Thursday, July 30, 2015

Where the Reverend is Buried

Not far from Alexander City, Alabama, just off the highway, is a little cemetery across the road from a church.  Walking down a minor slope, it doesn’t take long to find a flat stone engraved with the name Willie Maxwell.  Born on May 31, 1925, he was shot to death fifty two years later on June 18, 1977 in the House of Hutchinson funeral home and presented to this piece of ground as a reward for misdeeds that could never be proved in a court of law. 

One plot over and on the next row up sit two more stones memorializing Maxwell’s relations who died under mysterious circumstances.
John C. Maxwell, brother of Reverend Willie, lived from 7/11/19 until 2/6/72.  The headstone says nothing of the method of his demise, but back in ’72 his death was ruled an overdose of alcohol.  Speculation later suggested that his blood alcohol level was so high that the liquor must have been forced down his throat.

Then there is, or was, Dorcas A. Maxwell, second wife of the Reverend, found dead in her car on September 20, 1972 after suffering a sudden and symptomless bronchial infection somehow triggered by a superficial glance to the head.

Closer to the highway, buried with the Edwards clan, is Mary Lou Maxwell.  She lived from 7/17/27 until she was found dead in her car on 8/4/1970.  Perhaps she had bronchitis as well.

In the same section is found the Reverend’s nephew, James Edwards Hicks, who lived from 3/29/53 until 2/16/76, when he too was discovered in his car by the side of the road.

Members of the same family are often buried close to one another, but isn't it ironic that a group who died around the same time and under similar and enigmatic circumstances should find themselves buried in a place called Peace and Goodwill?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On Rumors that Truman Capote Wrote To Kill a Mockingbird

Back in February, The Daily Mail published an interesting piece addressing very old rumors that Truman Capote wrote (or helped Harper Lee write) To Kill a Mockingbird.  The rumors are likely to grow new legs with the release of Go Set a Watchman, which is arguably a first draft of her magnum opus.

I tend to agree with Charles Shields, the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, who is quoted in the article as saying that such rumors are sexist and baseless.  I think it’s far more likely that Capote insinuated authorship to his father and some of his friends (or else failed to deny it) in order to make himself look better in their eyes.  I’ve read a good bit of Capote’s work, his book of letters, the Plimpton book, and a couple of his biographies, and I think such behavior is consistent with his character.
Every writer produces work of varying quality, but some of us have to work harder than others to make a line sing.  I imagine that Harper Lee produced a great deal of work in order to get where she needed to go, including some poor, plain, and solid writing in the draft known as Go Set a Watchman.  She kept at it though, working those flashback sections, until she produced something capable of capturing the minds and hearts of millions.  She put in the work, she deserves the credit.

Further Reading from

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Compelling Story Harper Lee Never Published

Since the publication of Go Set a Watchman, there has been an increase in speculation about Harper Lee’s other unpublished novels, including an abandoned true crime project called The Reverend.  Here now is a brief “just the facts” summary of the actual story.

Back in the 1970s, in Alexander City, Alabama, Reverend Willie J. Maxwell, aka the pulpwood preacher, aka the voodoo preacher, allegedly killed five of his relatives for insurance money. 

His first wife was found dead in her car.  One newspaper article of the era indicated that she had been beaten and strangled.  The DA brought a case against the Reverend, but it fell apart after the Reverend married the state’s chief witness against him.

A year later, his second wife—the one who had just saved him from prison—was also found dead in her car.  The coroner ruled that she had died of complications due to bronchitis, although she had shown no symptoms prior to her death.  Like his first wife, the Reverend collected on an insurance policy taken out in her name.

The Reverend’s brother was found dead of an overdose of alcohol.  Speculation suggested that he was held down and forced to drink until his heart gave out.

The Reverend’s nephew, who worked for him, was found dead in his car.  As in previous cases, the lack of physical evidence made it difficult to bring a case against the Reverend.  In many instances the actual cause of death was difficult or impossible to determine.

For years, rumors about the Reverend’s connection to voodoo swirled around town.  People spoke of blood on doorways, headless chickens hanging from trees, and an unidentifiable powder found in one of the automobiles beside the victim.  The fact that the Reverend was never successfully prosecuted helped fuel the rumors.

In 1977, the Reverend’s stepdaughter, Shirley Ellington, was found dead underneath the Reverend’s car.  The tire had been removed and the rotor had fallen across her neck.  In a newspaper article at the time, the Reverend suggested that she had been changing a tire and a nut or bolt had rolled under the car.  When she went under the car to retrieve it, the car fell on her.  

Few believed this story.

At Miss Ellington’s funeral, a female relative stood and shouted at the Reverend, “You killed my sister and now you’re gonna pay for it.”

