"My daddy kilt a man, and my granddaddy kilt a man, and my brother kilt a man."
~ Ottis Toole
Born in the shadow of the Gator Bowl, Ottis Toole was a real live gator -- a bottom-feeder almost more reptilian than human, scuttling through the swamps of society, ceaselessly scanning for helpless prey. But how did he get that way? This was what I had come to find out.
By the age of four, Ottis had been run over by a car, and by the age of eight, he had fallen through a hole in his front porch, impaling his forehead on a nail that went three inches into his brain, resulting in grand mal epileptic seizures for the rest of his life.
His mother Sarah Cooper Harley, whom he idolized, was a hardshell Baptist who chanted Bible verses to cure his ills, and dosed him with barbiturates to calm his nerves. He remembers his alcoholic father sexually abusing him from the age of six, and when the man left to go live with his own mother as man and wife, a stepfather came along who picked up where he left off - but this time, the child was passed around to his stepdad's friends as well... all along, his mother turned a blind eye to the abuse, denying to herself and her son that her husbands would ever do such a thing.
Ottis was the youngest of a brood of nine, and his roughneck brothers beat up on their sissy kid brother regularly. One of them, Howell, shot at him numerous times, once wounding him in the head.
His older sisters, Drusilla and Vonetta, dressed him as a girl and made him wait on them like their own private little Cinderella. "I started to think I was a girl after a while. Sometimes I feel like I'm about half and half, I do." He told this author that he enjoyed dressing like a girl so much that "when someone would take my wig off, I'd snatch it back and put it right back on."
Drusilla, who later killed herself, compelled him to service her sexually. When asked, he denied any sexual contact with his sisters, but upon being reminded that juvenile authorities had removed Drusilla from the home for it, he changed his story without batting an eye: "Oh yeah, Mama did catch us once."
Taunted in school for being dirty and slow-learning, and for playing with fire, stuttering and wetting his pants, Ottis often played truant to visit his father's mother Cornelia. He loved this tall, striking woman in her long, dark skirts and high-heeled boots, and yet... he feared her, for she was a spell-casting, grave-robbing witch from the Okefenokee Swamp, a member of a hereditary death cult whose blood-drinking rituals had been passed down through the family for generations.
Ottis told me his earliest memories were of midnight trips to graveyards, where Cornelia urged him to rob graves for her, while the voices of the dead cried out to him, and the menacing "devil-trees" waved their black branches and leered down at the frightened child "like they were looking for something to eat."
He trembled as he recalled falling through one rotten casket right into the flesh of a decomposing corpse. Screaming hysterically as he clambered out, the child was shoved back down into the grave and forced to pull the bones from the rotting flesh. Cornelia needed those bones for her witchcraft, she told him, and he was the one the Devil had chosen to help her do her sinister work. He was born, she told him, to be the Devil's own child.
Ottis described a typical scene from his home life... his grandma would go to bed with the chickens, but get up again late at night and take the old black dresser drawer that had served as his cradle, turn it upside-down, and arrange her makeshift black altar with the magical implements: the glass filled with blood, the black candle, the knife, the bones, and the wooden hands Cornelia called the Hands of Death.
The child would awaken to hear the chants she mumbled and smell the herbs she burned. "What you saying, Grandma?" he would ask. "Hush!" she would tell the curious little boy, "You don't need to know! You know too much already!" And as she made up her bags of herbs, feathers, roots and bones, the drowsy child would drift back to sleep, with the Devil's chants weaving through his dreams.
Ottis believed his grandmother didn't want him to learn enough to outdo her as a sorcerer, but she always had plenty of work for her young apprentice. She'd get him to grab a chicken and wring its neck and catch the blood in a bowl. She would have him taste it and tell her whether it was still warm enough for drinking, or if it had clotted and grown cold.
She peddled her magical charms and spells to superstitious folk on both sides of the color line, and Toole speculated that she must have been doing all right for an old lady, because she always had steak - except when she had raw liver.
Cornelia had brought her roots work from her birthplace on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, where the skull and crossbones had been displayed as a warning to the hapless wayfarer of the evil conjurers that had been practicing their black arts deep in its miasmal mists for as long as memory served.
He said that at first, he just thought that Devil-worshipping was a kind of game, and he even thought being "the Devil's Child" was "something special," but after he fell in the grave and then had to go back down in there and pull at those putrid bones, he began to really feel its evil power, as the frightened child heard the voices of the dead calling him and saw the devil trees looming ominously over him as if to eat him alive.
Little Ottis kept a pet cat at Cornelia's house, and when she bore a litter kittens, his father, who by that time had moved back to live with her as man and wife, told the child to get rid of them. When he resisted, his father punished him by tying the kittens together by their tails and suspending them from a clothesline. He forced his son to stand underneath the kittens as they tore at each other and their bloody guts drenched him, sneering, "Brat, you stand there and let that blood fall all over you!"
He would never forget his grandmother, the witch, standing in the doorway, laughing at him as his weeping mingled with the howls of his dying pets.
I seen my daddy kill dogs and cats too. One time I had this cat. And I liked this cat real good. And she had kittens. He said I want you to take them cats off. I said no, I'm keeping these kittens. He said well I'll get rid of them for you. I was out there playing. He said I'll show you how to get rid of these cats, I said what you mean get rid of the cats. He tied both of em's tail together, th'ow-em acrost a clothesline and said, Brat, you stand under that clothesline and let them cats bleed all over you. And Grandma standing in the door laughing. All the cat's blood, all the guts falling out of em. She's standing in the door laughing about it. I yelled, I said I don't want them cats on top of me.
AUDIO: Ottis Toole Talks to Sondra London
(Toole died in Prison September 15, 1996)