Cannibal serial killer Albert Fish – the American Boogeyman who butchered and ate up to 15 children (1928)

// August 30th, 2015 // Serial Killers

Albert Fish - serial killer

A visit from “Frank Howard”

At 18-years old, Edward Budd refused to accept the desperate poverty of his parents and was determined to make something of himself. Edward was a strapping young lad, eager to work and do his part to ensure the well-being of his impoverished family. Trapped in the stinking, crowded confines of New York City, living in a miserable tenement with his father, mother, and four younger siblings, he longed to work in the wide open spaces of the countryside where the air was fresh and clean.  On May 25, 1928, he placed a classified ad in the Sunday edition of the New York World.  It read,

“Young man, 18, wishes position in country. Edward Budd, 406 West 15th Street.”

Grace BuddOn the following Monday, May 28, Edward’s mother, Delia, a huge mountain of a woman, answered the door to an elderly man who introduced himself as “Frank Howard”, a farmer from Farmingdale, Long Island.  Mr. Howard told Edward’s mother that he wanted to interview Edward for a potential job on his farm.

Delia told Edward’s five-year-old sister, Beatrice, to run and get her brother who was visiting a friend in a nearby apartment. The old man beamed at Beatrice and gave her a nickel for her efforts.

While they waited for Edward to arrive, Delia had a chance to get a better look at the old man. He had a very kindly face, framed by gray hair and accented by a large droopy gray mustache. He explained to Mrs. Budd that he had earned his living for decades as an interior decorator in the city and then retired to a farm he had bought with his hard-earned savings. He explained that his wife had left him over a decade earlier, leaving him to raise their six children by himself.

Edward and his friend gain employment on Mr. Howard’s farm

The old man related how, with the help of his children, five farmhands and a Swedish cook, he had turned the farm into a successful venture with several hundred chickens and a half-dozen dairy cows. Unfortunately, he was about to be shorthanded as one of his farmhands was moving on and he needed someone to replace him.

At that moment, Edward came in and met Mr. Howard, who remarked at the boy’s size and strength. Edward assured the old man he was a hard worker. The old man offered him fifteen dollars a week, which Edward accepted joyfully. The old man even agreed to hire Willie, Edward’s closest friend.

Mr. Howard told the family that he had to leave for an appointment but promised to come back on Saturday to pick them up. The boys were thrilled and the Budds’ were happy that a good position with the kindly old gentleman had come so quickly from Edward’s modest newspaper advertisement.

Saturday, June 2, arrived but Mr. Howard didn’t show up to pick up the boys. Instead, they received a hand-written note from the old man saying that he had been delayed and would call in the morning.  The next morning around 11, Frank Howard came to the Budds’ apartment bringing gifts of strawberries and fresh creamy pot cheese. “These products come direct from my farm,” he beamed.

Delia persuaded the old man to stay for lunch. For the first time, Albert Budd, Sr. had an opportunity to talk with his son’s new employer. It was the kind of talk that makes a father very happy. Here was this kindly, polite old gentleman rapturously describing his twenty acres of farmland, his friendly crew of farmhands and a simple, hearty country life. He knew it was what his son had always wanted.

The disappearance of Grace Budd

However, Albert, Sr., a porter for the Equitable Life Assurance Company, was not very impressed with the way Frank Howard looked in his rumpled blue suit.  Still, the old man seemed confident and genteel.  Just as they sat down to lunch, the front door opened and in walked the Budd’s lovely ten-year-old daughter, Gracie, humming a song. Her large brown eyes and dark brown hair contrasted with her pale skin and pink lips. Coming home straight from church, Gracie still wore her Sunday clothes: a white silk confirmation dress, white silk stockings, and a string of creamy pearls that made her look older than her ten years.

Frank Howard, like most men who came face to face with the radiant Gracie, couldn’t take his eyes off the beautiful girl. “Let’s see how good a counter you are,” he said as he handed her an impressive wad of bills to count. The impoverished Budds’ were flabbergasted by the handful of money the old man was carrying on his person.  “Ninety-two dollars and 50 cents,” Gracie told him in short order.

“What a bright little girl,” Mr. Howard said, giving her 50 cents to buy candy for herself and her little sister Beatrice.

