PHOTO CAPTION: Mrs. Anjette Donovan Lyles left the courtroom after her conviction in the poisoning of her daughter.
Jan. 25, 1952 – Benjamin Franklin Lyles Jr. (her husband)
Dec. 2, 1955 – Joe Neal Gabbert (her second husband)
Sep. 29, 1957 – Julia Lyles (her mother-in-law)
Apr. 4, 1958 – Marcia Lyles, 9 (her daughter)
May 6, 1958 – Anjette arrested and charged with four murders
FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 2): Macon, Ga. – Plump, blonde Anjette Donovan Lyles, convicted and sentenced to die for poisoning her daughter, awaited word from her attorneys today on chances for a new trial.
A Bibb County Superior Court jury convicted the 33-year-old widow of murder Monday night. Her attorneys immediately filed notice of appeal, and this automatically stayed the date of execution which had been set for Dec. 5.
Mrs. Lyles is also accused by the state of poisoning two husbands and a mother-in-law with arsenic. She was tried only in the death of her 9-year-old daughter, Marcia Elaine Lyles.
~ Accepts Verdict Calmly ~
The former restaurant owner accepted the death verdict calmly. The only visible reaction was when her alabaster skin reddened and she bit her lip.
Judge Oscar Long set a precedent when he told Mrs. Lyles she might remain seated while sentence was pronounced.
The courtroom was jammed it had been every day of the trial.
Long set a hearing on the motion for a new trial for Dec. 12.
If the buxom widow loses her appeal, she will be the first white woman to die in Georgia’s electric chair. Only one woman, a negro, has been electrocuted in this state.
~ Blanket Denial ~
In an unsworn statement allowed under Georgia law, Anjette made a blanket denial of all the state’s charges and in the specific case under which she was being tried, that of Marcia, maintained there was no motive.
She said she received only $1,750 from insurance while her expenses, including hospital bills, special nurses and burial, amounted to $5,000.
“I did not give my child any poison – I did not kill my child,” Anjette declared.
~ Burned Candles ~
The state charged she murdered for hate and greed.
The young woman acknowledged an abnormal interest in “root doctors, spiritual advisers and fortune tellers.”
She said she burned seven-day candles – green for luck and money, white for peace, and red for love and once burned a black candle in attempting to break up a romance between her boy friend, airline pilot Bob Franks, and another girl.
[“Order Death for Woman Poisoner,” syndicated (AP), Racine Journal-Times (Wi.), Oct. 14, 1958, p. 16]
Note: The death sentence was commuted.
EXCERPT (Article 2 of 2): At Anjette’s trial, the prosecution was permitted to prove not only that Anjette had killed her daughter by poisoning in 1958, but that she had done the same thing to her first husband in 1952, her second husband in 1955, and her mother-in-law in 1957. The deaths of all four victims were shown to be logically connected in at least ten ways: (1) each of the victims occupied a close relationship to Anjette; (2) each of the victims died of a unique cause--arsenic poisoning; (3) each victim died as a result of multiple doses built up to a lethal level; (4) Anjette was the only person in close personal attendance to all four victims; (5) Anjette showed little or no grief over each death; (6) Anjette collected a substantial amount of money as a result of each death; (7) each of the victims was lavishly buried by Anjette; (8) all the victims were carried to the same hospital, at which they were attended by Anjette; (9) Anjette expressed intense dislike for each of the victims either before or after his or her death; and (10) Anjette predicted the death of each of victims, except her first husband.
Although circumstantial, the evidence that Anjette had killed all four victims was, viewed in its totality, compelling. There was overwhelming evidence that the victims died of arsenic poisoning given in doses over a period of time, and ant poison containing arsenic was found in Anjette’s bedroom.
The damning evidence adduced by the prosecution included the following chilling vignettes:
On occasion employees of Anjette’s restaurant heard Anjette respond to her daughter’s annoying behavior by screaming at her, calling her an SOB, and threatening or swearing to kill her.
-- Anjette would take food and drink to the victims while they were in the hospital. But before delivering a drink Anjette would disappear into the restroom for a few minutes, taking both the drink and her purse with her.
-- When Anjette’s daughter was in a hospital bed crying out from hallucination-induced terror--seeing snakes and thinking bugs were crawling out of her fingers--Anjette, standing nearby, did not attempt to comfort the dying child but instead laughed at her.
