By March 29, 2017 at 2:48 PM updated
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Faye Gamble remembers the night John B. McLemore called her for the last time, vowing he was about to do what he had talked about so many times:
“It was awful,” she said of the conversation, recounting how McLemore stood on the front porch of his place off old Woodstock Road, telling her what he wanted done with his dogs, just as he was about to drink cyanide.
It hasn’t yet been two years since McLemore said his goodbyes to Woodstock, in rural Bibb County, but like a voice from the grave his complaints against the town are giving it a national spotlight this week with the coming of “S-Town,” a podcast from the creators of “Serial.”
The program is hosted by “This American Life” producer Brian Reed, who was first contacted by McLemore through e-mail in 2012. “S-Town” is the first series from Serial Productions, the newly formed podcast production company headed by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass.
It is billed as the story of “the son of a wealthy man who allegedly boasted about getting away with murder.” However, it centers on McLemore and the mysteries of his strange life, with all the twists and turns of a maze.
‘He would talk’
“S-Town” is the polite way of saying McLemore’s favorite name for Woodstock, a town of about 1,500 people in Bibb County, just off U.S. 11. A trip down McLemore’s old road presents a winding picture of weather-beaten trailers flying Rebel flags, and at one, the Christian flag.
The town, formerly a mining and farming hub, is now starting to transform into a bedroom community of workers who commute to Birmingham or Tuscaloosa. Last year, MollerTech, a German autosupplier, announced a $46.3 million plant to be built in the nearby Scott G. Davis Industrial Park.
Mention McLemore’s name at Judy’s Korner Store on Grey Hill Road and you may get blank looks from the diners. “Isn’t he that singer?” one man asks. But walk across the road to Greenpond Grocery, and you’ll get a few memories.
“He came in here a lot,” said Jackie Cline, the owner, who played on “Bear” Bryant’s last Alabama team. Cline and his wife Vicki said the same thing about McLemore: He was “really, really intelligent.”
“He would come in and talk about a lot of stuff,” Jackie remembered.
“He would talk with a lot of intelligence,” Vicki added. “I remember he was remodeling a house at the time.”
The house was the one he shared with his mother, Mary Grace. The two of them lived in the family’s home some people describe as looking “ancient,” which had no air conditioning. His mother’s only caregiver, “John B.” stayed up late, slept in and largely kept to himself, townsfolk remembered.
Still, he was known by a few people in town for his long and tangential phone conversations. One of those he talked to repeatedly was Larry West.
West, whose background is in behavioral science, said he thought McLemore had clinical issues that needed therapy, medication and rehab.
He didn’t eat away from home because of digestive problems. He would spend long hours on the phone “ranting and raving.” He lacked social skills, West said, and was relentlessly negative. Still, he was fun to talk to and interesting to be around.
“He was as crazy as a shithouse rat,” West said. “He loved gossip, which he loved to spread around like mayonnaise. You usually didn’t see him unless it was at the hardware store, where he was gathering stories. He loved to make fun of church signs. He was all the time talking about ‘Jeebus,’ which was his way of saying Jesus. He equally abused the right and the left, but he was what you might call a left-wing wingnut.”
Woodstock’s police chief, L.C. Price, said it was common to have two or three phone messages left overnight from McLemore, complaining about shots fired or something around town. He launched a memorable tirade once after receiving a ticket from a state trooper for not wearing a seat belt.
“Usually, he’d leave messages at 2 in the morning,” Price said. “He was usually mad at somebody about something, talking about this ‘sorry ass town.'”
Gamble, who at that time was the town clerk, said McLemore would often suffer from depression, and suffered for a lack of social skills. He didn’t fit in well with people around town, and his language was often peppered with copious amounts of profanity, which provided another barrier.
But even with those things going against him, most people agreed – McLemore was an intelligent, even gifted man. He knew how to restore antique French clocks, which he shipped all over the world. He could identify exactly any kind of plant or flower.
