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"Pee Wee" Gaskins and the Subjectivity of History

Author
Henry Capps

 

Introduction

For the most part, it seems that the general population perceives history as a field of hard, unchangeable facts, when in reality it is an ever-evolving field that is subject to the perception of the historians who write it.  Although it is true that credible historical research must be supported with some sort of evidence, it is often forgotten that it is the historian who determines how the evidence is interpreted.  History, as Oliver J. Daddow points out, can potentially be “used and abused by all sorts of commentators with particular points to make, axes to grind and identities to create.”[i]  History is not written simply for the sake of telling what happened at a particular point in time; the author, intentionally or otherwise, writes history with a purpose.  This is because “[i]n their research, historians typically try to determine not only ‘what happened’, but the ‘meaning of this happening.”[ii]   In order to extract meaning from past events, it is necessary that the historian develops and supports some type of thesis to explain it.  Because multiple logical explanations could potentially be made to explain past events, it is quite possible that historians may interpret the same evidence in completely different ways in support of completely different theses.  The process of writing history becomes even more complicated when conflicting evidence is introduced and historians must decide which evidence to use to support their particular claims.  Because historians are continuously reevaluating available evidence and discovering new evidence, history is in a state of constant evolution.  This makes history a subjective field.  While most may be quick to believe that a given historical account of an event is completely factual, it is important to keep in mind that historical accounts are developed through a process in which subjective decisions are made and therefore may not be definitive.

The life of Donald Gaskins was chosen as a case study to demonstrate the subjectivity of history for two major reasons.  Firstly, his life is an important historical event in South Carolina history that lacks scholarly research.  Since no official version of his life has been established through scholarship, it will be easier to demonstrate how the historian’s subjectivity must be a factor in writing a scholarly history of Gaskins’s life.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the existence of multiple conflicting accounts of Gaskins’s life can be used to demonstrate how in writing history, a historian must use his or her best judgment in order to decide which information to include without knowing for sure what actually happened.

 

The Life of “Pee Wee” Gaskins

Donald Henry Gaskins, known by the nickname “Pee Wee” since his youth, lived a troubled and often disturbing life.  Gaskins was born in Prospect, South Carolina, on March 31, 1933.[iii]  Throughout his life he married six times, fathered two children and worked odd jobs, often at carnivals or as a roofer, while fixing and altering stolen cars and selling them for profit on the side.[iv]  Although many details of his early childhood are debatable, what is confirmed is that Gaskins spent time in and out of prison most of his life, beginning with a five year sentence to reform school for splitting a young girl’s head with an axe at the age of thirteen.[v]  Before he was arrested for murder in 1975, Gaskins had accumulated a long criminal record that included assault and battery, accessory after the fact of murder, interstate transportation of a motor vehicle, carnal knowledge of a child and several successful escape attempts.[vi]  The author Mark R. Jones, who included Gaskins in his compendium of South Carolina murderers and rapists entitled Palmetto Predators: Monsters Among Us, commented that “the number of times [Gaskins] escaped from authorities would be humorous if not for the horrific consequences of him being a free man.”[vii]

The consequences of Gaskins’ freedom were indeed horrific; between 1969 and 1975, investigation confirms that Gaskins killed thirteen people, including seven women, five men and a two-year-old girl.[viii]  Gaskins’s first murder trial resulted in a death sentence for the murder of Dennis Bellamy, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared South Carolina’s death penalty unconstitutional, commuting his sentence to life in prison.[ix]  Gaskins was also found guilty in his second trial for the murder of Silas Barnwell Yates, but he was convicted while the South Carolina death penalty was still considered unconstitutional, thus receiving a second life sentence.[x]  During his third murder trial, in exchange for a written confession of the thirteen murders he was known to have committed, Gaskins was given an additional eight life sentences, seven for murder and one for burglary.[xi]  In this trial, he “plead guilty to the murders of Diane Neeley (sic), 25, Avery Howard, 35, Jessie Ruth Judy, 23, Johnny Sellers, 35, and John H. Knight, 15 … Doreen Dempsey Geddings, 23, and her two-year-old daughter Robin Michelle Dempsey…”[xii]  He also confessed to the murders of Kim Ghelkins, Patricia Alsbrook, Janice Kirby and Martha “Clyde” Dicks, but he was not indicted for these murders because they occurred outside of Florence County.[xiii]

Although he murdered thirteen people, Gaskins may have escaped the electric chair completely had he not decided to kill one last time in 1982.  Tony Cimo of Murell’s Inlet hired Gaskins to assassinate the death row inmate Rudolph Tyner, who was on death row for the murder of Tony Cimo’s parents, Bill and Myrtle Moon.[xiv]  Tyner was killed instantly when, at Gaskins’s request, he placed a bomb disguised as an intercom to his ear and Gaskins detonated it.[xv]  Gaskins’s conviction in the Tyner murder case resulted in the death penalty.[xvi]  Ironically, Gaskins was sentenced to die for the killing of a condemned man, even though he had successfully escaped the electric chair following the murders of thirteen innocent people.

