Deer Creek Drive A reckoning of memory and murder in the Mississippi Delta

Beverly Lowry

Book - 2022

"In 1948, in the most stubbornly Dixiefied corner of the Jim Crow south, society matron Idella Thompson was viciously murdered in her own home: stabbed some hundred and fifty times with pruning shears, she was left face-down in one of the bathrooms. Her daughter, Ruth Dickins, was the only other person in the house. She told authorities a Black man she didn't recognize fled the scene, but no evidence was uncovered. When Dickins was convicted and sentenced to a life in prison, the community exploded. Petitions were drafted, signed, and circulated, pleading for her release, and after only five years, she was indeed set free. The governor granted Ruth Dickens an indefinite suspension. Beverly Lowry-who was ten at the time of the to investigate what happened decades ago on the most prestigious street in Leland, Mississippi, and she reflects on what her working class childhood in the south means today. With brilliant reporting and irresistible prose, Deer Creek Drive tells the story of that unspeakable murder within the wider context of race and class, and sheds light on what it was like to grow up white in the Mississippi Delta during the last years of school segregation"--

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True crime stories
New York : Alfred A. Knopf [2022]
Main Author
Beverly Lowry (author)
First edition
Physical Description
353 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 347-354).
  • I. The Crime
  • II. Trial
  • III. Prison
  • IV. Changes
  • V. The Reckoning
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
Review by Booklist Review

In November 1948, murder shook the community of Leland, Mississippi: 68-year-old white woman Idella was found dead, the victim of a ferocious assault, with over 100 wounds inflicted by a pair of gardening shears. Ruth Dickins, Idella's daughter and the crime's sole witness, identified a possible suspect, a young Black man who, Ruth told police, ran off after assaulting her. Police searched the immediate area to no avail and began to have questions about Ruth's statements, which grew inconsistent. Authorities became certain that no one outside the family committed the crime, and, the following year, Ruth would be charged with first-degree murder. The trial garnered a rabid following, but its conclusion was far from assured. Lowry (Who Killed These Girls? 2016), who was a child in a nearby town at the time of the murder, intertwines engrossing dual narratives charting the Thompson case and the course of her own family's life from the 1940s forward. Her true-crime thriller will keep readers absorbed from start to finish.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this thought-provoking memoir, Lowry (Who Killed These Girls? The Unsolved Murders That Rocked a Texas Town) weaves her story of growing up in mid-20th-century Mississippi with the story of a white socialite's murder and its aftermath. In 1948, Idella Thompson, the widow of a prominent planter, was stabbed 150 times in her house in Leland, deep in the Mississippi Delta. The victim's 42-year-old daughter, Ruth Dickins, was home at the time and claimed a Black man was the killer. Given the lack of evidence pointing to an unknown intruder, Dickins was eventually left as the only suspect. She was brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison in 1949. However, after Dickins's well-off white friends and family applied political pressure and embarked on a letter-writing campaign, Dickins was released having spent six years in prison and given a full pardon. Focusing less on the crime itself and more on white privilege in that time and place, Lowry elegantly details Southern daily life and the struggles for equality that eventually led to desegregation. This timely reminder of the injustices of America's past deserves a wide readership. Agent: Anne-Lise Spitzer, Philip G. Spitzer Literary. (Aug.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Lowry (Who Killed These Girls?) delves into the murder of society matron Idella Thompson, the sensational trial, and the Mississippi Delta in this powerful book. In 1948, Thompson was gruesomely murdered in her home. Though her daughter, Ruth Dickins, was the only person in the house, and there was no evidence of an intruder, Dickins claimed an unidentified Black man was the perpetrator. When Dickins was convicted of her mother's murder, she remained insistent that a Black man was responsible for the crime. What follows is a case marked by racism and class that polarizes the community to this day. Lowry grew up nearby and was a child at the time of Thompson's murder. Reflections on her upbringing add rich context to the story as she revisits her home and memories. Lowry skillfully balances memoir with the complexities of the crime, region, and implications about white privilege. This book will appeal to readers interested in Delta history and is a great addition to any true crime fan's bookshelf. Readers interested in similar themes may enjoy Karen L. Cox's Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South. VERDICT An evocative, thoughtful true crime story.--Kate Bellody

