Furious Hours | Casey Cep

Summary of: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
By: Casey Cep


Embark on a journey into the web of murder, fraud, and the elusive world of Harper Lee in the summary of ‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee’ by Casey Cep. This riveting book explores the incredible events surrounding the trial of Robert Burns, accused of murdering the suspected serial killer, William Maxwell. Among the extraordinary circumstances, Harper Lee, the author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, is present at the trial, seeking inspiration for a new true-crime novel. As you delve into this summary, you’ll discover the strange events in the lives of William Maxwell, his alleged victims, and the voodoo mystique that fueled gossip and suspicion in a small Alabama community.

A Bizarre Alabama Murder Trial

On a hot September afternoon in 1977, a courtroom in Alabama anxiously awaited the verdict for Robert Burns, who faced charges of first-degree murder. The murder trial stood out for three distinct reasons: firstly, the victim was William Maxwell, a suspected serial killer himself; secondly, Burns’s attorney, Tom Radley, had previously served as Maxwell’s attorney; and thirdly, Harper Lee, the renowned author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was present at the proceedings. To understand the bizarre circumstances, a look back at the series of events leading up to the trial is required.

In 1970, William Maxwell, a WWII veteran and Baptist preacher with a tainted reputation, lived in Nixburg, Alabama, with his wife, Mary Lou. On August 3rd, their neighbor, Dorcas Anderson, claimed that Mary Lou received a call from Maxwell stating that he had crashed his car and needed her assistance. Fearing for her husband’s safety, Mary Lou hurriedly left to find him. However, the following morning, Mary Lou’s lifeless body was discovered inside her car, brutally beaten to death. The police, upon learning Dorcas’s account, immediately suspected Maxwell of the heinous crime.

Maxwell firmly defended himself, stating that Dorcas was mistaken and Mary Lou had left that night to visit her sister. He insisted that she must have encountered trouble on her return home, which led to her tragic death. Unconvinced by Maxwell’s version of events, a grand jury indicted him for Mary Lou’s murder on August 6th, 1971, setting the stage for an unforgettable trial.

A Shocking Twist of Fate

In 1971, Dorcas Anderson was supposed to provide key testimony against William Maxwell for the murder of his wife, Mary Lou. However, she dramatically changed her story in court, resulting in Maxwell’s acquittal. Only 16 weeks later, Maxwell and Dorcas were married, sparking a wave of gossip and suspicion. Dorcas’s first husband, Abram, had also died under questionable circumstances shortly before, fueling rumors that Maxwell had poisoned him with antifreeze.

Before a tense courtroom, Dorcas Anderson was called upon to testify against William Maxwell. The prosecution believed her account could seal Maxwell’s fate for the murder of his wife, Mary Lou. But to everyone’s surprise, Dorcas’s recollection had taken a drastic turn. She disavowed her initial story, stating that Maxwell had not received a phone call from Mary Lou and that he had arrived home much earlier that night. This information shattered the prosecution’s case, and Maxwell was declared not guilty.

In the weeks following this rollercoaster trial, Maxwell seemed unshaken. A mere 16 weeks after his acquittal, he married his next-door neighbor, Dorcas Anderson. This new union fueled rampant speculation and gossip, as Dorcas was not only the prosecution’s compromised star witness but had also been married to someone else just months prior.

Dorcas’s first husband, Abram, had been suffering from a motor neuron disease and was wheelchair-bound, but his death still raised eyebrows. Just before his demise, doctors had predicted he would survive for another two to three years. The official cause was listed as pneumonia, but whispers suggested that Maxwell had poisoned Abram with antifreeze.

As Maxwell and Dorcas began their married life together, a thick cloud of suspicion hovered above them. Little did they know that their union would be short-lived, and Maxwell’s alleged ominous presence around tragic deaths would only continue to unravel.