Soon after Donald Henry “Pee Wee” Gaskins’s execution on September 6, 1991, the author Wilton Earle published an autobiographical account of Gaskins’s life, The Final Truth, which Gaskins had dictated through tape-recorded conversations with Earle in the last fifteen months of his life.[xvii] The autobiography complicated the already uncertain narrative of Gaskins’s life, most significantly by making the claim that Gaskins committed nearly one hundred murders in addition to those he was known to have committed.  If true, this makes Gaskins one of the worst serial killers in United States history.  Although it is fairly certain that Gaskins murdered the thirteen people he claimed to have murdered in his written confession, the multiple conflicting accounts of his life make it very difficult to determine the details of these murders, much less the details of his life.

Since the details of Gaskins’s life are uncertain and the available accounts conflict, a historian attempting to write a history of Donald Henry Gaskins’s life would need to decide on which information to rely.  The author may make the decision based on what appears to be the most reasonable account, what conflicts the least with available accounts, or whatever seems most interesting; whatever the case may be, the author has to choose to obscure certain information and highlight other information (unless the author’s purpose is to attempt to include all conflicting accounts of the story in one document).  The inherent problem with this is that, at least in the case of Donald Henry Gaskins’s life, there is no way for the historian to know for sure which account is correct.  This is the problem of the subjectivity of history.

 

Method

Four separate accounts of Gaskins’s life were chosen for comparison.  The first account used was the traditional historical account (later referred to as the “newspaper account”), gathered by comparing several newspapers and other documents from state archives.  Several South Carolina newspapers were selected, including The Sun News, The Florence Morning News, The State, and The Newberry Herald Observer.  Newspaper accounts are for the most part primary sources, besides one newspaper account written the day after Gaskins’s death that told the stories of Gaskins’s known life and murders.  No newspaper sources since the publication of The Final Truth have been included. Several death row records pertaining to Gaskins were obtained from the South Carolina State Archives in Columbia, South Carolina.

The second account used was the novel Slaughter in Carolina by Frances Swain Hall, which was published as “the unauthorized account of ‘Pee Wee’ Gaskins” in 1990, one year before his death.  Although its status as an “unauthorized account” makes it questionable as a historical resource, it is still included in this research because a historian writing about Gaskins would still potentially need to confront the reliability of this source.  The third account is Gaskins’s autobiography, The Final Truth, which he dictated to Wilton Earle in the last fifteen months of his life.  The Final Truth was released in 1992, soon after Gaskins met his end in the electric chair.  Finally, the fourth account is from the 2006 ETV documentary Pee Wee, produced by Amy Shumaker and Sanford Adams.  The documentary does not cite any sources, but it features interviews with law enforcement officials involved in the case, reporters who covered the case and Marilyn Bardsley, the editor of Court TV’s crime library.

All of the accounts were cross-referenced for details regarding Gaskins’s life.  Important details that surfaced in most of the accounts were included, such as his childhood, the “hatchet incident,” and his reform school experience.  Specific details regarding any murders that were mentioned in any accounts were also included for comparison.  A chart was then created to organize the results of the comparisons.

 

Results

  Newspaper Account[xviii] Slaughter in Carolina[xix] The Final Truth[xx] Pee Wee[xxi]
Childhood
  • “Mr. Gaskins was raised in Prospect, South Carolina by his mother and grandparents as an only child within a large extended family unit … he described no particular relationship problems with his 15 family members…”[xxii]
  • Gaskins enjoyed harming animals as a child.
  • He attempted to assassinate his teacher in grade school.
 
  • Gaskins did not think he was abused.
  • He claimed to have only lived with his mother, several “stepdaddies,” and his siblings.
  • He said he was ignored and beaten brutally by his “step daddies.”
  • He was also abused by his peers.
  • Gaskins lived with mother, 5 siblings and his grandparents.
  • He was never abused and probably was never spanked.
  • Gaskins was a problem because he had a lack of discipline growing up.
  • Gaskins abused animals in kindergarten.
 
Incident in which Gaskins hit a young girl in the head with a hatchet when he was thirteen years old
  • Gaskins “landed in a reform school for attacking a little girl who lived nearby.  He hit the girl over the head with a hatchet, beat her in the face with a blackjack and then threw her in a ditch in a fit of rage.”[xxiii]
  • The girl was his cousin.[xxiv]
  • He assaulted the girl, attempting to “force her to the ground.”[xxv]
  • He then hit her in the head with the hatchet.
  • Gaskins attempted to rob a girl he knew
  • She swung at him with the hatchet first. He took it from her and hit her with it in self-defense.
   
  • Gaskins hit the girl in the head when she resisted his sexual advances.
  • He left her for dead in a ditch.
Reform School Experience
  • A letter from the head of the reform school to the superintendent of the South Carolina State Hospital mentioned “escape attempts and violent behavior by Parrott [Gaskins], who bragged about carrying knives and blackjacks while in public schools.”[xxvi]
  • Gaskins abused and raped the other boys
  • After running away from reform school, he often “climbed trees and swung from limb to limb like Tarzan…”[xxvii]
  • Gaskins was abused and raped by his peers
  • Gaskins was abused and raped by his peers
     
Hazel Brazell
  • Nothing found
  • Not mentioned
  • Brazell was the most powerful man in prison.
  • Gaskins killed him for respect by cutting his throat.
  • Gaskins got 9 additonal years; 6 were concurrent with his current sentence, meaning he only got three additional years for the murder.
  • Gaskins was raped in prison by an unnamed inmate
  • Gaskins retaliated by stabbing him; got 8 additional years
  • (Although the man is not named in Pee Wee, thisf seems somewhat comparable to the Hazel Brazell story.)
     
