Albert Fish: Killer, Cannibal
Grace Budd: Victim
Fiction writers frequently plumb headlines for story or character ideas. Many of crime fiction's best known figures and plot devices are based upon real criminals and criminal events. Albert Fish, the cannibal and killer of children, has echoes in one of the best-known literary characters of recent history, Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Murder holds the most fascination of any crime. Part of the allure of a "good" murder is the questions that arise from the civilized folk: "How could he do that?" "She did what? Why?"
Another element is the anarchy of murder – most people operate within the bounds of society's laws; a murderer, on the other hand, has no such constraints. Murders are committed many times to erase an inconvenience from the killer's life, such as a pregnant girlfriend. Other times, murders are motivated by greed (as in the case of America's first female serial killer Belle Gunness and with the Bender clan of Kansas). Serial killers (or even casual killers) do not live within the strictures of what "normal" people might do under similar circumstances.
There is a class of murderer, however, that defies almost all attempts at explanation or understanding. This is the realm of the truly psychopathic, the deranged, killers who work on an agenda not fixed in reality.
Thomas Harris brought the world the iconic character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in a series of popular and very brilliantly conceived and well-written novels. Hannibal Lecter, as a psychopathic cannibalistic killer in the novels, is erudite, urbane, and anarchic. His high intelligence and cunning make him one of the most effective murderers in literature, although he does get caught a time or two.
Real life psychopaths inform Harris' novels. Although he may not have specifically sat down and thought to himself, "I'm going to model this killer after so-and-so", he has used elements of different murderers in his books.
One of his best known novels is Silence of the Lambs. This book features a serial killer named Jame Gumb. In the story the press has given the unknown killer Gumb the moniker "Buffalo Bill". This is because he removes portions of his female victims' skin. It is later learned he does this to assemble pieces of woman flesh to make a "woman suit" for himself – he is a psychopath with gender identity issues who was denied a sex change operation on psychological grounds.
The fictional Gumb had a very real and frightening counterpart in Ed Gein. Gein was a necrophiliac, a grave-robbing ghoul who pathologically worshipped his mother. He was also a virgin despite his age of 51 when he was arrested for murder.
Gein lived on an isolated Wisconsin farm with his sainted mother, his father (whom the mother loathed), and a brother. The mother had impressed upon him fanatical views about women and sex as he grew up, and he was advised all women (except her, of course) were vile, filthy creatures of the Devil. He was allowed off the farm to go to school and come home. He had no experience with the opposite sex, except to be morbidly curious about them.
In 1940, Gein's father died leaving his brother Henry as the only male influence. Henry began bucking against his mother's spiteful views about women which Gein found appalling – that was their sainted mother, how could she be wrong? Henry, however, died of a heart attack in 1944. This left the hopelessly impressionable Gein (at 38 years old and unable to function in society) alone with his sociopath mother. Disaster struck for the unbalanced Gein a few days after Christmas in 1945: the old woman died after several strokes.
Gein's tenuous grasp on reality completely disintegrated. He sealed up all the rooms in the farmhouse as a monument to his beloved mother, keeping only one room open for himself as a living space. Without her constraining hand, he began reading books about death cults, anatomy, and specifically obstetrics works to familiarize himself with a woman's more intimate parts (which he had never seen).
Then he started robbing graves. He dug up women, took parts of their flesh, and made things from the skins that he tanned. He made a belt, a lampshade, masks (from dead women's faces), and used other organs (uteri, vulvas) for "experiments" (dissections, and probably necrophiliac sex). His need to mutilate and reduce women to objects came to a head when he killed a local grocery storekeeper. This woman's son was suspicious of Gein – a police search of his farm yielded the woman's body field dressed, gutted and headless, suspended upside down from a barn rafter to drain of blood.
Police also found the "clothing" items Gein had made from the skin of female corpses. He quickly became a suspect in two other murders as well. All told, police retrieved artifacts made from at least ten corpses, some of which had been cadavers from the local graveyard and some of which were from three "fresh" kills. Because of the county's limited budget, Gein was only charged with the murder of the storekeeper. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to an institution where he died of a heart attack and respiratory failure in 1984.
