Prologue to Evil
He was a remorseless, vicious killer, a child rapist, a man with no soul. Born in rural Minnesota in 1891, he began a life-long odyssey of crime and murder at the age of eight. By the time he was eleven, his family sent him off to a reform school as part of a plea bargain on a burglary charge. Repeatedly sodomized and physically tortured during his two years at the juvenile home, his emotional problems grew progressively worse. As a teenager, he enjoyed setting fires so he could watch buildings burn and often fantasized about committing mass murder. After he raped and murdered a 12-year-old boy in 1922, he joyfully recalled the killing: “His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him. I am not sorry. My conscious doesn’t bother me. I sleep sound and have sweet dreams.”
But when he was on the loose, Panzram murdered, raped and burned his way across the country in a mission of destruction that was unlike anything law enforcement had ever seen before. To explain his debauchery, he said his parents “were ignorant, and thru their improper teachings and improper environment, I was gradually led into the wrong way of living.” But it was the prisons that Panzram hated most. Throughout his life, he was trapped in a hopeless cycle of incarceration, crime and jail. Dr. Karl Menninger once described Panzram as a man “faced with the problem of evil in himself and in the rest of us. I have always carried him in my mind as the logical product of our prison system.”
On the day of his execution in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in 1930, he ran happily up the gallows steps, spit in the executioner’s face and yelled: “Hurry up you bastard, I could kill ten men while you’re fooling around!”
This is the story of a man who was “too evil to live.” He was a true misanthrope, a man who hated human beings. He made no apologies for what he was and placed the blame for his deviance squarely on the doorstep of society’s institutions. There is no need to exaggerate or expand on the life and crimes of Carl Panzram. The truth is enough.
Carl Panzram was born on June 28, 1891, on a desolate farm in northern Minnesota . His parents were of German descent, hard-working, stern and like most other immigrants of that era, dirt poor. Carl eventually had five brothers and one sister. He later said that his siblings were honest and dedicated farmers, though the same traits were not passed on to him. “I have been a human animal ever since I was born.I was a thief and a liar,” he said. “The older I got the meaner I got.” When Carl reached the age of 7, his parents ended their marriage. Of course, for people at their economic level, there was no divorce, no courts, no alimony. His father simply left the farm one day and never returned. As a result, the family faced a bleak future. They worked the farm from sunup to sundown with very little to show for their labors. During these early years, Carl was beaten by his brothers continuously for any reason no matter how insignificant. “Everybody thought it was all right to deceive me, lie to me and kick me around whenever they felt like it, and they felt like it pretty regular,” he later wrote. Carl broke into a neighbor’s home when he was 11. He stole anything he could get his hands on, including a handgun. He was quickly found out by his brothers, who beat him unconscious. Carl was later arrested for the crime and in 1903 sent to the Minnesota State Training School , a reform institution for juveniles.
Minnesota State Training School
Located in the town of Red Wing on the Mississippi River, south of St. Paul , the Minnesota State Training School contained about 300 boys whose ages varied from 10 to 20. The school population was at the mercy of the jailers who were under little or no outside supervision, a condition that promoted or at least allowed a level of abuse that cannot be imagined today. The admissions log, dated October 11, 1903, lists Panzram’s crime as “incorrigibility” and the relationship of his parents as “quarrelsome.” When Carl arrived at Red Wing he was brought into a reception office where a male staff member examined him. The frightened boy was stripped naked and questioned about his sexual practices. “He examined my penis and my rectum, asking me if I had ever committed fornication or sodomy or had ever had sodomy committed on me or if I had ever masturbated,” he later wrote. It was an admonition of what was to come.
The inmates also received Christian training and when they misbehaved or failed to learn the lessons properly, they were attacked by angry, vindictive attendants. Because Carl received little formal education when he lived on the farm, he was unable to read very well. For this he was also beaten regularly. “I may not have accomplished much in a scholarly way while there but I learned how to become a first class liar.and the beginnings of degeneracy,” he said. Soon he developed a hatred for the attendants and everything connected to religion, which he saw as the cause of his suffering. “I first began to think that I was being unjustly imposed upon. Then I began to hate those who abused me. Then I began to think that I would have my revenge just as soon and as often as I could injure someone else. Anyone at all would do,” he later said.
The more beatings he endured, the more hateful he became. He was hit with wooden planks, thick leather straps, whips and heavy paddles. But during all that time, Carl was planning revenge. On the night of July 7, 1905, he prepared a simple device that started a fire after he left the building. The fire quickly consumed the workshop at the school and it burnt to the ground while Carl lay in his bed laughing at the spectacle of sweet revenge.
In late 1905, Carl was on his way out of the horrors of the Minnesota State Training School . He learned to say the things the staff wanted to hear and when he appeared before the parole board, he convinced them that he was a changed boy and had been “reformed” by the school. “I was reformed all right.I had been taught by Christians how to be a hypocrite and I had learned more about stealing, lying, hating, burning and killing,” he said, “I had learned that a boy’s penis could be used for something besides to urinate with and that a rectum could be used for other purposes.”
During that winter, Carl’s mother, Lizzie Panzram, arrived at the Red Wing school to bring him home. Carl had changed. Never an outgoing child even at home, he became more withdrawn, quiet and brooding. But his mother had too many other things to worry about. One of Carl’s brothers had recently died in a drowning accident and her health was fragile. She had no time for a rebellious child who had a habit of getting into trouble. She may have thought that Carl would eventually work out his own problems. But even at this early age, he felt deep resentment toward his mother.
“Mother was too dumb to know anything good to teach me,” he said years later, “there was little love lost. I first liked her and respected her. My feelings gradually turned from that to distrust, dislike, disgust and from there it was very simple for my feelings to turn to into positive hatred towards her.”
He knew nothing else in his brief life except suffering, beatings and torture. His youthful mind dwelled on things of which most children knew little. “I fully decided when I left there just how I would live my life. I made up my mind that I would rob, burn, destroy and kill everywhere I went and everybody I could as long as I lived, ” he wrote years later.
It was January 1906, and Carl Panzram was about to be unleashed on the world.
The Odyssey of Carl Panzram Begins
At the age of 14, Panzram was relegated to working the fields on his mother’s farm. Envisioning a dismal future of backbreaking labor with no reward, he convinced his mother to send him to another school. There, he soon became involved in a dispute with a teacher who beat him on several occasions with a whip. Carl managed to get a handgun and brought it to school so he could kill the teacher in front of the class. But the plot failed when, during a hand-to-hand struggle, the weapon fell out of his pants and onto the floor of the classroom. He was thrown out of school and returned to the farm. Two weeks later, he hopped a freight train and left the Minnesota farm forever.
For the next few years, Carl wandered across the Midwest , sleeping in freight cars, riding under the trains and running from the railroad cops, who in many cases were more dangerous than the outlaws. He begged for food and stole it whenever he could. He became part of the vast, mobile culture of hobos and beggars who populated America ‘s rails during that era. These were the prewar years, a time of craziness, frantic activity and sweeping social change. It was a period of expansion in the United States , a rising financial boom that would come to an abrupt end with the stock market collapse of Black Tuesday in 1929. Later would come a time of lawlessness, inspired by the experiment of the National Prohibition Act of 1919, which created an almost universal disrespect for authority. Everywhere, it seemed, criminals were at work. The rails were no exception.
Shortly after he left Minnesota , Carl rode a freight train heading west out of Montana . He came upon four men who were camping in a lumber car. They said they could buy him nice clothes and give him a warm place to sleep. “But first they wanted me to do a little something for them,” Panzram wrote years later. He was gang-raped by all four men. “I cried, begged and pleaded for mercy, pity and sympathy, but nothing I could say or do could sway them from their purpose!”
He escaped with his life but the incident may have destroyed whatever feelings of compassion he had left. A short time later, Panzram got locked up in Butte , Montana , for burglary and received a sentence of one year in the Montana State Reform School at Miles City .
In the spring of 1906 Carl Panzram, age 14, arrived at the reform institution. He had the body of a man and weighed nearly 180 pounds. In a few weeks, he developed a reputation as a born criminal and the prison staff paid special attention to the defiant teenager. One guard made it his business to make life miserable for Panzram. “He kept on nagging at me until finally I decided to murder him,” he later wrote. He found a heavy wood plank outside one of the workshops and, one night when the guard turned his back, Panzram bludgeoned the man over the top of his head.
“For this I got several beatings and was locked up and watched closer than before,” he said years later. He had enough with prison life and decided to break out, even if it meant his own death.
In 1907, Panzram and another inmate, Jimmie Benson, escaped from the Montana State Reform School. They managed to steal several handguns in a nearby town and headed toward the town of Terry . “I stayed with him for about a month, hoboing our way east, stealing and burning everything we could,” Panzram wrote. “I taught him how to set fire to a church after we robbed it. We got very busy on that, robbing and burning a church regular every chance we got.” Throughout his life, everywhere he went, Panzram burglarized and burned churches, one of his favorite crimes.
