When Anjette Donovan married Ben Franklin Lyles, Jr. in 1948, she went to work in his family’s Macon, Georgia, restaurant on Mulberry Street. Lyles’ Restaurant was a hopping diner near the Bibb County Courthouse. Serving lawyers, judges, and many of the area’s politically connected folks, Anjette’s charismatic personality and beauty quickly made her a favorite among them.
While Anjette’s life may have appeared to be filled with rainbows and marshmallows, the truth of the matter was it was anything but. Life at home for the Lyles family was filled with bitter and frequent arguments. In 1951, these marital disputes were the norm versus the exception and grew worse as Ben began experiencing fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, and severe stomach pain.
Ben sought treatment from several doctors, but none of them could find the source of his ailments. Several medications were prescribed, but none of them worked and Ben only continued to grow more frail.
With his health taking it’s toll, Ben sold the restaurant he’d inherited from his father. He didn’t talk with Anjette about this before he made the sale. She was infuriated when he learned what he had done.
Anjette never forgave her husband for selling her beloved restaurant.
The Re-Creation of Anjette
Doctors never could determine what was causing Ben Lyles to be so sick, even after he was admitted to Macon Hospital and subjected to a battery of testing. On January 25, 1952, Ben Lyles finally succumbed to the mysterious illness. Lacking any real idea of the cause of death, they declared it to be Encephalitis.
Anjette moved into her parents’ house, along with her daughters, and began saving every penny she could working as a waitress in hopes of owning her own restaurant again. In April 1955, Anjette had raised enough funds to buy back the restaurant she believed her late husband had stolen from her.
Renaming the diner Anjette’s, she quickly became the hottest restaurant in town. Anjette was making money hand over fist and she didn’t mind showing it off. Anjette was driving a flashy new car and wearing the finest clothing of the latest fashions.
Anjette was beautiful but she was also flirtatious and the gossip mills soon filled with tales of liaisons between the restauranteur and various local men. Whether those rumors were true, no one could never say for certain but they did, indeed, say it – a lot.
Living in the South, where Christianity still ranks higher than football, Anjette was also scrutinized for spell casting and frequent visits to fortune tellers. It wasn’t uncommon for diners to witness Anjette burning candles and speaking to the flames. But the food was good, the gossip better, so patrons of the diner looked the other way.
For a little while, anyway.
Lightening Strikes Twice
In May 1955, Anjette began dating Joe Neal Gabbert, whom friends and family called Buddy, a pilot for Capital Airlines (which later merged with United Airlines), and they wed while vacationing in New Mexico on June 24, 1955. Soon after the elopement that had shocked friends and family on both sides, Buddy went in for relatively minor surgery on his wrist, but the following day he came down with a rash and high fever. Just as with Ben, doctors were unable to diagnosis the problem and Buddy continued to grow more sick. He died on December 2, 1955.
Anjette’s second round with widowhood proved even more profitable than the first with the payout of Buddy’s life insurance which allowed her to purchase a new home and a new car.
Anjette was working long hours at the restaurant while trying to single-handedly raising two daughters. When her first mother-in-law Julia D. Young Lyles offered to move in and help out, Anjette accepted.
While the elderly woman was living with her, Anjette came across a bank statement that showed Mrs. Lyles was very well-off financially. Anjette became adamant that her mother-in-law make a will, but Mrs. Lyles was superstitious about such things and refused to do so.
She’d have preferred her mother-in-law create a will as requested but, in the end, Anjette could work without it.
The Passing of Mrs. Lyles
In August 1957, the elder Mrs. Lyles became very ill. Every day Anjette was at her mother-in-law’s bedside, bringing her favorite meals from the restaurant and feeding her. As Mrs. Lyles symptoms of nausea and edema continued to grow worse, doctors remained mystified of the cause but chalked it up to an ailment associated with growing older – even though the Mrs. Lyles was only sixty.
On September 29, 1957, Julia Lyles succumbed to her illness and was buried next her husband and son in the cemetary behind the Antioch United Methodist Church in Cochran, Georgia.
A week later Anjette produced a will she claimed was that of her late mother-in-law. No one questioned the document which left the bulk of Mrs. Lyles’ estate to Anjette and her daughters, and the will was quickly probated.