Howard said that he would come back later in the evening to pick up Edward and Willie, but first he had to go to a birthday party that his sister was throwing for one of her children. He gave the boys two dollars to go to the movies while they waited for him to return.

Just as he was about to leave, Howard invited Gracie to go with him to his niece’s birthday party. He would take good care of her and make sure that Gracie was home before nine o’clock that evening. Delia asked where Mr. Howard’s sister lived and he replied that she lived in an apartment house at Columbus and 137th Street. Delia wasn’t sure that she should let her go, but Albert Sr. convinced her that it would be good for Gracie. “Let the poor kid go. She don’t see much good times.”

Delia helped Gracie on with her good coat and her gray hat with streamers. She followed Gracie and Mr. Howard outside and watched them disappear down the street. That evening there was no word from Mr. Howard and no sign of Gracie. With not a peep from their beautiful daughter, a terrible sleepless night resulted. The next morning, young Edward was sent to the police station to report his sister’s disappearance.

The Budd’s learn that “Frank Howard” was not who he appeared to be

Police Lieutenant Samuel Dribben explained to the Budds’ that the address “Frank Howard” had given them for his sister’s apartment was fictitious. Furthermore, they learned that there was no Frank Howard and no farm in Farmingdale, Long Island. None of it was true. The kindly old man was a fraud.

Newspaper headlines in the Albert Fish murder caseOn June 7, New York police mailed 1,000 fliers to police stations throughout the country with a photo of Gracie and a description of “Mr. Frank Howard.” This activity, along with intense local publicity, created an epidemic of Gracie sightings and crank letters across the country, each of which had to be thoroughly investigated by the twenty plus detectives who had been assigned to the case.

However, not all was for naught. Police found the Western Union office in Manhattan from which “Frank Howard” had sent his message to the Budds’, plus the original handwritten message itself. From the writing and grammar, it was clear that “Howard” was refined and possessed an educated background. Police also located the pushcart where “Howard” had bought the pot cheese that he had given to the Budds’. Both addresses were in East Harlem, which quickly became a focal point of intense search and investigation by the police.

The “Boogey Man” takes Billy Gaffney

New York police were no strangers to child kidnapping. In fact, there had been an oddly similar case just the year before. On February 11, 1927, four-year-old Billy Gaffney played in the hallway outside his apartment with his three-year-old neighbor who was also named Billy. A 12-year-old neighbor who was babysitting his sleeping baby sister went to join the boys, but was forced to return to his apartment quickly after hearing his sister begin to cry.

A few minutes later, the older boy noticed that the two Billys were gone and told the younger Billy’s father. After a desperate search, the father found his three-year-old son alone on the roof of the building.

“Where’s Billy Gaffney?” the man asked his son.

“The boogey man took him,” the little boy replied.

The next day when a platoon of detectives came to investigate the disappearance of the Gaffney boy, they ignored the three-year-old witness, who stuck to his simple explanation. At first the police thought the boy had wandered outside into one of the factory buildings in the neighborhood or, worse, had fallen into the Gowanus Canal a few blocks away. People in the community organized a search and the canal was dredged, but there was no sign of little Billy.

Eventually, someone listened to the three-year-old witness who gave them a surprisingly detailed description of the “boogey man.” According to the toddler, he was a slender old man with gray hair and a gray mustache. Unfortunately, the police failed to connect the description to yet another crime that had been committed by the “Gray Man” a few years earlier.

Albert Fish

Albert Fish, the “Gray Man”

Three years before the Billy Gaffney abduction (four years before the Grace Budd kidnapping), in July of 1924, eight-year-old Francis McDonnell played on the front porch of his home in the pastoral Charlton Woods section of Staten Island. His mother sat nearby, nursing her infant daughter when she saw a gaunt elderly man with gray hair and moustache standing silently in the middle of the street. She stared at the strange, shabby old man who repeatedly clenched and unclenched his fists while mumbling to himself. The man tipped his dusty hat to her and disappeared down the street.

Later that afternoon, the old man was seen again watching Francis and four other boys play ball. The old man called Francis over to him. The other boys continued to play ball. A few minutes later, both the old man and Francis had disappeared. A neighbor noticed a boy that looked like Francis walking that afternoon into a wooded area with an elderly gray-haired tramp behind him.

