Read the book, then you decide.
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction and, if the story Mark Musick claims to be true is true, it’s much stranger than fiction and maybe much harder to believe.
Musick was in Pike County Dec. 11-16 and he was there to gather more information in support of the claim that billionaire industrialist and aviator Howard Hughes, who is said to have died in 1976, lived a secret life in Pike County under the assumed name of Verner "Nik" Nicely for nearly two decades and died in 2002.
The story Musick tells in the book, "Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes" written by Doug Wellman, was relayed to him by Pike countian Eva McLelland, who married Nicely in Panama in 1970 only to learn later of his real identity.
Musick met McLelland when he was working for a non-profit organization in Dothan.
"Eva had made a land donation to the organization and I had only known her for a short time when she asked me to distribute her husband’s ashes for her," he said. "She wanted to return her husband for eternity to a place along the Gulf Coast where he had found so much joy."
McLelland stood on the sands of Navarre Beach and watched quietly as Musick distributed her husband’s ashes over the waves of the Gulf waters.
"I don’t know why, but the ritual was a moving moment for me," Musick said. "I had never been a part of anything like that and it was spiritual. I realized how much more so it must be for Eva. She was very quiet on the way back to Alabama."
When McLelland did speak, she told Musick she had been keeping a secret for a long time and it was finally the time for her to share it.
"She said she wanted to confide in me," Musick said. "What she told me shocked me. I thought she was crazy. She said the ashes I had spread were her husband’s ashes, but he was not Nik Nicely. The man she was married to for 31 years was Howard Hughes. Nik Nicely was an assumed name."
Musick had never heard anything quite so preposterous.
"I told Eva Howard Hughes had died years ago and she said that was what people were supposed to believe," Musick said.
He was not just skeptical; he didn’t believe McLelland. "Who would?" Over time, the more McLelland told Musick about her marriage to the mysterious man, the more curious he became.
"She told the story over and over, and it was always the same," Musick said. "Every detail was the same. So, I started to research the life and times of Howard Hughes, just out of curiosity. Strangely, the pieces started to fit.
"The dates coincided with what Eva was telling me. It was a wild story, but I started to think maybe, just maybe what Eva was telling was true."
After seven years of painstaking research, Musick was convinced of the truthfulness of McLelland’s story.
"The research supported Eva’s story and I thought her story should be told," Musick explained. "I worked with Doug Wellman, assistant dean of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, to put Eva’s story in print."
As expected, "Boxes" is being dismissed as a fabrication by some and has met with some angry opposition.
"But some accept the possibility and many of those who knew the couple personally believe the story is a probability—Nik Nicely was in reality billionaire Howard Hughes," Musick said.
According to Musick, Verner Nicely actually disappeared while working with the CIA in Panama in the late 1960s. But he "reappeared" and married Eva in the Canal Zone.
"Howard Hughes was infatuated with Elizabeth Taylor and Eva looked much like Liz Taylor; he fell for her and she fell for him," Musick said. "What happened to Nicely, no one seems to know. But the man who died in 1976 who was thought to be the emaciated, reclusive Howard Hughes was actually a stand-in for him and was either mentally ill or addicted to drugs. There was doubt at his death that the longhaired, bearded man was Howard Hughes."
At the death of "Howard Hughes," his fortune was challenged and awarded to relatives.
"Nik and Eva lived a meager existence," Musick said. "She had retirement and social security. They moved several times around the Pike County area before settling in a small trailer near Goshen on what they called ‘The Ranch.’ They lived in the Goshen area from 1988 until 1999."
Those who knew the couple best described Nik as eccentric and reclusive, but highly intelligent, especially in the area of aviation.
"Those who knew ‘Nik’ said he was a genius, but shied away from people," Musick said. "Often, he would hide in the woods when people came around. He was paranoid about germs and wore gloves much of the time. Sometimes he wore only a shirt and other times went without any clothes as all."
Eva was also highly intelligent and an accomplished poet.
The couple didn’t have a television and believed their telephone was bugged and they were constantly being watched.
If Nik was Howard Hughes, the couple had every reason to think they were under surveillance and their every move was monitored, Musick said.
"Boxes" tells Eva McLelland’s story and correlates her story with document information about the life of Howard Hughes.
"The correlation is amazing," Musick said. "There is no way Eva could have fabricated such a story. The pieces fit and the more pieces we have to the puzzle the sooner we will be able to have the proof that Nik Nicely was Howard Hughes, just as Eva said.
"That’s why I wanted to talk to people in Pike County who knew them both. And, what they are telling me fits Eva’s story, and their descriptions and observations of Nik fit Howard Hughes exactly. I’m convinced Eva’s husband was Howard Hughes and just as convinced that unquestionable proof is out there and we will find it."
Eva McLelland told Musick her story could not be told until after her death. She died in 2009 at the age of 93.
"I asked Eva if she thought her husband would like for his story to be told," Musick said. "She smiled and said she thought he would like it very much."
Whether McLelland’s story is truth of fiction, "Boxes" is interesting reading and a story ending with reader opinion.
Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.