Albert Fish was the real life “boogeyman” of every parent’s worst nightmare. He kidnapped young children, viciously murdered them, and ate their flesh.
by Mark Pulham
There was a knock on the door. Delia Budd opened it and found a stranger standing before her.
He was an elderly looking man, with gray hair and a gray droopy moustache. It was around 3:30 p.m., on Monday, May 28, 1928. His name, he told the large woman, was Frank Howard, and he was looking for Edward Budd. He’d come about the advertisement. His watery blue eyes looked at Delia as he held out a copy of yesterday’s edition of the New York World. Delia told him that she was Edward’s mother, and invited him in.
The advertisement he referred to was placed by Edward the previous Friday. It read, “Young man, 18, wishes position in country. Edward Budd, 406 West 15th Street.” It had appeared in the Sunday edition, in the situations wanted column of the classifieds. Now, just one day later, there was a response.
The Budds, seven of them all together, lived in a cramped apartment at the rear of 406 West 15th Street, at the edge of the Chelsea district in Manhattan. In addition to Delia, her husband Albert, and Edward, there was also George, Albert Jr., Grace, and the youngest, Beatrice. Apart from Delia, Beatrice was the only one home that afternoon.
Edward was at his friend’s apartment, so Delia called Beatrice from the bedroom where she was playing, and told the 5-year-old to go down and fetch her brother. As Beatrice passed Mr. Howard, he said she reminded him of his granddaughter, and handed her a nickel for her trouble.
Beatrice returned a short while later with Edward, and his friend, Willie Korman. Both boys were strong and fit. With the boys there, Mr. Howard told them about himself and his farm. He had been an interior decorator for many years, in Washington, D.C. and had done very well for himself.
He was married and had six children, and when his eyesight began to fail, he decided to buy a little farm, a lifelong dream of his. It was in Farmingdale, out on Long Island. His wife, however, hated the country, and she walked out on him, leaving him to raise the children alone. He was proud of his children; one boy was a cadet at West Point.
Now, the farm was successful, with 300 chickens and six dairy cows. There were five farmhands and a Swedish cook. But one of his workers had decided to move on, and he was looking for a replacement. The advertisement appeared at just the right time. Howard looked Edward up and down and nodded approvingly. He hired Edward at $15 a week. Edward asked if there was a job for his friend, Willie. Howard looked at him and said that he could use a big fellow, and hired Willie as well.
Howard pulled a watch from his vest pocket, and announced that he had to leave as he had an appointment in New Jersey. He told the boys that he would be back for them next Saturday, June 2, and that they should pack the oldest clothes they had. When he left, the boys were happy and excited about their prospects.
June 2nd came, and the two boys eagerly awaited their new boss. But, he never came. Instead, late that afternoon, a messenger from Western Union stopped by with a handwritten telegram. It read, “Been over in New Jersey. Call in morning. Frank Howard.” They were disappointed, but it was just one more day.
It was around 11 the next morning when Mr. Howard arrived. In his hand was a small white enamel pail, and inside were some strawberries and some pot cheese. Howard handed the pail to Delia, telling her that they were for her. It was produce from the farm. Mr. Howard met Albert Sr. for the first time. Albert, a porter for the Equitable Life Assurance Company, was a small man, soft spoken, with a blatantly obvious glass eye.
Edward was out with Willie, so they invited Howard to stay for lunch while he waited for Edward to return. Howard casually asked Albert if they still had the telegram that he sent. Albert said they did, it was on the mantelpiece. Howard picked it up and looked at it, then slipped it into his pocket, an odd thing to do thought Albert, then thought no more of it. They sat down to eat.
Kidnapping of Grace Budd
The door to the apartment opened, and in walked Grace. She was a very pretty 10-year-old, dressed for church with a white silk dress and white silk stockings. She wore canvas pumps and there was a string of imitation pearls around her neck.
Howard soon made friends with her. “Lets see how good a counter you are,” said Howard, and pulled from his pocket some coins and an impressive wad of bills. Grace counted the money and announced, “$92.50.” Howard said what a bright girl she was, and gave her fifty cents to buy candy for her sister and herself.
While the two girls were gone, Edward and Willie returned. Howard told them he was sorry for not coming the day before, and he had to disappoint them again for a few hours. He had received a letter from his sister who was throwing a birthday party for one of her children, and he had to attend it. But he would be back after the party and he would collect them both then. He handed the boys $2 and told them to go to the movies.
The boys ate some lunch, and then thanked Howard once more before leaving. By this time, Grace and Beatrice had returned from buying candy. Howard took a quick look at his watch and said that he must be going, and then he paused for a moment, as though a thought had entered his head. He turned to the Budds and asked if Gracie would like to go to the party. There would be lots of other kids and games. He assured them that he would take care of her, and get her home by nine.
The Budds were reluctant, but didn’t want to cause any offense. They gave their permission. “Let the poor kid go.” said Albert, “She don’t see much good times.” They asked Howard where the party was, and he told them his sister lived in a nice building on 137th Street and Columbus Avenue.
Delia helped Grace into her spring coat, with fur trimmed collar and cuffs. A fake pink rose was pinned to her lapel and on her head was a gray hat with blue streamers. A brown leather bag was clutched in her hand. Delia came to the front door and watched the two of them walk away. A few of Gracie’s friends were outside, and when they saw her, they started chanting, “Gracie’s a swell, Gracie’s a swell.” Grace just stuck out her tongue at them. Delia watched the two of them turn a corner, and then she went inside.
Nine o’clock came and went. So did ten and eleven. The Budds spent a sleepless night, worried about Grace and what could have happened to her. Early the next morning, Edward was sent to the West 20th Street stationhouse to report on his sister’s disappearance. Not long after, Lt. Samuel Dribben, and Detectives Jerry Mahar, James McGee, and James Murphy, arrived at the Budds’apartment. The Budds told the police what happened, including how Mr. Howard had pocketed the telegram, a seemingly innocent, though odd, thing to do at the time, but which now took on a more ominous tone. When told the address of the party, Dribben told them that Columbus Avenue ends at 110th Street, the address Howard gave was a fake. Dribben tried his best to comfort the parents.
Meanwhile, while Mahar and McGee made a search of the neighborhood boarding houses, Murphy took Eddie and Willie down to the stationhouse to go through the Rogue’s Gallery. Two more detectives were assigned to the case, one to trace the Western Union message, the other to check records at the Motor Vehicle Bureau for Howard’s name and address. There was no record of Frank Howard.
|Grace Budd kidnap flyer|
There was an extensive search of the Chelsea neighborhood by police and Grace’s older brothers. Cellars, alleyways, empty lots, garages, subway stations, all were searched, but no trace of the little girl was found. The farm was also fictitious, several detectives had tried to trace it, but with no luck. However, Mr. Howard had mentioned New Jersey a couple of times, and there was a town called Farmingdale there as well. Dribben sent Mahar across to New Jersey to investigate. Mahar discovered that 15 years before, there was a man named Frank Howard, who fit the description of Grace’s abductor. He had also owned a chicken farm. Mahar got the name of one of his relatives, Mrs. Birdsall Low, and spoke to her. She was Howard’s niece, and she explained that her uncle owned the farm until 1913, when he moved to Chicago.
Mahar was elated. A chicken farmer, named Frank Howard, in Farmingdale, who matched the description. It had to be the same man. His elation ended almost immediately, when Mrs. Low told him that her uncle had died 10 years before.
News of the abduction broke in the press the next day, bringing with it lots of crank letters for the Budds, and for the police, many reports of strange men seen loitering. One was from the Budds’ neighbor, Juliette Smith, who reported an old man attempting to lure Arthur, her 10-year-old son, into a tenement hallway. Police responded immediately, and arrested 59-year-old Joseph Slowey. He admitted to approaching Arthur, but clearly knew nothing about the Budd disappearance.
More reports came in, and each one checked before being dismissed. One report added a new dimension to the case. Loretta Adaboy, Jimmy Kenny, George Barrins, and Phillip Gully, the neighborhood kids who called to Grace as she left, said that a second man was involved. When “Howard” and Grace reached the corner, a car was waiting for them, a blue sedan, spattered with mud, with yellow Pennsylvania licence plates. Margaret Day, a teenager who worked at a candy store, confirmed what the kids said.
The next day, another person was added, this time a woman. Mrs. Harold DeMille, a mother in Brooklyn, told how on the day of Grace’s disappearance, a man matching the description of Frank Howard, along with another man and a woman, tried to snatch her 4-year-old son, Desmond.
The police were worried, fearing that a gang of child-snatchers was on the loose.
