Carl Panzram ranks among American history’s most violent and anti-social criminals. A rapist, murderer, thief and sadist, Panzram met what many might consider a well-deserved end atop the gallows at Leavenworth on September 5, 1930. His legacy lives on in the form of his autobiography Killer: A Journal of Murder.
Panzram claimed to have killed 1000 people during his criminal career. It’s at best highly unlikely that he killed anywhere near that many but his crimes speak for themselves. Born on June 28, 1891 in Minnesota, Panzram’s father deserted his family when Panzram was only seven years old. That seems to have been the start of his criminal ways.
“Hurry it up you Hoosier bastard! I could kill ten men while you’re fooling around!” – Carl Panzram to the hangman while standing on the gallows.
Within a year of his father’s desertion Panzram was arrested for being drunk and disorderly aged only eight. He then began a series of burglaries and was sent to the Minnesota State Training School at the age of 11. Panzram later claimed that he was repeatedly beaten and sexually abuse during his time there, claims that may well have been true but remain unverified. His claim to have committed his first murder there, allegedly of a 12-year old boy, also remains unsubstantiated but, given his later crimes, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it confirmed.
In July, 1905 one of the schools buildings burnt down which may well have been his handiwork. The staff didn’t seem to think so, though, as he was released only a few months later. Having entered a different school it didn’t take him long to end up feuding with one of his teachers. A dispute he almost settled with a concealed pistol until he accidentally dropped the gun instead of using it. Much to the teacher’s relief, one suspects, especially when Panzram left the school and started ‘riding the rods’ — illegally hitching ride underneath train carriages.
Another terrible event in his life occurred while he was riding the rods when he was gang-raped by four hobos. The terrible nature of the crime seems to have robbed him of whatever humanity and compassion he might still have possessed. From now on he was a pure predator, devoted entirely to the ideas that might makes right and dog eats dog. He was a feral animal trapped in the body of a man and society was to be made to pay the penalty for his life’s suffering.
One of his trademarks became rape of both men and boys, acting out on a criminal scale. It wasn’t long after the incident that he was back behind bars, this time in another reform school. He didn’t stay long, escaping with fellow-inmate Jimmie Benson. They travelled together for a few months burning churches, committing burglaries and generally raising Cain.
After they’d parted company Panzram made a highly bizarre career move, bizarre for him at any rate. He joined the U.S. Army. His military career was distinguished only by his repeated crimes during his service, He was disciplined repeatedly while in the Army. For insubordination and numerous minor offences saw him spend more time in the guardhouse than anywhere else. After being court-martialled for three counts of theft he was sent to the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for three years and handed a dishonourable discharge.
Military prisons are not places known for their kindness and lack of discipline. At the time Fort Leavenworth as known for its brutality and made no apologies for the suffering inflicted on any inmate that wouldn’t knuckle under. Panzram wouldn’t bend the knee to the staff and they in turn made an example of him whenever they felt like it, which was often. Unable to escape, Panzram had to endure the entire three years until finally being released.
Panzram went back to his nomadic existence. Kansas, Oregon, Washington State, Texas, California, Utah and Idaho all had the displeasure of his company. None liked his arrival and all had cause to celebrate his departure. While on his travels he committed an orgy of crime. Multiple rape, multiple robbery, multiple arson, multiple burglary all formed part of his criminal repertoire until he was jailed many times in many different places. In a particularly personal act of revenge he burgled the Connecticut home of former President William Howard Taft, the same Taft who had signed the order sending him to Fort Leavenworth for those three miserable years.
Buying a yacht with the profits, Panzram sailed up and down the Eastern Seaboard burgling moored yachts as he went. He also took to hiring unemployed sailors as deckhands who he then drugged, raped, killed and dumped overboard. This cruise lasted for three weeks until the yacht was wrecked in a storm. Panzram made it ashore, but soon found himself serving six months for burglary and illegally possessing a firearm.
On his release he stowed away aboard a ship bond for Angola. While working for the Sinclair Oil Company he killed again, this time raping and murdering a young boy. Having hired six Angolans to accompany him on a crocodile hunt he then shot all six and fed them to the crocodiles. He returned to the U.S. by travelling along the Congo through central Africa, sustaining himself by robbing farmers as he travelled along the Gold Coast.
Back in the US he carried on as before, resuming all his previous habitual crimes. In addition to these he also raped and murdered three young boys at different times during this phase of his career. He was caught in New York while burgling baggage at the Larchmont rail depot. Caught by a policeman, he drew five years at the dreaded Clinton Prison. Clinton is also known as Dannemora and the ‘Siberia of the New York prison system.’ Known for its miserable conditions and harsh regime, it’s a terrifying, brutal place to most people. Given his entirely anti-social personality, Panzram probably felt right at home. During his stay there he attempted to burn down the workshops, assaulted a guard and tried to escape. He was severely injured during his escape attempt and, maddened by constant pain, turned to thoughts of mass murder involving the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people.
On his release from Clinton, Panzram was crippled both in mind and body. Despite his physical injuries he was still as much a criminal as ever. He committed robberies and burglaries on an almost-daily basis before being caught again, this time in Philadelphia on July 26, 1928 for strangling a man during a robbery. Panzram seemed to give up on life itself at this point. He knew that whether he received a life sentence or went to Death Row he would never be leaving prison for the rest of his life.
With that in mind, Panzram freely confessed to no less than 22 murders and was also convicted of burglary and housebreaking in November, 1928. During his trial he openly threatened and abused court officers, jurors and witnesses. As a result he drew 25 years at a place he knew all too well; Leavenworth.
Fort Leavenworth had been an unrelenting hellhole for military prisoners. United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth was for civilians, but the general situation for the inmates wasn’t much better. One prison officer, a guard named Lesser, was possibly the nearest thing Panzram had ever had to a friend. Lesser treated him like a human being (unlike many of the other guards) and Panzram became friendly enough to warn Lesser:
“I don’t want to kill you, but I might do anything.”
Panzram caused a stir as soon as he arrived there. Standing right in front of the Warden, he stated loudly and openly that he’d kill the first person he took a dislike to, guard or inmate alike. It wasn’t long before he did exactly that.
On June 20, 1929 he got into a dispute with Robert Warnke who was his supervisor in the prison laundry. He immediately beat Warnke to death with an iron bar. He would have continued killing as he charged round the laundry trying to batter other inmates before being subdued by other prison officers. He was charged with murder on Federal property, a capital offense at that time. Panzram met this latest challenge when his trial started on April 30, 1930. Conducting his own defense, it was no surprise when he was convicted and condemned to hang. Panzram responded to his death sentence by threatening to kill the judge.
On September 5, 1930 the end finally came for Carl Panzram. Despite his horrendous list of self-admitted crimes, there were still people prepared to protest his execution and stop it if they possibly could. Their humanitarian attempts to save his life enraged Panzram. Nine months before his execution he wrote to one of the anti-death penalty organisations, the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. His message was both chilling and brutally simple:
“The only thanks you and your kind will ever get from me for your efforts on my behalf as tat I wish you all had one throat and that I had my hands on it.”