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The Reverend Ezra Johnson was a big man. He stood four inches over six feet and weighed well over 250 pounds. He had a big salt and pepper Old Testament beard, big arms, a big chest, and a big voice. He had no seminary training, in fact little formal education of any kind, but he had read the Bible from Genesis through Revelation many times—though it was unclear with what level of understanding—and he knew how to preach and how to build a church. He could find a little broken down, preacherless country church whose membership had dwindled to a dozen or so and in no time build it up. The problem was he liked the ladies, married, unmarried, old, young, very young, and he liked money, so complaints of infidelity, indecent relationships with very young women, and financial irregularity soon followed, and he would move on to another church a few counties away and start over.

 

So, he left a string of churches behind. He also left behind a trail of dead and missing wives. His first was beaten to death in their home. The distraught Reverend explained he had been working on his next sermon at the church, alone of course, and had come home to find her dead in a pool of blood. He had no alibi but neither was there any way or reason to discredit his story. The Reverend’s next two wives simply disappeared. He claimed that they could not handle the considerable stress of being a preacher’s wife and had just gone off, one to family in Arkansas—he was vague about where—and the other somewhere “up north.” These disappearances took place at different churches in different counties, and the Reverend’s explanations were not seriously questioned at the time, his sorrow seemingly entirely genuine.

 

The fourth wife had been found by her car, a mile from home, also beaten to death. Again, the Reverend claimed to have been at the church working on his sermon. He had no idea where his wife had been or where she was going or who she might have been going to see or who might have killed her. Unfortunately, for the Reverend, this wife had a well-placed brother, a man with a big farm, ownership interests in a bank, a cotton gin, and a cotton brokerage business, and the sort of political influence that goes hand in hand with wealth. He had never liked the Reverend, not from the very beginning, and was not buying his story and so refused to shake his hand before, at, or after his sister’s funeral, and the following day marched himself into the office of the district attorney of Clay County, who in due course caused the Reverend to be indicted, on the basis of the slimmest sort of evidence, and then promptly died. Some said he died to avoid taking a weak case to trial. Others said he had been killed by a sixty-year, two-pack-a-day smoking habit, unfiltered Chesterfields being his smoke of choice. Still others claimed he had died in the arms of a woman not his wife. “Couldn’t handle the excitement,” they said. The only thing certain was that he was dead. About that there could be no doubt . . .

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