The victim was sixty-eight-year-old society matron Idella Long Thompson, found crumpled in a pool of blood on her bathroom floor. The year: 1948. The place: Leland, Mississippi, a drowsy little Delta town girded by cotton fields and bisected by Highway 61. And the murder weapon: a pair of pruning shears.
“They were all metal, from the tip of the blades—curved, shaped something like a hawk’s beak—to the blunt end of the handles,” writes Beverly Lowry in Deer Creek Drive. “The murderer would have had to stand close to the victim, within inches, to hack into her body as repeatedly as Idella Thompson had been. At least 150 times, the coroner would report.”
“There was no sense to it,” Lowry continues. “Dead was dead. Who would keep chopping away like that and why?”
Despite a bogus accusation about a Black intruder, local police answered that first question fairly quickly: Thompson’s socialite daughter Ruth, that’s who. The second question has proved more slippery.
Subtitled A Reckoning of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta, Deer Creek Drive is Lowry’s scintillating effort to tweeze out the truth about a murder that newspapers at the time called the South’s answer to the Lizzie Borden killings. Ruth Dickins was cotton aristocracy: a Chi Omega at Hollins and a habitué of dances and cotillions before her marriage to a prominent planter and merchant, and thereafter “a Sunday school teacher, wife, and devoted mother, a member of the [town’s] upper echelon.” Then suddenly, at the age of forty-two, the convicted killer of her own mother and an inmate at the Parchman Farm penitentiary. The national press, Lowry writes, found in Thompson’s murder “an irresistible story of murder, matricide, savagery, and greed among the upper class.” In Lowry’s hands, it still is.
Beverly Lowry wrote some beguiling novels in the 1970s and 1980s, thick with the humidity and tang of their Mississippi and Texas settings. Since the 1990s, she’s leaned toward nonfiction, particularly true crime. As in Crossed Over, her 1992 book about Texas killer Karla Faye Tucker, in Deer Creek Drive Lowry fuses true crime with memoir, braiding her own story with that of the murder. Lowry, a ten-year-old when Thompson was murdered, grew up in a more downwardly mobile family—Daddy was a serial business flop, Mama an artist—roughly nine miles away in the larger river town of Greenville. Lowry rubs these two narratives together to see if sparks fly; often they do. Sometimes, pleasingly, Lowry’s “I” shifts to “we” and opens a window into what the community made of the murder, letting a sort of drawling Greek chorus weigh in on this Sophoclean-level tragedy. “All we heard was rumors,” she writes. “Reasons [Ruth] did it. Reasons to think maybe she didn’t. We couldn’t help wondering. What kind of person she deep down was. What kind of mother Idella had been.”
In her defense, Ruth Dickins contended she’d interrupted a Black man stabbing her mother, and that the blood soaking her dress and the scratches on her arms and face came from scuffling with him. If Lowry has a blind spot, it’s that she declines to play out what would’ve occurred had Ruth’s ruse worked—had, say, Leland police happened upon an unlucky Black man running in the wrong direction. Sadly, Ruth’s tactic is part of a long tradition. Susan Smith infamously claimed a Black carjacker stole her two children in South Carolina in 1994, before confessing to killing them. Two years ago, Florida’s Patricia Ripley blamed two imaginary Black men for the death of her nine-year-old son, whom she had drowned in a golf course canal. We hear about the ruse when it fails; how often it has worked is gutting to imagine.
Race and racism, as the author and Delta transplant Richard Grant once noted, form “the great underlying obsession of the Mississippi Delta.” Lowry, sensitive and clear-eyed about this, chronicles the upheavals that rocked the Delta in the wake of desegregation and reckons with the attitudes in which her childhood was steeped. But she also recognizes the Delta’s related, often-entangled obsessions with class and status, which swirled round the case for years after the murder, and as well after one Mississippi governor suspended Ruth’s sentence and another one pardoned her altogether. Even decades later, many of the locals Lowry spoke to couldn’t bring themselves to believe someone like Ruth Dickins could’ve shredded her own mother with pruning shears. For them, Lowry writes, “she was too nice a person to have done such a thing.”