Unfortunately, the disappearance of Francis was not noticed by his family until he missed dinner that night. His father, a policeman, organized a search of the area. They found the boy’s body in the woods, partially hidden under a pile of fallen branches. He had been horribly assaulted. His clothes had been torn from his body and he had been strangled with his suspenders. Francis had been beaten so badly that police doubted that the “old” tramp could have really been as old and frail as he appeared.

Manhunt for the Gray Man

Manhattan fingerprint experts and police photographers were enlisted to assist with the case as well as some 250 plainclothesman. The large-scale manhunt yielded several promising suspects but unfortunately, none of them looked like the grey-haired, moustached old tramp described by witnesses. Police conferred with witnesses gain but none waivered in their description.  One witness, Anna McDonnell, recalled:

“He came shuffling down the street, mumbling to himself, making queer motions with his hands. I’ll never forget those hands. I shuddered when I looked at them… how they opened and shut, opened and shut, opened and shut. I saw him look toward Francis and the others. I saw his thick grey hair, his drooping gray moustache. Everything about him seemed faded and gray.”

Despite the massive efforts of the police and the community, the “Gray Man” had vanished into thin air.

The Grace Budd case remains open

By November of  1934, the Budd case remained open although nobody expected it to be solved. Only one man, William F. King, continued to pursue the case. As he had done several times before, King leaked false information about a “break in the case” to reporter Walter Winchell. Taking the bait, on November 2, 1934, Winchell wrote about “new progress” on the case:

“I checked on the Grace Budd mystery. She was eight when she was kidnapped about six years ago. And it is safe to tell you that the Department of Missing Persons will break the case, or they expect to, in less than four weeks.”

The killer writes Mrs. Budd

Ten days after Winchell’s report appeared in local newspapers, Delia Budd received a letter that her lack of education fortunately prevented her from reading. Her son Edward read it instead and quickly contacted Detective King. The letter was singularly barbarous:

“My dear Mrs. Budd,

In 1894 a friend of mine shipped as a deck hand on the Steamer Tacoma, Capt. John Davis. They sailed from San Francisco for Hong Kong China. On arriving there he and two others went ashore and got drunk. When they returned the boat was gone.

At that time there was famine in China. Meat of any kind was from $1 to $3 a pound. So great was the suffering among the very poor that all children under 12 were sold for food in order to keep others from starving. A boy or girl under 14 was not safe in the street. You could go in any shop and ask for steak — chops — or stew meat. Part of the naked body of a boy or girl would be brought out and just what you wanted cut from it. A boy or girls behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price.

John staid there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh. On his return to N.Y. he stole two boys one seven, one 11. Took them to his home stripped them naked tied them in a closet. Then burned everything they had on. Several times every day and night he spanked them — tortured them — to make their meat good and tender.

First he killed the 11 year old boy, because he had the fattest ass and of course the most meat on it. Every part of his body was Cooked and eaten except the head — bones and guts. He was Roasted in the oven (all of his ass), boiled, broiled, fried and stewed. The little boy was next, went the same way. At that time, I was living at 409 E 100 st., near — right side. He told me so often how good Human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it.

On Sunday June the 3rd 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. When she saw me all naked she began to cry and tried to run down the stairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mamma.

First I stripped her naked. How she did kick — bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me nine days to eat her entire body. I did not f*** her though I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.”

A clue is discovered on the letter

Detective King recognized that the details of his meeting with the Budds’ and Grace would only be known to the kidnapper. Also, the handwriting on the letter was identical to the letter the elderly kidnapper had written for the Western Union messenger six years earlier. That the letter was written by the kidnapper was never in doubt.

Keen-eyed investigators noticed that the envelope held an important clue: a small hexagonal emblem with the letters N.Y.P.C.B.A. which stood for the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association. With the cooperation of the president of the association, an emergency meeting of the members was held. In the meantime, police checked out the handwritten membership forms looking for handwriting similar to “Frank Howard’s.” Detective King then asked the members — all of whom had passed the handwriting test — to report anybody who may have taken the association’s stationery home with them.

A young janitor came forward, admitting that he had taken a couple of sheets of paper and a few envelopes. He had left the stationery in his old rooming house at 200 East 52nd Street. Police questioned the landlady who was shocked by the description of “Frank Howard” – the description matched an old man who had lived there for two months.  The old man had checked out of her rooming house just a couple of days earlier.

