What transpired on June 28, 1959 goes undisputed, mostly thanks to Viola’s confession. Around midnight, she went to the trailer of Emmett and Lee Harper, where they lived on the edge of her property, and shot them in the face with her father’s shotgun. She cut oﬀ their arms, legs, and heads—a fully intact body too heavy to load into the family car on her own—and littered their body parts across multiple counties in northeast Alabama.
Viola gave little explanation for the act, saying only four words in her defense: “They done me wrong.” After her release from Julia Tutwiler prison a decade later, she gave no further explanation. She was going to let the issues lie with the corpses of the Harper brothers, and seemingly her own after dying of congestive heart failure in June 2000.
But that didn’t stop others from coming up with answers and crafting their own stories. Take Harry Brandt Ayers, Anniston Star reporter at the time of Viola’s confession. In his memoir, “In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal,” Ayers posits an explanation stemming from Lee and Viola’s relationship prior to the slaying. He suggests that Viola was involved with both brothers, and one wrong statement or cover-up (literally) caused her to retaliate with undue violence.
Ayers was not the only person in the media to assert Viola drastically overreacted. Other sources, like The Birmingham News, likely shared this barbaric perspective of Viola, publishing pictures captioned with “crude wheelbarrow was death vehicle for removing bodies” once the crime was solved. The [time frame] until resolution was found left northeast Alabama terrified.
However, modern voices shine a different light on Viola. Students in the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts produced a short ﬁlm in 2019 inspired by the true events, portraying the murders as self-defense. The ﬁlm has won various awards, including Best Horror/Thriller at the Black Warrior Film Festival. It was met with a mostly positive reaction.
While we may never truly know the motive behind the “Torso Murders,” there are ample resources for the reader to make their own conclusion. Former University of Alabama professor, Donald Brown, published “Mr. X and Mr. Y” detailing his thorough investigation from over half a century ago as the original reporter from The Birmingham News.
Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos of Purdue University wrote a play called “To Tread Among Serpents” in 2014 based on the double murder in Calhoun County, providing commentary on the skewed storytelling of female criminals by the media. Viola Virginia Hyatt’s story is a popular one told around Alabama, and it's up to the individual reader to determine the ending when they retell it.
Check out the short ﬁlm and play, as well as the book and source materials from Don Brown, here: