Everyone is aware there are different types of murders out there. All of them take people’s lives but how they do it in each category is different. In the case of serial killers they kill three or more individuals spaced out over a period of time. They tend to go through phases which include the killing phase, capture phase, aura phase, totem phase, and the depression phase. The phases do not happen in a specific order and not all serial killers experience all of them. Each individual is different. However, during the aura phase the killer becomes withdrawn from reality and tends to have heightened senses. During the killing phase is when the killer actually takes the victims life and that normally leads to the totem phase. This is when the killer tends to take a memento of the ‘moment’. For example, Albert Fish would take body parts to cook and eat. Serial killers may experience a phase of depression after the initial effects of the kill wears off, which is normally why the totem phase takes place (to prolong the experience). There is also the capture phase, which generally takes place prior to killing the victim. During this phase the killer renders the victim helpless in a way in which they cannot escape their captivity (Kitaeff, 2011, p. 102). It is quite complex and disturbing. Let’s move onto a serial killer case that is disturbing and riveting and claimed potentially hundreds of children’s lives.
The Case of Albert Hamilton Fish
Albert Hamilton Fish seemed to be a harmless man. He was a great father and husband and no one suspected he could be such a monster. He was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed about 130 pounds, and was quite frail in his elderly years. Looking at him there was no way of knowing he could pose such a danger (Bardsley, n.d.). One of his known victims was Gracie Budd. He found her after responding to an ad that her brother had placed looking for a job as a farm hand. Fish went to their residence and claimed to be Frank Howard. Mr. “Howard” stated that he would return the next day to pick up the Budd’s son and his best friend to take him back to his farm to begin work. When he returned he stated he had a birthday part to attend and he would like to take Gracie with him, her mother hesitated, but ended up allowing her to go with him. Gracie and the man known to the Budd’s as “Mr. Howard” were never to be seen again (Bardsley, n.d.). The morning after her disappearance her brother, Edward, went to the police to report that his sister was missing. To the families dismay, the address that “Mr. Howard” had given them did not exist. There were only a few solid clues that would help police locate the mystery man who had last been seen with Gracie. They found the original note he had sent from the Western Union Office so they now had a hand writing sample to use for comparison. It also showed that Mr. Howard had some form of education based of the proper use of grammar and how well his writing was. They also found a location in common with the addresses that he had given the Budd’s: East Harlem (CrimeLibrary, n.d). She was not his first victim though. Just a year before Gracie became one of “The Gray Man’s” victims a young boy disappeared from the hall of his apartment building where he was playing with a 3 year old and a 12 year old. The older boy went back into the apartment to check on his sister. When he returned both of the Billy’s were gone. The 3 year old was found on the roof and stated that the boogey man had taken Billy Gaffney. His body was never found (Bardsley, n.d.). Gracie and Billy were not the only victims of Albert Fish. He also abducted and murdered Francisis McDonnel in 1924, among numerous other victims (Jenks & Johnson, n.d.). When an investigator spread rumors that he had new evidence on Gracie Budd’s disappearance the Budd’s received a bone chilling letter detailing what had happened to her. He recounted the memories of him arriving at their address on June 3, 1928. He talked about how he had brought them cheese and that he had invited Gracie to the birthday party he had to attend and that her mother allowed her to leave with him. He also stated in the letter that he had her wait outside of the building while he went inside and stripped down naked. He then waved her to come upstairs and he hid in a closet waiting for her to enter the room. When she did he attacked her, strangled her, and cut her up to take her to his room so he could eat her. He told the Budd’s that it took him nine days to devour her entire body and that he really enjoyed how she tasted. He told them how she had fought him and that she died a virgin even though he could have taken advantage of her if he had wished too (Jenks & Johnson, n.d.). Edward rushed the letter to the authorities where they didn’t want to believe the letter but the hand writing matched that of “Mr. Howard’s” on the Western Union letter. “The envelope had an important clue: a small hexagonal emblem had the letters N.Y.P.C.B.A. which stood for the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association (Bardsley, n.d.).” Because of this clue, the president of the association called an emergency meeting and everyone was questioned and had to give a writing sample. No one matched the writing sample they had for “The Gray Man.” So, the extended the search, they asked if anyone had taken any of the stationary and one man admitted to taking a few envelopes and pieces of stationary that he had left behind at his old rooming address.
When they police gave a description of “Mr. Howard” she was surprised that the description matched perfectly to an older gentleman who had roomed there for a couple of months and had just checked out a few days prior to police arrival. But, to the land lady, he was known as Albert H. Fish. He had asked her to hold a letter for him because he was expected some money from his son who sent him some often (CrimeLibrary, n.d.). Then on December 13, 1934 the land lady called the detective and stated that Fish was at the house. The detective rushed over and when he entered to room asked if he was, in fact, Albert Fish. He was then arrested (Bardsley, n.d.). During his interrogation, Fish confessed to killing Gracie Budd and Billy Gaffney as well as at least 100 more children. Fish told investigators that he had a “blood thirst” and that’s why he took Gracie even though is intentions were to take her brother, Edwards and his best friend. He intended on taking them into the woods, tying them up, and cutting off their genitalia and leaving them to bleed to death. But, when he met Gracie, she is the one that he just had to have. He gave gruesome details, more than he included in the letter, of what he had done to her. He had placed her head on a paint can and proceeded to decapitate her catching most of her blood in the paint can. He cut her to pieces wrapping what he wanted to keep in paper and throwing the rest of a concrete wall of the abandoned building he had killed her in. He told investigators that he was unsure as to why he wanted to kill her and that he had no thoughts of raping her. When they found Gracie’s body he stood nearby and showed no emotion even though he had told those in the interview that he would have given anything to bring her back after he had killed her (Bardsley, n.d.).
Fish had a record with police. He had been arrested at least 6 times and most of them were right around the time that he had kidnapped and killed Gracie Budd. He also spent time in mental institutions as well. He had 6 children, a wife, who left him when his youngest was 3, and took everything (CrimeLibrary, n.d).
When Fish’s picture was seen by a motorman who drove a Brooklyn trolley he was identified as being seen with Billy Gaffney on February 27, 1927; which he also confessed to. He described how he had killed the young boy as well as how he prepared his body for a feast. He said he whipped Billy’s naked body until blood ran down his legs (this was to tenderize the meat), cut off his ears and nose, and split his mouth from ear to ear. Once he was dead he stuck a knife in his belly and drank some of his blood. Fish then cut up the body putting what he wanted to keep in a sack and threw the other parts into the murky water near North Beach (Bardsley, n.d.).
During the time of the interview with Dr. Wertham, a Psychologist, he came across as “meek, gentle, benevolent, and polite (Bardsley, n.d.).” In fact the doctor stated “If you wanted someone to entrust your children to, he would be the one you should choose (Bardsley, n.d.).” Boy, how his appearances were very misleading. According to Wertham, Fish’s attitude in about the ordeal was complete detachment. Fish even stated that he was indifferent on living or dying because he felt that he was never quite right. And felt that he was not insane but that he was never able to understand himself and who he was. His entire family had a serious history of mental issues, which could be part of the reason Dr. Wertham believed he was beyond insane.
Fish confided in Dr. Wertham that he had at least 100 more victims than anyone knew about as well as how he would torture himself. He claimed to have stuck needles in his body between his rectum and scrotum. The doctor was skeptical until an x-ray confirmed what he had told the doctor; needles he pushed in to far were still there. He also stated that he would soak cotton balls in alcohol and stick them in his rectum and set them on fire, he also did this to some of his victims. He told the doctor “I always had a desire to inflict pain on others and to have others inflict pain on me. I always seemed to enjoy everything that hurts (Bardsley, n.d.).”
At the age of 55, Fish began to experience hallucinations and delusions. He seriously believed that his actions were dictated by God himself. God told him that he was supposed to kidnap, mutilate, and kill young boys. His children had witnessed him standing on a hill with his hands raised stating, “I am God!” They also testified that they had seen him beat his naked body with a board full of nails until his body was covered in blood. These things lead Wertham to believe that Fish was suffering from a religious psychosis. When Fish recounted how he killed and cooked Billy, Dr. Wertham noticed that he spoke matter of factly and that he seems to get some sort of gratification and thrill from what he had done (Anderson, n.d.).
