When North Carolina farmer Stuart Taylor died after a sudden illness, his forty-six-year-old fiancée, Velma Barfield, was overcome with grief. Taylor’s family grieved with her—until the autopsy revealed traces of arsenic poisoning. Turned over to the authorities by her own son, Velma stunned her family with more revelations. This wasn’t the first time she had committed cold-blooded murder, and she would eventually be tried by the “world’s deadliest prosecutor” and sentenced to death.
This book probes Velma’s stark descent into madness, her prescription drug addiction, and her effort to turn her life around through Christianity. From her harrowing childhood to the crimes that incited a national debate over the death penalty, to the final moments of her execution, Velma Barfield’s life of crime and punishment, revenge and redemption, this is crime reporting at its most gripping and profound.
“A painfully intimate, moving story about the life and death of the only woman executed in the U.S. between 1962–1998 . . . With graceful writing and thorough reporting, it makes the reader look hard at something dark and sad in the human soul . . . Breathes new life into the true crime genre.” —The News & Observer
“Undertakes to answer the questions about the justice system and the motives that drive women to kill.” —The Washington Post Book World
“An extraordinary piece of writing . . . The most chilling description of a legal execution that we are ever likely to get.” —Citizen-Times
“Taut and engrossing on the nature of justice and the death penalty as well as on guilt and responsibility.” —Booklist
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About the Author
Jerry Bledsoe is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Bitter Blood and others. Among the many publications in which his work has appeared are Esquire and the New York Times. Bledsoe lives in North Carolina and Virginia.
Kevin Stillwell is an actor, voice talent, and Earphones Award-winning audiobook narrator. His film and television credits include Looper and Drop Dead Diva.
Read an Excerpt
A sense of desolation is inescapable in the flat, sandy farmlands that border the South River, which separates the eastern North Carolina counties of Cumberland and Sampson. The river itself is narrow, black and forbidding, often without definable banks, wandering aimlessly through cypress-studded swamps. Even in the lushness of summer, with crops at their peaks and marshlands and woods in rampant tangle, an impression of emptiness prevails.
Bullards have lived on this land for generations. John Bullard raised cotton and tobacco on the Sampson County side of the river until he swapped farms early in this century with Frank Autry, who lived on the Cumberland side. In the deal Bullard ended up with more than two hundred acres and a small house into which he moved his wife Isabelle and their burgeoning family. Here they would finish rearing their nine children, losing a daughter, Sophia Velma, to fever at the age of three, and a son, Joe Tyson, to blood poisoning at fourteen. A daughter, Annie Belle, also would precede her parents in death, a victim of the flu epidemic that swept through the country in the winter of 1918-19, dead at twenty-six.
In 1926, ten years before his own death, John Bullard began dividing his land to parcel it out to his surviving children. The house and about forty acres surrounding it would go to his youngest child, Murphy, who was expected to remain at home to look after his aging parents and crippled sister.
Murphy was a gregarious young man, boisterous and volatile, but eminently likable. Lillie McMillan likely would have been drawn to him even if she hadn't lived in a place where choices were few, for she was his opposite.
Friends described Lillie as smart, sweet and docile. Tall and thin, with short, dark hair framing her thin, pretty face, she was from a Presbyterian clan who lived only a few miles from the Baptist Bullards. Like Murphy, she was the youngest in her family. Her mother had died when she was twelve, her father when she was fifteen. She had been left to live with her married siblings, staying first with one, then another, each for only a while. She hated that period of her life and carried deep resentments about it.
For a while she had lived with her brother Jim, thirteen years older. Jim was married to Murphy's sister Mary Void, and they lived within sight of the Bullard homeplace in an abandoned frame schoolhouse that had been converted into a home. That was how Lillie had come to know Murphy. She was fifteen months older than he.
Neither family expected their wedding. Lillie slipped out of a window of her sister Nellie's house to run away with Murphy to South Carolina, where they married on July 27, 1929, two days before her nineteenth birthday. They returned to live with his parents.
