The Serial Homicide Case of the Day, from "Hunting Humans, the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Serial Killers" , by Michael Newton
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Fish, Albert Howard
Born Hamilton Fish, in 1870, America's most notorious 20th-century cannibal was the product of a respected family living in Washington, D.C. A closer examination, however, reveals at least seven relatives with severe mental disorders in the two generations preceding Fish's birth, including two members of the family who died in institutions. Fish was five years old when his father died, and his mother placed him in an orphanage while she worked to support herself. Records describe young Fish as a problem child who "ran away every Saturday," persistently wetting the bed until his eleventh year. Graduating from public school at age 15 he began to call himself "Albert," discarding the hated first name which led classmates to tease him, calling him "Ham and Eggs."
As an adult, Fish worked odd jobs , making his way across country as an itinerant house painter and decorator. In 1898 he married a woman nine years his junior fathering six children before his wife ran away with a boarder named John Straube, in January 1917. She came back once, with Straube in tow, and Fish took her back on the condition that she send her lover away. Later, he discovered that his wife was keeping Straube in the attic, and she departed after a stormy argument, never to return.
By his own account, Fish committed his first murder in 1910, killing a man in Wilmington, Delaware, but his children marked the obvious change in Fish's behavior from the date of his wife's first departure. Apparently subject to hallucinations, he would shake his fist at the sky and repeatedly scream, "I am Christ!" Obsessed with sin, sacrifice, and atonement through pain, Fish encouraged his children and their friends to paddle him until his buttocks bled. On his own, he inserted numerous needles in his groin, losing track of some as they sank out of sight. (A prison X-ray revealed at least 29 separate needles, some eroded with time to mere fragments.) On other occasions, Fish would soak cotton balls in alcohol, insert them in his anus, and set them on fire. Frustrated by agony when he began slipping needles under his own fingernails, Fish lamented, "If only pain were not so painful!"
Though never divorced from his first wife, Fish married three more times, enjoying a sex life which court psychiatrists would describe as one of "unparalleled perversity." (In jail, authorities compiled a list of eighteen sexual perversions practiced by Fish, including coprophagia -- the consumption of human excrement.) Tracing his sadomasochism back to the age of five or six, when he began to relish bare-bottom paddlings in the orphanage, Fish's obsession with pain was focused primarily on children. Ordered "by God" to castrate young boys, he impartially molested children of both sexes as he traveled around the country. Prosecutors confidently linked him with "at least 100" sexual attacks in 23 states, from New York to Wyoming, but Fish felt slighted by their estimate. "I have had children in every state," he declared, placing his own tally of victims closer to 400.
For all that, Fish was careless in his crimes, frequently losing jobs "because things about these children came out." Arrested eight times over the years, he served time for grand larceny, passing bad checks and violating parole or probation. Obscene letters were another of his passions, and Fish mailed off countless examples to strangers, their addresses obtained from matrimonial agencies or newspaper "lonely-hearts" columns.
In 1928, posing as "Mr. Howard," Fish befriended the Budd family in White Plains, New York. On June 3, while escorting 12-year-old Grace Budd to a mythical children's party, he took the child to an isolated cottage and there dismembered her body, saving several pieces for a stew which he consumed.
Two years later, with the Budd case still unsolved, Fish was confined to a psychiatric hospital for the first time. After two months of observation, he was discharged with a note reading: "Not insane; psychopathic personality; sexual type." In 1931, arresting Fish once more on a charge of mailing obscene letters, police found a well-used cat-o'-nine-tails in his room. He was released after two more weeks of observation in a psychiatric ward.
Compelled to gloat about his crimes, Fish sent a letter to the Budd family in 1934, breaking the news that Grace was dead, oddly emphasizing the fact that "she died a virgin." Traced by police through the letter, Fish readily confessed to other homicides, including children killed in 1919, 1927, and 1934.
Authorities disagreed on his ultimate body-count, detectives listing at least three more victims in New York City. Arrested for questioning in one case, Fish had been released because he "looked so innocent." On another occasion, a trolley conductor identified Fish as the man he saw with a small, sobbing boy on the day of the child's disappearance. A court psychiatrist suspected Albert of at least five murders, with New York detectives adding three more, and a justice of the New York Supreme Court was "reliably informed" of the killer's involvement in fifteen homicides.
At trial, the state was desperate to win a death penalty, overriding Fish's insanity defense with laughable psychiatric testimony. Speaking for the state, a battery of doctors declared, straight-faced, that "Coprophagia is a common sort of thing. We don't call people who do that mentally sick. A man who does that is socially perfectly all right. As far as his social status is concerned, he is supposed to be normal, because the State of New York Mental Hygiene Department also approves of that."
With Fish's rambling, obscene confessions in hand, the jury found him sane and guilty of premeditated murder. Sentenced to die, Fish was electrocuted at Sing Sing prison on January 16, 1936. It took two jolts before the chair, short-circuited by all the needles Fish had planted in his body, could complete its work.
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