Because road trips are no fun by yourself, and because having someone to yell directions at you from the passenger seat also is a plus, I invited my sister, Theresa, along.
Neither of us had ever been to the Library of Virginia before, so the first thing we had to do was get Library of Virginia cards. It was easy — and free, always good — and took just a few minutes.
After that, we were directed to a research room, where I used my card to request some records. While Theresa watched videos on her smart phone, including this one of a cute monkey eating a watermelon, I did some research.
First, I looked at papers from the Virginia Penitentiary, where I hoped to find information about Lythia Brown Buckwalter, who murdered Mamie Feimster and was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
I heard she escaped sometime near the end of her sentence, but I didn’t find any evidence of that.
Admittedly, I later discovered that Buckwalter served only seven of the 16 years, so I might have been looking in the wrong date range. By that time, however, the records had been re-filed.
I also was getting “hangry” and needed to eat something before I did one more second of research — or ripped someone’s head from their shoulders (not literally, of course).
The other thing I was looking for that day were Lynchburg coroner’s inquests from the late 1800s. A box of these records is in the library’s collection. Inside, I hoped to find mention of the Court Street Baptist Church tragedy, which I blogged about recently.
Alas, I came up empty handed there, too.
After having some lunch in the library’s cafe, Theresa and I thought we’d head over to the Virginia Historical Society, where I had other research to do.
The research concerns William Macon Waller, an Amherst County, Va., slave owner who walked about two dozen of his slaves to Natchez, Miss., in 1847-48. I haven’t blogged specifically about Waller yet, although he was mentioned in this post about the Virginia Dwarf Family, a family of traveling performers he encountered in Wythe County, Va., en route to Mississippi.
Upon arriving at the historical society, however, we learned it would be open for only two more hours that day. Nathaniel Philbrick, author of one of my favorite books, “In the Heart of the Sea,” would be appearing there that evening and so the library was closing at 4 p.m.
Because the historical society charges a research fee and I had a full day’s worth of work to do, I decided it would be better to come back when I could get more bang for my buck.
With a couple of hours left before we had to head back to Lynchburg, Theresa and I walked next door to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I’d never been there before and admission was — yippee! — free.
We walked around the museum for a while, admiring the artwork and decorative items. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we spent most of it looking at American art from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
We also saw that a Faberge exhibit was opening the next week, giving me another reason to return to Richmond soon.
On our way out of town, we stopped by Sugar Shack Donuts. Theresa had read about Sugar Shack online and I can never resist a good doughnut. My husband, John, and I have been known to drive two or three hours out of our way to go to Ralph’s Donuts, in Cookeville, Tenn. Ralph’s has an excellent maple-frosted cake doughnut.
We went to Sugar Shack’s original shop on North Lombardy Street in Richmond. The outside is unassuming — a painted stucco building on a crowded corner with limited parking — but inside was a glorious assortment of doughnuts.
According to the friendly staff, Sugar Shack doesn’t post a menu because the offerings change every 15 minutes. That day, there were dozens of different kinds available, among them pumpkin and chocolate cake, “Tastes like a Samoa” (it does), and doughnuts with candy bar and cereal toppings.
Theresa and I each ordered a half-dozen to take home, and somehow, they survived the two-hour drive before I ate any of them. Once home, between me and John, they were gone within 12 hours. Next time, I’m coming home with a dozen.
On Sept. 20, 1954, Lynchburg Police detectives J.E. Franklin and W.H. Phlegar were dispatched to 1006 Fourth St., the home of Mamie Feimster, a well-known madam in the city’s red light district.
When they arrived, a petite brunette named Lythia Brown Buckwalter met them at the door. She calmly handed the detectives a Smith & Wesson revolver and confessed.
As reported in the next morning’s Lynchburg News, the 36-year-old told them, “I did it.”
Once inside the house, detectives found the body of Mamie Chittum Feimster on the kitchen floor. The newspaper vividly reported that the 52-year-old woman was “sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood while a bowl of chicken broth cooled on the kitchen table.”
