Volume 28, Number 3

Cornelia’s Song

Fred Cohn

I walk into the warden’s office. He motions me to a chair. I sit down, and after a minute he says, “How you doin’, Helen?”

“I’m okay. Why d’ya ask?”

“You been workin’ here for ’bout a year now, you bein’ one of only two women guards. Everybody treat you okay?”

“Got no complaints.”

“I’m thinking of transferring you to another unit.”

I sit up a little straighter. “Somebody complaining about me?”

“Uh-uh. Everybody likes you, or at least they say they do. I got sort of a problem. You read about that seventeen-year-old black girl got sentenced to death?”

“Yeah. She shot a white boy in the high school, right after the courts said schools had to let in negroes.”

“Yep. Well, we got her. We got the only death row in the state. I’m puttin’ her in a wing by herself. Need a woman guard. I could order you to do it, but I prefer you accept it. Means longer hours—twelve-hour shifts—but you’ll get a lot of overtime.”

I don’t say anything right away, so he goes on. “We’re gonna hire another female guard to spell you, but we gotta wait till one of the men retires . . . or quits.”

“I got nobody at home ’cept the cat, and she don’t seem to give much of a damn if I’m there or not.” He smiles. “OK, I’ll do it,” I say.

And that’s how I come to be here twenty years later, still watchin’ over this black girl who shot a white boy ’cause he got in her pants, then bragged about it to his friends. Kid thought he loved her.


It were a different time then. Blacks and whites didn’t mix at all, even though judges said the white schools had to let blacks in. I don’t know how she got into a deal with a white boy. Her daddy was a preacher at a negro church, and the boy’s pappy owned a good business in town. Like I say, she thought he loved her. Today folks trying to help her say she was a child. But the warden says that under the law, then and now, seventeen is an adult. That’s how they tried her, and that’s how she got sentenced to death. Even today, in 1998, in the deep south most people would hate her just for bein’ with a white boy, much less killin’ him.

They brung her up to death row that week and there she’s been all these years with me watchin’ her full time. I remember our first talk. “Y’all call me Miss Helen,” I said. “You do what yer told, and we’ll get along fine. You give me trouble, sass me, I tell the warden to cut your food and exercise.”

She cried. Cried a lot that first year. I didn’t give a damn. That dead boy wasn’t cryin’. His folks probably were.

First couple years we hardly talked at all. I told her what to do, and she did it. Most she ever said was, “Miss Helen, can I take a shower? It’s my shower day.” I either led her down the gallery or I didn’t. No need to flap my jaw. ’Bout two years into it, round the time her first appeal got denied, it started to change.

She got visitors, mostly lawyers. At her first appeal, the judges said there wasn’t no problem with her first trial. She was claimin’ her lawyer was drunk all the time, wouldn’t call any witnesses to help her get out of the death penalty. After that, a coupla lawyers came down from some big city and took over. Came to see her a lot.

One time she showed me a story ’bout her case in the New York Times. She had it in her cell. “Might be hope,” she said. I didn’t pay it much mind. Then letters from strangers started coming in. Some were nice, and she read ’em over and over. Other folks wanted her dead. She’d get upset, throw the letters out, but I read them. I wasn’t her friend, but I figured she was gonna die, and those folks’ meanness weren’t right.

We started to talk. I asked her was she sorry.

“Sure, I’m sorry,” she said. “But I was mad. I was hurt … and ashamed. I couldn’t think right. I guess I was in what Grandmaw used to call ‘a blue rage.’ I don’t know. I just ran home, got Daddy’s pistol, came back and shot Tommy.”

That was the only time she mentioned the boy’s name in these twenty years. It was the first time she became human to me. I couldn’t forgive her for what she did, but I kinda understood it.

I brung her the papers the lawyers sent her every time there was an appeal. She read them and wrote back. Then we got a new warden, and he let her take some college courses. She read the books. I had nothing to do most of the time but sit there and make sure she didn’t hurt herself or try to escape, so I started readin’ them when she was done with them. I didn’t like some of them; they was talking all about what they called ‘social change,’ but I figured there was a lot of poor folks out there, and maybe there was ways to help ’em.