Churches held a special significance in the mind of Carl Panzram, ever since he learned to hate Christianity while at Red Wing. “Naturally, I now love Jesus very much, ” he said, “Yes, I love him so damn much that I would like to crucify him all over again!”
Benson and Panzram traveled along the road to the state line, passing through the towns of Glendive, Crane and Sidney, robbing people and homes along the way. When they finally arrived in western Minnesota , they were armed with two handguns each and hundreds of dollars in stolen money. They decided to split up in the city of Fargo and go their separate ways. Panzram, who had changed his name to Jefferson Baldwin, eventually drifted west, back across the state and into the vast plains of North Dakota .
Panzram as Jeff Baldwin
The Court Martial of Carl Panzram
In December 1907, Panzram arrived in the city of Helena , Montana , a wide-open town where there was little law enforcement and people still wore pistols on their belts. Populated by Canadian fur traders and hard-as-nails river fishermen, it was not a place for teenagers. One night in a local tavern, Panzram was drinking alone at the bar and heard a speech given by a local Army recruiter. Later that same night, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Panzram left for boot camp, which at that time was held in Fort William Henry Harrison, a distant post in western Montana . He was assigned as a private to Company A in the 6th Infantry. On his first day in uniform, Panzram was brought up on charges of insubordination for refusing a work detail. Over the next month, he was jailed several times for various petty offenses. Constantly drunk and impossible to control, Panzram was unable to conform to military discipline.
In April 1908, he broke into the quartermaster’s building and stole a quantity of clothes worth $88.24. As he attempted to go AWOL with the stolen items, he was arrested by the military police and thrown in the stockade. He received a general court martial on April 20, 1908, before a military tribunal of nine junior and senior officers who had no tolerance for criminal activity from men in uniform. Panzram pleaded guilty to three counts of larceny.
According to court transcripts, he was sentenced “to be dishonorably discharged from the service of the United States , forfeiting all pay and allowances due him, and to be confined at hard labor at such place as the reviewing authority may direct for three years.”
Federal prisoners at that time typically were sent to Fort Leavenworth , Kansas . Future President William Howard Taft who, at that time, was the Secretary of War, approved the prison sentence. It would not be the last time their paths crossed.
Panzram was chained up and taken to the local train station with a number of other military prisoners. They were shackled to the inside of a cattle car by armed guards and given no food or water for the 1,000-mile trip. The train rolled out of the Helena depot and crawled south into Wyoming , across the cornfields of Nebraska and into eastern Kansas where the towering walls of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary rise up from the muddy banks of the Missouri River like giant tombstones.
Leavenworth Federal Pen
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary,
The U.S. Federal Penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth , Kansas , was an awesome sight. Surrounded by 40-foot high concrete walls that descended 20 feet underground, it was a veritable fortress. Situated on more than 1,500 acres of flat unobstructed land, the prison was originally built after the Civil War to house military prisoners and, though it was used continuously since then, by 1890 the institution had fallen into disrepair through underfunding and neglect. A new construction plan was put into effect by 1895, and work began in earnest a few years later. The inmates housed in the old Civil War unit performed all the construction and physical labor. The main section was completed by the inmates in mid-1903. Later that year, more than 400 prisoners were moved into the new facility. Almost 23 acres were contained inside its prison walls, which surrounded four barracks and various support facilities. By 1906, two years before Panzram arrived, all the prisoners from the old section of the prison had been successfully transferred to the new prison.
In May 1908, his hands shackled and leg irons firmly attached, Panzram entered into the gloomy confines of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for the first time. Prison authorities did not know that he was just 16 years old, so he was treated like any other man. Prisoners had to stand in formation every morning regardless of weather. Guards invoked a regimen of strict discipline and mandatory obedience. Like many other institutions of its day, a strict code of silence was enforced and if an inmate was caught speaking out of turn, he was whipped and thrown into solitary. This code of silence, born in Auburn Prison in the State of New York during the 19th century and maintained by a legion of penology reformers for decades, was a powerful tool of control used by the nation’s prisons during that era. Any infraction was punished without delay.
Panzram suffered numerous beatings and soon became desperate to break out. “I wasn’t there long before I tried to escape but luck was against me,” he said. Instead, he decided to burn down one of the prison workshops, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage. Though he was never charged with this crime, Panzram was constantly in trouble for breaking a multitude of other prison rules.
Guards thought nothing of torturing prisoners since it was the only way they could think of to keep control. A convict could not remain unpunished for breaking the rules. To do so would encourage more violations and ultimately, anarchy. Prisoners and guards lived under a fragile pact of restraint and fear. Every guard knew that, if a revolt occurred, they had little chance of getting out alive. The only way to ensure a subdued prison population was too keep them down, punish them severely, be brutal to those who rebelled and make an example out of the ones that were caught.
Panzram was chained to a 50-pound metal ball. He had to carry the weight no matter where he went, even when he slept at night. He was assigned to break rocks in a quarry, which he did for 10 hours a day seven days a week. But he grew strong and muscular all the while, planning for the time when he would get out. Day by day, he grew bitter and angry, consumed by vengeance, waiting for the day when he would roam free again.
“I was discharged from that prison in 1910. I was the spirit of meanness personified.Well, I was a pretty rotten egg before I went there,” he wrote years later, “but when I left there, all the good that may have been in me had been kicked and beaten out of me.” He was released in August that year. He walked outside into the fresh air convinced he would never see Leavenworth and its hated walls again. But he was wrong. Twenty years later, he would be confined at Leavenworth again. But this time on death row.
Carl Panzram Runs Amok
After he was released from Leavenworth in 1910, Panzram had nowhere to go. Though he was only 19, he had already spent a substantial portion of his young life in reform schools and prison. At Leavenworth , any semblance of hope that he may have had to grow into a mature, productive adult citizen was effectively destroyed. Years of abuse and physical torture had taken their toll. There was no family who cared about him, no real home and no prospects for the future. He had probably never known a woman’s touch in his life to that point and never evolved as a man in natural way. “All that I had on mind at that time was a strong determination to raise plenty of hell with anyone and everybody in every way I could,” he said.
For the next few years, Panzram drifted across Kansas , Texas , through the Southwest and into California . During this time, he was arrested several times using the name “Jeff Baldwin” for vagrancy, burglary, arson and robbery. He escaped from jails in Rusk, Texas , and The Dalles , Oregon . “I burned down old barns, sheds, fences, snow sheds or anything I could, and when I couldn’t burn anything else I would set fire to the grass on the prairies, or the woods, anything and everything.”
When he burglarized homes, he looked for guns first. “I would spend all my spare change on bullets. I would take potshots at farmers’ houses, at the windows. If I saw cows or horses in the fields, I would cut loose at them,” he wrote. He rode the trains over vast distances and spent time in Washington , Idaho , Oregon and Utah , cutting a path of destruction across the country in a methodical, relentless way that kept police hot on his trail but a step behind. He raped without mercy, rarely passing up an opportunity to take on a new victim. “Whenever I met one that wasn’t too rusty looking I would make him raise his hands and drop his pants. I wasn’t very particular either. I rode them old and young, tall and short, white and black. It made no difference to me at all except that they were human beings,” he said years later.
During the summer of 1911, as “Jefferson Davis,” Panzram drifted from town to town, robbing people and escaping by the rails whenever he could. In Fresno , California , he was arrested for stealing a bicycle. He was sent to the county jail for six months but escaped after only 30 days. He jumped a freight train heading northwest and brought along some stolen guns that he had buried outside town before he got arrested. While he was in a boxcar with two other bums, he saw another opportunity for rape. “I was sizing up the youngest and the best looking one of the two and figuring when to pull out my hog leg and heist’ em up,” he said. But a railroad cop found his way into the boxcar and tried to extort money from the men or he would throw them off the train. Panzram had other ideas.
“I pulled out my cannon and told him I was the fellow who went around the world doing people good,” he said. Panzram robbed the cop of his watch and whatever money he had. Then, while the other two men watched, he raped the officer at gunpoint. He then forced the other two men to do the same by “using a little moral persuasion and much waving around of my pistol, they also rode Mr. Brakeman around.” Panzram threw all the men off the train and continued his trip up to Oregon where he became one of the many seasonal loggers who roamed the countryside looking for work. And when work couldn’t be found, they survived by any means available.
Carl Panzram and the Deer Lodge
By the year 1913, tempered by years of drinking, beatings, imprisonment and living on the road like an animal, Panzram evolved into a hardened criminal. He was also physically big, square shouldered and muscular. His dark hair and good looks attracted women, but Panzram never displayed any interest in the opposite sex. And his eyes had a strange, sullen appearance that unnerved people, made them wonder what was behind that cold, barren stare. As he continued his journey through the northwest, he was arrested in several states under the name “Jack Allen.”
