Angel Killer

A true story of cannibalism, crime fighting, and insanity in New York City.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 18


Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. A professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has written for Scientific American, Slate, Tin House, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She is currently working on a book about the history of poisonous food.

Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Research and Production: Nadia Wilson
Fact Checker: Alex Carp
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Footage: Edited from Manhattan (1921), courtesy of the Internet Archive
Music: “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”, written by Irving Berlin, performed by John Steel (recorded 1919)
Special Thanks: the New York Public Library



Published in September 2012. Design updated in 2021.

One

He listened for the angel. It was out there, he knew. He knew the brush of its wings, its warm whisper. He could almost see the air change, that seep of blood red as it floated away. A man could learn to like that color.

The ferry docked in Port Richmond on Staten Island, and the Gray Man stepped out into the bustle of fishing boats and factory workers. He walked through the waterfront business district, down the wide avenues framed by 19th-century mansions. It was all wrong here: The sun shone too brightly, the sky gleamed like clear blue glass. So he kept going. He wanted the shadows for his work.

He was hunting out of his usual habitat that afternoon of July 14, 1924, away from the Manhattan alleys and tenements he knew so well. He kept walking, looking for the right place. A mile went by, then a few more, until he found himself amid a clutter of working-class wood-frame homes, shaded against the sunlight by leafy plane trees.

Walking down the long stretch of Decker Avenue, the Gray Man hesitated in front of a  house where a little boy played on the front porch in view of his mother, who saw the stranger pause. Anna McDonnell was a policeman’s wife, wary of strangers. But the man in his shabby jacket looked harmless enough, smiling slightly. He tipped his hat and walked on.

There was a moment, as he walked away, when she felt a shock of nerves. His hands were squeezing open and shut as he walked, she would recount later, and he seemed to be exchanging bitter words with the summer air. She hesitated. But the man moved on, and she turned away and went into the house.

She didn’t see the stranger return. By now her 8-year-old son Francis had joined a ball game down the street, and the stranger walked over to the boys, calling out a question. Francis, always friendly, came over to answer. A neighbor later saw the little boy walking toward a nearby wooded lot, trailed by a grizzled older man—just a drifter, perhaps, looking for a place where he could spend the night.

Francis had not come home by suppertime, and his father, Arthur, still wearing his blue patrolman’s uniform, went out to look for him. But the boy couldn’t be found. McDonnell called his colleagues at the police station, alerting them to his missing child. By morning a panicked search had commenced, with police, neighbors, local businessmen, even Boy Scouts fanning out across Staten Island looking for the boy.

A trio of Boy Scouts, tramping through the wooded lot near where the boy had last been seen, made the discovery. Francis McDonnell’s body lay under a pile of branches and leaves. The child had been stripped below the waist, beaten, and finally strangled with his suspenders.

The hunt for Francis’s killer continued for weeks, then months. It was Anna McDonnell, meeting with reporters, who gave him his name. “Help us catch the monster who murdered our little boy,” she begged. “Help us find the gray man.”

But the Gray Man knew they wouldn’t find him. He would vanish as he always did, a smudge in the air, blown away on the wind.

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Two

“If I catch the killer,” Arthur McDonnell promised after joining the search, “I’ll not harm a hair on his head.” The detectives in charge of the case might have wondered whether an angry, grieving father was the best choice for the search team, but at the moment they had bigger problems. “It looks like a long job because of the absence of clues,” Captain Ernest Van Wagner, chief of the New York Police Department detective bureau on Staten Island, told The New York Times. “It is one of the most difficult cases in my experience of police work.”

The police did what they could. They followed up on letters and phone calls from local residents, searched cellars and wood sheds, interrogated the vagrants known to drift through town parks. Van Wagner sent his men to investigate the nearby city poor houses, hoping that the killer had seeped out from somewhere in those collections of human flotsam and jetsam.

Such a manhunt might have caught a more conventional killer, one with some connection to his victim, or to Staten Island. But the Gray Man was something different altogether. He had learned not to repeat himself, not to linger in one place. His methods, his motives, and the sheer horror of his crimes would reveal to New Yorkers how little they knew not just of murder but of the human mind.

In 1924, no standard term existed to describe those who killed with no apparent motive except perhaps the pleasure of the act. Newspaper journalists had been trying out the description thrill killer. Police and students of the developing field of criminology preferred a less sensational description, but one that also recognized the essential coldness of such murderers. The term that was beginning to take shape in criminal justice circles was stranger killers.

Stranger killers operated so far out of the normal scope of murderous behavior that they often eluded police detection for years; this was an era, after all, in which even major urban police departments like New York’s lacked tools as basic as a centralized fingerprint database. Well-known examples included Chicago’s H. H. Holmes, executed after murdering and dismembering more than 27 people during the 1890s, and Belle Gunness, who vanished in 1908 after killing some 40 people and reputedly feeding pieces of their remains to the hogs on her Indiana farm. For many, the official terminology still failed to capture the basic horror of their stories. These were killers known to the public as monsters out of mythology: Holmes, the Arch-Fiend; Gunness, the Female Bluebeard; Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf, who slaughtered more than 20 people in the 1920s with weapons ranging from scissors to axes and then drank their blood.

Multiple murderers were nothing new, of course. The legend of Bluebeard, the mythical multiple wife killer, was supposedly inspired by the deeds of a French nobleman, Gilles de Rais, who was hanged in 1440 after being convicted of luring more than 100 young boys to their deaths in the well-protected privacy of his estates. But the formal study of the criminal mind was new, dating back only to late–19th century Europe. (In the United States, the first professional periodical on the subject, The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, started publication in 1910.) The new criminologists warned that modern urban life—with its impersonal factories, impoverished ghettos, and isolated existences—created new opportunities for stranger killers. They urged more preventive measures, from increased police patrols to the treatment of society’s “moral degenerates.” And they worked to assemble a rough portrait of the killers who were never satisfied with just one victim.

The murderers were mostly white males—women like Gunness were a rare exception—and underachievers. They tended to do poorly in school and struggled to hold jobs. They often grew up in troubled homes, the children of alcoholics, of vicious mothers or abusive fathers. Mental illness coiled through their family histories, in the form of brothers, uncles, or parents who’d been locked away in lunatic asylums.