The Search for Grace Budd
By Thursday, June 7, 1,000 circulars had been sent out to police throughout the United States and Canada. Along with photographs of Grace, they contained detailed descriptions of both victim and abductor. Several thousand more were posted around New York City by the middle of the following week, producing the inevitable flood of false sightings, each of which had to be investigated. Any elderly man out with his grandchild found himself under suspicion from the public.
The New York Daily News had placed a “Notice to Telegraphers” in the paper, which led to the source of the telegram that Howard sent to the Budds. The Western Union office was at 103rd Street and 3rd Avenue. An extensive search of the neighborhood surrounding that address was made, and detectives turned up Reuben Rosoff. He owned a cart located at 100th Street and 2nd Avenue, from which he peddled goods, including small white enamel pails. He identified the pail that Howard had given the Budds as the one he sold.
Police believed that Frank Howard either lived in the area, or at least was very familiar with it. Once again, there was an intensive search. Rooming houses, restaurants, newsstands, barber shops, all were searched, along with any other place where Howard may have been known. Nothing turned up.
By this time, Dribben feared that little Grace Budd was not going to be found alive, if she was found at all.
What made the Budd kidnapping unusual was the type of victim. The Budds never received a ransom note, and even if they had, they could not pay it. They were poor. Kidnappings were usually restricted to the rich or the famous, those who could afford to pay a ransom. But the Budds couldn’t. It didn’t make sense. But it was not the only case of its kind.
The “Boogeyman” Kidnaps Billy Gaffney
Just over a year before, on Friday, February 11, 1927, the New York Times top stories were about Thomas Edison’s 80th birthday; a demonstration of the first sound picture at Manhattan’s Rivoli Theater; and a police raid on three Broadway shows for immorality, including one called “SEX,” written by and starring 34-year-old Mae West. In a rundown tenement at 99 15th Street, Brooklyn, lived the Gaffney family, in a small apartment on the second floor.
Late that Friday afternoon, 4-year-old Billy Gaffney played in the hallway outside his apartment, along with his friend, 3-year-old Billy Beaton. Johnny McNiff, a 12-year-old who lived upstairs, joined them for a while, but then his little sister, who he was looking after, began crying, and he ran upstairs to comfort her.
He came back three minutes later, but the two boys were gone. Mr. Beaton appeared and asked where the boys were, and when Johnny told him he didn’t know, alarm set in. They went to the Gaffney apartment, but the boys were not there, then they searched outside. Again, there was no sign. Finally, on the top floor, they found Billy Beaton. He told them he’d been up on the roof. Sure enough, the wooden hatch was open, but it couldn’t have been the boys who opened it, it must have been an adult.
When he was asked where his friend Billy Gaffney was, Billy Beaton replied, “The boogeyman took him.” The police dismissed this, thinking that Billy Gaffney may have wandered into one of the many factory buildings in the area, or in the worst instance, had fallen into the nearby Gowanus Canal. Although the canal was dredged, there was no sign of the little boy. The search for Billy Gaffney became one of the most intensive in New York history. Days, then weeks, passed, and there was no trace of the little blue-eyed boy.
Billy Beaton, by this time, had given a better description of the “boogeyman,” but police were sceptical. Why would anyone kidnap a child from a family that is so poor? As Inspector John J. Sullivan of the Missing Persons Bureau prophetically stated, “There is no reason why anyone should want to take this child. The kidnapper would have to be deranged.”
Then, a new lead came in. Anthony Barrone, a conductor on a trolley car, told the police what he’d witnessed on the evening of Billy Gaffney’s disappearance. At around 7 p.m., a man boarded the car at Prospect and Hamilton Avenues, just blocks from the Gaffney apartment. With him was a small boy who matched Billy’s description. They were noticeable because the small child cried continuously. They got off and were last seen hurrying along Sackett Street. Joseph Meehan, the trolley motorman, confirmed Barrone’s story.
The press reports were lurid and sensational, and led to attacks on anyone the public suspected of being the kidnappers, including two men, Louis Sandman and Samuel Bimberg, both pederasts, who were caught leading their victims into darkened tenements. Police managed to save them before an angry crowd killed them. They were not linked to Billy’s disappearance.
News reports eventually vanished from the papers, replaced by other news. A year later, the Budd case was never connected to the Gaffney disappearance, despite the fact that Anthony Barrone, Joseph Meehan, and Billy Beaton all gave descriptions of the “boogeyman” that matched that of Frank Howard.
Two False Indictments in the Grace Budd Case
The summer of 1928 was blazingly hot, sometimes fatally. Six people died on just one day, Monday July 9th. But the Budd case just got colder. It had vanished from the newspapers by June’s end, replaced by the exciting aviation news that Amelia Earhardt had become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and the dramatic news that the dirigible Italia had crashed in the arctic while carrying aviation pioneer Umberto Nobile. With a rescue underway, there came the tragic news that Roald Amundsen, the man who discovered the South Pole, had vanished in his seaplane while searching for the Italia.
But then, another break in the Budd case emerged. J. S. Blitch, a prison warden, recognized the description of Frank Howard. It was Albert E. Corthell, a con man who had been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. Corthell often used preadolescent girls to pose as his daughters during a con, to give him an air of respectability. If Corthell was Frank Howard, it would explain the kidnapping. He was using Grace as a “daughter.” Blitch contacted the authorities.
Around the same time, William L. Vetter, the assistant superintendant of the Brooklyn branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, also contacted the police. A few days before Grace was kidnapped, a man came to the Society and tried to adopt a 6-year-old girl. Vetter was suspicious, and made a second appointment with the man, but he never came back. The description matched that of Frank Howard. It didn’t occur to Vetter that there was a connection until now.
Vetter was brought to the police station and went through the Rogue’s Gallery and found the man who had come to adopt the girl. It was Albert Corthell. The Budds were also brought in and shown the photograph of Corthell. Though most couldn’t be quite sure, there was no doubt in Delia’s mind. That was the man who had taken Gracie.
On August 3, Albert Corthell was indicted by a grand jury and a warrant issued for his arrest. The Budds and the police had renewed hope that Grace was alive. Corthell was a con man, not a killer. There was every chance that he was using Grace to pose as his daughter.
But Corthell was not easy to trace, and two years passed. By now, the lead investigator in the Budd case was Detective Lieutenant William F. King. A cop since 1907, King fit the ideal image of a police detective, he was tough, determined, and tenacious.
In September 1930, a second suspect joined Corthell. Jessie Pope informed the police that her estranged husband, Charles Edward Pope, was responsible for the Grace Budd abduction. He was a 67-year-old janitor, and bore a remarkable resemblance to the description of Mr. Howard. Jessie told the police that on the day of Grace’s disappearance, she had to meet with her husband, and when she did, he had a young girl with him. Pope had asked her to look after the child, but she refused. Jessie was ill for several months after this, and didn’t pay much attention to what was going on in the news.
However, a recent arrest in the case, that of Charles Howard, who turned out not to have anything to do with the kidnapping, had brought the incident with her husband back to her. Jessie had met with Delia Budd, and when she saw the photograph of Grace, she identified her as the girl who was with Pope.
Charles Pope was arrested and placed in a line-up. Delia Budd picked him out with no problem. “That’s the man who stole my Gracie.” she declared. The next morning, the news was all across the front pages. “BUDD KIDNAP SUSPECT CAPTURED AFTER TWO YEARS!”
Pope protested his innocence, saying that his wife just wanted to get her hands on his money, and had once had him committed to a mental institution for a couple of months. King investigated, and Pope’s story was confirmed. Pope was beginning to look less like a suspect, and more like a victim of a vindictive and grasping woman. But before Pope could be cleared, things took a turn for the worse.
It turned out that Pope owned a farm in the Catskills, and just to be thorough, it was searched. In the garage the police found some trunks, and inside was some deep brown hair tied with a ribbon. The length, texture, and color suggested they came from a young girl. Also found were some white childs stockings, their heels darned, which, according to Mrs. Budd’s testimony, were similar to those worn by her daughter the day she went missing. The police also found letters covering the years 1891 to 1929, with one year suspiciously missing – 1928. Pope was back to being a serious suspect.
On September 11, 1930, Pope’s preliminary hearing took place, and it was clear that Jessie Pope was a very unconvincing witness. Under questioning from Pope’s lawyer, she admitted that she had schemed to get his money, and her recollection of what the child was wearing when she had met her husband did not fit with what Grace was actually wearing at the time. Delia Budd’s testimony was also dubious. She acknowledged that the stockings found at the farm were not like those worn by Grace, and she also acknowledged that Jessie Pope had visited her before she came down and picked Pope out of the line-up, and on that visit, Jessie gave a highly detailed description of her husband.
