Mug Shot of Albert Fish in 1903 after an arrest for grand larceny (New York Daily News)

The Life & Crimes of One of America's Most Deranged Killers

There are few killers in American history that are remembered today as being as deranged and fiendish as the seemingly kind and harmless, Albert Fish. He looked like every child's favorite grandfather but behind the quiet facade of his silver hair and mustache lurked a hideous monster who preyed on the young and the innocent with his horrific "instruments of hell" -- a meat cleaver, a butcher knife and a saw. He was the self-admitted molester of more than 400 children during a span of 20 years and in the words of one of the shocked psychiatrists who examined him, he lived a life of "unparalleled perversity." Albert Fish remains one of the oldest men ever executed in the electric chair but it was a death that came too late for many of his victims.

After his capture, Fish would blame the conditions of his childhood for his crimes. Although he was related to ancestors who fought in the American Revolution, Fish was abandoned at an early age and placed in an orphanage, where he saw and experienced his first brutal acts of sadism. He had been born in 1870 in the Washington D.C. area and later married and raised six children. He had minor public education and mostly worked as a handyman and a painter. It's likely that his psychosis actually manifested much earlier but according to the testimony of one of his children, his weird and unpredictable behavior did not begin to surface until January 1917. It was at this time that his wife ran away with John Straube, a slow-witted handyman who boarded with the Fish family. Fish returned from work one day to find the house deserted and stripped of its furniture.

Mrs. Fish was apparently a bit odd herself. She once returned to her husband with Straube at her side and asked if they could move in with the family. Fish said that she could but that her loved could not and so she agreed and sent Straube away. Days later, Fish discovered that his wife had actually secreted Straube in the attic and he lurked there while she smuggled food up to him. Again, Fish told her that she could stay but that Straube had to leave. They both departed this time and the family never saw Mrs. Fish again.

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Soon after, Fish began to behave very strangely. He took his family up to their summer home, Wisteria Cottage, in Westchester County, New York for outings and they would watch, terrified, as he climbed a nearby hill, shook his fist at the sky and repeatedly screamed, "I am Christ!". Pain seemed to delight him. Whether inflicting it on himself or others, he took strange pleasure in being whipped and paddled. He encouraged his own and neighbor children to paddle his buttocks until they bled, often using a paddle that was studded with inch-and-a-half nails. He also inserted a large number of needles into his body, mostly in the genital region, and burned himself constantly with hot irons and pokers. He even answered classified ads placed with widows seeking husbands. His letters --- 46 of them were recovered and entered as evidence at his trial -- were so obscene and vile that the prosecution refused to make them public. Basically, Fish told the lovelorn ladies that he was not as interested in marriage as he was in their willingness to paddle him. None of the women accepted his offers.

Albert Fish in the 1930's (UPI Photo)

On night of the full moon, his children later testified, Fish would consume huge quantities of raw meat. Over the years, he collected a great amount of published material on cannibalism and he carried the most gruesome articles with him on his person at all times. Before he ever turned to murder, Fish was examined several times by psychiatrists at Bellevue but he was always released and judged "disturbed but sane."

When and where Fish first became a murderer is unknown. He confessed to six killing and referred vaguely to dozens more, although the victims, dates and places were lost to his hazy memory. He did confess to murdering a man in Wilmington, Delaware; mutilating and torturing to death a mentally retarded boy in New York in 1910; killing a Negro boy in Washington also in 1919; molesting and killing four year-old William Gaffney in 1929; and strangling to death five year-old Francis McDonnell on Long Island in 1934. The most sensational murder carried out by Fish was the abduction and horrific slaughter of Grace Budd in 1928. Her abduction led to a man hunt that lasted for six years. The police have given up hope of ever solving her mysterious disappearance until a slender clue, gleaned from an anonymous letter sent to the girl's parents, led detectives to Albert Fish.

Fish introduced himself to the Budd's in a way that never raised suspicions with the hard-working family. Albert Budd, Grace's father, earned a modest living as a doorman but it never seemed to be enough to adequately take care of the entire brood, which consisted of his wife, Delia, eighteen year-old Edward,  Albert Jr., Grace and the youngest child, five year-old Beatrice. To help his father make ends meet, Edward advertised in the May 27, 1928 issue of the New York World Telegram for a job. His ad read: "Young man, 18, wishes position in the country," followed by his name and address.