Some of them, like Holmes, seemed chilled to the core. Others blazed with hate, in the way of Carl Panzram. Gang-raped as a child, shuttled from home to institution, the Minnesota-born Panzram described his life plan in six words: “steal, lie, hate, burn, and kill.” He proudly admitted to 21 murders in the 1920s, a litany of children and adults who had annoyed him. As he awaited execution in 1930, Panzram mocked his own hangman: “Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard. I could hang a dozen men while you’re fooling around.”

But Panzram, who simply killed when the mood took him, was unusual. Most stranger killers obsessed over their own special kind of victim—women or men, boys or girls—with a peculiar intensity. The Gray Man dreamed of his dead. And they were always, always children.

Three

On good days, he could even see the angels. He could see Christ sometimes, too, floating nearby in the kitchen, emerging from a closet, a shimmer of gold and light. He could hear the holy voices whispering in empty rooms, muttering their incantations of blood and children, children and blood.

The weather on the afternoon of February 11, 1927 had turned cold, so 4-year-old Billy Gaffney and his friend Bill Beaton, a year younger, brought their games inside. Both their families lived in an old eight-apartment tenement house at 99 15th Street in Brooklyn. The boys’ happy racket drew a neighbor boy out of his own apartment, hoping to join the fun. When he arrived, however, he found only an empty hallway.

When the building residents went looking for the boys, they found that a trapdoor to the roof, usually blocked shut, had been left open. Billy Beaton stood alone by the opening. He and his friend had been up on the roof, he told the searchers, when “the boogeyman” took Billy Gaffney away.

“All children talk about the boogeyman,” the detective in charge of the case shrugged. But eventually the child offered a description of this phantom. It was an old man with a gray mustache. A trolley car conductor on the line that stopped two blocks from the Gaffneys’ apartment remembered an older man and a little boy boarding his car that evening. The boy was sobbing, in spite of the man’s attempts to hush him. That was what the conductor remembered: the crying child. The man himself was nothing special. Just a mustached stranger faded to gray, he said, wrapped in an old coat.

The man had asked about ferries to Staten Island, the conductor said. But when he got off the car, he was “half dragging, half carrying” the little boy down Sackett Street, away from the pier. The police searched Staten Island anyway, and parts of New Jersey. They searched through the dump sites, apartments, factories, and churches of western Brooklyn, swept ash piles, dug up cellars, even dragged the nearby Gowanus Canal.

Three weeks after the disappearance, the body of a small boy turned up in a dump in Palmer, Massachusetts, stuffed in a wine cask. Billy’s father, Edmund, went with dread to the morgue to take a look. But it was another murdered child, not his own. And although no one but the Gray Man knew it at the time, there was a good reason that the searchers would never find a trace of the Gaffney child. His killer had decided that leaving a whole body behind was a waste of good flesh.

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Four

The girl was moving toward the house, blossoms spilling over her small hands. She was almost translucent in the summer light, and he thought for a moment that he could hear the angel—wait, wait—calling him back. But no. He was alone in the abandoned house.

It was a little more than 15 months after Billy Gaffney’s disappearance that Eddie Budd placed his one-line ad in the Situations Wanted section of the New York World. It ran in the May 27 Sunday edition and read: “Young man, 18, wishes position in country.” If the spring of 1928 had been sweltering on Manhattan’s sidewalks, it was oven-hot in the Budd family’s apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood, with two parents and five children crammed into its small rooms. Eddie was hoping for a summer job outside the city.

The next afternoon, a slightly built older man knocked on the Budds’ front door. He introduced himself as Frank Howard, the owner of a small Long Island farm. He was looking to replace a hired man who had recently quit, he said. He wanted someone young and strong. “I ain’t afraid of hard work,” Eddie told him. Howard agreed to hire the Budd boy and one of his friends.

Six days later, on a late Sunday morning, Howard returned bearing gifts, a pail of crumbly pot cheese and a basket of strawberries. He promised to pick Eddie and his friend up for work the next day, then handed them a couple dollars to go see a movie. Howard himself stayed for lunch, playing with the younger children. By early afternoon, the Budds were thoroughly charmed.

The family had a pretty 10-year-old daughter named Grace, thin and tenement pale, with big dark eyes and dark hair. Would she like a treat? Howard asked. He was going uptown to a niece’s birthday party. He’d be happy to take her to share in the fun. He promised to bring her back by nightfall—with her parents’ permission, of course.

Albert and Delia Budd would turn that moment over and over. The visitor’s gentle invitation, the mother’s hesitation, the father’s indulgent response: let her go, poor kid, she doesn’t see many good times. Their daughter walking down the sidewalk in her Sunday best with the elderly stranger in a dark suit, a felt hat on his silvery head.

In the initial furor over Grace Budd’s disappearance, the police assigned a posse of detectives to the case. Months, then years passed without progress, and in time almost all of them abandoned the search. The only one who did not was a detective named William F. King.

King was a tall, ruggedly built man with a fondness for tailored suits. He was middle-aged, and his dark hair was receding, so he kept it short and slicked back. He had first joined the NYPD in 1907 after working as a locomotive fireman. He’d left to fight in the Great War and returned afterward to serve in the NYPD’s Bureau of Missing Persons. At the time of Grace’s disappearance, he was a detective lieutenant in the bureau. It wasn’t a job that would make him rich—he was paid $3,200 a year—but it suited him. He had earned a reputation on the force for bullheaded determination. And he was determined not to give up on Grace.

The Budds had received dozens of letters claiming knowledge of Grace’s whereabouts. King went through them methodically, taking time out from his other assignments to chase down leads. Twice he thought he’d found the kidnapper only to see the case fall apart. One suspect was a nearby building superintendent who, it turned it out, had been set up by a vengeful estranged wife. The other was a known confidence man who liked to prey on young girls and had recently used the last name Howard for his schemes; King tracked him down in Florida, only to find that the man had an airtight alibi.

After several years and more than 40,000 miles of wild goose chases, King returned to the theory that his suspect was still in town. If that were true, maybe the answer was to bait him into the open. He persuaded some of the city’s newspaper columnists to occasionally drop hints, short items that reminded readers of the case. Even columnist Walter Winchell, of William Randolph Hearst’s powerful New York Daily Mirror, indulged King’s obsession from time to time.

“I checked on the Grace Budd mystery,” Winchell wrote in his November 2, 1934 column, “And it is safe to tell you that the Dep’t. of Missing Persons will break the case, or they expect to, in four weeks. They are holding a ‘cokie’”—a cocaine addict—“now at Randall’s Island, who is said to know most about the crime. Grace is supposed to have been done away with in lime, but another legend is that her skeleton is buried in a local spot. More anon.”

