By Jeff Phelps
Special to The Greenup Beacon
Mary Magdalene Pitts was struck down at the tender age of three. Her story of torture and murder sparked a nationwide furor that still echoes today.The monument that marks her grave has become a shrine for the residents of Greenup County. Dolls, stuffed animals and toy cars are still left for her 92 years after her death. She lived a cursed life and died a tragic death. But she lives on in the hearts of many.
Greenup Mayor Charles Veach, in 2004, declared the date of Mary’s death, December 29th, would be remembered annually as “Mary Magdalene Pitts Day” in Greenup. Her grave is still honored by many. The story of her untimely and cruel death is still told.
When the country doctor George Kaye Woods was called to the home of Robert Pitts and a housekeeper, Marie “Tempe” Frazier, he was expecting to prepare a young girl for burial. It was part of the services he offered. Woods also dispensed home remedies and delivered babies. Two of Mary’s five siblings made the short journey to his house to tell him of the death.
Mary was the child of Pitts and a former live in lover who had left the home earlier, Lucy Walker Green. Pitts had other children from a first wife who had passed away. Green had left Pitts claiming at various times that she feared him.
Woods didn’t find a child that had died of natural causes. What he found was the tortured and mutilated body of Mary.
He did not comply with the request to help bury the child. Instead he reported Mary’s condition to the county coroner, Mel Compston. Eventually that sparked the prosecution of Pitts and Frazier. The case caused sensational newspaper coverage across the nation that fanned interest in the plight of abused children.
Dr. H.T. Morris accompanied Compston and County Road Patrolman C. F. McNeal to the Pitts home. They arrived on Dec. 31 on instructions from County Judge Robert T. Parsons.
A crowd had gathered at the Pitts home to mourn for Mary. The visit from the officials was met was with concern by the friends of the family. Pitts was gone to his workplace at Armco collecting money from a worker’s fund for flowers for funerals of family members.
Frazier was defiant and aloof sensing no real danger of being accused. Pitts arrived and seemed amazed at the intrusion of the officials. What the investigators found was shocking.
Mary was beaten, bruised and burned. A large u-shaped gash in her head was eventually attributed to a blow from a fireplace poker.
She had been whipped with bundles of switches and with a razor strap. She was held over a fire until her back blistered and both salt and turpentine were rubbed into her open wounds. Her hand had been frozen from being forced to drink water from the frozen McCoy Branch near their home, a small stream that fed into Culp Creek. Wounds were present for what was clearly extended periods.
The head wound appeared to be a week old. A hole in her back above her kidneys was filled with dried blood. It was an old wound that had not healed.
Pitts and Frazier both denied having hurt the girl. Frazier would later claim Mary had fallen and hit her head on the grate of the fireplace causing the u-shaped wound. Both admitted to having whipped her but admitted no harm to her. But the extent of the wounds betrayed the stories they told.
The body of Mary was collected and taken to Greenup to be further examined. Both Pitts and Frazier were arrested and taken in for questioning. Frazier threatened to kill the coroner before they got to town. She made no attempt to do violence, but she was irate at being charged, denying all accusations loudly and repeatedly.
Compston, Morris and local undertaker L.G. Stapf examined the body at Greenup. The suspicions of the investigators were becoming obviously true. Mary was seriously abused to the point of torture. Poisoning was also suspected. The testimony of these men would be pivotal for the trial that was soon to follow.
Compston filled out the death certificate listing the cause as “probably shock” with exposure a contributing factor. He included the words “probably homicide” Compston later testified in court that any one of several injuries to the child could have been fatal. During his visit to the Pitts home he had been threatened not to list the death as a crime. But that was the conclusion he drew.
Crowds of people came from all around to view the body at Staph Funeral Home. Threats of mob violence began to circulate. That caused officials to secretly move Pitts and Frazier to a brand-new jail at Winchester, in Clark County. It was thought to be the most secure in eastern Kentucky.
The two blamed each other for the crime. Pitts claimed it happened while he was working at Armco. Frasier said the father beat her often for an extended period at one point hinting that he had killed a son previously.
Pitts claimed Frazier was fearful that Mary’s estranged mother, Lucy Walker Green, would return for Mary and that jealousy was a big problem for her. Frazier claimed Pitts had been beating the child since she came to live there. Pitts said Frazier wanted Mary dead before her own child was born. And Pitts also claimed Frazier thought she was saving Mary from a life of scorn due to her being born out of wedlock.
In the jail at Winchester, Pitts wrote a 54 page confession in which he claimed he had consented to the murder after Frasier had “put dope in my coffee.”
He said the housekeeper had left Mary hanging upside down in the barn. She had been put in a burlap sack and was hung from a nail on a wall for hours. Pitts even had his confession notarized. Frazier wrote her own 34 page confession in which she claimed Pitts had killed the girl by hitting her in the head with the fireplace poker.
Pitts in his confession claimed that Frazier begged him to marry her and “get shut of the little girl.”
But he would not agree until “Marie doped me and being under the influence of dope, I consented to her doing anything she wanted to do and I would protect her if she was caught.”
Frazier was to do away with Mary while he was at work. She begged him to drink coffee with her at breakfast and she put dope in his coffee. She also doped a raisin pie which he was to take to work,
Pitts included these words in his confession. “Marie got a rope and started for the house where we kept our cow. Me and my oldest boy followed, and when we got there she had the rope around Mary’s arm, and she threw it over the corner of the house, pulled Mary up, and was swinging her and knocking her against the wall. I jumped up and caught Mary, cut the rope, and told her to go to the house. Marie told Mary: ‘Your papa won’t be here all the time and sometime when he is away, I’m going to kill you and I’ll bury you, and when he comes home he’ll think your mother came and got you.’ I told Marie that if she killed Mary I would have her prosecuted. She was jealous of the child. The only reason I didn’t get rid of Marie was because I was afraid she would kill Mary.”