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

The details of a 1948 murder in small-town Mississippi anchor a personal account of class, race, and justice. The author of numerous novels and works of nonfiction, Lowry has created a signature genre that combines deeply researched true crime with memoir--e.g., Crossed Over (1992); Who Killed These Girls? (2016). Her latest focuses on the murder of Idella Thompson in Leland, Mississippi, just a few miles from the author's hometown of Greenville. Thompson was hacked to death in her home in the middle of the afternoon, suffering more than 150 blows from a pair of pruning shears. Her daughter Ruth Dickins, who reported the death and was found at the scene in blood-soaked clothing, claimed to have interrupted "a Negro" in the act of murder. Despite a two-week manhunt, this hasty fabrication could not be supported, and Mrs. Dickins was tried, convicted, and sent to a prison farm. Police never uncovered the true motive, though both women were known to be "high-tempered and difficult." Lowry was 10 at the time of the crime and followed the trial and its aftermath along with everyone else in the Delta. Though few doubted Dickins was guilty, the governor received petitions for her release every year. Others saw class bias in the call for clemency and thought she should stay right where she was. "Before suspending Mrs. Dickins's sentence," one woman suggested, "the governor [should] get the pictures of Mrs. Thompson's body and see for himself the mercy and consideration she gave her mother." Lowry chronicles the checkered fortunes of her own, less prominent family alongside those of the Thompson/Dickins clan, and though these stories have no real reason to be conjoined, the author uses both to illustrate the effects of the changing mores and social structure of the period. At one point, she was selected by her school to appear in a TV segment in which White students--"dumb as fence posts"--made the case against desegregation. Lowry's dry wit, honed sentences, and careful way of connecting the dots make her case: This is quite a story. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Looking Back You'd think by now people would have forgotten or perhaps decided simply to let go of the memory of what happened in the Mississippi Delta town of Leland in the early afternoon of November 17, 1948. But nobody has. Even people too young to remember know about it. They've seen clippings pasted in old scrapbooks or heard the story (which did not, by the way, end that year or the next but went on and on, one of those stories that because people love to tell it keeps starting over). Although some local residents still refuse to engage, even briefly, in a discussion of the matter, there are those who would--if you went to Leland--gladly point out the house where it happened--still standing, freshly painted perfectly white, lawn exquisitely maintained. They might even be willing to tell you exactly where in the house the sixty-eight-year-old "society matron" was attacked, first in the enclosed back porch, and then dragged on a small rug into her own bathroom, where she, or, more than likely, her body, ended up: facedown, her daughter said, in her own blood soup, the crown of her head against the tub, beside which sat an ordinary three-legged wooden stool. And between the stool and her head, the gleaming nightmare weapon washed and wiped clean of prints and gore. That it happened was shocking enough on its own. But there? In that neighborhood? Until that year, both of these women, the society-matron mother and the socialite daughter, had lived pretty much their whole lives on this street, which--it is important to note--was and still is the most desirable in town, the street about which locals say, "If you want to get to heaven, you have to live on Deer Creek Drive." Or, as some would say, simply "the Drive." If by happenstance you did find yourself in Leland standing before the murder house, you might then want to check out the house where the dead woman's daughter lived with her cotton broker husband and two young daughters: a mere three houses away down the Drive, north toward Stoneville. You could walk there in minutes, noting as you went, thanks in great measure to the Leland Garden Club, the beauty of the surroundings: the meandering creek to your left and on its high, sloping banks the oak and sycamore trees, the occasional surviving sweet gum, the crepe myrtle and pecan, the azalea and rosebushes, the park benches, the well-fed families of proprietary ducks. That the two women's homes were situated on what some Leland families consider the "wrong" side of the creek should also be noted. It is, of course, a measure of small-town snobbery that there exists, to some, a bad side of the best street in town, but the distinction is also significant in terms of current property values. Houses on South Deer Creek Drive, according to a longtime realtor and lifelong resident, command a higher price. Asked why this was, she answered with a sigh, as if the reason should have been obvious. Because, she said, "Black people live on the south side." Close to? Or on? These days? Both. It was 2018. I'd returned to the Delta to participate in the annual Hot Tamale Festival, which took place in downtown Greenville. The realtor was driving me around Leland, pointing out places of historical interest, including a museum devoted to Kermit the Frog and his creator, the puppeteer Jim Henson, surely Leland's best-known native, more famous even than the bluesmen Son Thomas and Johnny Winter. She'd promised to get me into the murder house, which she'd