Winchell had made the entire story up, not that he ever admitted it. After all, in the weeks that followed, he would get credit for having exceptional police sources—and possibly clairvoyant talents. Because just nine days later, Grace Budd’s mother received a letter in the mail.

Five

The letter began cryptically with the story of a traveler—an alleged friend of the letter’s author—who had sailed from San Francisco to Hong Kong in 1894 as a deckhand aboard a steamer. Once ashore, the sailor had gotten drunk and returned late to the harbor to find his ship gone and himself stranded in Hong Kong, a city then in the depths of a famine. Conditions were so dire, the author wrote, that people had taken to eating the meat of young children—and the stranded traveler “staid there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh.”

Upon his return to New York, the letter continued, the sailor kidnapped two boys—a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old—and, after keeping them tied up in his closet for a time, killed and ate them. “He told me so often how good Human flesh was,” the writer added, and “I made up my mind to taste it.”

On Sunday June the 3, 1928, I called on you at 406 W 15 St. Brought you pot cheese—strawberries. We had lunch. Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her. On the pretense of taking her to a party. You said Yes she could go.

I took her to an empty house in Westchester I had already picked out. When we got there, I told her to remain outside. She picked wildflowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and Called her. Then I hid in a closet until she was in the room.

She’d struggled with him, the killer wrote; she’d fought him until he choked her to death. And then, he carefully explained to her mother, he’d butchered the body. He’d taken the best pieces away with him, left the bits and bones behind. “How sweet and tender” she was, he wrote. It had taken him nine days to eat her.

Delia Budd couldn’t read well, and she handed the letter to Eddie. As he read it, the color washed out of his face. He ran for the police station to find Detective King.

King had grown accustomed to crackpot letters in the six years since Grace had disappeared, but this one had the feel of actual knowledge. King had one sample of the kidnapper’s handwriting, a photostat of a note that “Frank Howard” had sent to the Budds regarding the job for Eddie. He pulled it out of the file. The handwriting was identical.

The sender had left the letter unsigned, but he had tucked it into an envelope with a return address imprinted in the corner. Though it was half scratched out with a pen, King could still discern a hexagonal design and the initials NYPCBA: the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association.

At the association headquarters, the staff to a man denied any knowledge of the letter. The detective demanded a meeting of everyone who worked in the building, anyone who might have taken a few pieces of stationary. Finally, a janitor reluctantly confessed to taking some envelopes for his personal use. He’d kept them on the wall shelf above his bed in the old rooming house where he stayed.

King went to the rooming house, a tidy brownstone on East 52nd Street. The janitor’s former room was empty, the landlady said; the tenant who had taken it after the janitor moved out had packed up and gone just a few days earlier without leaving a forwarding address. But he was waiting for a check to arrive by mail, she went on, and she expected him to return at some point to collect it. King had been tracking his quarry for six years already; he was prepared to wait as long as it took for him to return.

In fact, it was barely four weeks later that the landlady called King to say her former boarder had indeed come for the check. King grabbed a precinct squad car and hurtled across town. He found his man in the rooming-house parlor. King hesitated at the door. Surely this frail, grandfatherly man in his faded suit wasn’t the killer he’d been chasing all these years.

The detective stepped forward and the visitor stood up. The Gray Man put down his teacup and pulled a straight razor from his pocket.

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Albert Fish (Photo: Getty)

Six

His given name was Hamilton Howard Fish, and he was born in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 1870. He liked to claim that he was related to another Hamilton Fish, the one who had been Secretary of State when he was born. But as a child, he’d started insisting on being called Albert, he said, because other children found the name Hamilton hilarious; he was sick of being called “Ham and Eggs” Fish.

His father, Randall Fish, was a former riverboat captain. At age 75, he’d already had three children by the time Albert was born. The elder Fish died five years later, leaving his widow, Ellen, struggling to support herself and their four children. And young Albert was a problem. He became a bed wetter; he occasionally ran away. At wit’s end, she placed him in Saint John’s Orphanage, a children’s home run by the Episcopal Church in the city’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. “I was there ’til I was nearly nine,” Fish said once in a jailhouse interview. “And there’s where I got started wrong.”

The orphanage ran by the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child rule. “We were unmercifully whipped,” Fish recalled. One teacher liked to add public humiliation to the corporal punishment, forcing the children to strip bare and stand before the class. With repetition, Fish found that he enjoyed the experience. The sting of the rod against his skin stimulated him. Watching the other children suffer aroused him sexually. There were days, looking back, when he blamed the orphanage for all his troubles, claiming it had “ruined his mind.” Or perhaps he had been somehow born wrong. “I always had a desire to inflict pain on others,” he explained to a psychiatrist who met with him after his arrest, “and to have others inflict pain on me.”

Instability did run in his family. A half-brother died in a lunatic asylum. So did an uncle, institutionalized for religious delusions. One of his younger brothers was diagnosed as feeble-minded, a 19-century term for people considered mentally deficient. Another brother was an alcoholic; a sister had a “mental affliction.” His mother suffered from hallucinations.

Despite her peculiarities, by the time Fish was nine, his mother had found a steady job and retrieved him from the orphanage. By then, however, he was a changed boy. He’d become a sexual voyeur and began spending his spare time visiting public baths so that he could watch other children undress. By his late teens, he’d started stalking children. He learned how to lure his victims with pocket change and candy. He learned how to take advantage of old buildings and dark alleys. “It never came out,” he told a psychiatrist. “Children don’t seem to tell.”

After he finished high school, Fish drifted through odd jobs. He traveled the country and pieced together a living, all the while hunting, sexually assaulting, and—when he was in the mood—killing children. By age 24, he’d settled in New York, where he found enough work to get by, mostly as a housepainter and handyman. He rented an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and moved his mother north from Washington to stay with him.

He married in 1898, and his time with his wife, Anna, marked the beginning of the most stable period of his life. They had six children together, and his sons and daughters swore that until 1917, the year their mother ran away with another man, their lives seemed normal enough. After Anna left, their father tried to hold the family together. He’d always struggled to hold onto jobs, but now he took whatever work came his way.

He also began to disappear more often into the city’s shadows. He quit trying to hide his obsessions. Once, he rolled himself in a carpet, insisting that John the Apostle had ordered him to do so. Other evenings he’d stand before his children, whipping himself with a board studded with nails, dancing with delight as the blood ran down his legs.

