Viola Hyatt, the Alabama Axe Murderess
(Note: This is an account of actual murders that took place in Alabama about fifty years ago. Viola Hyatt is dead and left no descendents. Since the other principals are now dead, the actual names appear. There seems no reason to detract from their “fifteen minutes of fame” generated by the notorious case. Much of it follows what was widely reported to have occurred, but several portions are fabricated and only speculation on my part. Part of the dialogue is actual, but some is added for dramatic effect and interest. These events occurred a short distance from where I attended undergraduate school and I remember them well.)
Almost all babies are cute, but even as an infant, Viola Hyatt wasn’t. A chubby, red-faced, fussy baby, she grew into an obese youngster whose features, even charitably, could only be described as plain. Her long, black hair was coarse and resisted attempts to keep it groomed. Her skin, studded with moles and blemishes, was equally unattractive. Clear, blue eyes were her best feature, but they were marred by frequent redness due to infected lids.
Her family was desperately poor. Martin Hyatt eked out a living as a hog farmer on a small spot of inherited land near the community of White Plains in east central Alabama. Their frame farm house was unpainted. A barn and other outbuildings stood on the grounds. It was not a pleasant place to live, but the Hyatts had no choice. Ironically, locals called the community “the Garden Spot of the World.”
Stranded on an isolated farm, Viola had little chance to interact with other children, but when she did, her sullen demeanor and sudden outbursts of explosive rage caused her to be disliked.
“Viola’s mean and ugly,” a girl her age said in a mocking voice to the other children at a family gathering. “It’s no wonder nobody likes her or wants to play with her.” The others added their own disparaging remarks. They didn’t care that Viola was hearing every word. The taunts were like stabs into her heart, but she maintained a stoic expression and made no reply.
Mrs. Hyatt was a slightly built woman, entirely different from her daughter in appearance. Her long, blond hair was silken; she spent an hour each evening carefully brushing it. She had fair skin and pleasing facial features. In her youth, she had been a beauty, but penury and sickness had taken their toll. She coughed deeply even as she lit yet another cigarette. The woman bitterly resented her lot in life.
“I don’t know why God is punishing me by sending me a husband like your paw and girl like you,” she complained to her daughter. “I ain’t done nothing to deserve it, far as I can see. He can’t make a proper living and you’re ugly as hell. When I think of the men I might have married, it just makes me sick to my stomach. Some day you’re going to come home from school and find me gone. I don’t know why I’ve put up with the two of you as long as I have. There’s plenty of men with money that’d be glad to have me.”
Viola had heard it all before, over and over. When she was younger, she often cried herself to sleep at night because of her mother’s cruel words, but she had no more tears to shed. A consuming hatred filled her soul.
“I don’t care if you leave. I hope you die!” the child spit out as she ran out of the room and slammed the door behind her. Viola’s wish was soon fulfilled.
Mr. Hyatt was ill prepared to function as a single parent to a young girl, but he did the best he could. Eventually, he wed Jessie Wheeler, a woman in her mid thirties who had never been married. She was unable to control her step daughter who was accustomed to getting her way. Mr. Hyatt refused to back up his wife in her attempts to discipline Viola. She came to be in abject fear of her.
Over time, Viola learned to cook reasonably well and to keep the house as clean as its condition permitted.
The two-dozen pigs her family kept in an enclosure between the house and barn only added to the misery. Especially in the hottest days of summer, they produced a stench that could be tasted as well as smelled. Viola hated the hogs, both for their odious odor, and for the hard work required in feeding and cleaning up after them. Yet, the income they generated was essential to the family’s survival.
“When’s it going to be time to kill hogs?” she demanded of her father as soon as they began to approach market size. “I want to watch when you do it and if you’ll let me, I’ll help with it.”
“You’ve already seen how I do hit,” he said. “Most don’t cut them up with an axe like I do, but that’s the way my father learned me. You can’t do nothing. That’s not a fit work for a girl your age,” he responded. “You’re only in the seventh grade. Go on in the house and help your mother cook supper.”
The tall, powerfully built Viola, due to strenuous farm work in addition to household chores, developed considerable strength, especially in her arms and hands. Over the years, her dislike of the hogs only grew.
“Things like them don’t deserve to live,” she told her father. “The dirty, stinking varmints lay around and expect to be waited on and fed. Sometimes they even bite me when I pour their slop into the trough. I’m glad when they finally have to pay for their keep.”
He continued adamantly to refuse to allow her to help process the hogs.