That same afternoon, a nicely dressed Albert Fish answered the ad and showed up at the Budd home in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. He introduced himself as Mr. Frank Howard, a farmer from Long Island who was willing to pay $15 per week to a willing young worker. The family could scarcely believe Edward's luck and good fortune and quickly invited Mr. Howard into the house. After hearing Fish's description of the farm, Edward readily accepted the position Mr. Howard promised to return the next week and take not only Edward out to the farm, but his friend Willie as well. Howard stressed that he had enough work for both of the young men.

Fish did not return as promised on June 2, the following Saturday, but he did send an apologetic telegram, and arrived on Monday instead. Impressed by his manners, the Budd's greeted him warmly and invited him to stay for lunch. Fish behaved just like a visiting grandfather and passed out treats and dollar bills to the children. He presented two of the bills to Eddie and Willie and while he had a prior engagement, he promised to return that evening to pick them up and take them to his farm. However, he had a special treat for the oldest daughter, Grace, he told her trusting parents. If they were agreeable to the idea, he wanted to take her to a children's birthday party at the home of his married sister at 137th Street and Columbus Avenue. The Budd's readily agreed and Grace left with Fish, holding onto his hand, still wearing the pure, white dress that she had worn to church that morning. The two of them walked off down the street together. The Budd's waved goodbye to their little girl -- and never saw her alive again.

(Left) Grace -- standing far right) with her mother, older sister and her younger brother.

(Right) A Likeness of Grace that was featured in newspapers and tabloids at the time of her disappearance. (Bettman Archives)

When Grace did not return home that night with Mr. Howard, the Budd's were concerned but not overly worried. They assumed that the party has lasted late and that she had likely spent the night with Mr. Howard's sister. They tried hard to convince themselves of this, even into the following morning, when there was still no sign of Grace. Finally, Albert Budd decided to go to the address himself and inquire after his daughter. However, he soon found that the address where Howard's sister supposedly lived did not even exist -- Columbus only went as far as 109th. This made his next stop the closest police station, where he was referred to the Missing Persons Bureau and eventually to veteran detective, William King. The detectives were suspicious of the situation right from the start. It did not take them long to find that there was no Frank Howard with a farm on Long Island. This also meant that there was no real clue to the abductor's true identity. The man had covered his tracks well, even going as far as to retrieve the telegram that he had sent to the Budd's. He claimed that he was going to complain to Western Union because it had been addressed incorrectly.

Regardless, King and other members of the Bureau started a long and arduous search for the Western Union copy of the telegram. It was the only link that he had with Grace's kidnapper and three postal clerks spent more than 15 hours sifting though tens of thousands of duplicates with King before they found the one that Howard had sent. The only clue it provided was that it had been sent from an office in East Harlem. The idea of searching every home in that part of the city was first considered and then abandoned as a physical impossibility. King then focused on another slim link -- a small pail of cheese and a carton of strawberries that Howard had purchased for Mrs. Budd. He told her that they were fresh from the farm. Investigators scoured the East Harlem area until they found the delicatessen where Howard had bought the cheese and they also found the street peddler who had sold him the strawberries. The peddler described the man in detail but could recall nothing else significant about him. That trail also ran cold...

One of over 1,000 circulars that were sent out by the NYPD to police departments around the country. The flyers never turned up any leads
(New York Daily News)

Grace Budd's disappearance started a widespread search through New York City that fall, particularly when the detective and the family went to the media with the story. Grace's photo appeared on the front page of newspapers and garnered hundreds of tips, leads and investigation advice from an angry and panicked public. Thousands of circulars were printed and sent out to police departments throughout the United States and Canada but with no results. The Budd's grew more and more despondent as lead after lead went nowhere. A couple of months after Grace vanished, even the most dedicated investigators --- with the exception of Will King -- had given up on the case as hopeless.

King was already a legend in New York law enforcement circles and he was the only investigator who never gave up hope. Not a day went by when he did not think of Grace and her grieving parents and when he did not put in at least some time on the case, following up long shots and making calls. He never let a lead cross his desk that he did not look into.

