a moment of boast?

The Ascent of Mr. Sam II

After the Navy, the unknowable man attended Tulane University, then went out to California to study engineering for two years at USC. There he met his roommate and business partner, Robert Larson (now deceased), a friend from 1946 onward. The pair wandered back to Mississippi and started the vending business. Soon the incipient wizard was reading Nazi and racist philosophy. He loved large rubber masks that were caricatures of presidents, or movie stars, or blacks. He never married.

It is reported that when his temper was up Mr. Sam could propel himself rapidly back and forth across a room, fists clenched, face fierce enough to make even the most hardened Klansman back off.

Charles Marsh, a former Mississippian and native Southerner, and now a theology professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, has probably come closer to the wizard than any outsider. Several years ago, while researching his book "God's Long Summer," Marsh wrote a piece for the Oxford American magazine. The wizard agreed to meet him one-on-one in the back of a barbecue joint in Laurel. They spent some clammy hours together. Marsh closed his piece: "There is one thing I know for sure: that having looked into the face of Sam Bowers, I am none the wiser."

Justice at Hand?

Ellie Dahmer and her family have been talking about the crime for almost three hours. It's dark now, moonless. But there is also a new lightness in the room, as if a burden has been shed for at least a few hours. Vernon Dahmer's widow has been listening more than speaking this evening. In the beginning, she had seemed too weary, or maybe wary, to participate.

Now, though, she wants to answer a question: Did she ever think she and her family would get this far in the long struggle for a reckoning?

"No, I didn't believe it. I thought it was the end. I thought there wouldn't be any justice. I thought we'd have to wait till we crossed over to the other side of Jordan. But now I'm beginning to believe."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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