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Book Review: Cruelly Murdered by Keven McQueen

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Keven McQueen’s descriptions of life during the early years of Kentucky history are so detailed you could easily close your eyes and picture yourself right there in the dining room, watching, as the maid, Jenny Bowman, is beaten, carried up the stairs, and beaten some more. You can hear the ‘whoosh’ of the blade as Mr. Wilmot takes an axe to his wife and daughters. And you will, more than once, feel the noose tighten around your neck as you take your last breath, while the floor beneath your feet drops away.

Cruelly Murdered: The Murder of Mary Magdalene Pitts and Other Kentucky True Crime Stories is a collection of stories, all highly researched, detailing several murders that happened in Kentucky, back when lynch mobs often had more say in a murderer’s fate than a federal judge did.

One would assume that a book with a title like Cruelly Murdered would be a pretty somber read but McQueen manages to inject just the right amount of sarcasm and wit to make this a very entertaining book. Disrespectful? Maybe. Or maybe you just have to be a native Kentuckian to appreciate the humor in hiring a hitman over some stolen quilts and a few bottles of moonshine.

These aren’t your typical Hatfield and McCoy stories featuring a holler full of bumbling, barefoot idiots. McQueen’s book contains the accounts of true Kentucky crimes, the murderers who committed those crimes, their often comical trials and their fates at the wrong end of the rope. But one story in particular, a story I heard many years ago, still sends shivers down my spine. The story of Mary Magdalene Pitts.

My father grew up in Greenup, Kentucky and, as young Kentucky boys were wont to do in those days, he and his friends often traveled up into the hills for camping trips and hunting expeditions, disappearing for days at a time. My father and his friends were fearless boys and, like Huckleberry Fin and Tom Sawyer, they could hunt and fish and take care of themselves in the woods just fine, thank you very much.

But before heading up into the hills this fearless group of desperados had to pass through a cemetery. And on the way through that cemetery they had to pass the grave of little Mary Magdalene Pitts. At that time, her grave was marked with an angel for the headstone and my father and his friends could not pass that headstone without touching the Angel for protection. Else who knew what evil might befall them on their adventures.

My father took me to visit this same cemetery when I was about age nine and that’s when he told me the story of Mary Magdalene Pitts and, to this day, I can still remember how I felt, imagining the horrible abuse heaped upon that poor child’s head. It’s almost 40 years later and the story still haunts me.

Mary Magdalene Pitts’s was the first case of child abuse that received national attention and her murder was so horrific that people came from all over the United States to attend her funeral. Some accounts say there were over 10,000 people gathered in the square that day and some say over 20,000. Either way, to say the nation was outraged would be an understatement to the nth degree.

in his recounting of the whole ordeal, as he does all of the crimes he covers in his book. Cruelly Murdered is a behind-the-curtain look at murder, Kentucky style. Picture Atticus Finch and Adrian Monk and you’ll have some idea of the respectful, yet entertaining, tone of this book.

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About Donna Anderson