During the 1970s in Alabama, a serial killer was allegedly on the loose. He killed his own family members and anyone who tried to interrupt him. In 1977, William Maxwell was believed to have killed a minimum of six people. At the end of 1977, he was stopped and a man was on trial due to his death.
Harper Lee, who is the author of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird watched all these events happen. In this book summary, you will untangle the double mysteries of William Maxwell and Harper Lee’s connection in his case. Discover the unusual and surprising events that happened in a small African American community and discover how murder, greed as well as vigilantism connects with each other. Finally, explore what prevented Harper Lee from telling this significant story herself.
1 – In 1970, people that were close to William Maxwell started dying in suspicious ways.
In the year September 1977 on a scorching afternoon, viewers fanned themselves in an Alabama courthouse waiting for the jury to reach a judgment. The defendant was Robert Burns and he was accused of first-degree murder. In addition to these main chargers, three other features made this trial surprising.
First of all, the victim whom Burns was accused of killing was a suspected serial killer called William Maxwell. Secondly, Tom Radley who was Burn’s lawyer was also Maxwell’s lawyer while he was still alive. Additionally, maybe the most surprising of all is that Harper Lee who is the author that had the best-selling novel To Kill a Mockingbird 17 years earlier was also there at the proceedings.
How did all these extraordinary events happen? Well, in order to understand this, we have to go back 7 years before the day of the verdict.
On the 1st of August 1970, William Maxwell who was an African American veteran of World War II was living in Nixburg, Alabama, with his wife of 21 years named Mary Lou. Even though Maxwell was a Baptist preacher, he was rumored to be less than righteous during his spare time and had a reputation for always cheating on Mary Lou.
However, on the night of the 3rd of August 1970, a terrible incident happened. According to the neighbor of Maxwell and Mary whose name is Dorcas Anderson; Mary Lou received a late-night call from Maxwell and he said his car was crashed and he needed Mary to pick him up. Mary Lou who was worried about her husband went to Dorcas’s house and explained what happened to her before going out to look for him.
The next morning, Mary Lou was found dead with her bruised and bloody body found inside her car in a quiet high way. She has been cruelly beaten to death. The police instantly suspected Maxwell of Mary Lou’s death on hearing Dorcas’s version of the story.
Maxwell claimed that Dorcas got the wrong information about what happened. According to Maxwell, he said Mary Lou actually went out to see her sister that evening. And while she was driving home, she certainly faced trouble which led to her death. However, the police didn’t believe Maxwell’s story. On the 6th of August 1971, a final jury accused Maxwell of Mary Lou’s death.
2 – William Maxwell married his second wife in troubling situations.
In August 1971, Dorcas Anderson appeared as a witness in the prosecution of William Maxwell. The prosecutors thought that Anderson’s story would be sufficient to convince the jury that Maxwell was guilty. However, surprisingly when Dorcas was told to tell the court what she had witnessed that night, her story was very different.
In front of a surprised courtroom, Dorcas swore that she got the issue all wrong before. According to Dorcas, she said Mary Lou did not get any phone call from Maxwell that night. Also, Dorcas claimed that she saw Maxwell home earlier that evening which means that he couldn’t have been anywhere close to where Mary Lou was killed. With the surprising look on the face of their witness, the state’s case crumbled. The jury did not find the defendant guilty of the crime and he walked out of jail scot-free.
Therefore, how did Maxwell cope with both his wife’s cruel death and his trial for her death? Shockingly well, it would appear. As a matter of fact, just after 16 weeks of his acquittal, he remarried to his next-door neighbor, Dorcas Anderson. If there had been a side talk in the local community before about the suspicious conditions around Mary Lou’s death, it was nothing related to the spiteful rumors that started to spread after Maxwell got married to Dorcas.
Well, aside from the fact that Maxwell married the prosecution’s fallen star witness all of a sudden, Dorcas as well was also married to someone else until a few months before her marriage with Maxwell. And rather conveniently, her husband had died, too.
