October 26th, 2015 – George Howard Putt, the serial killer that terrorized the city of Memphis, for 29 days during the summer of 1969, died of natural causes at the Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville. News of his death would not reach the public, nor the families of Putt’s victims, until March of the following year.
Michael Dumas, the son of Putt’s first victims – Roy and Bernalyn Dumas – reportedly only discovered months later that Putt had died when his wife logged into the correctional facility website and noticed that they had listed Putt as “deceased.” In an interview with the Commercial Appeal following the announcement of Putt’s death in March of 2016, Michael Dumas said, “My reaction was remorse, because it brought back all the painful memories of that summer. The death of my parents has always been painful. One part of me was happy that maybe this is over with. We all carry our pain from the past. You never get over that.”
The summer of 1969 was quite a tense time in the US…
-The war in Vietnam had been in full swing, which was dividing the nation due to differing opinions on our involvement and conduct there…
-Charles Manson’s followers committed the infamous series of horrible murders in the Los Angeles Area…
-Riots broke out outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, after a conflict between gay rights activists and police…
And for Memphis in particular, the years of ‘68 and ‘69 were quite a struggle. First, the sanitation strike happened, which brought Martin Luther King Jr to the city. Protests were ending in violence and arrests. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on the 2nd floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel… and after all of this happened, business and residents in Downtown Memphis relocated en masse for fear of more racial strife in the area. By the time this all settled, the area was said to be home to more jail inmates than actual residents. It was indeed a very heavy time in Memphis.
Many Memphians who were not in Memphis during the late 60s, or who were not yet born at the time (like me), may not even be aware that there was ever a serial killer in Memphis. I personally was not aware of it until a coworker brought it to my attention just under a year ago. But it’s true! Memphis, during the latter part of the summer of 1969, was home to a series of brutal murders, all committed by one man – George Howard Putt.
There is quite a lengthy backstory here, which we will try to deliver as concisely as possible, but I think it might provide insight into George Putt’s early development and his progression from minor crimes and misdemeanors to his later crimes of a violent, sexual, and even murderous nature.
Putt’s Early Life and Criminal History
Known as “Buster” to his friends and family, George Putt did not begin his life in Memphis, but this is certainly where he ended his life as a free man. George was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to abusive, drifter parents Clifford and Leola Putt. Whether to look for work, or simply to satisfy their wanderlust, Clifford and Leola removed George from school, along with his older brother, to roam around the Southeastern United States with them. George’s parents were constantly in trouble for petty crimes, making whatever home life they had unpredictable and unreliable. George’s father, Clifford, was also extremely abusive to him and his siblings. One of Clifford’s many arrests during George’s early life was for cruelty to a minor for severely beating 3-month-old George with a leather strap. By the time George was 8 years old, his parents went to prison for check forgery, leaving Buster and his 6 siblings to live with their grandparents.
It took only three years for his grandparents to send George and four of his brothers to live at a school for orphans outside Richmond, Virginia, following the arrest of 11-year-old George and an older brother for shooting out a neighbor’s windows with a stolen air rifle. Discipline was strict and delivered with a heavy hand at that school, which did not mix well with George’s resistant attitude toward authority. A few years later, after repeated attempts to escape the school’s grounds, he was finally expelled from the school and shipped off to the Richmond Home for Boys in Virginia.
A counselor at the Richmond Home reportedly noted in Putt’s file that he was “seriously disturbed in contrast to the placid facade which he presented,” also noting that Putt had a “morbid preoccupation with blood and gore.” Putt’s criminal behavior continued, veering rapidly toward lude and violent offenses. He was detained for the attempted (although some sources say successful) rape of two teenage girls in Richmond. The authorities tried to send him to a psychiatric hospital for treatment, but Putt escaped custody and decided to try again. This time he did succeed, abducting a 30 year old woman at knifepoint, robbing her of $35 and raping her. At this point, seeing that his luck had run out in Virginia, and for some unfathomable reason feeling a need to reconnect with his father in Mexico, Putt fled Virginia and headed to Texas.