-- Two weeks before her suffering daughter died, at a time when the doctors were telling her the girl would recover, Anjette ordered a coffin for the girl.
Also two weeks before her daughter died, Anjette, remarking “Well, she won’t be using these anymore,” packed up the girl’s personal things in the hospital room, discarded the flowers, and put the suitcases in the hall, but kept some of the flower vases, saying she was going to take them to the cemetery.
At the trial it also came out that Anjette was a superstitious creature obsessed with magic and the occult. She visited fortunetellers. She had roots, powders, potions, and other voodoo paraphernalia in her home. She would burn candles and talk to them, telling them what she wanted. White candles were for peace, red candles were for love, green candles brought luck or money, and orange candles kept people from gossiping about you. Black candles were burned when you wanted someone to die.
[Book review: Georgia's most notorious murderess, By Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law. Flagpole Magazine, December 22, 1999; Book: Whisper to the Black Candle: Voodoo, Murder, and the Case of Anjette Lyles, Jaclyn Weldon White, Mercer University Press, 1999]
FULL TEXT: Macon, Ga., Oct. 18. – Probably no one is more surprised than Anjette Donovan Lyles herself that she has been condemned to die in the electric chair for the arsenic murder of her young daughter.
So far as he is known, the fortune tellers whom she says she visited regularly never warned her of impending doom. They never read her dark fate in the melted wax of burned candles.
However, she must have felt somehow there was no longer enough magic in her potions and incense and incantations. As if to make amends or to shoo away their weird influences, she held in her hands throughout her seven-day trial a small, white-backed New Testament.
Anjette, buxom, big-hipped and 33 years old, her hair prematurely white, has also been charged with dealing out death by ant poison to two husbands and one mother-in-law. Prosecutors will not push these cases until the appeal from the first conviction is finished.
The four killings charged to Anjettte assure her of a place of prominence in crime annals. And if she uis electrocuted, she will be the first white woman in Georgia to die in the electric chair. A Negro woman was executed in 1940.
Anjette was found guilty Monday in Bibb County Superior Court of “wickedly” killing Marcia Elaine Lyles, her 9-year-old daughter by her first husband, with arsenic-laden ant poison.
Marcia died April 5. Other indictments lay to Anjette the poison deaths of her first husband, Ben F. Lyles Jr., on Jan. 25, 1952; her second husband, Joe Neal (Buddy) Gabbert, on Dec. 2, 1955, and her former mother-in-law, Mrs. Julia Lyles, on Sept. 29, 1957.
She could have quit after the first three, said the prosecution, and might never have been detected because each was “the perfect crime.” But she stretched her luck, and when suspicion closed in on her, she panicked.
She carelessly left clues around – tangible things like ant poison bottles and tracings used in forgery. Worse than that, she was a big talker whose glibness served her well in her restaurant business, but began to take on sinister shadings when her buried past deeds were dug up.
Macon (population 76,000) is an overgrown small town. It has a wide, tree-shaded street with a parkway down the middle, not the main business street, that is a sort of heart of the city. The courthouse is on it and the post office, and a slew of lawyers’ and doctors’ offices are on it or nearby.
This is Mulberry street, where Anjette’s restaurant did business. It was a popular place with business and professional men. They had a sort of informal luncheon club there. Joe Sutherland, mortician, testified about it.
The men enjoyed relaxing together, he said. He ate at Anjette’s two or three times a week. Others ate there every day. The attraction was not the food, which was all right, but not outstanding. It was the fellowship – including Anjette.
“She was deemed to have a very fine personality,” Sutherland said. “She didn’t meet any strangers. She was able to carry on a conversation with anyone.”
He spoke of her in the past tense as if that Anjette no longer existed. In her place there was a stranger, an accused arsenic poisoner, someone her friends and customers never knew.
The mystery of Anjette has been the enduring conversation of Macron for six months. The gossip helped to catch her, as a matter of fact, for it set her in search of cover and her lies and alibis were her undoing.
Anjette was fat as a teenager, and not too popular with the boys. But as she grew older, sge grew prettier and her plumpness became voluptuousness. Her dark brown eyes and her alabaster complexion were her best assets.
