Tag Archives: Georgia Crimes

Anjette Lyles, Georgia’s Most Infamous Female Serial Killer

Though largely forgotten today, the story of Anjette Lyles and her morbid crime spree was one of the most sensational in 20th-century Georgia. Lyles was born Anjette Donovan in 1925 to a relatively prosperous family. She married Ben Lyles in 1947 and soon after the birth of the couple’s first daughter, Marcia, went to work in the Lyles family’s popular downtown Macon restaurant with Ben’s mother, Julia. Ben, a veteran of World War II, apparently had a drinking and gambling problem and sold the restaurant far below market value in 1951 to pay off a gambling debt. Anjette, who had recently given birth to the couple’s second daughter, Carla, was furious that Ben hadn’t consulted her before the sale. Ben suddenly fell ill in December 1951. Doctors at the Veterans Administration ran a battery of tests but were unable to determine the cause of his sickness. He never recovered and died on 25 January 1952. After his death, Anjette moved in with her parents while learning the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business and saving money. She bought back the Lyles Restaurant in 1955 and renamed it “Anjette’s”. It quickly became one of Macon’s most popular eateries. She hired her mother-in-law, Julia, to help bring back some of the old Lyles customers.

In July 1955, Anjette went on a vacation with one of the restaurants new regulars, pilot Joe Neal [Buddy] Gabbert and upon their return to Macon, many were shocked to learn that they had been married on the trip. Rumors began to circulate almost immediately, as Buddy was gone most of the time. It didn’t help that Anjette was a big flirt and was known to dabble in “black magic”. Restaurant staff reported that she had been seen whispering to black candles when she thought no one was around. In October 1955, Buddy went to the hospital for a minor operation on his wrist. When he returned home to convalesce, he developed a fever and a rash which spread over his body. Doctors were at a loss as to explain the origin of the rash and after his condition continued to deteriorate, he died on 2 December 1955. Shortly after Buddy’s death, Anjette changed her name back to Lyles and bought a house and new car with the insurance settlement. This raised eyebrows in Macon. Julia Lyles moved in with Anjette to be with her grandchildren but the women did not get along well. Anjette wanted Julia to make a will but Julia refused. In 1957, Julia became ill and was hospitalized, dying on 29 September 1957.

In March 1958, Marcia became violently sick at the restaurant and people in Macon began to be suspicious about Anjette. Marcia remained hospitalized with hallucinations and failing kidneys. She died on 4 April 1958. A coroner’s inquest initially found no indication of foul play but an anonymous letter from a restaurant employee suggested that Anjette had kept ant poison on hand and perhaps this should be investigated. The ant poison contained arsenic and this led the coroner to order the exhumation of the prior victims, who all showed signs of arsenic poisoning. A month after Marcia’s death, while Anjette was in the hospital for varicose veins, she was arrested and charged with the murders of both her husbands, her mother-in-law, and Marcia. Her trial in October 1958 was a media frenzy. She was found guilty and sentenced to death but Governor Ernest Vandiver, unwilling to be responsible for executing a white woman, had her declared insane and placed in Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, where she died in 1977.

Ironically, she was buried alongside Marcia and Ben, in the Donovan family plot at Coleman’s Chapel United Methodist Church cemetery near Wadley.

Jaclyn Weldon White’s Whisper to the Black Candle is the most comprehensive book on the subject to date.

 

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Filed under --JEFFERSON COUNTY GA--

Old Webster County Jail, Circa 1856, Preston

This wooden jail was built soon after Kinchafoonee County became Webster County and served that purpose until 1910. It’s among the only antebellum jails still standing in Georgia. Dr. Fay Stapleton Burnett writes: This is the jail in which Susan Eberhart and Enoch Spann were housed from 1872-1873, when they both were hanged for murdering Spann’s invalid wife. This is a tragic tale of justice, mercy, ignorance, poverty and mental illness. 

It was unheard of for a white woman to be executed in 19th-century Georgia, and many, though aware of Eberhart’s guilt, were opposed to it. The case was a media sensation, prompting former Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens to opine in his newspaper, the Atlanta Daily Sun: “the most interesting case of crime that ever occurred in Georgia, and which is certainly one of the strangest in history of crimes.”

Dr. Burnett has just published a book about this case and you can contact her here for information on ordering.

