A visit to Nashville Metro Archives back in 1997 changed Michael Bishop’s life forever.
While doing some research for a friend, he opened a box that housed a stack of mundane records, a couple of dead brown recluse spiders and a very out-of-place folder full of brutal crime scene photos. This odd discovery would lead Michael on a 20-year journey he never intended to be on … a journey so interesting it resulted in a book he never intended to write. Published last September, A Murder in Music City: Corruption, Scandal, and the Framing of an Innocent Man completely unravels the 1964 murder of 18-year-old Paula Herring, which happened on a quiet street in Nashville’s Crieve Hall neighborhood and became one of the most sensational stories of its time receiving national media coverage.
What Michael saw in that crime folder that day led him to start asking questions about this murder, and with every neighbor, witness, attorney and friend he tracked down and asked about it, he began to understand that the man who was convicted and imprisoned for the murder, John Randolph Clarke, didn’t do it.
“The people who were closest to the actual murder were the least happy to talk,” Michael remembers. “It took me a while to figure out why, but I realized they were unhappy because they knew something was wrong, they just didn’t know what.”
The book, which has a solid five-star rating on Amazon and is flying off bookshelves all over town, is part Erin Brockovich and part Making a Murderer, only unlike the wildly popular Netflix docu-drama, in Michael’s book, he uncovers exactly who did commit this murder thanks to him being able to elicit an actual confession.
The layers of Nashville society involved in a massive cover-up and framing of an innocent man is keeping readers on pins and needles until the very last page of the book that turns out to be layers upon layers of scandal and lies that had gone completely unanswered for more than 50 years. “The more I dug into this, I figured out what some of these neighbors reported to the authorities that night didn’t end up in the newspaper,” Michael shares.
Not unlike the famous scene from Erin Brockovich, where the man who was asked to destroy documents full of corruption “hadn’t been a very good employee,” which gave Brockovich the proof she had been digging for, Michael also had an “a-ha” conversation with someone close to the murder. He had been visiting with one of the nurses who worked with Paula Herring’s mother at Vanderbilt Medical Center to see if she could contribute anything to this mystery. Turns out, she knew a lot. “She was one of the first people called over to the house the night of the murder,” Michael explains. “I just happened to ask her about Jo Herring (Paula’s mother) and the district attorney’s office — I asked if they had been friendly. She responded, ‘Friendly? Jo was dating the assistant D.A.’ You mean the married guy who prosecuted John Randolph Clarke [in Paula’s murder trial]? The married prosecutor was having an affair? That’s when I knew nothing about this was ever going to come out from a legal perspective.”
And nothing ever did come out – until Michael Bishop came along.
“Since I wasn’t a politician or a reporter, I came along with fresh eyes and asked some questions,” Michael says. “People didn’t see me as a threat to them, so I was able to get them to open up and talk to me, and they did.”
Turns out, the assistant district attorney wasn’t the only one involved, and as Michael would learn, a lot of people knew exactly who was involved and never said a word. Until now. “That group consisted of some very, very powerful members of this community. It happened in a time where bribery and corruption were rampant. Some of the people involved had close enough ties to the murder that they were able to help get the trial sent out of town so the small, powerful group of people were never in the news.”
The trial of John Randolph Clarke, who was framed and convicted of Paula Herring’s murder, happened in Jackson, TN, and lasted only five days. Clarke only served nine years of a 30-year sentence, but died suddenly of a heart attack in the mid-1980s — long before Michael Bishop would find evidence to prove his innocence.
After years of piecing together a fascinating chain of events that took place around this murder, Michael knew he needed to tell Paula Herring’s story, since she couldn’t speak for herself. “I didn’t go at this to write a book,” Michael says. “I went after it to solve a puzzle. I was looking at some potential injustice that had taken place, and I eventually realized a lot of my theories were correct. You’ll see those in the book. There was no way the justice that needs to happen here is going to take place unless I write a story.”
So, he wrote a manuscript and asked a copyright attorney friend, Amy Everhart, to read it so she could advise him on the legal ramifications of publishing it. She not only came back to him with some legal advice, but prompted him to shop the manuscript to literary agencies in New York, saying it read like a John Grisham novel.
“It’s not often that I recommend the New York agent route to a client, knowing how tough a path that is, but Mike’s book seemed the perfect fit. The book really does read like Grisham, which is its brilliance, because it’s a recount of true events that apparently were headline news at the time but seem to have been long forgotten, and a true mystery at that,” Amy explains. “On top of that, the events are set in Nashville, currently the ‘It City,’ during a romantic era in history. I recognized some of the attorney names involved, and that made it fun for me. What really made it appealing, though, was how Mike approached the mystery. He was so careful with the details and developed, in my opinion, a very credible theory all his own. Ultimately, I felt like this was a book more than just Nashvillians would care about. More than three years since my initial review of it, that seems even more true with all the true crime shows and podcasts that are popular now.”
Mike’s publisher at Prometheus Books in New York read four chapters, called Michael and offered to buy the North American rights to the manuscript. Less than a year after that conversation, the book was printed and distributed on September 5, 2017, just like they promised. Currently, the publisher is amid a second printing of the book.
On the day the book was published, Michael returned to Jackson to let the newspaper there, the Jackson Sun, revisit the story of the trial held there so many years ago. “The Sun took the entire front page to write a story about the book and what it meant to the citizens of Jackson who had committed this guy without all the details,” Michael says. “John Randolph Clarke didn’t kill Paula Herring.”
To find out who did — and all the prominent folks involved in the cover-up — you’ll have to read the book.
Since the book was published, Michael has been doing book signings and enjoying reading the positive reviews online about all of his hard work. Several well-known authors were sent advance copies of the book and provided editorial reviews for the book jacket. “Prepare to be enthralled by this inside look at an unforgettable story,” wrote Jack and Mary Branson, authors of Delayed Justice: Inside Stories from America’s Best Cold Case Investigators.
He even had a retired Metro detective who had worked the murder call and thank him — for getting the story right.
“The first book signing I ever attended in my life was mine,” Michael laughs. “I have talked to a lot of people at these signings who remember the story of Paula Herring. There are a lot of things I can tell people in a live setting that I couldn’t get into the book.”
If you are interested in hearing more details of this story, Michael will be speaking and doing a book signing at John Overton High School, the school Paula Herring attended as a member of the class of 1963. The event takes place on January 24, 2018 at 4820 Franklin Road, Nashville, TN 37220. Doors open at 6 p.m. To learn more, visit the John Overton High School Alumni Facebook page.