 At one point, King was sure that he was onto his man when he received a file on a gray-haired con man and forger named Albert Corthell, who was on the run for trying to abduct a little girl from an adoption agency. King tracked Corthell for months, chasing him from city to city across the country. He finally caught up with him and was crushed when he found out that Corthell had been in prison in Seattle when Grace was taken.

 Corthell turned out to be one of two strong leads that King pursued over six long years. Another suspect, Charles Edward Pope, was also arrested and actually charged in Grace's kidnapping. However, Mrs. Budd, the principal witness in the case, admitted in court that she had picked out the wrong man. It turned out that Pope had been blamed for the kidnapping by his vindictive ex-wife. He was subsequently released.

Around the same time that Corthell and Pope were being exhaustively investigated by the police, another gray-haired old man was arrested in New York and was charged with sending obscene materials, mostly letters, through the mail. The letters were sent with Fish pretending to be a well-known Hollywood movie producer and in them, he offered large sums of money to women who might engage in sadomasochistic orgies with him. After his arrest, he was committed to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue for a ten-day observation. While there, the letter writer claimed that, although his friends knew him as Albert, his real name was Hamilton Fish and he was a relative of the famous New York family of the same name. He would tell the same story again when arrested for Grace Budd's murder four years later. Strangely, there has never been any reason to doubt that he may have actually hailed from this prestigious family stock. Fish remained in Bellevue for nearly 30 days in the winter of 1930. He was polite and cooperative and the doctors judged him sane, although with sexual problems that they attributed to dementia caused by his advancing age. He was thought harmless and was released from the hospital into the custody of his daughter Anna.

Meanwhile, years were passing in the Grace Budd case and despite Detective King's ongoing efforts, it appeared that her vanishing would never be solved. Then on November 11, 1934 -- six years after she had been kidnapped -- Mrs. Budd received an unsigned and anonymous letter in the mail. The letter claimed to be from a friend of someone named "Captain John Davis". According to the letter writer, Captain Davis was a seafaring man who, on one of his trips to China, developed a taste for human flesh, namely the flesh of children, during a famine in the Far East. The letter then described in graphic terms how Captain Davis, after returning to New York, had kidnapped and murdered two young boys, had cooked their flesh and had eaten it.  After learning from Davis that the flesh of children was "good and tender", the deranged letter writer decided to try it for himself. He had visited the Budd home for lunch and had taken the girl away with him.

Mrs. Budd sobbed hysterically as the letter went on to detail how he had taken Grace to an empty house in Westchester, New York. He let her pick flowers in the garden while he stripped himself naked. He called her into the house and when she saw the grizzled and naked old man, she began to scream. She tried to run away, he wrote, but he caught her, stripped her and then choked her to death. Then, he dismembered her body and cooked and ate the smaller pieces. Bizarrely, the letter described how Grace had been killed and cut up but went to extremes to assure Mrs. Budd that she had not been sexually molested in any way. "She died a virgin", the writer assured the anguished mother.

After the horrific letter, investigators went into action, pulling out all stops to find the monster who had written it. The investigation was again led by Detective King, who had deferred his retirement two years earlier so that he could continue to work on the Grace Budd case. King immediately found "Mr. Howard's" original Western Union telegram blank and there was no doubt about it -- the handwriting was the same. "Howard" and the letter writer were one and the same person. King used a microscope on the letter and discovered an almost indiscernible design on the flap of the envelope. It turned out to be the letters N.Y.P.C.B.A. and a quick search through the Manhattan telephone directory revealed the letters to stand for the New York Private Chauffeur's Benevolent Association, headquartered at 627 Lexington Avenue. The association gladly opened its files to Detective King and he spent hours checking the backgrounds and handwriting of their 400 employees. Sadly though, he did not come up with a match. Undaunted, he called all of the employees together and questioned them rigorously. He also added an appeal for any information the drivers might have that could help him with the case. He offered immunity for theft of the letter writing materials and envelopes  --- all he wanted was to catch the sadistic child killer.

After his appeal to the drivers, King retreated to a private office in the association's headquarters and hoped that his assurances would pay off. A few minutes later, a nondescript man in a chauffeur's uniform named Lee Sicowski knocked on the door. He told Detective King that he had a habit of taking the association's stationary home with him and using it. In fact, Sicowski explained, he had left some of the unused notepaper and envelopes in a room that he had occupied at 622 Lexington. Detectives raced to the rooming house but there was nothing there. King then urged Sicowski to think of anywhere else the stationary could have been. Sicowski then remembered that he had also spent some time in a cheap boarding house at 200 East 52nd Street. He might have left some of it there.