Unlike Mary Lou’s sudden death, although the death of Dorcas’s first husband was somehow expected to happen. This is because Abram had a motor neuron disease which made him restricted to a wheelchair. However, the timing was suspicious. Doctors had predicted that Abram still had like two to three years to live before he died and his actual cause of death was said to be pneumonia and some believed that it was Maxwell that poisoned Abram with antifreeze. Hence, the newly wedded couples started their married life under a shade of suspicion.
Unluckily for Dorcas, her marriage would be short-lived, and her new husband’s ability to be surrounded by people who met terrible deaths was just starting.
3 – Years after Maxwell’s second marriage, his surprising bad luck continued.
During early 1972, less than three months after Maxwell and Dorcas’s marriage, Maxwell got a call from the county sheriff’s office. John who was Maxwell’s elder brother had been arrested for drunk driving and Maxwell was needed to bail him out of jail. Maxwell paid the bail money and he made a promise that John would attend his court hearing which was in February.
However, John Maxwell never attended his court day.
Just a day before his court hearing and in a weird echo of Mary Lou’s death; John Maxwell was found dead by the side of the road. During his autopsy, a large amount of alcohol was found in his blood. And his death certificate showed his cause of death to be a heart attack as a result of excess drinking.
Once again the local community was suspicious. Maybe, people thought that Maxwell had somehow forced his brother to drink all that alcohol or maybe the alcohol was just a red herring given to John to cover another poison present in his blood which the toxicologists did not have a test for yet. Again, although the police had no proof of suspicious activity, no charges were brought forward against anyone regarding the death of John Maxwell. Unfortunately, law enforcement’s failure to take action would lead to a terrible outcome for Dorcas.
Surprisingly, after eight months of John’s death, Dorcas herself turned up dead on the side of the road, where a passersby saw her body lying face down in her car. There were no revealing wounds on Dorcas and her car showed that it had suffered nothing worse than a mild fender bender. In addition to the surprise of law enforcement, when an autopsy was done on the second Mrs. Maxwell, the pathologists found it difficult to know the cause of death. They didn’t find any alcohol nor poisons in her blood and there was no proof of violence against her.
Hesitantly, and to the disappointment of the police as well as the local community, her death was ultimately considered to be as a result of natural causes and no charges were brought forward against her husband who had lost two wives, a brother and one next-door neighbor all in the space of two years. Again, Maxwell’s grief over his wife was for a short time. A few months after, he got married again.
4 – All through the 1970s, the more people who came into contact with Maxwell died all of a sudden.
Maxwell married a woman called Ophelia Burns next. After their wedding, Maxwell moved in with Ophelia and her adopted 16-year old daughter named Shirley Ann Ellington. Again, in February 1976, another person was found dead in a car, the person is Maxwell’s cousin named James Hicks.
In June 1977, Shirley Ann was found dead by the side of a highway, but this time around she was found under her car. Apparently, she was crushed to death while she tried to change her flat tire. Something else also increased as the body count increased; William Maxwell’s bank balance increased. Reverend Maxwell just happened to have various life insurance policies on each and every person who died.
Therefore, the first Maxwell’s paydays arrived few weeks after the death of his first wife Mary Lou, when he notified in writing to the ten insurance companies with whom he had a policy on his wife and he told them to payout. Obviously, he didn’t mention to them that he was suspect of her death.
In spite of the suspicion surrounding Maxwell, he was still able to get close to $100,000 in life insurance In the months after Mary Lou’s death. Although some insurance companies rejected to pay him while he was still the suspect of a police investigation. Maxwell and Tom Radney who was Maxwell’s lawyer simply waited until he was proven innocent before pursuing these cases. In the end, Maxwell won almost all his claims. As a result of Radney’s abilities and dedication, Maxwell was successful in making hundreds of thousands of dollars off the death of his victims.
However, with his increasing fortune, he still didn’t pay off any of the huge debts he was owing to numerous individuals and businesses all over the state. Also, he continued to do his various jobs over the decade while he was gathering life insurance money. However, the majority of the people who knew Maxwell were sure of two things; firstly, he was making money from innocent people’s deaths and secondly anyone in the community could be his next target.
However, after the death of Shirley Ann, a man decided that enough was enough.
5 – William Maxwell was eventually brought down in front of hundreds of witnesses.