Immediately following this chilling proclamation, another relative of the deceased, Robert Burns, stood and fired three bullets from a .25 pistol into the Reverend’s face, killing him instantly.  Burns later remarked, “I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again.”

Considering the fact that Burns had killed the Reverend in front of 300 witnesses, the district attorney, Tom Young, felt he had a strong case against Mr. Burns.

After consulting the Alabama state bar association, the Reverend’s attorney, Tom Radney, represented Mr. Burns at trial.

Prior to his defense of Mr. Burns, Mr. Radney made a small fortune representing the Reverend.  His office building was known around Alexander City as the Maxwell House.

At one point during the trial, after a series of successful objections on the part of the defense attorney, the prosecutor told Mr. Radney to go to hell in open court.

In the end, an all-white jury in Alabama proclaimed that a black man who shot a preacher in front of 300 witnesses was not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

In the 1980s, Harper Lee visited Alexander City to research a book on the subject.
According to Radney, she worked on the book on and off for years, but no book has yet been published.

In 2007, I began researching a book about the Reverend. In 2012, I published The Reverend, a novel marrying true aspects of the story with a fictional narrative.

In the coming weeks, each Sunday and Thursday, I will be launching a series of posts related to the story in the hopes of separating the facts from the fiction and laying the groundwork for another book on the subject.

UPDATE: Blood Cries a novel based on these true events is coming out in 2019.

Sources: paragraph 1 numerous; paragraph 2 “Voodoo Minister Killed after Murder Accusation” the Miami News, June 22, 1977; paragraph 3 The Independent Life and Accident Insurance Company V. Willie J. Maxwell Cic. No. 341 Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama; paragraph 4 “’Voodoo Priest’ Buried, But Whispers Live On" by Jim Stewart, Atlanta Constitution June 24, 1977; paragraphs 5 and 6 2008 Interview with Tom Radney; paragraph 7 article in the Alexander City Outlook by Al Benn, June 15, 1977; paragraph 8 unsubstantiated; paragraph 9 “Maxwell Gunned Down at Funeral” by Jim Earnhardt, Alexander City Outlook June 20, 1977; paragraph 10 The Jury Trial of State of Alabama vs. Robert Louis Burns, September 26, 1977; paragraph 11 unsubstantiated; paragraph 12 interview with Radney; paragraph 13 interview with Al Benn and Jim Earnhardt; paragraphs 14 and 15 trial transcript State of Alabama vs Robert Burns; paragraph 16 numerous; paragraphs 17 and 18 come from the author.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Why I Wrote "The Reverend"

So, I still need to finish Dashboard Hula. Big shocker!  And I will definitely do that soon.  I’m really close this time.  Seriously.  In the meantime, I’m more interested in developing a series of blog posts 

describing some of my experiences writing The ReverendI plan to post once or twice a week starting… NOW! And continue until I get bored.

First off, this is embarrassing.  My wife JL assures me that I could not have been as stupid as my memory seems to indicate, but the way I remember it I was very stupid.  A professor at Spalding University, where I was working on my MFA, asked me a simple question, “Who is your favorite southern writer?” and my mind ceased to function, which led me to sputter out a string of nonsense that I’ll get to momentarily.

To be fair, I’ve never considered myself a southern writer.  I've lived my whole life in Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia, but I've always felt like a refugee from another planet.  I've never venerated the confederate flag and I was the only kid in my third grade class who supported Walter Mondale. And though I had sampled and enjoyed William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, All the King’s Men and “Why I live at the P.O.”, to name a few, my reading habits had long since migrated north. 

Also, my brain stops working in formal social situations, especially when it's unprepared.  So, when that professor asked me what must have seemed like the most natural question in the world when speaking to a creative writing student from Alabama, “Who is your favorite Southern writer?” my eyes crossed, my head tilted, and drool spilled from the corner of my gaping mouth. 

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that bad.

After a frantic mental search that took between a few seconds and a thousand years—my recollection suggests it was closer to the latter—I finally blurted out the only name my feeble mind could conjure.  I told him my favorite southern writer was Harper Lee.

The professor made a surprised sound and expression that I took to be my cue to continue, even though I had nothing else to say. 

“Now, I haven’t read ALL of her books,” is what I remember saying next.  My memory kind of trails off after that, but I’m sure it had something to do with To Kill a Mockingbird being one heck of a book.  The professor politely excused himself.

The conversation left a bitter aftertaste so, on the way back to my room, I stopped by a computer lab to do a little research on my favorite southern writer.

