Weird Georgia: Anjette Lyles, Part 1: The Mother Murders
By Jim Miles
Happy Weird Georgia Mother's Day!
Anjette Donavan was the typical girl next door when she married Benjamin Franklin Lyles in October 1947. They had a nice apartment on Poplar Street in Macon, where Ben helped run Lyles’s Restaurant, a thirty-year-old family business. Pregnant within weeks, Anjette delivered Marcia Elaine the following July.
Unfortunately, Ben began staying out late, drinking heavily, and gambling. Anjette helped her mother-in-law Julia run the restaurant, with Marcia becoming a favorite of the staff.
In the army Ben had developed rheumatic fever, which affected his heart. At the Veterans Administration hospital in Dublin he was declared completely disabled and received a pension. Anjette had another daughter, Carla, in May 1951, shortly before Ben suddenly sold the popular restaurant for just $2,500. Ben resumed drinking, and his disability was reduced by 90 percent. Anjette was forced to beg relatives for money and used clothes for her children.
In December 1951 Ben began bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth. He became delirious, his arms and legs swelled, and at times his body would go rigid or his limbs twitched convulsively. Ben fell into a coma and died January 25, 1952, the declared cause encephalitis.
Widowed with two children at the age of 26, Anjette had no resources and continued to rely on family charity. However, she had enjoyed working at Lyles’s and became a bookkeeper at Bell House Restaurant, determined to master the business. By working hard and pinching pennies, in April 1955 she bought the old Lyles’s for $12,000, reopening it as Anjette’s.
Traditional Southern food and Anjette’s charming personality made the restaurant a Macon institution. Airline employees frequented Anjette’s, and that was how she met Joe Neal “Buddy” Gabbert, pilot and military veteran. Inviting local scandal, Anjette flew to Texas to visit him. On the night of June 24, 1955 they roused a judge in New Mexico and married.
Soon after the couple returned to Macon, Buddy’s wrist started hurting, then a severe skin rash developed on his face, chest, arms and legs, and he suffered acute swelling. The pain was so intense that he begged, “Let me die,” related Jaclyn Weldon White in Whisper to the Black Candle. As his condition worsened, a doctor suspected arsenic poisoning. “He’s going to die,” Anjette told people. “I know he’s going to die.”
After several nights in the hospital, which allowed Anjette to rest, Buddy rallied and was released, but at home his condition grew worse and he was readmitted. He could not stomach any food, usually vomited liquids, and grew increasingly irrational. Transferred to the VA hospital in Dublin, Buddy’s kidneys failed and he died December 2, 1955.
When a nurse asked Anjette if Buddy was insured, she nodded and said vehemently, “and his mother won’t see a penny of it. I’ve seen to that.”
Doctors wanted to autopsy Buddy, but Anjette refused. “I promised him I’d never let anyone cut him up,” she declared. The doctors did not need her approval and proceeded, although nothing unusual was found.
Not only did Anjette neglect to grieve for Buddy, she started telling people he was mean to her and wondered why she had married him. She was soon dating Bob Franks, her husband’s former boss, purchased a Cadillac with Buddy’s insurance, and then bought a house in the suburbs. Anjette’s original mother-in-law, Julia Lyles, moved in with the family.
Anjette knew Julia had nearly $100,000 in savings and pressured her to make a will, but the older woman refused. In August 1957 Julia fell ill-listless, pale, and chilled. After she vomited blood, turned purple, and her limbs started to swell, she was hospitalized.
“I’m afraid she’s not going to make it,” Anjette worried aloud. Weeks later Anjette stated, “It doesn’t look like she is going to live,” and showed a note signed by Julia authorizing Anjette to make funeral arrangements. Julia died September 29.
A week later Anjette produced Julia’s will, announcing, “I finally talked her into it.” One third of the estate was left to Julia’s son Joseph, another third to Anjette, and the final portion to Marcia and Carla. Anjette was both executor of the will and trustee for her girls.
At some point in her life Anjette embraced voodoo, believing in its magic and burning candles for various purposes. If she desired a certain result, she wrote it on a note and placed it under a lit candle, to which she then whispered. “You tell it what you want it to do,” she said
In March 1958 Marcia felt listless and developed a bad cough. Her temperature was so high, 106 degrees, that the doctor sent her straight to the hospital. “I think she’s going to die,” Anjette said, her morbid resolution firmer than ever.
In Cochran, Julia’s sister Nora Bagley received an anonymous note: “Please come at once. She’s getting the same dose as the others. Please come at once.” A similar note followed.
Marcia’s health rapidly deteriorated and she became delirious, believing bugs were crawling across her skin.
“She’ll soon be going home to Little Ben (Marcia’s father) and her grandmother,” Anjette predicted. The girl died April 4, 1958.
Lester Chapman, the Bibb County coroner, alarmed by the note from Cochran and Marcia’s death, took tissue samples from the body.
Anjette placed a Bible and bride doll with Marcia, and buried her beside family members at Coleman Chapel near Wadley, in eastern Georgia. Anjette reinterred Ben beside her, and ominously stated, “She (Carla) said she wants to go to heaven to be with Marcia.”
Read Part 2, Mother on Trial.
Jaclyn Weldon White’s book on the subject, Whisper to the Black Candle: Voodoo, Murder, and the Case of Anjette Lyles, is available and highly recommended.
Jim Miles is the author of nine books about the Civil War, two Weird Georgia books, and three books about Georgia’s Civil War ghosts. Buy Jim’s books.