With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, there has been an increase in speculation about Harper Lee’s other unpublished novels, including an abandoned true crime project called The Reverend.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.
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.
Related posts: Harper Lee’s “The Reverend”; Writing in the Shadow of Harper Lee; Why I Wrote "The Reverend"
You may also enjoy: Comparing the First Chapters of Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird
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.