In Walterboro, South Carolina, kindness hangs in the air like moss in the oak trees, providing a gentle whisper of invitation.
This is what people call the Low Country, since it sits near or below sea level on the coast. It produces significant salt marshland and other coastal waterways, making it a source of biodiversity for South Carolina.
The marsh surrounding the town once offered protection during the wars of 1776 and the Civil War because it is hard to trudge through the ooey, tar-like bottom. Boats have solved that problem. Marshes also produce a sulfuric smell that, while peculiar, comes to smell like sweet home to those who grow up near the marshes which celebrate golden light when the sun glowingly lights the weeds.
The outer edges of the town are scruffy. Some buildings are abandoned, set amidst parking lots where pinches of grass nose through cracks and the decorative trees are shabby, in need of a sprucing.
Walterboro, a town brimming with smiles and Southern hospitality, is mostly a stop-by for gas by travelers heading south, toward Savannah, on Interstate 95. Since the murders that stunned this town and captivated the world, endless hours of stories have been written, a constant flow of television crews and, at least, two multi-part documentary series have mesmerized countless viewers.
During one documentary, a man says quietly, a tinge of sadness clinging to his tongue, “Nobody has any reason to move here and those who live here never have any reason to move away.” Paraphrased slightly, that isn’t as sad as it sounds. How many of us would love to keep our hometowns the same, particularly as long as there’s a Waffle House, Piggly Wiggly, churches and decent education? Getting to a certain amount of neighborly growth and stopping there isn’t near as bad as some might it think.
South Carolina was once a textile giant, twisting cotton grown in its vast fields into scrumptious product. Good cotton. Soft, thick, luxurious cotton. Years ago, I spoke at a textile executives’ retreat in Myrtle Beach. They gave me an enormous bath towel. It remains sturdy and usable 15 years later.
Textiles made celebrities of families like Milliken and Cannon, but those jobs have gone South to countries that can produce at half the price.
That leaves a sweet city like Walterboro just hanging on. It was perhaps even lonely until January 2023, when a circus rolled into town, bringing trucks, tents, food wagons, side shows, cameras, satellite dishes and a freak or two. Despite the sound, it was not the circus we used to know where a dime would spin us through a tunnel of mirrors, where everything is distorted. In a way, there was more truth to that in the courtroom than one would imagine.
For six weeks, carpetbaggers, townsfolk and deeply-born Southerners ambled into town hoping to personally see a trial with international intrigue that assembled in the beautiful old, white courthouse.
Tink and I were in London when kindly Judge Clifton Newman dropped the gavel on the murder trial of former attorney Alex Murdaugh, charged in the heinous shooting deaths of his wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul.
“It was,” acknowledges an evidence clerk, “the worst thing I’ve ever seen in 25 years of doing this. For days, I was affected. For nights, I didn’t sleep.”
When the trial began, we discovered that the London Daily Mail had sent a writer to Walterboro. The reporter tried to procure an interview with Buster, the remaining son, who waved him away. Seconds later, Buster hollered back, “You better not say I stand in support of my father!”
Yet, on the day I walked into the Colleton County Courthouse, faithful Buster was three rows behind his father, as he would be daily, without fail, even testifying positively for his father.
This case, I discovered, has more twists and turns than the meanest mountain road I ever saw.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.