10 Disturbing and Unexplained Facts About James Earl Ray, MLK's Assassin

Each year, the third Monday in January is a celebration to commemorate the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr., the tireless civil rights activist who was gunned down in Memphis, TN, in 1968. But what do you know about James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King? 

Ray was born in Alton, IL, in 1928, the son of working class Scots-Irish parents. In the 1950s, Ray became notorious as a petty criminal, and by the end of the decade he was a failed pornographer who had served some jail time and successfully completed a prison escape. He was a fervent supporter of George Wallace, the Alabama governor who notoriously gave the 1963 "Segregation Now, Segregation Forever," and he was passionate about emigrating to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to be a part of the white minority in power there at the time.

This list details the strange, unstable life of James Earl Ray, a man who confessed to and then spent his life denying the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. 

  • He Was A Failed Adult Filmmaker

    While on the lam in the 1950s, Ray lived in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico under the pseudonym “Eric Stalvo Galt.” While there, “Eric Galt” ordered video equipment through the mail to start up a business as a small-time pornographer. He filmed local prostitutes during their work hours in pursuit of his cinematographic dream, but he eventually left Puerto Vallarta after being jilted by his girlfriend who, coincidentally, was also one of the prostitutes he filmed.

  • He Got A Nose Job

    There are records of Ray receiving plastic surgery in Los Angeles about a month before King’s murder in Memphis. He paid for a nose job in cash. While some speculate this was an attempt to hide his identity before killing King, others point to Ray's lack of care about disguising himself in other elements of the assassination plot. 

    His prints were found all over the hotel room in Memphis where the shots that killed King were thought to have come from, and they covered the murder weapon - a Remington hunting rifle he purchased in Birmingham, AL. Later, though, he claimed he left the prints to gain international notoriety. 

  • He Escaped From Prison Twice

    Somehow, Ray managed to escape from prison on two different occasions. His first prison break happened in 1967, when he escaped the Missouri State Penitentiary on a bread truck before fleeing to Canada. On June 11, 1977, while housed at the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, TN, Ray and five other inmates escaped. Ray, was found by bloodhounds about eight miles away from the prison shortly after the escape attempt. He made the FBI Most Wanted List before his recapture.

  • He Submitted To A Polygraph In An Interview For Playboy

    Shortly after his confession, James Earl Ray recanted on his testimony, claiming he was part of a much larger conspiratorial effort to assassinate King. To this end, he spent decades (unsuccessfully) attempting to attain a criminal trial in order to tell his story. At one point, his lawyer Jack Kershaw arranged for him to do an exclusive interview with Playboy Magazine, which involved Ray submitting to a polygraph test. This kind of backfired, though, since the polygraph – and subsequent Playboy article – reported that he was definitely the sole MLK assassin.

  • He Was A Lifelong Con Artist

    Before James Earl Ray got into the business of assassinating one of the most significant individuals in United States history, he was traveling the country (and sometimes even the world) performing petty cons. A brief run down of his rap sheet shows that, after returning from serving in WWII, Ray got arrested for everything from stealing a typewriter in Los Angeles to robbing a cab driver in Chicago and stealing money orders in Missouri. His record is also riddled with other low-budget thefts from all around the country and even bears the mark of numerous attempts to “escape” trials and jail time. Before the end of the 1950s, he had served three years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

  • He Was An International Fugitive For A While

    Ray was no stranger to running to the ends of the earth in order to avoid the law by the time he assassinated King. In the 1950s, during his petty con artists days, he fled to Mexico where he lived in Puerto Vallarta as an aspiring pornographer. After he murdered King in 1968, he drove to Toronto, Canada. From Canada, he did a brief stint in Lisbon, Portugal before eventually ending up in London before attempting to go to Brussels, Belgium. He was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London in an attempt to leave the country with his fake Canadian passport.