The Donovan family had a poultry market on Poplat street, a broad boulevard of cut-rate drug stores, bargain clothing stores, pool halls and beer parlors. They did not move in Macon high society, but it was an honorable enough way to earn a living.
In addition, her father was a railroad man, a well-regarded and respectable calling in Georgia.
It has been talked that Anjette picked up her first knowledge of voodoo around that poultry market when an occasional practitioner came for a ceremonial chicken. This is hardly more than conjecture, Anjette has never said.
Anjette married Ben Lyles Jr. in 1947. His family owned a Mulberry street restaurant, and had for 20 years. It was sort of a family affair. Marcia was born in 1948 and another daughter, Carla, two years later.
When Ben died in 1952, people felt sorry for Anjette, a 27-year-old widow with two children to support. Ben had sold the restaurant on an impulse, and spent his time drinking whisky and gambling, Anjette said.
She worked for two years in another Macon restaurant as a bookkeeper, learning the business, and then burrowed $12,000 to buy the old Lyles café back.
She’d begun her climb. It was a considerable amount for a young woman to be able to borrow. It also was a heavy debt that was going to hang over her head.
In her unsworn statement to the jury – a device peculiar to Georgia – Anjette said that on her first day in business for herself, a strapping young airline pilot looked up at her asw she placed a steak before him and promised:
“Brown Eyes, I’m going to marry you.”
He was Joe Neal (Buddy) Gabbert, a Texan who flew for a non-scheduled freight airline. Less than three months later they were married, and in six more months he was dead, his body a solid “weeping” rash, his last days those of a wild man.
Macon wept wuith Anjette. Her café had become a popular place. Its biggest group of customers were lawyers, who drank coffee there and talked over their cases together and asked Anjette what she thought of them.
When Mrs. Julia Lyles, mother of her first husband, died Sept. 29, 1957, the outpouring of sympathy for Anjette was a tender thing. Mrs. Lyles had lived with Anjette much of the time since Ben Jr.’s death.
That might have been the end of the story. Nobody suspected anything, Anjette moved into a new house. She was the popular proprietor, the hostess with the mostes’ on Mulberry street and a center of male attention at club bars.
All this time, however, she was being, everybody thought, a good mother.
She was taking her daughter to the Mulberry street Methodist Church, where Marcia sang in the children’s choir. They had dancing lessons, and toys, and clothes galore.
When Martha got sick early in March, it was almost too sad for Anjette;s friends to bear. Everybody in town felt sorry for her. People sent so many flowers to the funeral that Anjette asked florists to save back some of them for the altar at the church the Sunday after the funeral.
Anjette had gone too far. Unknown to her, a negro cook in her restaurant, Carrie Jackson, who had worked to the Lyles family for years, had written an unsigned note to a sister of Mrs. Julia Lyles in Cochran, Ga., about three weeks before Marcia’s death, warning, obliquely, that the child was in danger.
The sister, Mrs. W. K. Bagley, came to Macon soon after receiving the note and responsible authorities paid no heed. Marcia died.
It may never be known whether prompt action might have saved her life or whether she’d already had a lethal dose of poison. But Carrie’s note received more attention after its dire forecast had come true. It triggered the investigation that led to Anjette’s arrest.
What made her push her luck? Marcia’s hospital and funeral expenses totaled $4700, and the insurance on her life amounted to only $1750. Anjette stood possibly to receive some of her daughter’s share of Mrs. Julia Lyle’s estate, but no fortune.
The prosecution’s theory was that Marcia was “an unwanted child” who was “in the way a little bit.”
For Anjette had found a new love, whom witnesses identified as Bob Franks, a pilot, too, who had been Buddy Gabbert’s boss.
Three months after Buddy’s death, Anjette bought a Cadillac. Bob Franks went along with her.
Miss Jennie Lee Ingle, a nurse who had attended Buddy as he lay dying, said Anjette took her for a ride in the Cadillac one day, ecstatic over her new boy friend.
Miss Ingle said Anjette told her she was in love – “this time for sure.”
That was early in 1956. It proved to be no whirlwind courtship. Anjette was swept off her feet, but there was no marriage.
Or was it just love? Miss Ingle testified that Anjette told her how much property Franks owned, how much insurance he had and what his salary was. She didn’t remember the amounts.