Charles Panzram as Jeff Davis # 3194
at Montana State Prison 1913
at Montana State Prison 1913
Within the week, he was arrested again for stealing and thrown into the county jail at Harrison , Idaho . On this occasion, he used the alias “Jeff Davis.” The jail was poorly run and consisted of just cells and a wall. During his first night in custody, he set a massive fire to one of the buildings and several of the inmates escaped, including Panzram. He quickly fled north, through the Grove of Ancient Cedars, across the Bitterroot Mountains and into western Montana .
In the small town of Chinook , Montana , Panzram got locked up as “Jefferson Davis” for burglary and received a one-year sentence at the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge. Located 30 miles north of Butte in the midst of the Rockies , the prison resembled a medieval castle. It was built in 1895 when American prison construction was modeled after European castles. Four pointed steeples rose majestically over a dark and forbidding complex that was surrounded by thick, stone block walls. There were turrets spaced periodically on all four walls and corners. Inside the towers rifle- toting guards kept a watchful eye over the vast courtyard, ready to shoot any prisoner who dared attempt to escape. According to the prison admissions log, Panzram was received at Deer Lodge on April 27, 1913. He listed his occupation as “waiter and teamster.” But there was little for convicts to do at the prison, except kill time.
While he was at Deer Lodge, he ran into Jimmie Benson, his old cellmate from Montana State Reform School. He was doing a 10-year stretch for robbery. Together, they planned an escape, but at the last minute, Benson was transferred and couldn’t participate. On November 13, 1913, Panzram escaped from Deer Lodge and fled toward Butte . Barely a week later, in a town called Three Forks, he was arrested for burglary under the name “Jeff Rhodes.” He was given another year for the escape and returned to the state prison.
Life at Deer Lodge was slow and monotonous. Understaffed and mismanaged, there was very little assigned labor for the inmates who spent most of the day in their cells, lying in their bunks or wandering outside in the prison yard. “At that place I got to be an experienced wolf, ” he said. “I would start the morning with sodomy, work as hard at it as I could all day and sometimes half the night.” Because of his size and reputation, he was able to intimidate the other prisoners into submission. “I was so busy committing sodomy that I didn’t have time left to serve Jesus as I had been taught to do in those reform schools,” he later wrote. Panzram served out his full sentence at Deer Lodge and on March 30, 1915, he was released.
“When I left there, the warden told me that I was pure as lily, and free from all sin,” he wrote, “He gave me $5, a suit of clothes, and a ticket to the next town six miles away.”
Escape From Oregon
Wherever he went, Panzram stole for food, clothes, money and guns. For months during the year 1915, he traveled up and down the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, through Washington , Idaho , Nebraska and South Dakota . Panzram was a veteran of the rails. On the night of June 1, 1915, he broke into a house in the town of Astoria , Oregon . He lifted a suit of clothes and other articles that weren’t worth more than $20. He was later arrested when he tried to sell a stolen watch. He was indicted for Larceny in a Dwelling and later, after a promise by the local D.A. to go easy on him, pleaded guilty. He was sentenced, as “Jefferson Baldwin,” to seven years at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem .
On June 24, 1915, he arrived at the prison and became inmate #7390. In the admission record, he listed his place of birth as Alabama and his occupation as “thief.” On the same page, it was noted that he used two other names: Jefferson Davis and Jeff Rhodes. Guards immediately took notice of the prisoner’s surly, uncooperative attitude. But they weren’t concerned with uncooperative inmates. Salem prison was notorious in the northwest for punishing its prisoners by abuse and torture. The warden at that time was a tough, crude, former sheriff named Harry Minto, who believed whole-heartedly in keeping the inmates in line by force. Whipping, hosing, beatings, starvation and isolation were part and parcel of life at Salem .
Minto endorsed the Auburn system by which prisoners would be punished even if they uttered one word out of line. They were frequently shackled to walls and hung from rafters for hours, sometimes days at a time. Inmates were whipped with the terrible “cat-o-nine-tails,” a brutish device that caused appalling injury to a man’s back. “I swore I would never do that seven years,” Panzram said, “and I defied the warden and all his officers to make me. The warden swore I would do every damned day or he would kill me.”
He got into trouble almost immediately for rule violations, and punishment became routine. Panzram’s record of discipline shows that on January 1, 1916, he was hung “10 hours a day for two days for hammering, rising a disturbance in cell and cursing an officer.” A month later, on February 27, he was hoisted up “12 hours at door for going on another tier from where he cells and having a dangerous weapon, a billie or a sap.” He was later found to be in possession of a blackjack and thrown into the “dungeons” for three weeks with only bread and water. “They stripped us naked and chained us up to a door,” he said, “and then turned the fire hose on us until we were black and blue and half blind.”
But still, Panzram continued his combative behavior. He started several fires and burned down three buildings at different times. He spent 61 days in solitary where he groped around in the dark and ate cockroaches for food. In early 1917, Panzram helped another inmate, named Otto Hooker, escape from the prison. Hooker later shot and killed Warden Minto when he accidentally ran into the warden in a nearby town. The killing sparked a public outcry, and conditions at the Oregon State Penitentiary became even worse.
Reward poster for Jeff Baldwin
when he escaped from Oregon State Prison
when he escaped from Oregon State Prison
By September 1917, Panzram’s reputation was well known both inside the penitentiary and out. He had made several escape attempts by cutting through the bars in his cell. On September 18, 1917, he finally succeeded and escaped from the prison. He broke into a house in the town of Tangent stealing clothes, food, money and a loaded .38 caliber handgun. A few days later, a local cop recognized Panzram from a wanted poster and tried to arrest him. Panzram pulled out his gun and opened fire on the sheriff’s deputy. “I fired and fought until my gun was empty of bullets and I was empty of courage,” he later said. But he ran out of ammunition and was captured. On the way to the jail, Panzram tried to grab the cop’s gun and a fierce struggle took place inside the police car. The rear windows were kicked out and several shots were fired through the roof as the men battled for the officer’s handgun. Panzram was beaten bloody and unconscious. He was brought back to Salem and dumped into solitary. But not for long.
Incredibly, on May 12, 1918, Panzram escaped from Oregon Prison again. He sawed through the window bars using a hacksaw blade and jumped down off the prison walls. As frantic guards fired hundreds of rounds at the fleeing convict, Panzram made it into the woods and disappeared from sight. He later hopped a freight train heading east and left the Pacific Northwest forever. He changed his name to John O’Leary and shaved his mustache. Slowly, methodically, still burglarizing and burning churches along the way, Panzram headed for the East Coast.
Murder on City Island
The New Haven home of former
President William Howard Taft
located at 113 Whitney Avenue.
President William Howard Taft
located at 113 Whitney Avenue.
In the summer of 1920, Panzram spent a great deal of time in the city of New Haven , Connecticut . He preferred places with activity and lots of people. More people meant more targets, more money and more victims. It also meant the cops were busy; maybe too busy to bother with the likes of him. He went out at night, cruising the city streets looking for an easy mark. If he didn’t mug an unsuspecting drunk or rape a young boy, he would look for a house to burglarize. In August, he found a house located at 113 Whitney Avenue that looked “fat” and ready for the taking. It was an old three-story colonial, the home of an aristocrat, he hoped. He broke in through a window and began to ransack the bedrooms. Inside a spacious den, Panzram found a large amount of jewelry, bonds and a .45 caliber automatic handgun. The name on the bonds was “William H. Taft,” the same man who he thought sentenced him to three years at Leavenworth in 1907. At that time, Taft had been the secretary of war. In 1920, he was the former president of the United States and current professor of law at Yale University in New Haven . After stealing everything he could carry, Panzram escaped through the same window and hit the streets carrying a large bag of loot.
He made his way to the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he sold most of the jewelry and stolen bonds. He later wrote that “out of this robbery I got about $3,000 in cash and kept some of the stuff including the .45 Colt automatic. With that money I bought a yacht, the Akista .” He registered the boat under the name John O’Leary, the alias he used while he was living in the New York area. He sailed the boat up the East River, eastward through the Long Island Sound past the south shore of the Bronx, the City of New Rochelle , Rye and onto the rocky coast of Connecticut . Along the way, he broke into dozens of boats on their moorings, stealing booze, guns, supplies, anything he could get his hands on. One of the boats was the Barbara II , a 50 footer owned by the Marsilliot family from Norfolk , Virginia . He eventually moored the Akista at the New Haven yacht club where he settled in for a time, enjoying the hot weather, drinking prohibition booze and thinking about his next victims.
New Haven CT waterfront
When he visited Manhattan ‘s Lower East Side, Panzram noticed hoards of visiting sailors on shore leave from their ships docked along the East River . He realized many of them were looking for work on outgoing freighters or local boats. This was an era of enormous shipping activity, the age of the ocean liner when international travel was mostly accomplished by sea. As he drifted through the narrow streets of the East Village , he devised a scheme of robbery and murder.