This address turned out to be a flophouse but it was here that investigators struck gold. The landlady, Mrs. Frieda Schneider, stated that Sicowski's old room was recently occupied by a man who fit Frank Howard's description. His name was actually Albert Fish. Carefully, checked the signature in the room register and he was convinced that the handwriting was the same as that of the letter writer. However, Fish had recently checked out of the place but he was in the habit of receiving a monthly check from one his sons. It was always sent to the 200 East 52nd Street address. King was prepared to invest a few more weeks in the hunt for the killer and so he took a room at the flophouse at the top of the stairs, which gave him a view of the entrance and the upstairs and downstairs hallways.

He waited for three days and then on December 13, 1934, King received an urgent call from the flophouse. He had left to return to the station and file some paperwork when the landlady called -- Fish was back! When he returned to the house, Mrs. Schneider met him at the door. Fish had come back a half hour earlier and to stall until the detective could get there, she had given him a cup of tea and invited him to sit down. Trying to remain clam, King drew his revolver and walked into the room where Fish waited. What he found was a harmless-looking, white-haired old man with a scraggly mustache and watery blue eyes. He was sipping at a cup of team. Detective King identified himself and the Fish made no effort to conceal his own identity. Then, the detective asked Fish to accompany him to police headquarters for questioning.

King was then shocked and stunned when the seemingly harmless old man reached into his pocket and lunged at King with a vicious straight razor in his hand! Fish was no match for the solidly built officer though and King grabbed him by the wrist and twisted it until the razor dropped to the floor. He quickly handcuffed the old man and searched his pockets. To his horror, he found that Fish's pockets were crammed with assorted sharp knives and razors. He then turned the man around to face him and stared into his withered face. "I've got you now," King said triumphantly, ended a six year manhunt.

Albert Fish and his relentless pursuer, Detective Will King (New York Daily News)

At the police station, Fish became more resigned to his arrest and confessed to succumbing to his "blood thirst" in the summer of 1928. His original victim, he explained, had been intended to be Edward Budd, who had placed the classified ad. However, when he got to the Budd house and saw the size of the stocky teenager, he changed his mind and set his sights on the more vulnerable Grace. He freely confessed to kidnapping the girl and taking her to Wisteria Cottage in a place called Worthington Woods, in Westchester County. His recall of the day when he kidnapped the girl was clear after six years, as the old man had probably relived it in his mind over and over again. He had bought a round trip train ticket to Worthington Woods for himself and a one-way ticket for Grace. And he also remembered that when they were changing trains, he had left a bundle behind on the seat. Grace, trying to be helpful, ran back and retrieved it for him. Inside of the bundle were Fish's grisly tools of death -- a cleaver, saw and butcher's knife -- and Grace happily handed them over, never knowing that they would taste her flesh a short time later. After arriving at Wisteria Cottage, Fish systematically strangled the girl, beheaded her and dismembered her body, dissecting her torso at the waist, and then he cut her up and ate her over a nine-day period. Investigators later reported that Fish grinned as he described draining her blood and drinking it.

(Left) The haunting and abandoned Wisteria Cottage. (Above) The Skull of Grace Budd was discovered buried with other pieces of her skeleton beside a wall behind the cottage. (New York Daily News)

The horrified detectives then made their own trip to Wisteria Cottage and recovered the skeletal remains of Grace Budd, buried in pieces beside a stone wall behind the cottage. Detective King finally had his killer -- but Fish couldn't stop confessing. He described other murders that he had committed between 1910 and 1934. Much of what he told police turned out to be false or exaggerated but he still provided enough details to convince the investigators that he had killed before. Some have even suggested that he may have killed dozens of people! The detectives were also chilled to discover that Fish had been arrested in the New York area six times since the disappearance of Grace Budd on charges that ranged from petty larceny, to vagrancy, to sending obscene letters through the post office.  Three of the arrests occurred in the three-month period after Grace had been kidnapped but each time the charges against him were dismissed. As for the other arrests, he walked free each time with either a short period of incarceration or a fine. No one ever guessed that the old man was a depraved killer.

