Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Happy Birthday: Albert Fish 1870-1936 Serial Killer

Hamilton Howard "Albert" Fish (May 19, 1870 – January 16, 1936) was an American serial killer. He was also known as the Gray Man, the Werewolf of Wysteria, the Brooklyn Vampire, and The Boogeyman. A child rapist and cannibal, he boasted that he had "had children in every state," and at one time put the figure at around 100. However, it is not clear whether he was talking about rapes or cannibalization, less still as to whether he was telling the truth. He was a suspect in at least five murders in his lifetime. Fish confessed to three murders that police were able to trace to a known homicide, and he confessed to stabbing at least two other people. He was put on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Grace Budd, and was convicted and executed by electric chair.

The trial of Albert Fish for the premeditated murder of Grace Budd (on the right in the photo below) began on March 11, 1935, in White Plains, New York with Frederick P. Close as judge, and Chief Assistant District Attorney, Elbert F. Gallagher, as the prosecuting attorney. James Dempsey was Fish's defense attorney. The trial lasted for 10 days. Fish pleaded insanity, and claimed to have heard voices from God telling him to kill children. Several psychiatrists testified about Fish's sexual fetishes which included coprophilia, urophilia, pedophilia and masochism. Dempsey in his summation noted that Fish was a "psychiatric phenomenon" and that nowhere in legal or medical records was there another individual who possessed so many sexual abnormalities.

The defense's chief expert witness was Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist with a focus on child development who conducted psychiatric examinations for the New York criminal courts. Over two days of testimony, Wertham explained Fish's obsession with religion and specifically his preoccupation with the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-24). Wertham said that Fish believed that by similarly "sacrificing" a boy it would be penance for his own sins and that even if the act itself was wrong angels would prevent it if God did not approve. Fish had already attempted the sacrifice once before but had been thwarted when a car drove past. Edward Budd had been the next intended victim but he turned out to be larger than expected so he settled on Grace. Although he knew Grace was female, it is known that Fish perceived her as a boy. Wertham then detailed Fish's cannibalism, which in his mind he associated with communion. The last question Dempsey asked Wertham was 15,000 words long, detailed Fish's life and ended with asking how the doctor considered his mental condition based on this life. Wertham answered "He is insane." Gallagher cross examined Wertham on whether Fish knew the difference between right and wrong. He responded that he did know but that it was a perverted knowledge based on his views of sin, atonement and religion and thus was an "insane knowledge." The defense then called two more psychiatrists who supported Wertham's findings.

The first of four rebuttal witnesses was Menas Gregory, the former head of the Bellevue psychiatric hospital who had treated Fish in 1930. He testified that Fish was abnormal but sane. Under cross examination, Dempsey asked if coprophilia, urophilia and pedophilia indicated a sane or insane person. Gregory replied that such a person was not "mentally sick" and that these were common perversions that were "socially perfectly alright" and that Fish was "no different from millions of other people," some very prominent and successful, that suffered from the "very same" perversions. The next witness was The Tombs resident physician, Perry Lichtenstein. Dempsey objected to a doctor with no training in psychiatry testifying on the issue of sanity but justice Close overruled on the grounds that the jury could decide what weight to give a prison doctor. When asked if Fish causing himself pain indicated a mental condition Lichtenstein replied, "That is not masochism" as he was only "punishing himself to get sexual gratification." The next witness, Charles Lambert, testified that coprophilia was a common practice and that religious cannibalism may be psychopathic but "was a matter of taste" and not evidence of a psychosis. The last witness, James Vavasour, repeated Lamberts opinion.

Another defense witness was Mary Nicholas, Fish's 17-year-old stepdaughter. She described how Fish taught her and her brothers and sisters a "game" involving overtones of masochism and child molestation.

The jury found him to be sane and guilty, and the judge ordered the death sentence. After being sentenced, Fish confessed to the murder of eight-year-old Francis X. McDonnell, killed on Staten Island. McDonnell was playing on the front porch of his home near Port Richmond, Staten Island in July 15, 1924. His mother saw an "old man" walk by clenching and unclenching his fists. He walked past without saying anything. Later in the day, the old man was seen again, but this time he was watching McDonnell and his friends play. McDonnell's body was found in the woods near where a neighbor had seen the "old man" taking the boy earlier that afternoon. He had been assaulted and strangled with his suspenders.

Fish arrived at prison in March 1935, and was executed on January 16, 1936, in the electric chair at Sing Sing. He entered the chamber at 11:06 p.m. and was pronounced dead three minutes later. He was buried in the Sing Sing Prison Cemetery. He was recorded to have said that electrocution would be "the supreme thrill of my life." Just before the switch was flipped, he stated "I don't even know why I am here." According to one witness present, it took two jolts before Fish died, creating the rumor that the apparatus was short-circuited by the needles Fish previously inserted into his body.

Many years later, Wertham heavily criticized the prosecution's psychiatric witnesses for making "extraordinary statements under oath" that served to give a "black eye to psychiatry." He maintained that society would have been better served by understanding what made Fish who he was.

No comments:

Post a Comment