One fall, she sat at the grindstone sharpening her father’s axe. Sparks flew as the rough stone honed the blade. She felt the edge with satisfaction at a job well done. It was razor-sharp and ready for use. Viola imagined, with pleasure, the hard steel slicing through the warm flesh of the hogs.
Saturday morning, Mr. Hyatt was jerked awake by a loud squeal followed by silence. “Something’s bothering the hogs,” he thought. Customers would be expecting their usual meat deliveries soon, so he got up to investigate. When he reached the hog pen, he made an astonishing discovery.
The largest hog lay on its side in a pool of blood, its head almost severed from its body. Viola, covered with gore, had forced another animal into a corner of the pen and was already swinging the axe downward with violent fury. The hog died instantly.
“Daughter, what are you doing?” he demanded. “I told you I’d take care of butchering them hogs.” She turned to face him, with a strange look. Blood dripped from her face and ran down her dress to its hem.
“You’re getting old, Paw. It’s time you had some help,” was all she said.
After that, Viola not only killed the hogs, but also chopped them into salable parts. She learned quickly and did expert work so that he no longer objected when hog killing time came around. By the time she was eighteen, she did all the butchering. He only had to market the pork.
Ready to take advantage of an opportunity to increase his income, Mr. Hyatt made what he considered to be a cagey deal with two men, Emmett Harper and Lee Harper. The middle-aged men had been in World War II and one of them on the Battan Death March. They worked with the construction company building the new road to Jacksonville.
“Since we live at Rabbittville, we need a place to stay while the work’s going on,” Lee, who was the older of the two, explained. “We’ll pay you rent for your trailer and if your daughter wants to cook for us, that’ll be extra money. My brother, Emmett, and me will split the cost so it’ll work out good for you and for us.”
The deal was made and the men moved a small box trailer belonging to Mr. Hyatt. Looking somewhat like a well-made shed, it stood on cement blocks on a level spot about fifty feet behind the Hyatt house. The extra money was a windfall for the father and daughter, although it greatly increased her workload. Viola was strong and didn’t object. Emmett and Lee, however, had in mind a modification to its terms. “Viola ain’t very good looking,” Emmett remarked, “but she’s better than nothing.” Lee winked in agreement.
“You can meet us one at a time at the barn or take us both on at once here in the trailer,” the two informed Viola. “Of course, there’ll be a little something extra in it for you.” Over the following weeks, the two gradually began to treat her with contempt and to criticize everything she did.
“You’re lucky we have anything to do with an ugly old thing like you,” Emmett sneered. “Really, you ought to be paying us.” Lee smirked in agreement.
When her father comprehended the situation, he reacted with outrage. “You men leave my daughter alone,” he ordered. “I didn’t agree to nothing like this.”
“Don’t try to tell us what to do you old billy goat,” Lee replied. He struck the elderly man a stunning blow to his midsection and followed it with a fist to his jaw. He dropped to the ground, moaning in pain. Viola watched from a distance, an angry scowl on her face. For some months, Viola silently submitted to their verbal and physical abuse, but with growing rage.
The brothers became particularly mean when they were drinking which was often. “Be down at the barn in about ten minutes,” Emmett ordered with a drunken slur to his voice after he had wolfed down the supper Viola had prepared. “We got a busy day tomorrow and need to get to bed early. Randall will be down afterwards. Hurry up there, woman.”
Viola complied with their demands once again. Afterward, she had a simple request. “I’ll need to use your car Saturday to go to the grocery store. Our old truck won’t start.”
“Hell no, you ain’t using it,” Lee stormed. “The more we do for you, the more you expect. You can hoof it or hitch your way into town.”
Viola had had all she was going to take. Early the next morning, June 27, 1959, she loaded her father’s shotgun, walked to the trailer, and knocked loudly. “Get up you two bastards. I have something to settle with you.”
“What do you mean waking us up this early?” Lee demanded as he opened the door and stared out groggily. “Get gone and call us when you have breakfast ready.”
Suddenly, the man spotted the leveled shotgun. He yelled in fear, “What do you think you’re doing, Viola! Emmett, get in here. We got trouble.” He slammed the trailer door and locked it. Seconds later, a blast from the weapon ripped several holes through the flimsy barrier. Viola jerked it open and blasted Lee full in the face as he backed away in abject terror. Emmett emerged from the bedroom to receive a similar shot to his face. Both men lay dead, pools of blood rapidly expanding on the floor.
Calmly and deliberately, Viola took the car keys from an end table beside the couch. After returning the shotgun to the rack in her living room, she cranked the 1957 Ford Galaxy and drove it as close to the trailer door as the rough terrain would allow. After raising the trunk lid, she dragged Lee into the yard, but found it too difficult to heft his limp body into the car’s trunk. Viola knew just what to do. She went to the barn, selected a double-edged axe, clunked it into a metal wheelbarrow, and rolled it alongside the man. With powerful strokes, she severed his arms and legs. It was then easier to load him into the wheelbarrow for transport to the waiting vehicle. His brother met a similar fate.