Janice Kirby*Patricia Ann Allsbrook
  • They ran away together and Gaskins found them high on drugs.
  • He beat them to death with his bare hands.
  • Gaskins buried Kirby in Prospect and buried Allsbrook in septic tank in Sumter.[xxviii]
  • He killed Kirby with his bare hands because she had been drinking
  • Gaskins killed Allsbrook because she witnessed the killing.
  • Kirby was found near Prospect
  • Allsbrook was found in a septic tank in Sumter
 
  • Kirby was drunk; Gaskins tried to rape them and failed
  • He hit them both in the head with a gun
  • He buried Kirby next to the tenant house in Sumter; placed Allsbrook in the septic tank of the tentant house.
  • The body he’d said was Kirby’s was actually Jackie Freeman’s; Gaskins claims he lied so other bodies would not be found where Kirby was actually buried.

 

  • No explanation is given for the murders
  • Alsbrook was found in the septic tank.
  • Kirby was found in Prospect.
Peg Cuttino
  • Atlanta attorney Charles King claimed his “’investigation reveals that William ‘Junior’ Pierce could not have killed ‘Peg’ Cuttino … King charged Donald H. “Peewee” Gaskins was the real killer but South Carolina authorities refused to believe him.”[xxix]
  • Gaskins retracted this statement when he gave his written confession of the thirteen murders in exchange for eight life sentences.[xxx]
  • Gaskins admitted to killing Cuttino during the Yates trial
  • Junior Pierce was serving time for Cuttino’s murder.
  • Cuttino called Gaskins “white trash.”
  • Gaskins raped, mutilated, tortured and killed her
  • Claims he knows acid was poured on her, which proves he did it and Junior Pierce is innocent
  • Law enforcement claimed that Gaskins lied about committing the murder for publicity and that Junior Pierce actually did it.
  • The murder was not Gaskins’s style.
     
Martha “Clyde” Dicks
  • Dicks had given Kirby and Allsbrook drugs
  • To punish her for this, Gaskins laced her Coca-Cola with acid used in photography, causing her to die.[xxxi]
  • Gaskins killed her because she was pregnant as the result of a threesome with Gaskins and his wife.
  • Gaskins invited her to a junkyard to pick out a car.  He then “jumped out behind her” and shot her in the head.[xxxii]
  • Gaskins claimes he killed her because she was a liar; she lied about carrying his child.
  • Gaskins forced her to swallow an entire bottle of pills.
  • Gaskins killed her because she was pregnant as the result of a threesome with him and his wife.
  • Gaskins laced a soft drink with poison.
     
Anne Colberson
  • Not mentioned
  • Not mentioned
  • Gaskins picked her up when she was hitchhiking; she was headed to Atlanta.
  • Gaskins raped and tortured her for four days.
  • Gaskins buried her near Kirby, at the tenant house.
  • Not mentioned
     
Eddie BrownBertie Brown
  • Not mentioned
  • Not mentioned
  • Gaskins bought weapons and sold them to Eddie
  • The “Feds” began tracking Eddie.
  • Gaskins thought Eddie would implicate him in the gun scheme, so he killed Eddie so he would not have to go to jail.
  • Gaskins killed Bertie, Eddie’s wife, because she was with Eddie at the time.
  • Not mentioned
     
Jackie Freeman
  • Not mentioned
  • Not mentioned
  • Gaskins found her hitchhiking
  • He raped and murdered her
  • He buried her in Prospect and
  later told authorities her body was Janice’s.
  • Not mentioned
Doreen DempseyRobin Dempsey
  • Gaskins drowned them because Doreen was pregnant by a black man and Robin was half black[xxxiii]
  • “[Gaskins’ co-defense counsel Grady] Query said he doesn’t believe Gaskins is a racist because of his interaction with black inmates in the Central Correctional Institute.”[xxxiv]
  • Gaskins murdered them because he did not have enough room at his house for them.
  • He drowned Doreen in a pond and Robin in a puddle.
  • Gaskins claims he did it because he wanted to rape two-year-old Robin
  • He raped both of them, strangled Robin and cut Doreen’s throat.
  • Gaskins claims that he lied about the real reason he murdered them so that he would not become a target in CCI.  Killing for racism is more acceptable than molesting a child in prison.
  • He drowned them because Doreen was pregnant by a black man and Robin was half black.
     