The Gray man is identified as Albert H. Fish

Det. King (left) arrests Albert Fish

The landlady recalled that the former tenant had called himself Albert H. Fish. She mentioned that Mr. Fish had asked her to hold a letter that he was expecting from his son who worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in North Carolina. The son regularly sent money to his old dad and Fish insisted that he be notified immediately if any letters arrived at the home.

Shortly after the interview, the post office informed Detective King that it had intercepted a letter destined for Albert Fish that was about to be delivered to his old residence. On December 13, 1934, the landlady called Detective King. Albert Fish was at the rooming house looking for his letter. The old man was sitting in a chair holding a teacup when King opened the door. Fish stood up and nodded in agreement when King asked him if he was Albert Fish. Suddenly, realizing the situation for what it was, Fish reached into his pocket and drew out a razor blade which he held in front of him. Infuriated, King grabbed the old man’s hand and twisted it sharply. “I’ve got you now,” he said triumphantly.

Fish confesses his uncontrollable “blood thirst”

Albert Fish with Atty. James Dempsey

A severely edited version of Fish’s confession appeared in the newspapers. It was an odyssey of perversion and unspeakable depravity which seemed unbelievable until detail after detail was corroborated by the authorities. It was all the more unbelievable considering how decrepit and harmless Fish appeared. He was a stooped, frail-looking old man about 130 pounds and five-feet, five-inches tall.

Detective King took the initial confession. Fish told him that in the summer of 1928 he had been overcome by what he called his “blood thirst” — a overpowering need to kill. When he answered Edward Budd’s ad for employment, it was the young man, not his sister Gracie, that he intended to lure to a remote location, restrain, and cut off his penis, leaving him to bleed to death.

After he left the Budd house the first time, Fish said he purchased the tools he would use to murder and mutilate the boys: a cleaver, hand saw, and butcher knife. He wrapped up the implements into a bundle which he left at a newsstand before he went to the the Budd home for the second and last time.

When Fish saw the strapping young Edward, the size of a full-grown man, and his friend Willie, he convinced himself he could overpower the two of them.  It was only after seeing little Gracie that he changed his mind and his plans. It was she he desperately wanted to kill.

Details of Gracie’s murder emerge

With the unsuspecting Gracie in tow, Fish stopped back at the newsstand to pick up his bundle before taking a train to the Bronx and then to the village of Worthington in Westchester. For Gracie, he only bought a one-way ticket.

Grace was enthralled with the 40-minute train ride into the countryside. Only twice in her life had she been out of the city. This was a wonderful treat for her.

At the station in Worthington, Fish was so absorbed in his monstrous plan that he left his bundle of tools on the train. Ironically, Grace noticed and reminded him to bring his package.

Gracie and Fish walked along a remote road until they reached an abandoned two-story building called Wisteria Cottage in the midst of a wooded area. While Grace entertained herself outside with the various wildflowers, Fish went up to the second floor bedroom, opened up his bundle of tools, and took off his clothes.

Then he called to Gracie to come upstairs.

Why kill and cannibalize young children?

With the wildflowers she had gathered arranged in a bouquet, Gracie went into the house and climbed the stairs to the bedroom. When she saw the old man naked, she screamed for her mother and attempted to escape, but Fish grabbed her by her throat, overpowered her, and strangled her to death.

Police search for Gracie

Fish propped up Gracie’s head on an old paint can and decapitated her, catching most of the blood in the paint can. Afterwards he threw the bucket of blood out into the yard. He undressed the headless child, then he went back to her body and cut it in two with the butcher knife and cleaver.

Parts of her body he took with him wrapped in newspaper. The rest he left there until he returned several days later to throw pieces of her body over a stone wall behind the house. He disposed of his tools in the same fashion.

After his confession, Detective King had a final question: What caused him to do this horrible thing?

“You know,” Fish answered. “I never could account for it.”

Captain John Stein asked him why he had written the letter to the Budds’.  Fish responded that he didn’t know why. “I just had a mania for writing.”

The recovery of Gracie’s body

The day of Fish’s confession, the police went to Wisteria Cottage and recovered the remains of Gracie. Albert Fish stood nearby, devoid of emotion as he watched the authorities drag Gracie’s remains from the thick grass.

