Arkansas February 06, 2017
History Has Forgotten This Bizarre Arkansas Event From 50 Years Ago
As with most places populated by humans, Arkansas is home to some truly gruesome history. There is perhaps no single murder in Arkansas history more gruesome than the 1958 murder of Edna Burns.
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Before the fateful events of Monday, January 27, 1958, Bobby Joe Burns had had two previous run-ins with the law, both for stealing narcotics. He had been determined incompetent to stand trial both times due to serious mental illness. He was sent to the state hospital in Little Rock, but his mother asked for his release, believing that she could provide better care for him at home. His mental illness would prove to be more than his family could handle.
There is no way to know how quickly Bobby Joe Burns’ mental health declined between his release from the state hospital the year before and that terrible day in 1958, but what is known is that on January 27, Bobby Joe Burns drugged his mother, killed her, and mutilated her corpse. He believed that God had commanded him to commit the heinous act. I won’t go into the gory details of the mutilation here, as they may be disturbing to some readers. In the end, Edna Burns, the mother who had cared for her son, was dead and her head was removed from her body.
Bobby Joe Burns was suffering from delusions due to his mental illness, including a delusion that caused him to believe body parts had correlations to geographical locations. After he was finished mutilating his mother’s corpse, he wrapped his mother's head in a sheet and took it to Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith. He placed her head inside the doors of the church and left.
He later told the police that his mother had consented to being part of an Aztec sacrifice ritual. His brother was reported to have said, "Joe, we don’t blame you for what happened." Fort Smith was shocked and dismayed by the events. It seemed too gruesome to happen in their town. It was unimaginable, something out of a nightmare. But it had happened, and the community mourned the loss of Edna Burns while it reeled in horror from the details surrounding her death.
After the murder, Bobby Joe Burns was committed to the state hospital, where he lived out the rest of his days. His diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia and narcotic abuse. At one point, Bobby Joe Burns sent a letter to a judge, asking to be executed for his crimes. He sent a subsequent letter informing the powers that be that his request for the death penalty was simply a means to commit suicide. As his mental status continued to decline, he would later write more letters to Arkansas governors, begging that the charges against him be dropped. The year of Bobby Joe Burns’ death in the state hospital has not been confirmed, but it is believed that he died in the 1980s.
The events of that tragic January day stuck with many Fort Smith residents who witnessed the news coverage of the murder, but many people today may not have heard this tragic story.
You can learn more details of the case by watching this video:
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