Naturally, one of the first things I learned was that Harper Lee only published one book.  This was 2002 or thereabouts, long before anyone suspected her lawyer would begin publishing her old manuscripts.  As the initial embarrassment began to wear off (as opposed to the more permanent variety that persists to this day), I discovered something interesting. 

According to a long forgotten website, Harper Lee had once spent time in Alexander City, Alabama researching an alleged serial killer, a Baptist preacher named Willie Maxwell.

This struck me for two reasons.  1) I was born in Alexander City.  I lived there from 1974-1982, including part of the time, Maxwell was active.  2) I remembered my family discussing the story at the dinner table: how he killed members of his family for the insurance money; how people crossed the street when they saw him walking their way; how he supposedly practiced voodoo; how he once married the prosecutor’s chief witness against him and then murdered her too; how he was murdered at the funeral of his final victim in front of 300 witnesses.

Okay, so I suppose I didn’t remember all of that.  We have established that memory is a tricky thing, but I did recall hearing a lot of these details years earlier.  A call to my mother in Alabama provided more information and triggered more memories. 

As it happened, I had just been given an assignment to write a nonfiction piece on the topic of my choice. 

Guess what topic I chose?

If Harper Lee wasn’t going to write the story, I decided, then I would.  I’ll tell you more about what happened when I did in my next post.

Next: A Summary of Facts about the Reverend

Related: Writing in the Shadow of Harper LeeComparing the Firct Chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman

Monday, July 13, 2015

Writing in the Shadow of Harper Lee

In March of 2015, Casey N. Cep published a piece in The New Yorker called "Harper Lee's Abandoned True Crime Novel."  The following post details some of my experiences researching the same story. 

Back in the 1960s and '70s in Alexander City, Alabama, Reverend Willie Maxwell, a black Southern
Baptist preacher, was accused of killing various members of his family for insurance money.  After his first wife was found dead, Maxwell escaped prosecution by marrying the state’s primary witness against him. Maxwell later collected insurance money on her too, and on his brother, and on his nephew. 

The Reverend’s lawyer, Tom Radney, won case after case for Maxwell due to lack of evidence.  Meanwhile, rumors surrounding Maxwell and the “voodoo magic” that supposedly protected him from prosecution escalated, and reporters played up the angle to sell newspapers.  Finally, after the daughter of the Reverend’s third wife was found dead underneath his car (the Reverend claimed she was under there changing a tire when it collapsed on her neck), vigilante justice succeeded where the law had failed.

At the conclusion of the girl’s funeral, her uncle, Robert Burns, turned to face the Reverend, who was sitting in the pew behind him, and said, “You have mistreated my family long enough.” He pulled out a pistol and fired into the Reverend’s face and chest, killing him instantly.   

After checking with the state bar association, Radney represented his former client’s assassin. In 1979, he successfully argued a case in front of an all-white jury in Alabama in which a black man shot and killed a preacher in front of three hundred witnesses.  During the trial, there was much heated argument over whether or not the jury should hear what Burns said in the patrol car on the way to jail following the shooting.  “I’m glad I did it,” he had said, “and I’d do it again.”  Radney won the argument and the trial.  Burns was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.  

When I interviewed Tom Radney in 2008, he told me what he remembered about Maxwell and he provided me with a transcript of the highly entertaining trial of his killer. (The transcript includes a section in which the prosecutor, in open court, tells Radney to go to hell.)  For the most part, however, I heard unverifiable details of barely remembered cases.  Other than the transcript, Radney claimed to have no documentation to share with me because, he said, he had given it all to Harper Lee.

It turns out I wasn’t the first person that hoped to turn the Maxwell story into the next In Cold Blood.  Harper Lee helped Truman Capote research and edit that book and she apparently hoped to duplicate its success in the 1980s when she went to Alexander City to write a book about Maxwell.

“The problem,” Radney said, “with getting information is this: Harper has files that thick.”  He made a gesture with his thumb and forefinger.  “She won’t give ‘em to me… She may have burned ‘em.  I don’t know.”

It is an understatement to say that I was very interested in learning whether or not Harper Lee intended to release a book on this subject.  According to Radney, she spent close to a year in Alexander City researching Maxwell, and she continued to work on the book after she left, each year telling him over the telephone, “I’m sure it’s gonna come out by May.”  If she was going to release that book, I saw no point in continuing.  I am just smart enough to know that I will never win a competition with a national treasure.  Radney assured me that this was not a problem.

 “Forget it… That book will never be written unless you write it.”

I heard many plausible theories about why Lee never published a manuscript.  She didn’t want to turn out a book that was merely a catalogue of insurance scams.  She worried about failing to live up to the success of To Kill a Mockingbird.  One friend of Lee’s told me, “When your first book wins a Pulitzer, and it’s rumored that Truman Capote… was the real tour de force on it, your second book better win a Pulitzer or the rumors will get a life.” 