That night at 10 P.M., Fish was interrogated by Asst. District Attorney P. Francis Marro. When Marro asked Fish why he had murdered Gracie, he explained that “a sort of blood thirst” had overwhelmed him. Once it was done, he was overcome with sorrow. “I would have given my life within a half-hour after I done it to restore it to her.”

Marro asked if he had raped Gracie and Fish was adamant: “It never entered my head.”

Nothing was asked at that time nor was anything volunteered about the cannibalism mentioned in Fish’s letter to the Budds. The police may have considered it too insane to be true. Or, perhaps, they were already thinking that including horrible details about cannibalism would bolster the inevitable defense case for insanity.

That night the capture of Albert Fish leaked to the newspapers and reporters descended on the Budd apartment. Shortly afterwards, Detective King drove Mr. Budd and his son Edward to the police station to identify Fish.  Edward did more than identify Fish. He threw himself at the old man. “You old bastard! Dirty son of a bitch!”

Mr. Budd was surprised at Fish’s lack of emotion. “Don’t you know me?” he asked the old man.

“Yes,” Fish answered politely. “You’re Mr. Budd.”

Albert Fish - 1903 mugshot“And you’re the man who came to my home as a guest and took my little girl away,” Mr. Budd said behind a veil of tears.

Fish’s personal history

Albert Fish, not surprisingly, was no stranger to police. His record stretched back to 1903 when he had been jailed in Sing Sing for grand larceny. Since then, he had been arrested six times for various crimes including petty theft. Half of those arrests occurred around the time of Gracie’s abduction.

It was also discovered that Fish had been interred in mental institutions on multiple occasions. Fish was also a
compulsive writer of obscene letters to women. He found some of these women in the classified ads and described his
sadomasochistic desires to them. He was arrested three times for writing obscene letters. Twice he was sent to Bellevue
Hospital, and once to Kings County Hospital, for psychological observation. Each time he was declared sexually perverted but
sane, and charges were either dropped or he was put on probation.

When asked about his background, Fish said:

“I was born May 19, 1870, in Washington, D.C. We lived on B Street, N.E., between Second and Third. My father was Captain Randall Fish, 32nd-degree Mason, and he is buried in the Grand Lodge grounds of the Congressional cemetery. He was a Potomac River boat captain, running from D.C. to Marshall Hall, Virginia.

My father dropped dead October 15, 1875, in the old Pennsylvania Station where President Garfield was shot, and I was placed in St. John’s Orphanage in Washington. I was there till I was nearly nine, and that’s where I got started wrong. We were unmercifully whipped. I saw boys doing many things they should not have done. I sang in the choir from 1880 to 1884 — soprano, at St. John’s. I came to New York. I was a good painter — interiors or anything.

I got an apartment and brought my mother up from Washington. We lived at 76 West 101st Street, and that’s where I met my wife. After our six children were born, she left me. She took all the furniture and didn’t even leave a mattress for the children to sleep on.”

“I’m still worried about my children,” he sniffled. His six children ranged from age 21 to 35. “You’d think they’d come to visit their old dad in jail, but they haven’t.”

Fish confesses to the murder of Billy Gaffney

Albert Fish was facing indictments in Manhattan and Westchester County. Westchester County indicted him on a charge of first degree murder while Manhattan was preparing an indictment for kidnapping. Meanwhile police received a major break in the case of Billy Gaffney, who now had been missing for nearly eight years. A motorman on the Brooklyn trolley line, Joseph Meehan, saw a picture of Fish in the newspaper and came forward to identify Fish as the nervous old man he had seen on February 11, 1927 – the man who was trying to quiet a little boy sitting with him on the trolley. Meehan watched the two carefully. The little boy, who didn’t have a jacket or coat, was crying for his mother continuously and had to be dragged by the old man on and off the trolley. The little boy, as it turned out, was little Billy Gaffney.

Ultimately, Fish did confess the unspeakable things he did to Billy Gaffney:

“I brought him to the Riker Ave. dumps. There is a house that stands alone, not far from where I took him… I took the 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 the 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 halves in six strips about eight inches 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 gahered a pile of stones. Then I cut him up. I had a grip with me. I put his nose, ears and a few slices of his belly in the grip. Then I cut him through the middle of his body. Just below the belly button. Then through his legs about two inches below his behind. I put this in my grip with a lot of paper. I cut off the head, feet, arms, hands and the legs below the knee. This I put in sacks weighed with stones, tied the ends and threw them into the pools of slimy water you will see all along the road going to North Beach.”