Anjette had received a small amount of life insurance from Ben’s death, a larger amount of money from the life insurance policy on her second husband, and now had inherited the sizeable estate of her mother-in-law.
For Anjette, however, it wasn’t enough.
Pushing the Limits
The townsfolk of Macon had looked the other way many times when it came to Anjette, but that wouldn’t be the case when it came to the sudden illness of her oldest daughter, Marcia Elaine Lyles in mid-winter of 1958. After an extended hospital stay, during which doctors performed numerous tests trying to find the cause of her stomach pains, nausea, diarrhea, and swelling, the nine-year-old girl passed away on April 4, 1958.
Maconites had explained away the deaths of two husbands and a mother-in-law as Anjette having bad luck, but they weren’t willing to accept such reasoning in the death of a child who had otherwise been healthy until the last couple of months of life. A subsequent autopsy revealed that the young girl had extremely high amounts of arsenic in her system.
As part of an investigation that had been opened into Marcia’s death, prosecutors obtained a Court order permitting them to exhume the bodies of Ben Lyles, Buddy Gabbert, and Julia Lyles. Autopsies of this trio revealed they too had excessive amounts of arsenic in their bodies.
When investigators searched the home of Anjette Lyles, they confiscated several boxes of arsenic-based ant poison, along with what was referred to on warrants as “voodoo paraphernalia”- candles, written spells, potions, powders, and roots.
The woman who had once made her claim to fame with food and flirts on Mulberry Street was about to become a national celebrity overnight.
Anjette Donovan Lyles Makes History
Anjette was arrested on May 6, 1958, on four counts of murder. The media couldn’t get enough of the pretty young woman charged with murdering four of her closest loved ones, especially her own child. It was simply unheard of!
When her trial began the first week of October 1958, people from across the United States, and even some from Europe, stood in line outside the Courthouse each morning of the trial hoping to get one of the few available seats for the hottest show in town.
For a week, witnesses testified to seeing Anjette serve her daughter and mother-in-law drinks during their hospitalization; about Anjette’s purchase of a casket for her daughter two weeks before the child died; and a sheriff’s deputy testified that a paper entered into evidence with Julia Lyles’ name written on it several times was confiscated during a search of Anjette’s home; and the deputy was followed by a handwriting expert that compared it to documents known to be written by Julia and declared the will a forgery.
Before the closing of the trial, Anjette took the stand as an unsworn witness, preventing her from being cross-examined and, looking directly at the jury of twelve men, and declared, “Gentlemen of the jury, I have not killed anyone.”
The jury didn’t buy it as it took them only an hour to find Anjette guilty of all four murders, without recommendation of leniency. Just minutes after the return of the verdict, the judge sentenced Anjette to death; making her in the first white woman in the state of Georgia to be sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Nature’s Own Sentence
Once the appeals process began, Anjette suddenly found religion. When that didn’t work, she began to act insane when meeting with psychiatrists. Her theatrics had no effect.
Georgia, however, wasn’t quite ready to execute a woman just yet. Anjette spent little time on Georgia’s death row before she was permitted a hearing before the board of Pardons and Paroles, where she claimed her late mother-in-law was guilty of killing her own son, Anjette’s second husband, and herself. Anjette then accused her own mother, Jetta Donovan, who had stood by her throughout the entire ordeal, of killing little Marcia.
Desperate for any reason not to execute a woman, Anjette was labeled as a Chronic Paranoid Schizophrenic and sent to the state mental hospital at Milledgeville. If she were to recover (meaning if public outrage threatened re-election for certain politicians or executing women suddenly became chic), Anjette would be returned to death row.
While at Milledgeville, Anjette continued the playacting and told a friend, “They think I’m crazy as hell and I’m going to let them keep thinking it. Because if they don’t, they’re going to fry my ass!”
It may have saved her from being executed by the state for almost twenty years, but Karma has a way of evening things out. At the age of 52, Anjette Lyles died of a heart attack on December 4, 1977.
In a cruel, final twist, Anjette Donovan Lyles was buried next to her second husband and her oldest daughter.