Thursday, August 20, 2015

Truth and Fiction at the House of Hutchinson

On Sunday, August 16, 2015 I posted a freshly written book chapter inspired in part by a description of an unreleased novel by Harper Lee.  You can find the chapter here.

Attorney Tom Radney gave the description to Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee and to myself prior to his death in 2011. 

For further inspiration, I looked to the work of reporter Jim Earnhardt, who published an account of events that happened at the funeral where Reverend Willie Maxwell was shot and killed.  On Monday, June 20, 1977, three articles appeared on the front page of the Alexander City Outlook under his byline.  I also drew inspiration from a 2008 conversation with Earnhardt and former Outlook editor Al Benn. 

Benn inspired the character of Arnold in the chapter and his reporting for the Outlook also influenced the piece.

The chapter began with a fictional argument between Jim Easton and his editor Arnold over whether or not to bring a camera to the 1977 funeral of a young girl.  In the 2008 interview with Earnhardt and Benn, the reporters told me that a discussion had taken place, but it was decided that they would not bring a camera. 

Following the shooting, Earnhardt called Benn, who then came to the funeral home and snapped a picture of the Reverend, dead and slumped in his pew.  He showed me the picture and told me he was saving it “for when Hollywood comes calling.”

I liked the idea of starting the chapter with an argument because that is how Harper Lee began To Kill a Mockingbird and by writing this chapter I was, ostensibly,  channeling Harper Lee.

According to Earnhardt’s coverage at the time, the chapel was “hot and crowded.”  Estimates of the size of the crowd, appearing in various news outlets, varied from 200-400 people in attendance. 

In my discussion with the reporters, Earnhardt mentioned a metal folding chair causing a commotion that led a uniformed officer to charge in with his hand on the holster.  It was not Earnhardt, however, who knocked over the chair.  He did mention that he was the only white person among 400 people and he wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible.  For my chapter I wanted to establish some measure of tension right away and this seemed like a good place to start.

The reporters told me they had heard rumors about family members of the victims taking revenge on the Reverend, but they did not believe them credible. 

My family lived in Alex City at the time, less than a mile from the funeral home.  My mother told me that she drove by and saw everyone outside on the lawn.  She also told me that a woman who worked for our family said.  “I almost went to that funeral.  I thought they were going to kill him at the cemetery.”

Earnhardt’s article entitled “Maxwell gunned down at funeral,” described Mrs. Maxwell’s display of grief. “Mrs. Maxwell, overcome during the viewing, was led back to the red-velvet pew where she had listened to the eulogy.  Her husband cradled her head in his left arm.  He had a handkerchief in his left hand, a fan in his right.”
According to the same article, the man who shot Maxwell, Robert Burns, was apprehended by police officers Ennis Berry and James Ware.

The same article quoted a relative of Ellington’s as shouting “You killed my sister and you’re gonna pay for it.”

Although it did not appear in newspaper coverage at the time, according to the transcript of the jury trial of the State of Alabama vs. Robert Burns, following his arrest, Burns was heard saying, “I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again.”  The statement was ruled inadmissible.  The prosecutor continued to try and find a way to get the jury to hear the statement, and became a source of contention between the district attorney and the attorney for the defense.  A bout of shouting and name-calling ensued.  

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