Fish describes his cannibalistic cravings

During his interviews with police Fish further detailed how he had cooked, and ate, little Billy Gaffney,

“I came home with my meat. I had the front of his body I liked best. His monkey and pee wees and a nice little fat behind to roast in the oven and eat. I made a stew out of his ears, nose — pieces of his face and belly. I put onions, carrots, turnips, celery, salt and pepper. It was good.

Then I split the cheeks of his behind open, cut off his monkey and pee wees and washed them first. I put strips of bacon on each cheek of his behind and put them in the oven. Then I picked four onions and when the meat had roasted about 1/4 hour, I poured about a pint of water over it for gravy and put in the onions. At frequent intervals I basted his behind with a wooden spoon. So the meat would be nice and juicy.

In about two hours, it was nice and brown, cooked through. I never ate any roast turkey that tasted half as good as his sweet fat little behind did. I ate every bit of the meat in about four days. His little monkey was a sweet as a nut, but his pee-wees I could not chew. Threw them in the toilet.”

Fish tied to more unsolved disappearances of young children

Days later, a man from Staten Island came forward to identify Fish as the man who had tried to lure his then eight-year-old daughter into the woods not far from where Francis O’Donnell was murdered three days later in 1924. The girl, now in her late teens, had seen Fish him in the newspaper and recognized him.

Fish was also tied to the 1932 murder of a 15-year-old girl named Mary O’Connor in Far Rockaway. The girl’s mauled body was found in woods close to a house that Fish had been painting.

With all of those indictments in different counties, there was very little chance that Albert Fish was going to be acquitted. His only opportunity to beat the death penalty was to have forensic psychiatrists declare him insane.

A meek man is misunderstood?

Dr. Fredric Wertham, in his book The Show of Violence, describes his first meeting with Albert Fish in his jail cell. He was shocked at how “meek, gentle, benevolent and polite” Fish was. “If you wanted someone to entrust your children to, he would be the one you would choose.”

Fish’s attitude towards his situation was one of complete detachment. “I have no particular desire to live. I have no particular desire to be killed. It is a matter of indifference to me. I do not think I am altogether right in the head.”  When Dr. Wertham asked if he meant that he was insane, Fish answered, “Not exactly… I never could understand myself.”

From what Dr. Wertham could ascertain, psychosis had been a part of Fish’s family line for some time:

“One paternal uncle suffered from a religious psychosis and died in a state hospital. A half brother also died in a state hospital. A younger brother was feeble-minded and died of hydrocephalus. His mother was held to be ‘very queer’ and was said to hear and see things. A paternal aunt was considered ‘completely crazy.’ A brother suffered from chronic alcoholism. A sister had some sort of ‘mental affliction.'”

Fish claimed that his real name was Hamilton Fish, named after a distant relative who was President Grant’s Secretary of State. Tired of being teased about that name, he took the name of Albert instead. When he was 26-years-old, he married a young woman of nineteen and had six children. When the youngest was three, his wife ran off with another man, leaving Fish to raise the children by himself. Subsequently, he “married” three other times, although they were not legal since he had never been divorced from his first wife.

A sadist with unparalleled perversity

Dr. Wertham considered Fish’s unparalleled perversity unique in the annals of psychiatric and criminal literature. “Sado-masochism directed against children, particularly boys, took the lead in his sexually regressive development.”

X-ray of Fish's pelvis showing it embedded with pins and needles Fish told him: “I always had a desire to inflict pain on others and to have others inflict pain on me. I always seemed to enjoy everything that hurt.”

Wertham told “experiences with excreta of every imaginable kind were practiced by him, actively and passively. Fish took bits of cotton, saturated them with alcohol, inserted them into his rectum, and set fire to them. He also did that with his child victims.”

Fish confided in Dr. Wertham a long history of preying on children — “at least 100” (later estimates put the number closer to 400).  Fish would bribe them with money or candy. He usually chose African-American children because he believed that the police did not pay much attention when they were hurt or missing.

Fish explained that after capturing a child, he never went back to the same neighborhood again. He said that he had lived in at least 23 states and in each one he had killed at least one child. Sometimes, he lost his job as a painter because he was suspiciously connected to these dead or mutilated children.

