The Tragic Story of a Boy who was Abused and Became a Monster

Carl Panzram was one of America’s most vicious killers

In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and, last but not least, I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry. — Carl Panzram

Carl Panzram was known by many different aliases; regardless of the name used, he was one of the most destructive killers ever known. When he was finally captured, he had been in and out of prison a total of nine times. It is thought that he could have killed as many as one hundred men during his reign of terror.

The Birth of a Monster

Charles Carl Panzram was born in Minnesota on 28th June 1891 to parents of German descent. Panzram was one of five, born on a dirt farm he believed he was born to work. When his father walked out on the family, his work hours increased. He was lucky if he got three hours of sleep a night.

At the age of eight, he was arrested for being intoxicated in a public place. Unfortunately, his behaviour did not improve, and at eleven, he was again arrested for theft of food and a gun.

His mother decided that the only thing to do was send him to Minnesota State Training School known as Red Wing. Red Wing was a brutal place where boys in their care were brutalised and raped. One of the buildings, known as the Paint House, was where most beatings took place. The Paint House, because you left black and blue. Panzram burnt this building down, never telling anyone. It was then that some of the other boys suggested the way out of Red Wing was to conform and tell the religious teachers what they wanted to hear.

One year later, Panzram was released back to his mother as a reformed student, or at least that is what his teachers thought. Unfortunately, his brothers then took over the role of beating him.

Riding the Rails

Panzram persuaded his mother to send him back to school. Again, he did not do well there and got into an altercation with one of his teachers when he pulled a gun on him. The gun dropped to the floor, and Panzram ran, choosing to become a hobo riding the trains, like so many others.

Unfortunately, this adventure only added to the breakdown of his soul. Whilst riding the rails, he was twice gang-raped by several men also riding the trains. This was when he learnt that strength meant that you survived. So he adopted the saying ‘might makes right.’

Whilst riding the rails, he fed himself through robbery; during this time, he was again arrested and sent to a juvenile prison. Shortly after arriving there, with another inmate, he escaped and again went on the run across the country, robbing and burning churches. During this time, he was drinking one night in a bar when he heard about joining the army and decided this was for him; he was sixteen at the time.

Lying about his age, he enlisted. He was dishonourably discharged some two months later for theft and insubordination. William Howard Taft, who would later become president, agreed Panzram should be sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for two years.

In and Out of Prison

Leavenworth was a brutal place where guards controlled inmates through violence and inhumane treatment. Panzram was released after two years to resume his career of drifting and stealing; he was nineteen at the time.

On 1st June 1915, Panzram was caught for selling stolen goods from a house robbery. He was sent to Oregon State Penitentiary, Salem, another notoriously violent prison. As he entered, he informed the warden Henry Minto that he would not serve his complete seven-year sentence. Minto was known to rule the prison with violence and controlled beatings.

Within the first year in Salem, Panzram escaped with fellow prisoner Otto Hooker. During the escape, Hooker killed warden Minto. On capture, Panzram was tried for accessory to murder and returned to prison; it was his first experience of killing. His time back in prison included beatings and spending sixty-one days in solitary confinement.

Finally, it was said when he left segregation, his muscles were so weak he could not walk. However, this did not stop him from sawing the bars from his cell window and jumping out to escape. He adopted the alias of John O’Leary and started on his murder campaign. A man consumed with rage.

Murder Spree

In 1920, Panzram broke into William Taft’s house and stole money and a gun. He blamed Taft for his incarceration in Leavenworth and the start of his downward spiral. He thought the ultimate revenge would be to commit multiple murders with Taft’s gun. He used the money he stole to purchase a yacht called Akista.

With the Akista, he would invite sailors aboard to drink with him; he would then rob, sodomise them and kill them, dumping their bodies at sea. Panzram killed ten men during this initial spree. One year later, he ran the boat ashore, which allowed two of his victims to escape. Panzram knew he needed to leave the area, using false documents he obtained a seaman’s licence, jumping a boat to Africa.