As for the physical evidence put forth, Pope had a perfectly reasonable explanation. The clothing was hand-me-downs from Pope’s tenants, given to him to pass on to his son, who had five children. The hair, which turned out to be longer and wavier than Grace’s, was his son’s, clipped off when he was young and saved as a keepsake.
But, despite the credibility of Pope’s story, and the lack of credibility of his wife and Delia Budd, Pope was held for a grand jury on a continuing bail of $25,000. Unable to raise the money, he was returned to the Tombs and his trial set for December.
Two weeks before the trial, Albert Corthell was captured, arrested in St. Louis masquerading under the name J. W. West. On Monday, December 8, Delia and Albert Budd picked him out of a line-up. The police now had two suspects.
Pope’s trial began on December 22, and ended very swiftly. Delia Budd was called as the first witness, and she retracted her statement that he was the man who took Grace, telling the court that Jessie had persuaded her of his guilt. Albert Budd and Willie Korman both denied that he was the man who posed as Frank Howard. But Jessie persisted in her accusation, only to have Pope’s lawyer establish that she had been hounding him for years. Judge William Allen directed the jury to return a verdict of “Not Guilty.” Pope was a free man – after spending three and a half months in jail.
With one, not very serious, suspect down, the police concentrated on Corthell. But though he may have been a con man, they could not link him to the Budd case, and Delia now could not positively identify him. Corthell was released on February 6, 1931. The police were devastated. They were now back to square one. No leads, no suspects.
A Kidnapping Epidemic
By 1933, kidnapping had become a nationwide epidemic. The New York Times ran a regular front page feature called “The Kidnapping Situation” with updates on ransoms, victim identification, as well as how Roosevelt’s war against kidnappers, which he had declared earlier that month, was progressing. In July alone, the column reported on more than a dozen cases, all highly publicized.
The most notorious case, the one that brought the growing problem to the attention of the public, occurred the previous year. On the evening of March 1, 1932, while the parents were in their living room chatting, they heard a cracking noise outside. They listened for a few moments, but the noise was not repeated. Around 10 p.m., the nursemaid went to check on the baby, and found that he was missing. An envelope was found, with a note demanding $50,000 for the child’s return.
The father of the child was Charles Lindbergh.
So shocking was the kidnap that President Hoover issued a statement about it, and Al Capone, in jail for income tax evasion, offered a reward of $10,000. It was to no avail. After weeks of false hopes and after the ransom had been paid, the 20-month-old child was found on May 12, dead, in woods less than five miles from where he had been taken.
Just a few days after the Lindbergh kidnapping, on March 6, an article appeared in the New York Times. Written by R. L. Duffus and entitled “Kidnapping: A Rising Menace to the Nation,” it was illustrated with photographs of four kidnap victims. One of them was Grace Budd. But she was significantly different from the other three. They had all been returned to their families after a ransom had been paid. Grace, after almost four years, was still missing.
Another Dead End
On Thursday, May 30, 1934, the entire U.S. Naval fleet sailed into New York Harbour, in a display of U.S. Naval might. President Roosevelt proudly received them from the deck of the Indianapolis, and New Yorkers turned out by the hundreds of thousands to witness the spectacle. For 18 days, the ships remained, drawing massive crowds. It was a huge attraction, with over 1,400,000 tourists visiting over the two-and--half-week period. The newspapers covered the event thoroughly, with plenty of photographs of the warships, and the sailors enjoying the hospitality of New York City.
On Monday, June 4, a special section of photographs was published in the Daily Mirror. One of the photographs was of two couples, a pair of sailors and their dates. Three of the people in the photograph were looking off to the side, but one, a young girl, was looking directly at the camera. Of the millions of people who saw that photograph, one, Mrs. Adele Miller of Brooklyn, was struck by this young girl.
Convinced of what she saw, she clipped out the photograph and drew an arrow in the margin pointing to the girl, and wrote, “This is the girl, Grace Budd.” She sent the photograph to the Budds. They examined the photograph and agreed the girl certainly bore a remarkable resemblance to Grace. But even under a magnifying glass, no one could be absolutely certain.
Even so, they took the photograph to Detective King. Within twenty-four hours, the newspapers reported that Grace may be alive, and the photograph was reprinted. This new hope was quickly dashed. Sixteen year old Florence Swinney came forward and identified herself as the girl in the photograph. It was just another dead-end – except for one thing. In March 1930, the Budds had moved to cheaper lodgings, at 404 West 15th Street. The newspapers, in their renewed interest in the Budd case, printed the new address in their articles, and among the people who read it was Mr. Howard.
Although officially still open, the case had been given up on by the police, except for William King, who was still actively pursuing the truth. For six years, he had continued, almost obsessively, with the case, travelling over 50,000 miles following rumours, tips, and dead ends. One ruse he used was to place phony news items about the case in the New York papers, not allowing the public to forget. They were long shots, but King was willing to try anything, and they always resulted in responses, albeit ones that never led anywhere.
The famous columnist Walter Winchell was one of King’s main outlets, and on November 2, 1934, the following appeared in Winchell’s “On Broadway” column: “I checked on the Grace Budd mystery. She was eight when she was kidnapped about six years ago. And it is safe to tell you that the Dep’t of Missing Persons will break the case, or they expect to, in four weeks. They are holding a ‘cokie’ now at Randall’s Island, who is said to know most about the crime. Grace is supposed to have been done away with in lime, but another legend is that her skeleton is buried in a local spot. More anon.” The story was a complete fabrication, there was no cocaine addict. But the report would turn out to be prophetic.
A Gruesome Letter from the Boogeyman
Ten days later, on November 12, 1934, the Budds received a letter, mailed the day before from the Grand Central annex post office in Manhattan. Delia Budd, who opened the letter, was illiterate and had trouble reading what it said. She called Edward, who read it in silence, then rushed through the door. By 10:30 that morning, William King had the letter. It read:
My dear Mrs. Budd,
In 1894 a friend of mine shipped as a deck hand on the Steamer Tacoma, Capt. John Davis. They sailed from San Francisco for Hong Kong China. On arriving there he and two others went ashore and got drunk. When they returned the boat was gone. At that time there was a famine in China. Meat of any kind was from $1 to 3 dollars a pound. So great was the suffering among the very poor that all children under 12 were sold to the Butchers to be cut up and sold for food in order to keep others from starving.
A boy or girl under 14 was not safe in the street. You could go in any shop and ask for steak - chops - or stew meat. Part of the naked body of a boy or girl would be brought out and just what you wanted cut from it. A boy or girl’s behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price. John staid there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh.
On his return to N.Y. he stole two boys one 7 one 11. Took them to his home stripped them naked tied them in a closet. Then burned everything they had on. Several times every day and night he spanked them - tortured them - to make their meat good and tender. First he killed the 11 yr old boy, because he had the fattest ass and of course the most meat on it. Every part of his body was Cooked and eaten except head-bones and guts. He was Roasted in the oven (all of his ass), boiled, broiled, fried, stewed.
The little boy was next, went the same way. At that time, I was living at 409 E 100 St., near-right side. He told me so often how good Human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it. On Sunday June the 3-1928 I called on you at 406 W 15 St. Brought you pot cheese - strawberries. We had lunch. Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her.
On the pretense of taking her to a party. You said Yes she could go. I took her to an empty house in Westchester I had already picked out. When we got there, I told her to remain outside. She picked wildflowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and Called her. Then I hid in a closet until she was in the room.
When she saw me all naked she began to cry and tried to run down stairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mamma. First I stripped her naked. How she did kick-bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms, Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body. I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.
The letter was horrifying, but it had an air of authenticity, more coherent than the ravings of most crank letters. Details, such as the pot cheese and strawberries were accurate, but they had been reported in the newspapers at the time of the kidnapping. However, the 100th Street address was not reported, and that was the precise area that the police had concentrated on just after the kidnapping. King got the case file and put the letter next to the Photostat of the Western Union message from Frank Howard. The handwriting matched.
Albert H. Fish, Cannibal
There was nothing in the letter that pointed to where Frank Howard could be found, but the envelope did have a clue. There was the imprint of a hexagonal emblem on the flap of the envelope, with the letters N.Y.P.C.B.A. The address had been scribbled over to try and obliterate it, but King could still make it out, 627 Lexington Avenue. King headed over.
It turned out to be the headquarters of the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association. King asked the president, Arthur Ennis, if there was a member named Frank Howard. Ennis checked – there was not. King asked if he could check the handwritten forms of the members, both past and present. Hopefully, King would be able to match the handwriting to the letter and Western Union message. Ennis handed King a stack of forms, almost four hundred of them.
