In 1928, Monroeville, Alabama, was home to two children who eventually became American literary icons. Four-year-old Truman Streckfus Persons was sent there to live with his mother’s relatives following his parents’ divorce. Living next door was Nelle Harper Lee, a young girl who became the boy’s childhood friend. The boy grew up to be the author and playwright Truman Capote, best known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the true crime novel, In Cold Blood. The little girl eschewed her first name and wrote the Pultizer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The children shared a love for reading and writing, often spending hours composing stories on a typewriter purchased by Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, a prominent Monroeville attorney and journalist. Lee often protected the smaller and more timid Capote from neighborhood bullies. Their friendship continued after the adolescent Capote moved to New York City to join his mother. Monroeville people and places appear in some of his short stories and novellas.
Lee and Capote could often be found in the courtroom balcony of the Monroe County Courthouse, listening and watching Lee’s father present at trials. Constructed in 1903, the courthouse is mentioned in Capote’s story, A Christmas Memory. The courtroom became the setting for the trial in Lee’s novel. Set in Maycomb, a fictionalized Monroeville, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of beating and raping a young White woman. Defense attorney Atticus Finch, modeled after Lee’s father, defends Robinson. Finch’s young daughter, the autobiographical Scout, narrates the story. Scout’s friend, Dill, was based on Capote. In the novel, Scout and Dill watch the Robinson trial from the balcony of the courtroom.
In 1961, To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The following year, the book was made into a feature motion picture starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. The movie’s set designers duplicated the Monroeville courtroom so precisely that some locals still believe the movie was filmed on location rather than on a Hollywood sound stage. The courthouse closed in 1963, but it reopened in 1968 as the Old Courthouse Museum and includes permanent exhibits featuring Capote and Lee.
Preserved as it was when Lee’s father practiced law, the courtroom still looks identical to the courtroom in the film. The three-quarter balcony, Judge’s bench, witness chair, and attorneys’ tables are all the same. Because of their association with the authors and Lee’s iconic novel, the Alabama legislature designated Monroeville and Monroe County the “Literary Capital of Alabama.”
Each spring, a local group puts on a theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird and stages the second act in the courtroom of the Old County Courthouse.
Know Before You Go
The Old Courthouse Museum Hours:
Monday – Friday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Closed Sundays and most holidays.
Admission is $5 per person.