With the Great Depression in full swing by 1929, Americans of the Depression era were beginning to be accustomed to hardship. However, many more things were going wrong than the economy. This period in time saw an alarming increase in violent crime, and a surprisingly large surge in kidnappings. Parents began to realize, after hearing horror stories in the news about child abductions, that the world was not as safe as they had believed. They began to keep close watch over their children, and became leery of any strangers that came too close. The heartbreaking part of all this is that it took the loss of several innocent children to realize that even old, grandfatherly men can commit monstrous crimes. Many of these children were lost to no other than Albert Fish, the model for Thomas Harris’ famous cannibal from The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector. Albert Fish murdered and tortured countless numbers of children between the years of 1910 and 1928.
Albert Fish was born on May 14th, 1870, in Washington D.C., to a riverboat captain named Randall Fish. When young Albert was five years old, his father died suddenly leaving no money for his wife, and leaving the family in shambles. Mrs. Fish was forced to have Albert put into an orphanage until she could work up the money to bring him home and provide for him. This orphanage was where Fish began his sickening obsession with pain. The boys were regularly beaten mercilessly, and Fish grew to achieve sexual pleasure through the beatings. This passion for masochism would remain with him for the rest of his life, and would ultimately lead to the torture and murder of many innocent, young children.
Fish was married in 1898, and was the father of six children. He never harmed one of them, and worried about them even until his own death. However, when his wife left him for another man in 1917, his masochistic side began to show. He fashioned a paddle out of wood to which he attached several nails, and used this to beat himself until he was bloody and faint. He was at one time seen by his children standing on a hill proclaiming that he was the Christ, and developed an urge to write terribly obscene letters to women he did not know. He developed a habit of inserting needles into very sensitive parts of his body, particularly the groin area, believing that the pain would cleanse him of his sins. Fish also developed a habit of soaking cotton balls in alcohol, inserting them into his body, and igniting them. He was at one time discovered by one of his children, rolled up in a rug on the floor and sleeping. When questioned, he claimed that John the Baptist had told him to do it. But these sick practices were only the surface.
On July 15th, 1924, Francis McDonnell, age seven, was outside in his neighborhood on Staten Island playing with some friends. An elderly man was walking up and down the street, wringing his hands and mumbling to himself, who seemed suspicious to Mrs. McDonnell. After she had gone indoors after nursing her youngest child, the elderly man called Francis into the woods with him. The next day, Francis was found brutally murdered in the woods. His body was literally stumbled upon by three boy scouts, who had volunteered to join in the search for the boy. Francis’ clothes had been torn from his body, and his suspenders were wrapped around his neck, strangling him. His body was covered in long, deep scratches, especially on his face, arms, and torso. It was determined that his death was caused by strangulation and internal hemorrhaging due to a ruptured lung and kidney. No suspect was ever found. The case went unsolved for more than ten years.
On February 11th, 1927, Billy Gaffney, age four, and his playmate Billy Beaton, were playing together in the hallway of their apartment building. Around mid-afternoon, Beaton’s father came into the hall and noticed that Gaffney was not there. When asked where Gaffney had gone, little Billy replied, “The boogey man took him”. Hours later, a trolley conductor named Anthony Barone saw an old man leading a child who was crying for his mother board his trolley. The little boy was wearing no coat or hat, despite it being February and very cold. The old man with the boy had seemed very nervous and very anxious to quiet the child. Barone described the man as being fairly tall, around fifty years old, and not very heavy. He had no idea that he was describing the man responsible for the deaths and disappearances of many children all over the country. Little Billy Gaffney’s body was never found.
On Friday, May 25th, 1928, eighteen-year-old Edward Budd placed an ad in the classified section of the New York World to find a job as a farmhand in the country. When it appeared in the Sunday edition of that paper, Albert Fish was searching the classifieds for his next victim. He was drawn to Budd’s name, and decided to go to his home with the ad and express his interest. On Monday, May 28th, Albert Fish chose the name “Frank Howard” as his newest alias, and invented a false story about a farm that he owned in Farmingdale on Long Island. Edward Budd and his friend, Willie Korman, were both looking for work, and Mr. Howard accepted both of them, but reluctantly. Fish was not sure if he would be able to overpower both boys to kill them. He needed a few days to think things through, and told the boys that he would return the following weekend. Fish knew that his disguise was working perfectly, and that the Budds did not suspect a thing. What he did not know, however, was whether or not he would be able to handle both of the young boys. They seemed very strong, but he decided to attempt the torturing anyway, and began planning. Sunday morning, Fish stopped at a hockshop and purchased what he would later call his “implements of hell.” These were a butcher’s knife, a meat cleaver, and a small handsaw. He wrapped these in a striped canvas sheet, and set off for the Budd home. He stopped along the way to buy some pot cheese and some strawberries to give to the family, and to deposit his bundle of tools with a street vendor.
Edward Budd had received a telegram stating that Mr. Howard would arrive on Sunday. As Mr. Howard began explaining his farm to Edward and his parents, a beautiful little girl with very pale skin, fashionably bobbed brown hair, and huge brown eyes, walked into the room. Howard immediately took a liking to her. He told the Budds that he could not take the boys just then, as he had a birthday party to attend for his niece. He asked if Grace could accompany him, and promised to return her to her parents no later than nine o’clock. The Budds agreed after saying that Grace rarely got out to have fun, as she was a sickly child. Fish gave the address of his niece as 137th Street and Columbus Avenue. The Budds had no idea that this was a false address.