And there was that memorable night in 1922. They’d rented a bungalow, near the small town of Greenburgh in rural Westchester County, where Fish had been hired to paint the exterior of a church. He worked hard during the day, his sons helping him with the job. But at night, his children watched him run naked through the fields around the house, raising his fists and screaming, “I am Christ!” He was crazy, they thought, and getting crazier.

Still, they were as shocked as everyone else when, after King had subdued him in the boardinghouse parlor, Fish led police back to that same small town, to an isolated little house called Wisteria Cottage. Night had fallen by the time they arrived. The house sat amid a tangle of weeds and bare trees, illuminated by the glare of police lights. Fish walked straight to a crumbling stone wall that curved along the hillside behind the cottage. It took only minutes of digging to uncover Grace’s small, dirt-encrusted skull.

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Wisteria Cottage. (Photo: Getty)

Later, police would find a startling collection of bone fragments in the basement of the house, leading newspapers to speculate that the bodies of dozens of children were buried there. Experts working with the police identified them as animal bones, but the question of how many children Fish had killed continued to bedevil the authorities. He confessed to stalking, torturing, and assaulting 400 children while traveling the country. But although he was a suspect in a long list of child killings—including nearly ten in the New York area alone—he turned silent and tearful when questioned about them. Hadn’t he done plenty already by telling them the story of Grace Budd? “You know as well as I,” Fish wrote from his cell in a letter to King, “that if I had not written that letter to Mrs. Budd I would not be in Jail. Had I not lead you to the spot no bones would have been found and I could only be tried for kidnapping. It was a fate to me for my wrongs.”

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Seven

The words came to him more clearly now. He could hear the angel murmuring its promises if he only obeyed. Be happy, the voice told him. Happy is he that taketh thy little ones and dasheth their heads against the stones.

In mid-February 1935, Fredric Wertham, 39, a thin, bespectacled, German-born psychiatrist, sat down to talk with the Gray Man. Wertham had been hired by Albert Fish’s defense attorney, who planned to fight for his notorious client’s life with an insanity defense.

At the time, psychiatrists like Wertham who worked with the mentally ill, especially within the legal system, were still known as alienists—from the French word aliéné, “insane.” The etymology traced back further, to the Latin of the middle ages, alienare, “to deprive of reason.” The term held another meaning, however, beneath its scholarly surface. There was a sense that alienists studied aliens, denizens of some separate community of craziness. No person, of course, was completely free of shadows, as Sigmund Freud had observed in his influential 1901 treatise on psychoanalysis, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. But few reached a place where they were so alienated from the rest of society—by rage, madness, circumstance—that they slid into murder, much less took the path of the stranger killer.

Wertham was just starting to make a name for himself as an expert in the science of murderous behavior. Born Fredric Wertheimer in Nuremberg in 1895, he’d studied medicine in Britain and his native Germany before earning a medical degree in 1921. The following year, he moved to the United States, working first at a Massachusetts mental hospital and then in the psychiatric clinic at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 1927, he became an American citizen and shortened his name to Wertham.

He moved to New York City five years later to become senior psychiatrist in the Department of Hospitals, where he organized and directed a clinic that screened convicted felons for the city courts. It was that expertise that attracted Fish’s defense attorney, James Dempsey. A former prosecutor with a hard-charging reputation, Dempsey had been appointed by the court to represent the killer. He was the kind of man who took such appointments seriously, and he had put considerable thought into choosing his expert witness.

Wertham was known for his sympathy for the disadvantaged. While at Johns Hopkins, he had done pro bono work for impoverished African-American clients represented by the crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow. Now Dempsey was asking him to take on an unprecedented challenge: He was asking Wertham if he could testify in favor of keeping a now legendary child-murdering cannibal alive.

He went to meet Fish at the Westchester County jail in Eastview, where Fish had been moved in preparation for his trial. By now, the killer was known to the press not only as the Gray Man but as the Brooklyn Vampire, the Werewolf of Wisteria, and—thanks to a rumor that he did his best work by moonlight—the Moon Maniac. Although Wertham should have known better from his years studying criminals, he was somehow expecting a monster, a shimmer of visible evil.

Instead, the prisoner who was led in to meet him “looked like a meek and innocuous little old man,” Wertham wrote in his 1948 book The Show of Violence. “Gentle and benevolent, friendly and polite. If you wanted someone to entrust your children to, he would be the one you would choose.”

This harmless persona came naturally to Fish. He knew how to put it on for strangers. And he wasn’t all that impressed with his earnest interlocutor. “Some doctor came and asked me 1,000,000 questions,” he wrote in a letter to his daughter after his first meeting with Wertham. But Wertham kept coming back, again and again, spending some 12 hours in increasingly intimate conversations with the prisoner. And over the hours, Fish started to talk. “I am not insane,” he told Wertham. “I am just queer. I don’t understand it myself. It is up to you to find out what is wrong with me.”

He talked about the children he’d assaulted in his endless pursuit of pain. Sometimes the children didn’t satisfy him, so he’d find women willing to use a whip. When that wasn’t enough, he lashed himself. When that wasn’t enough, he’d eat his own feces, drink his urine. Sometimes that wasn’t enough either. So he’d burn himself by lighting alcohol-soaked cotton balls on fire in his rectum. And when even that wasn’t enough, he’d drive needles into his body, mostly deep into his groin.

He’d lost count of the needles, too—perhaps there were five still embedded in his flesh, he said. His disbelieving doctor ordered X-rays. Twenty-seven needles showed up on the first scan, two more on a second. They were large, small, some in fragments, some still perfectly intact. Sometimes the pain made him scream. Always the children screamed. Sometimes he wanted that; sometimes he gagged them.

“There was no known perversion that he did not practice and practice frequently,” Wertham later wrote. But as the alienist came to realize, that deeply deviant history—or perhaps Fish’s desire to atone for it—had been contorted into a justification for murder. Fish never forgot the brutal lessons of his old Episcopal orphanage: that all sinners must seek redemption. “I had sort of an idea through Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice,” Fish explained. “It always seemed to me that I had to offer a child for sacrifice, to purge myself of iniquities, sins, and abominations in the sight of God.”

He told Wertham that he always listened to the angels who came to visit him. They brought him instructions from God. He recited some of them to the alienist, their demands that he beat children with whips or batter them with stones. In the case of Grace, he said, he knew she was a daughter of Babylon and “that I should sacrifice her in order to prevent her further outrage.”