“Then I figured it would be a good plan to hire a few sailors to work for me, get them out to my yacht, get them drunk, commit sodomy on them, rob them and then kill them. This I done.” For several weeks, he went down to the South Street neighborhood and picked out one or two victims. Panzram told them that he had work on board his yacht and needed some deckhands. He promised them anything just to get them on board the Akista , which he anchored off City Island at the foot of Carroll Street . He remained there for the entire summer of 1920.
City Island is a small landmass of about two square miles off the Bronx . In 1920, City Island was a secluded, maritime community of fishing boats, sail manufacturers and residents who tended to their own business. At first, most people paid little attention to “Captain John O’Leary,” the brooding stranger who came on shore only to buy supplies and always seemed to have a new crew each week.
The view from City Island, Bronx,
“Every day or two I would go to New York and hang around 25 South Street and size up the sailors,” Panzram said. When he convinced them to come on board his yacht, they would work for maybe a single day. “We would wine and dine and when they were drunk enough they would go to bed. When they were asleep I would get my .45 Colt automatic, this I stole from Mr. Taft’s home, and blow their brains out.” He then tied a rock onto each body and carried them into his skiff. He rowed east into Long Island Sound near Execution Lighthouse, so named because during the Revolutionary War British troops chained rebel colonists to the rocks there and waited for the rising tide to drown the prisoners. There, not 100 yards from the lighthouse, Panzram dumped his victims into the sea. “There they are yet, ten of ‘em. I worked that racket about three weeks. My boat was full of stolen stuff,” he later wrote. But City Islanders soon grew suspicious of the Akista and its skipper. Panzram realized he had to change venue. He sailed down the coast of New Jersey with his last two passengers until he reached Long Beach Island , where he intended to kill them both. In late August 1920, a huge gale hit and the Akista smashed to pieces against the rocks. Panzram swam to shore and barely escaped with his life.
Execution Lighthouse, built in 1867
on the execution rocks in Long
on the execution rocks in Long
The two sailors made it to the beaches of the Brigantine Inlet just north of Atlantic City . “Where they went I don’t know or care,” Panzram said later. They quickly disappeared into the Jersey farmlands, never realizing how lucky they had been to escape certain death by the bullet of a president’s gun.
Slaughter at Lobito Bay
Stamford Daily Advocate reported the
arrest of John OLeary armed with a
handgun on October 26, 1920.
arrest of John OLeary armed with a
handgun on October 26, 1920.
He eventually got a job with the Sinclair Oil Company as a foreman on an oil-drilling rig. At that time, the American oil industry was involved in an exploratory expedition to search for new sources of oil in Africa . In the coastal town of Luanda , Panzram raped and killed an 11-year-old boy. “A little nigger boy about 11 or 12 years old came bumming around,” he said. Panzram lured the boy back to the Sinclair Oil Company grounds where he sexually assaulted and killed him by bashing his head in with a rock. “I left him there, but first I committed sodomy on him and then I killed him,” Panzram wrote in his confession. “His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him and he will never be any deader.”
After this murder, Panzram went back to Lobito Bay on the Atlantic coast where he lived for several weeks in a fishing village. The locals suspected him of the murder but it could never be proven. Several weeks later, he hired six natives to take him into the jungle to hunt for crocodiles, which brought a hefty price from European speculators in the Congo . The natives later demanded a cut of the profits. They paddled into the jungle, never suspecting what Panzram had on his mind. As they went downriver, Panzram shot and killed all six men. “To some of average intelligence, killing six at once seems an almost impossible feat.It was very much easier for me to kill those six niggers than it was for me to kill only one of the young boys I killed later and some of them were only 11 or 12 years old,” he later said. He shot them all in the back, one by one. While they lay in the bloody canoe, Panzram shot each native again in the back of the head. He then fed the bodies to the hungry crocodiles and rowed back to Lobito Bay . When he docked the boat, he realized he had to get out of the Congo since “dozens of people saw me at Lobito Bay when I hired these men and the canoe.”
He headed north up the Congo River toward a place called Point Banana and eventually made his way to the Gold Coast. He robbed farmers in the local village and got enough money to buy a fare to the Canary Islands . Broke and unable to find anyone worth robbing, he immediately stowed away on a ship to Lisbon , Portugal . But when he arrived in the city, he discovered that the local government knew about his crime spree in Africa and cops were warned to be on the lookout for him. He managed to hide aboard another ship headed for America and by the summer of 1922, he was back on U.S. soil.
Panzram marveled at how easy it was to kill. He imagined himself making a living as a professional hitman who would murder for money. He brought the gun he used in the Congo killings back to the United States with him, even though cops were hot on his trail as he fled Africa . In 1922, he had the gun fitted with a silencer by the Maxim Silent Firearms Co. in Hartford , Connecticut . But when he test fired it later, he found that the weapon still made a great deal of noise, much to his disappointment. “If that heavy calibered pistol and the silencer had only worked as I thought it would, I would have gone into the murder business on a wholesale scale,” he wrote years later.
But his life of crime and mayhem caused Panzram to be continuously on the move. He never lingered in one place very long. He knew the police were forever on his trail, never far behind, always ready to lock him up for some forgotten offense he committed months, even years before. He learned early on to change his name frequently and never confided in anyone the details of his past life. As soon as he committed a crime, Panzram would leave the area quickly, hop a train out of town, stowaway on a freighter, hitch a ride on a passing truck. Always running, looking over his shoulder, waiting for the “screws” to catch up with him, always living with the fear of capture; this was his life. And yet still, knowing he could be minutes away from capture and driven by a hatred most of us can never understand, he killed.
A Killing in Salem
After a few days back in the States, Panzram went to the U.S. Customs office in New York City where he renewed his captain’s license and retrieved the papers for his yacht, the Akista , wrecked on the Jersey shoals two years before. He planned to steal another boat and refit her under the Akista name. He began to search the local boatyards in the New York area and wandered up the Connecticut coast. He soon drifted into the seaport of Providence , Rhode Island , where he still could not find a boat that resembled the Akista . He continued north along Boston Road into Boston and eventually arrived in the town of Salem , Massachusetts , famous for the 17th century witch trials. There, on the hot afternoon of July 18, 1922, he came across a 12-year-old boy walking alone on the west side of town.
“You will find that I have consistently followed one idea through all my life,” he said later, “I preyed upon the weak, the harmless and the unsuspecting.” The boy’s name was George Henry McMahon who lived at 65 Boston Street in Salem . He had spent most of the day in a neighbor’s restaurant until the owner, Mrs. Margaret Lyons, asked George to run an errand.
“About 2:15 I sent him to the A&P store for the milk, giving him fifteen cents,” she later told the court. Little George left the restaurant and walked up Boston Street . About an hour later, another neighbor, Mrs. Margaret Crean, saw George walking up the avenue with a stranger. “In the afternoon of July 18th, while sitting in front of a window in my home, I saw a boy and a man walking up the avenue. The man was dressed in a blue suit and wore a cap,” she said later. That man was Carl Panzram.
“The boy’s name I didn’t know,” Panzram said years later, “He told me he was eleven years old.he was carrying a basket or pail in his hand. He told me he was going to the store to do an errand. He told me his aunt ran this store. I asked him if he would like to earn fifty cents. He said yes.”
Panzram walked with McMahon to the nearby store where inside, he was even brazen enough to speak with the clerk. A few minutes later, Panzram convinced the child to go for a trolley ride. About a mile from where they boarded the car, they exited the trolley in a deserted section of the town.
“I grabbed him by the arm and told him I was going to kill him,” Panzram said in his confession. “I stayed with the boy about three hours. During that time, I committed sodomy on the boy six times, and then I killed him by beating his brains out with a rock.I had stuffed down his throat several sheets of paper out of a magazine.”
He then covered the body up with tree branches and hurried out of town. “I left him lying there with his brains coming out of his ears,” he said. But as he fled the wooded area where he left McMahon’s body, two Salem residents passed by. They took notice of the strange man, who was carrying what appeared to be a newspaper, walking quickly away. He seemed nervous and a little frantic. But the two witnesses continued on their way.
Immediately after the murder, Panzram headed back toward New York . McMahon’s body was found three days later on July 21. The Salem police and the surrounding communities formed posses and detained any strangers they came upon. Several men, including a local pedophile who had attacked several Salem children, were arrested as suspects. The murder was headline news for weeks but it would remain unsolved for many years. Until the day in 1928 when those same two witnesses would see Panzram again while he was in custody for another murder in Washington , D.C.
They would have no trouble identifying him as the man they saw on the sweltering afternoon of July 18, 1922, just yards away from where the battered body of George Henry McMahon was found.