“He was really smart,” Price said, joking that McLemore “could have made an atomic bomb if he’d wanted to. He was just different.”
And out on his family place was a hedge maze he trimmed and maintained over more than an acre.
“I had never seen anything like it,” Gamble said. “It was perfect, all evergreens.”
Jeff Dodson, now Woodstock’s mayor, hired McLemore at his nursery because of his proficiency with plants. The arrangement didn’t last long, he said, because McLemore had no business sense and couldn’t adapt.
“John was just about unemployable,” he said. “He was angry at me forever over it. I thought he was a real negative person, but I thought maybe we could get him to use his energy in a positive manner. He was like a very immature kid. He did whatever he wanted to do. He just couldn’t get away from negativity. He used to talk about the town, but he annexed his property into it.”
West said around 2008, he helped get McLemore on the Internet in hopes of drawing him out. Shortly after, his conversations became more about global warming and “far-fetched” theories about the state of the world.
“S-Town” began when McLemore contacted Reed, hinting darkly at a murder that he claimed had been hushed up because of the perpetrator’s family’s status. The case, as McLemore described it, didn’t exactly match up with the facts. But it allowed Reed to meet McLemore, visit his home, see the maze, and make contact with McLemore’s coterie of friends at a Bessemer tattoo parlor.
Dodson said McLemore made friends on the Internet, and found people outside of town who enjoyed listening to his theories. Again and again among those who knew him, one hears the phrase “consider the source” when talking about the rumors he passed on.
Still, McLemore would occasionally call or come to visit Gamble, in hopes of talking himself out of his depression.
“I think he always left feeling better,” Gamble said. “I was more concerned with his faith. After we’d talk about things, he’d see your side. He wouldn’t agree with it. He would just get in these rages.”
‘What he wanted done’
Those who remember McLemore in Woodstock say he often talked about killing himself, usually saying he would blow his brains out.
“He would say he’d had a hard life, and then he’d say, ‘This is what I want done with my stuff,'” West said.
On the evening of Monday, June 22, 2015, Gamble had just been to a wake and was out getting a bite to eat. John called her, asking if she could talk.
“I always made time for him,” she said.
Stepping outside, he told her that he was about to kill himself. He would drink the cyanide he used to restore the clocks.
“He told me not to talk him out of this, and not to call the cops,” she said. “‘If the cops come, I will kill them,’ he said. At the same time I was talking to him, I was on another phone dialing 911.”
Then Gamble left for McLemore’s home. She arrived just after the police, and there he was – laid out on the front porch, dead. His mother was still asleep inside, unaware of what had happened.
“I don’t know why he called me, but he just told me where things were and what he wanted done,” she said.
Price was one of those who responded. Inside the house were old toys, Lego building blocks, a pristine potbelly stove and other reminders of a life lived on the margins.
But no gold. McLemore had told Gamble, as he had others, that he had invested his money in gold, which he kept wrapped in old towels and stowed in the basement freezer. It was never found.
“We never did find nothing,” Price said. “People talk about a treasure but there wasn’t anything like that.”
‘A wonderful small town’
Some people in Woodstock know that their town is about to get an unfamiliar shot of notoriety because of “S-Town.” Gamble said there’s been talk about it.
“If there’s stories about this place, that doesn’t represent what goes on here,” she said. “This is a wonderful small town. It’s a great place to live.”
Dodson said the same, intrigued that after so long, John “found somebody to listen to his stories” who could take them much further. Both listened to the short teaser for the podcast, saying it was a strange sensation to hear McLemore’s voice again after so long.
John B. McLemore is buried in Bibb County’s Greenpond Presbyterian Church Cemetery, not far from the front gate next to his father Thomas. His marker is a small decorative piece with his name apparently painted on the top.
A bare patch of red Alabama clay marks the spot of his burial plot in a town that probably hopes his nickname doesn’t stick.