Carl Panzram: The Serial Killer Who Used A President’s Gun
"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."
Carl Panzram is one of the strangest, most horrific and most compelling serial killers in history. An extraordinary sociopath, Panzram confessed to murdering at least 22 people - 3 of them little boys - and raping over 1,000 men. He burned churches and escaped more prisons than most of us knew existed. He was driven by an incredible hate for humanity, which included himself. He was arrested on burglary charges and dropped a dime on himself, satisfied to be getting the death penalty. In his final years he wrote a memoir, one that is shockingly articulate, intriguing and - most of all - completely self-aware.
"You will find that I have consistently followed one idea through all my life: I preyed upon the weak, the harmless and the unsuspecting."
In his final days Carl Panzram was a hulking monster, a six foot tall man of 200 pounds, all muscle and bulk. He was bald and wore a huge mustache. His body was covered in tattoos, including a giant eagle on his chest and the words LIBERTY and JUSTICE under his pecs. His small eyes burned with fury and hatred.
But at the beginning he was just a little baby. Panzram was born in 1891 on a small farm in Minnesota. His parents were tough German immigrants, and he was the youngest of five children. His father left the family and his strict mother was stuck working in the fields all day, keeping her children in line with severe discipline. It didn’t help; at age 8 young Carl was brought before a local judge for being drunk. At age 12 he was in trouble again, this time for burglary. He was sent to reform school - a brutal juvenile prison.
In the school, which was run by Christians, Carl was beaten and raped. He got his revenge by burning down one of the school buildings - the beginning of a very eventful arson career. Eventually he figured out to lie to the powers that be and to play a good, reformed boy, and they let him go.
"I was reformed all right...I had been taught by Christians how to be a hypocrite and I had learned more about stealing, lying, hating, burning and killing. I had learned that a boy's penis could be used for something besides to urinate with and that a rectum could be used for other purposes..."
Carl returned home to work on the farm and go to school. That didn’t go so well. He hated his teacher so much that he brought a gun to school to kill the man in front of the class. Carl ended up in a fight with the teacher and the gun dropped from his clothes. He fled Minnesota, taking to the rails.
On the road he continued to learn pain and misery. He was gang raped by a group of hobos. The railroad cops were brutal, sadistic monsters. In Montana he was arrested, again for burglary. He spent time in another reform school, again being savaged. This time he fought back, trying to kill a guard with a wooden plank.
In 1907 Carl and another inmate escaped and headed west. Along the way they robbed churches... and then burned them. That was Carl’s favorite pastime, and he left a string of destroyed churches behind him. He blamed many of his personal problems on the religion that had been forced on him in Minnesota.
"Naturally, I now love Jesus very much. Yes, I love him so damn much that I would like to crucify him all over again!"
When he was 16 Carl ran into an Army recruiter at a bar. He lied about his age and signed up for the service; on his very first day as a soldier a drunken Carl was brought up on insubordination charges after he refused a work detail. Things didn’t get any better for Carl, and eventually he got busted robbing the supply closet. He was sentenced to Leavenworth.
Things had been bad in his previous jail experiences, but nothing prepared Carl for the horrors of Leavenworth. At the turn of the century the American penal system was a terrifying world of torture and cruelty. Prisoners in Leavenworth were not allowed to speak; any who dared utter a word was beaten savagely. Carl’s memoirs includes a harrowing examination of the different methods of torture used, each with a charmingly colloquial name: A Dose of the Salts, the Humming Bird, The Snorting Pole.
Carl was 16 years old.
“Well, I was a pretty rotten egg before I went there, but when I left there, all the good that may have been in me had been kicked and beaten out of me."
In 1910 Carl was freed from Leavenworth. What had been sort of an aimless ugliness in his personality had been hardened into something evil, and he would begin terrorizing everyone he met. He again headed southwest, burning churches and riding the rails. Except now, at six feet and easily 180 pounds, no one was assaulting him. Instead he began making a point of raping as many fellow hobos as he could.
"Whenever I met one that wasn't too rusty looking I would make him raise his hands and drop his pants. I wasn't very particular either. I rode them old and young, tall and short, white and black. It made no difference to me at all except that they were human beings."
