Isn't it interesting how criminals or criminal activity can end up getting so glamorized and made over by entertainment outlets and the media? Look what the silver screen's Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman and Robert Redford have done for the legacies of Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh (aka The Sundance Kid). They're all better known now as cool sex symbols trying to survive instead of thieves and gunslingers.
And let's not forget D.B. Cooper, the name attributed to a man who hijacked a Boeing 727 in 1971 and ended up parachuting from the plane with $200,000 in ransom money. No one was hurt, and because Cooper was relaxed and "never cruel or nasty" (according to one of the flight attendants), he has gone down in history as one of the great bon vivant grand larcenists, never to be seen or heard from again - much less captured - which only adds to his allure.
The case is the only unsolved act of air piracy in American aviation history, and every year around its anniversary someone on TV talks about the legend of D.B. Cooper, who has become so propagandized as to nearly make one wish he were ours.
He isn't, of course, but Florence's Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins is, and it's a bit odd how even someone that loathsome has a kind of celebrity appeal.
Remember Pee Wee? Unless you are middle aged or older you wouldn't, but he became known as "The Meanest Man in America" (a sobriquet more befitting a professional wrestler than South Carolina's most prolific serial killer), and got more infamous in 1982 when he killed yet again, but this time while already locked up in prison.
His story has been told and retold over the years through numerous news accounts and now is on numerous websites, including those detailing crime and capital punishment. He was executed for a murder-for-hire scheme that initially went nowhere. Gaskins made several unsuccessful attempts to take out his intended victim by lacing his food and drink with poison. But then someone smuggled C-4 plastic explosives into prison, which Pee Wee devilishly concealed within a homemade walkie-talkie-like contraption that would ostensibly allow Gaskins and his target to communicate between cells.
It didn't seem to work at first. But Pee Wee tricked the man into thinking that, if he held the speaker to his ear, everything would be perfect. Which it was - for Pee Wee, that is. He flipped a switch and something really bad happened to the inmate a few doors down. Later Gaskins is reported to have said, "The last thing he heard was me laughing."
Yes indeed - The Meanest Man in America. But the morbidly comedic overtones of this particular caper obscure several ironies, including the fact that this is what actually put Gaskins in the chair, and not the murder of numerous innocents beforehand.
Gaskins had been charged with eight counts following his final arrest in 1975, and the prison blow-up would make nine. Former Florence County Sheriff Billy Barnes said he believed there were at least 13 homicides linked to Gaskins, but near the end of his life Gaskins is said to have claimed to have killed between 100 and 110 people.
According to various accounts, here's the low-down on Pee Wee:
Dysfunctional upbringing, school dropout, sent to reform school following a crime spree that included burglaries and one gang rape. After release, turned immediately to theft and was sent to prison in 1952 following assault on a woman. Killed a fellow inmate while incarcerated by slitting his throat, adding nine years to the sentence. Released in 1961, and was convicted the next year of statutory rape involving a 12-year-old girl. Paroled again in 1968, and the following year began a dreadful series of killings, frequently performed with sadistic pleasure and involving the most heinous torture, with his most ghastly crime being the murder of a 23-year-old who was eight months pregnant, and her 20-month-old daughter.
In a way, we insult the reputations of Bonnie, (not so much Clyde), Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and others by drawing comparisons in any way with the likes of Pee Wee Gaskins. It's just remarkable how even the latter is sometimes recalled not only for the horrible things he did, but also because of the celebrity spin that unfortunately tends to diminish the reality of those things.
To which I must confess to being part of the problem, having recalled Pee Wee's most infamous act as described. Perhaps the best thing we should do concerning Pee Wee at this point is to forget about him, while recalling his victims.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth
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