A Baptist Serial Killer. A Famous Writer. Then, 'Mysteries'

The 'To Kill a Mockingbird' author struggled with an incredible case
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 28, 2019 3:30 PM CDT
When Harper Lee Tried Her Hand at True Crime
Harper Lee.   (YouTube)

When Harper Lee tried her hand at true-crime writing, she picked a doozey—but that didn't guarantee success, CBS News reports. The To Kill a Mockingbird author hadn't published in 17 years when she grew interested in Willie Maxwell, a Baptist minister in Alexander City, Alabama. Maxwell's wife had been found strangled and bludgeoned in what looked like a staged car accident on a country road in 1970, but he got off when a witness altered her testimony. Maxwell later tied the knot with that witness, who turned up dead by a road along with her brother and a nephew. Authorities investigated but couldn't tie Maxwell to the deaths. And when insurance companies got suspicious about the policies Maxwell had on all four victims, he found a good local lawyer and won the case.

In June 1977, the adopted daughter of Maxwell's third wife was also found by a road. That's when local resident Robert Burns lost his patience and gunned down Maxwell at the daughter's funeral. Enter Lee, who attended Burns' trial to try some true-crime writing of her own after helping Truman Capote with In Cold Blood. Burns got off on temporary insanity, but Lee, who interviewed locals and spent years on the book, never published a word. Alcoholism and depression didn't help, and she complained that her agent only wanted "pure gore & autopsies." Writer Casey Cep, whose book Furious Hours chronicles all this, says she found a sample titled "The Reverend" but has no idea whether more exists in Lee's sealed papers. "Mysteries on mysteries," says Cep. "God bless Harper Lee. They didn't end when she died." (More murder stories.)

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