The Murdaugh trial: a southern gothic tale that gripped the nation


Even as an American, I had never heard of Hampton County in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Yet for the past six weeks this otherworldly land of swamps and wild hogs has horrified, fascinated and utterly gripped me — and much of the nation.

Hampton is home to the Murdaugh family, a feudal dynasty that has somehow existed beneath the bustle of modern American life. On Thursday, a jury found Alex Murdaugh, 54, a prominent local attorney, guilty of the 2021 murder of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, after a six week trial that, as national spectacle, has approached OJ Simpson levels of hysteria.

The Murdaughs have spawned rival HBO and Netflix programmes documenting their rarefied world. His televised trial has for weeks been the thing to natter about in the office — for those who still go to an office.

As a drama, the Murdaughs are southern gothic. But their tale began in Gatsby-esque fashion with a tragic accident in 2019. In this case, it was a boat full of young friends crashing into a bridge late at night. It was driven, according to authorities, by Paul, then 19, after a night of heavy drinking. (There is epic drinking in the Murdaugh world — and much taxidermy — and everyone seems to go to seed by age 30.) One of the passengers, Mallory Beach, also 19 at the time, was thrown into the water and drowned.

While childhood friends and their families are traumatised, the Murdaughs swing into action to try to protect Paul. They connive to manipulate law enforcement and the other families. They insist another boy was driving the boat.

They have enormous sway because, it turns out, the Murdaughs are like royalty in Hampton. For nearly a century, a Murdaugh has been the chief criminal prosecutor for the surrounding district. At the same time, the family has operated Hampton’s biggest civil law firm. In essence, the Murdaughs are the law in Hampton. They are also fantastically wealthy, with multiple homes, boats, their own 1,700-acre hunting estate, an arsenal of guns, and other baubles.

The boat accident is looking like another thing the Murdaughs may get away with. But then, in June 2021, Paul and his mother, Maggie, are found shot to death near the dog kennel at the family’s hunting estate. It is a gruesome scene. There are whispers that this must have been retribution for Mallory Beach’s death.

In fact, authorities alleged — and a jury has now agreed — that Alex Murdaugh killed his wife and son. He did so, they said, because this lord of Hampton was also nursing a 60 pill-a-day OxyContin addiction, which he funded by stealing millions of dollars from his law firm and clients. His schemes were unravelling, and he wanted to throw his pursuers off the trail, prosecutors said. On Friday, he was sentenced to life in prison.

“I’m not quite sure how I let myself get where I got,” Murdaugh told jurors, with some understatement, claiming he was a liar and a thief — but not a murderer. In a further baroque twist, in September 2021, he also arranged for a cousin and drug dealer to shoot him in the head — although he was not seriously wounded.

To be sure, the Murdaugh tale is a tragedy that has devastated families and burnt a hole through a small town. It was set in motion by the premature death of a young woman. Strangely, it also struck me as a rare southern drama not evidently burdened by race. This was about class and money. And so, for outsiders, its allure was as a kind of “true crime” escapism free from our corrosive culture wars.

It was also an escape to a forgotten American south of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, a place dripping with Spanish moss, genteel manners and darkness. If you closed your eyes, you could hear its echoes as the word “lie” stretched to three languorous syllables passing through Murdaugh’s mouth — which was often. It was also there in a crucial piece of testimony that concerned him pulling a chicken from the mouth of his Labrador, Bubba.

That wasn’t even the best name. Paul, apparently, was known to his father as “Paw-Paw”. Another Murdaugh son, 26, goes by Buster. (With their flaming red hair and pink skin, all three Murdaugh men must have announced their presence in Hampton from some distance.) A local prosecutor is called “Duffie Stone”.

Even after six weeks of testimony and endless cable television coverage, I struggled to decide if the fallen Alex Murdaugh was a fidgety addict or a master liar — or both. Some Murdaugh mysteries linger. Why, for example, does everyone call him “Elick”? And does anyone know how to pronounce “Murdaugh”?

But the trial was conclusive for me on another matter. It was a reminder of the depths and variety and strangeness that still lurk in this underexplored land that is America.

“Do you think there are other Hamptons out there?” a friend asked the other night.

“Oh, I doubt it,” I began — and then cut myself off. “Yeah, probably.”

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