Who does Atticus think caused Bob Ewell's death in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Atticus is convinced that it was Jem who killed Bob Ewell during Bob's retaliatory attack upon the children.

In Chapter 30 of To Kill a MockingbirdSheriff Tate, Atticus, Scout, and Boo Radley sit on the porch while, in the bedroom, Dr. Reynolds sets Jem's broken arm. Atticus...

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Atticus is convinced that it was Jem who killed Bob Ewell during Bob's retaliatory attack upon the children.

In Chapter 30 of To Kill a MockingbirdSheriff Tate, Atticus, Scout, and Boo Radley sit on the porch while, in the bedroom, Dr. Reynolds sets Jem's broken arm. Atticus tells the sheriff that the incident of the night will be presented in county court.

"What will, Mr. Finch?"
"Of course it was clear-cut self defense, but I'll have to go to the office and hunt up—"
"Mr. Finch, do you think Jem killed Bob Ewell? Do you think that?"

Atticus does believe that Jem killed Bob Ewell. He tells Sheriff Tate that Scout said that Jem got up and yanked Ewell off her, and "he [Jem] probably took Ewell's knife somehow in the dark. . . ." When the sheriff cuts Atticus off and says, "Jem never stabbed Bob Ewell," Atticus thanks him but adds,

"Heck . . . I know you're doing it from that good heart of yours, but don't start anything like that. . . . nobody's hushing this up. I don't live like that.

"Nobody's gonna hush anything up, Mr. Finch."

Sheriff Tate argues the case for Bob Ewell's having killed himself for some time. Finally, he says, "Mr. Finch, Bob Ewell fell on his knife. . . . He killed himself. I can prove it." However, Atticus is still unconvinced, so Sheriff Tate pulls out a knife and demonstrates how Ewell could have fallen on his own knife. He finishes by saying, "Scout is eight years old. . . . She was too scared to know exactly what went on. . . . Your boy never stabbed Bob Ewell . . . didn't come near a mile of it and now you know it."

Sheriff Tate then stands before Atticus and clarifies his intentions. He tells Atticus,

"There's a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it's dead. Let the dead bury the dead."

In other words, Ewell cannot deny that he did not kill himself. By saying this, Tate implies that there is no reason to drag Arthur Radley into the murder. He explains that taking Arthur and his shy ways into the "limelight" would be wrong. "If it was any other man, it'd be different. But not this man, Mr. Finch." He refuses to let Arthur be charged with killing Ewell because Arthur was only trying to save the children.

After the sheriff departs, Atticus asks Scout if she understands Mr. Tate's reasoning in protecting Arthur. Scout says she does, adding that to make Boo testify would be like shooting a mockingbird. "Mr. Tate is right," she tells her father. Atticus turns toward Arthur and says, "Thank you for my children, Arthur."

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Atticus thinks that Jem stabbed Bob Ewell at first.

When Scout and Jem head back from the Halloween play, they are accosted by Bob Ewell.  He attacks them with a knife.  Scout is dressed as a ham, so she is uninjured.  Jem's arm is badly broken.  At the end of the scuffle, Bob Ewell is dead.

When Atticus hears what happened, he assumes that Jem killed Bob Ewell defending Scout.

Atticus pushed up his glasses and pressed his fingers to his eyes. "Jem's not quite thirteen... no, he's already thirteen- I can't remember. Anyway, it'll come before county court-" (ch 30)

Atticus describes it as a clear-cut case of self-defense.  He still thinks that Jem is going to be arrested though.  Heck Tate thinks differently.  He is convinced that Boo Radley killed Bob Ewell to defend the children.  

Boo Radley is a sensitive and shy man, and would not like anyone to know what he did. Heck Tate is aware of this, and decides to say that Bob Ewell fell on his knife.

