by Brianna Stallings
According to South Carolina serial killer Donald Henry Gaskins (better known as “Pee Wee” because of his 5’4” frame), the first time he ever heard his real name was in a courtroom. He was 15. Pee Wee had other nicknames during his life: “Junior Parrott,” “The Redneck Charles Manson” and infamously, “The Meanest Man in America.”
From the day of my birth in 1979, I’ve been known by my middle name, Brianna. Despite the two Ns, it’s pronounced with an “ah” in the second syllable. “Bree-AH-nuh.” I’ve said it out loud, the way it’s meant to be said, every day of my life. Still, it’s constantly being shortened, lengthened and of course, mispronounced. Bry-ann-nuh. Bree-ann-nuh. Bree-ah-ner. It’s enough to make anyone go a little mad.
I was very rarely if ever known as Michelle, my first name. Very rarely, if ever, did I want to be. There were already plenty of Michelles in the world, just like there were plenty of Donalds. But in South Carolina in the early 1980s, the name Brianna was still unique. Yet unlike the punching bag that Pee Wee became, I was Brianna, a wanted only child. Still, like him, I needed to be seen, no matter what it took.
When you’re an only child, even if you’re wanted, you’re usually alone. That doesn’t mean you’re lonely, though. Not at all. In fact, you can find all kinds of ways to make imagination work in your favor, to get into some petty mischief and perhaps, to even convince yourself that what you’re doing isn’t wrong. My petty mischiefs were often set against what could be described as a macabre backdrop: mortuaries. Then again, I am the daughter of a man who spent decades handling dead bodies.
The year that I was born, Pee Wee Gaskins was serving year three of a life sentence for murder, one that had initially been a death sentence. Following my third birthday, that sentence would be commuted back to death after Gaskins, then being held in a maximum security prison, used explosives and a plastic cup to kill neighboring inmate Rudolph Tyner as part of a hired hit. Pee Wee told Tyner that he wanted them to have their own way to talk, so he fed the bomb-bottomed cup and cord through the ventilation system between their two cells. Tyner was holding the cup to his ear when Pee Wee detonated it. The entire left half of Tyner’s body erupted into a bloody mangled mess. “The last thing he heard through that speaker-cup before it blew his head off,” Gaskins later boasted, “was me laughing.”
Thought to be an impossible act in such a facility, this murder earned Pee Wee that prison-enviable title of “The Meanest Man In America.” Apparently the other, far more heinous crimes he committed during his prolific career simply did not merit that name. During a recorded phone call with the vengeful man who had hired him for the hit, Gaskins said, “When he plugs that son of a bitch up, it’ll blow him on into Hell.” The rhythm of Pee Wee’s voice there reminds me of the way my paternal grandmother talks, a pinched nasal drawl with strained upward inflections. It sounds sharp and tinny, like the blade of a key chain pocket knife.
Pee Wee. His nickname just sounds like something tiny, doesn’t it? Something precious and ultimately harmless. Like he’s made of lead crystal, a clinking trinket you toss to the floor again and again, just to see how many times you can throw it before it shatters.
Like Pee Wee, I had nicknames when I was growing up. None too nice ones, either. By the year of Gaskins’ death, I was every bit the dorky seventh grader: a chubby bespectacled working class kid with lots of brains, little money, a bad perm and a huge gap in my front teeth. The Ford Brahma truck, named after the massive humpbacked Brahma bull, was popular amongst my bullies’ parents. These details, combined with their belief that I was ugly and that my name sounded like this word, led them to call me “Brahma Bull.”
This was 1991 for me. A year before I gave a graphic class presentation on the Manson Family murders. A year before I took to drawing dotted lines across the insides of my wrists in ballpoint pen, with the words “Cut Here” written underneath.
Permanently scarred by his own nickname, one that invited decades of vicious bullying, Pee Wee Gaskins transformed into a sadistic misogynistic sociopath, plagued by what he described as “them aggravated and bothersome feelings” of rage, resentment and hatred. He was an exemplar of the Napoleon complex who came to believe that his was “a special mind” that granted him “permission to kill.”
Pee Wee Gaskins was executed by electrocution at 1:05 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1991, in the early hours of my 12th birthday. By the time Pee Wee had reached that age, he’d already formed The Trouble Trio. Their shenanigans read like something straight out of “A Clockwork Orange:” an almost-feral tangle of boys, gumming up the works of their neighborhood with burglaries and brutality, because there was nothing better to do.