The River Pirate
After he left Salem , Massachusetts , Panzram returned to the Westchester County area and continued to look for a suitable boat. In early 1923, he managed to rent an apartment in Yonkers , New York , using his alias, John O’Leary. He got a job as a watchman at the Abeeco Mill Company at 220 Yonkers Avenue and claimed to have met a boy named George Walosin, 15, while he worked at the mill. “I started to teach him the fine art of sodomy but I found he had been taught all about it and he liked it fine,” he later wrote.
“River Pirate” Panzram is arrested on the morning of June 29, 1923 while his boat is moored off Nyack , NY .
During the early summer of 1923, Panzram made his way back to Providence , Rhode Island where he stole a yawl out of one of the many marinas around the bay. By then, he was an accomplished sailor who had navigated the seas in dozens of countries in all sorts of weather conditions. The boat was a fine craft, 38 feet long and outfitted with all the best equipment. He set sail for Long Island Sound, an area that he knew well and where he felt comfortable. Panzram docked at New Haven for weeks at a time and would go out at night, cruising the streets for victims to rob and rape. Over the next few weeks, he burglarized homes and boats in Connecticut . He stole jewelry, cash, guns and clothes. Off Premium Point in the City of New Rochelle, New York, he broke into a large yacht that was moored a distance off shore. He stole a .38 caliber handgun from the galley and when he checked the papers on board, he found that the Police Commissioner of New Rochelle owned the vessel.
In June 1923, he sailed the yawl up the Hudson River to Yonkers where he docked overnight. There, he picked up George Walosin, and promised the boy that he could work on the yacht during his trip upriver. On Monday, June 25, 1923, the boat cruised out of the Yonkers dock due north, toward Peekskill , and later that night, Panzram sodomized the boy.
They sailed 50 miles upriver to Kingston where Panzram moored the yacht in a small bay off the Hudson River . He quickly repainted the hull and changed the name on the stern. Then he ventured on shore and visited the local hangouts to find a buyer. Soon a young man agreed to come on board to check out the boat. Panzram took the buyer out to the yacht on the night of June 27 where they had a few drinks together. But the man had other things on his mind. “There he tried to stick me up but I was suspicious of his actions and was ready for him,” Panzram said. He shot the man twice in the head, using the same gun that he had stolen from the Police Commissioner’s boat. He then tied a metal weight onto the body and threw the man overboard. “He’s still there yet as far as I know,” Panzram confessed later.
The very next morning, Panzram and his passenger, George Walsoin, who had witnessed the killing, sailed out of the bay heading downriver. They docked that same day in Poughkeepsie . Panzram went on shore and stole a quantity of fishing nets worth more than $1,000. They set sail again and cruised across the river to Newburgh . After the boat dropped anchor, George jumped ship and swam to shore. He eventually made his way back to Yonkers the next day and told the police about being sexually assaulted by Panzram.
Yonkers police alerted all the Hudson River towns to be on the lookout for “Captain John O’Leary” who was sailing a 38-foot yacht downriver. Cops still did not know that the boat was stolen out of Providence . Panzram made it as far as the village of Nyack . He secured the yawl at Peterson’s Boat Yard and bedded down for the night. But Nyack cops were vigilant and on the morning of June 29, 1923, they boarded the yacht and arrested Panzram. He was charged with sodomy, burglary and robbery. The next day, Yonkers Detectives John Fitzpatrick and Charles Ward motored upriver on a municipal ferry to pick him up. He was placed in the Yonkers City jail awaiting court appearance. On his arrest card, “O’Leary” listed his occupation as “seafarer.” He said he was born in Nevada and gave his age as 40.
On the night of July 2, 1923, he tried to break out of the city jail with another prisoner, Fred Federoff. They attempted to pry the window bars out of their frames by digging into the masonry using a part of a bed. They were caught when guards made a routine inspection of their cells. “As a result of an attempt by one of five men in the city prison to break out of jail, John O’Leary, alleged river pirate, is in solitary confinement locked up in a cell,” the Yonkers Statesman reported on July 3.
Panzram then turned to his lawyer for help. “I got a lawyer there, a Mr. Cashin. I told him the boat was worth five or ten thousand dollars and that I would give him the boat and the papers if he got me out of jail,” he said. His attorney arranged for bail and a few days later Panzram was released. He never came back. When Cashin went to register the boat, it was discovered that it was stolen. The police immediately confiscated the yacht and Cashin lost the posted bail. Panzram had conned his own lawyer.
Larchmont was a quiet, well-groomed village on the south shore of Westchester County a few miles from the Connecticut state line. During the 1920s it was famous for its beautiful shoreline and exclusive country clubs where the upper echelon of New York City society would gather on weekends. They could watch the yacht races or shop at village stores, a world away from the frenzied pace of Manhattan ‘s crowded and gritty streets. Panzram had been to Larchmont before. In June 1923, he stole a boat from the Larchmont marina belonging to Dr. Charles Paine. The boat was found a short time later off the coast of New Rochelle ; Panzram lost rudder control and smashed the craft onto the rocks.
On the night of August 26, 1923, Panzram broke into the Larchmont train depot on Chatsworth Avenue . Using an axe he found outside, he shattered a large window and crawled inside. He found dozens of suitcases which belonged to passengers for the next day’s train. As he was rifling through the baggage, a Larchmont cop, Officer Richard Grube, who was making his early morning rounds, happened to come by. “I went around to different windows and I saw him kneeling in front of the stove in this depot with an open trunk in front of him and I covered him with a gun,” Grube told reporters. But Panzram didn’t hesitate. The Portchester Daily Item described what happened next: “John O’Leary, a giant in stature and was armed with a murderous looking axe. The officer immediately grappled with O’Leary and after a fierce struggle in the dark, disarmed him and placed him under arrest.” He was brought to the police station on Boston Road where he identified himself as John O’Leary. After he confessed to previous break-ins, he was charged with three additional burglaries. In village court the next morning, Judge Shafer set bail at $5,000 and remanded Panzram to county jail pending grand jury action.
As he sat in the village jail, Panzram told cops he was an escaped prisoner from Oregon where he was serving a 17-year sentence for shooting a police officer. Panzram said a lot of things. Maybe too many. Some cops called him a “chiseler,” a man who admits to crimes he didn’t commit so he will be moved somewhere else.
Larchmont police sent telegrams of inquiry to Oregon . On August 29, Larchmont Police Chief William Hynes received this reply from Warden Johnson Smith of the Oregon State Penitentiary: “Jeff Baldwin is wanted very badly in Oregon his was a noted case that attracted considerable attention all over the Pacific Coast and we are very anxious to send an officer for him at the earliest possible moment.” Panzram was known as “Jeff Baldwin” in Oregon and still had more than 14 years left on his sentence. There was even a $500 reward for his capture, which Panzram tried to collect for his own arrest. “O’Leary told the police here that since he volunteered all the information as to his escape from prison, he wished to claim the $500 himself,” The Standard Star reported.
Panzram realized that his future prospects were limited. He knew that Oregon wanted him badly, and he either had to escape or face decades in prison. During his recent trip to the city of Kingston and the upper Hudson , he had committed numerous burglaries and robberies, some of which were never discovered. While he was held in the Larchmont jail, Panzram wrote a letter to a mysterious “John Romero” in Beacon, New York , which was directly across the river from Newburgh where George Walosin jumped ship. “This will probably be the last you ever hear from me,” he wrote. “I expect to go to jail for the balance of my life so you see I can lose no more. I have never said anything to anyone about you but bear this fact in mind if I should talk and tell what I know, I can and will put you away for a long time.” Panzram demanded Romero send him $50 right away and he would forget “all I know.” He said that the boat was lost but Romero “could still cash in on the Newburgh deal” and he signed the letter “Capt. John K. O’Leary.” The money never arrived and police never found Romero. Panzram remained in custody.
The Trial of Carl Panzram
A few weeks later, he was indicted by the grand jury for the Larchmont burglary. “I at once saw that I could be convicted so I immediately saw the prosecuting attorney and with him made a bargain,” he said later. He cut a deal with the DA’s office in which he would receive a lighter sentence in exchange for a plea of guilty. But it was not to be. “I kept to my side of the bargain but he didn’t. I pleaded guilty and was immediately given the limit of the law, five years. At once I was sent to Sing Sing.” But he didn’t stay long. Men like Panzram, who were hardened criminals and difficult to control, were routinely sent to upstate Clinton Prison, where they were out of the mainstream prison population and at the mercy of an unusual group of guards who had grown accustomed to hostile inmates.
American prisons during the early part of the 20th century were horrifying places to spend even a little time. Conditions at some institutions were worse than bad. They were barbaric. Places like Sing-Sing in New York , Florida ‘s infamous torture camps and Georgia ‘s chain gangs exemplified the widespread abuse in America ‘s prisons. There was no national, unified standard on how to treat, rehabilitate or care for convicts. The concept of punishment and deterrence, though unproven and rarely studied, was widely accepted in the penal system. Most times, it was left up to the wardens to formulate and carry out a workable policy of conduct toward convicts. In some jails, this could be a good thing. In others, it could be very bad. Prisons were the autonomous kingdoms of the wardens, who frequently resorted to beatings, whippings, solitary confinement and even torture to control their prison populations. Such a place was Upstate New York’s Clinton Prison, better known as Dannemora, the hell hole, the place of no-return and America ‘s most brutal, repressive prison institution.
