Weird Georgia: Soothsayer and Witch: Mayhayley Lancaster
By most definitions Mayhayley Lancaster was a witch. Born October 18, 1875, she lived in the ancient family log cabin. She wore short silk skirts, fancy hats, large hoop earrings, and multiple rings. Her one good eye peered from behind gold rimmed glasses perched at the end of her nose.
Mayhayley was telling fortunes by age twelve. She worked hard and purchased rental property, managed several businesses she owned, raised livestock, and farmed cotton and corn. She was one of Heard County's richest citizens, and even ran for the state senate.
Mayhayley advised gamblers on the numbers they should play, pregnant women about the sex of their babies, singles on who they would marry, and couples if they should wed. She "found" all manner of lost and stolen property. "It's not a learned gift," she told Atlanta Constitution reporter Celestine Sibley, "it's a borned gift."
Local law enforcement held Mayhayley in high esteem, not because they believed in her special talents, but because criminals came to her to discover if they would get caught. She was the center of a case followed by the nation in 1948. John Wallace was a powerful landowner in Meriwether County, and Wilson Turner was a tenant farmer who stole his cattle. Wallace chased Turner into Coweta County and killed him, then threw the body into an abandoned well on his extensive property. When Wallace had visited Mayhayley to find out who had stolen his cattle, she told him, with an admonition not to harm Turner.
"You killed him anyway, didn't you?" Mayhayley demanded on Wallace's return. "Death, danger, destruction!" she shouted. "The evil deed will see the light," then, "Run, run the trouble's begun. They'll get you too before it's all done." When asked who would catch him, Mayhayley said, "A man who is brave, a man who is true, a man who is just as determined as you."
Frightened, Wallace drafted two sharecroppers, retrieved the body from the well, and hauled it miles to a moonshine pit. There it was covered with two cords of pinewood and ten gallons of gasoline, which was ignited, cremating the body. The ashes were thrown into a creek.
Mayhayley's brave, true, and determined man was Coweta County sheriff Lamar Potts, angered by murder in his county. Deputies were dispatched to consult Mayhayley, where they paid the standard fee for a reading-a dollar and a dime-the dollar was for her, the dime for a pack of dogs that lived on her land. A deck of cards was cut and the ace of spades-the death card-revealed. Mayhayley placed the back leg hair of a possum in her mouth, then spit into the fire and watched the flames and entered a trance, "having a séance with the spirits," her sister said.
"I see a terrible fire," Mayhayley revealed. "Gone from its hiding place...men, horses, a truck, fire."
Armed with this information, Potts searched Wallace's property, finding the well, cremation site, and human remains.
Mayhayley testified at the trial, giving readings in the courthouse square before being called to the stand. Her presence in the courthouse troubled Wallace, who told his lawyer to "get that damned witch...out of here. Every time I look up, I see Mayhayley's glass eye staring at me. She's trying to cast a spell." When Wallace was convicted his lawyer commented, "Not since the seventeenth century has the testimony of a witch been allowed in a court of law." In an appeal, the lawyer claimed, "The prosecution resorted to everything from sorcery to science."
Wallace was executed November 3, 1950, the first time a property owner had been punished for harming a sharecropper, and Mayhayley became a nationally known celebrity. From across the country came visitors, telephone calls, and mail, all asking for readings. Mayhayley doubled her fee, hiding the proceeds in mattresses and holes in the wall.
Mayhayley died October 14, 1955, at the age of seventy-nine, and was buried at Caney Head Methodist Church near Roosterville in Heard County. Vandals slowly chipped away at her gravestone until only a stub remained, although a newer marker now stands beside the original. According to legend, people who take souvenirs from the stone suffer bad luck until they return the pieces of gravestone to the cemetery. One student is alleged to have been killed in a traffic accident after desecrating the grave. Mayhayley's gravestone bears a Biblical inscription-John 7:5, written about Jesus but applicable to Mayhayley: "For neither did his Brethren believe in him."
Mayhayley's story was made famous by publication of the book Murder in Coweta County by Margaret Barnes and the subsequent TV movie, starring Andy Griffith as Wallace, Johnny Cash as Sheriff Potts and June Carter Cash as Mayhayley. Another book, Oracle of the Ages, by Dot Moore and Katie Lamar Smith, tells more of Mayhayley's life.
From Weird Georgia (Sterling Press, 2006).
Jim Miles is the author of two Weird Georgia books and nine books about the Civil War. See Jim's books.