personally sold five times since the killing, but when we drove there and she went inside to ask, the current residents told her no way. Without a doubt, anybody who knows how and where, on the very day she'd been released from a weeklong stay in the hospital, Idella Stovall Long Thompson was murdered--anybody, that is, willing to remember and say so--could also let you in on the most important part of the story: the identity of the person who was eventually arrested, tried on a first-degree murder charge, convicted, and sent to Parchman, Mississippi's infamous state prison, for life. This particular detail is why a lot of Leland people want to keep the story under wraps. And while some of those who refuse to talk are relatives of the two women or members of the same social class, not all are. A furniture salesman told a friend of mine that if I was hoping to hear what people had to say about that, I "might as well go on back home." Because, he said, "we're not going to talk about it," with no indication who he specifically meant by "we." Leland's small enough--its population barely five thousand in 1948, less than that now--to come together like that, to automatically clam up, close ranks, do the zipper thing, running pinched thumb and index finger across their lips as if to lock the information inside. I know the story, they're saying, but I'm not telling. Especially not to an outsider like you. Greenville, where I grew up, is only nine miles away, but I'd left years before and had never lived in Leland, and so there were lifelong residents who felt justified, if not obliged, to tell me to go on back to Texas and leave this thing alone. And then shut the door in my face. . . . . At the time of the murder, however, the news spread fast. Leland was practically a suburb of Greenville, and telephone service still depended on the "Number, please" request of the switchboard operators, the working women whose job was to put calls through and who, as a consequence, often heard important news first. And sometimes they repeated what they'd eavesdropped on, and maybe the person or persons they shared the news with then phoned somebody else, and so on. Also, once the Leland police chief followed through on his sworn duty and called the Washington County sheriff over in Greenville to let him know what had happened within his jurisdiction, the sheriff had to make calls of his own before heading east on Mississippi State Highway 82 to the crime scene. One "Number, please" led to the next. And so we all found out one way or another, if not that afternoon then certainly by the next morning when the November 18 issue of the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times arrived, bearing what, in retrospect, seems an oddly worded banner headline: "Search Continues in Leland Slaying." As if the murder itself had become old news. And in some ways it had because we already knew about it, including who the victim was, who'd been at the crime scene, and who the eyewitness said had done it. Which meant the real up-to-the-minute news had moved from the event itself to its follow-up. The search. Beneath the headline was a more straightforward subhead: "Mrs. J. W. Thompson Killed with Shears. Rites to Be Friday." The slain woman was described as the widow of the prominent Delta planter and former Mississippi Levee Board chairman J. W. Thompson, whose daughter the forty-two-year-old Ruth Dickins had reportedly surprised the killer, a man she described as a young, slightly built, dark-skinned Negro she didn't know. She was coming, she said, into her mother's home and didn't see the man right away, and before she knew it, he had slammed into her out of, it seemed, nowhere. They tussled and she wasn't sure how, but she managed to wrestle the weapon from him. After that he fled. Out the back door, she assumed. "Ruth," a family relative told me. Nobody called her Mrs. Dickins, except maybe servants and children, many of whom addressed her in the southern manner as Miss Ruth. And she wasn't a "socialite" as the papers said. She was, her second or so cousin swore, as plain as an old shoe. As if that mattered. As if social status in the Mississippi Delta came not from ancestry but personality and character. . . . . I was a big reader, but doubt I personally read the paper that next morning. But certainly my parents did. And unquestionably they would have talked about what was splashed all over the front page because it was a story not about strangers living in a whole other part of the country but about known people, members of a top-tier family. Being a listening, watching, imagining kind of girl, I would have paid attention, the same as, in all likelihood, every other girl my age, ten going on eleven being an age when female children are beginning to scarf up whatever information adults have been keeping from them, especially details of the most lurid, the worst things that have happened or still might. But I can't honestly say I remember much from that particular day. Things had to spin out a little further. A little more time had to pass. More news reported, discussed, wondered at before imagination could take hold and sink deeply enough in to make forgetting out of the question. Once the AP had wired the story all over the country, other newspapers covered it that same day, including the Chicago Tribune ("Widow of Planter Killed by Intruder"), the Austin American-Statesman ("Planter's Widow Hacked to Death"), The Montgomery Advertiser ("Prominent White Woman Slain"), the Greenwood, Mississippi, Commonwealth ("Leland Woman Is Killed by Negro"). And others, all emphasizing race, class, and