Hampton D Harmon :: The Cast of the Murdaugh Saga ::

Creative Non-Fiction

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am from the “salt water south” near Myrtle Beach, where we make taffy from ocean water and moss creates shadows on moonlit walks with friends and lovers. I spent my summers barefoot both in the yard and on the beach, and still struggle with writing as a passion, afraid my family will think me the worst kind of redneck: one who does not know he is a redneck.

The Cast of the Murdaugh Saga

Cast, noun: the set of actors in a dramatic production

In small towns in the south, though probably everywhere, there are families with histories that stretch deep into the soil, where the roots of homes, economies, and governments find their life.

In Hampton County, South Carolina, at least that much is true. The county’s name is taken from Wade Hampton III, a general on the wrong side of the Civil War, and later a political hopeful desirous of restoring white rule. Wade Hampton II owned a plantation, and served as a colonel in the War of 1812. His father, Wade Hampton, fought in both the Revolution and the War of 1812. Blood and violence followed these men, as did their name, which was chosen as the official name for the county in the 1870s.

Today, in a county named for generations of men whose works precede them, the Murdaugh family has come under scrutiny, their crimes laid bare, their influence and corruption on display for all to see. It is the name that taints the rest of the people in their lives. The good, southern folks of Hampton County and beyond, who are now sorry to have ever gone into business with, fallen in love with, heard of the name Murdaugh.

These people, some of them now tragic characters, and some villains or heroes in their own right, form the larger cast in the drama of the Murdaugh name. And we know them, because they are just like the other cast members in the dramas of powerful families. Who are they? Where do they go from here? What happens when the curtain closes?

Cast, noun: a rigid casing used for immobilizing a usually diseased or broken part

Paul Murdaugh was not a victim until the day his father shot him in the head. He was reported to be an alcoholic, who by all accounts became violent at times when his drunkenness took over. He used his family name to prop himself up.

He allegedly killed a woman while drunk-driving his family’s boat, despite the pleading of his friends, and then actively tried to cover up the crime. He never lived up to his family name, despite the protection the name Murdaugh offered.

What he needed was help, and instead, he was enabled, held together by the name and legacy of men whose lives he could not emulate.

His brother, on the other hand, did everything he could to place a hard facade around his own insecurity. Despite his inclination toward success, he still didn’t quite measure up. He was booted from the University of South Carolina’s law school for plagiarism, and there were rumors in that small town of Buster’s sexual identity, of his relationship with a murdered boy.

Yet, he clung to the name. Or it clung to him. And as his world began to unravel, he ignored the whispered accusations, and he allowed the other men in his life to make the calls.

Two broken boys, with nothing to set them right again. 

And friends. Friends who may or may not have been there the night a boy named Stephen Smith was murdered. The night that Buster Murdaugh has never had to answer for.

Friends who by their own admission froze when Paul Murdaugh hit his girlfriend on a moving boat. Who sat and held each other, watching Paul take back the controls and put the throttle down.

And then there is the Beach family, whose daughter, Mallory, was killed in the boating accident. Their attorney took the stand against Alex Murdaugh, citing evidence of fraud and criminal coverup, and detailing his effort to give the family some closure, some ability to hold themselves together after the unspeakable tragedy. He attempted to set them in order, to help them heal. I suspect they never will. 

I once went to a party on a golf course in high school. My best friend was there on crutches, and in our drunken youthfulness, I encouraged him to do a cartwheel in the boot that kept his fractured ankle from worsening. He tried, and was unsuccessful. Days later, he was fitted for a full cast, and the doctor could not explain how he had not healed in the boot alone. 

In order for a cast to work, the actual problem has to be treated with care. The bone must be reset, put back in the right place. A cast over a bone not ready to heal will never grow together quite right..

Cast, noun: something that happens as a result of chance. Related to a throw of dice.

If you watched the trial, you know that there are men and women who became acquainted with the Murdaugh family by chance, sucked into the vortex of deep small town corruption. There’s Rogan Gibson, the unsuspecting friend who boarded his dog at the Murdaugh compound, the same dog who was the subject of the most damning piece of evidence against Alex, a video featuring his voice in the background minutes before the murders.

There’s Blanca Turrabiate-Simpson, the housekeeper who highlighted Alex’s missing clothing and the anxiety of Maggie Murdaugh, Alex’s wife. She did so, despite rumors of a previous housekeeper’s death occurring under suspicious circumstances.

For me, the most relatable moments of the trial came when Attorney Chris Wilson, one of Alex Murdaugh’s best friends, dissolved into tears over the lies of a man he trusted. He didn’t know that Murdaugh was addicted to pills, or stealing money, or capable of incredible violence. He didn’t know his college roommate was the kind of man who could cover up the crimes of his family, crimes of his own. 

