With the release of Harper Lee’s “new” work “Go Set A Watchman” due on Tuesday, the uncommonly private Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s shadow continues to hang over the Alexander City area and the family of the late attorney Tom Radney.
The Radney family, according to the attorney’s granddaughter, Madolyn Price, continues to believe that Lee is in possession of many of the late lawyer’s papers related to his representation of William Maxwell, a pulpwooding preacher who lived in the Coosa County community of Nixburg.
Maxwell was either charged with or thought responsible for at least five murders in the area, including two of his wives, his brother, his nephew and an adopted stepdaughter.
Maxwell was shot dead in Alexander City’s House of Hutcheson funeral home by Dadeville’s Robert
Lewis Burns at the funeral of 16-year-old Shirley Ann Ellington – the final victim – who Maxwell is believed to have killed. The girl had been adopted by Burns’ brother and one-time sister-in-law, Ophelia.
Ophelia was married to Maxwell at the time of his death.
As a suspect in Ellington’s death, Maxwell contacted Radney, who had represented him in some of the other cases. Radney would not represent him and, instead, represented Burns in the shooting death of Maxwell.
Burns was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Later, Burns, a Vietnam War veteran, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to Price, Radney lent his papers related to the Maxwell case to Lee, who was writing a book on the bizarre case. Lee spent several months in Alexander City with Radney, his family and others.
Tom Radney died in 2011.
“We haven’t really (had any success retrieving Tom Radney’s papers from Lee),” Price said Friday. “I hate to say that it’s been a little bit on the back burner for me, but (New Yorker reporter) Casey Cep is working on it still.”
Cep wrote a New Yorker article in March about Lee and the Radneys’ efforts to retrieve the papers from Lee. According to Cep, at one point, Tonja Carter, who became Lee’s attorney after the death of Lee’s sister and attorney, Alice Lee, told Radney’s daughter Ellen Price that Harper Lee had no recollection of Radney or the Maxwell case. Carter later tempered her tone, according to Cep. In a letter to Madolyn Price, she wrote, “Miss Nelle (Harper) Lee has asked that I respond to your request for the return of your grandfather’s files on the Rev. Maxwell case. Unfortunately, Miss Lee does not have your grandfather’s files. I am sorry we were not able to help.”
On June 5, 1987, Lee responded to an inquiry from the late Madison Jones, a published and critically acclaimed author himself who was, at the time, writer-in-residence at Auburn University. Jones was apparently working with an individual named Steve Thomason on a possible account of the Maxwell story. Lee’s letter was vivid in its descriptions of area residents who wanted to be paid for their personal reflections on the Maxwell case. One she mentioned specifically was Burns, Maxwell’s killer.
“When I sought an interview with Reverend Maxwell’s killer (Burns), I was taken immediately to the offices of his attorneys in Dadeville, who wished to enter into negotiations on behalf of their client,” Lee wrote.
Retired Dadeville attorney Lee Sims was one of the attorneys who represented Burns in the discussions with Lee. Sims said Friday that Lee said she would not pay Burns. Sims added that Burns, who has been open and candid with reporters about the case, decided to speak with her anyway.
Burns says that Lee told him later that she would not write the book because it could incriminate “a lot of people” in the Alexander City area, including Radney. He said Lee did not say how the book would incriminate Radney or others.
Lee’s letter to Jones isn’t altogether kind to Tom Radney, either. Lee writes:
“If you are not already so, you will become closely acquainted with Tom Radney, whose legal services were crucial to the well-being of both the Reverend Maxwell and his assassin. I found him to be most cooperative, generous and kind. At the same time, however, Mr. Radney’s psychological processes were of clinical fascination to me; he seemed to see himself as a cross between Atticus Finch and Robert Redford. His memory for facts caused me much dismay – if accuracy is what you’re after, check out everything he says; if a hero is what you want, invent one.”
Madolyn Price dismisses the tone of Lee’s letter to Jones, citing another Lee letter that Cep quotes from in her New Yorker story. It was a thank-you note Lee had written to a family that had hosted her in Alexander City, found in an old copy of Encyclopedia Brittanica. In it Lee wrote, “You simply can’t beat the people in Alex City for their warmth, kindness, and hospitality. If I fall flat on my face with this book, I won’t be terribly disappointed because of knowing that the time I spent with you was not time lost, but friends gained.”
Price has also considered the possibility that Lee’s letter to Jones is nothing more than an attempt to scare others away from the fascinating case Lee might feel she had, through her years of research and interviews with Radney and others, earned ownership of. Curiously, Lee ends her letter to Jones with “I hope that you have found this sufficiently discouraging!”
“I guess that’s possible,” Price said. “I just hope that someday we have this all figured out and can know the whole story.”
What is known is Radney corresponded with Lee for at least 30 years, constantly prodding her on her account of the case. At one time, Radney received from Lee four pages of manuscript, photos of which Price provided to The Outlook. Price had blurred all the text except the title, which, in Lee’s handwriting, read “The Reverend.”
As for “Go Set A Watchman” – which was actually written by Lee some 50 years ago – it is Amazon’s most pre-ordered book since JK Rowlings’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” in 2007. Amazon will not release figures for each book, but Harper, the HarperCollins imprint that published “Watchman,” said it ordered an initial U.S. print run of two million copies.