Panzram was taken to Dannemora, just 10 miles from the Canadian border, in October 1923. Like in many other prisons of its time, the guards carried steel-tipped canes that were used to prod and sometimes beat the convicts into submission. Panzram was stripped naked, and whatever possessions he had were confiscated. There was no talking back to these guards and no disrespect from convicts was tolerated. The staff at Dannemora was unique. Many of the guards were related due to several generations of prison employees, mostly French-Canadians, who were raised and still lived in the surrounding area. As a result, their methods of supervision and attitudes toward the convicts were passed on to each successive generation and perpetuated by decades of repression and abuse. Life was brutally hard for the inmates, who worked under the crushing yoke of successive generations of guards. In their view, inmates were animals who deserved the harshest treatment. Many of the prisoners suffered mental breakdowns. And those who did were simply carted across the courtyard and dumped into the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, whose corridors were filled with deranged, forgotten inmates, lost in a sea of bureaucracy and appalling neglect. It was the last stop before hell.
Within a few weeks, Panzram devised a firebomb to burn down the workshops. But some of the guards found the device and dismantled it. Later, he tried to kill one of the guards by attacking him as he slept in a chair. “I hit him on the back of the head with a 10 pound club,” he said later, “It didn’t kill him but he was good and sick and he left me alone after that.” The work was long, hard and very tedious. The food was greasy slop, unfit for animal consumption. Panzram made his first attempt at escape within a few months. He climbed one of the prison walls and immediately fell 30 feet below onto a concrete step. He broke both legs and ankles. His spine was also badly injured. He received no medical attention for his injuries. He was carried into a cell and dropped on the floor.
“I was dumped into a cell without any medical attention or surgical attention whatever. My broken bones were not set. My ankles and legs were not put into a cast.The doctor never came near me and no one else was allowed to do anything for me.At the end of 14 months of constant agony, I was taken to the hospital where I was operated on for my rupture and one of my testicles were cut out.” But still, he did not change his ways. Shortly after his operation, Panzram was caught committing sodomy on another inmate. He was thrown into solitary where he was virtually ignored by prison staff:”I suffered more agony for many months. Always in pain, never a civil answer from anyone, always a snarl or a curse or a lying, hypocritical promise which was never kept. Crawling around like a snake with a broken back, seething with hatred and a lust for revenge, five years of this kind of life. The last two years and four months confined in isolation with nothing to do except brood.I hated everybody I saw.”
He began to make elaborate plans on how to kill as many people as he could. He wanted to blow up a railroad tunnel while a train was passing through and send poison gas into the wreck. He wanted to dynamite a bridge in New York and then rob the dead and injured as they lay dying on the ground. The Panama Canal would suffer the same fate if Panzram had his way. But his most elaborate plan, and the one he was sure would kill the most people, was his plot to poison the water supply and kill everyone in the Village of Dannemora . “I finally thought of a way to kill off the whole town: men, women, children, and even the cats and dogs,” he wrote later. He wanted to drop a large quantity of arsenic into a stream that fed into a reservoir.
In July 1928, after serving five long, hard years, Panzram was discharged from Dannemora. Permanently crippled by lack of medical attention and lost in the depths of madness, he was sent out into an unsuspecting world again.
After his release, Panzram was consumed by revenge for the way he was treated at Dannemora. Within two weeks, he committed a dozen burglaries and killed at least one man during a robbery in Baltimore . By the time he was arrested and delivered to the Washington , D.C. , jail, Panzram was a fearsome sight. He stood 6 feet tall, 200 pounds of muscle, meanness and a burning hatred for everything human. He had a large tattoo of a boat’s anchor on his left forearm, another anchor with an eagle and the head of a Chinese man on his right forearm, and two eagles on his massive chest with the words ” LIBERTY and JUSTICE” tattooed underneath their wings. His eyes were steel gray and he wore a thick, black mustache that covered his top lip giving his face the appearance of a perpetual sneer. At booking, he gave his real name for the first time in years.
During his first few days in the D.C. jail, he made several remarks about killing children, which were noticed by guards. Inquiries were made in other states, and word came back from several jurisdictions that he was a hunted man.
At the Washington , D.C. , jail at this time was a 26-year-old rookie guard, the son of a Jewish immigrant, who was hired that year. His name was Henry Lesser. As Panzram was processed through the booking procedure, Lesser asked him what his crime was.
“What I do is reform people,” said Panzram without a smile. Over the next few weeks, the young guard took notice of the odd looking man who rarely talked to anyone. Never one to stay in one place for very long, Panzram attempted to escape by slowly chipping away at the concrete surrounding the metal bars in his cell window. But one of the other prisoners informed the warden. Panzram was removed from his cell and brought to an isolated area. He was handcuffed around a thick wooden pole and a rope was tied to his handcuffs. The guards then hoisted him up so that just his toes were touching the ground and his arms were lifted beyond his shoulders. He was left this way for a day and a half. He cursed his own parents for giving him life and screamed that he would kill everyone if given the chance. The guards beat him until he was unconscious and left him tied to the post all night. At some time during that night, Panzram admitted to the murders of several young boys and told the guards how much he enjoyed it.
Soon the word got out and the press caught onto the story of a sadistic killer in the local jail who was confessing to lots of murders. The Washington Post reported on October 28, 1928, that Panzram confessed to the murder of 14-year old Alexander Luszzock, a Philadelphia newsboy last August and also that of 12-year-old Henry McMahon of New Salem, Connecticut. Each day that went by, Panzram told more and more. “If that ain’t enough,” he said, “I’ll give you plenty more. I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen everything but hell and I guess I’ll see that soon.”
For some reason, prison guard Henry Lesser took pity on the angry man whom everyone else hated. He befriended Panzram by giving him a dollar to buy cigarettes and extra food. This act of kindness meant a great deal to Panzram, for he was unaccustomed to even the smallest gesture of compassion. The two men became friends and confided in one another. Soon, Panzram agreed to write his life story for Lesser. And so, over the next few weeks, while Lesser supplied pencil and paper, Panzram wrote down the details of his twisted life of hate, depravity and murder.
Renowned psychologist Dr. Karl Menninger later said the manuscript “proceeds to an unflinching self-analysis in which the prisoner spares neither himself nor society.No one can read this manuscript in its entirety without an emotional thrill.” Beginning on the farm in rural Minnesota where he was born, Panzram told the brutal story of his life. From the time he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School at Red Wing in 1903 until the time he arrived at the Washington , D.C. , jail, there were thousands of crimes, dozens of murders and a life spent in single-minded pursuit of destruction.
“All my associates,” he said, “all of my surroundings, the atmosphere of deceit, treachery, brutality, degeneracy, hypocrisy, and everything that is bad and nothing that is good. Why am I what I am? I’ll tell you why. I did not make myself what I am. Others had the making of me.”
In this extraordinary 20,000-word confession, Panzram gave details of his murders, which were later confirmed with local authorities. He supplied dates, times and the places where the crimes occurred as well as his arrest history, which was extensive. Of course, during the period 1900-1930, communications between law enforcement agencies were not as sophisticated as they are today. Criminals were frequently able to avoid arrest warrants by simply changing names and keeping their mouths shut. Panzram learned this trick early in his career and was arrested under several names including, Jefferson Baldwin (1915), Jeffrey Rhodes (1919), John King (1920) and John O’Leary (1923).
But it wasn’t only his life he wrote about. Panzram had some opinions on the criminal justice system and the power of society over the individual. “All of your police, judges, lawyers, wardens, doctors, National Crime Commissions and writers have combined to find out and remedy the cause and effect of crime,” he said. “With all this knowledge and power at their command, they have accomplished nothing except to make conditions worse instead of better.” He blamed crime on society, which he said perpetuates itself by producing more criminals. “I am 36 years old and have been a criminal all my life,” he wrote, “I have 11 felony convictions against me. I have served 20 years of my life in jails, reform schools and prisons. I know why I am a criminal.” He laid the blame for his violent life on those who tortured and punished him. “Might makes right” was the only rule he ever learned and he carried that belief with him wherever he went. “In my lifetime I have broken every law that was ever made by both man and God,” he said, “If either had made any more, I should very cheerfully have broken them also.”
In page after page, Panzram described his odyssey of killing and rape, which spanned several continents. For none of it was he ever sorry. Panzram was never inhibited by feelings of guilt or remorse. He saw crime and violence as a way of getting back at the world. It didn’t matter that the people he victimized had not caused his own pain. Someone, anyone, had to pay.