At one point Carl, having stolen a gun during a burglary, robbed a railroad cop at gunpoint - and then proceeded to rape the man. That wasn’t enough, though, and he forced two other hobos to also rape him.
He would be arrested again and again, usually under false names. He escaped from many, many jails across the country, sometimes being arrested days later two towns over for another burglary.
He eventually ended up in Deer Lodge State Prison in Montana. He spent a few years there, this time as the man who ruled the ward.
“I would start my morning with sodomy.”
Carl had finally come into his own, physically and mentally, and he began to change from a bad man into a real bad man.
After release from Deer Lodge, Carl headed east. This time he found himself in New Haven, Connecticut, and this is where things got weird. As usual, Carl was burglarizing as many homes as he could. One day in 1920 he broke into a home and discovered it belonged to a very famous man: William Howard Taft.
By 1920 Taft’s time as president was already over and he was sitting on the Supreme Court. But Carl had a very personal connection with big old Taft; when Carl had been in the service Taft had been Secretary of War. That means the orders that sent Carl to Leavenworth had been signed by Taft. Carl was holding a grudge.
So Carl robbed the house, and along the way he stole Taft’s personal gun. He had bad, bad plans for that gun.
Carl didn’t just take the gun from Taft, he also ended up with about three grand in cash. He drifted down to New York City where he bought himself a yacht, which he named the Akista. Seeing the press of would-be sailors that hung around the docks at the South Street Seaport, Carl had himself a bright idea.
"Then I figured it would be a good plan to hire a few sailors to work for me, get them out to my yacht, get them drunk, commit sodomy on them, rob them and then kill them. This I done."
"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."
Carl slaughtered ten men this way, unceremoniously dumping their bodies out at sea. He did this for about three weeks before the locals began getting suspicious, and he decided to set up shop elsewhere. He hired two more men to help him get the Akista south, intending to kill them when they reached the final destination. Lucky for those two a big storm hit and the Akista was wrecked. The two men, by now having figured out Carl’s less then savory tastes, escaped from the wreckage.
Carl was adrift again. He got involved with labor disputes, which mostly gave him an excuse to brawl, and he ended up jailed yet again. After a gun battle with the police (another day in the life of Carl Panzram), he stowed away on a ship and ended up in Angola, on the south western African coast.
He got a job with Sinclair Oil* but his ways weren’t changed with a new continent. If anything, the racism and disparity of the time led Carl to some new heights of evil. He bought himself a girl, who was guaranteed to be a virgin - but he returned her that night because he didn’t believe it. Instead he was given an 8 year old girl, also claimed to be a virgin, but again Carl thought hwe was being taken. He decided to go back to boys, something he knew very well. It’s unclear whether Carl ever had sex with a woman.
"A little nigger boy about 11 or 12 years old came bumming around,. He was looking for something. He found it, too. I took him out to a gravel pit about ¼ mile from the main camp of the Sinclair Oil Company at Luanda. 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."
Next Carl hired a canoe with six Africans. His plan was simple: he wanted to find crocodiles. And he found plenty of them. Upon coming across a batch of crocs, Carl shot his six men and fed them all to the crocodiles.
In 1922 Carl made his way back to the United States, stowing away on boats and having various misadventures along the way. He was getting notorious, and he had some troubles with the US Consulate, but eventually he was back in New York. Since he still had the papers for the Akista he had the bright idea of stealing a similar boat and passing it off as his own.
Carl made his way up and down the east coast of the United States. He spent a little time in a hospital and, on his way out, robbed their drug room. He made some money selling the cocaine and pain killers. Speaking of killing, he kept on doing that; the murder of the boy in Angola must have awakened something in Carl, as he went for another boy in Salem, Massachussetts.
"I grabbed him by the arm and told him I was going to kill him... I stayed with the boy about three hours. During that time, I committed sodomy on the boy six times, and then I killed him by beating his brains out with a rock...I had stuffed down his throat several sheets of paper out of a magazine."
"I left him lying there with his brains coming out of his ears."
Carl finally stole that boat and repainted it to match the Akista. He spent some time as a river pirate on the Hudson, and then he decided to try and sell the new boat. The prospective buyer had his own crime in mind, and tried to rob the boat from Carl at gunpoint. Carl shot him and ended up in prison.
