“Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee”
Author: Casey Cep
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Price: $ 26.95 (Hardback)
Readers believing this to be a book about Harper Lee will be disappointed—for a while.
Except for a mention in the two-page prologue, Lee does not appear until page 147. Those first 147 pages, however, are the best in the book.
Many Alabamians will already know something about the Reverend Willie Maxwell. He was an Army veteran, a sergeant, African-American, 6’ 2’’, charismatic, handsome, polite to a fault, a hard worker at quarry drilling or pulpwooding, and was also the eloquent pastor of several churches in the Alexander City area before being arrested for murdering his wife, Mary Lou.
On August 3, 1970, her body was found in her car. She had been beaten to death
On August 19, the Reverend wrote to the Old American Insurance Company to claim his death benefit as beneficiary.
The next section, on life insurance policies, I found astonishing.
There was really not much life insurance in the U.S. until the Civil War, Cep tells us, when the carnage made Americans terribly aware of widespread death and the need for protection for survivors.
Up into the 1970s, the life insurance industry was relatively unregulated and filled with fraud which moved in all directions. Some insurance companies were fake and claimants often lied in various ways.
The Rev. Maxwell had, quite legally, taken out several policies on his wife only days before her death, many of them by filling out coupons in popular magazines and mailing away the coupon and a deposit, as little as 25 cents. He had policies with companies in Kansas, Florida, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, California, and cities all around Alabama, ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.
The person whose life was being insured might know nothing about this.
Maxwell was of course arrested, but with an alibi supplied by Dorcas, a neighbor woman, he was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Tom Radney, a white local attorney, represented him and then, on his behalf, sued the insurance companies who, understandably, did not want to pay up. Radney won these suits and took as much as 40% of the payouts.
That was just the start. Soon Dorcas’ ill husband died and Maxwell married her. Then Maxwell’s brother, John Columbus Maxwell, was found dead by the side of the road on Feb. 6, 1972. He too was insured multiple times by the Reverend. So far Maxwell had collected about $100,000, half a million in 2019 dollars. Then, less than a year after the nuptials, Dorcas Maxwell was found dead, having been insured by more than 17 policies for more than $131,000, total.
No one doubted who done it, but Maxwell was only arrested one more time, all the other deaths having been declared accidental or of natural causes. Each time, Maxwell retained the services of criminal attorney Tom Radney, who continued to litigate all the policies with companies that refused to pay.
Reading this is a grotesque delight, like watching a train wreck. Maxwell’s nephew, James Hicks, also died. With Dorcas dead, Maxwell married again, and his adopted daughter, Shirley Ann, soon was found dead. Finally, Maxwell was killed at Shirley Ann’s memorial service on June 18, 1977, in front of a funeral home full of witnesses, by her brother, Robert Burns, who, represented by the same Tom Radney, now known as “Big Tom,” was acquitted using the plea “not guilty by reason of insanity,” in this case temporary insanity. The jury was out only five hours.
In Alabama, the insanity plea, when successful, sent the killer to Bryce until such time as the doctors there declared the patient not insane. Sometimes this was accomplished in just a few days. In the case of Robert Burns, perhaps because of the notoriety of the trial and the hundreds of witnesses to the killing, Burns stayed at Bryce just under six weeks.
Enter Harper Lee, who had moved to Alexander City for the trial of Robert Burns.
Cep provides fresh biographical sketches of both Capote and Lee, using some new material available since Charles Shields’s biography. New letters and documents surface all the time in situations like this, but there is nothing earth-shattering here.
Lee, ever since accompanying Capote to Kansas and helping to research “In Cold Blood,” had contemplated writing a true crime story and here it was. She lived for months in Alex City, did extensive research, interviewed locals, bought trial transcripts and worked, hard, for years, all to no avail. It is a story painful to read.
During the writing of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Cep reminds the reader, Lee had had, over a considerable length of time, the help of editors/agents Tay Hohoff and Maurice Crain, the editors at J.B. Lippincott and even the advice of her old pal Truman Capote. Now, something of an isolata, she was on her own. Cep suggests that writer’s block, heavy drinking, neurotic perfectionism, fear of lawsuits, now that she was a wealthy woman, all conspired to prevent what might have been a blockbuster.
Towards the end of her struggles, Lee reshaped the material into a novel, to protect against claims of slander.
It seems that one chapter of “The Reverend,” Lee’s title, still exists. Maybe there is more in a box somewhere—these things happen—but for now Casey Cep has done the job, told the story, and told it beautifully.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.