In a cruel way, Grace’s own youthful guilelessness had helped sentence her to death. As Fish disembarked with her from the train in Westchester County, he forgot on his seat a bundle he had carried with him, his “implements of hell,” as he described them to Wertham: a knife, a saw, and a butcher’s cleaver concealed in a cloth. It was Grace who remembered it as she was about to jump from the train. “You have forgotten your package!” she exclaimed, and ran back to the seat to retrieve it. If she hadn’t done so, Fish told Wertham, “the child would now be in her home and I would not be where I am.”

Fish’s account flickered between an odd sense of nobility—his conviction that he’d saved the girl from falling into inevitable sins—and a grisly fixation on the details of her death. He dwelled on the way he’d suffocated and dismembered Grace in the empty house, wrapped and packed the parts of the body he wanted to eat, and buried the rest. Then he’d cooked her piece by piece in the kitchen of his Manhattan apartment, experimenting with onions and bacon, herbs and spices. He sounded, Wertham wrote, “like a housewife describing her favorite methods of cooking.”

The story shifted like a blown flame. Fish spoke of his crime as if it were variously a prayer, an ecstatic thrill, an exceptional dinner. The alienist across the table kept taking notes. “I said to myself,” he later recalled, “However you define the medical and legal borders of sanity, this certainly is beyond that border.”

Fish was by turns open and sly, cooperative and cagey. He would later admit to the murder of Frances McDonnell without hesitation. The story of Billy Gaffney he told only in a letter he sent to his defense attorney, written with the same precision as the Budd letter. Fish explained that he’d taken the sobbing child to a mostly deserted street near a city dump, to an empty house he’d discovered while working on a painting crew:

I took the G boy there. Stripped him naked and tied his hands and feet and gagged him with a piece of dirty rag I picked out of the dump. Then I burned his clothes. Threw his shoes in the dump. Then I walked back and took trolley to 59 St. at 2 A.M. and walked from there home.

Next day about 2 P.M., I took tools, a good heavy cat-of-nine tails. Home made. Short handle. Cut one of my belts in half, slit these half in six strips about 8 in. long. I whipped his bare behind till the blood ran from his legs. I cut off his ears—nose—slit his mouth from ear to ear. Gouged out his eyes. He was dead then. I stuck the knife in his belly and held my mouth to his body and drank his blood. I picked up four old potato sacks and gathered a pile of stones. Then I cut him up.

Detective King and his colleagues had already collected evidence that Fish’s interest in cannibalism long predated the murder of Grace Budd. The old man had treasured a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s works that included The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s 1838 novel of a sea voyage gone wrong. The novel’s pages howled with bitter storms on ruthless seas, ships carrying rotting corpses, and sailors surviving by cannibalism. Fish had bookmarked it with a packet of needles.

He’d also carried in his pocket newspaper clippings about the German stranger killer Fritz Haarmann, known as the Vampire of Hanover. Between 1920 and 1924, Haarmann had killed and butchered between 27 and 50 young men and boys, slicing them up, eating his favorite parts and selling the rest on the black market, passed off as less ghoulish varieties of meat. Before he was beheaded in 1925, he’d written a public confession explaining how much he had enjoyed all of it.

Fish’s letter about Billy Gaffney rang with a similar glee. He explained in loving detail how he’d cut the little boy into pieces, scattering them in roadside pools of water and muck, keeping the parts he wanted to cook. “I never ate any roast turkey that tasted half as good,” he wrote. “I ate every bit of the meat in about four days.”

In the eight years since her son had disappeared, Elizabeth Gaffney had never given up hope. She set a place for him at the table every Christmas. “I know in my heart and soul that Billy will come back to me,” she confided to reporters. After Fish wrote the letter, the police took her to meet the confessed killer. But for all the bravado in his writing, Fish wouldn’t look at her. He wouldn’t speak to her. He wept and paced and refused to answer her questions. After two hours, she left shaking her head. She would never believe that her son had died that way anyway.

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Eight

On the day before his murder trial, Fish was served a bowl of chicken soup for lunch. Finding several bones in his serving, he sharpened one to a razor-sharp point on the concrete floor of his cell and began slicing himself across the chest and abdomen. The guards rushed to take the improvised implements away, and the bandages didn’t show under his familiar blue shirt and gray suit when he arrived at the Westchester County courthouse on the morning of March 11, 1935 for the first day of proceedings.

The imposing stone building in White Plains was usually the image of judicial dignity; on the opening day of Fish’s trial, it was a carnival. The entrances were mobbed with spectators hoping to see the Gray Man, the werewolf, their local vampire. They jostled for space with the reporters and photographers. More than 250 people jammed into the second-floor courtroom hoping to see the prisoner in the dock. Justice Frederick Close ordered a dozen sheriff’s deputies to guard the doors. He wanted order, he said, and he would only allow as many people into the courtroom as could sit on the benches.

To no one’s surprise, the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office was seeking the death penalty for Albert Fish. Dempsey had been just as clear about his intentions to counter with an insanity plea. It was an approach that had gained in popularity in the previous decades—aided by the rise of alienists such as Wertham who specialized in criminal behavior—but it remained a legal gamble.

The U.S. legal standards for criminal insanity traced back to earlier British law, which itself dated back to the 13th century, when all-powerful kings occasionally pardoned murderers on the basis of madness. The practice was formalized in 1843, when the House of Lords established a legal standard known as the M’Naghten Rule. The rule was named after a Scottish wood worker, Daniel M’Naghten, who killed the secretary of Prime Minster Robert Peel during a failed attempt to murder the minister himself.

M’Naghten, who had complained loudly of persecution by imaginary spies, was acquitted in an insanity verdict. The rule based on his name was inspired by a public outcry against such perceived leniency. It added some legal clarity to the matter, spelling out a basic standard of criminal lunacy: “At the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as to not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” And it made clear that the burden of proving insanity rested with the defense.

Whether Albert Fish had killed while in the kind of mental fugue that met this legal standard was the central question of his murder trial. There was, after all, no question that he’d kidnapped, murdered and eaten Grace Budd—he’d signed six confessions to that effect while in jail. But these acts in and of themselves didn’t necessarily reach the standard of the M’Naghten rule. For that, Dempsey had to show that Fish had no sense of the moral wrongness of his actions at the time.

In Fish’s confessions and correspondence, prosecutors thought they’d found evidence to counter that. In his letter to King, for instance, Fish had talked about his “wrongs” catching up with him, an obvious indication that he knew the moral weight of his deeds. The defense in turn argued that the way Fish defined “wrong” was in itself insane. “His test,” Wertham would explain later, “was that if it had been wrong he would have been stopped, as Abraham was stopped, by an angel.”