It has been suggested that Gein was the model for Norman Bates in the classic Hitchcock thriller Psycho (based on the novel by Robert Bloch). Barring his sick attachment to his mother, there is no other comparison between Bates and Gein. It has been pointed up that Gein was the inspiration for "Leather Face" from the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Again, there is no similarity except the fictional Leather Face lived on an isolated farm and killed people.
Jame Gumb is the closest fictional character to Ed Gein, and Harris used Gein's perversions and twisted psychopathy to great effect in Silence of the Lambs.
Hannibal the Cannibal
Harris' Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in the fictional realm known as "Hannibal the Cannibal", also had real-life counterparts. There are historical accounts of necessary cannibalism: the Donner Party in the mid 1800s and the Andes Survivors in the early 1970s are perhaps the two best known. In both instances, the survivors faced the choice of eating their dead or dying of starvation. They chose the former.
More obscure was the cannibalism practiced by early settlers in colonial Jamestown, Virginia. Cannibalism was necessary during "The Starving Time" (1609–1610). When food supplies were depleted, some colonists dug up corpses for food. One settler was tortured until he confessed to having killed, salted, and eaten his pregnant wife. He was burned alive for the offense (it is unknown whether he actually committed this crime or not, just that a confession was extracted under torture. The wife, certainly, was deceased).
While cannibals are not unknown to human kind, criminal cannibalism is fairly rare. One notorious example involved a prospector named Alferd Packer. He was trapped in the Rockies with some other men in late winter 1873. In mid April 1874 when he emerged from isolation, he variously reported that his compatriots had died or another party member killed the others and Packer had to kill that man in self-defense. Since he could not reach help trapped in the mountains, he cannibalized their corpses. His story seemed suspicious; he was arraigned on manslaughter charges. Although sentenced to 40 years in prison he served very little time – he escaped before commitment; his terms in and out of various jails were short, pending trials and appeals, and in the end he spent only a few years behind bars. He was paroled in 1901, worked as a security guard, and then died in 1907.
Packer's cannibalism on the surface may seem necessary, but it is suspect. Modern forensics determined after exhuming the bones of his fellow prospectors that of the five traveling with Packer four had been hatcheted, and the man accused by Packer of killing the others had been shot, first in the hip, then in the head. It seems possible that Packer may have killed this man in self-defense as he claimed. Or, he may have killed all of them to avoid having to split their prospecting proceeds six ways. In any event, he did cannibalize the corpses.
There are other criminal cannibals, but the most infamous is a slightly built, elderly man named Albert Fish. Barring Hannibal Lecter's savoir-faire and élan Fish is perhaps the closest thing to him in reality.
One can argue the case of environment over nature in the creation of a sadistic serial killer. For Albert Fish (real name Hamilton Howard Fish) perhaps the deck was stacked against him from birth; his early life was one of Dickensian squalor and despair.
He was born in Washington, DC, on May 19, 1870. His father was 75 years old when Fish was born; his mother was 43 years younger than her husband. Fish was the youngest of three surviving children in the family. He adopted the name "Albert" after a deceased sibling, and to discourage the use of a nickname ("Ham & Eggs") he received in an orphanage later.
Fish's father died in 1875, aged 80. The mother, Ellen, was destitute, and as was common in the late 19th century, she farmed her children out to orphanages and relatives, as she could not support them.
Albert ended up in an orphanage/juvenile home. Discipline consisted of stripping the boys naked in groups, and whipping them. Fish early on began having erections from the whippings, which were plainly visible to his home mates. This, of course, was humiliating while at the same time stimulating sexually. This homoerotic sexual gratification from whipping, known as "birching" in England and as "The English Vice" elsewhere in Europe, was a common by-product of boys' school discipline of the era.
Fish spent a few years in this tormented environment before his mother was able to care for him once again in 1880. She had found work with the government. The taint of perversion was already upon Albert Fish, and he began a homosexual relationship with masochistic overtones in 1882 when he was 12 with a telegraph boy. This boy initiated Fish into the practices of eating feces and drinking urine for sexual stimulation. As public bathhouses were on nearly every corner, Fish took to spending his time hanging about so he could watch other boys undress.