shock value. While splashy, unlikely murders tend to encourage long memories, this one was like no other, and in our part of Mississippi--that egg-shaped patch of ridiculously rich alluvial soil we called the Delta--nobody talked about anything else that whole fall and especially the next spring and summer when the trial provided the grisly details. . . . . My memory of Greenville attaches itself to houses: where we lived when certain things happened, how old I was each time we had to move from one address to another, whether it was the time I broke my arm playing Crack the Whip the first day I went roller-skating in Strange Park and didn't know enough to avoid taking the end position, or the day my brother David blasted his face open by tearing spent firecrackers apart and lighting them, not knowing one of them was alive, or the time when the panel truck from Tatum Music Company came to take away my mother's beloved Baldwin Acrosonic piano for nonpayment. We mark time mostly, I think, by events. I order my and my family's Greenville life according to which house we were living in at the time. In our fourteen-year residency, there were seven, only one of which--the bungalow at the corner of Cedar and Manilla--we left by choice. When my first novel, Come Back, Lolly Ray, was published in 1977, I hadn't lived in Greenville for more than twenty years. I'd gone back maybe twice during that time, brief overnight stays ending in a quick getaway before I ran into somebody who might remember the deepening financial and legal troubles that encouraged my family, the Feys, to skip town and not come back. I never planned or even wanted to set a book in Mississippi. There was the burden of the state's literary past--Faulkner and the rest--plus I'd moved, I thought, for good. I wanted the past to stay where it was and believed that whatever I wrote would reflect the person I'd become, living in Manhattan, learning how to eat an artichoke, combing my hair across my forehead in a dramatic slant, like Delphine Seyrig in Last Year at Marienbad. But the past can be a nag. And sometimes a book knows what it is before the writer has a clue, including who's going to be in it and where it'll take place. I renamed my fictional town Eunola and never said what state it was in or even which river dead-ended the main street of town. But Greenville knew. The opening line was like a secret whispered into their hometown ears: "The sun and river were to the west, back over their shoulders on the other side of the levee. The main street of town--along which they waited, impatiently--dead-ended there, at the foot of the levee." Who among locals didn't nail it down? They knew I'd grown up there and that what I was describing was, absolutely and without a doubt, downtown Greenville, Mississippi. Within another page or so they'd have figured out other details. Friday. Autumn. Late afternoon. The courthouse. Washington Avenue just over the railroad tracks where the street makes a sharp jag to the left toward the levee. Majorettes, marching band, drum major, special twirlers, cheerleaders. What else but the parade preceding the high point of our week: that night's high school football game? That book wasn't about my life, and neither is this one. But both emerge from me. And here I am at this stage of my life, these seventy years later, remembering things that took hold of me then and still refuse to let go. The story of Ruth Dickins, the murder of her mother, and what happened afterward. The story of a girl who could not stop wanting what she couldn't have. And the hot tamale region that birthed us both. November 17, 1948 The first police officers to arrive on the scene were the Leland chief of police, Frank P. Aldridge, and Phillip P. "Pink" Gorman, one of only three regulars on the Leland police force. Aldridge wasn't feeling well, having been released from the hospital after surgery only the day before, in addition to which, barely four months earlier, he'd undergone three separate surgical procedures in one day. Although barely able to get around, he nonetheless managed to pull himself together and get to work. He was downtown on a Third Street sidewalk not far from the police telephone box when, middle of the afternoon, it rang. Leland was one of those quiet, small towns news reporters like to call "sleepy." Because nothing much of a criminal nature happened there beyond the usual petty crimes and traffic violations, that phone didn't ring too often. With no idea how his life was about to be jiggered, Aldridge answered and, once he'd heard the message, told Gorman to go get the police car--there was only one--Mrs. Thompson had been murdered. No need to identify the victim further. Idella Long Thompson's family had lived on the Drive since 1902. They owned acreage east of town. There was also the matter of the Thompson husband, all those years ago. Frank was chief at that time too. The family tried to keep the details of what had happened hush-hush, but people got wind of it quick. Nobody didn't know who the Thompsons were. . . . . The call had come from one of Leland's most respected doctors, the co-founder of the Witte Clinic and Hospital--where both Aldridge and Mrs. Thompson had been hospitalized--Dr. Kinney Lyght Witte (pronounced "Witty"), affectionately known throughout the town as simply Doc. A noted horseman, Doc was also the murder victim's brother-in-law, having been married to her baby sister, Johnie, for forty years. Excerpted from Deer Creek Drive: A Reckoning of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta by Beverly Lowry All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.