On a Sunday drive not long ago in the countryside near Laurel, my Mississippi hometown, my octogenarian Aunt Nell pointed out the burned ruins of a house and told me about a hideous crime. “They think it was about drugs,” she said. “They chained this poor man to the kitchen stove and set the house on fire.” She shook her head. “What is the world coming to?”
My instant reaction was, “What indeed.” But after a moment’s reflection, I remembered that grisly episodes – in Laurel and throughout the South – are anything but a new phenomenon. And I was reminded anew of that exchange with my aunt when I got a copy of The Legs Murder Scandal (University Press of Mississippi, $30), a “true crime” book by Hunter Cole that has quickly become the talk of the Magnolia State.
The book opens with Cole’s vivid description of a faded beauty named Ouida (pronounced “Wee-da”) Keeton loading a paper-wrapped bundle into the front seat of her maroon Willis sedan on a soggy January morning and driving out into the sticks in search of a creek or secluded spot in which to dump it.
“Sheets of The New York Times had been placed over the upholstery and on the floor in case of leakage,” Cole writes, the devilishy discreet prose typical of his style.
In the package were a woman’s upper legs, knees to the pubis, the only pieces of Daisy Keeton, Ouida’s mother, that the daughter couldn’t chop up small and either burn in the fireplace of the home they shared or flush down the toilet.
The year was 1935, and this was the beginning of what came to be known as the “legs” scandal, a murder investigation and trials that made headlines all over the South – and a good bit of the North as well – for the better part of a year.
Keeton bungled the disposal of her mother’s thighs and hips badly. It reads like black comedy. Her Willis bogged down on a side road. She had to toss her bundle hastily, thumb a ride back to Laurel wearing a conspicuous, sopping wet mink jacket and then hire a tow truck to rescue her car. Local police were at her door within days. She quickly cracked under shrewd questioning by police chief Jim Brown and implicated a prominent Laurel business man, W.M. Carter, her former employer and her suitor on the sly, as the actual murderer.
The case got juicier still when it came out that Carter, a grandfather and Presbyterian elder, was a philanderer who would bring one of his lovers up from Mobile and park her at the Keeton’s house for the weekend even while he was flirting with Ouida and schmoozing her mother. The fact that Carter owned a saw mill only fueled gruesome speculation.
I grew up hearing the name Ouida Keeton — Laurel’s “very own Lizzie Borden” — but never knew much about the case beyond her having dumped the telltale thighs in the boonies, only to have them discovered by a rabbit hunter and his dogs.
Cole, also a Laurel native (and my freshman English professor in college), has done a phenomenal amount of research, poring over newspaper accounts from Memphis and New Orleans and Birmingham as well as Laurel and digging up remarkable transcripts from court proceedings and from police files. One riveting interview, a lengthy, gently relentless grilling of Keeton by prosecutor Jack Deavours, reads like something scripted for an interrogation sequence on “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Indeed, the whole book seems like a movie or miniseries just waiting to be cast.
The Legs Murder Scandal undermines notions of how much more vicious life is today relative to the “good old days” not just because of the ghastliness of Daisy Keeton’s murder and dismemberment. It’s the violence that lurks in the background throughout Cole’s rendering of the case, especially the offhand allusions to “mobbing” – a nice word for lynching – for which Laurel and Jones County were infamous in that era.
It apparently wasn’t just black prisoners who had to fear being dragged from the squalid city jail and hanged or worse. W.M. Carter, white and well-to-do, was petrified that he would be mobbed. County officials shared his fears enough to move him secretly to a prison in Jackson to keep him out of vigilantes’ way.
And then there’s the “can’t-make-this-stuff-up” back story. For instance, Ouida’s hotheaded sibling, Earl, earlier had been convicted as an accessory to a murder and done prison time. The victim was prosecutor Deavours’ younger brother, shot dead in an argument outside a Laurel pool hall.
For a town that rightly prides itself today on having a nationally known art museum and giving rise to opera great Leontyne Price, 1930s Laurel comes across in Cole’s book as a sort of Dixie Deadwood.
More than half of The Legs Murder Scandal is devoted to the separate trials of Keeton and Carter, both of which played to overflow courtrooms and dominated newspapers’ front pages for months. How the cases were resolved, you’ll have to read for yourself. There will be no spoilers here. Let me just say that Cole’s telling is exhaustively detailed and matter-of-fact macabre — and that Court TV, had it been around, would have cherished every bizarre twist and turn.
Well, okay, one more thing: It wasn’t about drugs. Not even bootleg whiskey.
Just money, lust, jealousy, resentment, insanity. In other words, the classics.