GEORGIA'S MOST NOTORIOUS MURDERESS

Published in Flagpole Magazine, p. 22 (December 22, 1999).

Author: Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law.

Whisper to the Black Candle:  Voodoo, Murder, and the Case of Anjette Lyles
Jaclyn Weldon White
Mercer University Press, 1999
177 pp., $22.95, clothbound

This little book focuses on the terrible crimes and sensational trial of Georgia’s most infamous female murderer of the 20th Century.

In the 1950's Anjette Lyles owned and operated a restaurant in downtown Macon.  She was an attractive and friendly young woman who worked hard to succeed in her business, and her restaurant was a popular gathering place, with numerous regular customers including many businessmen and lawyers.   “Everybody loves her,” one of the restaurant’s cooks said at the time.  “She is a sweet person.”

“Going to her restaurant, you didn’t think about the food as much as you thought about just being welcome,” one patron wrote later.  “She hugged everybody’s neck when they walked in the door. She would come to each table and sit down and talk.  She had a personality that was terrific.  It was a pleasure to go to her restaurant. . . . You couldn’t help but like her.”

In May 1958 Macon was stunned to hear that 32-year old Anjette Lyles had been arrested and charged with murdering four persons--her two husbands, her mother-in-law, and her 9-year old daughter.  Anjette was indicted for “having administered and causing to be administered . . . deadly poisons, to wit: arsenic and arsenic trioxide” to the victims “by artfully, deceitfully, and wickedly enticing, procuring, and causing [them] to swallow and take internally said deadly poisons” with the intent to kill them, and thereby slaying them.

Anjette’s trial in Macon in October 1958 was the most publicized and talked about criminal trial in Macon in the 20th Century.  Anjette was tried for only one of the murders, that of her daughter, but the prosecution was permitted to present evidence showing that in addition to murdering her daughter Anjette had murdered the three other persons.  Generally, in a prosecution for a particular crime the state is not allowed to introduce evidence that the defendant committed other crimes, but there is an exception to this rule if the evidence of other crimes shows motive, plan, or scheme for the crime for which the defendant is on trial.

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:
 


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.

Anjette did not put any witnesses on the stand or introduce any evidence.  She did not rely on an insanity defense.  Her entire defense consisted of her lengthy unsworn statement she made personally and orally  to the jury in which she vehemently denied killing anyone and protested her love for the victims.  (Incredible as it may seem, until 1961 a Georgia criminal defendant was not allowed to testify under oath at his or her own trial.)

Anjette’s weak defense was not strengthened by her icy demeanor at trial.   When witnesses and spectators would burst into tears at various points in the trial because of poignant testimony concerning her daughter’s tragic and painful death, Anjette would sit there stonefaced, seemingly indifferent to the spectacle of other people weeping and sobbing for her dead child.

The jury convicted Anjette after deliberating for an hour and a half, and she was sentenced to death.

On July 8, 1959 the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Anjette’s sentence.  The Court had no doubt that Anjette was guilty of the crime charged, observing that the trial evidence “shows nothing short of a deliberate, premeditated, well-concocted plan and scheme . . . to murder an innocent child for no cause except to satisfy [Anjette’s] desire for money.”

Anjette did not die in the electric chair.  After the state supreme court upheld her conviction, Anjette was examined by six medical professionals, including four psychiatrists.  They were unanimous in their diagnosis: Anjette was a psychotic and insane.  “The type of her mental illness is chronic paranoid schizophrenic,” the doctors decided.  According to one of the doctors, Anjette even “experienced hallucinations, including seeing angels flying around the room.”  Anjette’s death sentence was therefore reprieved and she was transferred to a state mental hospital in Milledgeville, where she died of heart failure at the age of 52 in December 1977.

Forty years after her widely publicized trial, it is astonishing how few people today have ever heard of Anjette Lyles.

Whisper to the Black Candle is the first book by Jaclyn Weldon White, a juvenile court administrator in Gwinnett county, and she has produced a quality work.  The book includes numerous photographs of key personages in the Anjette Lyles case.  The most intriguing are the photographs of Anjette herself--a mysterious, enigmatic figure in her Fifties clothes, shoes, hairdos, and horn-rimmed sunglasses.  In those photographs she certainly does not look like the woman many have described as the most evil murderess ever produced by the state of Georgia.  There she is--the inscrutable Anjette Lyles, vivid proof that the good old days, as we like to call them, were often terrible.