Back at his office, King began checking the forms, but it was wasted time, none of them matched. King returned the next day and asked Ennis to call an emergency meeting of all the members. At the meeting the next afternoon, King asked the members if they knew of anyone who had removed stationery from the offices. After the meeting, one man came forward. Lee Sicowski, a janitor and part-time errand boy, told King that he took some about six months earlier. At the time, he was living in a rooming house at 200 East 52nd Street, room 7.
King went to the address and spoke to the landlady, Mrs. Frieda Schneider. She said the description of Frank Howard matched one of her lodgers who had moved out only a few days earlier, on November 11, the day the Budd letter was mailed. King was disappointed; he had missed him by days. King asked to see the register and he checked the handwriting. It matched perfectly. The name was Albert H. Fish.
He asked for more information on her lodger, and Mrs. Schneider told him that Fish’s son worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and he sent his pay check to his father each month. She said that Fish was expecting a check quite soon, and then she said something that made King very happy. The check would be sent to Mrs. Schneider’s rooming house, and Fish would come by to pick it up.
Beginning that night, November 14, 1934, a 24- hour-stakeout would be in operation. While his men watched the house, King made other arrangements. He contacted the C.C.C. finance officer and asked to be told when the next pay checks were to be sent out. He also arranged for New York postal inspectors to monitor the mail and keep a look out for anything for Albert H. Fish.
Days passed, and there was no sign of Fish. The detectives were getting worried. On December 3, King received a message from a postal inspector. A letter for Albert Fish had been intercepted. The letter was handed over to King, who began to feel more confident. But Fish still did not appear. King began worrying. Thinking that maybe Fish suspected a stakeout, King withdrew his men.
“I’ve Got You Now!”
On the afternoon of December 13, King got a telephone call. It was Mrs. Schneider. Fish had just shown up at the rooming house. King told Mrs. Schneider to stall him, and then hurried over. Once there, Mrs. Schneider led King into one of the furnished rooms. There, he saw an elderly man with gray hair and a wispy gray moustache sitting at a small table and sipping from a teacup. The man was dressed in a tweed suit jacket and vest, with a shirt and tie, and striped trousers that didn’t match the suit jacket. Draped over the back of the chair was a black overcoat, and a dirty gray fedora lay on the table. This couldn’t possibly be the man he’d been hunting all these years, thought King, he was frail and elderly, barely five and a half feet tall, and weighing about 130 pounds.
“Albert Fish?” asked King. Fish placed the cup and saucer on the table and rose to his feet, nodding. King crossed the room. As he did, Fish pulled a razor blade from his vest pocket and held it in front of him. King grabbed Fish’s wrist and twisted, the blade dropping away from Fish’s fingers. Fish collapsed into the chair. King looked at the old man. “I’ve got you now.” said King in triumph.
The Horrifying Confession
At police headquarters, Fish confessed to writing the letter and the Western Union message, but denied everything else, until King said he would bring in the Budds, Willie Korman, the manager of the Western Union, and Reuben Rosoff. As King headed to the door, Fish stopped him. “Don’t get all those people,” he said in a soft voice. “I’ll tell you about it. I took Grace from her home on the third day of June and brought her to Westchester and killed her that same afternoon.”
The hunt was finally over. What followed was more horrifying than anyone involved could have imagined.
His intended victim was not Grace at all, but Edward. It wasn’t that he knew him. He’d just happened to spot the advertisement. His plan was to take Edward to an abandoned house he knew in Worthington, in Westchester, where he would overpower the boy, tie him up, and then cut off his penis. He was going to leave him there to bleed to death.
His first meeting with Edward was a disappointment. Edward looked like an adult, not exactly what he wanted, and Willie Korman made things a little more complicated. But, he was confident that he could handle both of the boys.
The day after that first meeting, Fish made some purchases from a store called Sobels, a hock shop on 74th Street and 2nd Avenue. There were three items he needed, and once purchased, he took them back to his apartment at 409 East 100th Street. He unwrapped them and put them under the bed.
That Thursday, he decided he wanted to try out his new purchases. There was a young boy he was interested in, 12-year-old Cyril Quinn, with whom he’d been gaining trust with small gifts and candy, and who he’d been planning to kill for a while. Fish saw him playing with a friend, and invited both of them up to his apartment for lunch.
Fish told the boys to wait in the bedroom, and then he began to make sandwiches. The two boys were wrestling with each other, and fell to the floor laughing. Suddenly, the laughter stopped and they were silent. Fish heard the fall and the sudden silence, and knew that they had seen what lay under the bed. Before Fish could stop them, both boys ran from the apartment, with Quinn giving Fish a look of pure fear.
On Sunday, June 3, Fish headed off to the Budds’ home. In one hand was the pail that he had bought the day before from Reuben Rosoff. Under his arm was a bundle wrapped in a length of red and white striped canvas. Inside the bundle were the items he had purchased from Sobels. Fish stopped at a deli and bought the pot cheese which he placed in the pail, then crossed to a fruit stand where he bought a carton of strawberries.
A One-Way Train Ticket for Grace Budd to Wisteria Cottage
A block from the Budds’ home, he stopped at a newsstand, at 9th Avenue and 14th Street. As he bought a newspaper, he pretended to fumble a bit, as though carrying all his packages were causing a problem. The vendor noticed, and Fish asked if it would be all right to leave the bundle with him for a while. The vendor agreed.
Just before 11a.m., Fish, as Mr. Howard, knocked on the door to the Budds’ apartment. He gave Delia the pail, telling her they are for her. Once he saw Grace on this second visit, he changed his plans. He no longer wanted to kill Edward. He now wanted to kill Grace.
After saying goodbye to Mrs. Budd, he walked with Grace to the newsvendor and reclaimed his bundle. Fish and Grace walked along 9th Avenue until they reached the El. They got a train, switched to another, then got off at the Van Cortlandt Park Station, where Fish purchased two tickets for Westchester, a round trip ticket for himself, and a one way for Grace.
When they reached the Worthington Station, they got off. But Fish had forgotten his bundle. Grace stopped and said he’d forgotten his package, then she dashed back on the train and got it for him. With Fish carrying Grace’s hat and coat because of the heat, they began a long walk to their destination – Wisteria Cottage, an empty two-story house that was surrounded by dense woods.
Fish told Grace to play in the yard for a while, and he would call her when she could come in. While Grace amused herself picking the wild flowers for a bouquet, Fish went around to the rear of the house, where he hid Grace’s coat and hat under a large flat rock. He spotted an empty five gallon paint can, which he picked up and took inside the house with him.
“Implements of Hell”
Fish climbed the stairs to an upstairs corner bedroom, placed the can on the floor, then unrolled his bundle, which contained what he liked to call his “implements of Hell.” They were a small hacksaw; a double edged butcher’s knife; and a meat cleaver.
Fish then stripped naked. Opening the window slightly, he called to Grace to come in. She entered the cottage and climbed the stairs. As she reached the top, Fish stepped out. Grace took one look at the naked man and began to scream. “I’ll tell my Mama!” she shouted, and tried to run. But Fish, despite his frail appearance, was fast and strong. He grabbed Grace by the throat and dragged her back through the door into the bedroom. She kicked and screamed and scratched, but it was no use. Fish’s fingers dug into her throat. He dragged her to the red and white tarp, wrestled her to the floor, then knelt on her chest with his full weight while he continued to choke her. By now he had a full erection.
When Grace was dead, he put her neck on the rim of the paint can, and, catching as much blood as he could, used the butcher’s knife to cut off her head. Fish stripped the body and hid the clothes in a walk-in closet, then, using the knife and the cleaver, he cut the body in half just below the navel, and then hid the body.
He left Wisteria Cottage and travelled back to the city, taking with him a small newspaper wrapped bundle.
Four days later, Fish returned to Wisteria Cottage. He found that Grace’s legs had become stiff, and he placed these and the torso, along with the head, behind a stone wall behind the property, along with the “implements of Hell.”
Fish confessed to most of this at the station, leaving out certain details, such as the Quinn incident, and the newspaper wrapped parcel he’d taken with him from Wisteria Cottage.
The questioning finished at around 2:45 p.m., at which point a stenographer was called to get an official statement. One thing struck everyone who heard Fish’s tale, and that was the complete lack of emotion that he showed.
The Return to Wisteria Cottage
At 5 p.m., two squad cars pulled away from police headquarters. In the first car sat Missing Persons Bureau Sergeants Thomas J. Hamill and Hugh Sheridan. In the second car, in the front next to the driver, was Bureau Chief John Stein, and in the back were William King and Deputy Chief Inspector John Ryan. In between King and Ryan sat Albert Fish. A couple of hours later, the cars pulled up at Wisteria Cottage. It was cold and dark.