We finally got to talking, first about the books. Then she asked me about my life, and she told me about hers—before she killed Tommy.

In her tenth year on death row, her daddy died. She tried to get a furlough to go to the funeral. The corrections people said no. The warden said they’d never given a furlough to someone on death row, said it wasn’t safe for the public; plus, it would cost too much to send along guards to see that she didn’t run away. Her mother came to visit her after the funeral; they both cried.

It was after that I started calling her by name. Cornelia. Her name was Cornelia Otis. For her first four or five years there, weren’t no greeting or parting words between us. She tried to say hello when I came on duty. I didn’t answer; I don’t know why. But that day, day after her mama came, I said good morning back to her. Next she started sayin’ good night and I’d say good-bye. One time I said, ‘You have a nice weekend, Cornelia,’ and we both laughed. Like somebody could have a whoop-de-do weekend in the lockup.

I told her when my cat died. That cat was always kinda stand-offish, but I missed her. Cornelia actually seemed sorry to hear it, and when I got a new kitten, she helped me name her. The kitten was very loving, and after a few days of talking about it, we named her Circe because she was bewitching me. I learned about Circe from one of Cornelia’s college books.

Circe wasn’t the only one casting a spell on me. Much as I tried to fight it, Cornelia was becoming a friend. I stopped being “Miss Helen” too; I told her to call me Helen.


The appeals failed time after time, but Cornelia got to where she’d make light of it. She made up stories about the judges. She laughed when she told me about her drunken trial lawyer. When they decided she’d get executed by lethal injection instead of the electric chair, she seemed relieved. “The thought of frying scares me a lot more than just going to sleep,” she told me.

She never stopped fighting for her life, but after that she really didn’t hold out any hope. The cell block didn’t get another inmate while she was there. No other woman received a death sentence during that time. We spoke about it. She said she would’ve liked to have another person to talk with, but she was thankful it hadn’t happened. “I wouldn’t want to wish this on any other person,” she said.

Although I brought the prison food to her every day, we started to have a real lunch together on the third Thursday of each month. The warden let me bring food from home, and I would sit and eat with her in her cell.

Her mother bought her a radio, and the new warden let her have it. It was on all the time, mostly music. Whenever she could find it on a station, she listened to jazz. If there were vocals, she’d sing along with them. She had a nice voice. Her favorite was Ella. Ella, of course, sang better, but Cornelia held her own. Once, she turned off the radio when they played a recording of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” There was no more jokes that day.

Eight years ago she lost what we thought was her final appeal. They started to set execution dates. She hung on, contacted new lawyers. Court after court turned her down. She argued that at seventeen she couldn’t be held mortally accountable, but the judges still wouldn’t buy that. Time dragged on as that appeal made its way up through the court system; first in the state court, and then in the federal court. There were more newspaper articles. They didn’t help. Each court said no.


We both changed with the years. The skinny teenager I met when I was transferred into death row disappeared; she was almost forty, and her body got thick from prison food and limited activity. Life outside went on. Her younger sister married and had a baby. Her mother remarried and moved to Chicago. She wrote often but couldn’t visit anymore.


Cornelia and I stood together against the coming darkness. Finally, I had to admit to myself that I loved her, not carnally, but like a sister. We had, in a way, grown up together. I wrote a long letter to the governor to try to get clemency for her. I wasn’t alone. Her case had gotten national attention, but the governor wouldn’t budge. A final date was set. It was last Thursday, the third Thursday of the month.

Cornelia didn’t say much. I guess she was relieved that it was soon to be over. On Monday, she gave me a sealed envelope. “If I die Thursday,” she said, “open it at noon. I love you.” For the first and only time in the twenty years that I’d been her jailer, her guardian, her classmate and finally her sister, we hugged.

They came for her at 6:00 a.m. She died at 6:30. I wanted to be with her at the end, but I couldn’t stomach watching through the glass as they strapped her to a table. Right at twelve noon, I opened the letter. It said, “Miss Otis regrets she will be unable to attend lunch today.”