So, by this time, after all of this stuff has gone down, guess how old Putt is? Putt is a mere 16 years of age…
After only being in Texas for a short time, Putt kidnapped a woman from Laredo at gunpoint, but escaped when she intentionally crashed the car they were in. Two days later, he abducted a woman in her apartment (which he had entered through a window) by threatening to kill her children. He forced her into her own car and drove off, but was apprehended when he crashed his hostage’s car because he lost control after spotting a police vehicle.
After his capture, he was incarcerated at Webb County jail for 13 months, then transferred to a boys school in Laredo. Putt escaped 8 months later from that facility, but was captured shortly thereafter. He was then transferred to a more secure facility, where he turned 18 years old. After the discovery of his plot to kidnap the facility’s librarian and escape in her car, he was transferred to an “adjustment center” for psychiatric treatment. After diagnosing him as possessing “earmarks of a psychopath in his makeup,” Putt was placed in the maximum-security juvenile facility in Gatesville, Texas, where he stayed until his 21st birthday in 1967. He was discharged as a matter of routine, despite the red flags that were thrown up by his previous diagnoses from multiple sources.
After being released from the Gatesville juvenile psychiatric facility, he moved to Tupelo, Mississippi, which is where his grandparents lived at the time. Keeping with the pattern, this did not last long. He found work as an orderly at the local hospital, only to be fired within a few days for stealing $100 from a nurse’s handbag. He did not get in any legal trouble for this because they settled for George repaying the money to the nurse. From Tupelo, he returned to his native New Orleans, where he was arrested and charged with stealing a checkbook from a room at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Soon after that, George met an 18 year old graduate of Coldwater High School named Mary Ruth Bulimore. They got married in the fall of 1967, but as you might expect, George did not demonstrate a shining example of a husband in the throes of marital bliss. He was wildly jealous when Mary would speak to other men – even her coworkers – and he would become violent.
In October of 1968, George was arrested in Memphis for beating a woman after he forced his way into her car. After that ordeal was over, Putt left town with his brother and both of their wives, settling in Jackson, Mississippi. Although this is not well documented, I did find mention of Putt trying to rape his mother-in-law three times in early 1969.
OK… this is where Putt is believed to have committed his first murder, although he was never charged with the crime. Still in Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after the third attempt at raping his mother-in-law, a man was stabbed 15 times at his home, which was near the gas station where George was employed. The authorities were convinced of his involvement, but for whatever reason he was not charged with the murder.
So, we’ve finally arrived at the Memphis portion of this story… In the summer of 1969. Putt and his wife were living in Memphis, in the house at 642 Bethel Ave.
August 14th, 1969: Roy and Bernalyn Dumas
On August 14th, 1969, Roy and Bernalyn Dumas were getting ready to go out to dinner with their son Michael and his wife Tanya. Roy was a 58 year old veteran and was a Bronze Star recipient for his gallantry in combat during World War II. He was also a self-employed accountant. Bernalyn was 46, and worked as a nursing supervisor at Baptist Hospital on Union Avenue. She also served as a nurse in the Army during World War II.
While Roy and Bernalyn were preparing to go to dinner, George Putt gained entrance to their apartment in the Hermitage Apartment complex on South Cooper and tied the couple up. Roy Dumas was then violently forced into the guest bedroom by Putt. His feet and hands were bound with suspenders and then Putt proceeded to strangle Roy to death with a sock. Bernalyn was forced into the other bedroom and tied to the bedposts and strangled with one of the stockings from her nursing uniform but not before mutilating her genital area. Putt then left a disturbingly creepy calling card of sorts, an act that would be used to tie him to another murder. He placed a table lamp over the top of Bernalyn’s body, and then strategically positioned it to cast an eerie, horror-film-like effect on her body.
