midnight in the low country

It had been three years since Sue and I had traveled, other than for family reasons, when we decided to go to Savannah.

That city, rich in history, became a popular tourist destination upon the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1994.  The book, described in a review at the time as “a peculiar combination of true crime and travelogue” was a phenomenon, staying on the best seller list for years.   We both read it before our trip (Sue had done so years ago, but I hadn’t).

The cast of characters is amazing, from a voodoo priestess to the upper crust of a town where “who your great-grandparents were still matters.”  And a legendary drag queen, a shyster always on the edge of the law, a man walking an invisible dog, a piano player who knows more songs than anyone and will play any venue at any time of the day, and an attorney whose family has been raising the famous bulldogs of the University of Georgia football team since 1956.  Plus, a young hustler shot by Jim Williams, a prominent antique dealer who lived in a mansion across the street from one of Savannah’s legendary squares.

Williams was tried four times for murder over a period of eight years, racking up two convictions (overturned for procedural issues) and a mistrial before being acquitted.  He died just eight months later at the age of 59.

The whole story was so hard to believe that I didn’t.  When reading it, I figured it was a novel, only to find out that the people and events were real.

We flew in and out of Atlanta, a bit far from the sea, but we like road trips and this one took us to Statesboro (home of Georgia Southern University) for the first night.  There, things took a turn.

I first read about the Murdaugh family of South Carolina in June 2021.  The story reported on the murders of the wife and son of Alex Murdaugh, the fourth-generation scion of a family who, through their positions as prosecutors and private attorneys, dominated the legal system in five counties for a century.  The article mentioned that the son who was murdered had been charged with felonies related to a boat accident that killed a friend of his two years before.  Plus, because of something the authorities found during their investigation of the murders, they reopened the case of a 19-year-old who died in an apparent hit and run in 2015.  I remember thinking at the time that there’s a lot going on there.  It was just the tip of the iceberg.

It turns out Alex had been stealing legal settlements that should have gone to poor clients, upwards of ten million dollars in all, including large insurance payouts related to the death of the family’s housekeeper at their home (which some viewed as suspicious).  Then, three months after the deaths of his wife and son, Alex said he was shot by an assailant while changing a tire on a rural road, but it was actually a botched murder-for-hire attempt, apparently in the hope that his sole surviving son could reap an insurance windfall.  Along the way, Alex admitted that he’d been abusing opioids for twenty years, although no one else seems to have known that, so it’s viewed by many as just another of his ruses.  In all, he faces about a hundred different charges, but the murders are being tried first.

On the drive from Atlanta, we decided to listen to the two most recent episodes of one of the podcasts about the Murdaugh trial that had sprung up.  So, starting out the next day, we took a roundabout way to our destination, heading into the so-called low country of South Carolina.  Our first stop was in Hampton, population under three thousand, home to the powerhouse law firm where Alex was a partner.  Its sizable red-brick Georgian building is out of place in the town, the product of a boom in personal injury litigation in Hampton County because of a law (since amended) allowing venue shopping.

The Murdaugh murders actually took place in Colleton County, however, so we then drove to the county seat in Walterboro, where the trial is taking place.  Satellite television trucks were lined up across from the courthouse and microphones were set up in front of the building for the reporters providing news updates.  A parking lot nearby had a number of food trucks (the barbecue was excellent).  We discussed whether to go in to watch the trial, but it was the lunch break and we didn’t want it to evolve into a true-crime vacation, so we decided to go on our way.

After we came home, we discovered a three-part HBO series about the Murdaughs, so we had to watch it; the trailer is here.  We were in Walterboro near the start of the trial, which so far has featured a bomb threat and some jurors being excused because they came down with Covid.  There have now been seventeen days of testimony with perhaps a couple more weeks to go.  Given the craziness of everything that has happened, who knows what the next surprise will be.

After our unplanned side trip, we enjoyed bopping around the South Carolina coast, from funky older communities to newer upscale ones.  (The former are much more interesting and fun.)  Sue got a chance to do some seashell hunting, one of her passions.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Savannah proper, but it was great to see the city in person after reading Midnight, imagining the people and events that it contained.  It is unlike any place we had ever been.

The pull of history brings along with it the specters of slavery and segregation.  At Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina, a sign said that in 1963 a court ordered the state to desegregate its parks.  Rather than comply, the attorney general closed all of them.  For three years.  On the beach of Tybee Island, Georgia, an historical marker recounted the first “wade-in,” in 1960, which protested the whites-only policy then in force for all of the state’s beaches.

Those are reminders that power is held tightly by those who wield it, often for long periods of time.  Money, heritage, and privilege lead some to think of themselves as above the law.  One thing is clear from the police videos in the Murdaugh case:  By virtue of his family name and close ties to law enforcement, Alex was not treated like others would have been at the scene of a double homicide.

Perhaps he will be found innocent of the murders, but the aura around the family has been punctured and his pile of other crimes will mean that he’ll spend most or all of the rest of his life in prison.  Those who have feared crossing the powerful Murdaughs may be able to rest easier.

Or maybe there will be a mistrial, although I doubt if he’ll match the four trials of Jim Williams.  Midnight definitely came to the low country, marked by evil and no good.

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