Johnny SellersJessie Ruth Judy
  • Sellers owed Gaskins money for a stolen boat
  • Shot Sellers at Alligator Landing; lured Judy out and stabbed her to death because she was with him.[xxxv]

 

  • Gaskins plotted to kill Judy’s mother with Judy’s father; when Judy found out, she told Gaskins she would turn him in if he killed her mother, so he decided to kill her.
  • Gaskins robbed a house with Sellers and decided to kill Sellers so that Sellers would not turn Gaskins in for robbery.
  • Gaskins waited outside of their house for several nights, waiting to “pour ether down the flue” so he could kill them.[xxxvi]
  • Johnny Sellers had been shot with a rifle
  • Gaskins killed Sellers in the presence of Sandra Gaskins, Jessie Ruth Judy and James Judy.
  • Sellers owed Gaskins $1000
  • He and Gaskins stole a boat; Gaskins then shot Sellers so he could keep the profit
  • Judy was lured separately and stabbed because she was with Sellers
  • James Judy had nothing to do with it
 
  • Both were found in Prospect
  • Murders not explained
Horace Jones
  • Not mentioned
  • Not mentioned
  • Horace had made sexual advances at Gaskins’s wife.
  • Gaskins claimed he would have been fine to trade his wife for something, but Horace went about it the wrong way
  • Gaskins shot Jones three times and buried him in Prospect.
  • •Not mentioned
     
Silas Barnwell Yates
  • Suzanne Kipper Owens hired Gaskins through John Owens and John William Powell to kill Yates.[xxxvii]
  • Evidence showed that Yates was killed by stab wounds, but Gaskins claimed he killed Yates with a karate blow to the throat.[xxxviii]
  • Gaskins met Suzanne Kipper Owens before the Yates murder and she was present for the murder.
  • Gaskins and Powell drug Yates out of his home.
  • Gaskins sliced Yates’s throat and stabbed him repeatedly with a butcher knife.
  • Gaskins claimed to have strangled Yates with his bare hands.
  • Gaskins dug and covered the grave
  • Suzanne Kipper Owens hired Gaskins, through John Owens and John William Powell, to kill him.
  • Dianne Neely lured Yates out of the house.
  • Gaskins hit him in the throat and stabbed him to death.
  • John Owens and Johnny Powell dug Yates’s grave.
  • Suzanne Kipper Owens was not there; Gaskins did not speak to her until after the murder.
  • Suzanne Kipper Owens hired Gaskins, through John Owens and John William Powell, to kill Yates.
  • The murder is not explained.
     
Dianne NeelyAvery Howard
  • Neely threatened to turn in Gaskins’s friend for statutory rape
  • Gaskins claims he gave his friend a knife and found them dead when the friend returned.
  • Gaskins admits that, after they were dead, he shot them in the head for good measure[xxxix]
  • Neely and Howard knew too much about Gaskins’s criminal activities.
  • Neely had been shot and stabbed.
  • Howard was stabbed to death.
  • Dianne Neely had lured Yates out of his house for Gaskins.
  • Howard convinced Neely to blackmail Gaskins for $5000 for the murder of Yates.
  • Gaskins said he had money hidden in Prospect; he lured the couple there and shot them.
   
  • Their bodies were found in Prospect
  • The murders are not explained
Kim Ghelkins
  • She told people Gaskins and a friend had raped her.
  • Gaskins shot and stabbed her.[xl]
  • She had been to “the country” with Gaskins several times.
  • She went to Prospect with Gaskins.
  • She was raped by Gaskins and several men.
  • She was beaten to death with the butt of a revolver.
  • Gaskins asked her to join him for a family vacation
  • He took her to his trailer at Roper’s Crossroads in Sumter
  • He raped, tortured and killed her.
  • Ghelkins took a trip to the country with Gaskins and his wife and never returned
  • She lived with Gaskins in a trailer briefly.
  • Gaskins told his family he was putting her on a bus; he then killed her on a deserted road and buried her there, near Yates.
     
Dennis BellamyJohnny Knight
  • Bellamy had gotten drunk and started a fight at Gaskins’ house in the past.
  • Bellamy came to Gaskins’s house drunk again.  Gaskins decided to kill him for starting trouble.
  • Gaskins lured Bellamy and Knight to the field separately and shot each in the head.
  • Killed Knight because he was with Bellamy.[xli]
  • The reason behind the murder is not explained.
  • Gaskins lured them to the field separately and shot them.
  • While Gaskins was hiding out after the Ghelkins murder, Bellamy and Knight stole some of Gaskins’s stolen cars.
  • Gaskins lured them to the field separately and shot each in the head.
  • Walter Neely was present for Johnny’s death.
  • They assisted Gaskins in his crime ring.
  • Gaskins became afraid that they would talk.
  • Gaskins lured them to the field separately and shot each in the head.
     
Rudolph Tyner
  • Tyner killed Bill and Myrtle Moon, parents of Tony Cimo.
  • Tony Cimo paid Gaskins to murder Tyner.
  • Gaskins detonated explosives disguised as a radio and kills Tyner on death row[xlii]
  • Tony Cimo, whose parents Bill and Myrtle Moon had been murdered by Tyner, hired Gaskins to kill Tyner.
  • Gaskins detonated dynamite disguised as a radio and killed Tyner on death row
  • Tyner killed Bill and Myrtle Moon, parents of Tony Cimo
  • Tony Cimo payed Gaskins to murder Tyner
  • Detonates C-4 explosives disguised as a radio and kills Tyner on death row
  • Tyner killed Bill and Myrtle Moon, parents of Tony Cimo
  • Tony Cimo payed Gaskins to murder Tyner
  • Detonates explosives disguised as a radio and kills Tyner on death row
     
“Coastal Kills”(Rapes and murders of hitchhikers along the coastal highway between Charleston and Myrtle Beach)
  • Nothing found
  • Many people believe Gaskins killed over 100 people because he was a hitman.
  • Admits to 80-90 “Coastal Kills,” in which he raped and murdered hitchhikers he found between Charleston and Myrtle Beach, plus 31 “Serious Murders,” defined as murders of people he knew.
  • Raping and murdering hitchhikers eliminated the “bothersomeness,” a feeling of pain in his stomach that he described as a constant presence in his life.
  • Gaskins probably did not commit any “Coastal Kills”
  • Gaskins simply wants to be remembered as one of the worst serial killers in history.
     

