ESSAYS: The Rise and Fall of an American Con Man

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our friend, the seasoned journalist, documentarian, and fellow digital media maven, John W. Miller, posted this today to moundsville.org. The site was launched to promote the excellent, deep-dive 2020 documentary, “Moundsville,” which he and David Bernabo crafted on the historic Northern Panhandle W.Va. town, struggling to reinvent itself in changing times. John has expanded the site to gather up great writing on the state and region, plus evocative commentary. Read into the following piece whatever you wish. Methinks that’s the point. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno


Robert Mitchum as “Harry Powell” and his famous fist tattoos in “Night of the Hunter.” The film “is drenched in gothic symbol, and clanging with the sounds of good clashing against evil.”

By John H. Miller | Reprinted from Moundsville.org | jan19.2021

In the 1955 thriller Night of the Hunter, Harry Powell, a classic American con man posing as an itinerant preacher, settles in Moundsville, WV. He seduces, marries, and kills Willa, a bank robber’s widow. He then charms the pants off the entire town while hunting Willa’s escaped children and $10,000 their father had hid with them.

Dave Bernabo and I weren’t the first to shoot a movie in Moundsville. With its classic gothic penitentiary, wide Ohio river views, and cozy streets, the West Virginia town has hosted bundles of films and TV shows, including Fools Parade, Out of the Furnace, Mindhunter, and Castle Rock.

But no Moundsville movie is as celebrated as Night of the Hunter, considered a true masterpiece of 1950s noir. Directed by English actor Charles Laughton, it stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Importantly, it’s based on a novel by Davis Grubb (1919-1980), Moundsville’s most celebrated writer, who drew on the true story of Harry Powers, a serial killer who lured women through lonely hearts ads. There was so much public interest in the case that Powers was tried in the same theatre where we premiered Moundsville in 2018, before he was hanged in the Moundsville prison.

Parts of the movie, mostly background elements, were filmed in Moundsville. An August 27, 1954 item in the Echo reported that “actual shooting of background scenes for the forthcoming movie, ‘Night of the Hunter’ was scheduled to get under way in the local area this afternoon.”

It’s a simple story, which you can listen to while watching clips from the film in this thrilling reading by Laughton, which I recommend. After killing the widow Willa (Winters), Powell (Mitchum) chases the children up, down and around the Ohio River, often on horseback. The film is drenched in gothic symbol, and clanging with the sounds of good clashing against evil. The photography is shadowy, the script heavy with Bible quotes and stories, and the soundtrack hums with haunting hymns.


“Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.”



The movie starts with a Sunday school lecture: “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.”

It’s a lesson the towns takes too long to learn. Preacher Powell is an evil, sadistic, manipulative, misogynistic, cunning, charismatic, charming con man, and people love him and his rhapsodic street sermons, especially the one where he explains the “HATE” tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and “LOVE” on the finger of his right. Life, he explains as he rolls his clenched fists in circles, is a battle of good against evil.

Like an emperor, the preacher struts sidewalks and markets, drawing adoration and praise. Nobody sees that he’s a sociopathic liar. It’s only Willa’s son John, and Rachel Cooper (Gish), a kind old lady who takes in him and his sister Pearl, who see that Harry is, in fact, a false prophet. “It’s a hard world for little things,” says Rachel, speaking for all the vulnerable. She protects the children from Harry.

In the end, Rachel shoots Harry, chases him into her barn, and calls the state troopers. Once Harry is caught and shamed, the town flips and, of course, forms a mob to chase him to prison.

The book was Davis Grubb’s first novel, and it was a best-seller. “As we read this brilliant novel we live in a world where all human decency is lost through the character of the Preacher,” wrote Herbert West in the New York Times. “But human nature is redeemed by old Rachel Cooper… One comes to the satisfying end of the story with a profound sense of relief.”

Both the film and novel close with Rachel reflecting on resilience:

Lord save little children! For each of them has his Preacher to hound him down the dark river of fear and tonguelessness and never-a-door. Each one is mute and alone because there is no word for a child’s fear and no ear to heed it if there were a word and no one to understand it if it heard. Lord save little children! They abide and and they endure.


Film directors are gaga for Night of the Hunter. The Coen Brothers have drawn on its religious language and symbolism for many of their own scripts. The Dude abides!

America abides.


MORE BY & ABOUT JOHN H. MILLER:

CHARACTERS: The West Virginia brain drain made one of the world’s greatest popstars: dec18.2020: In a new edition of our ‘Characters’ series, we reprint a John W. Miller piece on Lady Gaga’s West Virginia roots—and how her Northern Panhandle grandma lifted her up at a low moment, sending her packing back to New York with instructions to “kick some ass.”


5 QUESTIONS: John W. Miller on taking a deep dive into a small West Virginia town: dec15.2020: Once a thriving West Virginia town whose region produced everything from cigars to classic toys like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Moundsville—population 8,400 souls—looks to figure out where it goes from here. The new 2020 documentary “Moundsville” considers the town’s past and present—and its future possibilities.


West Virginia’s minor league baseball teams suffer major league disappointment: dec2020: West Virginia has a rich baseball past, with affiliated pro teams going back over a century, but Major League Baseball just cut its ties to the state’s four minor league teams.



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