On the day of Shirley Ann’s funeral, the community gathered in the local church in order to pay their last respect to the teenager. Part of the mourners was Robert Burns who was Shirley Ann’s adopted uncle. He had a gun in the pocket of his mourning suit.
Towards the end of the funeral, as the mourners match past the open casket, someone had a message for Maxwell. Louvinia who was Shirley’s sister screamed across the church after seeing Shirley’s lifeless body and she said she knew Maxwell was the one that killed her sister and he would pay for what he did. Her words had an emotional impact on Robert Burns who was seated in the front seat of Maxwell and his wife, Ophelia.
Immediately after Louvinia’s words, Burns turned around from his seat, pulled out his gun and shot three bullets into Maxwell’s skull which immediately killed him. Almost 300 people witnessed this action. After this panic and pandemonium from the church, Burns was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Who did Burns ask to defend him against all these charges? No one else than Tom Radney who was also William Maxwell’s lawyer. Not only did Radney defend William Maxwell during his trial for Mary Lou’s murder, but he also helped Maxwell in getting payouts from the life insurance companies.
Amazingly, Radney tried to get Burns off the hook by stating that he had suffered from temporary madness when he shot Maxwell, hence he couldn’t be held accountable for his behaviors. The most surprising of the lawyer’s argument was that Burns had been driven insane by William Maxwell’s voodoo preaching.
However, this certain way of reasoning is somehow the truth. Since the death of Mary Lou, there had been rumors going around in the community that Maxwell could kill his next victims without any trace and he can keep escaping justice because he practiced voodoo. They also believed that he kept the police away from his house by painting his house doorstep with blood so that he could cast spells on people if they mistakenly look straight into his eyes.
Radney argued and the jury could understand how a person as devilish as William Maxwell tested Burn’s sanity up to the point that it led him into a suicidal state.
However, the strangest thing that happened during the trial was that one of the world-famous authors was there at the court hearing.
6 – After her first stunning success, Harper Lee found it difficult to write a second novel.
Seventeen years before the judge made a decision on Burns, Harper Lee already published one of the most famous books of the twentieth century titled To Kill a Mockingbird. However, in spite of selling more than a million copies of the book in a year and topping the best-seller charts globally. While Lee was seated in the public gallery on the day of Burn’s trial, none of the reporters recognized her.
Why? However, the strange truth was that, after she published her masterwork, no one heard from her again.
In Harper’s early 20s, she dropped out of law school in Alabama and relocated to New York to start her writing career. Unluckily for her, when she reached 30, things didn’t go well for her. Instead of her writing. She was forced to spend the majority of her time working in administration for an airline.
At the end of the day, an opportunity showed itself. In December 1956, the friends of Lee known as Michael and Joy Brown gave Lee a substantial Christmas gift, the gift was money. It was enough for her to leave her airline job for a whole year and fully focus on her writing.
Brown’s kindness was worth it. After four years, To Kill a Mockingbird was released into a lot of critical acclaims. With its constant description of the racial discrimination endemic happening in the American South and its hero, Atticus Finch who is a small-town lawyer that supports an African American man that was wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Mockingbird found its way into American hearts. It was a book that wasn’t scared to face the sad truth about the country’s racism. In Atticus Finch, it also has a vision of a better noble future.
Normally, after the hit success of the novel, the first question the world had for the author was: When should we expect the next one? Sadly, the following years after Mockingbird was published, Lee experiences different setbacks. Her father died as a result of a heart attack in 1962. Years afterward, it was an open secret she battled with alcoholism.
However, there was another demon that afflicted Harper Lee, this demon was perfectionism. She was convinced that her next work needed to be better than Mockingbird’s outstanding success, Lee found it difficult to write anything she considered to be good enough. The outcome was that over the next two decades, the world whispered that she kept throwing away her manuscripts, living like a hermit and finding solace at the bottom of a bottle. During the mid-1970s, Harper Lee had fallen off the literary map.
7 – After helping Truman Capote, Harper Lee decided to make her own venture into true-crime writing.
In 1977, inspiration finally hit Harper Lee. However, different from Mockingbird, this would be a non-fiction book. It was the true-life crime story of William Maxwell, his alleged victims and the man who murdered him.