Putt later told Memphis Police detectives that the only reason he went into their apartment in the first place was for money. He also later told his wife, Mary, that he was pretty sure that someone would find Mr. and Mrs. Dumas before they died. Clearly there was some serious delusion or denial happening in Putt’s head.
When Roy and Bernalyn did not show up for dinner, their son Michael went to their apartment. That poor fella was the one that had to discover his parents’ bodies and report the murder to police. Unfortunately, Putt had not left any signs that he had forced entry nor any other evidence that would lead to his identity.
August 25th, 1969: Leila Witt Jackson
Leila Jackson was an 80-year-old Illinois native and widow that ran a four-unit apartment house next to the Memphis Medical Center. The house was bought as a family home by Leila and her late husband Charles, but was converted into an apartment house following his death. Leila was aware of the Dumas murders that had happened only a few days earlier, and was making an extra diligent effort to keep everything locked up tight at night. She reportedly stated to a friend a few days after the Dumas murders that she thought nobody would want to rob her because she never kept any money in the house. About a week prior to the crime, Putt reportedly walked from his job at the Hudson Oil station on South Bellevue to Jackson’s apartment house on North Somerville and asked Jackson if he could rent an apartment from her. It definitely sounds like he was scouting for a victim.
On August 25th, 1969, Putt entered the apartment house through the front door, and in the same fashion as the Dumas murders, he tied her to her bed and strangled her with a stocking. He then found a butcher knife in the kitchen and used it to perform the same type of mutilation that he did to Bernalyn Dumas. Before leaving, Putt once again left his calling card, as many serial killers do. He placed a reading lamp over the body to create the same type of lighting effect over Leila’s body as in the previous murders. He then laid the butcher knife on the nightstand and left the house. Her grandson was the unfortunate soul that found her.
It was clear to Memphis Police Homicide Chief Robert Cochran that the two crimes were connected, based on the genital mutilation and the lamp placement. He would say later, about the Jackson murder, “When I saw that lamp, I was the loneliest bastard that ever lived.”
According to Putt’s wife Mary, on the evening following Leila’s murder, Putt showed her that afternoon’s paper and told her, “Remember that old lady I tried to rent the room from over near the Terrace Hotel? That Mrs. Jackson? Remember her? Somebody killed her just like that Dumas couple! There must be some kind of really bad nut loose in this town.”
…he was correct.
August 29th, 1969: Glenda Sue Harden
Glenda Sue Harden was a graduate of Kingsbury High school, recently engaged, and was employed as a typist for Jackson Life Insurance located on Front Street. She had just left work, walked west on Court Street and crossed Riverside Drive to the cobblestone landing where her Ford Mustang was parked. George Putt had also parked his Chevy Impala on the same landing. When Glenda was preoccupied with unlocking and entering her vehicle, Putt put a knife to her throat, forced his way into the driver’s side of her car, and forced her into the front passenger floorboard.
Putt drove Glenda’s car to Riverside Park, where he bound her hands behind her back with her panty hose. He then killed Glenda by stabbing her 14 times in various spots on her head, neck, chest, and back. He then discarded Glenda’s body and drove back to the Riverside cobblestone lot where he had abducted her, took her purse, and drove off in his Impala.
The next morning, Memphis Police officers located Harden’s Mustang parked on the cobblestones at the foot of Monroe Avenue. Later in the day, police officers located Harden’s lifeless body in Riverside Park.
At this point, the city of Memphis was on edge, driven to fear by this utterly unknown predator in their midst. There were very few clues as to Putt’s identity. Memphis law enforcement ramped-up their investigation, resulting – at that time – in the largest manhunt in the city’s history. The newspapers warned caution. new locks were being installed all over the city. A total of 135 detectives and vice squad officers were assigned to this case. Clues were almost non-existent. A $20,000 reward for information on the murders went unclaimed. FBI assistance was even enlisted to perform lab work.
This brings us to the fourth (or possibly fifth?) and final murder commited by George Putt.