This incident brings the book full circle, and ties together the two main plot lines.  It also ties up two of the loose ends.  It dispatches with Bob Ewell, and the threat he made to Atticus.  It also clears up Boo Radley’s situation and verifies that he was watching the children and he is a good person.

 

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Following Bob Ewell's attack, Boo Radley carries Jem home, where he lays unconscious in his bed as he recovers from the vicious attack. After Scout meets Boo for the first time, Atticus and Sheriff Tate discuss the events that transpired earlier in the evening during the attack. Atticus initially believes that Jem is responsible for stabbing and killing Bob Ewell and is adamant about exposing the truth. Atticus displays his morally upright, honest personality by telling Sheriff Tate,

If this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I’ve tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him . . . if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him. (Lee, 277)

Despite Atticus's belief that Jem is responsible for Bob Ewell's death, Sheriff Tate continues to insist that Bob fell on his own knife. Sheriff Tate finally raises his voice to Atticus and indirectly tells him that Boo Radley stabbed and killed Bob Ewell. Tate then explains to Atticus that he will not expose Boo Radley's heroics to the community and will inform the citizens that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife. Tate elaborates on his philosophy by telling Atticus,

Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead. (Lee, 280)

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In chapter 30, Atticus has a serious conversation with Sheriff Tate regarding Bob Ewell's death and initially believes that his son, Jem, is responsible for killing Bob. Atticus demonstrates his morally-upright personality by telling Sheriff Tate that he refuses to hide Jem's involvement and immediately begins thinking of ways to defend his son in court. However, Sheriff Tate maintains that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife and died. Atticus is aware that Sheriff Tate is fabricating the story and genuinely believes he is trying to conceal Jem's involvement. Finally, Sheriff Tate expresses his frustration with Atticus by saying, "God damn it, I’m not thinking of Jem!" (Lee, 279). Sheriff Tate then indirectly tells Atticus that Boo Radley is responsible for Bob Ewell's death but he will not tell the community about Boo's heroics because it will bring unnecessary attention to his doorstep. Atticus accepts Sheriff Tate's reasoning and Scout mentions that she also agrees with Tate's decision to tell the community that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife in order to protect Boo.

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At first, Atticus thought that Jem had killed Bob Ewell. Atticus started thinking of what the trial would be like. He knew it was the right thing for his son to face a judge for a murder charge. Heck Tate, the sheriff, did not agree with Atticus. Atticus thought that Heck was suggesting a cover-up. Heck assured him that no, Jem did not kill Bob Ewell. Atticus was hesitant, but Heck did not budge:

"Mr. Finch," Mr. Tate said stolidly, "Bob Ewell fell on his knife. He killed himself" (To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 30).

Heck knew that Boo Radley had killed Bob Ewell, and not Jem. Heck and Atticus continued to disagree on the topic. Their discussion continued until Atticus realized what Heck was doing. He was not trying to protect Jem from facing a murder trial. Instead, he was trying to protect Boo Radley from it.

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Initially, Atticus thinks that Jem killed Bob Ewell. He mentally prepares himself for his son having to face a judge in court for the murder and tells the sheriff he hopes the judge will rule Jem killed Bob Ewell in self-defense.  

The sheriff stops Atticus, saying, "Mr. Finch, do you think Jem killed Bob Ewell?" Atticus tells him he does. The sheriff tells Atticus Jem did not do it.

Atticus misunderstands the sheriff. He thinks the sheriff is implying a cover-up of the whole situation. Atticus wants things to be handled properly and does not want people to gossip that Jem got out of it because of his father for years to come. Atticus says covering the situation up will "be a simple denial to Jem of the way [he has] tried to raise him."

The sheriff tells Atticus, "Bob Ewell fell on his knife." He demonstrates what happened to show Atticus. After much arguing, Atticus realizes Boo was the one who stabbed Bob Ewell. To protect Boo, he agrees with the sheriff that Bob Ewell fell and killed himself.

