Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: The Hookman Didn’t Really Have A Hook

Written By: Tracy - Oct• 23•17

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, because it’s based on a true story.  

The Hookman was even a monster-of-the-week on season one of Supernatural.

A young couple went parking on Lover’s Lane.  The radio is on to set the mood.  In between songs, there is a bulletin: lock your doors.  A mental patient escaped from the local asylum.  He’s known for killing his family with his prosthetic hook. 

The girl gets scared and demands her boyfriend take her home.  But the boy is reluctant.  After all, he’s parked in Lover’s Lane, so he’s not thinking with the right head. And people in horror stories don’t know they are in horror stories.  

In some versions, the girl insists.  With the mood broken, the boy takes the girl home in a huff.  When he goes to open the door for her, they find a bloody hook hanging from her door handle. 

In other versions, the boy gets angry that the girl wants to go home instead of putting out (because all horror stories are really morality plays).  So he taunts her, then gets out of the car and runs off to teach her a lesson.  She sits in the car, terrified.  Then she starts to hear a scratching on the roof.  She musters up her courage and gets out, only to find that her boyfriend has been killed and strung up over the car.  The scratching she heard was his fingers brushing the car’s roof. 

The hookman story is an old standard at slumber parties and around campfires.  It was even an episode of Supernatural back during season 1, when the show was less about biblical drama and more about two guys hunting folklore monsters. 

But like some old favorites, the hookman story might be rooted in actual events: a series of murders called the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.  As the name implies, the murders took place in Texarkana in 1946.

In an article on the murders for Texas Monthly, journalist Prudence Mackintosh remembers Texarkana at this time as a Norman Rockwellesque town. The city straddles a state line, with two of everything.  Two post offices and courtrooms in one building that the state line bisects. Two high schools with an intense football rivalry. 

That same folksy quality was what Walt Disney remembered about Kansas City of the same era, and would try to reproduce in his Main Street USA at Disneyland.

Now imagine a horror movie dropped into Main Street USA.

February 22, 1946 would have been a chilly night.  So when Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey parked on a lover’s lane near the outskirts of town (on the Texas side), their activities would have fogged up the windows of their car.  So neither of them were too alarmed when a man came up and shined a light in their window. 

“You’ve got me mixed up with someone else,” Hollis told the man with the light.  But the guy demanded they get out of the car.  Both Hollis and Larey started to get scared when they realized that the man with the light had a bag over his head to hide his identity.  The masked man demanded Hollis’s pants. Then hit Hollis over the head and chased Larey.  Larey was eventually able to escape, and summoned the police. 

Other young couples wouldn’t be as fortunate.  Four weeks later, on March 23, someone would kill Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore.  Then again on April 14, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were killed.  Then the press gave the killer a scary nickname: the Phantom. 

The final attack occurred May 3.  A farmer named Virgil Starks was shot through a window at close range.  His wife Kate was shot in the face while trying to phone the police.  She ran to a neighbor’s house and was taken to a hospital.  

There would be no more murders, but the city-wide hysteria was just beginning.  Before, one could avoid the killer by coming home before dark.  Now he was attacking people in their homes.

The city put a curfew in place. Residents began locking doors and pulling their shades at night. Gun and ammunition sales skyrocketed. 

And though both Arkansas State Police and Texas Rangers joined the investigation, they had their hands full dealing with rumors, false alarms and stupidity that was caused by panic.  People booby trapped their homes, a few even accidentally shot their neighbors. Some young adults armed themselves and parked in lover’s lanes in the hopes of getting the drop on the killer. 

Cops had to turn on their sirens and announce themselves, so they didn’t get shot.  Liquor stores refused to sell alcohol to anyone who didn’t seem to have a sound mind, so as not to double the police’s workload. 

Though police never officially caught the Phantom killer, their prime suspect was a local counterfeiter and car thief named Youell Swinney.  Their belief was so strong, they never looked into another suspect.  And while circumstantial evidence linked him to the crimes, it was not enough to make an arrest.  Police were able to gain a conviction against Swinney for car theft. 

A sensationalized account of an already sensational story.

Was Swinney guilty?  No one can say for certain.  His wife believed him to be the killer.  But in 1946 she couldn’t be made to testify against him.  The discription Hollis and Larey gave was contradictory.  Hollis believed their attacker was a dark skinned caucasian, while Larey said he was a light-skinned African American. 

In his book, The Cases That Haunt Us, FBI profiler John Douglas states that a serial killer will usually continue to murder unless he mentally deteriorates, or an outside force (such as being incarcerated) stops him. I think it’s telling that after Swinney was arrested, there were no new murders.  The Phantom seems to have vanished.

Is the Phantom the basis for the hookman story?  The timeline fits.  Accounts of the hookman story began spreading in the 1950’s.  The first printed account was in Dear Abby in 1960.

The Phantom’s story has been immortalized in more than just the hookman campfire tale.  In 1976, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce (of The Legend Of Boggy Creek fame) made a movie based on the murders called The Town that Dreaded Sundown.  

In Texarkana today, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is by tradition the last film shown during the city’s annual “movies in the park” series that screens each year from May through October.

The Phantom killer may have left one more unfortunate legacy.  His method of killing (murdering couples in lovers lanes while concealing his face with a bag) might have been copied by the more famous and also never identified Zodiac killer nearly twenty years later. 

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