Fish ventured from Washington to New York City in 1890 when he was 20. He claimed he became a male prostitute at that time, servicing whatever men would have him. He claimed he also began raping young boys at this time, his first forcible homosexual acts of pedophilia. [One source claimed Fish took his prostitution act to Europe and serviced both men and women. There is no evidence to support this, and Fish was neither ambitious enough nor moneyed enough to have found his way to Europe. There is no proof he ever left American shores in his lifetime, or that he ever prostituted with women].
A male sex partner took him to a wax museum in New York; Fish saw a bisection of a penis, and he developed an obsessive interest in castration. Later (in 1911 on visit to St. Louis), during a tryst with a mentally retarded man, Fish tied him up, then tried to castrate him. The man struggled and screamed which unnerved Fish – he threw ten dollars down for the screaming man as recompense and ran off.
Fish moved his mother from Washington, DC, to New York. Ellen, his mother, knew her son was "not right", and she arranged a marriage for him in hopes of settling him down. In 1898 he married a woman nine years younger than himself, and managed to produce six children (four boys and two girls). However, he still raped young boys even after marriage [his preferred targets were boys under six years old].
As a masochist, Fish often involved his children in his "games" of humiliation and pain. He had devised an activity involving a paddle punched through with nails. He would also get down on all fours on the floor of his living room, and have one of his children hold a stout paint stick or hair brush behind him. The child was directed to hold up a number of fingers, which Fish could not see. He would then "guess" the number of fingers held up. If he was wrong (as he invariably was) the child had to strike him on the buttocks with the stick or brush as hard as he could equal to the number of fingers the child was actually holding up. [One child reported later in court that Fish would many times "guess" numbers much greater than the number of fingers a person had, much to the children's confusion]. He also increasingly visited brothels, having the prostitutes beat him with his special nail paddle until he bled. He was finally banned from many of these establishments as "an odd bird".
Fish in a Bowl
In 1903, Fish was arrested. Most sources blithely report his crime as "embezzlement" without question. But a cursory examination of Fish's lifestyle makes this implausible. Embezzlement is a white-collar crime, and involves illicit diversion of funds. Fish worked generally as a house painter or handyman throughout his entire lifetime and never had access to sufficient funds to "embezzle". A more sensible source (and seemingly the lone voice of reason) records his offense as "grand larceny". This makes much more sense. Regardless, he was convicted of a crime and sentence to the prison in Ossining, New York, infamously known as "Sing Sing".
The Fish family had a mildly retarded handyman named John Straube boarding with them. Fish's wife (and mother of his six children) took up with this boarder and abandoned the household. Fish came home from work one day to find his house deserted and bereft of its furniture. She had left him with the children, though. It was in the wake of her departure Fish claimed he began to hear voices, specifically from the Apostle John. His strange behaviors increased – he rolled himself up in a carpet claiming John the Apostle had told him to do so. On an outing with the children he stood atop a small hill and with upraised arms shouted at the sky, "I am Christ!"
Not long after her departure, Fish's wife came back and asked if she could move into the house again. Fish let her on the condition that her new man, John Straube, stay away. She agreed to this condition, and sent Straube packing. However, a few days later Fish found her sneaking food up to their attic. He discovered she had hidden Straube away up there and had tended to him when Fish was gone to work. Fish advised her again that she was welcome to stay but Straube had to go; Fish's wife and Straube left together and were never seen again by the children or Fish.
Fish also had a quirky hobby throughout his life of writing letters to Lonely Hearts advertisers. In these letters to strange women he would describe all the whippings and humiliations he would like for the letter's receiver to inflict upon him. He wrote dozens of these, and on more than one occasion was arrested for harassment and obscenity as a result.
Fish stabbed a mentally retarded boy in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, in about 1919 for purely sadistic reasons. His random stabbings generally targeted the mentally challenged or black people. He thought that if he managed to kill one of them such a person would not be missed in society.