*The fourteen victims Gaskins is confirmed to have killed by all accounts are highlighted in yellow

 

 

Discussion

Very few events in Gaskins’s life could be conclusively determined by cross-referencing the four different accounts.  The only thing that can be known with any degree of certainty by comparing the different accounts is that Gaskins murdered Janice Kirby, Patricia Allsbrook, Martha “Clyde” Dicks, Doreen Dempsey, Robin Michelle Dempsey, Johnny Sellers, Jessie Ruth Judy, Silas Barnwell Yates, Dianne Neely, Avery Howard, Kim Ghelkins, Dennis Bellamy, Johnny Knight and Rudolph Tyner.  The details of the Tyner murder are most consistent between the four accounts, making it the only murder in which an accurate reconstruction of events is possible.  Lastly, although the accounts differed in the role Suzanne Kipper Owens played in the Silas Barnwell Yates murders, what seems clear is that Gaskins was paid by Owens to kill Yates and that the murder occurred in the presence of John Owens and John William Powell.  No other details were consistent between all four accounts.

 

Reliability of the Different Accounts

Before the differences between the accounts can be discussed and evaluated, it is first necessary to discuss the reliability of the individual accounts, since reliability factors heavily into which account should be believed.  It is not enough for multiple accounts to agree on a detail; multiple credible accounts must agree in order for a detail to be regarded as factual.

The newspaper account is reliable in that it accurately describes what Gaskins said about his murders in court.  One may be inclined to think that the newspaper’s versions of certain murders or events in Gaskins’s life are more reliable than what Gaskins says about them in his autobiography, but in reality they are a reflection of what Gaskins wanted people in court to believe about his murders.  This should be kept in mind when evaluating the newspaper account in relation to the other sources.

The death row records (which, for the purposes of this study, have been grouped with the “Newspaper Account”) are seemingly the most reliable source.  It should be remembered, however, that some of these records are based on Gaskins’s own testimony and may only be as credible as the newspaper accounts or the autobiographical account, at best.

Although Slaughter in Carolina seems to get a few details of Gaskins’s life correct, it is by far the most unreliable source.  Its status as an unauthorized account of Gaskins’s life is the first hint of its unreliability.  The credibility of the book is further diminished by its poor composition.  The chapters seem haphazardly placed and there is no particular order to the events in the book.  Also, many of the events in Gaskins’s life seem cartoonish and unrealistic.  At one point in the book, following a description of an incident in which Gaskins’s wife caught him attempting to rape a girl (something no other account acknowledges), Hall describes Gaskins’s reaction in a very unrealistic way, explaining:

“Just as the wife entered the living room, “Pee Wee” dashed pass (sic) her, ran to the car, leaped in, and drove down the road at breakneck speed.  He was so wrought that he zig-zagged and ended in a ditch.  After jumping out of the car, he ran like a frightened animal into the bordering woods which was (sic) always his haven when he was on the run.”[xliii] 

It seems hard to believe that this event (if it happened at all) happened as cartoonishly as Hall describes it.  The amount of grammatical errors also decreases the credibility of this source.  At times Hall’s grammatical errors make it difficult to discern the meaning of certain passages.  For example, Hall explains Martha Dicks’s involvement with Gaskins as follows:

“A young black woman whose real name was Martha Ann Dicks, was nicknamed “Clyde”, because she dressed mannishly, made a foolish mistake and allowed herself to become pregnant by “Pee Wee”.  Although, she knew that he was already living with someone, and that she couldn’t get compensation.  She asked “Pee Wee” to buy her an automobile.”[xliv]

Because Hall finds it difficult to obey grammatical conventions, it is hard for the reader to fully trust her account of Gaskins’s life.  Although it is quite possible that her grammatical errors have no relation to the reliability of her information, it still seems difficult to trust a source that does not properly command the English language.  Finally, the credibility of Slaughter in Carolina is further reduced by its status as a self-published book.  Hummingbird Publishing, the publication company that produced Slaughter in Carolina, is a company that helps independent authors publish books for a small fee.  The fact that Slaughter in Carolina could have been published with little or no editing by outside sources makes it an even more difficult source to trust.

Despite the apparent unreliability of Slaughter in Carolina, it has been included in this study because, for better or worse, it is one of the few sources available that describes the life of Donald Henry Gaskins.  Also, it seems likely that the documentary Pee Wee has used Slaughter in Carolina as a source, something that will be discussed later.

