The journey to Central Prison led me down miles and miles of streets lined with dazzling purple Jacaranda trees. It was early Spring in Pretoria, South Africa, and the characteristic purple blooms exuberantly carpeted every street and sidewalk. If colour had sound, these blooms were nothing short of raucous, filling the air with their distinctive sweet perfume, delicately laced with the promise of all things new. Spring in this part of the world is unforgettable, but there was no time left to reminisce; I had reached my destination at Central Prison. I stared at the ominous building and shuddered. Somehow the pretty purple trees kept their distance from the brick and mortar structure I was about to enter. Death row was on the other side of a sinister looking front gate, but I had no choice. I was headed inside.
There are no seasons inside a prison and when the heavy door closed behind me, Spring was securely locked out. Ahead of me stretched an endless collection of gates, locks, automatic steel sliding doors and one-eyed video cameras blinking coldly at my every move. The rubber soles of the guard dogged my hollow footsteps as we disappeared like two damned souls down a labyrinth of endless clinical corridors, negotiating a pathway into the dungeons of hell.
“Here.” His voice halted my steps. “This is Section C.” He reached unceremoniously around me to insert a heavy key into the lock of a huge iron gate. It creaked open slowly and he stood aside just enough to let me in. I squeezed my petrified body to the other side of the gate and watched mutely as he locked it. The unsympathetic guard pointed to a panic button on the wall. “Don’t hesitate to use it if you need it.” Then he was gone and as if in a dream, I turned to observe the three cell doors facing me inside Section C. Then an immense sense of relieve washed over me and I felt almost lightheaded as I sank down on the hard chair beside a small desk. Thank God, she’s locked up inside one of these cells!
“What’s your name?” The soft voice sent an electrical shock through my body just as I caught the movement of the center cell door swinging open. Pauline Tolken, the axe murderess, stood three feet away from me. Prisoners were allowed to move around in their own section, and we were both locked in behind the gates of Section C, the women’s quarters on death row. Characteristic of a psychopath, her eyes were devoid of emotion; there was only curiosity. “Nothing to be afraid of,” she said matter-of-factly after a long pause. She pointed nonchalantly at the meshed metal ceiling where I could see armed guards crossing over from time to time. The only real privacy would be inside her cell. She folded her arms over her considerable bosom and screwed her eyes into tiny slits. “Good God!” It felt like a scolding and I jumped in shock. “How old are you?”
I don’t remember answering her, but at twenty two I was the youngest member of the Press Public Relations team of the Department of Correctional Services. I joined the Service to complete the honours part of my degree and never dreamed that I would ever be called to do active duty inside a prison – let alone complete a weekend shift on death row! I only vaguely recollected the stipulation in my contract about duty inside a prison in the event staff shortages. The year was 1978 and a flu epidemic had unexpectedly incapacitated scores of personnel. My number was up.
To be blunt, my forty eight hours on death row was a suicide watch to make sure the country’s most notorious female axe killer had no opportunity to rob the government from their solemn civil duty of killing her first. A quick once-over of the tall, imposing figure with the strange blue eyes convinced me that I would be best advised to play nice. Quite frankly, considering her height and size, I had no illusions that she scoffed at the 110 pounds packed into my slight frame. Without uttering a word to this effect, I agreed to be her audience as she endlessly regaled me for the next 48 hours on exactly how and why she killed her adulterous spouse. I don’t mean to shock you, but I was riveted! Sitting quietly in my corner I literally was Pauline Tolken’s ‘captive audience’ as I watched her pace about, rambling on endlessly about every gory detail of the brutal killing. Little did I suspect that some day I would find a way to counterbalance the trauma she put me through by incorporating this experience into one of the most important projects of my life.
At some point all dedicated writers delve into the treasure chest of personal experience to tell a story, and in the story of “The Meadow,” the villain, burdened by eons of his own hatred and unforgiveness, is a particularly nasty character. Writers invariably get inside the heads of their characters, and I shared my loathing for this character a few times with my co-author, and that he deserved a befitting end to his miserable life. Yet, it wasn’t until I remembered my shocking experience on death row with Pauline Tolken so many years ago that I could find the words to describe an ending for William Wainthorp’s destructive life. What follows here, is the relevant excerpt from our book, “The Meadow.” With the exception of a few details, it represents almost a verbatim account of what I heard on death row.