There seems to be little doubt, however, that Anjette wanted him.
At this point, it seems fair to surmise, she turned to the mystic world of black magic in an effort to win her man.
“It may be crazy to believe in these things,” Anjette told the jury, “but I honestly do.”
She may have been telling the truth, or she may not have. Under Georgia law, a defendant may make a statement to the jury, but is not sworn and is not-cross-examined. The jury can take it or leave it, giving it whatever weight it wishes.
Whether Anjette believes in voodoo or not, she speaks of it as an authority. She gave the jury a sort of short course in the subject.
You burn a green candle for luck and money. She used a St. Anthony candle, which burned for seven days in a large glass vial on which a prayer to the saint was inscribed.
“You say the novenna,” she said, “and talk to the candle three times a day and say what you want it to do. I have faith in it.”
You burn a red candle for romance. She burned one for Bob Franks, and when its flame flared high and bright, she knew he was coming. “And he did,” she said.
You burn an orange candle to keep down talk. First sprinkle it with special salt.
She never burned a black candle but once, she said and not for death. “I wanted to break Bob and his girl friend up,” she said. “I wrote her name on a piece of paper and burned it and scattered the ashes at the base of the candle.”
But the sock – a man’s sock, blue – was pinned to the under side of her mattress, she said. The stocking – a woman’s – was in the north corner of her underwear drawer. In each was a picture of Franks.
“It was supposed to bring him back, she said. The black candle hadn’t worked.
When arrested, Anjette had in her pocketbook some Adam and Eve roots. You put them in your mouth, she said and they bring you what you want.
“I went to root doctors, spiritual advisers and fortune tellers,” Anjette said. “I talked to one of the three every day. I believe in them, and I liked them.”
They guided her life, she said.
Investigator Harry L. Harris testified that when he questioned Anjette about the candles, potions and incenses found at her home he asked her if she really believed in the stuff.
“She said no, she was just messing around with it,” he said.
“I’ll tell you why I said that,” Anjette said to the jury. “They made fun of me about my candles.”
Anjette said her faith in her strange friends was strengthened because of predictions they made that came true: They forecast the death of an uncle, of her father, of Marcia.
“I’d go back to the restaurant and tell people these things,” Anjette said, “because I believed in them and not because of anything I was doing.”
This was the way she explained the prosecution’s emphasis on her continual pessimism during the illness of her alleged victims.
A witness testified that Anjette ordered Marcia’s casket weeks in advance. Carrie Jackson said she was moved to write her note of warning after Anjette told her of the plans for Marcia’s funeral – long before she died.
Anjette’s defense puzzled trial observers. Although a formal plea of insanity was hardly expected, the speculation was that insanity would be the seed of doubt her lawyers would try to implant in the minds of the jurors.
The speculation was strengthened when the defense of its own accord, questioning prosecution witnesses about Anjette’s voodoo paraphernalia. The prosecution had skirted the subject completely. The questions finally irritated Special Prosecutor H. T. O’Neal Jr. into demanding that the defense reveal why it was doing what it was doing. If the defense was endeavoring to show the defendant “mentally unbalanced,” he said he would withdraw his objections.
While letting O’Neal’s estimates of their purpose go unchallenged, Anjette’s attorneys simply said they were seeking to explain the defendant’s predeiction for predicting deaths in fortune tellers, that’s why – that it is all they said.
In their closing arguments to the jury, her lawyers dropped a remark or two about mental quirks, but only very gently.
The death penalty caused general surprise. Not since 1948 had a defendant received a death sentence. It seemed unlikely that a woman would break the barrier.
But the case against Anjette, though entirely circumstantial, was relentless in detail. It made her out to be a grasping, spiteful woman who laughed at the dying and did not mourn the dead, and benefited to the tune of $48,750 from their deaths.
It made her out a forger, a liar and a cold operator who at last, after three perfect crimes, panicked.
The other three indictments will not be pushed as long as the appeal from the conviction in Marcia’s death is pending, the prosecution has said.
If the appeal fails, Anjette’s hope for life will be in the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has the power to commute a death sentence to life imprisonment.
She must wonder what her friends the fortune tellers are saying of her now.
[Margaret Shannon, “Voodoo, Colored Candles, Murder,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Mo.), Everyday Magazine, Part 11, p. 1]