The next day, Paul heads to Tefton, in Trapingus County, to look for Burt Hammersmith, the reporter who covered Coffey’s trial. He heads to the newspaper where the man works but is told Hammersmith is at home. After being welcomed in by Hammersmith’s wife, he meets the reporter in his backyard, where two of his children are playing on a swing at a distance. Paul can tell from the way Mr. and Mrs. Hammersmith look that they have experienced some traumatic event together.
Paul’s curiosity about Coffey leads him to investigate more about the prisoner’s crime—suggesting that he has doubts about Coffey’s guilt. Burt Hammersmith later explains the traumatic event he has experienced to Paul, using it as an example of how violence can irrupt into ordinary lives out of nowhere, following no apparent logic.
When Paul tells Hammersmith he has come to talk about Coffey, who spends most of his time calmly crying in prison, Hammersmith remarks that this is to be expected considering what he did. After making sure that Paul isn’t merely interested in the gory details of the crime, Hammersmith recounts the details of the Coffey investigation.
Like warden Moores earlier, Hammersmith contrasts Paul’s sympathetic description of Coffey with the crime of which Coffey has been convicted. Paul, however, proves incapable of seeing Coffey’s tears as mere remorse.
When Hammersmith finishes his story, he tries to figure out what exactly motivates Paul’s curiosity. Paul decides not to tell him about John’s healing, but merely asks if Hammersmith believes Coffey has committed other crimes before. While Hammersmith says it is probable he has, he also admits that it was extremely difficult for him to find any past trace of Coffey, despite the specific nature of the man’s characteristics. He supposes that what happened is that one day, out of the blue, Coffey decided to commit his crime. He mentions that the only reason the crime was noticed is because it was committed against white girls.
The lack of evidence for John’s past crimes does not keep Hammersmith from holding prejudices against the prisoner—even though his hypotheses ultimately turn out to be wrong. He is correct, though, in identifying racism as a crucial factor in the case of the murder of the Detterick twins. Racism not only plays an important role in bringing the murder to the front cover of newspapers, but also, later, in keeping Coffey from benefiting from a second trial.
Hammersmith asks if Paul has seen Coffey’s scars, a detail which was used during the trial in Coffey’s defense. The jury, however, did not believe that mistreatment would in any way justify such a crime—a position Paul agrees with. As the conversation evolves, Hammersmith begins to understand that Paul is not actually trying to figure out if Coffey has committed other crimes in the past but, rather, that he is seeking to know if the seemingly tranquil Coffey has truly committed this one.
Coffey’s scars might not excuse any crime he could have committed, but they do hint at past physical and psychological trauma and, as such, could at least help explain why Coffey could have committed a crime, perpetuating cycles of abuse. While the nature of these scars remains mysterious, it is possible that King meant for the reader to associate them with the specter of slavery—a history of abuse materialized onto the man’s back, as though Coffey were metaphorically bearing the weight of this historical suffering.
To address Paul’s doubts about Coffey’s guilt, Hammersmith tells him the story of his own dog. He compares black people to mongrel dogs and says that, despite the utter uselessness of dogs, people are used to having them around, and have grown to believe these animals are capable of love. One day, however, after his dog was involved in an accident, the reporter was forced to shoot him dead.
Hammersmith’s speech is cynical and cruel, comparing black people to savage animals that, unlike ordinary humans, have no control over their violent instincts. Hammersmith uses this story as a justification for his harsh attitude toward race and punishment, in which he establishes a link between black people and animals that must be shot dead.
As Hammersmith is telling his story, his children begin to walk toward the house. Hammersmith calls to his four-year-old son, who shies away in embarrassment. However, when his dad forces him to raise his head, Paul sees that the boy’s face is completely deformed. A huge scar runs through his face, through one dead eye, all the way to his mouth. While Hammersmith comments that the boy is lucky to still have one eye, Paul imagines all the pain and humiliation that the child will have to endure throughout his life.
However innocent the reporter’s son might be, he—like Coffey himself—will be bound to bear the physical and psychological wounds of past abuse throughout the rest of his life. This episode shows that violence and catastrophe follow no rules, affecting everyone alike—bad and good people, children and adults.
Hammersmith explains that even though the dog knew the children since their birth and had never shown any sign of aggression toward them, one day, for no discernible reason, the dog gave in to a fit of rage and attacked his son. Hammersmith returns to the topic of Coffey’s crime. He notes that he is against slavery but that Coffey is not innocent and that Coffey, like any mongrel dog, gave in to his animal instincts when he raped and killed the little Detterick girls. It is only after his crime that he began to feel sorry for what he had done. On his way back to the prison, Paul feels gloomy, carrying the image of Hammersmith’s disfigured son in his mind.
Once again, following Hammersmith’s narrative, it appears that danger and cruelty usually appear out of nowhere, striking ordinary lives when one expects it the least. Hammersmith’s speech barely disguises his racism under the veneer of an anti-slavery discourse. He considers Coffey no better than a savage animal obeying lowly instincts and incapable of human rationality.