The End of Hoghead
Investigations into the fate of a non-fictional character
by Jack Neely
In Fort Sanders this time of year, houses are airing out, and a walk down the sunny sidewalk is a walk through the sounds and smells of vigorous repair work. You hear hammers and electric saws and smell fresh paint and occasionally a whiff of musty old-apartment air that can still make you wish you were 21 and didn’t own anything at all.
If you’re looking for it, you’ll find the building where Hoghead Henry met his fate, 50 years ago this Saturday. It’s still there, on 12th near the corner of amputated Forest, on the northeastern fringe just before Fort Sanders disintegrates into dead businesses and kudzu.
The house where it happened is a standard turn-of-the-century two-story house, gabled, now aluminum-sided in yellow and divided into three apartments. It was already divided into apartments in 1955. The middle class had mostly fled Fort Sanders by then, leaving it to be the residential community for the booming university. But then, as now, many of those who lived there weren’t students at all.
Jimmy “Hoghead” Henry was a skinny kid with reddish-blond hair and a flattop that he could never get to look like the ones the football heroes wore. In photographs he looks lean and rebellious, not necessarily ugly. His nickname may have referred to the disproportionate size of his head.
He’d grown up on the shady side of Fort Sanders but had a good reputation as a kid. When he was 20, he got arrested for burglary, a petty break-in at the Broadway Lumber Company. He was waiting for his trial. Some believed he had developed a drug habit. He lived around the corner with his parents, on 13th, but rented this apartment under an alias.
He was about to turn 21 and was apparently celebrating early. He’d spent a Friday night drinking whiskey with a sultry red-headed beauty named Vickie White. She was divorced from a thug named Speck White, who had gone to the penitentiary for shooting her on Gay Street five years earlier. Word was that he’d just gotten out.
They were joined by another couple; sometime during the night, a young man named Ed LaRue left Hoghead’s apartment with a mysterious knife wound.
On Saturday morning, still cool at 8:30, a paperboy was walking 12th Street making collections. There was a shot inside that house, on the second floor. We know that for sure. And that Hoghead Henry was lying on the bed with a .38 hole in his right temple, an exit wound in the top of his skull. Powder burns indicated he was shot from a very close range.
Vickie White hollered at the paperboy for help. “My husband’s been shot,” she said—even in Fort Sanders, even when you were drunk and somebody was shot in the head, it was important to keep up appearances—and the boy called an ambulance.
Police found her too drunk to speak coherently, and took her in to the station to question her after she sobered up. That night she told the police the shooting was an innocent mistake. She and Hoghead were playing Russian roulette with a .38 revolver. When it was Hoghead’s turn, it went off. It could have happened to anybody.
James “Hoghead” Henry turned 21 in a coma. He hung on at Knoxville General for a week.
He would not be someone we would have heard of if not for a novel called Suttree , by Cormac McCarthy. When it was published in 1979, naive critics read it as a work of fiction. But over the years, older Knoxvillians read the book and recognized one character or another, typically appearing in the book under his real name. Many of them were people who lived in the margins, involved in illegal, careless, and violent hobbies.
In the novel, Hoghead Henry is a good friend of the protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, and through most of the novel is a comic figure, a loony and usually inebriated young man of “huckleberry insouciance” who appreciated bad whiskey, a good fight, and sometimes an extraordinary fart.
In the book, Cornelius Suttree walks into Ellis and Ernest, the popular drug store/soda fountain at the corner of Cumberland and 15th. “[S]adly miscast among the scrubbed college children, sitting at the long pink marble counter he order coffee and flipped open the paper. There was Hoghead’s picture. He was dead. Hoghead was dead in the paper...He had been shot through the head with a .32 caliber pistol and he was 21 years old forever.”
The caliber of the pistol that killed Hoghead is one of the few fictional details in the book.
With the possible exception of the author himself, no one in the world knows more of what’s real and what’s not about Suttree than Professor Wes Morgan, who as part of an esoteric field in the study of psychology, has made it his business to pry fact from fiction in the Knoxville-based work of Cormac McCarthy.
A few months ago, I wrote an article about Morgan’s research into the violent shooting death of another Suttree character, well-known local hood Billy Ray Callahan. You get the impression that there was so much violence among the circle of McCarthy’s Knoxville contemporaries in the ’50s that it may have set him on the career that produced the likes of Blood Meridian and now No Country For Old Men .
Morgan’s not sure how well McCarthy knew folks like Hoghead Henry; he doubts that the Ellis & Ernest scene is autobiographical, since McCarthy was in the Air Force at the time.
The true fate of Hoghead Henry may never be known. It’s possible that Vickie White was telling the cops the truth, though White, a woman of several aliases, apparently was never in that habit. She could have done him in herself, or maybe it was her ex, Speck White, known to be a jealous and violent man, and just out of prison.
In digging around, Morgan discovered that a crook named Bill “Raz” Lambdin, was rumored to have confessed to Hoghead Henry’s death just before Lambdin’s own death in a Johnson City V.A. hospital in 1979. Convicted of putting an underage girl into prostitution, Lambdin, like Speck White, got out of Brushy Mountain just before Hoghead Henry’s death. A motive is obscure. Morgan couldn’t help but notice that Lambdin later married a woman named Vickie. Then there’ss the mysterious Ed LaRue.
Professor Morgan is still looking into it. He seems to be finding new clues every day.