She’d been shot four times.
As reporter Vince Spezzano put it, “From the location of the wounds and the blood, the shooting appeared to follow these lines: Mamie Feimster was in the kitchen and had apparently just removed a bowl of chicken broth from a stove and set it on the table to cool.
“Then she was shot four times — once in the left forearm, again in the upper left arm, once in the back at the left chest and the final shot in the left forehead.”
The medical examiner would later call that last shot “the fatal slug.”
After seeing a blood trail in the stairwell, detectives found the body of a second victim, Tina Thompson, in an upstairs bedroom. Thompson, in her early-to-mid-20s at the time depending on the source, had been shot once.
According to Spezzano’s account, this is likely what happened:
Tina Thompson, in her bedroom, heard the shots and started down the stairs to investigate. Viewing the bizarre scene and the woman with the gun in her hand, she turned and began to run back up the stairs.
As she dashed terrified up several of the steps, a slug caught her in the right upper arm, broke the bone and turned into the right side of her chest, possibly entering her heart or rupturing major blood vessels.
Critically wounded, she lived for enough seconds more to stagger up the remaining stairs and into the bedroom to die on the floor.
Buckwalter was arrested and charged with the murders.
By the time newspapers arrived on Lynchburg doorsteps on the morning of Sept. 22, the case had begun to take on a mysterious air. The day after the murders, Feimster’s will — written three days before the murders on Sept. 17 — was filed at the Lynchburg courthouse.
The will begins as follows:
Be it remembered that I, Mamie Chittum Feimster, of 1006 4th Street, City of Lynchburg, State of Virginia, being of sound mind and memory, but knowing the uncertainty of this life, do make this my last will and testament, hereby revoking all wills and codicils to wills by me at any time heretofore made.
In the will, Feimster leaves everything, after payment of funeral expenses and debts, to her mother.
The Sept. 22 article also pointed to a motive. As Spezzano wrote, “Recently, [Buckwalter] had been having some difficulties with Mrs. Feimster, and possibly with the Thompson girl, and this apparently came to a head Monday.”
Later reports indicate something more sinister might have been happening. On Oct. 15, the day after Buckwalter’s trial began, an Associated Press story ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It described the case as follows:
A story of being cheated, beaten, drugged and kept in fear was told in Corporation Court [in Lynchburg] today at the murder trial of a slender brunette charged with killing two other women.
Further deepening the intrigue, the article went on to say that on the day of the murders Buckwalter met with Commonwealth’s Attorney Royston Jester III and an FBI agent named John Freese.
Among other things, Buckwalter told them she had wanted to break ties with Feimster but “could not get her luggage out” of the house.
In keeping with this, the Lynchburg News reported the following account of Buckwalter’s testimony at trial:
Pausing only briefly once or twice and in a steady, clear voice (except for one tearful moment) the petite brunette told the jury a story picturing Mamie’s house as a chamber of horrors where she was beaten, cheated of her share of earnings, kept in an intermittent stupor with liquor and narcotics, practically imprisoned and followed constantly when she did leave the house.
During her wretched description of existence at Mamie’s which culminated in shooting her alleged tormenters, Lythia said she bought the .38 revolver used in the killings intending to commit suicide.
She said she shot Mamie and Tina because she feared they had found out that she had seen the FBI agent and the Commonwealth’s Attorney and were going to “do something bad to me for ratting.”
Compelling as that sounds, the Commonwealth’s Attorney was having none of it. In cross examination, Jester grilled Buckwalter. Why hadn’t she sought help from law enforcement? Why hadn’t she secreted a letter out of the house, seeking help?
“It didn’t occur to me,” the defendant said, blaming fear and forced drug and alcohol use for the lapse.
Further, the detectives testified that no drugs were found in the home, and a pharmacist said that while he’d filled prescriptions for Feimster, none were for narcotics.
In his closing arguments, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Arthur B. Davies III, who was seeking the death penalty, called the defendant’s testimony “nonsense,” and according to the local newspaper, “attributed the shootings to her ‘malice and ill will which were entirely unjustified.’”
