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‘Swamp Kings’: not unusual but rarely caught


Swamp Kings

By Jason Ryan

Hardcover 448 pp.


(Pegasus Crime, New York, 2024)

By Charles W. Waring III

Jason Ryan’s book has a teaser on the cover; it is not a subtitle but worthy of repetition: “The Story of the Murdaugh Family of South Carolina and a Century of Backwoods Power.” Way beyond the eerie barnyard humor of Bubba and the guinea hen — taken from a cell phone and played during the televised trial and immediately preceding the double murders — the author wisely dives into the stacks and many local sources. He goes far deeper than the nasty business of Alex Murdaugh’s misdoings, as judges and juries have found and pronounced; hence, these charges are no longer merely alleged. How could he kill — and why would he — are just two of the questions we kept hearing before, during and after Murdaugh’s trial. The better question is the one that Mr. Ryan answers: Who were the character examples for Alex Murdaugh? What is on the record and how much evidence is there?

After the success of his Jackpot, Mr. Ryan’s investigative skills are even more developed in this volume, which is unhappy news for those mixed up in foul play. In a summation, one might say that a long line of ruthless swamp kings begat more of the same, and their arrogance was on full display for other family members to absorb and learn. These creatures from beneath the duckweed were never identical — just as history never quite repeats itself — but it sure does rhyme.

Mr. Ryan takes the story of Alex and runs it alongside other family members, telling the whole story, which is about a wee bit of good but a whole lot of ugly and a gargantuan amount of self-interest masked as working for the public good. This is an effective treatment, and it constantly reminds the reader that the apples did not fall far from the trees. Not every dynastic story in this state has an evil character or horrid past; plenty of our family members were persons of integrity. Nonetheless, this book is about a corrupt and politically powerful law firm, and it is one that echoes in many parts of S.C. and is not limited to those living in swamps.

No, Carolina corruption goes straight into neighborhoods and families where you would least expect it, and this reviewer hopes that Mr. Ryan will employ his experience to go digging into hypotheticals such as why certain properties — in theory protected by the explicit wishes outlined in a will — were developed and why state resources consistently enrich certain firms because of their connections to state agencies and elected officials. When the “Dictator of South Carolina” — Senator Hugh Leatherman — died we figured a book would be forthcoming, but we continue to wait like the refugees in the film Casablanca.

In the case of the Murdaugh dynasty, the reckoning is upon us. Indeed, we often wrongly think that the wicked past will remain buried or that some families are simply too powerful for law enforcement to take action; this book vividly reminds us that the truth can find sunshine amid the bogs, duckweed, brambles and cypress bottoms that make up our swamps. In reality, the corruption that Jason Ryan explains in detail goes from murder for hire to bribes for judicial findings to misappropriation of government property to the use of a public office for personal enrichment to murder, rape and financial improprieties out of the ears.

When Alex Murdaugh’s case was tried, several individuals took issue on social media with those — some on our team — who would call out the perpetrator and his family as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Dozens of news accounts and this book make it perfectly clear as to the guilt; deflecting must end. Done are the days of impressing or intimidating others at a cocktail party by dropping the Murdaugh name; the public finally is able to know the truth. We witnessed the arrogance of those living high on the hog for decades and then having to face the grim facts that the dynasty was merely a house of cards.

To be sure we know specific persons in the hand dealt, Mr. Ryan is clear in how he discerns among the different Randys, Randolphs and Busters. A chart and clear writing keep us on the right path of discovery. Buster who died in 1998 and grandfather of Alex receives an iron-clad treatment in terms of presenting old stories, and as the author states, “Buster’s wit could be amusing, but his interactions consistently betrayed a corrosiveness that was unsettling when fully appreciated.” The book is a series of stories that would have shocked readers just a few decades ago; today, we are far too accustomed to malfeasance that we hear “everybody does it.” No, everybody does not scam their law firm, steal from their clients, put out hits on inconvenient associates and murder their own family members.

If the book has any weaknesses, one could point to the nuances surrounding the discussion of respected Lowcountry hunting traditions being mixed in the same description with “Alex and his boys had a plethora of places to spill blood.” This was certainly not intentional, as Mr. Ryan is far too gracious to put all hunters in the same basket with the bloodthirsty scoundrels he investigates. Otherwise, this is a smooth ride of reading and well organized.

Weaving a cast net that captures the ill-gotten gains and bloody deeds of this once powerful family, Mr. Ryan summarizes his hundreds of hours of interviews and analyzing here:

For a century assorted members of the Murdaugh family ruled the swamp and controlled much of the Lowcounty. Alex seemingly undid their legacy in an instant, but the family foundation had never been stable and always rested on soggy soil, their power more precarious than appreciated. But compared to his forefathers, Alex’s misdeeds were too egregious and long running to be ignored. His evil acts — the stealing and lying and killing — seemed more natural to him than practicing law and trying to play the outdated role prescribed for him even before his birth — to be a bigshot and to do what he wanted, without consequence.

The Murdaughs of Hampton will remain subjects of interest as various lawsuits and financial allegations make their way through our court system. Expect more appeals, but we believe this book and the publicity around the double murder trial of Alex have forever turned the public’s attention to the reality behind the faux legacy of invincibility, social importance and respect in the legal community. Expect more salacious details to bubble up from the swamp and be sure not to lose sight of the fact that this horror story is just one layer of scum on the pond of public corruption; we hope Mr. Ryan will employ his considerable talents to unearth these Carolina cancers forthwith.


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