In July 1924, Fish saw eight-year-old Beatrice Kiel playing alone on her parents' farm on Staten Island. He approached the girl. He offered her money to help him look for rhubarb in a nearby field. Beatrice was all set to go with him when her mother found Fish loitering and chased him off. He left, but returned later that night. He sneaked into a barn, and had every intention of staying the night there when the householder discovered him. Beatrice's father, Hans, ran him off.
By this time Fish had begun reading much about cannibalism. He cut out and carried favorite newspaper and magazine articles on the subject with him at all times. It is no doubt his attempt to kidnap Beatrice was probably his first real try to find a victim to cook and eat. To complicate matters, his fantasies about torturing and castrating boys grew stronger by 1925, and he claimed voices were directing him to do this.
Three days after his attempt to abduct Beatrice Kiel, Fish succeeded in kidnapping 8-year-old Francis McDonnell (also living on Staten Island) on the evening of July 14, 1924. The boy was reported missing by his parents when he didn't come home after playing that afternoon with friends down the street. A search effort the next morning went forward to naught. The boy's body was finally found in a densely wooded area near his home. He had been beaten and sexually molested before being strangled to death with his own suspenders.
Francis' playmates were questioned about the day of his disappearance. They reported that an "elderly man with a gray mustache" had lured him away. One of the McDonnell's neighbors also noted seeing Francis with a similar looking man a short time later, headed toward the woods along a grassy path. The boy's mother also reported having seen the same man in the neighborhood a few hours before her son disappeared. She described him to reporters: "He came shuffling down the street mumbling to himself and making queer motions with his hands . . . I saw his thick gray hair and his drooping gray mustache. Everything about him seemed faded and gray."
The press dubbed the mysterious stranger "The Gray Man". Despite the eyewitness accounts, and the high-profile given the case, no leads developed and this murder went unsolved until Fish confessed to it over a decade later. [Several eyewitnesses from his attempt to abduct Beatrice Kiel in 1924 and from Francis McDonnell's murder came forward and later identified him as the much sought "Gray Man"].
With almost no details known about another crime, Fish was responsible for the abduction and murder of Emma Richardson, age 5. She was taken on October 3, 1926. His next crime is better detailed, gleefully documented in a written account by Fish in 1936.
A 4-year-old boy named Billy Gaffney was spotted by Fish playing in the hallway outside of his family's apartment in Brooklyn with a 3-year-old friend (Billy Beaton) on February 11, 1927. The two toddlers were briefly chaperoned by a 12-year old boy. The oldest boy went into an apartment (where he was supposed to be babysitting his infant sister). Both toddlers disappeared. The older boy contacted Beaton's father, and they found him on the roof of their apartment building. Billy Beaton reported that "the boogey man" had taken Billy Gaffney. Gaffney's body was never recovered.
Another serial killer named Peter Kudzinowski was suspected of the boy's disappearance. [Later when Fish was in custody, a motorman identified him as having been on a trolley that day with a crying boy matching Billy Gaffney's description. The older man with the boy was identified by the motorman from a newspaper photo as Fish. Solid investigative work led to the discovery Fish was employed by a Brooklyn real estate firm as a house painter in 1927, and during the time of Gaffney's disappearance he had been working on a house just a few miles from where Gaffney was abducted. Kudzinowski was found not responsible for the boy's disappearance.]
When Fish was confronted with the investigative effort in 1936 he confessed, and when Gaffney's mother came to Sing Sing seeking information about her son's disappearance, Fish provided a written account. In it he describes, with relish, how he had taken the boy to an abandoned house near the Rikers dump, and stripped, bound and gagged the boy before leaving him trussed and alone for the night.
