Carl Panzram is referred by many as the most sadistic American serial killer. For 18 long years, the 6-foot tall, tattooed man with cold gray eyes acted as a single-man crime wave. He robbed, raped, and murdered from one city to the next in multiple countries.
This cold blooded killer, lived with more than a dozen aliases. No one knew anything about him while he lived, no one came close to guessing that all the hundreds of heinous acts were done by a single man until the November of 1928.
Before his death, he confessed to 21 killings and more than 1000 male rapes and for these he said, “I am not the least bit sorry.” He was evil personified, and in his own words he "had no conscience, never believed in man, God, or the devil." “I hate the whole damned human race,” he quoted while documenting his life chronicles in jail. He only lived for 39 years, in which he committed thousands of atrocities, and left victims in his wake.
He left his musings with his only known friend Henry Lesser, a 26 year-old jail guard.
But how did Carl come to be?
Carl’s Early Life
Carl was born in East Grand Forks, Minnesota on June 28, 1892. He was raised with five other siblings by his parents John and Matilda Panzram who were immigrants from Germany. His life of crime began at a tender age of 11 and the rage was enhanced by different events in his life. 1n 1903, be broke into a neighbor’s house and stole some apples, cakes, and a revolver. After the break in, his life took a drastic turn and he became the cold blooded, narcissistic killer that he was known to be.
After the house breaking incident, he was sent to Minnesota State Training School where his rage and hate for everything human was intensified. While there, the staff members raped him and beat him up. He was often tortured and made to do nasty things like dancing naked to the staff members. This was all in the name of what the attendees christened “The Painting House”. Pupils from this school would leave bruised, bloodied, and broken down.
According to his musings, he spent two years in the Minnesota State Training School, after which he was pronounced a "reformed boy". He was taught by Christians about God and objective morality, although none of this stuck with him. In fact, it had the opposite effect. When he finally left, he knew what he wanted with his life. He had made up his mind that he would rob, rape, burn, and destroy anything that stood in his wake.
Coming back home, Carl did not fit. Following the inhumane torture he had gone through and all the atrocities that had been done to him, he felt an emptiness that he filled with drugs and alcohol throughout his teenage years. He was always drunk and in trouble with the authorities for burglaries and theft, as well as a host of other crimes.
At age 14, when he could not take his home life anymore, he decided to elope. He traveled via car trains from city to city where he continued his theft, burglary, and harassment. On one of the trains, Carl was gang raped. A group of hobos attacked him inside the train and then gang raped him. This is where his hate for the human beings started. In his words, "he hated the human race", himself included.
Becoming a Criminal
A year after he eloped from home, Carl was drinking at a saloon in Montana as was his norm and in a drunken decision he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He did not last long in the army before being convicted of larceny and being imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth’s U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. He served a jail term from 1908 to 1910 as approved by William Howard Taft, the then Secretary of War. According to Panzram, it is during his imprisonment that all the goodness left in him sublimed and he lost hope for humanity. Had he had a nuclear bomb by then, he would have bombed the whole world to end it.
After he was released from jail, he was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army. Soon after, he went back to his theft, robbery, raping, and destructive acts. He stole bicycles, yachts, food, and he was apprehended and imprisoned many times. In his writings, he says that all a country can do is apprehend him, try and convict him, send him to jail for a few years and then let him loose and he gets back to being himself. He would go back to being the ruthless and cold-blooded murderer that he was and he was okay with that.
He was imprisoned for different counts of atrocities in different jails and reform schools. Half his life was spent in jails, prisons, and reform schools, about 20 years. In these institutions, he served under his name and a number of aliases. He served in Montana State Reform - School in Miles City as Jeff Davis; in Montana State Prison as Jefferson Rhodes; Sing Sing Correctional Center in New York as Jeff Baldwin; Bridgeport, Connecticut as John O’Leary; Clinton Correctional Facility, New York as John O’Leary. He was also sentenced once in Washington D.C.