Fish gave the officers a guided tour, pointing out all the locations of his grisly act six years before, all in the glare of an electric emergency lamp held by Sergeant Hamill. Fish took them outside and showed them the stone wall, where, after a short while digging, they came upon a smooth, rounded object. It was immediately obvious what it was: a human skull that was too small to be that of an adult’s.
|Grace's skull at Wisteria Cottage|
Back in the city, a crowd of reporters, having got wind of a break in the case, had gathered at police headquarters. At 8 p.m., Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine confirmed that a suspect had been arrested and had made a full confession. Before he could answer the torrent of questions, a sergeant notified the commissioner that Grace Budd’s head had been found.
When reporters broke the news to the Budds, they accepted the news quietly, the emotions drained away by the years. Albert just kept repeating “It seemed all right to let her go. He seemed like such a decent man.”
Mr. Budd Weeps
By this time, Fish, along with King, Stein, and Ryan, had returned to the city. The Budds were collected and driven down to police headquarters to identify Fish, excluding Delia, who had proved increasingly unreliable when it came to identifying anyone. Edward identified Fish, and had to be restrained from getting to him.
Mr. Budd stood before Fish, who looked up at him without expression. Albert, hat held in trembling hands, asked, “Don’t you know me?” Fish quietly answered, “Yes, you’re Mr. Budd.” With a voice at breaking point, Albert Budd replied, “And you’re the man who came to my home as a guest and took my little girl away.” Albert Budd’s eyes filled, and silently, he began to weep.
A Career Criminal
Not surprisingly, when Fish’s record was dug out of the files, they found this was not the first time he had been in trouble. In 1903, Fish had found himself in Sing Sing for 16 months for grand larceny. Since the Budd kidnapping, Fish had been arrested six times, on charges ranging from petty larceny through to sending obscene letters through the mail. What stunned King was that during the six and a half years tracking him across America, Fish had been in New York all the time and in the hands of the police no less than half a dozen times, and let go.
Newsmen tracked down Fish’s family. Albert Jr. was living in Queens. When he was told of his fathers’ arrest, he bitterly replied, “That old skunk. I knew something like this would happen sooner or later.” The reporters pushed him to tell more, to explain what he meant by the remark. Albert Jr. told them that during the time that they lived together, his father showed escalating signs of increasingly disturbed behaviour, of how his father would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, and how “he would take off his clothes and whip himself.”
“Once,” Albert Jr. added, “a woman said he had taken her little girl into an empty apartment and removed his clothes.” It was clear that Albert was disgusted by his father, and he wanted nothing more to do with him. Before the reporters left, Albert Jr. asked who it was his father had killed. When he was informed, he gasped. “My God,” he said, “My God. That’s the name he used to scream out in his sleep.”
On Friday, December 14, police from Greenburgh Police Department began excavations at Wisteria Cottage. They were joined by Sergeants Hamill and Sheridan from the city, and by Dr. Amos Squire, the medical examiner for Westchester County. By early morning, they had managed to find a considerable number of bones.
At the same time, back in New York, Fish was questioned again, this time by Captain Thomas Dugan of the Homicide Bureau. Asked why he took Grace, Fish said that he did not know. “It just occurred to me,” he said. Asked if he’d had trouble with the Budds, Fish said he’d not known them, not until that first day in May, 1928. He was asked if he’d had anything to do with other children, and he replied that he had not.
It seemed incredible, but it became clear that religion played an important role in Fish’s life. His tone of voice when talking about Grace and the murder was flat and devoid of emotion, yet when scripture was mentioned, he became almost reverential. When asked if he got sexual pleasure from the killing, he was emphatic in his denials. In Fish’s view, the sexual thoughts were an outrage, yet the kidnap, strangulation, and dismemberment of a child, was not.
Back at Wisteria Cottage, Grace’s remains were almost completely recovered and what looked like dried blood had been found in the bedroom. On the theory that a person like Fish would unlikely be responsible for just one killing, Dr. Squire suggested that a search of the basement should be made. A section of the floor was removed, and almost immediately, a bone was found. Could this be another body?
Back in New York, the same theory was being pursued. Grace could not have been Fish’s only victim. Newsmen called to Fish as he was led from the courtroom after his arraignment, and one name kept coming up . . . Billy Gaffney.
Just before midday, Assistant District Attorney James Neary met with reporters. Fish would have to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and reporters asked if he had been seen by psychiatrist before. Neary told them that he had, but he had been found sane, though perverted.
The Obscene Letter Writer
In fact, Fish had been examined by psychiatrists many times. On December 15, 1930, he was sent to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward for a 10-day observation period. He had been arrested for sending, in the words of the indictment, a “letter of such a vile, obscene, and filthy nature that to set forth the contents thereof would defile the records of the court.”
It was not the only letter he had sent out of this nature. There were a whole string of them, sent to women whose names he got from matrimonial agencies and the classified ads. In the letters, he posed as a Hollywood producer, asking for certain services for himself and his fictitious son, “Bobby.” The letters were violent, filled with fantasies of sado-masochism and involved some of his favorite activities, including bondage, flagellation, and coprophagy.
Dr. Menas S. Gregory, the head of the psychiatric department at Bellevue wrote that though Fish may be sexually perverted, there were no signs of “mental deterioration or dementia.” He wrote, “As a result of our psychiatric examination, we are of the opinion that this man at the present is not insane.” This opinion would come back to haunt Dr. Gregory.
Six months after being discharged from Bellevue, Fish was once again picked up for sending obscene mail. When officers searched his room, they found a home made cat-o’-nine-tails, and a frankfurter and carrot, both decayed and covered with dried feces. It was obvious what they were used for, and it was confirmed by Fish. He was sent to the Kings County Hospital for 10 days observation and interviewed by a staff psychiatrist who never asked about the whip, frankfurter, or carrot. On September 5, 1931, he was released. The psychiatrists’ report said he was “quiet, cooperative, and oriented.”
With the suspicion that he may have been involved in other murders, Fish now became the focus of other authorities. Inspectors from Nassau County came and asked Fish about two murders on Long Island. One was the kidnap and murder of 16-year-old Mary O’Connell, whose body was found in woods near Far Rockaway in February, 1932. She had been bludgeoned to death. The other was the murder of Benjamin B. Collins on his yacht in Long Island Sound in 1931. Fish denied involvement in both killings. After the Nassau police left, Fish was once again asked about Billy Gaffney, and once again, he denied it. They were not convinced.
The Kidnapping and Murder of Francis McDonnell
The police also suspected Fish in the murder of Francis McDonnell, a particularly hard one for them as he was the child of one of their own. In the early afternoon of July 14, 1924, 8-year-old Francis McDonnell played by himself on the front porch of his home on Staten Island. Around 2 p.m., his mother, Anna, joined him, carrying her one-month-old daughter, Annabelle. Mrs. McDonnell saw an elderly looking man wandering down the middle of the street. He was stooped, shabbily dressed, and making constant motions with his hands, clenching and unclenching them. He tipped his hat to her, then carried on down the street.
Later, after Anna had returned inside with Annabelle, the man reappeared. By now, Francis, and his little brother Albert, had joined the three Donovan boys, Eddie, Jimmy, and Tommy, sons of a neighbourhood fireman. As they played catch, they noticed the old man gesturing to them. Francis went over to see what he wanted, while the others carried on with the game. When they looked back, Francis and the man were gone.
George Stern, a neighbor to the McDonnell’s, was the last to see Francis. It was around 4:30 p.m., and he was relaxing on his porch. Stern saw the boy entering a grassed pathway that led to a little brook running through Charlton Woods, a popular play area for the neighborhood children. He would not have paid much notice, except for the fact that walking close behind was a gray moustached “tramp.”
Francis did not return home by suppertime, and his parents became concerned. Albert then told them about the gray man. Arthur McDonnell, still wearing his police uniform, immediately went out to search. He also called colleagues from police headquarters. By the next morning, a massive search was underway, including police, friends and neighbors, and a volunteer group of boy scouts.
Three scouts, Henry Laszarno, Thomas Passone, and Henry Wood, found Francis when Wood literally stumbled across the body. Francis had been hurriedly concealed under a pile of branches and leaves. His clothes below the waist had been violently ripped from his body, which had been, as the newspapers would later report, “atrociously assaulted.” Francis had been strangled with his own suspenders. They had been twisted so tightly around his neck that they seemed to be embedded in the flesh.
Within an hour after the discovery, 50 police officers were on the scene, and by the next morning, July 16, another 250 had been assigned to the case.