He wanted to get out, and so he hired a shady lawyer and promised the guy the Akista should Carl get bail. The lawyer worked some magic and Carl skipped town, leaving the lawyer to discover that the boat was actually stolen property - Carl had totally swindled him.
Carl returned to Connecticut, and in New London he raped and murdered another little boy. This time Carl also sodomized the body after death. The corpse lay undiscovered for days, by which time Calr had already left town.
And this is where the story of Carl Panzram gets really weird.
Carl broke into the train station in Larchmont, New York, looking to do some good old fashioned robbery. A cop interrupted him, and Carl attacked the officer with an axe. There was a scuffle and somehow Carl - standing six feet, 200 pounds, filled with a fire of sheer hate, was subdued and arrested. He was taken to Dannemora Prison. And he confessed. To everything.
There was some confusion, and at first the police thought he was a chiseler - a guy who just confesses to stuff to get preferential treatment. So Carl was released, and he went to Baltimore, where he robbed and killed a man and once again confessed to everything.
Eventually it became clear that Carl was telling the truth, and possibly leaving out some murders along the way. There was a trial, and he was sentenced to 25 years in Leavenworth.
Carl’s mind didn’t stop working on murder while he was in prison. He had new plans, bigger plans. Plans for mass destruction.
“I intended to wait until a fast all-steel Pullman train, the Capitol Limited or the National Limited, came along. I intended to have a large contact bomb in the middle of the tunnel fixed so that when the engine struck the obstruction, the bomb would explode and wreck the engine and block up that end of the tunnel. The explosion would set off and burst some large glass containers of formaldehyde and other gas and also set fire to a few hundred pounds of sulphur. The gas fumes thus generated and let loose in the closed tunnel would, in a very few minutes, kill every living thing on the whole train in the tunnel. I would be stationed at the rear entrance to the tunnel behind a barricade and armed, ready to shoot down anyone who had life enough to try and get out of the tunnel. As soon as I was assured that all were dead, I would put on a gas mask and an oxygen tank, such an outfit as is used in mine rescue work, then enter the cars to rob the train.”
He also wanted to blow up a train trestle in New York, and poison the water of Dannemora, New York, where he had been held earlier. His biggest, weirdest plan was to start a war between Britain and the United States by sinking a British battleship in US waters. The reason? He would have invested in stocks (using money he earned from his train attacks) that would rise should there be a war. He would play Wall Street in order to profit off a false war he started. James Bond should have fought this guy.
In prison Carl met Henry Lesser, a guard. Unlike the other guards, Lesser treated Carl with a small amount of kindness and dignity, and they became friends. Carl also met Robert Warnke, foreman of the prison laundry. Warnke rubbed Carl the wrong way, and he beat the man to death with an iron pipe. Carl’s sentence was changed to death.
Lesser gave Carl a pencil and paper, and Carl recorded his amazing, compelling memoir, which would eventually be published under the title Killer: A Journal of Murder. In the book Carl, utterly unrepentant, muses on what formed him into this vicious destroyer of humanity, into a man whose real life goal was to kill as many people as he could.
"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?"
As Carl sat on Death Row, an anti-death penalty group tried to get him a stay of execution. Carl was pissed off about this and sent them a letter asking them to stop in his own inimitable Carl Panzram way.
"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."
"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... I have no desire whatever to reform myself. My only desire is to reform people who try to reform me, and I believe that the only way to reform people is to kill 'em!"
Carl was hanged on September 5, 1930. He went happily to the gallows, after spending his last night on earth pacing in his cell singing filthy ditties he wrote himself. When he got to the platform where he would die, he spat in the executioner’s face. Carl was asked if he had any last words. This is what he said:
"Hurry up you Hoosier bastard, I could kill ten men while you're fooling around!"
* This sounds too good to be true, but it is: Harry F Sinclair, founder of Sinclair Oil, briefly ended up in prison during the Teapot Dome Scandal. Where did he go? Leavenworth, which is where Carl was awaiting his execution.
Panzram painting by Joe Coleman.
Thanks to Ant Timpson.