Albert Fish, the Werewolf of Wisteria
WORLD HISTORY | January 27, 2019
Albert Fish. Source: (wikipedia.org)
One of the oldest men to be executed in the electric chair, Albert Fish earned many nicknames including the Gray Man, the Boogeyman, and the Werewolf of Wysteria. He has also been referred to as “a real-life Hannibal Lector.” Despite his grandfatherly demeanor, Fish was a cannibalistic serial killer and child molester who preyed on children in the early 1900s.
Born on May 19, 1870, as Hamilton Howard Fish in Washington, D.C., Fish was no stranger to mental illness. His mother experienced hallucinations and at least two members of his family died while institutionalized. Due to his mother’s instability, he was sent to St. John’s Orphanage, where he was humiliated and abused by his teachers. He eventually changed his name to Albert to avoid being mocked by schoolmates.
In 1898, Fish married Anna Mary Hoffman, with whom he had six children. His psychotic behavior began after she left him for a handyman named John Straube. She later returned but brought Straube with her, sneaking him into the attic when Fish refused to let him stay. Once Fish discovered Straube living in the attic, he insisted he leave and Mary left with him. After their departure, Fish took his children to live at Wisteria Cottage in Westchester County, New York where he began self-mutilating, inserting needles into himself, and asking children to paddle him. His children claimed he’d eat large amounts of raw meat during the full moon.
Fish confessed to dozens of murders but only three of his victims are known. The first was an eight-year-old boy named Francis McDonnell, reported missing on July 14, 1924. Witnesses saw him walking off with a man with a gray mustache. Francis was later found hanging from a tree, having been strangled with his suspenders, with the flesh stripped from one of his legs. According to Fish’s confession, the body had been spared further mutilation only because someone had shown up, forcing him to flee to avoid discovery.
His second victim, four-year-old Billy Gaffney, was murdered on February 11, 1927. According to the friends who were with Billy just before he disappeared, “the bogeyman took him.” The primary suspect at the time was another serial killer named Peter Kudzinowski; however, after Fish’s photo appeared in a newspaper, he was identified by a witness who had seen him with a child resembling Billy on the day he disappeared. Fish later confessed to the crime, but Billy’s body was never recovered.
Fish’s third victim, which would lead to his capture, was ten-year-old Grace Budd. On May 27, 1928, Fish responded to an ad in the New York World-Telegram, posted by Grace’s eighteen-year-old brother, Edward, who was looking for work. Fish had intended to murder Edward but changed his mind after he discovered Grace. On June 3, 1928, under the alias of Frank Howard, he charmed the family with his trustworthy demeanor, convincing them to let him take Grace to a birthday party at his sister’s house. The family never saw Grace again. They soon discovered the address he had given as his sister’s residence didn’t exist.
Detective William King led the investigation into Grace’s disappearance. But Fish had covered his tracks well, the only clue being a copy of the telegram he’d sent in response to the ad. Eventually, all the detectives except King gave up on the investigation. King continued to follow every lead that came up, even going so far as to postpone his retirement to continue the investigation. Years passed with no success.
On November 11, 1934, Mrs. Budd received an anonymous letter from a writer who described in detail how he’d kidnapped and strangled Grace before dismembering her and eating her flesh, though he made a point to assure the mother he hadn’t molested her daughter. Abhorrent as it was, the letter provided the first real clue to the whereabouts of Grace’s killer. King discovered the letters N.Y.P.C.B.A. under the flap of the envelope. This led him to Lee Sicowski, an employee of the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association, who confessed to stealing stationery from work. After considering all the places Sicowski might have left the stationery, King visited a boarding house whose landlady, Frieda Schneider, informed him that Sicowski’s old room had recently been occupied by a man named Albert Fish who met the description of Grace’s kidnapper.
On December 13, 1934, King received a call from Mrs. Schneider informing him that Fish had returned to the boarding house. She then stalled Fish until King could get there. While Fish initially resisted, he eventually confessed to the abduction and murder of Grace Budd, giving the police a detailed account of the events. After hearing his story, police went to Wisteria Cottage, where the murder had occurred, to recover Grace’s body. Fish went on to confess to other murders, including some which turned out to be false. However, other potential victims include twelve-year-old Yetta Abramowitz, sixteen-year-old Mary Ellen O'Connor, and multiple unnamed victims. He also confessed to torturing and castrating nineteen-year-old Thomas Kedden in 1910, while still married.
Fish was examined by multiple psychiatrists after his arrest, including Dr. Frederic Wertham who estimated Fish had raped at least one hundred children. All the doctors concluded Fish was insane. Fish’s attorney, James Dempsey, attempted to use the insanity defense, but the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. In response to the verdict, Fish stated, “Going to the electric chair will be the supreme thrill of my life.” On January 26, 1936, Fish was sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison and witnesses say he gleefully assisted the guards in attaching the electrodes to his legs before being executed.
Tags: Albert Fish, cannibal, child molester, 1900s, electric chair, insanity, murderer | Albert Fish, the Werewolf of Wisteria
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