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The normally clear-headed Atticus Finch seems to have disappeared on the night of the attack on his children in the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird. The events of the evening has confused Atticus, and he appears to believe that his son, Jem, has killed Bob Ewell.  

    "Mr. Finch, do you think Jem killed Bob Ewell? Do you think that?"
    "You heard what Scout said, there's no doubt about it... he probably got hold of Ewell's knife somehow in the dark...

The sheriff knows differently.

   "Mis-ter Finch, hold on," said Mr. Tate. "Jem never stabbed Bob Ewell."

The sheriff goes on to explain that with Jem's injury, he could not have had the strength to stab Ewell. But Atticus' mind is not clear--

"I guess the thing to do--good Lord, I'm losing my memory... Jem's not quite thirteen... no, he's already thirteen--I can't remember. Anyway, it'll come before county court--"

Sheriff Tate wonders aloud why Atticus is not already in bed from the shock--but it is also unclear if Atticus has an ulterior motive for his actions. Both Atticus and Sheriff Tate make it obvious that they do not want to have to involve Boo "and his shy ways" in a well-publicized trial. It is possible that Atticus is willing to allow Jem to take responsibility for Ewell's death in order to prevent Boo from having to appear in court. (Whether Jem is a minor--age 12 or 13--would be important if a trial is necessary.)

It seems clear that Boo is the only person strong enough to restrain and then kill Bob Ewell, and perhaps Atticus is now convinced as well. But Sheriff Tate eventually takes control of the situation. He declares that "Bob Ewell fell on his knife"--the blame will not fall on Boo or Jem.

"Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead."

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It is obvious to Atticus and the sheriff Mr Heck Tate that Ewell was killed when struggling with Boo Radley or Jem, whether he 'fell on his own knife' or not. Most likely, it was Boo who killed Bob Ewell in defending Scout and Jem from his brutal attack. Scout had heard a scraping sound, evidently that of the knife blade glancing off the chicken wire that made up her "ham" outfit.

Ironically, it is Heck Tate who acknowledges that "Bob Ewell "meant business" whereas Atticus at first is in a state of denial over Ewell's intentions to really inflict harm upon his children:

"He was out of hims mind....I can't conceive of a man who'd-"...

It is also Heck Tate who decides on the "official" rendition of events to be written up in the report. Instead of investigating Jem or Boo, he decides to wrap up the case succinctly:

"Mr Finch," Mr Tate said stolidly, "Bob Ewell fell on his kife, He killed himself.

When Atticus protests, Mr Tate insists, saying he can "prove it."  He then takes out a switch-blade and demonstrates to both Atticus and Dr. Reynolds how exactly Ewell fell on it, piercing himself between the ribs. Case closed. For the second time (only this time metaphorically speaking) Atticus Finch - the sharp-shootiing lawyer - learns to let dead dogs lie....

For Atticus finally relents to Mr Tate's rendition of the story since, after all, poetic justice has been done. Both Jem and Boo are spared the ordeal of an inquest, and Mr Ewell got what he deserved.

After Dr Reynolds' departure, Atticus doesn't forget to show his gratitude towards Boo. He goes by the Radley house close enough to be within earshot and tells him quietly, "Thank you for my children, Arthur," then walks away.

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Atticus thinks that Jem killed Bob Ewell in the course of the struggle.  He stops to consider for a moment how old Jem is since this might make a difference in the course of a legal investigation.  This shows that Atticus would not expect any special privileges for his family, and that he would want Jem to be subjected to the same investigation that anyone else would go through.  It's Sherriff Tate who realizes that Boo Radley has actually killed Ewell to save Jem and Scout.  But Ewell does not want Boo subjected to the limelight, knowing how painful this would be for Boo. His official decree is that Bob Ewell has fallen on his own knife.

You can find a complete summary and analysis of this book on e-notes.  Here is the link to Chapter 30: http://www.enotes.com/mockingbird/chapter-30-summary-analysis

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