Panzram, ever the outlaw, could never acclimate to a prison environment. Despite his many years in jails across the country, he was unable to conform to institutional rules or obey staff commands. Even with the knowledge that physical torture would frequently be the result of such infractions, Panzram was uncooperative and violent. After his escape attempt and subsequent handcuffing to a post, he assaulted three guards when he was removed from his cell upon which “it was necessary to strike him with a blackjack in defense of the three officers.” Again he was handcuffed to the post. As a result the reporting officer wrote: “this prisoner called the Captain of the Watch a ‘God damned son of a bitch’ and stated he would like to knock the Captain in the back of the head.” More punishment followed. But the slow and massive wheels of justice were turning.
Later that same month on October 29, an arrest warrant for Panzram arrived at the D.C. jail. It was a murder indictment from Philadelphia charging Panzram “with homicide on an Alexander Uszacke, by strangling and choking on July 26, 1928, at Point House Road .”
Salem Police Department in the State of Massachusetts also learned about Panzram’s arrest and his extensive confession. During his stay at the Washington , D.C. , jail, Salem police brought the two witnesses from the George Henry McMahon killing in 1922 to look at Panzram. Both witnesses positively identified Panzram as the person they saw on the night 12-year-old McMahon was killed. Oregon State Penitentiary contacted Washington police and asked that Panzram be held as an escapee who still owed 14 years on his original sentence at their prison.
By early 1929, Panzram must have finally realized that he would never get out of jail this time. He wrote a letter to District Attorney Clark in Salem , Massachusetts , about the McMahon killing. In this shocking letter Panzram repeated his admissions regarding the murder: ”I made a full confession of this murder of McMahon.You sent a number of witnesses from Salem to identify me, which they done. I do not change my former confession in any way. I committed that murder. I alone am guilty. I not only committed that murder but 21 besides and I assure you here and now that if I ever get free and have the opportunity I shall sure knock off another 22!”
His trial for the burglary and house breaking charges opened on November 12, 1928. Panzram foolishly acted as his own attorney and frequently terrified the nine-man, three-female jury with his unpredictable, combative behavior. When a witness, Joseph Czerwinksi of Baltimore testified against him, Panzram rose to ask a question.
“Do you know me?” he said as he moved to within inches of the man’s face. “Take a good look at me!” he whispered. As the frightened witness looked into those steel gray eyes, Panzram dragged his fingers across his neck giving the sign of a slit throat. The message was clear: “This is what will happen to you!”
The Death of Carl Panzram
At the end of the trial, Panzram took the stand and not only admitted to the burglary but told the court that he intentionally remained in the house for several hours hoping the owners would come home so he could kill them. On November 12, 1928, he was found guilty on all counts. Judge Walter McCoy sentenced him to 15 years on the first count and 10 years on the second to run consecutively. Panzram would have to serve 25 years back at the Federal Prison in Leavenworth , Kansas . When he heard the sentence, Panzram’s face broke into a wide, evil grin.
“Visit me!” he said to the judge.
On the day he arrived at Leavenworth , February 1, 1929, Panzram was brought in to see Warden T. B. White. Bound in chains, his bulging muscles apparent even under his prison shirt, Panzram was still an impressive physical specimen. He had a brooding presence; an aura of evil that warned people to stay away from him. As the warden read him the rules of the institution, Panzram stood quietly in front of the desk with an attitude of indifference. When the warden finished, the prisoner looked him squarely in the eye and said, “I’ll kill the first man that bothers me.” The warden called for the guards and had Panzram, inmate #31614, removed to his cell.
Panzram was considered too psychotic to mix with the general prison population. In a handwritten letter to the warden dated March 26, 1929, Panzram asked for a different work detail and wrote: “I want that job because I am doing a long time and I am an old crank and I want to be by myself. I am a cripple and the job I have now I don’t like, standing on my broken ankles bothers me. I am very truly, Carl Panzram #31614″.
He was assigned to the laundry room where he could work all day alone, sorting and washing inmate clothes. There he could withdraw into himself and have little contact with humans. His supervisor was Robert Warnke, a small, balding man who was notorious for writing up prisoners for minor infractions. Transgressions against the rules were a serious matter at Leavenworth . Punishment included solitary, revocation of concession and library privileges and sometimes torture. Warnke, a civilian employee, and therefore not under the same pressures as the inmates, used his supervisory position to wield power. From the beginning, Panzram had trouble with Warnke. On several occasions, Panzram was written up for infractions, which caused him to be sent to solitary for a time. When he was last released from the hole, Panzram told other prisoners to stay away from Warnke because he was going to die soon. When he next wrote his friend Lesser, he said a new job was in the works. “I am getting all set for a change,” he wrote. “It won’t be long now.”
On June 20, 1929, Panzram was working in the laundry at his usual detail. Leaning against the door was a four-foot long iron bar used as a support for the wooden transport crates. Without a word, he picked up the heavy bar and approached Warnke, who was preparing paperwork. Panzram raised the bar high over his broad shoulders and brought it down squarely on the man’s head. Warnke’s skull broke instantly. “Here’s another one for you, you son of a bitch!” he screamed. As the victim fell to the ground, Panzram smashed the bar continuously on the man’s head sending blood and bone matter all over the room. There were other inmates in the laundry that day, and they stood back and watched in horror as Panzram beat Warnke. The men tried to escape, but Panzram decided that since he killed one man, he should kill the others as well. He attacked one of the inmates in the corner of the room and managed to break the man’s arm before he could run away. The other inmates tried desperately to get out of the room but the doors were locked. All the men began to scream for help as Panzram chased them around the room, shouting, cursing, swinging the huge iron bar, smashing bones, desks, lights, breaking up the furniture into pieces and sending the terrified inmates crawling up the walls to get away from the raging madman.
A general alarm sounded in the prison and dozens of guards armed with submachine guns and high-powered rifles came running to the laundry. The guards looked through the bars into the room and saw the maniacal Panzram, holding the 20-pound steel bar like a baseball bat, his clothes shredded and covered from head to toe with fresh blood.
“I just killed Warnke,” he said to the guards calmly. “Let me in!” They refused until he dropped the bar. “Oh,” he said oddly, “I guess this is my lucky day!” The bar fell noisily to the ground and the guards carefully opened the door. Panzram walked quietly to his cell without saying a word and sat down on his bunk.
By the time his trial began, Panzram was well known in law enforcement circles, and rumors of his lust for raping and killing children were widespread. His story had already appeared in dozens of newspapers, including the Topeka Times , The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer . In March 1929, he wrote a letter to the deputy warden: “I understand there are a number of charges against me. Several for murder and one for being an escaped convict from Oregon . Will you please let me know how many warrants there are against me, where they are from and what charges?” On April 16, 1930, the Chicago Evening American reported: “Despite the fact he boasted of killing twenty-three persons — that he would like to kill thousands and then commit suicide — Panzram is sane to the extent that he knows right from wrong.” Authorities in Salem , Philadelphia and New Haven were actively preparing criminal cases against Panzram while he remained in solitary at Leavenworth .
Throughout this period, Panzram kept up his correspondence with Lesser and wrote a series of letters about his life in Leavenworth . He complained often about the lack of reading material but praised the quality of food. He said that being in prison made him feel more “human” and less like the animal he thought he was. When he arrived at Leavenworth , he figured he would be beaten and abused anyway so he decided that he wouldn’t be beaten for nothing. He immediately tried to escape and was caught. He became hostile and uncooperative to the guards. However, this time, there were no beatings. “No one lays a hand on me. No one abuses me in any way.I have been trying to figure it out and I have come to the conclusion that, if in the beginning I had been treated as I am now, then there wouldn’t have been quite so many people.that have been robbed, raped and killed,” he wrote.
When the trial began on April 14, 1930, for Warnke’s murder, Panzram was defiant and uncooperative. He limped into the courtroom at 9:30 a.m. His awkward gait was the life-long reminder of his “medical treatment” years before in the dungeons of Dannemora.
“Have you an attorney?” asked Judge Hopkins on the morning of opening testimony.
“No, and I don’t want one!” answered Panzram. Hopkins went on to advise the defendant that he had a constitutional right to representation and should use the services of an attorney, who would be appointed to him for free. Panzram replied by cursing the judge loudly. When asked for a plea, he stood and sneered at the court.
“I plead not guilty! Now you go ahead and prove me guilty, understand?” he said. The prosecutor called a parade of witnesses . Appearing were Warden T.B. White, who also brought the murder weapon to court, five Leavenworth guards and 10 prisoners. Several prisoners testified they saw Panzram smash the skull of his helpless victim with an iron bar repeatedly while Warnke lay unconscious on the prison floor. Throughout the testimony, Panzram sat in his chair smiling at the witnesses. The jury took just 45 minutes to arrive at a verdict. To the surprise of no one, Panzram was found guilty of murder with no recommendation for mercy. Hopkins remanded him back to Leavenworth until “the fifth day of September, nineteen thirty, when between the hours of six to nine o’clock in the morning you shall be taken to some suitable place within the confines of the penitentiary and hanged by the neck until dead.” Panzram seemed relieved, almost happy. A huge grin came across his face as he slowly rose up from his chair.