For Wertham, proving Fish legally insane mattered for reasons reaching far beyond the courtroom in White Plains. Having encountered the poor and otherwise marginalized often in his work, the profile of the typical victims of killers like Fish and Haarmann was not lost on him: They were usually culled from the most unlucky and vulnerable corners of society—the urban poor, minorities, and orphans who were least likely to be missed. If behavior of the sort that Fish had exhibited in the years before his capture could be established as grounds for commitment and treatment, then alienists like Wertham could do real good—they could study and learn how to treat these killers, and thus learn how to protect society from its most deeply troubled members.

Where Wertham saw an opportunity, however, Westchester County Chief Assistant District Attorney Elbert T. Gallagher saw only weakness. To Gallagher, Fish was simply a stranger killer who needed to be stopped, a murderer who would only set down his knives when he was dead. Fish’s attorney might call him insane, but Gallagher wasn’t fooled. He knew evil when it stood in front of him. And he meant to see to it that Fish went not to the asylum, but to the electric chair.

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Albert Fish at the courthouse. (Photo: Getty)

Nine

It was the Gray Man whom Gallagher evoked as he opened the proceedings for the prosecution—the false grandfather who calculated his killings, who knew when to step out of the light and into the sheltering shadows. There was too much cunning in these crimes, Gallagher said, for some hapless lunatic to have carried them out. The killer had used a fake name and invented a story to trick Grace Budd’s parents. He had found an empty house, a safely isolated place where he could take the child. “Don’t put any stock, gentlemen, in this divine-command business,” Gallagher told the jury.

Gallagher had brought a cardboard carton with him to the courthouse. It contained Grace’s splintered bones, and he shook it—the dry rattling reminder of a dead child—to drive home his argument. The nonsense about angels and Christ and the echoing voices in an empty room: That was “merely a smokescreen,” a cover-up, he told the jury. There was no madness here. There was only cold and deliberate method.

To underscore this point, Gallagher paraded four alienists through the witness stand to testify that the accused, while perhaps a little strange, knew perfectly well what he was doing. Foremost among them was Menas Gregory, who, given his past history with this particular killer, could hardly have been expected to say otherwise.

Gregory was the former director of the psychiatric ward at New York’s venerable Bellevue Hospital. The old brick building overflowed with inmates, from the criminal to the suicidal to the merely peculiar. Amid the throng, nobody, Gregory included, had taken any particular notice of one Albert Fish, who was admitted into the ward, observed, and released—diagnosed as abnormal but harmless, troubled but sane.

Fish went to Bellevue on December 15, 1930—less than two years after the murder of Grace Budd. It was a court-ordered evaluation, requested by his daughter, who’d reported that he was showing signs of mental disturbance. Gregory oversaw the evaluation at Bellevue, where Fish stayed under observation for a month. He reportedly startled the nurses by climbing into the bathtub to pray. But, as Gregory admitted during the trial, he and his staff did not spend much time exploring the old man’s religious compulsions. The alienists decided he was definitely off—“psychopathic personality; sexual type”—but sane and safe to set free.

In the summer of 1931, Fish was back in a psychiatric unit, this time at Kings County Hospital, following an arrest. During the previous years—as the police would later realize to their chagrin—he’d been picked up several times on minor grifting charges ranging from embezzlement to theft. The latest arrest followed a complaint about sending obscene letters. When the police arrived at the hotel where Fish then worked for room and board, they found a homemade cat-o’-nine-tails in his room. As the arresting officer later explained, there was just something about the man—he looked so “very, very weird” at the moment of discovery.

The police sent Fish to the hospital, where he stayed for two apparently uneventful weeks. Not once was he asked about the cat-o’-nine tails, though he’d admitted to police that he liked to whip himself with it. None of that appeared in the hospital report. He was “quiet,” the clinic noted: a “cooperative, oriented” old man who, his caretakers concluded a second time, posed no danger to anyone. Not only had Fish—at a time when he’d already proved himself a cannibal killer—been declared a low-risk patient, but he was also now a suspect in at least four child killings that had occurred after his release from the hospitals.

From his seat in the witness stand, Gregory was rigidly defensive about Bellevue’s handling of Fish. His determination to admit no mistake on behalf of himself or his hospital rang through his testimony, sometimes ludicrously. “Do you call a man who drinks urine and eats human excretion sane or insane?” Dempsey asked him during his cross-examination.

“Well, we don’t call them mentally sick,” Gregory replied.

“That man is perfectly all right?”

“Not perfectly all right. But he is socially perfectly all right.”

Dempsey marveled at how little evidence the Bellevue reports contained of time spent with the patient or analysis of him and demanded to know how this could qualify as enough to determine Fish’s sanity. “Since he is not an insane person, the record is not voluminous,” Gregory replied.

“But is there anything about his family background?” snapped the lawyer.

“I can’t find anything here,” Gregory replied, leafing through the papers.

“When do you make a careful inquiry?” Dempsey inquired.

Only when he saw signs of insanity, Gregory replied. Bellevue had to evaluate some 50 patients a day. Its harried staff didn’t have time for careful evaluation of those, like Albert Fish, who showed only average mental stress. “The city does not provide sufficient help to make a complete examination in every case,” he said.

It was a theme picked up by the other state witnesses. One prosecution expert, Dr. Charles Lambert, assured the jury that although Fish had undoubtedly assaulted hundreds of children, and although he definitely had “a psychopathic personality,” he was not actually suffering from any psychosis.

“Doctor,” Dempsey said, “assume that this man not only killed this girl but took her flesh to eat it. Will you state that that man could for nine days eat that flesh and still not have a psychosis and not have any mental diseases?”

“There is no accounting for taste,” Lambert said.

Ten

As the trial entered its second week, the jury gave nicknames to the two attorneys battling over Fish’s fate. They called Gallagher “Bones,” for his habit of shaking that ghastly cardboard carton. They nicknamed Dempsey “I-Object,” because of his perpetual outrage, his jack-in-the-box propensity to leap up to challenge the psychiatric testimony.

But protest alone wasn’t enough to prevail. Dempsey’s witnesses had to be better. They had to compel understanding and, perhaps, even forgiveness for a man who had done so many unforgivable things.