The house into which Lillie moved with her new husband was neither as big nor as nice as some in which she had lived. It sat alongside a sandy lane by a swampy area through which a small creek — the Little Branch, local people called it — flowed into a pond a quarter of a mile away. The pond provided energy for a neighbor's grist mill, cotton gin, and country store, the commercial heart of the community. It was lined with young cypress trees and had a brooding aura of mystery about it. The black water actually was clear, and where the pond was deepest its bottom was sandy white. On hot summer evenings, boys slipped away to skinny-dip in the dark water and to dangle earthworms and caterpillars around cypress knees in hopes of catching sunfish.
The Bullard house was small and plain, built of heart pine, the unpainted boards brittle and gray with age. Lichens and moss grew on the gray cypress shingles of the roof, which leaked in heavy rains, calling for a marshaling of pots and jars. The main part of the house had but four rooms, three bedrooms and a living room. The kitchen was attached to the back of the house and could be reached only by going out the back door and passing along a narrow, L-shaped porch.
The heat inside the house could be insufferable in summer, and the front porch, shaded by chinaberry trees and a big magnolia, offered the only escape. It was worst in the kitchen, where Isabelle Bullard cooked on a wood range. No screens covered the windows or doors, and any time the weather was warm the house swarmed with flies and mosquitoes. In cold weather, a brick fireplace in the living room provided the only heat in the main part of the house. Winter winds whistled through the bare walls, and after all had gone to bed and the fire had died, the only warmth came from nestling deep under hand-made quilts.
The house had no modern conveniences, not even electricity. (Power lines would not reach the area until after World War II.) A shallow, hand-dug well, from which buckets of cool water were raised by a counterbalance, was just outside the kitchen behind the house. Milk and butter were suspended in buckets inside the well to keep them from spoiling in hot weather. Galvanized tubs for bathing and washing clothes hung from nails on the kitchen wall. There wasn't even an outhouse. Relief was taken in the woods in daylight, in crockery containers at night.
Despite the drawbacks of the Bullard place, Lillie didn't mind. After years of being shunted from house to house, she was satisfied to have a home where she felt wanted. It didn't matter that she had to share it with Murphy's parents and his older sister, Susan Ella, who remained at home because her right arm and leg had been shriveled by polio as a child and her marriage to a much older man had lasted only briefly.
Lillie adjusted quickly to these circumstances and soon began a family of her own.
People who lived near the river had to go to Fayetteville, fifteen miles away, to see a doctor, often a two-hour trip, even in a T-Model Ford, over muddy, rutted roads. Most chose home remedies except for the most serious illnesses and injuries. For many years babies in the area had been delivered by the midwife — the granny woman, she was called — but she had grown too old and feeble to continue her work by the time Lillie Bullard's first child arrived. A son, named Olive, his father's middle name, was delivered by Murphy's mother and sister Mary Void, with the help of neighbor women, on December 2, 1930.
Lillie longed for a daughter next, and her wish was granted. The child was born on October 29, 1932, delivered at the home of Lillie's brother Jim, arriving just two days before Murphy's twenty-first birthday. Her parents named her Margie Velma. They would call her Velma.
The Great Depression had little effect on people in the South River area early on — they could always grow enough to eat — but after the price of cotton collapsed, life grew harder. Murphy found it impossible to provide for his new family, his aging parents, and his crippled sister on the money he made from the meager crops of cotton and tobacco he grew. He went to work for Clarence Bunch, logging for his sawmill, and he moved his wife and two children into a tiny house that Bunch provided near Bethany Church of God a few miles away. It was there that Lillie would give birth to her third child, another son, John Samuel, on April 28, 1935.
All across the South, men were leaving farms to take factory jobs in cities and towns, and Murphy soon was one of them. Not long after his second son was born, he heard from an uncle that the textile mills in Fayetteville were hiring. John Henry Faircloth, who had been married to Murphy's dead aunt, Annie Belle, already worked at one of the plants. He recruited young men from the area to work there as well, offering them transportation in his T-Model Ford and charging each a small fare. Murphy rode to town with him one day and was hired to learn to fix looms on the second shift, four until midnight, at Puritan Weaving Company.
