Who Killed Bob Ewell?

Students rarely understand exactly what happens at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. I like to use their befuddlement strategically to help them put the clues together.

Heck Tate puts them together very quickly when he discovers Bob Ewell dead under the oak tree near the Radley’s house. Heck takes Ewell’s switchblade from the scene and later tells Atticus he “took it off a drunk man.” My students take that remark at face value. Bob Ewell is a drunk and Heck’s a sheriff, so the students make the assumption that Heck picked up the knife earlier in the evening on his usual rounds. They don’t imagine that a law enforcement officer would tamper with the evidence to perpetrate a cover-up. But making those two assumptions is how even Atticus is temporarily misled.

Heck’s motive, of course, is to protect Boo, the children’s reclusive, awkward, ghost-like neighbor. Ultimately, Boo—if he killed Bob Ewell—would be acquitted of the murder charge he’d face, but in the interim, he’d be subjected to a trial and then to a storm of appreciation from the town folk.

I could just tell the students what happened, but that is never my preferred style. Instead, I have them act out the ending of the book because, through role-playing, they discern the answer for themselves. The process of discovery is not only fun, it’s a chance at the beginning of the year for the students to delve deep into a text and to have an analytical discussion without the formality of hands in the air.

I take volunteers for the various roles and urge the students to reread the text carefully so they can act the story out just as it happens. Even so, the next day, when I hold up two plastic knives labeled “switchblade” and “kitchen knife” and say that the actors who need the knives should take them, they all look at one another mystified. Usually the student playing Heck, thinking I’m just supplying props to make the scene more realistic, takes the switchblade. That leaves the kitchen knife for Bob Ewell—another error.

The troupe of actors retreats to the hallway to block out their performance. Meanwhile, I tell the rest of the students: “They’re going to make a mistake. It’s your job to figure out what they got wrong—so follow along in the text.”

While the group in the hall is blocking the scene—and having their own discussion about those two knives—the other students and I move all the desks to the back of the room. We clear a large space at the front of the room and sit on the floor more or less like a theater audience or in chairs that are informally arranged in front of the “stage.”

The actors enter, books in hand, Scout yelling “Cecil Jacobs is a big wet he-en!”

Jem puts his hand on her head, steering her along, and Bob Ewell enters, stalking the two children as they make their way across the classroom to the corner designated as the Finch home. The students read the lines aloud and carry out the actions indicated. I read the narration.

Boo hears the children, comes out of his house, pulls Bob away from Jem, and then…

Sometimes the actors show Boo stabbing Bob with the kitchen knife. Sometimes they show Bob falling on his knife. Sometimes there’s a radical deviation from the text and the troupe tries to show that Jem killed Bob. After all, that’s what Atticus first thinks. Depending upon what the students have decided to do with the switchblade, more difficulty can arise when Heck Tate comes along to examine the body. In any case, the students’ first error is usually at the tree, and the second one occurs when Heck examines the body.

In many years of doing this, only once did a group nail the ending on the first try.

It takes a series of mental leaps to realize that
• Bob had a switchblade.
• Boo had a kitchen knife.
• Boo stabbed Bob with the kitchen knife.
• Bob then had both knives—a switchblade in his hand and a kitchen knife “up under his ribs”
• Heck relieved Bob of the switchblade.
• No one will question Bob “falling on his knife.”
• Heck Tate reasons that justice is ultimately served because Boo would be acquitted in a trial and the man responsible for Tom Robison’s conviction is now dead.

By now, the actors have stopped acting and are huddled up on the floor with the audience. I am off to the side or somewhere in the mix, asking pertinent questions. But the students are talking to each other, looking back at the text, and arguing constructively over what took place. They lead each other through the sequence of events and untangle the circumstances that lead Heck Tate to his declaration. They support their claims with textual evidence and counter each other’s errors the same way. It’s awesome to watch.

In the end, we have an animated conversation about Heck Tate’s preemptive decision to “let the dead bury the dead this time.” He tells Atticus— emphatically—“I’m the sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife,” leaving Atticus with no questions, no choice, and no responsibility for not pursuing justice, in this case to the point of injustice.

There’s more than one hero in Maycomb County, the students conclude.

This lesson, of course, is an example of the constructivist approach to reading comprehension. Through close examination of the text, the students discern for themselves the author’s meaning. They’re collaborating to put the puzzle pieces together, and they’re actively involved in the process. With or without the name—constructivist approach—this is a powerful way to engage kids, build skills of textual analysis, and have a lot of fun the same time.

And the answer is Boo. The kids just proved it.

9 thoughts on “Who Killed Bob Ewell?

  1. Hello Mrs. Powley, I recently stumbled upon your website. I was a student of yours back in the 80’s, and have since gone on to be a librarian. While awaiting the release of Go Set a Watchman, I decided to reread To Kill a Mockingbird. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it for this second reading! Wanting to make sure I understood the knife scene correctly, I googled it and randomly read your post here. Only after reading the whole post did I realize that it was written by a former teacher! Now my son is reading it in his eighth grade class, and I’m happy to say he is quite taken with the book too. Just thought I’d share my Small World experience!


    1. Hi Kathy! What a small world experience indeed! So excited to know you are a librarian! Your role is so important to the reading and learning experiences of our students. In some districts, librarians have been undervalued; I am glad not in yours! One more thing I need to know, though: your maiden name! Let me know…or go to my TSC website and contact me through that channel. I’d really like to know.


  2. Great summary and the idea of a classroom reconstruction of the scene is brilliant. Just wondering if Harper Lee ever revealed her version of how the events unfolded. As the author maybe she decided to let people make up their own minds after considering some or all of the possibilities? Thank you for your post and please keep up the good work.


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