For those of you who haven’t heard about this story yet, here is a quick recap:
In 1978, Harper Lee went to Alexander City, AL to research a nonfiction book along the lines of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which, you may remember, she also helped research. The Alexander City story involved Willie Maxwell, a murderous preacher—with supposed ties to voodoo—, who allegedly killed off members of his family for insurance money. He was later assassinated at the funeral of one of his suspected victims. The Reverend’s lawyer then represented the assassin and won a verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.
You can learn more by clicking the following links: The Compelling Story Harper Lee Never Wrote; Harper Lee Manuscript Found?; Harper Lee's Next Book; What Harper Lee Said About her Lost Crime Novel
Some of what we do know about Lee’s research into the case makes for a compelling mystery.
1) The Reverend had an accomplice. According to a 1987 letter Lee wrote to the late author Madison Jones, she said, “I do believe that the Reverend Maxwell murdered at least five people, that the motive was greed, that he had an accomplice for two of the murders and an accessory to one.”
As of yet, no one has publicly named this suspected accomplice or explained his or her part in the story.
2) Despite widespread belief otherwise, Reverend Maxwell wasn’t a voodoo man. According to the same letter, Lee found no evidence that the Reverend was involved in voodoo. “I traced nearly every rumor of that sort to its source, and if you do the same, you will have a surprise.”
During his lifetime, the Reverend was feared by other citizens. The connection to voodoo kept people afraid of him even after he died. So, who started the rumors? And why?
3) Why did Lee give up on the manuscript? Different people provide different explanations. Some of her close friends have suggested that the success of her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, set too high a standard, and that any other books would suffer in comparison. One of her friends told me that she feared rumors that Capote had written Mockingbird would “get a life” if a second book wasn’t as good as her first.
A few pieces of evidence suggest that Lee told different stories to different people. Her letter to Jones claimed she did not have enough factual information to complete a book. Attorney Tom Radney, the man who alerted her to the story in the first place and who spoke with her on a regular basis, claimed she was working on the book into the 1990s. In an article written by a member of the Associated Press, Robert Burns—the man who shot Reverend Maxwell at his adopted niece’s funeral—heard a different story. “She was telling me she didn’t know if she was going to write the book or not because she would incriminate some people in Alex City.”
Would this be the Reverend’s accomplice mentioned earlier? Unless her notes or a manuscript turns up, we may never know.
New chapters of Blood Cries, a new novel based on the story of the Reverend, post weekly. Chapter 1