Days passed, and the solution seemed no closer. The tabloids cried for retribution. The “outraged citizenry,” as one newspaper called them, got a chance to give vent to their anger when the alleged murderer was discovered. He was a drifter named John Eskowski, who had been living in a rundown shack 10 miles from the scene of the crime.
One man, Salvatore Pace, a local gas station owner, got his gun and went to bring Eskowski out of the woods. Eskowski, thinking Pace was a robber, pulled out his own gun, and a small shootout occurred, with neither of them being hit. Pace went back to his gas station and called the police, who turned up, followed by about 100 armed and enraged citizens.
This time, during the gunfire, Eskowski was hit in the side. Seeing the men approaching him, Eskowski placed his own gun against his temple and pulled the trigger. He lived long enough to say he was a farmer who had left his wife some weeks before after a row. Police checked his story. It was true, and at the time of Francis McDonnell’s kidnapping and murder, Eskowski was living in Pennsylvania.
The McDonnell case faded from the newspapers, replaced by the highly melodramatic Leopold and Loeb murder trial that had begun. The gray man, whose resemblance to Albert Fish was uncannily similar, was not caught.
Once the news of Fish’s capture appeared, the newspapers were unrelenting, each enhancing the horror of it all with fictional additions. One newspaper, the Daily News compared Albert Fish to Fritz Haarman, the Vampire of Hanover, and newspapers gave Fish some equally lurid nicknames, such as “The Ogre of Murder Lodge” and “The Werewolf of Wisteria.”
What was a possibility in the minds of the authorities, that Fish had killed more than just Grace Budd, the newspapers were spreading as a certain fact. The tabloids told of how Fish had murdered an untold number of people in abandoned houses and buried their remains in the backyards. Whereas the bones, now numerous, that had been removed from the basement of Wisteria Cottage had yet to be determined as human or animal, the Mirror decided not to bother wasting time waiting for expert opinion, announcing “New Ogre Deaths” in its weekend edition.
Reporters discovered Fish’s wife, Anna, living in Queens with John Straube, the lodger with whom she’d run off with years before. She was not surprised by what Fish had done. When asked if he had done anything strange when they were together, she thought for a moment, then replied, “He used to beat himself with a whip.”
Gradually, reporters pieced together Fish’s past, and each new piece was more bizarre. John Fish, who sent his C.C.C. pay check to his father, revealed his father’s unnatural gratification from fires. The sounds, the smell, and the sights of a house on fire gave him a sexual thrill. On many occasions, as John told reporters, his father had to be restrained from setting fire to tenements. With this news, investigations into unresolved arsons would be undertaken to see if any could be connected to Fish.
On Sunday, December 16, a woman named Helen Karlson came to police headquarters with a disturbing story. In 1927, Albert Fish and his two sons rented rooms from her. The older man took an interest in her 7-year-old son, buying him candy, and wanting to take him to the movies. Mrs. Karlson thought that he was just a nice old man and completely harmless, but with the Gaffney case still in everyone’s memory, she didn’t let him go.
Fish and his two sons were there a month when Mrs. Karlson found an unspeakably obscene letter pushed under her door. It was signed “Albert.” She destroyed the letter, but received two more, each one worse than the previous. Eventually, she asked them to leave. After they had left, she cleaned their rooms, and discovered a paddle studded with nails and clotted with blood. On the floor of the old man’s room, she found what she described as “a little mess.” Her son had had a lucky escape. Many others came forth with tales of their encounters with Albert Fish. Some were the products of over-imagination and not true, some were mistaken identity. But many of them were real.
Fish was a compulsive letter writer, mostly obscene, but this time his letter was to Detective King. In it, among the ramblings and appeals for sympathy, were a couple of things that stood out for King, the admissions to self torture. He told of how he pushed needles into his body, five in all, and how he had poured alcohol on his behind and set fire to it. Could it all be true? It seemed unbelievable.
Fish gave a highly selective version of his life story to reporters on Monday December 17. He told of how he was born on May 19, 1870 in Washington D.C. and how his father, Randall, a Potomac River boat captain, dropped dead at the age of 80, on October 15, 1875, after which Fish was placed in the St. John’s Orphanage until he was 9 years old. He told of the abuse in the orphanage which got him started on his sado-masochistic lifestyle. He told of how he met his wife and how, after producing six children, she ran off with another man.
The reporters were interested in the killing, and Fish obliged them by relating what happened. He said that as soon as he had killed Grace, he would have given his own life to bring her back again. His telling of his life portrayed a man who is more of a victim, of how he had overpowering urges, and how other influences, such as the beatings at the orphanage, resulted, in a roundabout way, in the death of Grace Budd. It was a self-pitying account that showed him as someone who is insane. This is exactly what Fish intended. He insisted that Grace was the only one he had killed, and he had no knowledge of the other killings that he was being questioned over. And as for cannibalism, “the very thought sickens me,” he said.
Two psychiatrists were engaged by the State to examine Fish, Dr. Charles Lambert and Dr. James Vavasour. With Lambert and Vavasour now involved in the case, the Daily Mirror also talked to a pair of psychiatrists. One, Dr. Thomas S. Cusack, declared that Fish was “undoubtedly an abnormal individual.” This not being a phrase that would sell newspapers, the Mirror decided that a better headline was “FISH VICIOUS MORON, TWO EXPERTS AGREE.”
The other expert hired by the Mirror was Dr. Nathaniel Ross. He had examined Fish during his time at Bellevue, and Ross seemed more interested in justifying the decision by Bellevue to set Fish free. He felt that Bellevue staff may be blamed for their failure. And he would be right.
Fish was indicted for the kidnapping of Grace Budd, just in case the murder trial in Westchester went badly. Investigators were still of the opinion that there were other victims, even though all the bones taken from the basement of Wisteria Cottage had turned out to be various animals, including a cow.
What Became of Billy Gaffney?
In Brooklyn, investigators caught a break with the Gaffney case. On Wednesday, December 19, the Mirror ran an article with close-up photographs of Fish and asked the question “REMEMBER THIS MAN?” Fifty-seven year old Joseph Meehan, disabled by a stroke and retired, certainly did. It was the face of the man on the trolley car he drove back in 1927, who had the little boy who would not stop crying. He contacted the Mirror the next morning.
Later that day, Meehan was visited by Lt. Elmer Joseph, who, when still a sergeant, was in charge of the Gaffney case. He questioned Meehan, and was convinced the case was now solved. The next day Meehan, along with his old conductor Anthony Barrone, were taken to the Tombs. Barrone wasn’t quite sure, but there was no doubt in Meehan’s mind. “That’s the man!” he exclaimed. The next day, all the newspapers reported that the “Boogeyman” who had stolen away 4-year-old Billy Gaffney had been identified as Albert Fish.
On Friday, Fish was arraigned in Homicide Court and handed over to Westchester authorities. Before he left, however, he was taken back to the detention pen. While he waited, a man was brought in. The man looked at Fish, then said, “That’s him.”
The man was Hans Kiel. He had owned a farm on Staten Island in 1924. In February of that year, a gray haired man approached Kiel’s 8-year-old daughter, Beatrice. He offered her a nickel if she would take him into the woods and help him look for wild rhubarb. Before she could go, her mother, Alice appeared, and the old man hurried away. That night, the same man was discovered sleeping in the Kiel’s barn. Kiel drove him off.
Three days later, in the property adjoining the Kiel’s, Francis McDonnell was murdered.
Benjamin Eiseman also came to the police. He told of how in July, 1924, when he was just 16, an elderly man approached him while he was sitting on a bench in Battery Park. Striking up a conversation, the man said he was a painter, and needed an assistant. He offered Eiseman the job. Eiseman, unemployed and only recently arrived in America from Russia, accepted. They boarded the ferry to Staten Island, then took the train for half an hour. The man led Eisemen to a deserted shack where he said he needed to collect some tools. Eiseman was told to wait outside for a few minutes.
While he waited, an “elderly Negro” came over to Eiseman and said he should get out of there. He said, “A lot of kids have gone in there and didn’t never come out.” Eiseman ran, and back in the city told his mother. The police were called and they set up a stake-out, with Eiseman agreeing to act as bait. But the elderly man never showed.
Eiseman’s story was checked and verified, and when Kiel’s wife and daughter positively identified him a few days later, Richmond County District Attorney Thomas J. Walsh announced that they would seek an indictment for the murder of Francis McDonnell.
Lambert and Vavasour examined Fish and he told them about the five needles he had pushed up behind his testicles. It seemed impossible to believe, but they noticed that he did walk strangely, and seated himself carefully as well. Just to make sure, he was x-rayed.