As an autobiography, The Final Truth is inherently unreliable.  As the author Wilton Earle notes in the section entitled “author’s notes” at the end of the book, “all autobiographical narration, by persons great or small, famous or infamous, is inherently biased and therefore subject to close scrutiny and a measure of skepticism.”[xlv]  Also, the idea that the book is Gaskins’s final chance to tell the truth about his life can either enhance or discredit the document’s reliability.  On the one hand, as Gaskins notes several times, the book is his last chance to tell the “Final Truth,” implying that he wishes to tell the actual truth about his life and murders, as opposed to what he claims to have lied about in court (and what is therefore reflected in newspaper accounts).  On the other hand, it is quite possible that Gaskins saw the autobiography as a chance to expand his infamy and secure his place in history.  Perhaps Gaskins fabricated entire portions of his life or aspects of his murders in order to make himself seem more memorable than he actually may have been.  Depending on how one perceives Gaskins’s intentions, the credibility of The Final Truthincreases or decreases.  Many sources, such as Mark R. Jones’s Palmetto Predators, seem to place full faith in Gaskins’s account of his life.  The documentary Pee Wee, meanwhile, completely dismisses The Final Truth as nothing more than Gaskins’s unreliable final attempt at securing his place in history.  In reality, it seems most likely that The Final Truth is somewhere between these two extremes.  Certain parts are likely embellished to increase Gaskins’s reputation, while others may actually be the truth as Gaskins remembered it.

As previously stated, Pee Wee completely dismisses The Final Truth, and for the most part it suffers for it.  Where it could have benefited by comparing The Final Truth to available information, Pee Wee chooses to completely disregard it, thus limiting its scope significantly.  Because it regards The Final Truth as inherently false, Pee Wee relies heavily on the confession given by Gaskins in court to explain the murders, which is not necessarily more reliable than The Final Truth, considering that both Gaskins’s plea bargain confessions and The Final Truth are documents constructed by Gaskins to suit his particular purposes at different points in time.  Pee Wee also seems to repeat details of Gaskins’s life that can only be found in Slaughter in Carolina.  It is not certain that Pee Wee used Slaughter in Carolina as a source, since it does not list any sources in its credits, but it seems possible, since certain details of Gaskins’s life included in Pee Weeonly matched details found in Slaughter in Carolina.

 

Discussion of Cross Referencing

In certain cases, when three of the four accounts agree on a detail, it may seem reasonable to conclude that the detail agreed upon by the majority of accounts is the correct detail.  It is possible, however, to make a counterargument in support of the lone detail.  For example, the “Newspaper Account,” Slaughter in Carolina and Pee Wee agree that Doreen and Robin Michelle Dempsey were murdered because Gaskins was a racist, while The Final Truth contends that Gaskins murdered them because he wanted to rape the two-year-old Robin Michelle Dempsey.  At first glance, it may seem reasonable to conclude that racism was the reason that Gaskins killed Doreen and Robin Dempsey, since the majority of accounts agree on this reasoning.  When all of the evidence is evaluated, however, The Final Truth’s version of events begins to make more sense.

Gaskins claims in The Final Truth that he lied when he said he killed Doreen Dempsey because she was pregnant by a black man and he killed Robin Michelle Dempsey for being mixed.  Gaskins asserts that if he had told the truth (that he had killed them in order to rape Robin Dempsey) he would have lost his power in prison, so he fabricated the story about killing them for racist reasons in order to preserve his respect.  This makes sense, since the newspaper accounts that claimed Gaskins killed Doreen and Robin Dempsey because he was racist were based on his original court testimony, and also since Gaskins’s co-defense counsel Grady Query commented that Gaskins did not seem racist.

It is interesting, then, that the documentary Pee Wee (as the only secondary source in this study that was completed after The Final Truth and therefore the only secondary source with the capacity to take into account Gaskins’s own account of the murder) chose to ignore Gaskins’s own account of the murder, insisting that Gaskins killed Doreen and Robin Michelle Dempsey because he was a racist.  This is an excellent example of subjectivity at work in history.  While it may seem reasonable to some historians to conclude that The Final Truth account of the Dempsey murders is the correct account, other researchers (like those involved in the documentary Pee Wee) may choose to ignore Gaskins’s autobiographical account in favor of the original account given in his confession.  Neither party knows for sure what happened, but each is able to make a justified argument for what it believes is the correct account.

Similarly, in the case of the Kirby and Alsbrook murders, The Final Truth tells a different story than the other accounts.  While the other three accounts, based on Gaskins’s court testimony, agree that Kirby was buried in Prospect, Gaskins states that Kirby was actually buried near the septic tank in which Allsbrook’s body was found.  Gaskins explains that he lied about Kirby’s burial place so that other bodies near Kirby’s body would not be found, and that the body law enforcement claimed was Kirby’s was actually Jackie Freeman’s.  Once again, because the other three accounts are based on Gaskins’s court testimony, which is not necessarily more reliable than The Final Truth, it cannot be known which account is correct.  In writing about this murder, a historian would have to make a subjective decision based on which account seems more appealing.