Wertham took the stand first. He did not try to paint a pretty picture of Fish. “This man has roamed around in basements and cellars for 50 years,” he said. “There were so many innumerable instances that I can’t begin to give you how many there are. But I believe to the best of my knowledge that he has raped 100 children. At least.”

And of course there were the murders. The police were still trying to tally the victims. But it seemed, Wertham said, that in his mind his longtime obsession with pain had become entwined with religion. He saw angels, heard saints like John the Baptist giving him orders, listened as their voices translated the teachings of the Bible into blood. He heard instructions to beat and torture: “Blessed is the man who correcteth his son.” And when he drank Grace Budd’s blood and ate her flesh, Wertham said, to him it was something sacred, “associated with the idea of Holy Communion.”

Wertham’s analysis was echoed by the other two alienists called by Dempsey, both well-respected practitioners: Dr. Smith Ely Jelliffe, former president of the New York Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Henry A. Riley, a professor of neurology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. All three had been struck by the force and power of Fish’s religious delusions. His interactions with his angels were so influential, Jelliffe testified, that the “whole killing of the Budd girl took on the character of a religious ritual.” He talked to a Christ he thought he could see dripping with blood, Riley said. And Christ told him that he needed to protect the girl from “becoming a harlot.” Her death, Riley said, was essentially a virgin sacrifice.

Fish had no rules or sense of right and wrong grounded in anything other than craziness, the alienists argued. He’d been an unbalanced child, deformed sexually by his brutal orphanage experiences. He had a moral compass, but one that rested on hallucinations of vengeful angels, Biblical teachings warped beyond recognition. However that compass spun, it moved in a way that was completely detached from the mores of society—and reality. To a man, all three psychiatrists agreed that here was a deviant, terrible killer—and a man who met every criterion of legal insanity.

“Every maniac, every insane person plans and connives,” Dempsey told the jury. “Every animal, gentlemen, plans and connives. … The fact that a man can connive and plan an outrageous, dastardly, fiendish crime like this is no indication of the fact that a man is in his right mind.” The legal standard of sanity demanded a clear awareness of right and wrong; a man waiting on the dispensation of vengeful angels had no hope of such clarity. “Do you believe before God that Albert Fish was sane on June 3, 1928? Do you believe on that day he knew the distinction between right and wrong? Unless you believe that, gentlemen, if you later find him guilty, it will be on mere breath, not upon evidence.”

By this point in the trial, Fish—whom Dempsey had decided to keep off the stand—looked less like a vampire than like the victim of one. Huddled in his baggy suit, he had grown paler and more transparent by the day. He looked, one journalist wrote, like “a corpse insecurely propped in a chair.” But by the end of Dempsey’s closing arguments, on the morning of March 22, he was in tears.

Gallagher was second to make his closing argument before the jury, and he began by mocking Dempsey’s portrait of Fish, helpless in the grip of his madness. Instead, he called on the jury to “remember the defenseless little innocent Grace Budd,” dying at the hands of a villain of supernatural proportions in a strange and lonely place, calling for her mother.

The criticisms of Bellevue were just a distraction, Gallagher insisted, the tales of divine commandments only more of the same. Dempsey was right to bring up the idea of planning and conniving—because that was just what Fish had done in the kidnapping and murder of this child. From his use of a fake name to his choice of isolated Wisteria Cottage, he had plotted this crime. Gallagher was willing to concede that the old man had sexual abnormalities, but none of them rose to the level of guilt-absolving insanity.

Grace had died in a premeditated crime, a kidnap and murder in the interests of sexual gratification. And the man who planned it did not deserve to live out his days in an asylum. “Do the right thing,” Gallagher concluded, calling on the jury to send Fish where he belonged: the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.

Eleven

Even the jaded crime reporters at the trial found themselves wrestling with the question of what exactly that right thing was in Fish’s case. They took a vote and found themselves agreed that Fish was legally insane. That afternoon, after the closing arguments, the judge sent the alternate juror home; he, too, told the reporters that he thought Fish was insane.

The 12 remaining men were sent to deliberate at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 22. They broke briefly for dinner at a nearby hotel and then returned to the jury room. At 8:27 p.m. they entered the courtroom, unsmiling, to read the verdict. Fish was guilty of the charges of kidnapping and first-degree murder. In subsequent interviews, the jurors would admit that, like the reporters, they believed Fish to be off-the-charts crazy. But they couldn’t bring themselves to send this kind of killer to a merciful end in an asylum.

Fish sat quietly in his chair as reporters stampeded out of the room in search of telephones. He’d always been good at projecting the image of his choice. His response to the verdict, after the initial jolt, was pallid indifference. He wasn’t afraid of pain, he said; this would be a new way of experiencing it. “I have no particular desire to live,” he had told Wertham.

But if Fish had publicly lost interest in the fight, his champions had not. The proceedings, the shoddy expert testimony, had offended Dempsey’s sense of human decency. He appealed the conviction to New York governor Herbert Lehman, and when he went to meet with him in Albany he brought with him the equally outraged Wertham. In their judgment, Dempsey argued to Lehman, the jury had acted out of fear, not dispassionate justice. It was similar to the superstitious horror of the infamous Salem witch trials, he said. Fish’s conviction “proves merely that we still burn witches in America.”

Wertham, who was accustomed to dealing with the lower reaches of government—public-health bureaucrats, policemen, prison guards—had never before spoken to so lofty an official as Lehman. Going into the meeting, he had in his mind the image of the emperors and kings of old, with whose prerogative the idea of acquitting the insane had originated—the kind of ruler who “had to sit in his capacity as a human being, using his personal judgment to listen and decide,” he later wrote.

“It is not as an expert that I am appealing to you,” he told Lehman, according to his account in The Show of Violence, “because if you had all the facts assembled, including the other murders committed by this defendant, and their circumstances, you would not need an expert. I am not appealing to you for clemency. I am appealing to you as a statesman. In this case all the hairsplitting about legal definitions was just a covering up of a social default. I am asking you to commute the death sentence to lifelong detention in an institution for the criminal insane—and to make this case an example and a starting point for a real scrutiny not of individuals nor individual institutions, but of the whole haphazard and bureaucratic chaos of the psychiatric prevention of violent crimes.”

As he spoke, Wertham glanced at the governor’s counsel, who was sitting beside Lehman; the man nodded, smiling, even, at the alienist’s argument. But Lehman himself sat expressionless. He had no interest in commuting the death sentence of a sexually deviant, cannibalistic child killer. As Wertham recalled the meeting, it was easy enough to tell that they’d lost. The governor looked down at his desk, at the papers outlining Fish’s murderous history. And throughout the meeting, Lehman’s face remained as cold and blank as a stone wall.

