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. 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!"
–Carl Panzram May 23 1930 Letter to the Society for the Abolishment of Capital Punishment upon learning of the Societies plans to petition for a commutation of Panzram’s death sentence
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."
His name was Carl Panzram, one of America ‘s most ferocious, unrepentant serial killers. Embittered by years of torture, beatings and sexual abuse both in and out of prison, Panzram evolved into a man who was meanness personified. He hated everyone, including himself. "I was so full of hate that there was no room in me for such feelings as love, pity, kindness or honor or decency," he said, "my only regret is that I wasn’t born dead or not at all." He lived a nomadic existence, committing crimes in Europe, Scotland , the United States , South America and once killed six men in a day in Africa and fed their bodies to hungry crocodiles. He spent most of his chaotic life in prisons where archaic methods of repression included physical tortures that were reminiscent of medieval times.
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!"
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. 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. "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." 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.
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. 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…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.”
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 . His stay was relatively short, murdering another inmate shortly after his arrival and escaping within the year.
With no place to go Panzram lied about his age and joined the army. He quickly found he was not suited to military life either. Caught burglarizing the quarters of a superior and attempting to go AWOL, he was sentenced to the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth. He would not emerge until 1910 at age 19.
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 for vagrancy, burglary, arson and robbery. He escaped from jails in Rusk, Texas, and The Dalles , Oregon . "I burned down old barns, sheds, fences 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."
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 for the next five years through the northwest he continued the cycle of arrest, imprisonment and escape. After a final escape from a prison in Oregon in 1918 he decided to relocate. 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.
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.
In 1921, Panzram served six months in jail in Bridgeport , Connecticut , for burglary and possession of a loaded handgun. When released, he joined a maritime union that was involved in a labor strike. Hard liners in the union got into a brawl with strikebreakers, and Panzram was quickly re-arrested for being involved in a running gun battle with police. He jumped bail and fled the state of Connecticut . A few days later, he stowed away on a ship and landed in Angola , a Portuguese colony on the west coast of Africa .
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, and 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.
After a botched burglary he was sentenced to upstate New York’s Clinton prison in 1923. Better known as Dannemora, this was a place of no-return and America ‘s most brutal, repressive prison institution. 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. 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."
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.
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. 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.
- 01-Kylesa // Tired Climb
- 02-Dr Phibes Burning Illusions // S.A.D.O.S.
- 03-Six Organs Of Admittance // They Fix The Broken Windmill Today
- 04-Tortoise // Glass Museum
- 06-Kossoy Sisters // Banks Of The Ohio
- 07-Daniel Higgs // All Cherished Things
- 08-Gastr Del Sol // Black Horse
- 09-No Age // Life Prowler
Returned to Leavenworth, this time for the last, he was picked over by psychologists while he terrorized and threatened the judges and juries of his final hearings. Murdering a fellow prisoner in 1929 at long last earned him the death penalty. 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.
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."