While incarcerated, Panzram was in frequent squabbles with guards. He would attack them, insult them, harass them, and fail to follow their orders. As retaliation, the guards would beat him and subject him to other forms of punishments. He would also rape and harass his fellow inmates.
In his words, Carl was ‘rage personified’ and he used to rape before robbing. Being 6-foot tall and having a large stature gave him an advantage over his victims. Having been exposed to hard labor in most of the prisons he was sentenced, he had built his physical strength, which became a weapon against the men he raped. He was always in vandalism and arson, and because his whole life was all about robbery and other acts of atrocities, he was able to rape more than 1000 men and young boys.
The Robberies and Murders
If there was a Carl Panzram book to tell all his criminal activities, the book would fill a library. To him, every day he was alive was a good day to perform a heinous act. In some days, he would carry out multiple criminal activities, and to him, that was normal. In his musings to his prison guard friend Henry Lesser, he talks of some of the major criminal activities that got him arrested and some that were never detected.
Quick Note: If you want to read more about Carl Panzram I couldn't recommend Panzram: A Journal Of A Murder more. It features lots of his original autobiographical writings and is a highly interesting read.
On June, 1915, he broke into a house in Astoria, Oregon. While trying to sell items he had stolen, he was apprehended by the police, convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison. On June 24, the same year, he started serving his sentence at Oregon State Penitentiary, Salem. There was nothing to rectify his behavior in this facility. According to him, the prison only made him worse.
Warden Harry Minto, in Salem, was a firm believer in punitive measures in jail. He tortured, beat, isolated, and mistreated the inmates. While in Salem, Panzram swore to never do the seven year sentence. He defied the warden and the guards and started looking for ways to escape. The same year he was imprisoned, he helped Otto Hooker, a fellow inmate, escape from prison. Otto tried staying away from recapture and in doing so, he killed Warden Harry. This was the first known time that Panzram was involved in a murder case. He was taken as an accessory for the case.
While at Salem, Panzram took part in hundreds of disciplinary actions due to his defiance to orders from authorities. He spent a 61-day solitary confinement in the jail feeding on cockroaches, but never reformed. On September 18, 1917, he escaped from prison. He was recaptured after a number of shootouts with the police and was sent back. On May 12, 1918, he escaped from Salem the second time. He sawed through his cell’s bars for many days to escape. This time, he was careful not to be recaptured. He hitchhiked on a freight headed east and never came back to the Northwest. He shaved off his mustache and changed his name to John O’Leary.
Cold Blooded Murders
His autobiography starts with him accepting that he killed at least 21 people – those that he can remember. He might have killed more than double that number especially given that he had poisoned municipal water with arsenic.
His murder spree started in 1920. In August of 1920, he broke into the home of War Secretary Taft in New Haven, Connecticut. There, he stole jewelry, bonds, and other things and among them was a Colt M1911 .45 Caliber gun. Taft was the one who approved his sentence at Leavenworth Prison and Panzram saw this burglary as payback.
With the stolen handgun, Panzram started a criminal career that lasted 8 years in different countries. He had stolen enough money from Taft to buy himself a yacht, dubbed the Akiska. After he bought the yacht, he used to lure sailors from bars in New York City. He would get them drunk, take them to dark places, rape them, and shoot them with the pistol he stole from Taft. He would dump the bodies of his victims near Execution Rocks Light, in Long Island. In this murder spree, he killed ten people and was neither caught nor suspected.
His yacht sank near Atlantic City. With him were his last two victims who ran away and were able to escape. In fear that he might be reported to the authorities, he fled to Luanda, Portuguese Angola via another ship. A few days after landing, he raped and then killed a young boy, 11 or 12 years old. In his words, “His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him and he will never be any deader."
He had gone to Angola to pursue business, with which he was not successful. Carl hired 6 workers to take him on a crocodile expedition via boat. When the workers launched their boat into the waters, he shot all of them and fed their bodies to crocodiles. No one ever saw the bodies of these rowers again.