September 11, 1969: Mary Christine Pickens
Christine Pickens worked as a receptionist for a dental office in the Sterick Building and had Thursday afternoons off. She had just turned 59 that same day, and she was coming home to her apartment in the LaBlanche Building at 41 North Bellevue after ending her workday at noon. She happened to come home at a very unfortunate time. As Christine approached her apartment door, Putt had just given up an attempt to trick Christine’s neighbor into opening her door for him, so he took the opportunity to instead force Christine into her home.
Putt was decidedly less careful this time around. Multiple people claimed to have seen him lurking around the apartments earlier in the day. He also bounced from one potential victim to another victim without any thought, meaning one more person had seen him and knew he was up to no good. His situation was exacerbated when he first pushed Christine into her apartment because she began to scream, “Murder! Murder! Don’t do it! Don’t Kill Me!”. Emma Grosse, a nurse that lived directly above Christine heard her screams and ran to help her.
When Emma arrived at Christine’s apartment, Putt was coming out of it, covered in blood, with an icepick and one of Christine’s stockings in one hand and Christine’s purse in the other. Emma was very lucky that day, because when Putt saw her, instead of attacking her he threw the purse and ran away. Emma roused another neighbor, Wayne Armstrong, from sleep and told him what had happened. Wayne grabbed his personal handgun and began chasing Putt, clad only in his underwear, firing at him along the way. During the chase, Putt left the icepick embedded in the wall of an apartment at 217 Pasadena Place, with the stocking hanging from it. As two more people joined the chase, the gunshots and the ruckus that the chase had stirred up made the police take notice and they joined in the chase as well. Putt scaled a security fence with the help of a parked truck, ran down North Bellevue, and then turned west onto Madison Avenue. He then jumped the overpass at Madison onto I-240 and ran south down the unfinished interstate, police still in pursuit. He was finally detained near an apartment complex on Linden Avenue when two officers noticed his blood-soaked arm and pants. While the chase was happening, unfortunately Christine had died from her stab wounds. He stabbed her 20 times.
Confession, Conviction, and Aftermath
George Putt confessed to the murders soon after his capture, maintaining that the motive was robbery, but that he wasn’t about to leave a witness that could send him back to prison. He recanted his confession later on, prior to his trial.
He was tried initially for the murder of Christine Pickens and sentenced to death. In 1972, when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in all cases, Putt’s sentence was commuted to 99 years. This prompted prosecutors to take action and try him for the murders of Roy and Bernalyn Dumas, a double-conviction which added 398 years to his prison sentence. Judge William H. Williams ordered the sentences to be served consecutively for a total of 497 years. Officially Putt’s sentence expires March 1, 2437. According to witnesses, Putt giggled when the judge announced his sentence. Putt has confessed in detail to all five of the murders, but was only ever been convicted of three.
Now serving a total of 497 years, it seemed unlikely that Putt would ever see the outside world again. But in 2003, Michael Dumas, son of the first victims, Roy and Bernalyn Dumas, found himself at a parole hearing for George Putt. Putt waived his right to appear at his parole hearing, and no one spoke on his behalf. He was denied parole, due to the severity of the crimes.
Michael Dumas, who thought he’d never have to worry about the man who brutally murdered his parents, said of the parole hearing, “When I found out about this hearing I was sort of speechless. Few people know what went on. I did because I saw it. The judge made his sentences consecutive so I would not have to be here today. I’m trying to go forward, but it’s hard to put George Howard Putt out of my mind. The past does hurt.”
In an interview with Memphis Magazine on the 20th anniversary of the murders, a remorseless George Putt remarked, “I think where I’m at now is where I’m supposed to be. If it meant me understanding… to get where I’m at (mentally and spiritually), I’d do it all again.”
Putt died Oct. 26, 2015 of natural causes at the Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville. He was 69. It was unclear why officials with the state Department of Corrections didn’t release the information at the time of Putt’s death. After no one came forward to claim Putt’s body, he was given a state burial..
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