National Register of Historic Places

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Filed under --WEBSTER COUNTY GA--, Preston GA

Old Macon County Courthouse, 1850s, Oglethorpe

oglethorpe ga 19th century commercial architecture photograph copyright brian brown vanishing south georgia usa 2016

Though best remembered as Taylor’s Pharmacy, this is said to have been the first courthouse constructed in Oglethorpe. The long lost town of Lanier was the county seat when Macon County was created in 1837 and the courthouse there burned in 1857. Oglethorpe was assuming the status of new county seat at this time and that is when this structure is believed to have been constructed. Colonel George W. Fish was murdered on the west side of the building in 1871 after returning home from business in Macon. The first floor presently serves as the law office of Jon Coogle. [This information needs further documentation, but I believe it to be accurate at this time].

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Filed under --MACON COUNTY GA--, Oglethorpe GA

The Dawson Five: 40 Years Later

Dawson Five 1976 Bridges Crossroads Tinys Grocery Photograph Copyright Brian Brown Vanishing South Georgia USA 2016Tiny’s Grocery – Bridges Crossroads

I’ve passed this unspectacular structure many times and never assigned it any importance. Located at a busy intersection a few miles east of Dawson on Highway 32, it doesn’t stand out. But on the bitterly cold morning of 22 January 1976, forty years ago today, it became the epicenter of some very unwanted national attention. Anonymous messages suggested I investigate the “story” behind this place. They didn’t want to say much about what happened here, but they said I could easily find it. And find it I did. From what I’ve read, the surviving actors in the case want little do with it and I certainly can’t blame them for that. This tragedy happened at a time of promise, a time when Jim Crow was supposed to be dead and buried and a progressive new South was lurching forward to catch up with the rest of the world. We certainly didn’t need the national media meddling in our local affairs. But in this case, they came knocking, loudly.

A generation ago, this place was known as Tiny’s Grocery. Linward “Tiny” Denton sold gas, ice cold beer, cigarettes and snacks and lived in a trailer behind the store. At 10:00 on the morning in question, 61-year-old Gordon D. “Bubba” Howell, Jr., a farm foreman from nearby Lee County and regular customer, was shot in the back of the head in what Denton reported as an armed robbery by five black youths wearing ski masks. Tiny kept a gun behind the counter and later claimed it was stolen during the commission of the crime. That gun nor any other weapon related to the case was ever recovered. $150 was stolen from the store and Bubba Howell’s pockets were cleaned out. Then the alleged perpetrators sped away in Howell’s truck and abandoned it at a pond less than a mile away. Howell died later at an Albany hospital. As Ben Holcombe wrote on the 25th anniversary of the case in the  Albany Herald in 2001, “somebody got away with murder.”

A day after the incident, Tiny Denton called Terrell County Sheriff Jerry Dean and reported that he recognized one of the alleged perpetrators as 18-year-old Roosevelt Watson, who lived nearby with his parents. Watson was immediately taken into custody by Terrell County deputies and an agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). During his interrogation, Watson allegedly confessed to the shooting and implicated four others: his brother, Henderson; a cousin, J. D. Davenport; and two friends, James “Junior” Jackson and his brother Johnny. Doubts about their guilt emerged almost immediately. Roosevelt Watson said his admission of guilt was coerced. None of the defendants ever signed a confession. He told reporters at the time that they “told me they gonna put me in the electric chair…They had these two things hooked up to my fingers. Had a thing on my arm, real tight. Said they gonna electrocute me if I didn’t tell ’em.”  This was later revealed to be part of the routine polygraph test, but a GBI agent did concede that in the process “there was talk of electrocution.” All five defendants were indicted on charges of armed robbery and first-degree murder, and if convicted, they faced the death penalty.

National media attention quickly followed, perhaps due to Dawson’s proximity to Plains and the burgeoning presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter. The defendants were dubbed “The Dawson Five”. All of this caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). They turned the case over to Atlanta-based Team Defense (an SPLC affiliate at the time), headed by Millard Farmer. Farmer was a white Newnan-born attorney who had gained notoriety for successfully defending blacks accused of killing whites in the South. Team Defense barraged the court with enough defense motions to delay the case for months.

After serving nine months in jail, Roosevelt Watson and James E. Jackson, Jr.,  were released on $100,000 bond, raised by the SPLC. No physical evidence linking any of the men to the crime was ever found; no gun, no fingerprints, nothing. None of the men had prior criminal records. Alibi witnesses stated that the defendants were two miles away when the shooting took place, drawing water from a neighbor’s well to haul to the Watson home.