I figured if Harper Lee wasn’t going to publish a Maxwell book, there was no reason why she wouldn’t share the information she gathered with me.  I needed to track down those files.

“You can forget that,” Radney said.  “If you called Harper Lee, she’d call you a goddamned son of a bitch and hang up the phone.”

Harper Lee doesn’t speak to a lot of people, most notably members of the press.  People I spoke with told me she makes friends enter into a confidentiality agreement.  Said one former reporter who covered Maxwell, “one of the reasons we’ve been friends this long is because I don’t discuss her with people. It’s kind of a condition of friendship.”

I never found anyone that would speak to her on my behalf, even to find out if she still had Radney’s files.  The same reporter told me, “I’m not gonna approach her for you or anyone else.  Don’t feel singled out… the only people who will talk about her are people who don’t know her.”  I took this to mean, if they knew her before, once they talked about her publicly, they wouldn’t know her again.

He pointed me in the direction of an Auburn circuit court judge as a potential source of information, a former lawyer for one of the insurance companies that once battled Maxwell in court.  In a response to one of my letters the judge told me, “I suppose you have heard that Harper Lee has written a novel about the Maxwell case which is to be published after her death.” Perhaps, I would have to compete with Harper Lee after all.

In early January of 2009, I made one last-ditch effort to find Radney’s lost documentation.  This time, I went straight to the source.   I sent my letter to Harper Lee in care of her sister Alice’s law firm.  Less than a week later, I received a reply.

“When I was in Alexander City all those years ago, I found a mountain of rumors and tall stories to a molehill of fact.  I trust that time has settled Rev. Maxwell’s dust, and I wish you well.”  The brief note was written on a stationary card bearing her monogram and signed by Harper Lee.

This cryptic response left me with more questions than answers.  Did she still retain a molehill of documentation?  Did she write a novelized version that she intended to publish after her death?  Were there still surviving manuscript pages waiting to be found a la Go Set a Watchman?  Was she deliberately holding out on me?

Like everyone else, I suppose, I will just have to wait and see.

Christamar Varicella is the author of the thriller novel, The Reverend.

Related Articles: Paper Chase: Radney family has questions as Lee’s new book debuts (From the Alexander City Outlook)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Comparing the First Chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman

I know it’s unfair to judge a book after reading only the first chapter, just as it’s unfair to compare a master work to an apprentice effort, but with the release of chapter one of the highly-anticipated Go
Set a Watchman in the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian, comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird are inevitable, so why not take a brief look at what makes one of these books a beloved classic and perennial bestseller and the other a solid first draft?

To Kill a Mockingbird begins with an accident followed by an argument.  In three short paragraphs, Jem breaks his arm, Dill enters the picture, and Lee establishes a distinct narrative voice.  Watchman, on the other hand, pulls into the station slowly and in a manner typical of MFA students.  A single person rides home on a train and memories ensue.  In three paragraphs, the reader is given description, characterization, and one mildly interesting anecdote—Jean Louise locks herself into a sleeping compartment—but little else.
Both first chapters provide details about the protagonist’s home town, but only one moves seamlessly back and forth in time.  In Mockingbird, historical background helps build the story and provides insights into the characters involved.  Watchman provides similar background material, but in a way that feels like we are being spoon-fed information.  

Mockingbird produces an immediate abundance of lively, developed characters.  We get to know Scout, Jem, Dill, and, to a lesser extent, Atticus.  Even Calpurnia makes an appearance.  The opening chapter of Watchman yields one interesting character—Jean Louise—and one (I want to say his name is Henry) who doesn’t even seem to interest her.   

Mockingbird plunges the reader into the story.  Every line of every paragraph compels us forward just as the children are compelled to walk up to the front door of the Radley house.  We feel the way the children must feel—that we are walking up to the edge of a haunted house, with the mysterious Boo standing at the window.  

What story is Watchman setting up?  The only aspects that are likely to drive us forward—Atticus is missing, Jem is dead—depend on us having read and loved Mockingbird.  

But that’s the thing, right?  We have read Mockingbird.  We care about its characters.  We get to ride back to Maycomb on a train, and it feels like we’re going home.  We can’t wait to find out what has happened to the people we cared about. 

The main difference, then, is that one of these books requires us to love the other.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t bother reading it. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Dinosaur Ghost is Free!

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So, don't just sit there.  Go get it!  It's short, funny, and free!  Read it because you want to prove to your friends how horrible the liberals are (They're eating republicans!) or because you have a sense of  humor.  Either way, it's free!