When Grace and “Mr. Howard” did not return by half past nine, Mr. Budd called the police. He described Howard as being around five feet and seven inches tall, around one hundred and thirty-five pounds, and bowlegged, with gray hair and a gray moustache. They gave a very detailed description of Grace, including that she had been wearing a white pearl necklace. The police searched the immediate area of the Budd’s home, but to no avail. Police began searching the area of Farmingdale, Long Island, but none of the residents there had ever heard of Frank Howard. Soon the Budds began to receive prank letters. Many were looked upon as tips, but most were very illegible and illogical, and were disregarded. .
This case, one of the most famous cases of kidnapping in the history of New York City, finally came to a close on December 13th, 1934. For the previous six years, Detective William King had been following and searching for all leads involving the Budd case. Also during these six years, the post office had been keeping an eye out for letters from Albert Fish. A few women had called the post office with complaints that a man had been sending them very obscene letters. Soon thereafter, Mr. And Mrs. Budd received a letter at their home from Fish, claiming to have murdered and eaten their daughter. Obviously very upset by this, and convinced by the nature of the letter, they went immediately to the police. Detective King compared this to a photocopy of the telegram “Frank Howard” had sent to the Budds stating the day he would arrive to take Edward. The handwriting matched perfectly.
An emblem on the back of the envelope from the letter provided another clue. It was a hexagon with the initials of the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association. King called the Association and asked if a Frank Howard had ever worked there, but no one had ever heard of him, and he was on no records. However, a young
man stated that he had taken some of the association’s stationary and left it in his boarding room, and he had since moved out. King went to this boarding house and found the name Albert Fish written in the ledger in the exact same handwriting as on the letter. The owner of the boarding house was holding a check for Fish to pick up, and Detective King was waiting for Fish when he arrived.
On December 13th, 1934, Fish led police and detectives to the place where he had placed the body of Grace Budd. He had immediately confessed to killing her, and openly told the story to Detective King and many others. Each time it was recounted, his story was exactly the same. Fish left the Budd home with Grace, and picked up the bundle containing his “implements of hell” from the street vendor’s cart where he had deposited it. The two then headed for the mysterious Wisteria Cottage in Westchester County, where Fish intended to kill Grace. As Grace played in the wildflowers outside the house, Fish began preparing for her murder. He found a paint can outside, and took this and his tools upstairs to a bedroom in the back of the house. He removed all of his clothing to avoid getting blood on them, and called the little girl upstairs. She became frightened when she saw him naked, and attempted to flee. He attacked her and strangled her to death with his hands, then put her head over the paint can and used the butcher knife to decapitate her.
The paint can served to catch her blood, which was then thrown out the window onto the yard below. Fish then cut the body in two at the navel using the knife and the meat cleaver, and left the cottage. Four days later he returned to the house to dispose of the corpse, which he had left propped behind a door in the bedroom. He threw the corpse outside through the window, and then took it to a rock wall where he left it on the ground. He insisted that he did not rape her, and that he killed her to keep her from being eventually violated by a man. He made mention of eating her flesh in the letter to Mr. And Mrs. Budd, but did not mention this again until his trial, when he admitted to eating parts of Billy Gaffney.
When Fish went with the police to Wisteria Cottage, he pointed out the spot where he had placed Grace’s body. After very little digging, a piece of striped canvas was unearthed. Not far from this, a small skull lacking a jawbone was discovered. This was clearly the skull of a child. Soon thereafter, almost the entire skeleton was recovered. It was placed in a picnic basket, and went with Detective King to police headquarters. A few days later, the pearls from Grace’s necklace were discovered, providing more evidence toward her identification.
Albert Fish later admitted to having committed at least two other murders, and was linked to about ten more. On December 21st, 1934, he admitted to having slain Francis McDonnell. The Gaffney case was re-opened, and Fish admitting to having killed him as well. He had taken the boy to Wisteria Cottage, killed him, mutilated his body after taking some meat off to eat, and thrown his remains in the dumps on Riker Avenue. He also stated that he tortured a Mr. Thomas Bedden and a Negro boy in Georgetown, but didn’t know if they had lived or died. Fish was linked to the especially mysterious case of fifteen-year-old Mary Ellen O’Connor in 1930, and to the disappearance of young Benjamin Collings in 1931, both on Long Island.
After making these accusations and hearing the confessions, officials of the court began to question Fish’s sanity. He had been in mental hospitals before, but only for brief periods of time. He had always been released soon after his admittance on the pretense of being completely sane. As he was usually in the institution for sending obscene letters to women, he was usually dismissed as having an abnormal personality, but nothing more. After being evaluated by many different psychologists and psychiatrists, it was determined that Fish was sane within the definition of the law. This was again questioned when an x-ray showed at least twenty-seven pieces of metal dislodged in Fish’s body, four of which were in his stomach. Fish claimed that this self-torture began after the murder of Grace as a way to cleanse himself of his sins.
Fish pleaded not guilty due to insanity before the Supreme Court on January 8th, 1935. Supreme Court Justice William Bleakley denied the plea, as his sanity was already determined. Fish’s sanity was proven by the fact that he realized that the murders were wrong, and he felt remorse. However, having been deprived of his usual practices of self-torture, Fish began to crave pain. On March 10th, 1935, Fish took a bone from the bowl of soup he was given for dinner, and sharpened it on the floor of his cell. He proceeded to cut himself with it on his chest and abdomen. When apprehended, Fish mumbled incoherently something about needles. This would seem to be a clear sign that the man was insane, but the Court insisted upon his sanity. In the end, Fish would die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison at 11:09pm on January 16th, 1936.
Sources: (mainly) Schechter, Harold. Deranged
. New York: Pocket Books, 1990