By Thomas Aiello
In conjunction with the recent release of his true crime book, The Trouble in Room 519, Thomas Aiello reflects on the chance discovery in a dark library that inspired him to begin his research into novelist Gordon Hillman, who murdered his mother in the Copley Plaza Hotel.
The sun had already gone down, but I told myself that I would stay a little longer. I was so close to getting through a roll of microfilm—I would keep going until there was nothing left on the plastic spindle that held one or another New Orleans newspaper for one or another of several writing projects.
Or, no. This search was for one writing project in particular, the book that would become Bayou Classic: The Grambling-Southern Football Rivalry. I was collecting material about football culture in the early 1950s, and even though motion sickness from the constant scrolling had long since arrived, and even though I had experienced my fill of HBCU football for the day, I stayed there at the machine, glowing yellow in a semidarkened first-floor room of the Edith Garland Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, determined to see that particular microfilm roll through to its conclusion.
That’s when I saw it. And even though it had nothing to do with New Orleans, or Louisiana, or football, or anything else I was there to find, I stopped short and read the brief Associated Press article on the front page:
“Mrs. Carolyn Hillman, 74-year-old semi-invalid, was found bludgeoned to death in her hotel room tonight and police said her novelist son, Gordon Hillman, admitted to the slaying. Police Captain Francis Wilson said Hillman, 49, told him ‘my mind went blank’ after having dinner with his mother.”
Sports mattered—matters—to me a great deal. They were the reason I was there in the library, straining my neck, my eyes, my balance. But literature was an equivalent passion, and murder stories weren’t far behind. In an age before digital downloads of microfilmed images, I printed a copy of the story.
That began a twelve-year obsession that culminated in The Trouble in Room 519: Money, Matricide, and Marginal Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century. Hillman wasn’t a well-known novelist. He was not a celebrity author, and his work never made the American canon. So, along with piecing together the story of his brutal act in 1950 and the consequences that redounded from it, I also began a quest to collect and collate his writings.
“Novelist,” it turned out, was a charitable description. Hillman published one novel, Fortune’s Cup, that garnered critical acclaim but not much more than that. Most of his fiction appeared in popular magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, making him part of a coterie of professional writers who made money by selling stories to the periodical press, which represented the dominant form of episodic entertainment in the country in the generation before ubiquitous television consumption. But it was a tenuous way to make a living, so Hillman supplemented his income by working at a series of Boston newspapers.
His story is unique because most authors don’t murder their mothers in a luxury hotel, but in many ways Hillman is representative of the bulk of American fiction writers. Most never became household names. Most don’t appear in literature anthologies and freshman English syllabi. They tended to find some measure of popularity through periodical publication, struggled to make ends meet, then drifted back into obscurity, if they ever truly left obscurity in the first place. On balance, such is the story of the vast majority of authors. The ones dotting those syllabi are, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, a particular Talented Tenth, whose work is profound and necessary but not representative of what the bulk of American fiction looks like.
Hillman’s fiction was representative. His life was representative. And then he murdered his mother. The Trouble in Room 519 includes a selection of Hillman’s fiction; it pieces together Hillman’s biography; it examines the role of marginal fiction writing in the first half of the twentieth century; and it tells a bizarre true crime story in the process.
Pulling those various strands together was a twelve-year process, most of the difficulty coming from finding Hillman’s fiction and his footprint in the historical record. Toward the end of that process, I had the opportunity to travel to Boston for an award presentation and made my first stop in the city the Copley Plaza Hotel. I sat in the ornate lobby staring at the gilding on the walls and the murals on the ceiling, wondering about Hillman’s time there and the violence that took place on the fifth floor. Finally, I mustered the courage to go to the desk and ask the clerk if anyone was currently staying in Room 519 and if there was a chance that I could see it.
“You just want to see it?” she asked. I did. There was a murder in that room back in 1950. “I don’t think we’re allowed to do that,” she said. She checked with her manager, and sure enough, they were not allowed to do that.
I thanked them anyway, then walked slowly through the ornate halls to the exit, then down the street to my own, far less gaudy hotel. On the way back, I thought about the years of hunting that had led me to that brief encounter—a momentary nuisance for the Copley employee and the culmination of more than a decade of research for me. And I found in those quick moments the same thing I had discovered over the course of the previous twelve years: There are some things we’ll simply never know. But if we keep asking questions, at least we’re in the game. Perhaps not one with the finality and certitude of the Bayou Classic, but one with more far-reaching rewards.
I smiled in the cool Boston air as I looked back at the building where the trouble in room 519 took place. I thought about how far I was from that dark microfilm room in Lafayette. Then I called my mother.
Thomas Aiello, a professor of history and African American studies at Valdosta State University, is the author of more than a dozen books, including Jim Crow’s Last Stand: Nonunanimous Criminal Jury Verdicts in Louisiana.
In The Trouble in Room 519: Money, Matricide, and Marginal Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century, Thomas Aiello weaves a compelling true crime narrative into his exploration of the economics of magazine fiction and the strains placed on authors by the publishing industry prior to World War II. Examining Gordon Hillman’s writing as exemplary of Depression-era popular fiction, Aiello includes eight stories written by Hillman and originally published in prominent midcentury American magazines, including Collier’s, Liberty, and McCall’s, to provide additional context and insight into this trying time and tragic life.