Area History – The Torso in the Well

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On December 30 of 1960, on a piece of rural property in Mena, Arkansas, the residents made a grim discovery. The dismembered torso of a man was sunk in the property’s well. Malvern Police Chief Bill Funk responded with county officers to investigate. Initially, officers believed that the torso might belong to a missing man from Perla, Arkansas, which is about 100 miles away from Mena, near Hot Springs.

The missing man, Albert Griffin, was an African-American man in his mid-60s who had disappeared from Perla in late October. According to Griffin’s family, he was “light skinned and his body might be mistaken for that of a white man,” Funk said. The family also alleged that Griffin was prone to carrying around several hundred dollars, which might cause others to do him harm.

A couple of days later in early January of 1961, a woman was arrested for forgery in Covington, Louisiana. Her name was Norma MacDonald (Young), the ex-wife of E.G. MacDonald, a farmer. Norma, age 50, and E.G., age 75, had been married for some time when they divorced in 1952 and, in addition to farming in Mena, had once operated a café in Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. E.G. was a former Marine Corps officer earlier in life.

At the time, the authorities in Covington believed that Norma’s only crime was forging a signature to open a bank account. However, officers found traces of blood in her station wagon and, after a brief search, uncovered dismembered body parts in the vehicle. The pieces were identified as Norma’s ex-husband.

Held in the St. Tammany Parish Jail, Young continued to claim that she was innocent of killing her ex-husband, though she did admit that she’d distributed his body parts in different places. As well as the torso found in the well in Mena, and the parts found in her station wagon, other parts of E.G. were found around the Covington area.

Carroll Page, an investigator with the Arkansas State Police, determined that MacDonald was killed in Arkansas before his wife dismembered him and drove parts of his body to Louisiana. Norma fought extradition to Arkansas after Prosecuting Attorney Ben Core of De Queen started proceedings.

Louisiana ultimately rejected the request for extradition on technical grounds, according to Dan Stephens, who was an aide to Governor Orval Faubus.

Meanwhile, Young alleged, while again maintaining her own innocence in the slaying, that her husband had been killed by a former ship’s butcher who was living part-time in New Orleans. An alert was issued by Arkansas authorities for the New Orleans police to pick up the butcher, who wasn’t named in initial reports.

Throughout January, Young continued to fight extradition, refusing to leave Louisiana without a hearing. F.S. Ellis, a District Judge in Louisiana, set the hearing in late January after defense attorney Thomas Landry alleged there had been no time to examine grounds for extradition. On January 28, Young was scheduled for an extradition hearing, but switched defense attorneys unexpectedly before the hearing. Her new lawyer, Sam Monk Zelden, had the hearing delayed, even though a group of nine witnesses and authorities from Arkansas had braved winter weather conditions to get to the hearing.

On February 4, Zelden asked the Supreme Court of Louisiana to waive the district court order for extradition, contending that the papers drawn up referred to his client as Norma MacDonald, while her name was currently Norma Young, having remarried since her divorce. A day later, Sheriff Bruce Scoggin brought Young back to Mena. Scoggin told media that he believed Young would probably be given a sanity test, and that no hearing date had been set. He also commented that Young made no statements during the trip from Covington to Mena. She was placed in the Polk County Jail.

A couple of weeks later, just before Valentine’s Day, Circuit Court Judge Bobby Steele ordered a month-long mental examination for Young. She indicated at her arraignment February 13 that she might plead insanity, prompting Judge Steele’s order.

One month later, on March 13, psychiatrists working for the State of Arkansas ruled Young sane. Dr. Granville Jones told media that Norma had been sane when working as a housekeeper for her ex-husband at the time of his murder and dismemberment. Two days later, Deputy Prosecutor John Hainen affirmed that a trial date had been set for April 6, coinciding with the new Circuit Court term.

Norma Young would eventually be put on trial for first degree murder on May 29, 1961, some six months after killing and dismembering her ex-husband. Judge Steele set the date after the initial trial date in April, appointing Nabors Shaw and Joe Hardegree as Young’s defense lawyers after she was unable to pay for her own defense. It was expected that the State would seek the death penalty.

The trial, held at Mena, was expected to be fairly lengthy. However, prosecutor Ben Core expected a guilty plea from Young, which she gave immediately upon the trial’s commencement. According to Al Dopking, reporter for The Hope Star, “The 4,500 residents of the Ouachita Mountain town are taking the event as a matter of course … Townspeople seem to be talking about everything but the murder trial. They say there was a flurry of interest when parts of the body of E.B. MacDonald, 79, were found in a farm well, but interest since has died.”

Core recommended a sentence of life in prison after the plea, and Young waived the 48-hour waiting period, prompting Judge Steele to pronounce the formal sentence on Monday, May 28. Young was quiet throughout the trial, communicating only with her defense attorneys and Rev. Elbert Jean, minister of a Methodist church. Shaw, addressing the jury in closing remarks, said that Young had told him she acted alone, shooting MacDonald and dismembering him before disposing of his remains in the well at Mena, a septic tank on their farm, and behind a shed on their property in Covington.

While Young never gave a clear motive for her actions during the trial, investigator Carroll Page said during testimony that Young and MacDonald had “domestic difficulties” in the months leading to the murder. The pair had married in 1931, divorced in 1952 and, after marrying and divorcing another man, Young had returned to live with MacDonald. The pair had been living together on the farm since April 1960 until MacDonald’s disappearance.

During the trial, Dr. Douglas Young of the University of Arkansas Medical Center at Little Rock said that, upon investigation, parts of MacDonald’s body appeared to have been boiled. The head, found at Covington, had a bullet hole in the back, which was determined to have been the cause of death. Witnesses said that bloodstains found in the MacDonald home showed where the body had been dragged to the bathroom from the bedroom. The body was dismembered in the bathroom with a sharp knife and saw. Young’s guilty plea, Core said, is what prompted him to waive the death penalty in favor of life in prison.

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