“Poor Bernie”

In 1998, Texas Monthly‘s Skip Hollandsworth wrote a long piece called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” about Bernie Tiede, a somewhat effeminate undertaker in rural Carthage, TX, who befriended a nasty but wealthy local widow named Marjorie Nugent. He left the funeral business and took a job basically looking after her; they’d travel together — first class all the way — and he would tend to her affairs.

Until, they say, he killed her. Which was unfortunately about 9 months before anybody actually noticed she was gone; he’d stored her body in a deep freeze at her home, which he continued to tend. The residents of Carthage were, somewhat amusingly, untroubled:

Sitting at his regular table at Daddy Sam’s BBQ and Catfish (“You Kill It, I’ll Cook It”) in the East Texas town of Carthage, district attorney Danny Buck Davidson began to realize that he might have some problems prosecuting Bernie Tiede for murder.

“Bernie’s a sweet man, Danny Buck,” a waitress said. “He’s done a lot of good things for this town. He’s given poor kids money to go to college and everything.”

“You got to admit nobody could sing “Amazing Grace’ like Bernie could,” someone else said.

The bulldog-faced Danny Buck took a bite of slaw and sipped his iced tea. “Now y’all know that Bernie confessed, don’t you?” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. “He came right out and told a Texas Ranger that he shot Mrs. Nugent four times in the back and then stuffed her in her own deep freeze in her kitchen.”

There was a long silence. “Danny Buck,” one man finally said, “it’s just hard for me to believe that old Bernie could fire a gun straight. He acts…well, you know…effeminate! You can tell he’s never been deer hunting in his entire life.”

“And you know what?” a woman told Danny Buck later at a convenience store. “I don’t care if Mrs. Nugent was the richest lady in town. She was so mean that even if Bernie did kill her, you won’t be able to find anyone in town who’s going to convict him for murder.”

Yeah, I know. It’s total Southern Gothic territory. I only read this story because it showed up in inbox thanks to the excellent SendMeAStory people (whom you should check out, if you like that sort of thing). It’s a bizarre but compelling account.

It turns out that Richard Linklater thought so, too. Jack Black is Bernie. Matthew McConaughey is local DA Danny Buck Davidson. And Shirley MacLaine is the widow. In theaters next month. Here’s the trailer.

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