One of the few people not surprised at the arrest of Fish was his son, Albert Fish Jr. "That old skunk," he said in a newspaper interview, "I always knew that he would get caught for something like this." He went on to tell of his father's penchant for raw meat and how he had come home one day to find his father stripped naked and beating himself with a heavy board that was studded with sharp nails. He threw the old man out of his house shortly after. He concluded his interview in disgust. "I've never wanted anything to do with him and I'll not left a hand to help him."

Fish was examined by teams of doctors and he relished the notoriety. He described his fetishes and perversions to the fascinated psychiatrists, telling of inserting needles into his scrotum (later X-rays revealed 29 rusty needles in his body) and inserting wool that was doused with light fluid into his anus and setting it on fire. One psychiatrist in particular, Dr. Frederic Wertham, got remarkably close to Fish before and after his trial. He later wrote that Fish "looked like a meek and innocuous little old man, gentle and benevolent, friendly and polite. If you wanted someone to entrust your children to, he would be the one you would choose." However, he then went on to describe Fish as the most complex example of a "polymorphous pervert"  he had ever known --- someone who had practiced every perversion and deviation known to man, from sodomy to sadism, eating excrement and self mutilation. He even confessed to Wertham that he had carried Grace's ears and nose back to New York with him, wrapped in newspaper. He placed the bundle on his lap as he traveled by train and quivered with excitement as he thought about what was inside.

One of the X-Rays of Fish's pelvic region revealed 29 needles that had been inserted in his body and left there. (New York Daily News)

Like the other examining physicians, Wertham judged Fish to be insane. He said that Fish was a sadist of incredible cruelty, a homosexual and a pedophile with a penchant for young children. As a self-employed painter, Fish had skulked around basements and cellars for 50 years and preyed on scores of innocent children. He could not begin to guess how many victims the man had claimed "but I believe to the best of my knowledge," Wertham concluded, "that he has raped one hundred children, at least."

Fish's attorney, James Dempsey, told the jury at trial, mentioning the needles and the nail-studded paddles, that they were dealing with a tragic mental case. "We do not have to prove that he is insane," Dempsey told the jury. "Rather it is up to the state to prove that he is sane." Dempsey only had one question for the lead psychiatrist for the defense, Dr. Wertham, but that one question about Fish's sanity took an hour and fifteen minutes to read. It was 15,000 words long and covered 45 type-written pages. Wertham only used three words to reply: "He is insane."

This stunt did nothing to convince the jury though and whether they believed he was insane or not, they wanted to see the killer punished. He was found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Fish had only one response to this verdict: "Going to the electric chair will be the supreme thrill of my life."

 He came to Sing Sing prison in 1935 carrying a Bible and handcuffed to another murderer, named Stone, whose forefathers had also fought in the American Revolution. Dozens of appeals to save Fish were rejected and he was scheduled to die on January 16, 1936. As his appointment with the electric chair grew closer, Fish told reporters that he was looking forward to his execution. "It will be the only thrill I have not tried," he reportedly said. On January 16, Fish ate his last meal (a steak) and without aid, entered the death room and walked briskly to the electric chair. He climbed into the seat and readily helped the guards fix the electrodes to his legs. The reporters and witnesses who were present were aghast at his behavior. He could barely manage to contain his joy at going to  a violent death.

Legend has it that death did not come as quickly as Fish might have liked. When the switch was pulled, according to the story, the first massive jolt of over 3,000 volts failed to kill him. Blue smoke appeared around him but that was all and it has been surmised that the needles that he had put into his body actually created a short circuit. Another, prolonged and massive charge had to be sent through his body in order to execute him -- or so the story that circulated went. In truth, Fish died just like anyone else. When the current raced through him, his body surged and his fists clenched. Moments later, the doctor on duty pronounced that Fish, the oldest man ever executed at Sing Sing, was dead.

While the old man's corpse was being taken out to the autopsy room, his defense attorney met with reporters. In his hand, he held Albert Fish's final statement, several pages of hand-written notes that he had penned in the hours before his death. To this day, the statement has never been revealed. "I will never show it to anyone," Dempsey said. "it was the most filthy string of obscenities that I have ever read."

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Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.