He had a compulsion to write obscene letters and did so frequently. According to Dr. Wertham, “they were not the typical obscene letters based on fantasies and daydreams to supply a vicarious thrill. They were offers to practice his inclinations with the people he wrote his graphic suggestions to.”

Lies and exaggerations rules out – the stories Fish related were indeed true

Initially, Dr. Wertham had some concerns about whether Fish was lying to him, especially after he told the psychiatrist that he had been sticking needles into his body for years in the area between the rectum and the scrotum:

“He told of doing it to other people too, especially children. At first, he said, he had only stuck these needles in and pulled them out again. Then he had stuck others in so far that he was unable to get them out, and they stayed there.”

The doctor had him X-rayed and sure enough, there were at least 29 needles embedded in his pelvic region.

About the age of 55, Fish started to experience hallucinations and delusions, believing that God had ordered him to torment and castrate little boys.

“He had visions of Christ and His angels… he began to be engrossed in religious speculations about purging himself of iniquities and sins, atonement by physical suffering and self-torture, human sacrifices… He would go on endlessly with quotations from the Bible all mixed up with his own sentences, such as ‘Happy is he that taketh Thy little ones and dasheth their heads against the stones.”

Wertham was amazed as Fish described the horrible cannibalism of Billy Gaffney’s body.

“His state of mind while he described these things in minute detail was a peculiar mixture. He spoke in a matter-of-fact way, like a housewife describing her favorite methods of cooking… But at times his voice and facial expression indicated a kind of satisfaction and ecstatic thrill. I said to myself: However you define the medical and legal borders of sanity, this certainly is beyond that border.”

Was Albert Fish criminally insane?

Albert Fish, age 64That Fish was suffering from religious psychosis was not in doubt as far as Dr. Wertham was concerned. Fish’s children had seen him “hitting himself on his nude body with a nail-studded paddle until he was covered with blood. They also saw him stand alone on a hill with his hands raised, shouting: ‘I am Christ.'”

Fish told him: “What I did must have been right or an angel would have stopped me, just as an angel stopped Abraham in the Bible [from sacrificing his son].”

Dr. Wertham, the defense alienist, believed that Fish was legally insane:

“I characterized his personality as introverted and extremely infantilistic… I outlined his abnormal mental make-up, and his mental disease, which I diagnosed as paranoid psychosis… Because Fish suffered from delusions and particularly was so mixed up about the questions of punishment, sin, atonement, religion, torture, self-punishment, he had a perverted, a distorted — if you want, an insane — knowledge of right and wrong. His test was that if it had been wrong he would have been stopped, as Abraham was stopped, by an angel.”

Wertham concluded that Fish had killed at least 15 children and mutilated as many as 100 others. “That figure was verified many times to me by police officials in later years.”

Two defense alienists testified that Fish was insane while four other alienists (who were called by the prosecution during Fish’s trial) testified that Fish was sane. One of the prosecution alienists was the head of the psychiatric hospital where Fish had been detailed for observation shortly after the Budd and other murders. He noted that at the time, Fish had been judged “both harmless and sane.”

The Trial

The trial of Albert Fish for the premeditated murder of Grace Budd began on Monday, March 11, 1935, in White Plains, N.Y. in front of Justice Frederick P. Close’s. Chief Asst. District Attorney Elbert F. Gallagher was in charge of the prosecution and James Dempsey was the defense attorney for Fish.

Dempsey planned to attack the competence of the Bellevue Hospital alienists who had observed Fish in 1930 and declared him sane. He also planned to establish that Fish was suffering from “lead colic,” a dementia often suffered by house painters.

Gallagher’s key strategy for prosecuting Fish was summarized early in the trial:

“Now in this case, there is a presumption of sanity. The proof, briefly, will be that this defendant is legally sane and that he knows the difference between right and wrong and the nature and quality of his acts, that he is not defective mentally, that he had a wonderful memory for a man of his age, that he has complete orientation as to his immediate surroundings, that there is no mental deterioration, but that he is sexually abnormal, that he is known medically as a sex pervert or a sex psychopath, that his acts were abnormal, but that when he took this girl from her home on the third day of June, 1928, and in doing that act and in procuring the tools with which he killed her, bringing her up here to Westchester County, and taking her into this empty house surrounded by woods in the back of it, he knew it was wrong to do that, and that he is legally sane and should answer for his acts.”

