Fifty years ago, when Macon verandas buzzed with gossip about Chester Burge, people probably lowered their voices to utter that one, devastating word in a whisper, using the piedmont drawl to elide and smooth over any harsh-sounding consonants: quee-ah.
No doubt it was followed by the other epithet that ends in “r.”
In a lurid scandal that transfixed the region, Burge, a wealthy slumlord and bootlegger, was tried and acquitted of murdering his wife, Mary, in 1960, but was found guilty of sodomy with his African-American chauffeur. For the first time in Georgia history, a black man disclosed in court that he had been a white man’s sexual partner. This story, with its nexus of lust, race, and class set among the columned mansions of cotton-town segregation, oozes all that fertilizes Southern Gothicka, including a bestiality anecdote; a sabbatical at the State Insane Asylum; “Baby Frances,” the “Fat Lady” circus performer who weighed 826 pounds; the obligatory cameo by the Ku Klux Klan; and a string of mysterious deaths, ending with the spectacular immolation of Chester Burge himself.
“All of the elements are there,” says Rick Hutto, who relates the saga with grace and subtle wit in A Peculiar Tribe of People: Murder and Madness in the Heart of Georgia, published on September 21 by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe-Pequot. He sighs and shrugs. “If I made any of this up, no one would believe me.”
Part of the book’s pleasure lies in its cognitive dissonance. Hutto — an urbane Savannah native who worked as Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s appointments secretary during the presidency and now serves on the Macon City Council — dishes up the squalor in a writing style that gleams with the polish accorded heirloom silver. Comparisons to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are inevitable, but he describes his book as a more straightforward accounting of sleuthed-out facts. “Although, as an elected official, I would love to see a boom in Macon tourism like what Savannah has experienced.”
Hutto, who has published books and lectured on the Gilded Age, became intrigued with Chester Burge after moving to Shirley Hills, near what was dubbed the “murder house” at the corner of Jackson Springs and Nottingham roads. There, Mary Kennington Burge was strangled to death on the night of May 11, 1960. Her finger, which bore a 10-carat diamond, was almost severed from her hand.
At the time, her husband was recuperating from hernia surgery at the Macon Hospital, but certain clues suggested an inside job. Her noisy sentry of a parrot had been killed earlier that day, and the family dog was locked in the basement. That whopping diamond, pried from its setting, was left in the carpet. The more investigators learned about Chester Burge’s private life, the more they suspected that he was somehow responsible, either by sneaking out of the hospital’s side exit — possibly assisted by his chauffeur, Louis Roosevelt Johnson — or through a contract killing of some sort.
The Burges had the kind of marriage that old-school gay lingo might term “curly around the edges.” In addition to getting serviced by the help, he had been consorting with other men, trying at one point to tour Europe with a toothsome “mill village boy,” and to buy a hotel in Tampa for another young Adonis. His wife had thwarted these plans, though, and was threatening divorce. Most of the Burge property was in her name because of certain competency issues arising from his youthful stint in the nearby “nervous hospital.”
“They were not nice people,” says Fritz Phillips, who was Burge’s “reluctant partner” in the transactional sexual arrangement surrounding the Florida hotel. “Things were getting increasingly ugly. Mary was furious because she thought I was stealing her husband. I didn’t want him; I just wanted to run this hotel. When I heard that she had been murdered, in my heart of hearts, I believed he had done it himself. He was that diabolical. But everyone in that household — including Mary and the chauffeur, who was on parole for killing someone, as was the laundress, though she could be quite pleasant — talked about murder all the time, as part of casual, every-day conversation. Not a nice crowd.”
Or, as Burge’s lawyer would concede, a “strange tribe of people.”
“Even though the newspapers reported the comment as a ‘strange tribe of people,’ one juror emphatically remembered it as a ‘peculiar tribe of people,’” Hutto explains in a footnote. “… During the trial a prosecutor also referred to ‘a peculiar love, a mighty dangerous love.’ I chose to use A Peculiar Tribe of People as an apt and appropriate title for this book.”
And so it is.
