As a child, I grew up listening to my Grandparents tell me the story of Johnnie Keyhole. Remember a legend is just a story that is passed down from one generation to the next so this story became the Legend of Johnnie Keyhole.
Johnnie Keyhole and his wife lived out from Sledge in the late 1920s when my Grandparents first met them. His wife was a nice woman, but Johnnie could be mean when he was drinking. Johnnie Keyhole was part Native American and loved to gamble so he never had much while he lived in northern Quitman County. They were sharecroppers like my Grandparents.
One night a storm was raging over the flatlands along the Coldwater River when my Grandparents heard a knock at the door. They couldn’t figure out who would be out on a night like this, so my Grandfather looked out the window and saw Johnnie Keyhole’s wife. She was crying and soaking wet from the rain. He let her in and she told them that Johnnie had gotten drunk and was threatening to kill her. Please, could she hide from him. They reluctantly agreed and quickly locked the doors.
About an hour later, Johnnie came knocking at the door. “Where is my wife?” They ran to the bedroom and hid under the bed as my Grandfather cradled his shotgun. Keyhole went around the house beating on all the windows until he finally got tired and went home. Mrs. Keyhole left the next morning and went back to her husband. It wasn’t long after that, the couple moved to Lambert.
Back in those days, traveling salesmen traveled from town to town selling their wares to families. Many of these salesmen rode the backroads between the Delta towns of Quitman County. One of these gravel roads ran along the railroad tracks between Marks and Lambert by the Cotton Compress. The Cotton Compress was a pair of large warehouses where cotton was stored. Something strange started happening not long after Johnnie Keyhole moved to Lambert. People began to notice that some of these salesmen were disappearing after leaving Marks. A few local men were also known to be missing. The sheriff couldn’t figure out what was happening and this mystery began to bother and scare people.
During that time, Johnnie Keyhole was also undergoing a change. All of a sudden, he had money and with this wealth, his drinking increased. The more he drank, the meaner he got. People in Lambert would see him coming down the street, and they would move to the other side. He also started carrying a large knife. Johnnie Keyhole became more vicious toward his wife as well. One day she had enough and reported him to the sheriff. Because there was not much he could do, she became desperate and said she knew what was happening to the missing men. Johnnie was running an illegal gambling operation at the compress. When the men who won left, he would follow and attack them. After killing them, he would cut up the bodies and bury them in the compress. The sheriff and a posse arrested him and searched the cotton compress. Sure enough, under some loose boards, they found a large stack of bones and body parts. They were shocked that any man could do something like this and soon the entire county had heard about the crimes.
A trial was held at the courthouse in Marks and Johnnie Keyhole was convicted of multiple murders. Because many of the men were not from Quitman County, there was no way to identify the total number of victims. People wanted to end this nightmare for the county so Johnnie Keyhole was sentenced to death by electrocution. There was a problem though. Nobody including the sheriff wanted to be alone with Keyhole on the trip to Parchman, so they asked the Governor to intervene and transport the chair to Marks.
Traveling electric chair of Mississippi
His execution date came. No last meal was given him. Hundreds of people came to Marks and gathered at the courthouse to see the event. The wooden electric chair was directly in front of the building and armed men stood guard on each side. Johnnie Keyhole was brought out and tied into the chair and prepared for execution. The sheriff asked him if he had any last words and Johnnie thought before looking out at the audience. “I’m gonna make Quitman County pay for what they are doing to me! I’m gonna make all of you and your families pay for this.” With that, he smiled and the executioner turned on the electricity to the chair. Within minutes, Johnnie Keyhole was dead. No cemetery would allow his remains in, so the Sheriff had his body buried in an unmarked grave near the very compress where he had committed so many of his crimes.
There is no trace of Johnnie Keyhole in the history books. In fact, there are not many people left who remember his story. But it lives on the lonely gravel road between Marks and Lambert. Old timers say if you walk down that road at a certain time of night, you can hear footsteps behind you. But when you look, nobody is there. If a murder happens in the county and it can’t be solved, they say it can only be one person coming back to take his revenge. They say, if you listen closely when the wind blows, you can hear an angry man saying a name that seems to follow in your every step. Nobody is there. But the name. Johnnie Keyhole………Johnnie Keyhole………Johnnie Keyhole.
Story credited to James and Ialeen Dean.