Harper Lee, true crime writer: How the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird" researched a string of unresolved Alabama murders – CBS News

After more than four decades, the mysteries remain, shrouded in the fog that rolls in over Lake Martin, and the woods that surround Alexander City, Alabama. The original mystery is a series of suspicious and unexplained deaths; but writer Casey Cep says that the other mystery is equally riveting: What happened when Alabama’s most famous author, Pulitzer Prize-winning Harper Lee, of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame, came here to work on a true crime book about those deaths.

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An undated photo of author Harper Lee.

Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images


“She does a tremendous amount of reporting and research,” said Cep. “And the mystery is, did she write a book or not? And if she did, where is it?” 

The tale that brought Lee to Alexander City centers on Reverend Willie Maxwell, an ordained Baptist minister who also worked in the local logging industry. “He was incredibly capable of quoting scripture and struck people as overly polite,” said Cep.

One night in 1970, along a country road, his first wife, Mary, was found dead in her 1968 Ford Fairlane. Cep said, “She was found both to have been bludgeoned and strangled. It was staged as a car accident, but there was never any thought that she had died from the car accident.”

The Reverend was charged in her death. But as Cep details in her new book, “Furious Hours” (Knopf), his 1971 trial in the local courthouse ended in acquittal, after the state’s star witness changed her testimony. The Reverend would later marry that witness.

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Knopf


But before long she, too, ended up dead on the side of a road, as did his brother, and a nephew. 

Despite intense investigation, authorities could never conclusively link these deaths to the Reverend. 

But, locals, like Robert Burns, had their own ideas: “Bad reputation. He believed in killing. People said he was a psychopath. And he was.”

And people thought he was also a practitioner of voodoo.

Voodoo or not, it turns out that Reverend Maxwell had insurance policies on every single relative who died, totaling at least half a million in today’s dollars. And when the insurance companies grew suspicious, he called the same lawyer who got him off on charges of killing his first wife, Tom Radney.

“A lot of people around here knew that if you were looking for someone to defend you and defend you well, you went to see Tom Radney,” said his daughter, Ellen Price. She and Radney’s granddaughter, Madolyn Kirby, say that the attorney was just doing his job.

“There was no proof up until then that it was a murder or that there was anything wrong,” said Price.

But then in June of 1977, another death: Shirley Ann Ellington, the adopted teenage daughter of Maxwell’s third wife, was found, again, along the side of a road.

Cep said, “It was made to look as if she was changing a tire and that the car had fallen on her. But in fact, she had been strangled before she was put under the car.”

The whole community mourned, including Robert Burns, who says Shirley Ann was like a niece to him. “I loved her, and she loved me,” he said.

As 300 people gathered for her funeral, the Reverend was immediately suspected of the murder, by the police … and by Burns. He told Braver, “If he came to that funeral, I had intentions of doing what I did.”

Burns shot and killed the Reverend.

And when Burns needed a lawyer, who should step up to defend him but Tom Radney, the Reverend’s longtime attorney. The story became a national sensation, and it attracted a distinguished visitor who quietly slipped into town: Harper Lee, who had not published a book for 17 years.

“It’s an auspicious moment in her life,” said Cep. “And she’s had a lot of years of failure that she’s trying to turn around.”

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Author Casey Cep.

CBS News


But Lee had assisted her childhood friend Truman Capote in researching his true crime novel, “In Cold Blood.”

Lee decided she was going to try her hand at crime writing, showing up at the two-day trial, where attorney Tom Radney actually got Robert Burns off on a temporary insanity defense. 

Lee started interviewing scores of locals. Radney became one of her top sources … and so does Burns.

He told Braver, “She told me she rented a place in Alex City to stay until she gathered all the information that she needed to write this book.”

Lee spends years working on the book. But she never published anything, much to her despair, as Casey Cep learned when she uncovered this letter written to Gregory Peck, who became Lee’s dear friend when he played Atticus Finch in the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

She thanks him for his loving offer of counsel, then tells him that her agent wants “pure gore & autopsies.” Her publisher wants another bestseller. “And I want a clear conscience, in that I haven’t defrauded the reader.”

But Cep found Lee was also haunted by her own demons: “And that is everything from depression to abuse of alcohol, and those kinds of frustrations seem to manifest themselves more and more.”

Harper Lee died in 2016. By then, attorney Tom Radney had passed away, too. And as family started going through his files, there is a startling discovery:  what appears to be the first chapter of Lee’s book, complete with her handwriting.

“It’s numbered at the top, four pages stapled together, titled ‘The Reverend,'” Kirby said. It starts with a lawyer Lee called Jonathan Larkin getting a phone call in the middle of the night:  

“Is this lawyer Larkin?” inquired the caller, to which Jonathan replied that it was. “This is Reverend Maxwell, and the police are here at my house, accusing me of killing my wife. Will you come down and help me?”

But whether the rest of the book exists is still unknown, as Harper Lee’s papers remain under seal. “Mysteries on mysteries,” said Casey Cep. “God bless Harper Lee. They didn’t end when she died.”

And like the story of The Reverend himself, who, ironically, is buried next to two of his suspected victims, those mysteries still haunt the shores of Lake Martin, Alabama.

         
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Story produced by Dustin Stephens.

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