In the long history of murder and mayhem, there are few characters more sickening and reprehensible than Albert Fish. Born Albert Howard Fish in 1870, Fish was the scion of a respectable upstate New York family with ties in the American Revolution. Fish nonetheless was abandoned from childhood and left in the care of a brutal orphanage, where he claimed that he first gained his predilection for masochism and sadism, practices he indulged in for the rest of his life.
After a short period of wanderings and doing odd jobs, Fish “settled down” for a short time, fathering children and trying to cultivate an aura of domestic respectability. It was to be short lived.
His wife, a no less bizarre creature than her husband, soon attracted the affections of an extramarital paramour, whom she initially insisted must be allowed to move into the house with the family. When Fish objected, she left with her lover for a short time, only to return later and demand that they be readmitted into the household. Fish relented, and allowed her to move back in, but insisted that her lover find himself another place to stay. However, later Fish found that she had simply secreted him away in the attic.
Fish finally booted them both out of his sordid life, but his character only continued to sicken into a nightmare of diabolical perversity. He would frequently encourage neighbor children to paddle his buttocks; it was eventually discovered by one of the children that he had manufactured his own studded paddle for the purposes of self- flagellation.
Although Fish gave off the aura of being the long-suffering single father trying to do his best to keep his small family of children clothed and fed, he began to privately seek out children to molest. One of his most well-known instances of maniacal behavior involves him taking his children to the family cottage, stripping off his clothing, running outside under the full moon, and declaring to the night, “I am the Christ!”
Fish’s tally of child victims of molestation are sickening enough, but slowly, the thrill of simple sexual abuse began to wear thin. Darker ideas began to explode in the fragmented recesses of his insane mind: ideas involving murder, dismemberment, and cannibalism. Fish was a devotee of cannibalistic stories, finding especial inspiration in the story of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe, and the newspaper accounts of infamous German “lustmord” killers such as Fritz Harrmann. Fish, as a fetish, carried clippings of sensational cases and anecdotes involving cannibalism in his pockets for years, and it was at this time, according to his children, he also gained his predilection for eating raw meat.
Fish’s first run-in with the authorities occurred, oddly enough, due not to his sexual abuse of young children (he never abused his own), but because of another of his morbid sexual activities: his habit of writing obscene letters to women seeking companionship through “Lonely Hearts” pen-pal clubs. The letters frequently began with his describing himself as a friendless, older man who had had the great misfortune of losing his family in an accident. He would usually continue, his letter becoming gradually more shocking and perverse with each sentence, by explaining that it was absolutely necessary that he be flogged by a handsome woman, so as to enable him to maintain his psychological equilibrium. By the end of reading the letter, the luckless recipient would usually be too shocked to give any sort of reply. Soon, the obscene “mash notes” caught the attention of police authorities, and Fish found himself interred at Bellevue, where examining “alienists” pronounced him as “sane, but seriously perverse.” Make of that what you will.
(Fish moved into murder, one supposes, in an effort to recapture the initial thrill he must have felt with his first crimes against children. There are no hard and fast estimates concerning the number of unfortunate children who fell prey to the demented fiend, but he confessed to a foggy six, and alluded, darkly, that it may have been dozens more.)
Fish, a religious maniac as well as a sexual predator, scrupulously devoured the Bible, interpreting verses that seemed to suggest cannibalism and making them part of his own bizarre ritual of sin and repentance; sadistic mutilation, followed by self- flagellation. It must have been during this period that Fish first concocted the idea of repenting for his sins by punishing himself with large needles, which he inserted methodically into the soft area between his anus and scrotum. Unbelievably, Fish lived with 29 large needles inserted deep inside his body, all of which worked their way into the layers of his flesh, and even broke into pieces inside of him. An x-ray later confirmed this.
Fish was, in the words of one examining authority at his later trial “a polymorphous pervert.” His activities list a bewildering array of fetishes and perversions, including coprophilia (ingesting of human feces, his own), the drinking of his own urine, and cannibalism. The last became the cornerstone of his infamy.
It was in 1928 that Fish first placed an add in a New York seeking the services of a young man to do “farm work, upstate.” Unfortunately for the Budd family of Manhattan, young Edward Budd Jr. saw the add, and telegrammed Fish, telling him that he would be more than interested in helping out. Fish made his appearance at the Budd home, using the assumed name “Mr. Howard,” and, sizing up Edward as being possibly too strong and healthy to kill (Fish was then a wheezy, weak fifty-eight-year-old, who seemed to anyone that met him even older), became quickly entranced with twelve-year-old Grace Budd, who seemed a much more fitting prospect for what Fish really had in mind. He quickly assured the family that young Edward Budd Jr. would work out just fine, but that “Mr. Howard” would have to go back to his farm to prepare a room for him, and then would come to get him in just a few hours. He also charmed the family into letting their daughter, little Grace accompany him to his “daughter’s birthday party,” assuring them that she would be fine with him until they returned, and that young Edward should hurry up and pack a few things. This proved to be a tragic, fatal mistake, and one Mr. and Mrs. Edward Budd regretted for the rest of their lives.
Fish took the unsuspecting Grace to the train station, carrying with him his familiar black briefcase in which he carried his “Implements of Hell”: a bizarre collection consisting of razors, needles, a saw, a butcher knife, a studded paddle, belt, etc. It was his own “torture and murder kit,” and he rarely left home without it.
The train took them to white plains, N.Y. , to Fish’s own Wisteria Cottage , where he left little Grace playing outside (somewhat confused, we must assume, at where the location of the birthday party was supposed to be). He then went inside, stripped off his clothing, and called her from the window. Grace ran into the cottage, made her way up the dim, dust-choked stairs, and, according to his confession after he was arrested, screamed when she saw him, declaring pitifully, “I’ll tell mama!” Fish decapitated the girl, drained her blood into a bucket, and then proceeded to dismember and cut sections of her flesh away. These he cooked and consumed in an orgy of deviancy that occupied him for several sickening days.