After deliberating for an hour and a half, an all-male jury found Buckwalter guilty of both voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
According to prison records — on microfilm at the Library of Virginia — Buckwalter was paroled in 1961, after serving seven years of her sentence.
Thank you to blog reader Bob Stephens for telling me about this story. A few weeks ago, in response to a story I posted about the “Bawdy Ladies” tour at Old City Cemetery, Stephens told me about being in the Feimster home shortly after the murders.
Stephens wrote that “after the Mamie Feimster shooting, I was allowed to go with a police officer friend of the family into her house on 4th St. It was very tacky, colorful and interesting. The inside was unexpected looking at the outside.”
A few weeks ago, my sister, Theresa, and I went to Green Front Furniture in Farmville, Va. We go there every so often to look at and occasionally buy oriental rugs, one of the things Green Front is known for.
While I’m personally fond of finding my oriental rugs at antique or yard sales (or on the curb in the historic district), all of my new ones were purchased at Green Front.
In addition to rugs, Green Front sells a lot of furniture and home decor items. You also can find items I’d describe as “gifty,” like jars of Jezebel sauce.
You might ask, “What the Hell is Jezebel sauce?”
Jezebel sauce is a spicy-sweet condiment made from apple jelly, pineapple (or apricot) preserves, horseradish, dry mustard, black pepper and red pepper flakes. It can be used for lots of things, but one of the most popular uses for Jezebel sauce is to pour it over a block of cream cheese and eat it with crackers.
One might wonder why such a wonderful-sounding concoction is named for a biblical queen who, after being an utterly terrible person, was thrown from a window and eaten by stray dogs. I can’t answer that question.
Recently, I saw Jezebel sauce on the menu at Scratch Biscuit Company, a new biscuit restaurant in Roanoke. I’d heard about Scratch Biscuit a few months ago, but finally went there this past week with my friend, Adrienne.
I ordered the Jezebel Biscuit — of course — which consisted of a cat-head-sized biscuit filled with country ham, pimento cheese and Jezebel sauce.
That biscuit was so good. Not being a food writer, I don’t quite know how to say it any better. Just so, so, so, so good. It was so worth the hour-long drive. Adrienne got the fried Cajun catfish biscuit and also declared it a winner.
Next time, I’ll try the catfish biscuit, topped with Scratch Biscuit’s special “Satan’s Snot” hot sauce. You’re right, “Satan’s snot” doesn’t sound very appetizing, but Adrienne thought it was a good complement to the catfish.
I didn’t buy that $4.50 jar of Jezebel sauce at Green Front, but I probably should have because it’ll likely cost me more to make it than to buy it. I did find a recipe for it, though, in my copy of “The Complete Southern Cookbook,” by Tammy Algood.
This is my favorite cookbook, although I obviously hadn’t perused it enough over the past few years to know it contained a recipe for Jezebel sauce. It’s organized by ingredient, A to Z, and includes many old southern standbys, among them a to-die-for coconut cake and a whole chapter on macaroni and cheese.
Here’s the recipe for Jezebel sauce:
Yield 1 1/2 cups
1 (5-ounce) jar apple jelly
1 (5-ounce) jar pineapple preserves
1/3 cup prepared horseradish
1/2 T. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
Directions: In a medium bowl, whisk together the jelly, preserves, horseradish, mustard, black pepper and red pepper. Whisk until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Algood also wrote my second-favorite cookbook, “The Southern Slow Cooker Bible.” And since we’ve talked a lot about biscuits here, I’ll just go ahead and recommend “Southern Biscuits,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart. This book has every biscuit recipe imaginable, along with recipes for things to make out of, with and to serve atop biscuits.
By the way, Theresa and I also go to Farmville to eat at Walker’s Diner, which has a great eggs-and-bacon breakfast and a friendly staff, among other things.
The High Bridge Trail, a great place to bike, also runs through Farmville. Its namesake bridge was built in 1854, and apparently both Union and Confederate troops tried to burn it down during the Civil War.