His claim was not quite true. There were needles, clearly seen in the x-ray, but there was not five, there was 27. A further two would be found later. The two “alienists” released their report. Fish suffered from some “limited abnormalities,” but he was legally sane.
After a short while with another lawyer, Fish eventually got the services of James Dempsey, a Westchester lawyer. Fish felt he would do better for him, being respected locally. Fish’s trial was set for March.
Fish, already highly religious, became even more so in jail. His way of giving worship turned out to be a little strange. The Sunday Mass could clearly be heard by the prisoners while they were still in their cell. A guard was drawn to Fish’s cell by unusual grunting noises. There he found Fish, pants around his ankles, furiously masturbating to the rhythm of the prayers.
Dempsey got the services of two psychiatrist, Smith Ely Jeliffe and Dr. Frederick Wertham. Wertham was the one who got to know Fish the best. He spent hours checking Fish’s background and studying books on criminology, looking for cases that were comparable. Unfortunately, there were none. Fish was unique. Fish’s life, Wertham stated, was one of “unparallelled perversity. There was no known perversion that he did not practice and practice frequently.”
Fish revealed to Wertham a fact that he had left out of his original telling of the killing. After cutting off Grace’s head, he tried to drink the blood out of the can. But after a few swallows, it made him choke. He also told him of the newspaper wrapped parcel he carried away with him. It contained roughly four pounds of flesh cut from Grace’s breasts, buttocks, and abdomen, along with her ears and nose.
He was so excited about what he was carrying that on the train home, he spontaneously ejaculated. In his rooms, he cut the meat into chunks, added carrots, onions, and bacon, and made a stew. He ate this over a nine-day period, during which time he was in a state of continuous sexual arousal and masturbating continually.
Probably through one of his children’s visits, Fish had somehow gotten hold of a bottle of alcohol and some absorbant cotton. When he tried to get matches from one of the guards, they were suspicious and found the alcohol and cotton, and knew exactly what he wanted it for. Fish had told both Wertham and King that he liked to soak the cotton in alcohol, push it into his rectum, and then set it alight. It was also something he did to his child victims, and although he had at times been forced to gag them, he preferred not to as he enjoyed their screams.
Fish on Trial
Fish’s trial began on Monday, March 11, 1935, at the Westchester County Supreme Court in White Plains. The day before, Fish had chicken soup for lunch, and managed to secret away a three inch bone. He sharpened the bone to a point, and used it to tear at his chest and abdomen. The guards managed to get it away before too much damage was done, and the evening newspapers reported on his thwarted suicide attempt. But those familiar with Fish knew this was no suicide, it was one more act of autoeroticism.
Fish appeared around 10 a.m., dressed in a scruffy gray coat, dark trousers, a rumpled blue shirt and a badly knotted striped tie. Bulbs from the press cameras immediately started flashing. During the first day, which was taken up by jury selection, Fish sat slumped with his right elbow on the arm of his chair, head propped on his hand and eyes closed. He would seem indifferent to what was going on through most of the trial. For a lot of the time, he was actually dozing.
Dempsey knew he had to present his client as a man with a raging psychosis, and not the monster that the press portrayed him as being. Concentrating on his bizarre life, his brutal childhood, his self-torture, his mental disintegration, Dempsey blamed Bellevue for failing to recognize his fragile mental state, and releasing him back into the public where he committed his brutal act against Grace Budd.
Delia Budd was the first one on the stand the second day, after opening remarks had been concluded. Dempsey made much of the fact that she had repeatedly identified others as the man who took Grace, including at one point a New York detective. Dempsey made his point, Delia was unreliable, and maybe she’d been mistaken once more.
Albert Budd was completely distraught through his testimony. Because of his glass eye, and the fact that a cataract was in the other, Albert had to leave the witness stand and cross to the defense table to identify Fish. Albert bent over and looked at Fish, who looked back at Budd through his fingers. “This is Frank Howard.” said Albert, “This is the man who took my child away. This man right here.” Albert Budd covered his face with his hands and broke down.
|Albert Fish and Det. William King|
King was on the stand next, and Dempsey tried to get him to admit that the confession of Albert Fish was beaten out of him with a rubber hose. King was unflappable, and calmly denied it. The next day, with King still on the stand, Dempsey protested strongly and repeatedly when a cardboard carton containing Grace’s bones were brought into court. Each objection was overruled. When Grace’s skull was lifted out of the box, there was an audible gasp from the spectators, and another objection from Dempsey. It too was overruled.
Dempsey’s questioning concerned the cannibalism. He hoped that it would strengthen his insanity plea, no sane man commits cannibalism. King didn’t waver. Although Fish had expressed an interest in cannibalism, he never said that he’d actually committed it.
Dempsey questioned King about the letter sent to the Budds. Asking if there was proof of what he said in the letter, King replied that there was. Dempsey’s idea was simple. If everything else in the letter was true, then the cannibalism he mentioned in the letter also had to be true. But a calm King said that there was no proof of this part of the letter.
Three more confessions made by Fish were read to the court the next day, and once again Dempsey objected. They were prejudicial and were read out “to inflame and arouse the jury against this defendant.” He asked for a mistrial. As with all Dempsey’s other requests for a mistrial, this one was denied.
Dempsey had good reason to be worried about these confessions. In them, Fish had expressed remorse for the murder of the girl, and he also said that he tried to avoid the police. Neither were the actions of a man who is insane. It was clear that Fish knew and understood the difference between right and wrong. Dempsey’s insanity defense suffered a major blow.
The Insanity Defense
|Albert Fish in court|
The State rested on Friday, and now it was Dempsey’s turn. While the State concentrated on the murder, Dempsey concentrated on Fish and his life. The first witness was Fish’s now estranged son, Albert Jr. He told of how his father stood on a hill in 1922 shouting “I am Christ!” and gave an account of how he would beat himself with nail-studded paddles. He also mentioned the needles he would push into his groin, and how on certain nights, during the full moon, he would eat raw steak.
Paradoxically, testimony from his daughters, Anna Collins and Gertrude DeMarco, showed him to be a loving and devoted father.
On the sixth day, a woman named Grace Shaw testified as to how she received letters from Fish, signed Robert E. Hayden, in which he’d asked her to look after his 5-year-old boy “Bobby” and to spank him. The letters went on for a while, until he told her he was sending someone who also needed chastisement, a James W. Pell, an alias known to be used by Fish. Fish, as Pell, turned up, and when Mrs. Shaw refused to whip him, he went on his way.
Although she said she kept up the correspondance in order to gather evidence, she did admit that she was willing to do what he asked for money. Eventually, she gave the letters to authorities, who set a trap for “Hayden,” but he never showed up.
Mrs. Helen Karlson gave evidence about the time the Fish and his sons spent at her rooming house, and what she had found when they left. Asked to elaborate on the “little mess” left on the floor, she said it was “human dirt.”
Also giving evidence was Fish’s 17-year-old step-daughter, Mary Nicholas, from his bigamous marriage in 1930. She described the games they played when she was 12. One was “Buck-Buck, How Many Hands Up.” Dempsey asked how it was played. The game was simple. Fish stripped down to a thin pair of trunks, and then, with his back toward the children, he had to guess how many fingers they held up. If he was right, nothing happened. If he was wrong, they had to smack him hard with a stick the same number of times as the fingers that were held up. According to Mary, he never guessed right, sometimes even guessing more fingers than they actually had. Whatever Myrta Nicholas thought about these games as she watched, it didn’t stop her marrying him.
Wertham testified the next day, Tuesday. He touched on Fish’s family, at least seven of which suffered from some psychopathic disorder. He testified to Fish’s brutal life at the orphanage, where the beatings and the whippings gave him sexual excitement and he learned to associate pleasure with pain, and where he dropped his given name of Hamilton because the other boys nicknamed him “Ham and Eggs.”
A Sadist of “incredible cruelty”
Wertham described Fish as a sadist of “incredible cruelty.” He went on to say, “I can tell you that, to the best of my medical knowledge, every sexual abnormality that I have ever heard of this man has practiced – not only has he thought about it, not only has he daydreamed about it, but has practiced it.”
Wertham told how Fish got painting jobs with easy access to victims, such as the Y.M.C.A., and how he was naked under his painters’ overalls, allowing him to strip in seconds. Wertham believed that Fish had raped at least 100 children during his lifetime.
Fish had been a homosexual prostitute, and spent time in Brussels where he had “practiced oral perversions on the rectums of men and woman.” Many of Fish’s victims were colored children because he believed the authorities didn’t pay as much attention to what happened to them.
