“Mr. X and Mr. Y”
Author: Donald Brown
Publisher: Borgo Publishing
Price: $20.00 (Paper)
In June of 1959 Donald Brown, 23 years old, recently graduated from Birmingham Southern College, was a cub reporter for the “Birmingham News.” When a report came in that two armless, legless torsos had been found in two different counties in northeast Alabama, the city editor sent Brown to cover the story.
The two torsos will be, for a time, known as Mr. X. and Mr. Y.
Brown spent considerable time on that story, wrote a series of articles about the case—the killings and dismembering, the murderess, her version of events and her trial, and put the clippings and his notebooks away, to unearth them just last year along with a wonderful batch of photographs of the victims, the killer and her family and the crime scene and the witnesses, or should we say auditors, to the crime. The photos are worth the price of admission.
(These are not beautiful people.)
Now retired from a distinguished career in newspapering and teaching, Brown writes: “the torso murders case stands unique among all the assignments I covered.”
Blending a true crime narrative with a bit of nostalgic memoir, Brown decides to dive back into this material, walk over the ground again, and re-interview any survivors or others who may shed light.
The killer’s identity is not in question.
Thirty-year-old Viola Hyatt was caught in three weeks, confessed and, after a month’s observation at Bryce, declared “sane and competent.” She was convicted of the two killings but refused to speak about it except to repeat that she had “the best reason in the world.” Brown was actually present at her arrest.
Brown goes over the night of the murders and since all is revealed in the first five pages, no spoiler alert is required. Viola, a ninth-grade drop-out, pudgy, living with her father and stepmother, was sort of engaged to Lee Harper. On the last Saturday night in June, as she had been doing for six months, Viola had sex with Lee and his brother Emmett in Lee’s trailer, on the Hyatts’ property in White Plains, Alabama. She then walked to her house, got her shotgun, went back to the trailer, and killed them both.
Brown and others speculate that Viola had been forced into sexual acts that were repugnant to her, or had just had enough, or had learned that Lee was seeing another woman, or for some other reason, just snapped.
Lee and Emmett were big country boys, too heavy to carry easily, so Viola got her ax and chopped them into ten easier-to-tote pieces, and then distributed those pieces, not too cunningly, across four counties. (The torsos were found in a couple of days, in Etowah and St. Clair Counties.) She then cleaned up the bloody scene but, as we CSI fans know, that’s hard to do. Her father never said a word.
Brown felt driven to learn more about this crime, especially why she did it.
I’m not sure that is ever learned, but a lot of other details, some quite peculiar, at least to me, do emerge.
A neighbor across the road, when asked about the gunshots, replied that, yes, he was awakened, and heard “somebody screaming, ‘No, no, no,’” and “at different times you could hear ’em cursing” but “she was all the time shooting and we didn’t pay too much attention to it.”
Now THAT is minding your own business.
Brown praises the police investigation in this case, calling it “a terrific piece of detective work.” He gives one policeman credit for a sixth sense when he is told two men are missing and figures out that they may be the victims. In fact the faces were not entirely unrecognizable; sketches were made. At one point, the torsos were, stupidly, buried as John Does, one wearing his shirt—a major piece of evidence—until state public safety director Floyd Mann ordered they be dug up and frozen.
Inevitably, someone—employers or family—would have noticed the absence of the Harper brothers. I think Nancy Drew could have solved this crime.
Brown reports on Viola’s life after the arrest.
Convicted of a grotesque double murder, she served only ten years at Julia Tutwiler, then returned home where she lived quietly, finally moving to a retirement home where she cheated at bingo and died in 2000 at age 71.
Since this story lacks the element of mystery—we know who did it-- and the crime was so long ago and new information is hard to come by, Brown works to energize it in some places with a staccato, tough-guy prose style. Of Sheriff Roy Snead, Jr. he writes “Big county, lot going on. Couldn’t please everybody, probably didn’t try.” This doesn’t always feel natural. Brown’s straightforward reporter style works just fine.
Some Alabamians will remember this case. Others will surely be fascinated by the oddness of it. In any case, like Brown’s previous cold case narrative, it’s gruesome.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.