“Paw, go back into the house,” she ordered when she saw her father, aroused by the gunshots, appear on the back porch. “I’ll take care of this.” Shaken, but not knowing what else to do, he meekly obeyed.
Viola used the phone in the mens’ trailer to call the Ace Construction Company. “Emmett and Lee told me to let you know they won’t be in for a few days. They’ve gone to see their maw because she’s sick.”
She slammed the trunk and then hurriedly buried the bloody axe in a field a few yards from the trailer. The essentials cared for, Viola quietly made her way to a spot concealed in the midst of a cluster of pine trees. Standing alongside a small, rectangular pile of dirt with a fieldstone at each end, she whispered, “I made them pay for what they did to you, just like I promised when I put you here.”
With the protection provided by nightfall, she proceeded to carry out a plan she had worked out in her mind.
Easing away in the sedan so as not to draw attention, she commenced a nightlong drive from White Plains toward Gadsden, eventually passing through three counties, Calhoun, Etowah, and Cleburne. She threw out two legs in some brush beside a road in Etowah County. Viola drove through the Talladega National Forest into Cleburne County and tossed two legs into the Tallapoosa River. An arm she slung into a roadside tangle of briars where a horrified blackberry picker found it. Later, another arm was found about a mile away, several miles from where the legs were found. Miss Hyatt told authorities that she discarded two arms on Sadler Mountain near Piedmont, Alabama although they were never located. O.T. Holladay found one torso on June 28th in a dirt driveway alongside an abandoned shack just off Hwy 11 near Attalla. The other was discovered about ten miles away by a rural housewife in the woods near her house on June 29th. The entire area was thrown into panic as all speculated as to what kind of deranged man could do such a thing. For the first time, people began to keep their house doors locked.
Police, unable to identify the battered remains, named them Mr. X and Mr. Y. When the bodies were delivered to a funeral home in Gadsden, the owner balked. “You can’t bring something in such bad shape inside. Nobody’s ever gonna want to use this place again.”
When the state toxocologist arrived, he finally agreed to perform the autopsies in the parking lot despite the blazing summer temperature and scorching sun. The chief of police, who had furnished security, gratefully treated the man to a spaghetti meal at locally popular Tony’s Place. “Not eating, chief?” the official asked as he cut a meatball in half and popped it into his mouth. The man made a halfhearted reply and pushed the food around on his plate as he tried to drive from his mind the horrific images and odors of the day.
“There’s not a lot to go on,” commented the sketch artist as he attempted to create what he thought the men looked like based on photographs. The resulting line drawings were distributed across north Alabama. The bodies were buried and then dug up a few days later when no progress was being made on the case. For seventeen days, the police were stymied with dozens of tips and fruitless leads.
“Look at this,” the sheriff said to one of his deputies. “Ace Construction says two of their men have disappeared and can’t be located. Here’s where they were living.” Sirens sounding and light flashing, they rushed to the Hyatt farm on a moonless night. The search for evidence continued all night and into the next day.
That Viola’s role would be uncovered was inevitable. Her incriminating phone call, blood and hair in the trunk of the mens’ car, the damaged trailer door, and bloodstains in and in front of the trailer showed her guilt. Discovery of the axe under recently disturbed dirt removed any doubt. All were shocked that a woman could commit such a heinous crime.
Authorities initially took both Viola and her father into custody, but soon released him when it became clear that he had nothing to do with the murder. They questioned her for six hours before she broke down and began to relate what happened.
At the behest of her court-appointed attorneys, R.A. Norred and John Phillips, she was transferred from Calhoun County Jail in Anniston to Brice Mental Hospital in Tuscaloosa for evaluation to determine sanity. They explained, “She appears to be unable to understand the nature of the charge and proceedings to be had against her and she appears to be unable to cooperate and assist in preparation of her defense.”
Circuit Solicitor R. Clarence Williams didn’t object to the procedure, so Circuit Judge Leslie Longshore ordered the examination. Dr. J.S. Tarwater, director of Brice, replied to a reporter’s phone call, “She was admitted just before noon and will probably stay three weeks to a month.” He was overly optimistic. After five months examination, the mental hospital returned her to Anniston with the finding that she was presently sane and they believed she was sane at the time of the murders.