The Gray Man went to the Sing Sing electric chair on January 16, 1936. There were those who thought he’d finally fulfilled his destiny, faded completely away into the dust. He walked quietly to the platform where the black chair stood and sat patiently in the apparatus as the executioner buckled the straps and fitted the helmet over his head. “Do you have any last words?” the executioner asked. “I don’t even know why I’m here,” Fish replied softly.

But Fish had also written Dempsey one last letter, a statement that he wanted read as a final farewell. The attorney called the reporters gathered at the prison to describe it. “I will never show it to anyone,” he said. “It was the most filthy string of obscenities that I ever read.” He locked them away, all those pages bubbling with the rage that the killer had kept carefully hidden, even to the end.

Dempsey never did share the letter. But there were days when he could still hear its words, the last echo of a madman’s voice. It drifted like smoke in the air, then blew away.

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Epilogue

Two years after Fish’s execution, the famed psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg—therapist to the writer Lillian Hellman, the composer George Gershwin, and the playwright Moss Hart, among others—brought up the killer’s trial in a talk before the New York Neurological Society. By then, the trial and the ethical questions that shadowed it had prompted some serious soul-searching in the psychiatric community. In his speech, titled “Misconceptions of Legal Insanity,” Zilboorg noted the shoddy behavior of many of his colleagues who had testified for the prosecution in the trial. The problem, he argued, was that the psychiatrists had allowed society’s instinct to execute its worst killers cloud their professional judgment of mental illness.

“The issue,” Zilboorg went on, “is fundamentally not between the basic intent of the law and psychiatry, but between a revengeful, suspicious and instinctive hatred of the criminal … and that scientific humility which knows that man is human.” For true justice to be done, he insisted, the two sides needed to be brought to a more common understanding of justice in the case of the truly mentally ill.

The Fish case still echoes through debates over how to navigate the borderland between scientific knowledge and criminal justice. In 2005, forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland argued in her history of serial killers, The Human Predator, that Fish had been put to death “despite his obvious insanity.” But as Ramsland also pointed out, the criminal insanity defense has never been particularly successful. That was true in Fish’s time and it remains true today. Defense attorneys attempt an insanity defense in barely 1 percent of all violent crime cases for exactly that reason; by one estimate, at most a fourth of such defenses actually succeed.

This remains the case even though the law has been updated several times in the past century to allow for a broader definition of criminal insanity than existed at the time of Fish’s trial. Most insanity pleas that succeed, Ramsland notes, involve plea bargains in which psychosis appears obvious to a judge. It’s more often juries, she suggests, that convict “people who are genuinely psychotic.” In 1992, for instance, the Milwaukee cannibal killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed and ate more than 17 people, was found sane at trial.

The best explanation for this is the tension that Zilboorg described in 1938: the extent to which the imperatives of science are at odds with the natural human need to define the most terrifying criminals as the personification of evil. “The problem with calling an act evil rather than considering it an illness is that it often overlaps with the insanity issue and taints it,” Ramsland writes. “If people decide that some behavior is ‘evil,’ they don’t want to believe that a mental defect was responsible; they want the evil person to be supremely punished.”

James Dempsey believed that it was this need to punish “evil” that had complicated the Fish verdict, and he was haunted by the case for the rest of his life. Although he spent many decades as a successful defense attorney, he kept his Fish files and his sense of outrage, eventually sharing the documents with Harold Schechter, a professor of literature and culture at New York’s Queens College. The result was a 1990 book called Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Fiendish Killer!

In the years after the Fish trial, Fredric Wertham rose to prominence as one of the country’s best-known criminal psychiatrists, consulting in numerous murder trials. He became a public figure—praised by some and reviled by others—in the 1950s, when he wrote a provocative book called Seduction of the Innocent, on the power of violent images, such as those found in comic books and television shows, to influence violence behavior.

Like Dempsey, Wertham could never quite let go of the Fish case. In a 1966 book, A Sign for Cain, he repeated his conviction that Fish had been wrongly executed and that science had thus lost an opportunity to learn. “Our knowledge [of murderers] is limited,” he wrote, “because we know the psychology only of the unsuccessful murderers.”

Detective William King, too, was intent on learning something from the Fish case. Two years after Fish was executed, he testified before the state legislature, using the Gray Man story to urge new laws requiring a centralized database of fingerprints for known sexual predators. (The state of records in law enforcement in the 1920s and ’30s was such that, at the time of Francis McDonnell’s murder, a 20-year-old mugshot of Fish—looking distinguished in a bowler hat—was on file in the NYPD’s records but wholly unknown to the detectives pursuing the case.)

To this day, the full extent of Albert Fish’s murderous history remains unknown. Credible assessments at the time implicated him in somewhere between five and fifteen killings, though many suspected those numbers to be low. Not long after Fish’s execution, one of the murderer’s relatives paid a visit to Wertham. After they had talked for a while, Wertham asked the man if he had any sense of how many children Fish had killed. His visitor hesitated. “You know, Doctor,” he finally replied, “there were plenty of old, abandoned places.”


Source Notes

This story was recreated from numerous newspaper accounts, court and police documents, papers in law and psychology journals, and earlier tellings of the Albert Fish story in books and magazines. For much of the information on the atmosphere of New York City at the time, I consulted documents that I had gathered for my own book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. I am especially grateful for the thorough work of Harold Schechter in his book Deranged, cited in my epilogue, which is the definitive reference on the story. Other invaluable resources included the books of Katherine Ramsland, who teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University, in Center Valley, Pennsylvania—particularly her studies of serial killers in history, such as The Human Predator and The Devil’s Dozen, and her terrific book on forensic psychology, The Criminal Mind. For further perspective on Albert Fish, I consulted Colin Wilson and Donald Seaman’s fascinating book The Serial Killers, which looks at the history of sex-related murder; Colin and Damon Wilson’s Written in Blood: A History of Forensic Detection; and Louis Cohen’s 1954 book, Murder, Madness and the Law. I’m also grateful for the eloquent writings of Fredric Wertham, including his account of the Fish story in two books, The Show of Violence (1948) and A Sign for Cain (1966). Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the many biographies and original documents concerning Fish available on true-crime and serial-killer websites, such as Troy Taylor’s story in the Dead Men Do Tell Tales series on Prairie Ghosts and Marilyn Bardsley’s version at Crime Library.