Defense attorney Dempsey focused on Fish’s unusual behavior, particularly the self-flagellation with nail-studded paddles and needles. Then he brought up Fish’s competence as a father and his love for his children:

“In spite of all these brutal, criminal and vicious proclivities, there is another side to this defendant. He has been a very fine father. He never once in his life laid a hand on one of his children. He says grace at every meal in his house. In 1917, when the youngest one of his six children was three, his wife left him. And from that time down until shortly before the Grace Budd murder in 1928 he was a mother and father to those children.”

He closed his remarks by reminding the jury that it was up to the prosecution to prove that a man who killed and ate children was not insane.

Testimonies

Delia & Albert Budd

Grace’s parents and brother Albert, Jr., testified. Dempsey seemed determined to make the point that both Delia and Albert, Sr., gave their consent to Grace going to a birthday party with Fish. When it came time for Grace’s father to testify, he was overcome with emotion and began to weep loudly.

On the third day of the trial, over the strenuous objections of the defense attorney, a box of Grace Budd’s remains was brought into the courtroom as evidence, while Det. King recreated from Fish’s confession how the girl was killed. Then Gallagher reached into the box and held out the small skull of the dead girl. It was a very dramatic moment. Dempsey sought a mistrial.

Dempsey focused on the cannibalism issue as a central piece of his insanity defense. It was clear that he was trying to establish that Fish had eaten parts of the girl’s body — something that no sane person would do. But he was unsuccessful in establishing and proving that Fish actually did what he said he did with her body.

Fish appeared completely indifferent throughout the trial. Although, at one point, he expressed to his attorney that he had a desire to life because “God still has work for me to do.”

Dempsey put several of Fish’s children on the stand to testify to his bizarre behavior — self-flagellation and sticking needles in his body, as well as his religious delusions. They also testified that he was a good father who always provided for them and never physically abused them.

On Hands and Knees

To further demonstrate Fish’s strange behavior, Dempsey called to the stand a woman who had received several obscene letters from Albert Fish. The courtroom was cleared of women as Dempsey read the obscene correspondence.

Another defense witness called to the stand was Mary Nicholas, Fish’s 17-year-old stepdaughter. She described how Fish taught her and her brothers and sisters a game.

“He went into his room and he had a little pair of trunks, brown trunks, that he put on. He put those on and came out into the front room, and he got down on his hands and knees, and he had a paint stick that he stirred paint with. He would give the stick to one of us, and then he would get down on his hands and knees and we would sit on his back, one at a time, with our back facing him, and then we would put up so many fingers, and he was to tell how many fingers we had up, and if he guessed right, which he never did, why, we weren’t supposed to hit him. Sometimes, he would even say more fingers than we really had. And if he never guessed right, why, we would hit him as many fingers as we would have up.”

Sometimes a hairbrush was used instead of the paint stick. He also stuck pins under his fingernails in front of the children.

Signs of Psychosis

Eventually, Dempsey had a chance to attack the prosecution alienists. Dr. Charles Lambert, after a three-hour interview with Fish,” pronounced him a “psychopathic personality without a psychosis.”

Dempsey asked Lambert, “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?”

Lambert answered, “Well, there is no accounting for taste, Mr. Dempsey.”

Dempsey persisted: “Tell me how many cases in your experience you have seen people who actually ate human feces.”

“Oh, I know individuals prominent in society… one in particular that we all know who used it as a side dish in his salad,” Lambert remarked casually.

Dempsey had better luck with one of the other defense alienists, who could see signs of psychosis in Fish’s behavior.

The verdict is issued

The trial lasted ten days and the jury took less than an hour to reach its verdict.

“We find the defendant guilty as charged,” the foreman said.

Fish was not happy with the verdict, but the prospect of being electrocuted had its appeal to him. A Daily News reporter wrote, “his watery eyes gleamed at the thought of being burned by a heat more intense than the flames with which he often seared his flesh to gratify his lust.”

Fish thanked the judge for his sentence of death by electrocution.  On January 16, 1936, Albert Fish was executed.

End notes

We may never know how many children Albert Fish murdered.  However, at the crime scene of Grace Budd alone, more than fifty fingers, legs, and other bones were found near the house.

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