“Here she is,” shouted a reporter as the sheriff’s cruiser pulled in front of the jail. Viola emerged on the crisp fall day, wearing a blue coat that extended below her dress. Although her hair was unkept and she wore no makeup, she paused, a half smile on her face, and turned toward photographers as flashbulbs went off in rapid succession. “Viola, how’d you like Brice?” a newsman called out. “The food wasn’t bad, but too many crazy people there,” she quipped. “How about you, Viola? Are you crazy?” he returned. “They say I’m not, but I could have told them that without spending all that time and money,” she retorted with a grin. Over the next few days, she agreed to a number of interviews, including one with a minister who came to offer spiritual aid.
Her attorney commented, “She’s willing to talk to anybody but us.” Norred rightly complained, “It’s the first time I’ve had a client who won’t tell me what happened. I’ve had them lie to me before, but, but she talks until I ask her the facts about what happened then she won’t talk.” When he attempted to interview her immediately after he was appointed, she wouldn’t sit down and stood for two hours. “How are you going to justify a killing when your client won’t give a reason?” Norred added in exasperation. “All she would say was that she had the best reason in the world. I never did learn what that reason was. She didn’t deny that sexual abuse was involved, but she indicated that was not the main reason. She said it was worse than that.” The attorneys had little option but to base the case on a challenge of the sanity ruling and lined up witnesses. Viola wouldn’t agree to an examination by an independent psychiatrist.
Trial was set in March term of circuit court. People commenced to gather at the courthouse over an hour before the proceedings were to begin. Soon all the seats in the courtroom and its balcony were filled and people stood around the walls and in the back. “I’ve never seen a crowd like that,” a guard reported to Judge Longshore. “It’s got to be against fire regulations.” The judge replied, “Don’t let any more come inside. They’ll have to wait downstairs in the lobby or just go home. Tell them I said so.”
A roar of excitement arouse from the spectators as they caught sight of Viola being escorted across a skywalk from the jail to the courtroom. Several reporters leaped to their feet and called out as they pointed cameras in her direction. Viola looked straight ahead and seemed not to notice them as she entered and made her way to the defense table where she seated herself between her attorneys. She wore a charcoal dress, gold colored earrings, red high heel shoes, hose with seams, and far too much bright red lipstick. In her right hand, she held an unopened pack of Camel cigarettes. Her 72-year-old father, in dress trousers and a long sleeve white shirt, sat near the bench with his head down and appeared calm. She looked in his direction, but said nothing.
Jury selection proceeded at a slow pace, interrupted at intervals by groans and catcalls from the spectators. “Any more of that and I’ll order the courtroom cleared,” the judge declared with a sharp rap of his gavel. The crowd remained quiet. They’d come for a spectacle and didn’t intend to miss out on it.
After the jury of twelve, all males, was selected, the judge ordered a recess that continued for an hour before the judge reconvened the court and announced that an agreement had been reached in the case. The spectators moaned in surprise and disappointment. They had wanted to hear the gory details of the case discussed and hoped that Viola herself might testify. The judge ignored the disturbance. The woman had changed her plea to guilty. The State was willing to settle for a life sentence so the attorneys accepted the offer to eliminate the possibility of the electric chair. She, however, made the final decision. “We had hinted around at the possibility of an agreement for some time,” one of her attorneys later recalled. About two weeks before the trial date, they asked her if she would accept it if they could get her life and she agreed.
When she told her father she intended to accept the deal, he “guessed that it was the best thing to do,” Norred said. The attorneys felt that her having cut up the bodies would have had a strong effect on the jurors. “If we were just concerned with the shooting, there would have been some danger as far as the State was concerned,” Norred added.
As Viola left the courtroom to return to her cell, she stopped and spoke quietly to her father. When she moved on, a reporter asked Hyatt if he felt the deal was the right thing to do. “They told me not to tell nothing,” he replied sharply, “So you can go your way and I’ll go mine.”
“I never would have believed that Viola could do such a thing,” a relative avowed. She never had much to say and always did what she was told. She went to church regular, loved gospel music and was a hard worker.”
A chant about an earlier axe murderess, Lizzie Borden, was revised and used for a short time.
Viola Hyatt took an axe
And gave her lover forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave his brother forty-one.
Will the full details of what happened ever be known? Attorney John Phillips speculated, “Unless she changes, she will take it to the grave with her.” So it proved to be.
On April 15, 1970, after years at Julia Tutwiller Prison for Women, The State Pardons and Parole Board unanimously voted to parole Viola. She returned to the area where she lived in a trailer park, quietly and in isolation, until her death in a hospital in Jacksonville in 1992. She never discussed her experience, even with family, and refused to grant interviews.