In the months leading to the trial, national publicity persisted, with much ado about racial issues in Terrell County. A Dawson police officer testified in pre-trial motions that he saw Terrell County Deputy Jack Hammack point a gun at James E. Jackson, Jr. Mr. Jackson then testified that he only confessed after Deputy Jack Hammack threatened to kill him if he didn’t reveal the location of the murder weapon. Roosevelt Watson testified that his confession came only after threats of castration and electrocution.

Bridges Crossroads GA Terrell County Tinys Grocery Goolsby Livestock Photograph Copyright Brian Brown Vanishing South Georgia USA 2016Tiny’s Grocery – Bridges Crossroads

Superior Court Judge Walter Idus Geer ended pre-trial motions on 11 August 1977 and after deliberation, set a trial date for Roosevelt Watson to 29 August. Judge Geer withdrew himself from the trial, however, citing ill health. Dougherty Superior Court Judge Leonard Farkas succeeded him on the case. In jury proceedings for State v. Roosevelt Watson, Farkas suppressed Watson’s confession and the state appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals then overturned Farkas’s ruling on grounds that he didn’t preside over the previous evidentiary hearings. Judge Geer returned to the case in mid-November and, like Farkas, decided the confessions were improperly obtained. He also suppressed them, stating ”The evidence taken as a whole showed that the statements were not freely, voluntarily and intelligently made.”‘ On 19 December the prosecution rested and didn’t seek further appeal, citing that they didn’t “have much to go on.” And that was the end of the legal aspect of the case.

Roosevelt Watson died at the age of 34 in Albany in 1990. He had been working as a janitor at Albany State College before his death. His remaining family members told Albany Herald writer Ben Holcombe in 2001 that they didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Most of the other defendants felt the same way. They had nothing to hide, but they were past it. It understandably had a deep impact on all their lives. Johnny B. Jackson told Holcombe, “That gave a lot of people that didn’t have hope some hope to stand up for was was right. Sitting in jail for something you know you didn’t do and the people who have you behind bars know you didn’t do, that’s hard.”

Tiny Denton died at the age of 73, alone. The publicity of the case brought too much attention to Tiny’s Grocery and he kept irregular hours at the store. In “Town on Trial” Ben Holcombe wrote:  Beverly Harrell, who often traded at Tiny’s…recalls Denton as a sad, reclusive loner. Out-of-town reporters often “harassed” Denton, she said, and others openly wondered if he had killed Howell, then fabricated a story to frame the Dawson Five. “They turned the story around like Mr. Denton did it,” Harrell said.

The families and loved ones of all the people involved were victims for a time, but Terrell County has moved on.

Various sources, with more reading can be accessed at the links below.

National Black Law Journal, 1983, via the University of California.

The New York Times, 1990, Roosevelt Watson Obituary.

Washington Post, 1977.

The following recounting of some particulars of the case were shared with me in 2018. The writer requested anonymity and I have granted and will continue to honor that request. It adds another layer to an already complicated case and wasn’t shared to change any minds or for publicity, just as a recollection:

I belatedly read your article, which brought back many memories.  The District Attorney, John Irwin, became very ill during the preliminary stages of the prosecution. Originally the defendants had separate sets of lawyers, and Mr. Irwin was trying to work with the different lawyers.  For some reason I never learned, he then asked for the death penalty.  That is when Team Defense took over the case…The history I recall is that Tiny Roberts told the GBI agent assigned to the case, upon their first interview on the day of the incident, a description of the perpetrators, who were wearing ski masks, but it was not noted by the agent, who was working on one of his first cases.  Several days later, another more experienced agent re-interviewed Mr. Roberts, who said that the perpetrators might have been the Jacksons, who lived down a dirt road quite close to the store.  The investigators drove toward the residence, and saw where a truck had stopped on the dirt road.  When interviewed, one of the defendants said that they had stopped, gotten out, and thrown the gun into the swamp.  After the arrest, one of the defendants, Roosevelt Jackson, I think, waded in the swamp, looking for the gun.  This was pictured by the defense as a very cruel tactic.  One of the Terrell County deputies, Jack Hammack, said he showed his pistol to one of the defendants, asking if the pistol used looked like his. The deputy did not admit…pointing the pistol at anyone. The confessions were eventually thrown out on the basis that the legalese used in the waiver forms was too complicated for the educational background of the defendants.  It never was revealed in court, but the search warrant that was executed at the farm house, and which found ski masks similar to the ones worn in the incident, was signed by a justice of the peace, who also went on the warrant’s execution.  When I inquired about why he went on the raid, I was informed that the JP was also a deputy sheriff.  When I learned that, I told Mr. Irwin we had to nolle pros [abandon] the case.  The search warrant had also been thrown by Judge Geer out on unspecified grounds, and I was considering another appeal. This was after the judge-switching episode.  The only evidence we had available after the confessions and the search warrant were thrown out was Mr. Robert’s eyewitness identification.  Unfortunately, he had become quite upset from the publicity, and we could not vouch for his credibility. 

