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A Murdaugh family death in 1940 was also suspicious — and eerily similar

A portrait of Randolph Murdaugh Sr. hangs among others of his family at the Hampton County Courthouse. (Michael M. DeWitt/Augusta Chronicle-USA TODAY NETWORK )
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A jury convicted South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh on Thursday of murdering his wife and son, but the story won’t end there. Murdaugh faces dozens of charges related to financial crimes, and documentaries have highlighted a number of additional deaths that are or could be connected to the family, including of a housekeeper and two classmates of Murdaugh’s children. There’s also a suicide-for-hire plot Murdaugh is alleged to have arranged, so that a hefty life insurance payout would go to his surviving son, nicknamed Buster.

Incredibly, the suspicious 1940 death of Murdaugh’s great-grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh Sr. — who started the family’s legendary law firm — also led to a payout benefiting his son, who was likewise nicknamed Buster.

Details of the 1940 case were recently unearthed by South Carolina journalist and historian Michael M. DeWitt Jr., who has been covering the family for years and was featured in the Netflix documentary “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.” DeWitt made the discovery by combing through the archives of the Hampton County Guardian newspaper, of which he is editor.

Randolph Murdaugh Sr. was born in 1881 in Varnville, S.C., in Hampton County, not far from his great-grandson’s trial. The son of a wealthy businessman and the grandson of Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s first cousin, he attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the University of South Carolina law school before returning home to start his own small practice in 1910. That firm would eventually grow to be a legal titan with hundreds of attorneys.

By 1920, he was married with kids and was elected solicitor, the equivalent of a prosecutor, for a multicounty district. Except for a few months in 1956, a person named Randolph Murdaugh would be solicitor there for the next 86 years.

Murdaugh Sr.’s name “peppered the society pages: his comings and goings, appearances at garden parties, family trips — even his wife’s bridge party and flower judging made the papers,” DeWitt wrote for Greenville Online.

In the months before Murdaugh Sr.’s death, he was often too ill to come to court, and his son, Randolph Murdaugh Jr., filled in for him, newspaper reports show. But on the evening of July 18, 1940, he felt well enough to visit a friend a few towns over, perhaps to play poker. On his way home, at about 1 a.m. on July 19, his car somehow came to a stop at a railroad crossing. Moments later, a freight train slammed into the car, killing him instantly, the sheriff said. He was 59.

Murdaugh Jr., then in his mid-30s, soon announced he would run to fill his dad’s seat as solicitor. He won in a landslide. (His son, Randolph Murdaugh III, succeeded him as solicitor from 1987 to 2005.) In October, a few months after the crash, he sued the railroad company, claiming that poor maintenance of the railroad grading had contributed to his father’s death.

The train’s engineer testified that as the train approached, Murdaugh Sr.’s car was stopped near the tracks, and Murdaugh Sr. raised his hand and seemed to wave at him, according to DeWitt. Moments before the train crossed, the engineer said, the car sped up and then stopped directly on the tracks. Murdaugh Sr.’s body was found 150 feet away.

Locals have speculated for years that his death may have been a suicide or alcohol-related, DeWitt wrote.

The Murdaugh family settled with the railroad company for an undisclosed sum.

A judge sentenced South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh on March 3 in Walterboro, S.C., to two life sentences for the murder of Murdaugh's wife and son in 2021. (Video: Reuters, Photo: AP/Reuters)

For the Murdaugh law firm, later called PMPED, it was a sign of things to come. That same railroad company, Charleston & Western Carolina Railway Co., was later absorbed into what is now CSX Transportation, one of the biggest freight carriers in the country and a frequent target of PMPED lawsuits.

From 1992 to 2002, the firm filed four dozen personal injury cases against CSX, earning nearly $19 million in settlements and judgments, and filling the firm’s coffers with legal fees, according to Forbes. Locals call the firm’s red-brick offices “The House That CSX Built,” DeWitt wrote.

In 2018, Randolph Murdaugh III — Alex Murdaugh’s father — joked during a public speech: “A train killed my grandfather in 1940, and they have been killing our people [clients] ever since.”