Meanwhile, the Budds had become frantic when “Mr. Howard” failed to return with their daughter, and quickly alerted police. But it was to no avail: the trail of “Mr. Howard” was cold, and all traces of him disappeared into thin air. Amazingly, Fish later recounted that he traveled back to New York City with the flesh remains of Grace Budd wrapped entirely in an old newspaper, sitting with it on his lap on the train, feeling the special thrill of it against his pulsating, needle-stuffed groin. Six long years passed with nary a hint of what had happened to poor, unfortunate Grace Budd. Despite the best efforts of detectives, the trail went completely cold. Finally, an enterprising detective by the name of King caught up with Fish, chiefly due to a letter that the demented Fish, in a stab at perverse repentance, scribbled anonymously to the Budd family.
The letter, which must now qualify as a classic in the annals of demented documents, follows:
Dear Mrs. Budd. In 1894 a friend of mine shipped as a deck hand on the Steamer Tacoma, Capt. John Davis. They sailed from San Francisco for Hong Kong, China. On arriving there he and two others went ashore and got drunk. When they returned the boat was gone. At that time there was famine in China. Meat of any kind was from $1 -3 per pound. So great was the suffering among the very poor that all children under 12 were sold for food in order to keep others from starving. A boy or girl under 14 was not safe in the street. You could go in any shop and ask for steak — chops — or stew meat. Part of the naked body of a boy or girl would be brought out and just what you wanted cut from it. A boy or girl’s behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price. John stayed there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh. On his return to N.Y. he stole two boys, one 7 and 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 1 1 year old boy, because he had the fattest ass and of course the most meat on it. Every part of his body was cooked and eaten except the head — bones and guts. He was roasted in the oven (all of his ass), boiled, broiled, fried and stewed. The little boy was next, went the same way. At that time, I was living at 409 E 100 St. near — right side. He told me so often how good human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it. On Sunday June the 3, 1 928 I called on you at 406 W 1 5 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 saidyes 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 wild) lowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and called her. Then I hid in a closet until she was in the room. When she saw me all naked she began to cry and tried to run down the stairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mamma. First I stripped her naked. How she did kick — bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body. I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.
Of course, it was not long after receiving this hideous missive that Detective King was on the trail. Upon examination, the letter proved to be written on a particular type of hotel stationary, and was quickly traced back to a bell hop, who admitted pilfering some of the stationary, which, he admitted, must have been left by accident in a room he had just recently vacated for different quarters. The room turned out to be the current residence of Albert Howard Fish.
When King first stepped forward to arrest Fish, he described the strange behavior of the old man. Fish, his eyes steady and calm, reached into his pocket and took out a razor blade, and held it up as, one supposes, some sort of feeble gesture of defiance. It was the work of a minute for Detective King to twist it out of the old man’s fist, and get the cuffs on him.
Fish was first imprisoned in the Tombs, the infamous New York City jails, and then later sent to Sing-Sing to await execution. His trial revealed him to be a man whose appetite for perversion was never sated, and whose demonic deviance had descended to depths unparalleled in the annals of criminal history. Fish readily admitted his infatuation with feces; his drinking of blood; urine; his molestation of possibly hundreds of innocent children; his predilection for inflicting and experiencing pain and torture; his obsession and practice of cannibalism; and his murder of six children. Fish blamed his mad obsession with sadomasochism as stemming from his abusive childhood in a Catholic orphanage, where he repeatedly saw young boys whipped and was whipped himself. It was here he began to enjoy “everything which caused pain.” Or so he claimed.
The jury was treated to a mind-boggling litany of lurid details, but it was not only those who found themselves in the courtroom during the sensational trial of the “Moon Maniac” that were privy to Fish’s abnormalities: the prison staff were ever-vigilant with Fish’s food, lest any bones or sharp objects be let into him to eat with. We must assume he was forced, quite a bit, to use his fingers. On one occasion, when Fish was accidentally left with a portion of meat still attached to bone, he carefully removed the bone, and was caught using it to carve slashes into his withered chest. The cadaverous old fiend was quickly relieved of his prize, and the authorities promised themselves a greater degree of circumspection henceforth in regards to inmate Fish’s meals. (One further incident serves to illustrate the depth of the man’s surrealistic obsession with self abuse. Fish managed by some means to obtain cotton balls and medicinal alcohol [perhaps from the prison infirmary], as well as wooden matches. When found with these contraband items, he confessed freely that he received great pleasure from soaking the cotton balls in alcohol, inserting them into his rectum, and lighting them.)
The jury took almost no time in finding Albert Fish sane, and therefore culpable and a candidate for a ride on “Old Sparky.” Fish was sentenced to die by electrocution, a notion that he claimed satisfied him. He remarked that electrocution would be “…the supreme thrill of my life. The only one I haven’t tried.” Fish spent the short days leading up to his death studiously seeking salvation in the pages of his Bible, and promising to intervene with God on behalf of the living whom he was leaving behind. His final words, while being led to the chair were, reportedly, “I don’t know why I’m here.” An apocryphal story has long circulated concerning the needles that Fish lived with in his groin, and the flow of the electricity from the chair. Supposedly, when the switch was thrown, the needles caused the electric current to spark, short-circuiting the chair and requiring that Fish be given a second jolt of current before he died. But it was all a myth.
Fish died, in sharp contrast to how he had lived, completely normally.
He was the oldest prisoner ever executed at Sing-Sing, up to that time: January 16th , 1936.