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The Devil and Harper Lee
The Devil and Harper Lee
The Devil and Harper Lee
Ebook119 pages2 hours

The Devil and Harper Lee

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



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In the 1970s, a mysterious man captivated and terrorized a small Alabama town. He was elegant and handsome, a charismatic pastor and leader in the African American community. But rumors swirled. Preaching on Sunday, people would say, killing on Monday.

Far away in New York City, one of America’s most beloved writers was about to get caught up in the strange and violent tale of Reverend Willie J. Maxwell. Harper Lee, author of the modern-day classic To Kill a Mockingbird, was searching for her next book when the perfect story came her way: There was a man, the Reverend, who had allegedly murdered five of his family members, and managed to do it without getting caught. Thanks to the skills of his talented lawyer, he collected sizeable amounts of money from insurance policies that named him as the beneficiary. It was said the Reverend used voodoo to commit the murders and that his magical powers made him untouchable. And then, at the funeral of his most recent alleged victim—his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter—someone pointed a pistol at Reverend Maxwell’s head and shot three times.

Mesmerized by the string of bloody deaths, Harper Lee returned to her native Alabama. She spent months in Alexander City, getting to know the town and the people, slowly pulling out the threads of this macabre tale. She found a story that only a writer of her caliber could do justice to: a modern southern gothic tale of death, fraud, superstition, and race. But apparently she never finished the book. After all that research, all the time spent tracking leads, speaking with crucial sources, and examining records, she dropped the project. Why?

Acclaimed investigative reporter Mark Seal, himself an Alabama native, follows the trails of both the Reverend and Harper Lee, bringing the lurid tale back to life. He interviews key players, including relatives and other survivors who bear witness to this astonishing true story. One can only wonder how Lee herself would have told it. With The Devil and Harper Lee, Seal has woven together a new and uniquely American mystery.

Release dateApr 29, 2019
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Mark Seal

Mark Seal is the author of several nonfiction books, including The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, about the audacious con artist and convicted murderer who called himself Clark Rockefeller, and Wildflower, about the extraordinary life and brutal killing of the pioneering wildlife filmmaker Joan Root in Africa. A journalist of more than forty years, he is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair, where he has written about crime, scandals, and other topics since 2000. His 2016 Vanity Fair story on the biggest burglary in British history, in which a gang of supposedly retired elderly London criminals broke into a vault in London’s Hatton Garden diamond district, was the basis of the 2018 film King of Thieves, starring Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, and Michael Gambon.

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Rating: 3.988235294117647 out of 5 stars

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  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Interesting story, but I’d like to read something more in depth about it.

    3 people found this helpful

  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    The author has done stellar work in the past in the area of true crime journalism and it has always been hard to put down, even when knowing the outcome. I had high hopes for this with his Alabama background and extreme familiarity with the subject matter. Somehow it falls curiously flat. There are a few moments of magic when he is able to evoke the past and the setting. Personally, I wish he had chosen a different focus and investigated what he barely touches on in this work-Lee's sudden decision not to pursue the book or even the topic after receiving the threat and the disappearance of what purportedly was a larger manuscript. Who knows, maybe with his skills, he would have located it.

    2 people found this helpful

  • Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
    I didn't like it at
    Kllkk kkkk

Book preview

The Devil and Harper Lee - Mark Seal

SOMETHING IS WRONG with this funeral.

Poor black girl, sixteen years old, dead in a tragic accident. Discovered past midnight on a deserted country road, her neck crushed beneath the left front wheel of a 1974 Ford Torino. A car tire and jack were on the ground beside her, as if she had suffered a freak accident while changing a flat. Only months later would the coroner’s report show that she had been strangled, dragged across the road, and positioned beneath the car, which crashed down on her when the jack was knocked free.

It is June 18, 1977. Alexander City, Alabama. A packed wooden chapel at a small-town funeral home, an overflow crowd outside. Scorching hot. Everyone waving fans to ward off the heat—hundreds of people, swaying to the dirge of the organist. The preacher’s sorrowful benedictions, carried aloft by shouts of Amen!

Another small country town. Another sweet, smart teenager just learning how to drive. Another girl working a summer job at a fast food restaurant. Another kid about to be buried and forgotten. Another impoverished African American community in grief. Everything sadly normal, except for this: The girl didn’t die by accident. She was most likely murdered.

And the man most everybody believes to be her murderer is sitting in the third row.

His name is Reverend Willie J. Maxwell, and he is seated among the bereaved in a red velvet pew beneath stained glass windows. He is a tall, handsome black man, fifty-two years old, charming and calculating. He sits ramrod straight, a fan in one hand, a white handkerchief in the other, his arm around his sobbing wife, Ophelia. He can bring a congregation to its knees when he preaches and make grown men cry when he sings the gospel. At this moment, he is widely believed to be Alabama’s first and most prolific black serial killer, having allegedly killed five relatives for profit.

Everybody in the chapel knows it. They’ve been through this before. This is the fifth funeral the Reverend is said to have attended as both mourner and chief suspect. To be sure that this mysterious death will be the last, police are stationed outside the chapel, with plans to arrest Reverend Maxwell immediately after the funeral, as Maxwell’s attorney will later write.

The Reverend is dressed in his trademark outfit: black suit, white shirt, black tie. And black patent leather shoes—perhaps the ones that kicked the jack from the car that fell on Shirley Ellington’s neck. The neck of the girl he calls his stepdaughter.