 

 

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Filed under --TERRELL COUNTY GA--, Bridges Crossroads GA

Central Hallway Farmhouse, Washington County

Washington County GA Abandoned Chartreuse Farmhouse Photograph Copyright Brian Brown Vanishing South Georgia USA 2016

This is located between Harrison and Pringle. It was the scene of a murder about ten years ago and has been empty ever since.

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Filed under --WASHINGTON COUNTY GA--

John Evans House, 1897, Ashburn

ashburn-ga-john-evans-house-photograph-copyright-brian-brown-vanishing-south-georgia-usa-2012

This grand old home is in the process of being restored. When I photographed it I was under the impression that it was abandoned but have since confirmed that it’s being renovated and lived in again. David Baldwin writes:

The house was built in 1897 by John West Evans according the the Ashburn Advance newspaper. Mr. Evans was associated withe the Betts Saw Mill in Dempsey, near Eastman, and he came over with the crowd in late October 1888 after the Georgia Florida and Southern railroad line connected north of Ashburn completing the line from Macon to Palatka, Florida. He married Mr. Betts’s sister. He was from Hawkinsville, Ga. originally. He had attended the Sparks Academy as a boy in Sparks, Georgia. His teacher was Mr. Northen, who later became Governor of Georgia and who signed the charter establishing Ashburn as a city. Mr. Northen also served as President of the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention and would stay in the homes, like this one, as he traveled the state doing his duty. Mr Evans was the first Postmaster in Ashburn. He served in the Georgia Militia during the War Between the States. He died early.

This is the only house in Ashburn that is noted for being truly haunted. In 1935, a young lady who ran the local theater was leasing the second floor and decided to have a Christmas party. They hired a young black woman(Aza Martin) to cook the chicken. Supposedly the young lady got drunk and did not have the chicken ready. A young man with a bad temper carried her to the third floor attic and beat her with a wooden chair. Sheriff Story later found the chair with blood on it. At 3 am the boys of the party brought her body down to put it in the trunk of a car. Mrs. Evans, the daughter-in-law of Mr. John West Evans (deceased), opened her downstairs door and saw them bringing the body down the stairs. They took the body to a negro named James Worthy, a coal suite operator. He placed the near dead girl in his loft in his house. He was arrested in the following weeks but then let go. She continued to be reported missing. Finally,in March her body was found in Little River by some black loggers. Her mother identified her by the shape of her teeth and her dress. An inquest was held by main men of the town who determined the death was by unknown origin. The young man that committed the crime was reported to have tried to commit suicide between December and March, but survived. He went on to live as a Christian but no doubt he had to live with this crime all his life. The boys there that night committed to forever hold a secret as to what happened and as far as this writer knows they have. The murdered lady is said to haunt the house by those that have lived there. Milton Cravey was one.

ashburn-ga-john-evans-house-interior-pre-restoration-photograph-copyright-brian-brown-vanishing-south-georgia-usa-2012

The house is now a home again and restoration has progressed nicely.

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Filed under --TURNER COUNTY GA--, Ashburn GA

Warren Fletcher’s Store, Irwin County

irwin county ga country store photograph copyright brian brown vanishing south georgia usa 2010

This was a general store and did good business being the only store between Irwinville and Sycamore. It was the de facto command post for the Bostick case. The Bosticks lived in a shanty house just west of the store past the branch on the north side of the road. There was a family spat and Mrs. Bostick left. Mr. Bostick then barricaded himself in the house with a young son whom he refused to release. Shots were fired into the house but neither Bostick or his son were injured. Concerned neighbors gained entry by removing a door and then rescued the child. The sheriff (unsure of the name) was shot and injured during the melee but not killed. Bostick was eventually hunted down and killed.

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Filed under --IRWIN COUNTY GA--