In Chapter 4 of our book, William’s emotionally and physically battered wife, Mary, desperately brings an end to his relentless torture of her body and soul. The “how to” is borrowed from the repertoire of the original axe murderess with whom I spent two days on death row:
“Mary heard William come in and pretended to be in deep sleep. She had been waiting all night long and took pains to keep her breathing normal. When he stepped into their sleeping quarters, she smelled him as always and had great difficulty suppressing the nausea that welled from her stomach as he undressed carelessly, dropping his stinking clothes where he stood. Then he walked in the nude over to the bed and fell noisily into it, unconcerned about waking her. For a terrifying moment he reached a rough hand out to her, as if his day’s business was not yet over, but then he let out a muffled curse, rolled onto his back and quickly sank into a deep dreamless sleep, his body shaking as he snored.
Mary waited until she was certain he was fast asleep, and then crept carefully from under the covers. She reached under the bed and slowly pulled out the axe from where she had hidden it earlier that day. It was the same axe that William used to behead poultry and it was stained with the blood of thousands of hapless creatures, whose lives he had expertly ended, swinging and striking with cold precision in the same place every time. Mary stealthily crept around to his side of the bed and for a few seconds stood looking dispassionately at him. She knew it was his life or hers.
There was no other choice and there was no room for error as she leaned forward and carefully pulled the covers off his naked body. Mary drew in her breath and lifted the axe high above her head. The first blow carried her full body weight and struck him hard across the groin area, the sharp blade cutting deeply into his groin and thighs, instantly severing his genitals. Thus, Mary leveled a long overdue score with William in one clean swoop. The immense pain caused his body to shoot up in astonished reflex and doubled him forward and over as he blindly reached towards his groin, roaring like an animal.
With his head still bent down and moaning incoherently, Mary knew she had only one more chance as she raised the axe again. Weakened by the impact of what she had already done, there was less power this time as she brought the axe down on the back of his neck. That was the fatal blow, although Mary didn’t wait long enough to know that William took hours to die and agonizingly bled his body dry in the same bed in which he had so often abused her.
She left that night in the buggy and a week later bought her passage back to cold, dreary England with the money she had taken from the metal box he kept under the bed. Her plan was to find work in an orphanage, or make good in some way for the indescribable heartache she had suffered on the shores of New England. More than anything, she wanted to erase the memory of a life so futile and utterly wasted.”
I lasted all of two years in the harsh, unforgiving world of prisons and inmates, before I traded it for a position in the private sector. I don’t know what ultimately happened to Pauline Tolken. I know she was not executed and is either serving out a life sentence in a woman’s prison, or had already died from natural causes. But I shall never forget my time on death row with her. Within the short time spent with her, she had initiated me into the solemn culture of life on death row. As the sun began to set that Saturday evening, the most beautiful singing reached us from the other side of the walls where the men were kept.
“Who is that singing?” I asked astonished, yet deeply moved by the faint harmonious tones drifting within the unforbidding walls of the maximum security facility.
“Oh, that,” she commented dispassionately, “is their swan song. ” She was referring to some unfortunate black men on death row. “They will be hung at sunrise Monday morning. And if you’re around tomorrow evening, you’ll hear them test the trapdoor of the gallows. No-one can miss the loud clapping sound as the floor falls away.”
Thankfully, I never heard that. When the heavy front gate closed behind me at 7 pm on the Sunday night, I felt emotionally and mentally brutalized. Afterwards I couldn’t decide if it was because of what I was forced to listen to, or whether it was the absence of my freedom for those 48 hours that weighed so heavy on my heart. But after percolating in the depths of my subconscious mind for so many years, my time on death row finally found expression in our book. Expressing it on paper has had a profoundly cathartic effect on my psyche, and I was finally able to put it behind me.
Capital punishment is no longer practiced in South Africa.
Authored by Mike O’Hare and Elfreda Pretorius.