Everything about the Reverend is impressive. His height—a towering six feet four inches. His clothes—fancy and perfectly tailored, from good stores in Alex City, his shoes shined up like glass. His precise mustache. His buttery brown skin, like a movie star’s. His deep, booming voice, slow, molasses-thick, and ever consoling. A mortician’s voice, as someone once described it. His renditions of Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross and Amazing Grace draw a flock from miles around. That voice fills the room now, accepting nervous condolences over the loss of his stepdaughter. But the Reverend remains cool and collected, shaking hands, thanking Sister So-and-So and Brother Ain’t-You-Kind.

But the most notable thing about the Reverend is the legend that precedes him.

They say he is the seventh son of a seventh son, a biblical birth order that conveys mystical powers. He lives near the crossroads of Alabama State Route 9 and Interstate 22, which gained mythical connotation, along with other crossroads in the South, after bluesman Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the junction of two Mississippi highways. Folks say that the Reverend’s home is a house of horrors with dead chickens dangling upside down in his pecan trees. Smears of blood on his driveway and doorstep ward off evil spirits and unwanted intruders. They say he has seventy pairs of shoes, each with a shine that never dims, and long rows of black suits in his many closets. They say he keeps a stack of insurance policies, filled out with the names of future victims, on file in his attic. They say he uses a spare bedroom as his voodoo room, and that it’s filled with bloody body parts and powerful potions in brightly colored jars labeled LOVE, HATE, FRIENDSHIP, and DEATH. They say he wears two bulletproof vests for protection everywhere he goes, and they say he wears seven pairs of underwear at once, for reasons nobody understands.

His most powerful armor is the magic he supposedly learned from the Seven Sisters, legendary voodoo queens from New Orleans. Or maybe Mississippi. No one seems to know for sure where they came from originally. But few doubt that, under the Sisters’ tutelage, the Reverend has mastered the use of herbs and potions and acquired what was called a hand, meaning he had voodoo powers, including the power to kill without detection.

Guarded by both God and Satan, his talents have been amply demonstrated, people say, by this string of odd and violent deaths, some of which not even Alabama’s best forensics experts could prove as murders. Only the death of the Reverend’s first wife resulted in a murder charge, for which a judge found him not guilty.

No wonder so few dare look the Reverend in the eye. People rush off front porches and hide in their homes at the sight of his passing car. When they drive past his house, they claim their headlights flicker. No court has been able to convict him. Lawmen can’t catch him. Some people in town are starting to ask: Are they even trying? If any of the murders had happened in a white community, would they be trying harder?

Everyone was talking about it and worried about him, but people weren’t bothering him, because he wasn’t killing nobody from the white community, one of Reverend Maxwell’s relatives will say years later. He was always killing in the black community.

In the matter of Shirley Ellington’s suspicious death, the Alexander City police have neither charged nor questioned the Reverend. Folks say he will terrorize this little Alabama town until the end of times.

Preaching on Sunday, they like to say, killing on Monday.

Young Shirley Ellington had the misfortune of colliding with Reverend Maxwell after he married her foster mother, Ophelia, his third wife. Three years into the marriage, the nightmare supposedly began. At least one relative says Shirley felt sure her stepfather was trying to kill her, which is why Ellington fled the home they shared at 10:00 p.m. that Saturday night and sped, either on foot or by car, to a relative’s house in a nearby black community. The Reverend—or somebody—not only found her, but killed her and left her body in the road. A passing motorist discovered Ellington, practically decapitated beneath the wheel of Maxwell’s 1974 Torino. Now there is only one question on the minds of the hundreds of frightened souls in the chapel: Who’s next?

Five times, they have come to bury a relative of the good Reverend, each life cut short by a freak tragedy. His first wife, Mary Lou, dead in a supposed car accident, though she had also been beaten and throttled. Then his brother John Columbus Maxwell, found dead beside the highway with so much alcohol in his bloodstream that the authorities said someone had to have forcibly poured it down his throat. Then his second wife, Dorcas, dead in another mysterious car accident. Then his nephew James Edward Hicks, found on the side of a road, dead at age twenty-two from causes the coroner was unable to determine. And now Shirley.

All five of the relatives had a large insurance policy taken out on their lives, most with double indemnity clauses that paid out in the case of accidental death and listed the Reverend as beneficiary.

Blood for money, people whisper. Few feel safe from the Reverend taking out his next insurance policy in one of their names—you can find the ads in newspapers or magazines—and then turning up dead like the others.

As the funeral winds down, Shirley Ellington’s family members file past her open casket to say their final, tearful farewells. Then comes a teacher. Then her friends. One by one, they gaze into that hideous casket where the young girl lies. Though Ellington’s big, dark eyes are now closed, some must imagine the shock and fear they showed when she looked up at her killer.

Finally, the Reverend rises. Six feet four inches of majesty and dread. Grief, hate, anger, and fear follow him on his long, slow walk to the casket. He lowers his head like a penitent and stares down at poor Shirley Ellington. And then he silently bids her goodbye and returns to his seat.

Suddenly, the wrath of the entire congregation comes pouring out of a young woman returning from the coffin to her seat in the front row.

You killed my sister, and now you’re going to pay for it!

The cry comes from Louvinia Lee, eighteen, one of Ellington’s sisters. She is pointing straight at the Reverend, her finger jabbing the air, as the mouths of three hundred

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