There is not a Southern Gothic story, murder, or else, without the Devil in a starring role.
The combination of elements are murky — half-lit nights, characters either eccentric or “tetched” in the head, absurd circumstances, and long drawls that often feature poetic words learned from English poets, Shakespeare, or the King James Bible. The evil, quite frequently, is masked by courteous manners and a deceptive gentleness and likability.
The Good Lord rarely makes a cameo appearance in these black tales.
Take for instance, South Carolina convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh. By most accounts, he was well-liked and always addressed people with genteel Southern respect.
As a child growing up, seated on a slat-boarded, uncomfortable pew in a tiny mountain church, I listened as Daddy occasionally used an interesting word in sermons: Reprobate. I knew not what it meant but only that it was a scary word the way Daddy spoke it. I tucked it into my heart and have toted it all these years.
Enough studying of the Good Word has taught me that it means, after Lord comes for a man’s heart and soul numerous times, He will turn away from him and let the Devil claim him as his disciple.
Until I stood in Walterboro’s Colleton County Courthouse, and looked into the blue eyes of Alex Murdaugh, I had never seen a reprobate. Or a child of the devil.
It chilled me to the bone. In the mountains, I have known plenty of “no goods,” a few more “no accounts,” and a handful of “good for nothin’s.” I’d never encountered pure evil. In a few, Deep South rural counties, there once was a law written for these folks who added little to their humble communities. A judge sometimes dismissed a case using that law, “Needed killin’.”
Five feet from me sat Alex Murdaugh when Judge Clifford Newman called for a break. “All rise!” called the bailiff. Dressed in high heels, I rose from my seat and stood straight my 5-foot-2 frame, my head up. Murdaugh unfolded 6-foot, 4 -inch of a much thinner frame than he carried the night of the murders of his wife and son in 2021. His forehead is akin to a ledge that hangs out over his very deep-set, tiny blue eyes. His once vividly- red hair is now strawberry blonde, streaked with gray.
“A reprobate,” I thought. “A true reprobate.” My husband has often laughed at my use of the word. It’s old fashioned. It is rarely used. But for Alex Murdaugh, it is the perfect word.
“Has the soul been pulled completely out of this man?” I wondered. “Is that possible? Or were all morals and conscience simply lost?”
That night, in my motel room in Walterboro, I prayed away any evil that might have touched me when he walked past, less than a foot away, led by security.
For a few days, I watched him sneer as witnesses testified against him and, sometimes, a small chuckle escaped. This I shall never forget: One of his former law partners testified to the discovery of $9 million that Murdaugh had stolen from the firm. He told the story of a client, who was dying of stage 4 cancer at Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic. His wife, out of money, called the firm asking for help to sell a waterfront property they owned. The money from that sale and a $70,000 life policy, after the client died, were all stolen by Murdaugh.
I watched him. He smiled slightly, like a child who’d been caught stealing a French fry. When the former partner left the stand, he looked straight ahead. Murdaugh? He stared him down until he had left the court room.
Back home, I studied the first Chapter of Romans. The KJV says, “reprobate”; other versions used “depraved.”
It is the same sin no matter what you call it. It is chillingly unsettling to witness firsthand.
Ronda Rich is a best-selling author and dabbled in crime reporting in her early days of newspapers. Visit www.rondarich. com for her free newsletter weekly.