Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Marvin Gaye – "Hitch Hike" (1962)

Got no money in my pocket
So I'm going to have to hitch hike all the way

[Note: This is the third in a series of four 2 or 3 lines posts about famous and infamous natives of Joplin, Missouri – my hometown.]

You have to feel sorry for people who suffered through awful childhoods.

Billy Cook’s childhood was about as bad as it gets, but it’s hard to feel sorry for him.  

Billy Cook's left hand
That’s because Cook shot and killed a farmer who stopped to give Cook a ride when he was hitchhiking one day in 1950.  

He also killed the farmer’s wife, their three children (who were 7, 5, and 3 years old), and the family dog, and threw their bodies down an abandoned mine shaft.

I don’t care how miserable a childhood Billy Cook had – nothing excuses what he did to that innocent family.

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William Edward “Billy” Cook Jr. was born in Joplin in 1928.    

Billy’s mother died  when he was five.  His unemployed father moved into an abandoned mine with him and his seven brothers and sisters.  One night, after getting a snootful in a local tavern, he hopped a freight and left his children to fend for themselves.  (That may not be the most heartless thing a father has ever done to his children, but it’s right up there.)

Local authorities discovered the children and found homes for all of them except Billy, who was later described by Time magazine as a “small, ugly child with a deformed right eyelid.”  He became a ward of the state.

Billy Cook's mug shot
Young Billy was a truant and a petty thief, and was sent to a reformatory when he was 12.  When he was 17, he was transferred to the Missouri State Penitentiary, where he assaulted a fellow inmate who made fun of his droopy eyelid with a baseball bat.  (Do prisons still allow inmates to play baseball?  Hopefully not.)

*     *     *     *     *

Billy was released from prison in 1950, when he was 21.  He returned to Joplin and tracked down his father, telling him that he planned to “live by the gun and roam.”

Cook then headed west, and ended up working as a dishwasher in Blythe, California, a desert town where the high temperature once reached 124 degrees.

After a short time in Blythe, Billy drifted back east.  He bought a .32-caliber revolver in El Paso and used it to steal the car of a man who had picked Cook up when he was hitchhiking near Lubbock.

The stolen car ran out of gas near Tulsa, so Cook reverted to hitchhiking.  He was picked up by a farmer from Illinois, who was driving to New Mexico with his wife, three children, and the family dog.  

Cook pulled his gun and forced the farmer to drive from Oklahoma to Wichita Falls, Texas, then to Carlsbad, New Mexico, then to El Paso, then to Houston, then to Winthrop, Arkansas, and then back toward Joplin.  

A biography of Billy Cook
He finally shot and killed the entire family – including the dog – and dumped their bodies in a mine shaft.  (The odds are it wasn’t the same mine where his father abandoned Billy and his siblings – the Joplin area is home to many abandoned lead and zinc mines.) 

Cook headed back west, abandoning the farmer’s car – which was bloody and full of bullet holes – along the way.  When authorities found the car, the receipt for Cook’s .32 revolver was inside.

*     *     *     *     *

Back in Blythe, Cook took a deputy sheriff hostage.  He told the deputy about killing the farmer and his family, then forced him to get out of the car and to lie down in a ditch.  But instead of shooting him, Cook drove away in the deputy’s car.  

He then kidnapped a motorist from Seattle, shot him in the head, and left his body in the deputy’s car near Ogilby, a now-abandoned town near Yuma, Arizona.  He drove the Seattle man’s car to Mexicali, Mexico and abandoned it there.

Cook managed to avoid all the law enforcement officers who were looking for him and made it back to Blythe, where he kidnapped two men who were on a hunting trip.  He drove with them to the Baja California town of Santa Rosalita.

Billy Cook with Mexican police
Santa Rosalita police chief Francisco Morales recognized Cook on the streets of the town, snatched the .32 revolver Cook had stuck in his belt, and arrested him.

“I hate everybody’s guts,” Cook supposedly said after the was arrested, “and everybody hates mine.”

*     *     *     *     *

After he was captured, Cook was returned to Oklahoma, where he was found guilty of murdering the farmer and his family and sentenced to 300 years in prison.

After that he was tried in California for the murder of the Seattle man, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Cook was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin on December 12, 1952.  

Peace Church Cemetery today
His body was returned to Joplin and buried in an unmarked grave in the Peace Church Cemetery, which is located just north of the intersection of North Schifferdecker Avenue and West Zora Street.

Some people believe that Cook’s restless spirit still haunts the overgrown cemetery.

*     *     *     *     *

The 1953 movie, The Hitch-Hiker, was inspired by Cook’s crime spree.  The film’s hitch-hiking murderer – who is portrayed by William Talman – even has an eyelid that doesn’t close all the way, just like Cook.  (Those of you who are my age or older will recognize Talman as District Attorney Hamilton Burger from the Perry Mason TV series, which aired from 1957 to 1966.)  

The Hitch-Hiker was one of eight movies directed by Ida Lupino, an actress who starred in dozens of Hollywood films before turning her hand to directing.  She also directed more than 100 network television series episodes.

Ida Lupino
Paste magazine included The Hitch-Hiker on its list of the 100 best film noirs of all time:

As a woman-helmed production, The Hitch-Hiker was a rarity in its heyday, though if you didn’t know [Ida] Lupino held the reins, you might not guess the film was directed with a feminine touch.  The Hitch-Hiker was as much an anomaly in Hollywood as it was a change of pace for Lupino, who, after directing four features that each revolved around the struggles and victimization of women, decided to try her hand with decidedly more masculine fare.  Decades later, her film is still generally considered the first noir directed by a woman, but it should really be thought of first as a slim, unsparing, suspenseful slice of true crime.  She puts her foot on the gas and doesn’t let up until the very end.

Click here if you’d like to watch The Hitch-Hiker.

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“Hitch Hike,” which was released in 1962, was Marvin Gaye’s first top-forty single.  

Click here to watch Marvin Gaye perform “Hitch Hike” in the 1964 concert movie, the T.A.M.I. Show, which I saw at the old Lux Theatre in Joplin when I was 12 years old.  (One of the go-go dancers is the criminally underappreciated actress, Teri Garr.)

And click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

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