Fish returned the next day at about 2:00 in the afternoon with a tool kit to dissect and dismember the boy. He then tortured and whipped the boy's buttocks till they bled (claiming his terror combined with the beatings would "tenderize" his meat). While still alive, according to Fish, he cut off Gaffney's nose and ears, slit his mouth (in the "Glasgow smile"), and gouged out his eyes. By this time the boy was dead from his injuries, and Fish then described in graphic detail drinking the boy's blood, and the dismembering and cooking of the boy (with potatoes, onions, turnips, and celery.). He claimed it took him four days to eat Billy Gaffney, and that he wasted nothing – almost. He wrote he had cut off the boy's penis and testicles (which he called "the pee wees"), and roasted them. He said the penis was tasty, but the "pee wees" he could not eat and flushed them down a toilet. [Fish lied about completely consuming Billy Gaffney. He had tossed some of the boy's remains wrapped in potato sacks into a stagnant pool nearby.]
Grace Budd Meets "The Gray Man"
In the early part of the 20th Century children were occasionally farmed out as laborers to rural areas. [The alleged Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo, was actually sold into slavery to a Maine farmer by his father when he was young.] Many times in need of helping out their families, teenagers often took work as domestics out of town. Edward Budd was a strapping 18-year-old New York boy who wanted to contribute to his family's coffers, so he took out an advertisement in the papers seeking employment to hire away on a farm.
Unfortunately for Edward's little sister, Grace Budd, the person who answered his ad for employment was Albert Fish. On May 25, 1928, Fish spotted the ad (as a mash-letter writer he routinely read the classifieds) in the Sunday edition of the New York World. The ad read: "Young man, 18, wishes position in country. Edward Budd, 406 West 15th Street."
Three days later, the 58-year-old Fish visited the Budd home in Manhattan in search of a victim in Edward Budd (he discovered Budd was a bit larger than he expected and knew he would not be able to abduct him successfully). Fish met Edward's ten-year-old sister, Grace. Foiled by Edward's robust appearance, the unruffled Fish merely sat and interviewed him and a similarly stocky male friend of Edward's for a job that did not exist. Fish gave his name as "Frank Howard" from Farmingdale, New York. He was dapperly dressed and was mannerly. Fish became fixated on Grace and, to keep up his pretense, he told Edward he would hire him to work on his farm, but he would send for him in a few days.
Fish did not turn up as promised, but sent the family a telegram apologizing, and he set a later date to fetch Edward. At this later visit, Fish told Edward he would gladly take him off to his farm, but before they left he had to attend a niece's birthday party in the neighborhood. With that he said he'd come back later to pick Edward up after the party. He then convinced the parents to let Grace come along with him. He claimed it was nearby at his sister's home. They agreed. Grace never came back from the party.
Manhunt for a Man-eater
Police involvement was almost immediate; it was quickly determined there was no job for Edward nor was there any Frank Howard of Farmingdale. The case, despite publicity, went cold fairly quickly. With no leads and no solid eyewitnesses, there was not much to be done.
In September 1930, police got a break on the case, or so they thought. A man named Charles Edward Pope, a 66-year-old apartment building superintendent, was taken into custody as a suspect. The complaining witness was his estranged wife. He spent over 100 days in jail before the jurisprudence system set him free on December 20, 1930. [It is unknown if Pope's vindictive absentee wife was ever brought up on charges for filing a false report].
Fish had married again in February 1930 but that new marriage only lasted a week, ending in divorce. In the same year Pope was accused of Grace Budd's kidnapping, Fish himself was once again in trouble with the law. He was arrested May 1930 for writing and sending another of his obscene letters. This one he sent to a woman seeking a job as a maid. Because of Fish's rantings about Christ and John the Apostle, he was sent to the Bellevue psychiatric hospital in 1930 and again in 1931 for observation. Psychiatrists ("alienists") described him as a sociopath (a term not used then) with "schizophrenic" tendencies. However, since his letter writing crimes were comparatively insignificant he was released without any further action taken.
A couple of years after Fish's last 1931 brush with the law, his incessant obscene letter-writing would be his downfall. In November 1933, an anonymous letter arrived at the Budd residence in Manhattan (over five years after Grace Budd disappeared). Grace's mother was illiterate, so she had to have her son Edward read it to her. The letter was a crazed narrative describing how, where, and when Grace Budd met her demise.