Killing Abroad

Once in Africa, Panzram carried on killing. He used to encourage homeless boys to work for him. He would then repeatedly rape them, killing them and dumping their bodies. He also persuaded six rowers to take him to see the crocodiles; he shot each of them, feeding their bodies to the crocodiles.

The US were aware of his killing in other countries; however, as long as he wasn’t their problem, they did not pursue him abroad. He moved to various countries ending in Lisbon, Portugal, where he found out that the net was once again closing in on him. In 1922, he jumped onto another ship and returned to the US.

River Pirate

Once back in the US, he stole another boat, passing it off as the Akista. He sailed up and down the Hudson River as a pirate, robbing, raping and killing men. He later stated in his autobiography that he raped men to have the ultimate power over them. He never said he was attracted to men sexually, although he had no relationships with women.

In June 1923, he was once again captured by authorities for shooting a man he said was trying to rob him. To obtain bail, he sold the stolen boat to his lawyer for the bail bond. However, he immediately skipped bail, heading across the country again, raping, stealing and killing.

Captured Again

After a botched robbery at a train depot, he was placed in custody, where he informed the police, that authorities wanted him in various other states. The police did not believe him. He was sentenced to five years at Clinton Correctional Facility, which was another brutal prison. During his time at Clinton, he was beaten by many guards; he also set light to several buildings.

In 1928 he was once again released and went on another rampage of robbery and murder.

Finally, in August, he was apprehended in Washington DC and held on bail. Whilst in prison, he boasted to other inmates about the number of people he had killed. This time the authorities took his claims seriously and investigated them. All his other crimes and aliases came to light.

Trial and Death

When he went to trial, he was sentenced to twenty-five years. He defended himself and admitted all the crimes. Panzram appeared to be pleased he had been caught. In a strange twist, he was sent back to Leavenworth for this sentence.

As he entered Leavenworth, he told the warden he would kill the first person who annoyed him. The authorities took his threats seriously and, kept other prisoners away from him, sending him to work alone in the laundry.

He was, however, supervised by one foreman. Panzram beat him to death in June 1929. His final trial was on the 14th April 1930, where he taunted witnesses; after forty-five minutes of deliberation, he was sentenced to death.

Despite several charities and campaigners trying to commute his sentence to life imprisonment, he rejected all their work. Panzram even wrote to the current president Herbert Hoover to ensure that the death penalty would remain. He saw death row as a form of suicide.

On 22nd September 1930 at 0603, Panzram was hung; he was thirty-nine. He spat at the executioner, his final words being:

Hurry up you Hoosier bastard, I could have killed ten men while you’re foolin around.

No family came forward to claim his body. So instead, he was buried under his prison number in the cemetery at Leavenworth.

The Making of a Monster

Several events in Panzram’s life led to his violence. Reports state that his family performed a home operation on him for an ear infection as a child. The surgery could have damaged the part of the brain that dealt with his rage control. It is clear that shortly after this operation, he was arrested for the first time. At thirteen, he started train hopping and was raped multiple times.

For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry. — Carl Panzram

Panzram also serves as evidence that corporal punishment does not rehabilitate offenders. The brutal treatment he received first at Red Wing and then in prison resulted in him hating all humanity. As a result, he learnt to hate others as well as himself.

Lessons can still be learnt when we look at his story concerning corporal punishment. Especially in light of the brutality claims at Rikers Island, brought to public attention through the Kalief Browder story.

The only man who treated Panzram with any form of compassion was a prison officer named Henry Lesser. After Panzram had taken a beating, he gave him money to purchase cigarettes.

During their friendship, Panzram would tell him stories about his life; Lesser provided Panzram with paper to write his autobiography. It is this book that provides us with much of the evidence of his crimes. However, unlike other books written by serial killers, it is free from exaggeration. Authorities have checked every fact, and it is an accurate account of his life. Had more people shown Panzram the kindness Lesser did in his final years, his story may have been very different.

I was so full of hate that there was no room in me for such feelings as love, pity, kindness or honor or decency. — Carl Panzram