“I certainly want to thank you, judge, just let me get my fingers around your neck for 60 seconds and you’ll never sit on another bench as judge!” he said to a shocked audience. Panzram stood erect, his shirt unbuttoned from the collar down, partially exposing the massive tattoo on his broad chest, his powerful arms strained against the iron handcuffs as his face contorted into a twisted sneer. U. S. Marshals surrounded Panzram, while he cursed the jury, and dragged him out of the courtroom. When the jury filed out of the box, they could hear his maniacal laughter reverberating off the sterile walls.
During the 1920s, a family of enlightened educators and intellectuals, led by Dr. Karl Menninger, a Harvard graduate and one of the pioneers of modern psychology, were building a clinical dynasty in Topeka , Kansas . Menninger was fascinated with Sigmund Freud’s concepts of psychoanalysis. By 1930, he was already involved in research on the subject when he learned of Panzram’s case and his consuming hatred for humanity. During the trial, the court requested Menninger’s assessment of the defendant’s sanity. On the morning of April 15, in a small office inside the courthouse in Topeka , a meeting between the two men was arranged under court supervision.
Panzram was brought into the room at 8:30 a.m. Thick, heavy chains were wrapped around his arms and hands, a stiff iron bar clasped to each ankle. He was only able to walk a half-step at a time. Three federal guards encircled the prisoner. Panzram sat down in the chair, scowling, and stared at Dr. Menninger.
“Good morning, Mr. Panzram,” said Dr. Menninger. The prisoner huffed at the doctor and turned his head without saying a word. He glanced around as if to measure his chances of escape, and Dr. Menninger had the feeling that, given the opportunity, Panzram would kill everyone in the room just to get out the door. His chains rattled as he shuffled in his seat and the guards inched a little closer.
“I want to be hanged and I don’t want any interference by you or your filthy kind,” he said. “I just know the more about the world and the essential evil nature of man and don’t play the hypocrite. I am proud of having killed off a few and regret that I didn’t kill more!”
Dr. Menninger tried to get Panzram to talk about his life but he refused and became angrier and more impatient by the minute.
“I am saying I am responsible and I am guilty and the sooner they hang me the better it will be and gladder I will be. So don’t you go trying to interfere with it!” The interview was terminated, and Panzram shuffled out of the room.
The next day, April 16, Menninger wrote a letter to Warden T. B. White. In it he asked to interview Panzram again: “For purely scientific purposes I should like to look into the case of Carl Panzram a little more in detail. His case was an extraordinary one as you know and I am very interested in finding out what the earlier evidences of his mental instability were.”
But Warden White refused further access. To no one’s surprise, Menninger blamed Panzram’s adult hostility on the treatment he received as a child in the Minnesota state reform school at Red Wing. Menninger recognized the psychological damage that had been done to Panzram at an early age and later, when he wrote about the case, said “that the injustices perpetrated upon a child arouse in him unendurable reactions of retaliation which the child must repress and postpone but which sooner or later come out in some form or another, that the wages of sin is death, that murder breeds suicide, that to kill is only to be killed.”
The last person to be legally executed in Kansas before 1930 was William Dickson in 1870. Though others were sentenced to death since Dickson, all of the capital punishment cases were commuted by a succession of governors. State executions were finally abolished in 1907. But the most famous death sentence handed out in the history of the state was to Robert Stroud, the so-called “Birdman of Alcatraz.” He was sentenced to death for the murder of a prison guard on March 26, 1916. Stroud was on death row at Leavenworth with Panzram, and at times the two men conversed. Stroud, like Panzram, was also sullen, maniacally egocentric, a true misanthrope who seldom spoke to anyone, even during his later years at Alcatraz . He spent his time battling the system, filing appeals and making endless demands on prison staff for his research. Both men had little to say to one another but carefully studied the progress of their gallows construction, which was clearly visible outside the cellblock windows. (A pimp in civilian life, who killed one of his prostitute’s customers in 1906 in Juneau, Alaska, Stroud would eventually escape the gallows but remain in prison until he died in 1963.)
For Panzram, the death sentence was a relief and he resisted all attempts to have a stay of execution. “I look forward to a seat in the electric chair or dance at the end of a rope just like some folks do for their wedding night,” he said. Even during the 1930s, there were several national organizations who strenuously objected to the death penalty on moral and ethical grounds. One of these groups, called the Society for the Abolishment of Capital Punishment petitioned the governor’s office for a pardon or a commutation of sentence, a fact that infuriated Panzram. On May 23, he wrote to the society and said: “The only thanks you and your kind will ever get from me for your efforts on my behalf is that I wish you all had one neck and that I had my hands on it. I have no desire whatever to reform myself. My only desire is to reform people who try to reform me, and I believe that the only way to reform people is to kill ‘em!”
On May 30, Panzram wrote another letter to President Herbert Hoover expressing his concerns over a possible change in sentencing. He said that he was “perfectly satisfied with my trial and the sentence. I do not want another trial.I absolutely refuse to accept either a pardon or a commutation should either or the other be offered to me.”
On the cold and dusty morning of Friday, September 5, 1930, Panzram was taken from his cell for the last time at 5:55 a.m. and escorted to the gallows. A handful of newspapermen and a dozen guards acted as witnesses. “Few persons in the assemblage appeared under emotional strain,” one reporter later wrote.
“Here they come!” yelled someone in the crowd.
Panzram’s demeanor was rebellious as always. He cursed his own mother for bringing him into this world and the “whole damned human race!” Escorted by two U.S. Marshals, he walked briskly to the wooden scaffold “with teeth clenched, defiantly facing the crowd of officials, newspaper men and guards gathered in the enclosure.” He climbed the 13 steps to the platform and stood erect as the Marshals attempted to place a black hood over his head. Before they completed their task, Panzram spit in the executioner’s face and snarled: “Hurry up you bastard, I could kill 10 men while you’re fooling around!” After the hood was secured, the Marshals stepped back without delay, and at exactly 6:03 a.m. the trap doors sprung open with a crash. Panzram dropped five and a half feet down. His large body jerked repeatedly and swung from side to side in the sudden silence. He was pronounced dead by Dr. Justin K. Fuller at 6:18 a.m.
The Sunday Star later reported, “A hangman’s noose at Leavenworth , Kansas , this morning snuffed out the life of Carl Panzram, a man who swore he hated all humanity with a consuming passion.” The article described the doomed man’s last few minutes and said he was “the most criminally minded man in America .” Robert Stroud later wrote that Panzram was restless the night before the execution. “All night long that last night he walked the floor of his cell,” he said, “singing a pornographic little song that he had composed himself.”
After Panzram was removed from the gallows, an autopsy was performed at the prison hospital. His body remained unclaimed and later that same day, he was carted over to the prison cemetery in a wheelbarrow. The only identification on his tombstone is the number “31614″.
Panzram had a vivid idea of why he was the way he was. When Dr. Menninger wrote again about his case, he made the following observation: “I have never seen an individual whose destructive impulses were so completely accepted and acknowledged by his conscious ego,” he said in Man Against Himself (1938). Given his early childhood abuses and physical tortures inside America ‘s prisons, it was no surprise to Panzram that he became a criminal. “Is it unnatural that I should have absorbed these things and have become what I am today, a treacherous, degenerate, brutal, human savage, devoid of all decent feeling.without conscience, morals, pity, sympathy, principle or any single good trait? Why am I what I am?” he asked. His writings show a man of some intelligence and introspection, a self-revelation that few killers achieve despite years of reflection in the slow-moving world of today’s Death Row.
Unlike Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, Carl Panzram was not a sexual sadist or a lust murderer in the classical sense. He was simply an unrepentant killer whose motivational factors were surely inflamed by acts of torture and sexual abuse at an early age. Maybe somewhere along the line it could have been different. Maybe he could have been someone other than he was. No one will ever know. But his litany of crimes is truly astonishing. And yet, through the murder and mayhem, it is not impossible to see the faint glow of understanding. Not forgiveness, of course, but just a token acknowledgement of the winds that produced the storm. Maybe he was just a man who gave what he got in life. The relic of a violent era where times were hard and the nation’s prisons were brutal, repressive institutions that taught little except survival.
In 1922, when he was held prisoner at the Washington , D.C. , city jail, detectives questioned Panzram about McMahon’s murder in Salem , Massachusetts . One of the interrogators asked him what was the point of killing a helpless child. Panzram looked up with the cold, dead eyes of a feeding shark.
“I hate all the f***ing human race,” he said, “I get a kick out of murdering people.” It could have been his epitaph. He is buried in row #6, grave #24, forever in the shadow of Leavenworth ‘s ominous prison walls.