The Vagabond – Mysterious tri-county killings in 1959


By Danny Crownover

In June of 1959, two human torsos were discovered a few hours apart in Etowah and St. Clair counties and body parts were found scattered in Calhoun County. All of Northeast Alabama cringed in fear.

Two men were horribly murdered by shotgun blasts and dismembered by an axe, causing an uproar among folks in all three counties, especially in Etowah.

On July 1, gravesite services were held for the two victims, who were buried in the Alabama City cemetery. It was two weeks before police were able to identify the remains. They turned out to be 55-year old Emmett Harper and his 48-year old brother, Lee. The men were killed about midnight on June 28, 1959, so savagely that neither man could be identified for weeks.

A 30-year-old farm woman by the name of Viola Hyatt was indicted on two counts of murder by a Calhoun County grand jury. She was scheduled to go on trial Sept. 28.

Police quoted Miss Hyatt as saying she shot the brothers in the face with her daddy’s 12-gauge shotgun and then chopped them up with an ax because they had abused her. Viola said she chopped up the men with her daddy’s double-bit axe and deposited their remains through all three counties – throwing a leg out here and an arm there and rolling out two faceless torsos in different places.

Virginia Viola Hyatt was born, Feb. 3, 1929. Her mother died soon after Viola’s birth. That left her and her father, Martin Hyatt, alone in the world. Mr. Hyatt needed someone to help take care of his daughter, so he married Jessie Wheeler, who was in her mid-30s and had never been married.

The family lived on 40 acres and had a mule at White Plains, a community about 15 miles northeast of Anniston. Corn and cotton plus a hearty garden and gatherings of pigs and chickens fed the family and prospered the farm.

Jessie soon realized that she would have her hands full with the “princess” Viola. The child was used to getting her way and insisted on it every time. At times Viola was known to be mean and violent. She was said to stab bullfrogs as they tried to escape. Viola had very deep emotional disturbances. Despite that, Viola enjoyed southern gospel music and frequented local area churches and singings.

The Harper brothers were tenants at the Hyatt farm. The men, who had placed a small trailer near the main house, kept to themselves and drank a lot. Lee and Viola dated.

During the investigation, it was discovered that Viola had been calling the brothers’ place of employment and telling their boss that they were visiting their mother, who was in the hospital, and that they were not back yet. That cast suspicions on her. Viola was arrested and sentenced to seven years in Julia Tutwiler Women’s Prison in Wetumpka.

Viola’s stepmother Jessie (who had been terrified of Viola) had a massive heart attack and died on the day Viola was released from prison. After her prison release and before her death, Viola lived a quiet life in a trailer park. She was a physically large lady who sat on her porch and read her Bible. Her neighbors described her as a friendly person who was quiet and stayed to herself. Viola’s pastor said that she had prayed for forgiveness while watching an evangelist on television, and that she loved Jesus.

Viola remained very tight-lipped about what had happened. Many believed she was protecting her father, saying that he had killed the brothers. Some say Viola claimed that the men sexually molested her and she could not take it anymore.

The real story is something that Viola took to her grave when she died at a hospital in Jacksonville in June of 2000. All she said in court was, “They done me wrong.”

Regina S. McKay wrote that during the summer of 1959, her parents and baby brother went to pay a visit to her Aunt Jessie, Viola’s stepmother. She writes:

“By this time, Viola was 30 years old. I was young but I remember Viola. She was wearing bright red lipstick that day, and blue denim overalls. I loved red lipstick and looked forward to the day when I could wear it! That is one reason it is so vivid in my mind.

“We were having dinner with Aunt Jessie and Viola, who had not married and was living in the old Hyatt home. Viola was slicing some ripe, juicy, red homegrown tomatoes for dinner. There was a radio on the table where we were gathered. My mother was holding my baby brother in her lap and I was watching Viola with her smooth, precise slicing and her bright red lips that matched the tomatoes.

Viola pointed to the radio with the tip of the large butcher knife she was holding in her hand.

“Let’s listen to the news to see if anybody we know died,” she spoke in her flat, rural Alabama drawl. Aunt Jessie turned on the radio. After some crackling and static, the reporter’s voice was clear. There were no deaths reported in that neck of the woods. Viola motioned for Jessie to turn off the radio. Viola’s smile was wide and friendly.

“They say that because her mother died as a result of giving birth to her, Viola had a preoccupation with death. I saw handwritten entries in one of her Bibles that had the names and death dates of neighboring people and the causes of their deaths. She kept meticulous records. The list was quite long. I wonder if she had committed them to memory.

“After dinner, Viola told me that if I would go outside with her, she had something she wanted to give to me. That was fine with my parents, considering I tended to be a chatterbox and they could use some time to visit with Aunt Jessie. I took Viola’s hand that she offered and went out the front door but walked around the side of the house. Along the way, I saw an axe with the blade buried in an old stump.

“That’s where we chop wood,” Viola explained. “And sometimes chicken necks.”

She laughed merrily. I liked her. She had a manner about her that was relaxed and easy.

“We are going to the trailer,” she told me. We eventually came to a metal-sided building on cinderblocks. It looked more like a well-constructed shed than a trailer.

“You wait right here, and I’ll be right back,” she instructed. I inquired as to why I couldn’t go in with her. “Oh, no, you don’t want to go in there. It’s a mess. Just wait right here.”

“She disappeared inside, with the door closed. I stood impatiently and looked around. The trees were tall and very green, and I could hear chickens clucking and crowing in the yard.

“After a few minutes, Viola came back out with a brown Teddy Bear. It had a sunny yellow ribbon around its neck.

“Here, I want you to have this,’ she said. “My boyfriend won it for me at the fair but we broke up, so I don’t want it no more.” She was smiling and her tone of voice was very nice.

“I took the Teddy Bear and thanked her. I was thrilled! I had an old Teddy Bear but it had never been as nice as this one. The old one was heavy and felt as though it had sawdust stuffing, and one eye was missing. This one was soft and huggable. I really loved him!

“We talked as we went back to the house. I showed my parents the Teddy Bear and they approved of me having it. I played with my baby brother and the Teddy Bear until we left. It hardly left my side after that.

“A few weeks later, we were visiting with friends in Woodland. I had my Teddy Bear and was telling them about how it was a gift from Viola. The woman said some unkind things about Viola, and I didn’t believe her. To me, Viola was a nice lady.

“It was while we were visiting that my parents heard about the body parts of the men that had been found scattered all across three counties and beyond. It was in the newspaper.

“Viola did it!” “Oh, my word, It was Viola!” I heard those phrases and wondered what on earth they were saying about my friend.

“On the drive home from the Wilsons, my dad took the Teddy Bear that Viola had given to me and threw it out the car window. My heart was broken.”

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