A Trail of Suspicious Deaths

In 1972, Maxwell received a call to bail his older brother, John, out of jail due to drunk driving. However, John died under mysterious circumstances before his court hearing, with the official cause of death being a heart attack caused by excessive drinking. Despite local suspicions, the police couldn’t find any evidence of foul play and pressed no charges. Dorcas, Maxwell’s wife, also died suspiciously just eight months later, with her body found lying face down in her car. The autopsy showed no obvious cause of death, and no charges were filed against her husband, who remarried shortly after Dorcas’s passing.

Rather than starting a blissful married life, Maxwell found himself bailing his older brother, John, out of jail after an arrest for drunk driving in early ’72. A day prior to his court hearing, John was discovered dead by the side of the road. Although the cause of death was reported as a heart attack induced by alcohol consumption, many suspected Maxwell’s involvement, but the police had no evidence to press charges.

The string of suspicious deaths didn’t end there. Dorcas, Maxwell’s wife, became the next victim when her lifeless body was discovered on the side of the road just eight months after John’s demise. Although her car seemed to have suffered only minor damage, an autopsy failed to pinpoint any definitive cause of death. Again, despite whispers of foul play and local community unrest, the police could not build a case against her spouse. Dorcas’s death was reluctantly labeled ‘natural causes’ and Maxwell escaped prosecution.

Maxwell, who now had a dark cloud of tragedy follow him, soon moved on and remarried mere months after losing his second wife. Despite the deaths of two wives, his brother John, and a neighbor within just two years, Maxwell remained unscathed. The lack of concrete evidence left the community uneasy, but the case remains unsolved to this day.

A Killer’s Profitable Scheme

After marrying Ophelia Burns, Maxwell found himself living with her and her adopted daughter, Shirley Ann Ellington. More mysterious deaths started occurring in his circle, including his cousin James Hicks and eventually Shirley Ann herself. Curiously, Maxwell held multiple life insurance policies for each person who died, and he continued to cash in on their deaths. Despite this suspicious connection and the mounting body count, Maxwell evaded charges and made nearly $100,000 after his first wife Mary Lou’s death. In fact, many of his claims were won thanks to the help of his lawyer, Tom Radney. As Maxwell’s fortune grew, he didn’t pay off his debts, and people in town suspected that his next hit could be anyone. When Shirley Ann passed away, someone finally took a stand against the thriving murderer.

In February 1976, another life was snuffed out – Maxwell’s cousin James Hicks. In a sickening twist of fate, all those close to Maxwell seemed to meet tragic ends with life insurance policies bearing his name. The money kept rolling in, the victims kept piling up, and Reverend Maxwell only grew wealthier.

The deaths took an even darker turn in June 1977 when Shirley Ann was found crushed beneath her car. At this point, people saw the connection between Maxwell’s rising bank balance and the mounting body count. With each victim, another claim was filed with insurance companies. Some hesitated to pay while he was under investigation, but Maxwell and his lawyer, Tom Radney, patiently waited until he was declared innocent before pursuing these cases. In the end, nearly all claims were paid out.

Despite his bank account growing exponentially, Maxwell didn’t bother to clear his extensive debts or change his lifestyle. This realization led the townspeople to two conclusions: Maxwell profited from the deaths of innocent people, and anyone could be next on his list.

After Shirley Ann’s passing, an emboldened individual decided enough was enough and took matters into their own hands. The days of Maxwell’s twisted and deadly game were numbered.

Vengeful Murder or Voodoo Madness?

At the somber funeral of Shirley Ann, the entire community had gathered to bid farewell to the teenager. Among them was Robert Burns, her adoptive uncle, who bore a loaded weapon, seething with grief and rage. When Louvinia, Shirley’s sister, passionately accused Maxwell, a man rumored to practice voodoo, of her murder, Burns couldn’t take it anymore. He pivoted in his pew, locked eyes with Maxwell, and fired three bullets into his skull. Despite the 300 witnesses to this shocking murder, Burns pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial. His defense was none other than Tom Radney, the very lawyer who supported Maxwell on previous allegations. Radney argued that the accused was driven mad by Maxwell’s sinister aura and his reputation for dabbling in dark arts. To everyone’s surprise, one of the most famous authors of the time was present at the trial, watching this bizarre and captivating case unfold.

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