As a little girl growing up in Ball Play, Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos used to play with friends in Arm and Leg Creek, not far from her home on Young’s Chapel Road.
That’s where, in June 1959, police found the arm of one of two men killed and dismembered by Rabbittown resident Viola Hyatt, who came to be known as "The Torso Slayer."
A leg was never found in the creek, Andronicos said in a recent interview. Locals probably thought it just sounded better with the extra appendage, she explained. The legs were found elsewhere.
Andronicos has written a play, "To Tread Among Serpents," loosely based on those murders. The play is being produced at Jacksonville State University April 9-12, after winning JSU’s Southern Playwrights Competition last year.
Andronicos said the play was inspired in part by the sort of media coverage garnered by high-profile criminal trials of women such as convicted murderer Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony, the mother found not guilty of murdering her 2-year-old daughter.
What intrigued Andronicos, who works as the director of diversity for the Center for Science of Information at Purdue University when not acting in, directing and writing plays, was the media’s sensationalism of female criminals.
"It’s become very much about the way they dress, their hairstyle. This is all commentary that happens to women but not to men," Andronicos said.
In news articles from 1959 and during the trial in 1960 — many from The Anniston Star — Hyatt is referred to as "plump" or "chunky" or "husky." Her hairdos and dresses are mentioned numerous times.
Andronicos was quick to point out that some women charged with high-profile crimes have also manipulated the public and the media for their own gain.
"Viola Hyatt certainly used the media in this way," Andronicos said.
In one Star article from the time, a sheriff is quoted as saying Hyatt was upset when there weren’t more reporters outside upon her arrival from a mental health hospital for testing.
Fact to fiction
The play is told through the eyes of fictional New York magazine writer Juanita "JC" Cohen, who twists the murderer into someone she isn’t to boost her own writing career.
The killer, as written by Andronicos, is caught up in an illegal liquor racket involving powerful people. That’s nothing like the real murders committed by Hyatt, whom most news accounts at the time referred to as a "farm woman."
It isn’t lost on Andronicos that her play takes a real-life crime that ended in the death of two men and turns it and the killer into something else for entertainment purposes. "I was doing the same thing that JC Cohen was doing," she said.
Andronicos did take care to change the names of characters in her play to put some distance between her work and the real lives connected to the murders. In the play, Viola Hyatt is called "Violet Haight."
"None of these people are here to speak for themselves," Andronicos explained.
A dark comedy
Asked if she was nervous about having people familiar with the crimes watch her play, Andronicos said "no," but she hopes they’ll come with open minds.
"My primary concern is they’re going to be expecting something factual. While I do indeed use all kinds of facts, I take the facts and weave them into a different story. They shouldn’t come expecting to see a play about Viola Hyatt," Andronicos said.
The play deals with a dark topic, but Southern writers tend to gravitate toward the gothic, she explained, "as a way to kind of explain the Southern world around us: decay and various forms of decomposition.
"But like Faulkner, there’s something oddly funny about it all," Andronicos added. "The play’s a dark comedy, if it’s a comedy at all."
Combing the archives
Andronicos poured over newspaper and magazine archives while researching the crime, but also did her own fresh reporting, interviewing the coroner, who was then in his 90s.
Andronicos laughed at the thought of an article on her play ending up in The Star archives, along with all those old stories that informed her about the story she grew up with.
Things have come full circle, she said.
"I always felt like somehow she was attached to me," Andronicos said. In those archives, at least, now she always will be.
Staff Writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @burkhalter_star.
Face to face with the Torso Slayer
In 1960, Anniston Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers was just a cub reporter. One of his more memorable assignments was a jailhouse interview with "Torso Slayer" Viola Hyatt. Ayers tells the story in this excerpt from his memoir "In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal" (New South Books).
By H. Brandt Ayers, email@example.com
Every reporter remembers his first murder story, and mine was a doozie.
The mystery began in the summer of 1959 with the grisly discovery in nearby Gadsden of a legless, armless, faceless torso. A day later, a couple picking berries pulled back a branch and uncovered a horrifying sight — a second legless, armless, faceless torso.
Associated Press labeled the mysterious slayings the "X" and "Y" murders. We speculated that they were "gangland" murders, possibly the result of an underworld civil war between the Alabama hill-based white-whiskey ring and the Tennessee red-whiskey ring.
The speculation ended when employees at the Anniston Army Depot noticed that the Harper brothers, Emmett and Lee, had not been at work for several days.
They had been living in a trailer on a farm in Rabbittown where Viola Virginia Hyatt lived with her father. All Viola said about motive was: "They done me wrong."
In fact, she was alleged to have been in the midst of a dual sexual encounter with the brothers. Her business with one concluded, something was said, and the other brother covered himself with a handkerchief in a manner she found insulting.
The punishment she exacted was hardly commensurate with the offense.
She stole into their trailer at night with her daddy’s shotgun, emptied a chamber into each brother’s face, and dragged the bodies outside. There, in order to fit the disposal task to the dimensions of a wooden wheelbarrow, she cut off their arms and legs with her daddy’s double-bit ax. Making several trips, she deposited the parts on a tarpaulin in the back seat of the family car. She drove through the night on a journey that touched several northeast Alabama counties, throwing an arm out here, a leg out there, rolling out the two torsos.
After her arrest she took sheriff’s deputies on a ghastly treasure hunt to relocate the pieces, and deputies stated as fact that she kept more private "treasure" in the freezer. Lorena Bobbitt never attained such rank as a folk villain.
I met Viola in the basement of the old county jail when she returned from her sanity hearing at Bryce Hospital, the state mental health facility in Tuscaloosa, where she was declared sane and competent.
A big woman wearing a simple, camellia-red dress and red shoes appeared in the door, dwarfing little Sheriff Roy Snead Sr.
She walked past me with a dignified strut toward a tiny elevator, guided by the sheriff, who turned aside my interview request with, "She’s going to jail."
Intrepid reporter that I was, I entered the elevator with them, and found myself belly-to-belly with an ax murderess. My congealed brain could produce only the question, "Are you afraid?"
Matter-of-factly, she replied, "No. Why should I be?" She had me there.
We chatted through the bars for a few minutes, but I didn’t have the experience and composure to get her to talk much about her life.
Viola — ever mysterious and taciturn — pleaded guilty, was a model prisoner in Julia Tutwiler Prison, and returned home after 10 years to lead a quiet life until she died in 2000.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.