His father's health was failing by then, and Murphy moved his wife and children back into his parents' house and devoted himself to bringing in enough money to take care of his family.
Murphy believed in doing a full day's work for a day's pay, even if the work was hard and the pay low — a lesson he would preach to his children. He went to work well or sick, never was late, never missed a day, stayed overtime if something needed doing, worked a second shift, sixteen hours straight, if his bosses asked. To advance himself, he would go in four hours early and work for free to learn new jobs. He got home at one or so each night, slept for a few hours, and was up at dawn to farm until he had to return to the mill. The steady pay made life a little easier, but Murphy never seemed to get ahead.
His deep need to impress people was one of the factors that caused him problems in handling money. "He bought what he wanted instead of what he needed," a relative would say years later. "His pocketbook was always too small for his operation, if you know what I mean."
On February 5, 1936, Murphy's father died at age seventy-four, followed eleven months later by his grieving mother, also seventy-four (Velma was four when her grandmother died and later had no memory of either grandparent). Eight months later, Lillie gave birth to a third son, Jesse. Over the next decade, five more children would follow: Jimmy in 1939, Arlene in 1941, Tyrone in 1944, and finally twins, Ray and Faye, in 1947.
Outside his family, Murphy was known as an amiable man, eager to please, a good friend and neighbor, willing to do whatever he could to help anybody. If somebody in the community fell ill and couldn't get in his crops, Murphy was the first to offer aid. If somebody needed the loan of a piece of farm equipment, it was theirs.
His family, however, knew a different person, a man beset by dark furies, sudden rages, and uncontrolled violence.
At home, Murphy would not suffer frustration. He would explode over the slightest thing: a tool out of place, a car that wouldn't start, an egg not fried exactly to his liking. He would smash a fist into a wall, kick in a fender, fling a plate of food across the room.
Sometimes his reactions were more violent. An avid quail hunter, he always had bird dogs, pointers and setters, and he was determined to train every one to perfection. A dog that balked, or disobeyed, or did not respond fast enough was quick to feel his wrath. Several family members would recall seeing him kick, stomp and beat dogs nearly to death, leaving them with blood running from their noses, mouths and ears. A son would recall him beating a mule with a chain until the mule's back was covered with bloodied knots.
Hot-tempered, his family called it. Nobody knew what might set him off, and everybody edged gingerly about him out of fear of provoking an outburst. But no matter how careful they were, they could not avoid his storms of anger.
On the farm, things happened that often were beyond the control of anybody. Dogs would kill the chickens; snakes would get the eggs; mules would kick out of their stalls and maraud through the corn or tobacco fields; pigs would get out of their pens and root up young crops. When such things happened, the whole family lived in fear of Murphy coming home. They knew that he would erupt — and somebody would pay in pain.
Oftentimes, Lillie would scurry about frantically trying to make things right before he got home. When the damage couldn't be disguised, she often took blame for it herself, even if the children had been responsible, hoping to spare them. But the gambit rarely paid off. Murphy still would line up all the children and whip them one by one with a leather strap.
Neighbors and others often remarked how well-behaved and obedient Murphy's children were, but only the children and their mother knew how they came to be that way. "There was Murphy's law, and that was it," a grandchild would say years later. "Do what I say, do it now, and don't talk back."
A child who did not move quickly enough would pay the consequences. A child who did not perform an assigned task to Murphy's expectations — and he was meticulously exacting about how everything was to be done — would have to do it over again after a session with the strap.
Back talk — "smart mouthin'," Murphy called it — would set him off quicker than anything. His younger children learned that lesson quickly by example and rarely uttered a word of protest. But Olive and Velma never quite acquiesced, despite hard experience. They stubbornly persisted in talking back, even if they had to mutter their defiance beneath their breath.
