Tuesday, August 4, 2015

James Earl Ray Inmate Records Now Available to Researchers

He committed one of the most infamous assassinations of the 20th Century, killing the beloved leader of a civil rights movement that had a momentous impact on race relations in America. Now records from the assassin's life in prison following his capture are available for researchers who visit the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. After a few weeks on the run, he was captured and returned to Memphis. After pleading guilty to murder, he was sentenced to 99 years in prison and was incarcerated at Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Morgan County. He spent the rest of his life behind bars at Brushy Mountain and later at the Tennessee State Penitentiary and at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, both in Nashville.

Some of Ray's mug shots. These are most likely the images mentioned in a March 20, 1969, memorandum from Harry S. Avery, Commissioner of the Department of Correction. Avery ordered the mug shots retaken because "I think the subject has literally tried to camouflage his looks by closing his eyes." [Box 2, Folder 11]

Ray's prison records were transferred by the Department of Correction to TSLA after his death in 1998. The records had, for the most part, no organizational structure other than a very loose chronological order. In order to make the records useful to researchers, Archivist Will Thomas recently sorted the material by document type and completed a detailed inventory - or finding aid - describing the collection.

Processing RG 341. The large stack of documents on the left is some of the unsorted material received from the Dept. of Correction (after half of the stack had been sorted already!). The folders stacked everywhere contain the sorted documents.

Access to some of the material (mostly medical) is restricted by state law, but the majority of the collection is open for research. The largest portion of documents within the unrestricted material consists of Ray's disciplinary records. These records span the years 1971-1991 (although there are no records for 1976), and they document the various rule violations he committed while in prison. These infractions ran the gamut from the relatively minor, such as dumping food and garbage on the floor in front of his cell, to more serious violations, such as setting property on fire and attempting to escape. Among the other prison records are fingerprint cards and mug shots. The records also contain release forms signed by Ray granting interviews with the media, including release forms for Inside Edition, Hard Copy, Morton Downey, Jr., and Geraldo Rivera.

Western Union telegram to the warden of the Tennessee State Penitentiary protesting Ray's innocence in the assassination of Martin Luther King. NOTE: Ray was incarcerated at Brushy Mountain Penitentiary, not the State Penitentiary, at the time the telegram was sent. [Box 1, Folder 3]

A portion of James Earl Ray's criminal record from the FBI. [Box 2, Folder 7]

Records related to Ray's 1977 escape from Brushy Mountain Penitentiary. [Box 3, Folder 2]

Polaroids of the dummies used by Ray in his 1979 escape attempt from Brushy Mountain Penitentiary. [Box 3, Folder 2]

Interested researchers are invited to view a link to the finding aid found here:


For information on how to access to this material, please contact TSLA's Public Services Section Reference Desk at Reference.TSLA@tn.gov or phone (615) 741-2764.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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