Anne Colberson, Eddie and Bertie Brown, Jackie Freeman and Horace Jones were all murders that Gaskins admitted to in The Final Truth that were not mentioned in the other accounts.  Further research is needed to determine if these people actually existed and if they went missing around the time that Gaskins claimed to have killed them.  Whether or not Gaskins committed “Coastal Kills,” murders and rapes of random hitchhikers between 1969 and 1975 for pleasure, remains open to speculation as well.  Newspaper accounts and Slaughter in Carolina had no knowledge of this, since these kills were not revealed until The Final Truth was written.  Pee Wee, meanwhile, takes the stance that the claim that Gaskins committed between eighty and ninety coastal kills was purely to increase his infamy.

The Peg Cuttino murder is similar to these cases, in that Gaskins claims in The Final Truth to have committed the murder, while the other sources are either unsure of the truth of this claim or claim that Gaskins is admitting to the Cuttino murder for publicity.  The “Newspaper Account” could possibly lend some support to Gaskins’s argument, since the Atlanta attorney Charles King seemed convinced that Junior Pierce could not have committed the Cuttino murder.  Once again, this is a situation in which a historian writing about these cases would have to use his or her best judgment to pick a side and support it to the best of his or her ability without necessarily being sure about what happened.

In the cases of Johnny Sellers and Jessie Ruth Judy, Diane Neely and Avery Howard, and Dennis Bellamy and Johnny Knight, a pattern that emerged was that the sources disagreed about the reasons behind the murders but agreed on the method of the murders.  In all of these murders, Gaskins lured the people to the place of burial separately and shot them.  The only contradiction to this is the newspaper account of the Neely and Howard murders, in which Gaskins stated that he gave a friend a knife and found the couple dead afterward.  A theme that appeared several times throughout each of these murders is that Gaskins may have eliminated most of these people because they knew too much about any of his various criminal activities, but the extent to which this is true is debatable.

In the case of the Kim Ghelkins murder, meanwhile, the accounts all seem to agree on the circumstances surrounding the murder and differ on how the murder was committed.  It seems clear that Ghelkins went to Sumter with Gaskins under the pretense of going on some sort of vacation, and it seems likely that she was raped by Gaskins (and perhaps by other men as well).  The way in which Gaskins killed her is uncertain, however; whether she was shot, stabbed, beaten to death or tortured prior to murder remains a mystery.  It seems likely that further research into the court records could reveal the way in which Ghelkins was murdered.

Finally, the murder of the homosexual African American female Martha “Clyde” Dicks is the most puzzling.  Each account offers a different explanation as to why her murder took place and how it was executed.  Perhaps the most interesting result of cross-referencing the accounts was the way in which the documentary Pee Wee seems to have combined the method of her murder from the newspaper accounts and the reason behind the murder from Slaughter in Carolina to create its own version of the murder.  While Pee Weechooses to include the newspaper account’s version of the method of Dicks’s murder (that she drank a soft drink laced with poison), interestingly it seems to draw from Slaughter in Carolina for the reason behind the murder, claiming that Dicks became pregnant as a result of a threesome with Gaskins and his wife and therefore had to be murdered.  The fact that this version of the reason behind Dicks’s murder was used in Pee Wee is made even more interesting when it is considered that following the threesome claim, Slaughter in Carolina describes the murder of Dicks as Gaskins “jump[ing] out behind her” and shooting her in the head.  The cartoonishness of this description makes the account seem instantly less credible.  It seems odd that Pee Wee would choose to include the version of events from a book as poorly written as Slaughter in Carolina.  It is entirely possible, however, that Pee Wee gathered this information from a different source that was not used in this study (it is hard to determine since Pee Wee does not list its sources).  It is also quite possible that it was decided that the most interesting version of events should be included in the documentary.  Whatever the case may be, the producers had to make a subjective decision about which version of events to include in the documentary.

 

Conclusion

Given the amount of diverse and conflicting information about Donald Henry Gaskins’s life, it is clear that in order to write a history of his life, a historian would need to make subjective decisions about which version of each detail to include.  The documentary Pee Wee, as the latest secondary source to take into account all of the details of Gaskins’s life, including his autobiography, is a good example of the finished result of the process of subjectively selecting information to create a historical account.  In order to suit its purpose of discrediting The Final Truth, the creators of the documentary chose to rely on the version of events that were detailed through newspaper articles and court records.  Although Pee Wee takes into account a variety of available information, it is important to keep in mind that it is not necessarily the definitive document of Gaskins’s life, but is rather an interpretation of the evidence based on the particular goals of the producers.

Just as the creators of Pee Wee used chose what information to use based on their particular purposes, often in history, when there is conflicting information about a particular event, historians must choose to use the available evidence that supports their point while either obscuring or explaining away other evidence that may contradict or weaken it.  It is very important that this is kept in mind when examining any historical account.  Not only is it possible that the author of a given account has obscured conflicting information, but it is also possible that conflicting evidence exists of which the author is unaware.  As new evidence is discovered relating to a given historical event, old accounts are challenged and may need to be amended or rewritten completely.  It is through this process that history is reevaluated and rewritten by each generation and is therefore a field that is very much alive and changing.  Because history is always in a constant state of change, historical accounts should be read skeptically and should never be regarded as absolutely definitive.