His trial only lasted ten days and it took the jury only an hour to return a verdict of guilty. The guilty by reason of insanity did not work and he was sentenced to the electric chair. While Fish was not happy with the verdict (he said God still had more work for him to do), he was intrigued by the fact that he was going to die by an electric chair. He even thanked the judge for granting him this punishment (Anderson, n.d).
According to Dr. Wertham, who testified at the trial, he believed that Fish was legally insane. With his history of mental issues, his hallucinations and delusions, Wertham found Fish to be “an introverted (concerned with his self and actions rather than others) and extremely infantilistic personality (mentally under developed) (Bardsley, n.d.). Dr. Wertham labeled Fish as having a paranoid psychosis due to his abnormal makeup and because he suffered from delusions and hallucinations that God was giving him commands to conduct the horrendous acts. It was believed that Fish had “a perverted, a distorted — if you want, an insane — knowledge of right and wrong. His test was that if it had been wrong he would have been stopped, as Abraham was stopped, by an angel (Bardsley, n.d.).”
Psychological Causes of his Crimes
Albert Fish was a gruesome serial killer, one that no one will ever be able to understand fully. A serial killer is defined as an individual who commits at least three murders over a spanned period of time. It is believed that having a history of abandonment, abuse, neglect, and domestic violence may play a role in individuals becoming serious killers (Kitaeff, 2011, p. 101). And, contrary to what some believe, serial killers can and normally do lead what we see as normal lives. They have families, are active in the community, and do not keep to themselves. However, they do feel the need to be in complete control and if they do not feel they are they feel helpless and powerless. Fish’s father died when he was young, his mother sent him to an orphanage where he was repeatedly beaten and sexually abused, all of which could have contributed to what he became (Kitaeff, 2011, p. 102).
Fish seems to fall into the typologies of visionary and hedonistic. The visionary typology states that offenders are normally psychotic and they tend to see and hear things that tell them to commit their crimes. Hedonistic is when a murder kills for their pleasure and tend to exhibit “bizarre aspects which defy any degree of rational behavior (Kitaeff, 2011, p. 103). They also tend to be sadistic and brutal, and in Albert’s Fish’s case, he was all of the above. He brutally tortured many of his victims and then he would savor the kill by cooking up body parts to eat them (Bardsley, n.d.).
It is safe to say that Albert Fish was not all there. However, can it really be proven that he did not know right from wrong? After all, he did begin to kidnap, torture, and kill before he began to have hallucinations. Even after he seemed to have an understanding that what he was doing was night and he was disconnected and didn’t really care if he lived or died. He believed he was doings God’s work but stated that he was unsure as to why he really did the things he did. Maybe his rough past had something to do with turning him into the monster he become. But, can we ever really know? It truly is a scary thought because many believed he was just an amazing, caring father who was very kind and polite; not the monster he really was. It just goes to show that appearances can be dangerously deceiving.
Anderson, S. E. (n.d.). The Crime and Trial of Albert H. Fish: Divine Hunger. Retrieved September 29, 2012 from The African American Experience Web site:
http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc_print.aspx?fileID=C8336&chapterID=C8336-618&path=books/greenwood Bardsley, M. (n.d.). Albert Fish. Retrieved September 29, 2012 from TruTV.com Web site:
http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/fish/index.html CrimeLibrary.com (n.d.). Albert Hamilton Fish. Retrieved
September 29, 2012 from Murderpedia Web site:
Jenks, A., & Johnson, G. (n.d.). Albert Hamilton Fish. Retrieved September 28, 2012 from Radford University, Psychology Web site: http://maamodt.asp.radford.edu/Psyc%20405/serial%20killers/Fish,%20Albert%20_2008,%20spring_.pdf Kitaeff, J. (2011). Forensic Psychology. Upper Saddle River, NY: Prentice Hall.