To outsiders, 17-year-old Gladys MacKnight seemed an unlikely killer, as did her boyfriend, 18-year-old Donald Wightman. But to those who knew the high school sweethearts, the death of Gladys’ mother, Helen, wasn’t entirely shocking. (Though being hacked to death in one’s own kitchen certainly is.)
It was August 1936; both Gladys and Donald had graduated from high school in Bayonne, New Jersey earlier that year. Helen disapproved of the relationship but permitted it, probably because her headstrong daughter would’ve resisted her attempts to restrict it. On the night in question, accounts vary on what events led up to the murders. Some sources say Gladys and Donald had been out drinking beer together, while other claimed Donald just showed up to visit. Gladys’ father, Edgar MacKnight, was still at work, so the trio was alone in the house.
There’d been prior tension between them. Helen was “old-fashioned,” according to the couple, and they’d “jokingly” discussed murdering her. The joke became terrifyingly real when Gladys and her mother began arguing over something incredibly petty: Gladys wanted to go play tennis with her boyfriend before it got dark, and wanted to eat dinner beforehand. Her mother told her no problem—but said that Gladys would have to make her own meal.
Oh, THE NERVE! Out came the hatchet, and down went Helen. But who actually struck her—and why—became the case’s biggest sticking point. The woman’s body was discovered when Edgar returned from his job later that evening. The police had a pretty good idea who they were looking for—after hearing Helen’s terrified screams, a neighbor had inquired after her well-being... and had been rudely shooed away by the teens. The same neighbor saw them peeling out soon after, and police caught up to them shortly.
Gladys’ statement on the stand at her trial offered a different version of events; she claimed she and Donald had been stealing a kiss in the kitchen when her mother flew at her with a knife. They fought in self-defense, you see. And Donald had been the one to deliver the fatal blows. This testimony contradicted what she’d told police earlier, when she herself confessed to repeatedly chopping into her mother’s skull while Donald held the woman’s arms. (Gladys claimed that confession had been “manufactured” by the cops, though she apparently later admitted it was true.)
Newspaper accounts of the crime took particular interest in Gladys’ unsettling demeanor, offering vivid descriptions like this one from the Pittsburg Press:
As the state neared the end of its case, Gladys retained all the icy composure she has displayed since the trial started. Her mask-like face with a feline cast showed no evidence of emotion.
(That same article also calls her a “poker-faced schoolgirl.”)
True-crime anthology book Murdered in New Jersey offers this take on Gladys, via one of the detectives who interviewed her:
She was the coolest thing I ever saw. All the time she talked she sat with one leg thrown over the arm of the chair. She smoked one cigarette after another. She weighed every word before she replied to questions.
Though the prosecutor vowed to seek the death penalty, there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue first-degree murder charges—especially taking into account all of the wildly inconsistent finger-pointing and blame-admitting that had transpired. But Helen MacKnight was most certainly dead, and these two were both to blame for that fact. They’d both admitted their participation, even if they couldn’t agree on who did what, exactly.
Still, there’d be no electric chair. Gladys and Donald were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced them to the maximum allowed at the time: 30 years of hard labor. Gladys was paroled in 1950; history doesn’t say when Donald was released, but it seems certain they never met again. At least one account has the young man shouting “You’ve made a murderer out of me!” at his ex when their guilty verdict was returned.
Top image: Gladys MacKnight and Donald Wightman after being arrested in connection with the slaying of Helen MacKnight on Aug. 7, 1936. (AP Photo)