Carl Panzram, the Making of a Monster
Described by others as a “one-man crime wave” and “too evil to live”—and by himself as “the spirit of meanness personified”—serial killer Carl Panzram (1892-1930) stands alone not only for his blazing streak of unimaginably brutal crimes that lasted nearly two decades, but for his rare ability to articulate his motivations and jaw-dropping lack of remorse.
Despite claiming to have murdered 21 victims and being suspected of many more, Panzram was never arrested for murder. He was in and out of custody his entire life—his first scrape with the law was a drunk and disorderly charge at age eight—but was only convicted of murdering one man, a prison guard he beat to death with an iron bar in front of other horrified inmates.
His large, muscular stature and burning, steely eyes made him attractive to a certain breed of female, but it is not known if Panzram ever had sex with a woman. The victim of relentless beatings and sodomy at reform school, he turned his rage outward and preyed almost exclusively on other males.
He was born on a Minnesota farm to German parents in 1892, one of six siblings. His father abandoned the family early on and young Carl found ways to get into trouble with breathless ease. At age eleven he was sent to a Minnesota reform school after stealing cake, apples, and a gun from a neighbor’s house. The Minnesota State Training School was known colloquially as “The Painting House,” because children left its doors “painted” with blood and bruises. It was here that Panzram claimed to have been serially raped and tortured by staff members. After two years of such treatment, Panzram burned the school down while managing to escape detection.
He left home in 1906 at age fourteen and began life riding train rails. In his prison confession, he writes about being raped mercilessly by four hobos on a train while he begged in vain for their mercy, a formative experience that made him dead-set on revenge.
A One-Man Crime Wave
From his mid-teens until his final arrest at age 36, Panzram reportedly traveled through thirty countries committing an astounding array of crimes including murder, rape, arson, assault, and robbery. He drifted through the USA, South America, Europe, and Africa and was arrested a staggering number of times, seemingly able to pull off a jailbreak every time he was incarcerated.
While on a drunken bender at age 15 in Montana, he joined the Army but was soon imprisoned at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS due to his congenital incapability to follow anyone else’s orders. Future President William Howard Taft personally approved of Panzram’s sentence for larceny. Capable of nursing lifelong revenge fantasies, years later Panzram would burglarize Taft’s house, steal his gun, and use it to commit a string of murders. He would later claim that his stint at Leavenworth beat out whatever last scrap of good remained in him.
Using aliases such as “Jefferson Davis,” “Jeff Baldwin,” “John O’Leary,” “Jack Allen,” and “Jefferson Rhodes,” Panzram did time in Texas, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Connecticut, New York, Washington, DC, and even Scotland.
During an era where prison life was much more brutal than it is now, Panzram found himself repeatedly beaten and tortured by guards at every turn. Sometimes guards beat him unconscious. More than once he was hung upside-down from rafters for twelve hours at a time while he screamed for mercy. During a 61-day stint in solitary confinement in Oregon, he survived by eating cockroaches.
You must understand something essential here that few people but criminals understand—when the government beats and tortures and kidnaps you, it’s not a crime—it’s “justice.”
But none of those experiences broke his will—they only strengthened his resolve and lust for revenge. By all appearances, Carl Panzram was unbreakable.
Sentenced to seven years in an Oregon prison for burglary in 1915, Panzram vowed to the warden that he would not be confined for his full sentence. He broke out once and was captured, only to break out again and head east. It was then that his murder spree started.
In 1920, Panzram burglarized the Connecticut home of ex-president William Howard Taft, absconding not only with bonds and jewelry, but with Taft’s Colt .45 handgun.
He used the stolen money to buy a yacht. He’d cruise New York City bars to find sailors willing to work on his boat. He’d get them drunk, then rape them and shoot them in the head, dumping their bodies in the water off Long Island. He claims he killed ten men this way, his spree only ending when his boat crashed and sank near Atlantic City, NJ.
With an incredible amount of luck considering the magnitude of his crimes, Panzram was arrested in 1920 in Connecticut on charges of burglary and possession of a loaded handgun. After serving a mere six months, he was released, whereupon he caught a boat to Africa.
In what was then Portuguese Angola, Panzram claimed to have raped and murdered an African boy of 11 or 12, leaving him with his “brains coming out of his ears.” He also said he hired six African men to help him row a boat. He killed all six of them and fed their corpses to crocodiles.