Olive paid the greater price for this. His father would sometimes hit him with his fist, or pick up whatever was handy, a tobacco stick or a hoe handle, and beat him with it. Years later, Velma would recall several instances in which her father was so out of control that she thought he might actually kill Olive, beating him on one occasion until blood flowed from the wounds across his back and shoulders. Murphy was a burly man, standing nearly six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds, and if Olive tried to defend himself or, worse, fight back, his father only became more infuriated, prolonging the ordeal.
Although Velma "smart-mouthed" her father as much as Olive, she never received more than a session with the strap. This led to conflict between brother and sister. Olive thought that his daddy favored Velma, while she thought that her mother cared more for Olive. They sometimes argued about it to the point of fighting.
Velma resented her mother for this, resented her, too, for her meekness, for not intervening when her children were being abused. Every beating left her as angry at her mother as her father.
But her mother had her own problems. Murphy was intensely jealous, accusing Lillie of looking at other men, although she rarely ventured farther from home than her brother's house just up the road. "He was so jealous of her he didn't want her to even hardly speak to another man," Velma would recall years later. By then she thought that her father's jealousy had its roots in his own unfaithfulness. "I saw things as a child that makes me believe this," she said. "I would have never said anything, though, because I was afraid."
Velma slept in her parents' room, and many nights after her father got home from work she was awakened by his yelling at her mother, cursing and threatening. Sometimes it was her mother's cries that startled her from sleep. Velma would never recall seeing her father beat her mother, but many times, she later would say, she saw him twist her mother's arm behind her back, or push back her fingers until she screamed in pain. And many more times she saw her crying and trembling in fear of him.
Murphy didn't drink regularly, but he did like to go out now and then to buy moonshine (made in abundance in nearby swamps) and carouse with his old buddies, and these events sometimes turned into binges. When he came home drunk, his tirades were even worse. Velma would remember one occasion when she heard her mother screaming and ran out to the kitchen to find her drunken father holding a revolver to her mother's stomach, threatening to kill her.
It would be many years, long after her father had found religion, given up drinking, taken control of his temper and become a doting grandfather, before Velma would ever get up nerve to ask her mother why she hadn't left him.
"Where would I have gone?" her mother asked.
It would be many years beyond that before Velma could look back on her early years and see beyond the misery. Then she would sum up her childhood in just four words: "I was always afraid."CHAPTER 2
For as long as Velma could remember, she dreamed of escape. Escape from the desolate countryside that bound her. From the crowded and jumbled house that embarrassed her. From endless chores that drained her. From the violent father she loathed, the docile mother she resented. Especially from the tension and anger, the frustration and bitterness, that brewed constantly within her, even as a little girl.
She found her first escape in the fall of 1939, as she turned seven. She started the first grade at South River School, a single-story brick building, about four miles from her house.
Velma loved school in the beginning, found it such a relief from home that she wished it lasted longer each day and went on all year without break. She was a good student, too. Teachers, however, would note that she was given to boisterousness and occasional angry outbursts when she was offended or when things didn't go her way. But school did not offer refuge from Velma's steadily growing feelings of insecurity and inferiority. If anything, it accentuated them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death Sentence"
Copyright © 1998 Jerry Bledsoe.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Even though this happened quite some time ago, the author brings this woman and the people and families she victimized together in one interesting, great read! Highly Recommend!
This was an interesting book, but I am not really for executions - that is to say, I find the subject distasteful. But, I did enjoy reading this book but felt very sorry for Velma's children. Of course, you have to feel sorry for her victims first and foremost. If you can stomach reading about executions, then you will enjoy this book. Well written.
I found this book very discouraging. I suppose we were supposed to sympathize with Velma---well, she didn't sympathize with her victims and I found the author very biased in her favor. I disliked it intensely. This book was written from the perspective of the criminal's family--I wondered throughout about the families of the victims.....
The writer did an outstanding job of taking you back in time and making you feel as if you were right there during the time of this persons execution. It was very informative and has changed my views on the death penalty. I can not get over the amount of politics involved.I am glad I chose to read this one.
This story inspired me beyond expectation, making me feel for every person involved.
While being well-written, I found this book to be rather dull. It was more a tale of the politics that were 'governing' the execution of Velma Barfield than anything else.