Cast, noun: something that is shed, ejected, or thrown out or off: such as the excrement of an earth worm, the skin of an insect

Of the Murdaughs left alive, none are unscathed by the tragedies. There is Buster, who must now walk under the weight of his father’s crimes and the incredible tragedies of losing his brother and mother.

Randy Murdaugh, Alex’s older brother, recently gave an interview to the New York Times, telling the world that his brother is still holding back secrets despite his conviction.

John Marvin Murdaugh testified in his brother’s defense, and was videoed removing guns from the home of his brother via drone footage. It is also reported that he removed the boat, along with much of the evidence, from the active crime scene following Paul’s accident.

The rest of those affiliated with the Murdaugh name may never find themselves able to cast off the stain of the last several years. How does a law firm move forward after all the allegations of fraud? How do friends and family shed the losses and the grief they produce? Is there a way to dispose of the skin attached to a name, the corruption of an American dynasty?

Cast, noun: something that is formed by casting in a mold or form: such as a reproduction as of a statue in metal or plaster

In several ancient civilizations, and up until the middle ages, death masks were made from the faces of the departed as a means of remembering the face of a loved one at the moment of their demise. In fact, the non-descript face of the prototypical CPR dummy is based on the death mask of an unknown drowned girl pulled from the River Seine.

The purpose of casting the face of a dead girl drowned in a river is to distract viewers from the tragedy of her death. Her beauty lives on, and the tragic nature of her drowning becomes a forgotten notion of her being. In reality, the girl pulled from the Seine no longer exists. Her legacy becomes the Resusci Annie doll, used to save the lives of future anonymous bodies pulled from rivers. This is a tradeoff. The actual young woman never gets a name, but her face lives on.

The Murdaugh family spent generations perfecting the mold with which they would project their face to the world. One that would provide a digestible cover for the corruption and power wielded over a region of South Carolina. When death finally came for the Murdaugh dynasty, the death mask was not enough to control the legacy. Too many people knew too much, and there were too many losses to go unnoticed. Alex Murdaugh, and whoever helped him commit and cover his crimes, worked hard to hold together the image. Alex even went so far as staging his own foiled murder plot to maintain his victim status. A plot that was originally conceived of as a means of getting insurance money to his son as a survivor.

But when it finally became clear that the image had already been shattered, others began to create their own. In the same way anonymous donors could commission the death mask of a powerful or beautiful figure, our culture demanded to know more about this dynasty that was passing away before our eyes.

But the image, the mask, never tells the whole story. Of Paul Murdaugh’s addiction and ostracization. Of Maggie the mother, or Alex the father beside Alex the swindling murderer. And what of the others. We can never know the truth behind the generations of the dynasty, whether they saw the future for what it would be. The violence and destruction.

Caste, noun: a division of society based on differences of wealth, inherited rank or privilege, profession, occupation, or race

My full name is Hampton David Harmon. I am named after both of my grandfathers, one of whom derives his name from the Hampton family dynasty of South Carolina. The other is the patriarch of one side of our family. A family with roots that go deep into the soil of our home, another small town in the palmetto state.

My family’s dynasty is smaller, and much less corrupt. And yet, I know that if the generations before me had failed to pass down a moral compass the same way our temper and stocky build and sidelong little toe has been passed, I could have descended down another path. 

Every time we receive great service as a result of my grandfather’s reputation, I wonder at my own culpability. I wonder at a cop who pulls me over in high school, with my father in the car, and asks us, “Where do I know you from?” He lets me go, but I don’t know if it’s because he remembers that his wife and son have recently started going to our church, or because that church has seen at least four generations of our family in the pews.

Do I feel shame because I am named for that violent and bigoted dynasty dominated by Wade Hampton? Or pride because my grandfather, Hampton Harmon, helped build the highways of our state, connecting Hampton County to Horry and Edgefield among others? 

Did Wade Hampton understand that his grandson would become one of the great American racists, whose name would ordain small towns and amateur writers alike? Did my grandfathers know the kind of man that I would be? 

Can we control the casting of our death image, or does someone else decide its value?

Some will tell you that power itself corrupts, but I’m not sure that tells the whole story. There is a kind of person that uses power and money and influence to create victims and compile resources. But who are they before the name becomes a dynasty?

Was there a version of Alex Murdaugh before the money and power, where he simply was another kid playing baseball in the deep south, where he was just a law student studying for an exam? A kind of man who could have made other decisions, resisted the Murdaugh legacy?

We are what we repeatedly do. And the Murdaughs repeatedly covered their crimes, relied on their power and added to it. The Hamptons did much of the same. Whether or not my family legacy will be the same is yet to be determined. 

But I do know that the sins of the fathers are always visited on the sons, that those who practice iniquity find themselves stealing and lying and murdering. But who practice righteousness can break all the ties of the family name, and reclaim it for their own. 

And practice does, in fact, make perfect.