Upon returning to the USA in 1922, he says he raped and killed three young boys, beating one of them to death with a rock. He also says he shot a man to death in New York and is suspected of murdering someone in Baltimore in 1928.
He was arrested for burglary in DC in 1928 and willingly confessed to murdering the three boys. Due to his criminal record, he received a 25-year sentence and was shipped back to Leavenworth. His first day back there, he reportedly told the warden, “I’ll kill the first man that bothers me.”
A year later he beat a laundry foreman to death with an iron bar and received the death penalty for his crimes.
Through it all, the only wisp of regret that Panzram ever expressed was that he didn’t have a chance to kill more. He would write of more elaborate fantasies such as poisoning an entire city’s water supply with arsenic and starting a war between England and the USA by stealing a British ship.
Panzram expressed relief at receiving the death penalty and remained stubbornly impenitent up until his death. He rebuffed an anti-death-penalty group’s efforts to save him by making a death threat against them and reportedly spat in the face of his hangman only moments before his death.
Carl Panzram Autobiography
In 1928, touched by the kindness of a prison guard named Henry Lesser—who gave Panzram a dollar to buy cigarettes as well as pencils and writing paper, which Panzram saw as some of the only acts of human warmth he’d ever experienced—the brutal killer typed out an extremely lengthy confession that is remarkable for not only its eloquence but its unrepentant candor.Download the PDF HERE).
In his memoir, Panzram details the history of his life, murders, and the philosophy that informed his killing spree. Although the typewritten manuscript goes on for more than 20,000 words, it can be summed up in only three—”might makes right.” He details his grisly rainbow of crimes that ranged from robbery to rape to murder.
Panzram blames his crimes on the treatment doled out to him in reform schools and prison: “Is it unnatural that I should have absorbed these things and have become what I am today, a treacherous, degenerate, brutal, human savage, devoid of all decent feeling, without conscience, morals, pity, sympathy, principle or any single good trait? Why am I what I am?”
Henry Lesser held on to Panzram’s manuscript and tried to get it published for nearly four decades, but everyone turned it down due to its unblinking, eyeball-peeling severity. In 1970—over forty years after Panzram wrote it—Lesser finally got it published under the title Killer: The Journal of a Murder. The manuscript was eventually adapted into a 2012 film called Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance.
The Carl Panzram Papers website, hosted by San Diego State University, hosts a PDF of his autobiography as well as a wealth of other documents that include correspondence between Henry Lesser and famed writer H. L. Mencken, who had become fascinated with the workings of Panzram’s mind.
Total Brutality: Carl Panzram In His Own Words
The following quotes are mostly highlights from Panzram’s prison autobigraphy; it is noted when they came from another source. These and other quotes from Carl Panzram are on Quote Catalog.
In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings. I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies Larcenys, [sic] arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. for all of these things I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me. I don’t believe in Man, God nor devil. I hate the whole damed [sic] human race including myself.
In my lifetime I have broken every law that was ever made by both man and God. If either had made any more, I should very cheerfully have broken them also.
I cried, I begged and pleaded for mercy, pity, and sympathy, but nothing I could say or do could sway them from their purpose. I left that box a sadder, sicker, but wiser boy. (Here he describes being raped on a train car by four hobos while in his teens.)
I was so full of hate that there was no room in me for such feelings as love, pity, kindness or honor or decency, my only regret is that I wasn’t born.
You will find that I have consistently followed one idea through all my life….I preyed upon the weak, the harmless and the unsuspecting.
I left him there, but first I committed sodomy on him and then I killed him….His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him and he will never be any deader. (Describing the murder of a pre-teen black boy in Africa.)
We would wine and dine and when they were drunk enough they would go to bed. When they were asleep I would get my .45 Colt automatic, this I stole from Mr. Taft’s home, and blow their brains out. (Describing how he killed workers he’d hired to work on his yacht.)
I look forward to a seat in the electric chair or dance at the end of a rope just like some folks do for their wedding night.
I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen everything but hell and I guess I’ll see that soon.
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. (From a letter sent to the Society for the Abolishment of Capital Punishment on May 23, 1930. They were trying to spare him from the death penalty.)
Yes, hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could kill a dozen men while you’re screwing around! (Said to the executioner while standing on the gallows awaiting to be hanged.)