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.”