As an adult, Pee Wee was known around the South Carolina cities of Florence, Prospect and Charleston for driving an old purple hearse with a sign in the back window that read “We haul anything, living or dead.” He also boasted about having his own private cemetery, “because I kill so many people I need a hearse to haul them.” After all, why bother getting up to no good if you can’t be known for it?
In most pictures, Gaskins looks like he would have talked out of the right corner of his mouth, or like he has a piece of chaw tucked in his bottom lip and he’s just about to spit a venomous stream of brown tobacco juice. Even after his sentencing, his smile was wily and remorseless; it translated to “I know something you don’t know.” His neighbors all thought he was lying until 1975, when officers from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division exhumed the remains of enough bodies on Gaskins’ Prospect land to earn him another title: the most prolific serial killer in state history.
By 1991, my father was an employee of the Dunbar family. The Dunbars owned several mortuaries in Columbia, but it’s the Gervais Street location, in the heart of the city, that still looms large in my mind. A Queen Anne Revival mansion, built in 1892 as a home for textile titan W. B. Smith Whaley, the Gervais Street Dunbar’s was outfitted with a sprawling public entrance, a turret and a bay window, and a multitude of barnacle-like awnings clinging to its shingled sides. Just behind the street-friendly façade, there was a four-car garage with its own on-site gas pump, and a carriage house converted into the body preparation area. An elevated walkway about the length of two limousines connected the two structures. The crematorium was further out back.
Daddy worked weekend-long shifts there. That meant he had to sleep on-site in quarters above the preparation room. Mama and I would go visit him after our weekend errands.
We were never allowed in the preparation room. Not once. Daddy said it was against OSHA regulations. Mama didn’t want to be in there anyway. She respected what my father did for a living, but felt as though that respect was best maintained without her having to be up to her eyeballs in it with him.
I, on the other hand, took the denial of access as a challenge. I would tiptoe through the waiting lounge to peek around the door, hoping to see a corpse with a trocar in its carotid artery, its blood being drained into an industrial sink.
We were allowed in the administrative office, though. Sometimes, if Daddy had a few moments to spare, he’d escort Mama and me into the front house to visit with the receptionist. A painting of the funeral home at night, by South Carolina artist Blue Sky, greeted those who walked in through the employee entrance. It was a caricature of a haunted house: gray sky dense with clouds, midnight blue shadows, the epitome of comical menace. I stifled a laugh every time we walked in.
The bifocaled receptionist was there in the office, seated behind a dull gray metal desk, the afternoon I met Pee Wee. Although it was the early ‘90s, she sported an awe-inspiring bouffant. I entered the room with the small guarded smile I had in those days, careful not to reveal my gapped teeth. Still, I was looking forward to asking after her, so much so that I didn’t notice a small cardboard box stowed underneath a chair. I walked into it, stumbled and blushed, then steadied myself against her desk. Just a 6″ x 6″ x 5″ box. Nothing big.
“Better be careful where you’re walking there, sweetheart,” Daddy said over my shoulder. I could hear him smirking. “That there’s Pee Wee Gaskins you’re kicking.”
My father often (figuratively) brought work home with him. Because of his profession, death was just as common a topic of dinner conversation as my grades in school or the customers my mother helped at her banking job. Gaskins’ name was one that Daddy had shared over supper. Yet despite his own morbid curiosity, my father was gracious enough to spare his tween daughter the gory details of Gaskins’ actions. At the time, all I knew was that Pee Wee was a monster because he’d killed people, with a name like that of someone I used to watch on Saturday morning TV. I also knew that he would be killed by Old Sparky on my birthday, a fact I’d announced with feigned annoyance to a horrified Social Studies class about a week before his death.
He had always been small for his size, but on this, the one and only occasion I met him, Pee Wee weighed just under five pounds. That’s 130 pounds of son, husband, father and killer reduced by the crematorium to 130 cubic inches of ash, or nine cups.
Unless you’re from the Deep South or a serial killer aficionado, you’re probably not going to know about Pee Wee. Although I moved away from home two decades ago, the loyalist in me becomes perversely territorial when I hear non-Southerners speak about Pee Wee. As a native South Carolinian, it is obviously not something of which I am proud. Nonetheless, Gaskins’ story is one that I feel we South Carolinians alone are entitled to tell. At the very least, I can share mine and Pee Wee’s small, ridiculous gallows tale here.
But why? What does it say about me that I am willing to continue to maintain this most tenuous of connections to a murderer? After all these years away from home, is this how I hope to be seen? Is this my vintage hearse with a sign in the back window?
Brianna Stallings is a South Carolina native. After nearly 20 years in New Mexico, Stallings relocated to Montpelier this past August. She is a full-time student in the MFA Writing & Publishing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.