He returned to the U.S. after staying for a year or so. On returning to the U.S., Panzram raped and killed two young boys. He beat the first boy to death with a stone in July 18, 1922. Later that year, he strangled the second boy. The boys were from Salem, Massachusetts and New Haven respectively. Despite having said that he will never go to the Northwest he was there again.
In June, 1923, Panzram recorded that he shot a man to death with a .38 pistol that he stole from the Chief of Police in New Rochelle, New York. He also recorded having killed a man while breaking into a home in Baltimore. He also claimed to have killed two Philadelphian boys in 1923 and 1928, after raping them.
Besides the killings that he recounted in his autobiography, Panzram was responsible for mass killings and thousands of heinous acts. At one point, he poisoned the city’s water supply with arsenic.
The End of Panzram’s Criminal Career
Carl was arrested multiple times and released, and he was getting used to the system until he got bored with it. In 1928, he was arrested for the last time. He was in a burglary job in Washington D.C when the police apprehended him. Seeing that he would be released after serving his term, he willingly confessed to having killed two boys. After the confession, he was received a 25 years to life imprisonment to be served at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
He was open with his criminal behavior and he told the warden that he was going to kill the first inmate or guard who bothered him. In light of his statement, he was given a solitary job in the laundry room of the prison. He killed the laundry supervisor in cold blood by beating him with an iron box. This was when he was sentenced to death. Human rights activists tried to plead his case by appealing his death sentence, but he refused to have any appeals. He was a man who made peace with his death and was looking forward to it.
He said about the human rights activists, “The only thanks you and your kind will ever get from me for your efforts on my behalf is that I wish you all had one neck and that I had my hands on it."
After being sentenced to death, a guard, Henry Lesser – 1902-1983 – befriended him and supplied writing materials to him. He wrote an autobiography from a jail cell and this is how people came to know of all the atrocities he commited. His book starts in a straightforward confession for having murdered 21 human beings and having raped more than 1000 males. For all his deeds, he said he never had a tinge of guilt.
How Did Carl Panzram Die?
On September 5, 1930, Panzram was hanged. He resisted having guards place hood over his face by spitting on the face of his executioner. His last words were, "Yes, hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could kill a dozen men while you are fooling around!" He was buried at the Leavenworth Penitentiary Cemetery with his prison number, 31614, inscribed on the grave.
A Carl Panzram movie was released in 2012 to show all the atrocities and criminal activities of Panzram. His biography was written by Karl Menninger as ‘Man Against Himself’ with the book using Panzram’s prison number 31614. Henry Lesser spent four decades trying to look for a publisher who would print Panzram’s autobiography. A book was released in 1970 with the title Killer: A Journal of Murder.
According to his autobiography, Panzram was a loner who never had anyone to appreciate him. His life was marked by negativity and nothingness. His father abandoned ship when Carl was young. He despised everything and had the idea of killing on a mass scale including starting a war between countries.
He used to rape his victims, all of them male. He never showed any interest in females. He might not have been a homosexual, but rape to him was a way of torture. He stayed away from women after he contracted gonorrhea. He was most likely a psychopath with no conscience at all. Even without formal education, his autobiographic manuscripts showed that he was intelligent. As seen on the foreword of Panzram: A Journal of Murder, Panzram was not motivated by sex or money, but by the hatred for humanity.
Some of his murder claims were not proven, but a number of them were. Some of his known victims include:
- Robert Warnke, the prison laundry guard and Panzram’s final victim – 1929.
- John Moore, his teacher at Minnesota State Training School – 1903-1905.
- Bushart, from Montana State Reform School – 1907.
- George Henry McMahon from Salem Massachusetts – 1922.
- Alexander Luszzock from Philadelphia – 1923.
- Alexander Uszacke from Philadelphia – 1923.
Other murders were also confirmed, but the victims were not named.