Farmville also has a few cute antique shops, an art gallery and Longwood University, where the recent vice-presidential debates were held. It’s just an all-around nice place to visit.
In the fall of 1847, farmer and slave owner William Macon Waller was walking a coffle of about two dozen slaves from Amherst County, Va., to Natchez, Miss. Once in Mississippi, he planned to sell them to settle some debts.
The group was traveling what’s been called the “overland route,” 900-some miles through Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. While Waller probably rode a horse or a mule, it’s likely the slaves walked as far as 25 or 30 miles a day. Some were small children.
During the journey, Waller wrote letters home to his wife, Sarah. He wrote about a variety of things, among them the progress they’d made, if any of the slaves had been sick, and about things he saw along the way.
Writing from Washington County, Va., on Oct. 4, 1847, Waller tells Sarah about a fascinating family he saw in Wythe County:
In passing on, I meet occationally [sic] rare if not interesting sights. At one house in Wythe County I saw a family of many children four of whom two males & two females were dwarfs.
The mails [sic] one thirty-eight and the other twenty not as large by a good deal as Ben. The females one twenty-seven and the other fully grown not as large as Mat. All the senses of each perfect. The balance of the children of good sise [sic] and their parents large.
The family that so intrigued Waller was the Walters family of Wythe County, Va., four members of which — Hiram, Roxana, Catharine and William — were dwarfs, or as we’d say today, “little people.”
According to newspaper accounts from across the U.S., for many years the siblings performed as the “Virginia Dwarf Family.” Hiram, the oldest, used the stage name “Major Walters.” It was apparently a common practice at the time for people in show business to use military titles.
A Nov. 5, 1836, article in the Charlotte (N.C.) Journal tells of a visit the Virginia Dwarf Family made to that city:
The Dwarfs—We among a number of other citizens of this place, paid a visit to the family of Dwarfs exhibited in this town on Saturday evening last, and we were truly astonished at this singular freak of nature.
The oldest of the four, Maj. Hiram Walters, was 26 years old last April, weighs 43 pounds, and is 3 feet 7 inches high. His sisters, Miss Roxana, who is 20 years of age, weighs 30 pounds, and is 3 feet high, and Miss Catharine, is 18 years old, weights 30 1/2 pounds, and is 3 feet 1 inch high, and his brother Master William, is in his ninth year, weighs 22 pounds, and is 2 feet 1 inch high.
These four dwarfs are children of the same parents and are perfectly formed. They are cheerful and communicative, and altho’ uneducated, they are very shrewd in their remarks.
Their combined weight is 125 1/2 pounds. Their father, Mr. Michael Walters, of Virginia, accompanies them, and carries with him certificates, to show that they are the offspring of himself and wife.
We think them well worthy the attention of the curious.
As one might expect, most stories about the Virginia Dwarf Family were politically incorrect by today’s standards, including observances such as this one made in the Augusta (Ga.) Constitutionalist:
The Major … is full of life, and when his two sisters have him by the arm, struts as large as a peacock. He appears to be of a lively turn; says he should like to get married, could he find a young lady to his fancy, and he seems to think, with the old Dutchman, that a ‘man ish [sic] a man, if he’s no bigger as my dumb [sic].’
It appears that sometime around 1851, younger brother William left show business. Perhaps he was seeking a life out of the spotlight. If he was, he didn’t find it. When William married Elizabeth Sawyers in August of that year, newspapers all over the country took notice, running this story from the Wytheville Republican:
Married, in Ashe, North Carolina, on Wednesday, 13th ultimo, Mr. Wm. Walters (a dwarf, about twenty three years old, and no more than thirty inches tall, and weight thirty five pounds) to Miss Elizabeth Sawyers (a full grown woman) daughter of Martin Sawyers, all of Wythe county, Virginia.
When William and Elizabeth had a daughter, Jane, four years later, it also didn’t escape the curiosity of the press. On Aug. 30, 1855, the Richmond Dispatch reported that “full grown” Elizabeth was “very dutiful and obedient to her little lord, and their union has been blessed by a fine baby, which shows no signs of dwarfage!”
