Friday, July 30, 2004
American Gothic
In 2002, a bully that harassed the town of Toulon, Illinois, for 30 years finally lost his cool. He shot a rookie sheriff who came to his house to serve an arrest warrant, then jumped into the sheriff’s car and circled the town, looking for grudges to settle. He shot a husband and wife at close range in their home. Then he drove to the home of another neighbor, only to find no one there. After a western-style gunfight with the police, he was finally taken into captivity and charged with three murders.

Robert Kurson, a writer from Chicago Magazine, wrote a feature about Thompson that I ran across in the collection Best American Crime Writing for 2003. His article “The Bully of Toulon” delves into the “biology” of Toulon. He says, “The town exists as a living, unified being; no part moves without implication for the other parts, no person living without affecting other lives.” What’s fascinating about the article is that it tries to figure out why Toulon tolerated Thompson for so long. Beyond rural life in this small town, the article provides insight into the mystique of the Midwestern way of life.

Thompson held deep, simmering grudges for years, ignited by the slightest provocation. Once someone got on Thompson’s bad side, he extended the grudge to the person’s family, coworkers, and friends. He’d stalk his victims in an old pick up truck, glaring from out the window. Toulon residents tolerated being followed by Thompson, getting cut off at intersections by his beat up truck, and having Thompson circle their property as he shouted threats. Thompson was a problem this town ignored for decades.

What’s interesting was how some of the good folk of Toulon talked about Thompson after the fact. They remembered his mother as “good in ways.” They remembered Thompson as a man who would come through if you needed anything. If you treated him fair, “he’d treat you fair back.” Mostly, Thompson was a member of the community. Someone who’d never lived more than 30 miles away from town. Someone who’s roots sunk deep into Toulon’s history.

In his article, Kurson compares Toulon to a rural town in Missouri that faced a similar situation. The town of Skidmore put up with another bully who feuded and stalked town members. Tired of the abuse, this town took action. A large group of town folk surrounded the guy’s truck and shot him. Someone in the crowd pulled the trigger, but no one’s talking. Without a witness to come forward, the case remains open.

One underlying fact points to the different responses to similar situations in Skidmore and Toulon. In an interview Kurson gave to This American Life on 11-11-2003 episode, Kurson reveals that the Skidmore bully had only lived there for five years. This , I believe, explains the gulf between Skidmore and Toulon’s response more than anything else. In Skidmore, the bully was an outsider. The town felt no remorse for taking direct action to put this guy out of action. In Toulon, the bully was an insider. He’s claim to Toulon was more tangible than the protection orders the local police refused to enforce. He was innately bound to the town, and the town to him. The problem was Toulon could not shun one of its own.


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