Donald Henry Gaskins (Pee-wee Gaskins, Meanest Man In America)
Gaskins was born on March 13, 1933, in Florence County, South Carolina. Gaskins spent much of his youth in reform school. In adulthood, Gaskins’ small, slight build (5’ 4” tall, hence his nickname) would make him a target for physical and sexual abuse in prison.
As a youth, Gaskins was both a poor scholar and a criminal, committing a number of petty thefts. During one burglary, he hit a woman on the head with a hatchet and left her for dead, though she survived. For this crime, Gaskins served his first custodial sentence at a reform school. Gaskins married for the first time in 1951, at eighteen, and fathered a daughter the following year. Upon his release from reform school, Gaskins took to committing insurance fraud. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder after using a hammer to attack a teenage girl whom he claimed had been insulting him. Gaskins was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment at the Central Correctional Institution. During this incarceration, Gaskins’ wife divorced him.
Gaskins committed his first murder whilst serving this first prison sentence in 1953, when he slashed the throat of a fellow inmate named Hazel Brazell. Gaskins claimed he committed this murder to earn himself a fearsome reputation amongst his fellow inmates. He was judged to have acted in self-defense, and sentenced to a further three years’ imprisonment. Gaskins escaped from prison in 1955 by hiding in the back of a garbage truck and fled to Florida, where he took employment with a traveling carnival. He was rearrested, remanded to custody, and paroled in August, 1961
Following his release from prison, Gaskins remarried but soon reverted to committing burglaries and fencing stolen property. Two years after his parole, Gaskins was arrested for the rape of a twelve-year-old girl; he absconded whilst awaiting sentence, but was rearrested in Georgia, and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. Gaskins was paroled in November, 1968. Upon his release, Gaskins moved to the town of Sumter and began work with a construction company. In September 1969, Gaskins began killing a series of hitchhikers he picked up whilst driving around the coastal highways of the American South. He classified these victims as Coastal Kills: people, both male and female, whom he killed purely for pleasure, on average approximately once every six weeks, when he went hunting to quell his feelings of “bothersome-ness”. He tortured and mutilated his victims, while attempting to keep them alive for as long as possible. He confessed to killing these victims using a variety of methods including stabbing, suffocation and mutilation, and even claimed to have cannibalized some of them. He later confessed to killing “eighty to ninety” such victims, although this figure has never been corroborated.
In November, 1970, Gaskins committed the first of his Serious Murders: people whom he knew and killed for personal reasons. Gaskins’ first Serious Murder victims were his own niece, Janice Kirby, aged 15, and her friend Patricia Ann Alsbrook, aged 17, both of whom he beat to death after attempting to sexually assault them in Sumter, South Carolina. Other Serious Murder victims were killed for a variety of reasons: because they had mocked Gaskins, attempted to blackmail him, owed him money, because they had stolen from him, or because Gaskins had been paid to kill his victim. Unlike his Coastal Kills, Gaskins simply executed these victims, usually by shooting them, before burying them around the coastal areas of South Carolina.
Gaskins was arrested on November 14, 1975, when a criminal associate, named Walter Neeley, confessed to police that he had witnessed Gaskins having killed two young men named Dennis Bellamy, aged 28, and Johnny Knight, aged 15. Neeley confessed to police that Gaskins had confided in him to having killed several people who had been listed as missing persons over the previous five years, and had indicated to him where they were buried. On December 4, 1975, Gaskins led police to land he owned in Prospect, where police discovered the bodies of eight of his victims.
Gaskins was tried on eight charges of murder on May 24, 1976, found guilty on May 28 and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life in prison, when the South Carolina General Assembly’s 1974 death sentence ruling was changed to conform to the United States Supreme Court guidelines for the death penalty in other states.
On September 12, 1982, Gaskins committed another murder, for which he earned the title of the “Meanest Man in America”. Whilst incarcerated in the high security block at the South Carolina Correctional Institution, Gaskins killed a death row inmate named Rudolph Tyner, who earned his sentence for killing an elderly couple named Bill and Myrtle Moon during a bungled armed robbery on the store they owned in the Burgess community.
Gaskins was hired to commit this murder by Tony Cimo, son of Myrtle Moon. Gaskins initially made several unsuccessful attempts to kill Tyner by lacing his food and drink with poison before he opted to use explosives to kill him. To accomplish this, Gaskins rigged a device similar to a portable radio in Tyner’s death row cell and told Tyner this would allow them to communicate between cells. When Tyner followed Gaskins’ instructions to hold a speaker (laden with C-4 plastic explosive, unbeknownst to him) to his ear at an agreed time, Gaskins detonated the explosives in his cell and killed him. Gaskins later said, “The last thing he [Tyner] heard was me laughing.”
Gaskins was tried for the murder of Rudolph Tyner and sentenced to death.
Whilst on death row, Gaskins told his life story to a journalist named Wilton Earle, confessing to having committed between 100 and 110 murders, one of them being that of Margaret “Peg” Cuttino (1950–75), the 12 year old daughter of then SC state senator James Cuttino, Jr. of Sumter, SC, near Florence, South Carolina, (about 130 miles from the “Fort Sumter” of Civil War fame). However, law enforcement sources found it impossible to verify all of his claims. In his autobiography, Final Truth, Gaskins wrote that he had “a special mind” that gave him “permission to kill.”
Gaskins was executed on September 6, 1991, at 1:10 a.m. He was the fourth person to die in the electric chair after the death penalty was reinstated in South Carolina in 1977. Reportedly, his final words were “I’ll let my lawyers talk for me. I’m ready to go”.