Not to be outdone Frazier told her own tale implicating Pitts. She said:
“The night before little Mary died, I woke up and heard the child in her room. I asked her what was the matter. The next thing I heard her scream. It was dark. I hollered to Pitts and asked what the trouble was. He told me to shut my mouth or I would find out. I believe that was when he hit her in the head with some hard iron of some kind. That morning before he started for work, he said he didn’t know whether to go to work or not. He acted like he was in deep study. On Saturday morning, September 10, he whipped little Mary for the first time, and from that day on he whipped her every day and sometimes twice a day. I have seen him hang her up on the door with her head down for over an hour, and she would scream: “Papa! Papa! Let me down!” Sometimes he would go to bed and leave her tied by her little wrists to the ceiling for a long while. I have seen him whip her back and legs until blood started.”
Their competing versions of the truth at this time did little to settle the issue of who was ultimately at fault. A judge would later discount both confessions. What they did accomplish was to inflame the media portrayal of the situation. It was quickly becoming a national sensation. Someone did torture and kill Mary. That could not be denied. The public started to believe both sensationalized accounts of what happened. And the animosity toward Pitts and Frazier festered even more.
While Pitts and Frazier were in the Clark County jail at Winchester, jailer J. J. Hammond reported finding two slips of paper on Pitts. The first had a list of items to obtain to get ready to bury Mary after she was killed. It included the following:
three yards bleach
two yards lace
three yards white veil
three yards pale blue ribbon
spool white thread
plain black hose
three yards to cover casket
eight yards lace two inches wide
three yards bleach muslim
two boxes of carpet tacks
two pounds quilt bottom
The second note was more sinister. It read, “Better to kill her now than to wait until she is grown. Then she would have to take a gun and blow her brains out.”
Finally, some real evidence brought light to the story. It seemed both Pitts and Frazier were guilty of heinous actions toward Mary.
Two events then escalated the tension yet again. A Lexington lab concluded there were traces of poison in Mary’s stomach.
And Judge Parsons finally allowed Mary’s body to be buried. She had been kept at the funeral home on display from Jan. 1st to Jan. 15th.
Crowds had viewed her body almost continuously during that time leading to greater and greater outrage.
The funeral became an event like no other ever seen in the little town of Greenup. At least 10,000 people came to pay their respects and to demand justice. Her body was placed on the courthouse lawn in the old gazebo there. The people filed by her for hours.
The story had aroused such sympathy in the community that a grave site had been donated by a local businessman Elwood Kinner and a casket had been purchased by workers of the C&O railroad. The funeral was paid for by the C&O terminal at Russell. It was a sensational event.
Mary was carried by little girls as pall bearers. She was taken to Riverview Cemetery on the hill at Greenup and buried with the only doll she had ever owned.
A special grand jury was convened in Greenup and both Pitts and Frazier were indicted for willful murder.
Stapf was a key witness for the prosecution. His examination of the body led him to later write the following in a letter.
“I have been a licensed embalmer since 1913 and have never seen a body in such shape. To my mind this is the most brutal and horrible murder that could be committed. A helpless, defenseless baby murdered by the people to whom it should have looked for protection. No wonder the community is aroused. No wonder the people talk of lynching. Hickman killed outright; Pitts by degree. Hickman killed a strange child; Pitts his own. Could anything be worse?”
The Hickman case was another murder involving people from the tri-state.
Testimony at the grand jury hearing was given by Woods and the investigators. The Pitts children testified. Neighbors also. And all told a story of torture and suffering. There were even more shocking details told by the children and the neighbors. Pitts and Frazier were both indicted for willful murder. Commonwealth Attorney Thomas E. Nichols immediately gave notice he would seek the death penalty for both.
A change of venue was granted for the trial not only because of the threat of lynching but, according to some, it was felt that there was less chance of giving the defendants the death penalty in Greenup County. Vanceburg in Lewis County was the chosen location for the trial. The atmosphere there was little better than it had been in Greenup. Mary’s story was a national event now. People of Lewis County knew it well.
In what was seen a bizarre development Frazer, acting on the advice of her mother Marinda Frazier, went against her appointed lawyer and pleaded guilty.
Her mother had convinced her the only way to save her life was to ask for mercy. And it gave her standing to put most of the blame on Pitts. Ever more heinous charges were leveled by her. She claimed Pitts had told her he was killing Mary “by inches.”
Pitts predictably made counter charges.
Pitts and Frazier were both convicted in the trial by separate juries. It took only twelve minutes for the jury to return the guilty verdict for Frazier.
Surprisingly neither received a death sentence. Both were given life in prison. Possibly this was due to the fact a woman had never been executed in Lewis County.
Frazier was the first woman to get a life term there. Maybe the juries felt it would be hard to justify giving Pitts the electric chair when Frazier was the one who pleaded guilty.
Kentucky law allowed anyone given a life sentence to apply for parole after serving eight years. Frazier would serve twelve years in prison being paroled in 1940.
Pitts spent fourteen years behind bars getting out in 1942. Pitts died in 1964 and was buried in Kansas City, MO. Frazier is thought to have lived until 1985 near St. Petersburg, FL but she escaped public scrutiny later in life. The time and date of her death are not certain.
In 2004 plans for a movie about Mary were proceeding. It was to be called “As Fate Would Have It’. Billy Ray Cyrus was involved and was said to be writing the screenplay. Local author David Spencer was consulting. There was a problem with financing at the Hollywood production company involved and plans fell through. The company did replace Mary’s monument when the original was damaged by vandals in 2004.