By most accounts, Chester Burge was a predatory, socially off-key dandy who lacked the Wildean wit that normally accompanies the spats, Homburg hats, and frock coats he liked to wear. “He told the worst, mean-spirited jokes that were just not funny,” recalls Phillips. Burge was — in that fine, old expression — “trashy rich” and prone to unbecoming excesses, perhaps closer in sensibility to his carny cousin, “Baby Frances,” than to the aristocracy he envied.
“Chester was this monstrous bumpkin with unscrupulously acquired wealth,” says Bill Barton, a Shirley Hills scion who belonged to the same Boy Scout troop as Burge’s son. “I watched ol’ Chester flip one of those recreational six-wheelers one time, just roaring drunk at our scout meeting. That whole household was crazy as hell. Just more insane sociopaths with money, but that’s the sporting life of Macon, isn’t it?”
Burge grew up the black sheep, the shunned “poor relation” of the prominent Dunlaps, who had swanned around estates up and down College Street. He had served a year and a day in prison for selling alcohol to an undercover agent, and his mother also had him committed for three months in the mental institution in Milledgeville on the grounds — never detailed in any records — that he was a “dangerous lunatic.” (She later testified against him in his murder trial.) Too, his long-suffering first wife divorced him, complaining that he made her a “nervous wreck” by forcing her into “excessive copulation” several times a day, according to court records. “No woman in the world could stand what I had to go through,” she testified.
Burge’s biography seems always to have sputtered with unsavory setbacks, but he was a resourceful finagler, coveting the grandee lifestyle of his relatives — the antiques; the swell, boozy parties; the easy social acceptance. When the clan dwindled to just one dowager, he buttered her up and convinced her to rewrite her will, leaving his family her plantation. She died three days later, prompting some ugly innuendo about a pillow held over her face.
Burge also was renting and selling shotgun houses to poor, illiterate blacks and whites who did not understand the reversionary clauses and hidden fees in the fine print. Two weeks before his wife’s murder, the Ku Klux Klan rallied in the Burge yard to protest his deal with a black family who had moved into a white neighborhood. (In an odd concession to modernity, the Klan had brought a cross designed to light up electrically, obviating the need for gasoline.) Burge waved a pistol at the gathering while his wife sweetly assured the Grand Dragon that they would be happy to evict the black tenants in favor of a white family.
“Despite his secret relationship with his chauffeur, Chester was anything but an integrationist; the only color that mattered to him was green,” Hutto points out.
So investigators initially considered white supremacists in Mary Burge’s murder, but suspicion quickly shifted to her husband.
“Straight marriage was more prevalent within the gay community then than now,” says Macon historian Phil Comer, who plans to play Burge in the “Spirits of October” tour at Riverside cemetery, where the notorious parvenu is interred. “Chester’s parallel life was not uncommon. From what I gathered talking to gay folks who knew Chester, everyone within Macon’s gay and lesbian subculture appeared to be aware of Chester’s situation. Many of them were also married, and Mary’s murder became a cautionary tale. What men and women, gay or straight, seem oblivious to is that should something mysterious happens to your partner, you will be the first detectives consider.”
Nevertheless, Burge, stitched up and looking dazed in his robe and pajamas during the aftermath, had the alibi of hospitalization. There was some confusion about a fingerprint on a doorknob at the Shirley Hills house; it belonged to Burge, but he lived there, after all. (Ironically, he was represented by the crackerjack attorneys who had prosecuted Anjette Lyles, the voodoo-practicing restaurateur who poisoned her family members to death.) Jurors returned a “not guilty” verdict after 17 minutes. For the sodomy allegation, though, Johnson, the chauffeur, was offered immunity for his testimony, which he gave in unsparing detail, describing his washing-up ritual before trysts with Burge.
“The chauffeur completely disappeared after the trial,” Hutto says. “There’s no record of him anywhere.”
Burge’s sodomy conviction eventually was overturned for lack of corroborating evidence. His bizarre narrative does not end there, though. He married an older, venerable women’s suffrage orator with ties to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and moved to Florida. At first, she seemed unperturbed by her husband’s salacious history, but soon enough, she fled the marriage in a hurry. In 1963, Burge died in an explosion at his home that has never been explained. He ran from the blast in the nude and on fire, his skin hanging from his bones like a baggy suit.
Hutto chose his title well, and underscored it with the right epigraph from Flannery O’Connor: “I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque … unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”