The same article also reported that William’s older brother, Hiram, had no intention of marrying:
He wouldn’t get married, he said — he wasn’t such a fool — he wasn’t so green as his brother to be moping at home with his wife and baby — not he. He was going to be free, and go where he please — he was.
In May of 1861, Hiram, Roxana and Catharine, accompanied by their younger sister, Nancy, and two showmen, John Burnell and J.H. McDaniel, arrived in New York City aboard the schooner Mary Harris.
There, according to the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers, the Virginia Dwarf Family was scheduled to perform at Barnum’s American Museum:
More Novelty — At Barnum’s American Museum there is a most extraordinary family of dwarfs on exhibition. They consist of Major Walters, fifty-one years old, and only thirty-eight inches in height, his two sisters Roxana and Kate Walters, forty-two and forty-five years of age, and only thirty inches in height, and a younger sister, who stands five feet and nine inches in height. The family are from Virginia and the Major declares himself a staunch Union man and ready to fight for the government.
What happened to Hiram, Roxana and Catharine after that isn’t clear. All three appear to disappear from the public record after June of 1861.
One story that made it home to Wytheville was that the siblings died of smallpox in New York in 1861 and were buried at Weehawken Cemetery in North Bergen, N.J. Newspapers do report smallpox in the area at that time, but the cemetery has no record of their burials.
Interestingly, showman John Burnell, who married Nancy Walters, was buried at Weehawken in 1881, after dying penniless in New York. It’s unknown at this point if Nancy, who died in 1884, also is buried at Weehawken.
Another story that made it home was that Hiram, Roxana and Catharine died sometime during the Civil War, while performing in Europe. It’s said they were even presented to the King and Queen of England.
(I’ve found no evidence of that, either, but perhaps it was a more romantic story to tell than dying of smallpox.)
Things didn’t work out so well for William, either. William was reportedly a rough character, prone to brandishing weapons. In April of 1859, while running a grocery store in the east Tennessee town of Union, William shot and killed a man named Elijah Cross.
William was charged with and convicted of murder, as reported in the North-Carolinian and other newspapers. The North-Carolinian also revealed a motive:
Convicted of Murder — Wm. Walters, a dwarf, well known about Bristol, has been convicted at Blountsville, Tenn. of murder in the first degree. Walters shot a man named Cross for making improper overtures to Mrs. Walters, who is said to be a woman of unusual personal attractions.
What happened after that is unclear. A Dec. 7, 1859, article in the New Bern (N.C) Daily Progress indicates William was granted a new trial and the case was moved to nearby Greeneville, Tenn.
Some have said the conviction was eventually overturned.
It hardly matters, however, as William was to face a bad end himself a few years later. On Dec. 30, 1863, the Wytheville Dispatch reported the following, under the headline “Murder in Wythe County”:
We are informed that Wm. Walters, the little dwarf (who was only 3 feet 2 inches high and 40 years old) was murdered on the evening of the 24th, by a man named Roberts.
It appears that they were returning together from a still-house at which place Walters had exhibited a considerable amount of money to possess which by Roberts, is thought to have led to the commission of the horrid deed.
Roberts was heard to say by a man named Etter that he had killed Walters, but pretended it was done in self-defence [sic]. Roberts is still at large but it is thought cannot escape as he is well known.
A decade later, William was still making headlines, if only as part of an apparent feud between rival area newspapers and without sympathy from reporters. On Feb. 4, 1873, the Bristol (Tenn.) News reported the following:
The Wytheville Enterprise says the dwarf Wm. Walters was not killed in the manner stated by the correspondent of the Courier Journal, but that his taking off occurred in a gambling spree near Cullop’s mill in Wythe Co., Va., with one Steve Roberts a wooden legged individual, who, because Walters won all his money, cut his throat from ear to ear, and then limped out of Virginia into Kentucky, and has never been heard from since.
Well, well! Cock Robin being dead, it is immaterial who killed him.