Wertham told of the Kedden incident in St. Louis in 1911. Kedden was a good looking, but mentally challenged 19-year-old when he met Fish. They began an affair and carried on a sado-masochistic relationship for two or three weeks, during which time they ate and drank each others feces and urine, and Fish sliced Kedden’s buttocks to suck the blood. One day, Fish bound Kedden, brought him to erection, then made an attempt to cut off his penis with a pair of scissors. Kedden’s agonized look stopped him, and, after dressing the wound, fled, giving Kedden $10.
Wertham’s testimony highlighted even more bizarre behavior. Fish would insert roses into his erect penis and stand in front of a mirror, then remove the rose and eat it. He had also attempted to push needles directly through his testicles, but the pain was too intense, even for him.
Wertham went on to Fish’s religious mania, which had become more dangerous during his 50s. He became obsessed with the story of Abraham, and wanted to sacrifice a boy. He was convinced that if it was wrong, then an angel would appear and stop him.
When Dempsey finally asked about Fish’s mental condition, Wertham was direct and to the point. “He is insane.”
The prosecutor, Chief Assistant District Attorney Elbert F. Gallagher, put Dr. Menas Gregory on the stand for rebuttal. He described the 1930 examination of Fish and the report that said he was abnormal but sane. Dempsey, still attempting to shift the blame to Bellevue, hammered at Gregory. Gregory said Fish was no different than millions of others. Dempsey asked incredulously if it was normal to eat your own feces, and Gregory pointed out that many prominent members of society do the same.
Lambert and Vavasour, in their own rebuttal testimonies, also mentioned prominent public officials, though not by name, which ate feces. The day ended with Fish giving Dempsey a note asking him to read a Bible passage, Jeremiah, Chapter 19, verse 9, to the jury. Dempsey, quite rightly, declined, as it would not have helped. The passage reads: “And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat everyone the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them.”
The Last Day of the Grace Budd Trial
Friday, March 22, was the last day of the trial, and both sides summed up. Dempsey, while acknowledging the brutality of the crime, still put the blame on Bellevue, and also partly on Albert and Delia Budd for allowing Grace to go with Fish in the first place. He also pointed out that the police never mentioned cannibalism, because, he believed, they didn’t want to tell of anything that would point to his insanity. As Dempsey pleaded for his clients’ life, Fish quietly wept.
Gallagher’s summing up was a recap of the crime, and that the murder was an act of “premeditation and design” and was not because of divine command, but to “satisfy his own sexual gratification.”
The jury retired at 3:01 p.m., and returned at 8:27 p.m. They had reached a verdict. Guilty.
Dempsey was stunned. How could they not find this man insane? As it turned out, they probably did. One juror, caught by reporters outside, revealed that most of the jury thought he was insane, but thought he should die anyway.
In the Daily News Norma Abrams wrote, “His watery eyes gleamed at the thought of being burned by a heat more intense than the flames with which he often seared his flesh to gratify his lust.” Fish was quoted as saying, “What a thrill it will be to die in the electric chair! It will be the supreme thrill – the only one I haven’t tried.”
The following Monday, Fish was sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing during the week of April 29. Fish gave the judge a little wave and said, “Thank you, Judge.”
Fish Admits Other Child Murders
The trial may have been over, but the shocking stories were not. Fish confessed to killing Francis McDonnell in 1924, pointing out that he was going to dismember him, but thought he heard someone coming.
He also admitted that he had taken 4-year-old Billy Gaffney. He described in a letter to James Dempsey the details of what happened on Friday, February 11, 1927. If the Grace Budd murder was shocking, then the death of Billy Gaffney was a nightmare of horrific proportions. The letter read:
There is a public dumping ground in' Riker Ave., Astoria. All kinds of junk has been thrown there for years ... I will admit the motorman who positively identified me as getting off his car with a small boy was correct. I can tell you at that time I was looking for a suitable place to do the job. Not satisfied there, I brought him to the Riker Ave. dumps. There is a house that stands alone, not far from where I took him. A few yrs. ago I painted this house for the man who owns it. He is in the auto wrecking business. I forget his name but my son Henry can tell you, because he bought a car from him. This man's father lives in the house. Gene, John, Henry helped me paint the house. There were at that time a number of old autos along the road.
I took the G boy there. Stripped him naked and tied his hands and feet and gagged him with a piece of dirty rag I picked out of dump. Then I burned his clothes. Threw his shoes in the dump. Then I walked back and took trolley to 59 St. at 2 a.m. and walked from there home.
Next day about 2 p.m., took tools, a good heavy cat-o-nine tails. Home made. Short handle. Cut one of my belts in half, slit these half in six strips about 8 in. long. I whipped his bare behind till the blood ran from his legs. I cut off his ears – nose – slit his mouth from ear to ear. Gouged out his eyes. He was dead then. I stuck the knife in his belly and held my mouth to his body and drank his blood.
I picked up four old potato sacks and gathered a pile of stones. Then I cut him up. I had a grip with me. I put his nose, ears and a few slices of his belly in grip. Then I cut him thru the middle of his body. Just below his belly button. Then thru his legs about 2 in. below his behind. I put this in my grip with a lot of paper. I cut off the head – feet – arms – hands and the legs below the knee.
This I put in sacks weighed with stones, tied the ends and threw them into the pools of slimy water you will see all along road going to North Beach. Water is 3 to 4 ft. deep, They sank at once.
I came home with my meat. I had the front of his body I liked best. His monkey and pee wees and a nice little fat behind to roast in the oven and eat. I made a stew out of his ears – nose – pieces of his face and belly. I put onions, carrots, turnips, celery, salt and pepper. It was good.
Then I split the cheeks of his behind open, cut off his monkey and pee wees and washed them first. I put strips of bacon on each cheek of his behind and put in the oven. Then I picked 4 onions and when meat had roasted about ¼ hr., I poured about a pint of water over it for gravy and put in the onions. At frequent intervals I basted his behind with a wooden spoon. So the meat would be nice and juicy.
In about 2 hr. it was nice and brown, cooked thru. I never ate any roast turkey that tasted half as good as his sweet fat little behind did. I eat every bit of the meat in about four days. His little monkey was as sweet as a nut, but his pee-wees I could not chew. Threw them in the toilet.
Once the news of the Gaffney killing had leaked to the press, reporters descended on Brooklyn to get Elizabeth Gaffney’s reaction. She still believed Billy was alive somewhere, and continued to set a place for him at the dining table during holidays. She said she would not believe Fish’s confession until she heard it from his own lips. During that spring, she got the chance to meet with Fish, but he refused to speak with her. After a fruitless two hours, she left, and continued to believe that Billy was alive for the rest of her life.
No-one will ever know how many children Fish murdered. A Supreme Court justice told Wertham that, according to investigators, Fish was probably responsible for the torture and murder of at least 15 children. Most likely, it’s a much higher number.
Three days after arriving at Sing Sing, Albert Fish, convict number 90,272, managed to save the bone from his pork chop dinner and sharpened it in his cell. Keeper Daniel Maloney spotted it, and got it away from Fish, but not before he’d managed to carve an eight inch cross on his body.
Dempsey got Fish a stay of execution by April 3, 1935, on the grounds that there was doubt about his sanity. It wasn’t until November 26 that the decision was upheld. The execution was rescheduled for the week of January 13, 1936. A last ditch effort was made by Dempsey in January, but once again, the decision was upheld.
On Thursday, January 16, Fish ate his last meals. He had a T-bone steak for lunch, with the bone cut away and removed. Also removed were the bones from the roast chicken he had for dinner. By then, though, he had lost his appetite.
Around 10:30 p.m., the Reverend Anthony Petersen came to pray with Fish, who had spent much of his time reading the Bible. Guards arrived at about 11 p.m., and one knelt to slit Fish’s right trouser leg. Then, with a guard on each side, and followed by Reverend Petersen, Fish walked down to the execution chamber.
Fish lowered himself into the chair and straps were adjusted around his arms, legs, and body. A death mask was slipped over his face, and the leather cap with the electrodes was strapped to his shaved head. A second electrode was secured to his right leg.
The switch was thrown, and Fish’s body pitched, the cords in his neck bulged, and his fists clenched and turned red. Eventually, the body relaxed. Albert Fish, the Boogeyman, the Werewolf of Wisteria, the Gray Man, and the oldest man ever executed at Sing Sing Prison, was dead. It was 11:09 p.m.
There were stories of sparks that leapt from him, and that the chair short circuited, both caused by the needles that were in his body. None of it was true; he died like any other man.
It ended as it began.
There was a knock on the door. Delia Budd opened it and found a stranger standing before her.
This time, it was a reporter from the Daily News. He told her that Fish was dead. If he expected a comment, he was disappointed. She listened in silence and showed no emotion. Albert’s thin voice called from the bedroom, and she closed the door.