 


 

About the Author

 

Henry CappsHenry Capps

My name is Henry Luther Capps III, but most people know me as Trey. I am a junior History and English double major in the South Carolina Honors College. This particular project was completed over the summer while I participated in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. I was the primary researcher and writer for this project and Dr. Bobby Donaldson from the History Department was my research advisor. I presented the research from this project at the Southeastern Association of Educational Opportunity Program Personnel Conference (SAEOPP) during the summer of 2012, where I placed third in the humanities division. Conducting this research gave me tremendous insight into the intensity of graduate-level research, which is valuable to me since I intend to enroll in graduate school following graduation in hopes of obtaining a Ph.D. and becoming either a history or English professor. I am hoping that the publication of this research will help improve my chances of getting into the graduate school of my choice. Presenting this research was also a valuable experience because it improved my confidence in speaking about my work in front of an audience. I have also conducted research with an Exploration Grant from the South Carolina Honors College and am currently conducting research under the Magellan Guarantee grant.

 

 

Reference

[i] Oliver J. Daddow, “Debating History Today,” Rethinking History 8.1 (2004): 147.

[ii] Hayden White, “An Old Question Raised Again:  Is Historiography Art or Science? (Response to Iggers),” Rethinking History 4:3 (2000):  396-397.

[iii] Donald Gaskins and Wilton Earle, Final Truth:  The Autobiography of a Serial Killer (Atlanta, GA:  Adept, 1992), 16.

[iv] Ibid., 219

[v] Psychological Evaluation, South Carolina State Archives.

[vi] Brian K. Duncan, “Prophetic Warnings,” The State, March 29, 1983, sec. A, 1, 7.

[vii] Mark R. Jones, Palmetto Predators:  Monsters Among Us, (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2007), 44.

[viii][viii] Margaret N. O’Shea, “In Cold Blood,” The State, September 1, 1991, Sec. A, p. 1, 10.

[ix] The State of South Carolina:  County of Florence, Court of General Sessions, May 1976 Term, State vs. Donald Henry Gaskins, roll no. 13327; Margaret N. O’Shea, “In Cold Blood.”

[x] “Guilty Verdict Ends Yates Murder Trial,” Newberry Herald Observer, April 29, 1977, p. 1, 12.

[xi] Wayne Ford, “Gaskins Admits Guilt To Thirteen Murders,” Florence Morning News, April 18, 1978, sec. A, 1, 5.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] “State to seek death penalty for Gaskins (sic.),” Sun News, February 14, 1983, sec. A, p. 4.

[xv] David Tomlin, “Gaskins sentenced to die (sic.),” Sun News, March 27, 1983, Sec. A, p. 1.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] G.G. Rigsby, “Reporter tells of final minutes (sic.),” The State, September 7, 1991, Sec. B, p. 1, 2.; Gaskins, 233.

[xviii] The “Newspaper Account” column also includes information obtained from Gaskins’s death row records.

[xix] Frances Swain Hall, Slaughter in Carolina (Florence, SC:  Hummingbird Publishers, 1990).  All information in this column is from Slaughter in Carolina.

[xx] Donald Gaskins and Wilton Earle, Final Truth:  The Autobiography of a Serial Killer (Atlanta, GA:  Adept, 1992).  All information in this column is from The Final Truth.

[xxi] Pee Wee, prod. Amy Shumaker and Sanford Adams, writ. and dir. Sanford Adams, 60 min., South Carolina ETV Commission, 2006, DVD.  All information in this column is from the documentary Pee Wee.

[xxii] Psychological Evaluation, South Carolina State Archives.

[xxiii] Brian K. Duncan, “Prophetic Warnings.”

[xxiv] Margaret N. O’Shea, “In Cold Blood.”

[xxv] Hall, 33.

[xxvi] Brian K. Duncan, “Prophetic Warnings.”

[xxvii] Hall, 37.

[xxviii] Margaret N. O’Shea, “In Cold Blood.”

[xxix] Richard Beene, “Lawyer Says His Evidence Proves Innocence Of Convicted Killer,” The State, December 21, 1978.

[xxx] Wayne Ford, “Gaskins Admits Guilt To Thirteen Murders.”

[xxxi] Margaret N. O’Shea, “In Cold Blood.”

[xxxii] Hall, 47.

[xxxiii] Wayne Ford, “Seven Killings Admitted In Court By Gaskins,” Florence Morning News, April 19, 1978, Sec. A, 1, 2, 7.

[xxxiv] Wayne Ford, “Seven Killings Admitted In Court By Gaskins.”

[xxxv] Margaret N. O’Shea, “In Cold Blood.”

[xxxvi] Frances Swain Hall, Slaughter in Carolina (Florence, SC:  Hummingbird Publishers, 1990), 63.

[xxxvii] “Yates Murder Trial Enters Second Week,” Newberry Herald Observer, April 26, 1977, p. 1, 12.

[xxxviii] Margaret N. O’Shea, “In Cold Blood.”

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] David Tomlin, “Gaskins Sentenced to Die,” Sun News, March 27, 1983, Sec. A, p. 1.

[xliii] Hall, 42-43.

[xliv] Ibid., 46-47.

[xlv] Gaskins, 231.