Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Memories of Murder

by Deborah Blum

When I was a baby reporter - which is how I think of my early days in journalism - I covered the cop-and-court beat for The Macon Telegraph, a medium-sized paper in a rather stately town in middle Georgia.

At least the reputation was for stateliness and deep Southern history which is something one tends to miss when hanging out at the county courthouse, covering the trials of rapists and murderers. My memories of Macon - aside from very late nights at a downtown bar called The Rookery - tend to be like antique paintings, golden oils featuring dark paneling and desperate faces.

I covered one trial involving two men who had abducted and beaten to death two elderly women. The bodies were found in the woods in an adjacent county. The prosecutor brought one of the skulls into the courtroom so that the jurors could see how a blow had caused dents and chips in the bone.

In the courtroom breaks, I'd hang out with the cops, flirting a little maybe, trading crime gossip the way any beat reporter does. And often in those discussions she would come up, the killer to whom all needed to compared, the worst of the Macon killers, whose murderous trail, laid in the 1950s, still left its shadow.

"I've saved all the stories," one detective told me, and he had. He gave me a sheaf of photocopies, dark and smudgy the way they used to be, with the headlines over-black and the face of Anjette Lyles, framed by her silvered hair, shining on the page. He rubbed a finger over that smiling image, the arsenic-loving serial killer.

I used to think I might one day write a book about her, the homicidal woman whose pretty face still charmed the older police officers in Macon. Anjette Donovan Lyles, born 1925, was arrested in 1958 for killing two husbands, a mother-in-law and a nine-year-old daughter. Sentenced to die in the electric chair, she was found insane and sent to the mental hospital for the criminally insane in Milledgeville, Ga., where she worked in the prison cafeteria until she died of heart failure in 1977.

But the book already exists, called Whisper at the Black Candle, published by Georgia true crime writer Jaclyn Weldon White in 1999. It tracks Anjette Donovan through her troubled first marriage to Ben Lyles Jr. (and his mysterious death), her marriage to Buddy Gabbert (his excruciating death plagued by ulcerated sores on his skin and internal bleeding), the death of Lyle's mother, and eventually of Anjette's little daughter, Marcia.

At the time of the last two murders, Anjette was running a successful restaurant in Macon. The deaths of her husbands had not raised any suspicions, but these did, especially her daughter's death. During her trial, it came out that she'd bought her daughter's coffin two weeks before the little girl died from arsenic-spiked lemonade. After the death, Anjette shocked nurses in the hospital by gathering up her daughter's clothes, saying "Well, she won't need these anymore," and throwing them away. Autopsies found the poison in all four bodies.

There was a time, I believe, when every crime reporter, every serial killer historian in Georgia knew the story of Anjette Lyles. I have an old friend, once a staff writer at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who, as Mary Kay Andrews, writes wonderfully charming Southern comedies of manners. I stayed with her this spring while touring for my latest book, The Poisoner's Handbook. Two former cop reporters hanging out, and old Georgia killers naturally came up. And Ms. Lyles herself, whose photograph once hung on a wall at the AJC.

"Was she all glamorous?" I asked, seeing in my memory that silvery glimmering face.

"She was a crone," my friend replied flatly.

I kind of liked that, actually. It's just right to hear evidence that prison takes a toll on serial poisoners, turns beautiful, amoral women into hags trapped behind stone.

It strikes me, though, that some murderers are made for haunting. The killings I described, the beating deaths of the old women? Sometimes I'm caught back there, in that over-bright courtroom cluttered with tales of death and bits of broken bone. And Anjette Lyles? If you can believe it, someone has created a Facebook page in her memory.

The first creepy thing is that it plays to her glamour girl side. The second, at least for me, is that when I looked the page, the most recent post was about me and my poison book. It startled me to see it there, made me wonder why. But maybe it's just what I said earlier; some murders stay in our memories. Some killers call up the ghosts.


Anonymous said...

I used to live in Macon and have always been fascinated by this case. I didn't know there was a book on it. I'll have to pick it up. Great read.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this, too. I have your poisoner's book, and I'm reading it now. It's really, really good.

Andrea Campbell said...

Deborah, the memories of your early reporting days made me wish that I had tossed back a drink with you at The Rookery and been able to listen to the stories about "your beat".

TNelson said...

Your book sounds really interesting and I'd love to read it. Any chance of getting in published in an electronic format? I have a Nook and I love using it to read. I haven't bough a "real" book since I got it. Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

I really was talking to my uncle& found out I'm related to her she was my aunt& now I'm still shocked greed& hate took over her & her cold heart