During the summer of 1977, Harper Lee left New York to Alabama in order to research the mysterious case of William Maxwell who was the murderous voodoo preacher that was killed at the funeral of his victim. Interestingly, that wasn’t Lee’s first venture into the world of true-crime writing. Truly, she had been involved in the publication of author Truman Capote’s 1966 classic book called In Cold Blood, which was the shocking story of the death of the Clutter family in Kansas.
Lee and Capote were close friends during their childhood. In their adulthood, Capote was the first to gain literary success. After the publication of his notable novels like Other Voices, Other Rooms, and The Grass Harp, Capote changed his attention to non-fiction using the death of the Clutters who were a middle-class family whose violent deaths was surprising to their local community in Holcomb Kansas.
At that time, Lee just submitted her final draft of the Mockingbird and was nervously waiting for its publication. In order for her to take her mind off things, she got a job offer from her old friend Truman and she traveled to Kansas with him in order to assist him with the research of the killings.
Lee spoke to everyone related to the Clutter family and she finally gave Capote over 150 pages of correct and insightful research into the case. Surprisingly for her, when Cold Blood was finally published, she found that it contained a lot of obvious departures from the truth. All the conversations had been created. All the facts about the family, their murder and the investigation had been changed by Capote just to create a more compelling narrative.
Though Lee was too devoted to her old friend to publicly argue with his version of events. However, she privately disagreed with Capote’s method of crime writing. In 1977, she got her opportunity to prove that true-crime books could both be compelling and precise. After an opportunity of meeting with Tom Radney who was the lawyer on both William Maxwell and Robert Burns, Lee got to know all about the strange true-crime story happening in Alabama. Her interest was resentful and she saw a chance to activate her long-unused authorial muscles again.
8 – Robert Burns escaped the law, and Lee’s second novel also evaded the world.
During one afternoon in that hot September in 1977, Harper Lee saw the Jury return their judgment in the murder trial of Robert Burns. The jury claimed that the defendant was innocent as a result of his temporary insanity. This was a stunning win for the state because they were sure that a man 300 people saw murdered someone was sure to be found guilty. Burns walked away free, to the gladness of the local community who saw him as a hero.
The judgment also represented a victory for Tom Radney, the lawyer who had shamelessly gained from Maxwell’s alleged crimes which led to insurance payouts and lasting his death. Also, what of Harper Lee’s long coming second work on the true-crime project she planned to write on killings? Unfortunately, after five years of research on her part, she never wrote her part of the case. Why?
Firstly, when Lee started her investigation; she found out that it was often hard to find actual information about the lives and deaths of Maxwell’s supposed victims as well as about the life of Maxwell himself. The reason for this lack of information was due to two reasons. Firstly, unlike the main characters in Capote’s crime book, all the people involved in the Maxwell case were African American.
Sadly, white authorities were less interested in precisely keeping a record of black American lives. Hence, Lee had no choice but to depend on what the friends, relatives as well as the acquaintances of the people involved had to tell her about the case.
However, with this method, Lee came across more problems. Truly, in 1987 as she wrote to her fellow author, a lot of her friends and relatives she talked to were still convinced that Maxwell had murdered his victims with the assistance of voodoo magic. Given her dissatisfaction with Capote’s alteration of the truth, she was reluctant to write a true-crime story that involved magic and witchcraft.
Hence, Lee’s work remained uncompleted and the strange true-crime story of William Maxwell remained mainly until now. Lee herself died at the age of 89 in 2016. However, another book of hers titled Go Set a Watchman would be published in the final years of her like, this book was formerly an unpublished manuscript she wrote in 1957 which was before she wrote Mockingbird.
However, we will never know for sure why this literary genius wrote another book after Mockingbird
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep Book Review
Not less than six people related to William Maxwell died under extreme suspicious and similar conditions. Also, Maxwell got a huge life insurance payouts after each death. Unsatisfied with the lack of truth in Truman Capote’s In True Blood, Harper Lee decided to tell the story of Maxwell, his victims as well as his own death. However, for some reasons we will never completely understand, Harper never finished this project.