The letter was written by Fish, and he began the missive with a strange tale of how he first became interested in eating human flesh. In 1894 an alleged sailor friend of Fish's had eaten it in China. Later, when this man came to live near Fish he described how exquisite it was. Fish then became obsessed with the idea of eating children, particularly their buttocks (which his friend allegedly described as the most tender and delicious part). This letter then described every thing Fish did to Grace Budd in preparation for her ingestion by him.
Fish pointed out that he had visited the Budd home in June 3, 1928 (the day of the "birthday party"), and had brought them some cheese and strawberries as a gift. He recalled Grace's sitting on his lap during that last visit, and he said it was then he had made up his mind to eat her. He then went off to the "party", but took Grace to an abandoned house in Westchester he had already cased instead [taking her to Westchester had necessitated a 40 minute train ride. Grace, who had only been outside New York City proper twice in her life, was thrilled].
Bizarrely, Fish apparently felt Grace's mother needed to have her mind put at ease about one issue. He wrote that although he could have had sex with Grace, he chose not to, and she died a virgin. This was of small comfort to Delia Budd.
Fish lied about completely consuming Grace Budd, though. He had not eaten all of her, and had tossed some of her uneaten remains, and the tools with which he'd dismembered her, on the property where the abandoned murder house stood. Police later recovered these things.
Meticulous police work led to Fish. The envelope of the anonymous letter carried the logo of the New York Private Chauffeur's Benevolent Association. Police visited this place, and a janitor there said he had taken some of the stationery to his rooming house, but had left it behind when he moved out.
The landlady of the boarding house was visited. She advised the janitor's old room had been let to Albert Fish, but that he had checked out a few days before. She also said one of Fish's sons had sent him money, but more was on the way. Fish asked the landlady to hang on to the new check when it arrived and he would pick it up later.
On December 13, 1934, the lead investigator on the case received a call from Fish's former landlady. Fish had come by to collect the letter from his son, and he was now at her boarding house. Police advised Fish he was wanted for questioning about Grace Budd; he initially was compliant, but then began waving a straight razor at the arresting officers. He was disarmed and subdued, and taken to police headquarters for booking.
His lawyer attempted to plead insanity on behalf of his client, but Fish's confessions sank that glimmer of hope. It was while incarcerated during trial he met with Billy Gaffney's mother and gave her the details of her son's murder. He also detailed other crimes as well (claiming over 400 assaults, either sexual or with weapons, and several other murders).
Fish was not a sympathetic defendant, and his claims toward insanity were disproved under rebuttal by the prosecution (one of their witnesses stated categorically that one did not need to be insane to have Fish's fetishes. In fact, this man reported, these were common perversions that were "socially perfectly all right" and that Fish was "no different from millions of other people").
No one was swayed by Fish's insanity defense. The jury found him to be both sane and guilty of the kidnap and murder of Grace Budd. He was sentenced to death. Fish went back to Sing Sing's death row. On January 16, 1936, he was marched to the execution chamber, and strapped into Sing Sing's infamous "Old Sparky". Although it took two jolts of electricity to kill him, he was dead three minutes after entering the chamber at 11:06 AM. There is a persistent myth that the needles in Fish's pelvis somehow short-circuited the equipment, forcing the need for a second charge. This is false – many prisoners have had to be juiced more than once before they expire. The tiny bit of metal that 29 needles represents would not have been enough to short the high voltage of The Big Chair.
Incredibly, Fish's last words were reportedly, "I don't even know why I'm here." Also, he had written a 29-page letter to his attorney thanking him for his services, which he had mailed before execution. When his lawyer received it, he claimed the contents were so obscene and debauched that it was not fit for anyone to read. He smugly and censoriously decided public decency needed to be protected, and he locked this document away. The contents of this document are unknown. It is inconceivable, however, that what Fish had written in that last testament could be any more obscene than the letters and confessional scribblings he wrote before (paraphrased here, but quite graphic in their original form).
Unlike the grossly overrated occultist Aleister Crowley, who enjoyed referring to himself grandly as "The Wickedest Man Alive", Albert Fish really was evil incarnate and not merely a hedonistic poseur. It is Albert Fish (homosexual pedophile, rapist, child murderer, and cannibal) who probably deserved that title more.
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