September 21, 2013

Leavenworth Inmate Index: Carl Panzram

No, this is not about a relative of mine, thank God... at least not THIS time, heh heh (yes I actually do have distant cousin connections to a serial murderer, and I'll write about him in a future entry).

I make a habit of looking on the home page of to check for new and updated databases, and I happened to see that one of the links was to a database for the Leavenworth, Kansas U.S. Penitentiary Name Index To Inmate Case Files, 1895-1936.

There were at least two infamous criminals that were incarcerated at Leavenworth in the late 1920's and early 1930's: Carl Panzram, one of the most misanthropic and vicious serial killers in American history, and Robert F. Stroud, who would become known as "the Birdman."

Although they were both at Leavenworth in 1929, and although their cells were within hearing range of each other (Panzram became accustomed to the sound of Stroud's canaries), they would never actually meet face to face.

Stroud became fascinated by Panzram and mentioned him in a book he wrote called Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons. Indeed, the two men had a lot in common: both were of German descent, had run away from their respective homes in early adolescence, were highly intelligent, dangerous murderers, and both wrote books while in prison.

Stroud had been at Leavenworth since 1912; Panzram arrived in February of 1929, having been transferred from the Washington D.C. Penitentiary.

This was not Panzram's first stint at Leavenworth; he had served two years there from 1908-1910, shortly after enlisting in the U.S. Army at age 16-- his sentence was approved by then-Secretary of War and former president William Howard Taft. In 1920, Panzram would break into a house in New Haven, Connecticut, stealing bonds, jewelry... and a Colt M1911 .45 caliber handgun.

The house's owner happened to be William Howard Taft, and that gun would be used in several of Panzram's murders.

While in the D.C. Penitentiary in the fall of 1928, Panzram had been befriended by a young, idealistic novice prison guard named Henry Lesser. The guard had taken pity on Panzram, who had recently been tortured for trying to escape, and sent him a dollar-- a generous gift in those days. As Panzram came to trust and confide in Lesser, he encouraged Panzram to write his autobiography. Panzram finally agreed, and Lesser secretly supplied him with lined notebook paper and pencil (writing instruments and paper were forbidden to inmates). What emerged was a shocking account of lifelong abuse, crime, and torture. Panzram describes how he went from Minnesota farm boy to hardened habitual criminal who hated humanity and sought to avenge himself by doing as much harm to other people as he could; he hated himself as well. Panzram includes his very cogent ideas and observations about the criminal justice system, including the warning that the then-present system of beatings and abuse only made bad men worse, along with crime.

Carl Panzram Leavenworth mugshot, 1929

Lesser made it his mission to get his friend's manuscript published; in 1929, he sent it to H.L. Mencken, a leading journalist of the time, who called it "the most amazing document I have ever read." Times were different then, however-- the public more naive and less able to handle the nature of Panzram's book. So it was not until 1970 that Henry Lesser was able to get it published under the title Killer: A Journal of Murder. Considering that its author was a lifelong criminal with a 6th-grade education, the manuscript is remarkably well-written, sometimes even funny (Panzram had a witty turn of phrase). He could be surprisingly sensitive and introspective; I don't know of any other murderers who had the understanding that they were evil and who wished to know more about what made them the way they were. For Panzram's part, he admitted that he was prone to lie and steal even as a small child, but that the various institutions he was in and out of since age 11 which tried to be beat religion and righteousness into him only served to make him meaner and more hateful. He believed that had be been treated more humanely, "there wouldn't be quite so many people in this world who have been robbed, raped, or killed."

When Panzram was transferred to Leavenworth, he kept in touch with his friend Henry Lesser by letter (many of his letters to Lesser are included in the book). Panzram was assigned to work in the laundry, but disliked his supervisor-- as did most other inmates who worked under him, because he wrote them up for the smallest infraction of the rules. When said supervisor wrote up Panzram for laundering more handkerchiefs than he was supposed to for extra money, Panzram's response was to beat his head in with an iron bar. This last murder landed Panzram on death row; far from being upset, he was thrilled-- he wanted to die, and even argued that justice demanded it. He actually wrote an anti-death penalty group that offered to intervene on his behalf, "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." Somehow the idea of anti-execution advocates being threatened with murder by the very guy they are trying to save is quite funny.

Panzram got his wish, and was hanged on the morning of 5 September 1930, at the age of 39. He was reported to have practically danced up the scaffold steps, and when asked by the hangman if he had anything he wanted to say, his answer was, "Yes-- hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard, I could hang ten men while you're fooling around!"

Stroud reported in Looking Outward-- in a chapter dedicated to "Panzeran"-- that the condemned had spent the evening prior pacing his cell and singing.

Stroud was, in a sense, luckier, and escaped a sentence of execution by hanging, getting it commuted to life imprisonment. He, like Panzram, had a reputation for violence, although he seemed to have a nurturing side; he began rescuing sparrows at Leavenworth in 1920. He raised and sold canaries while incarcerated at Leavenworth and later at Alcatraz.; he became an expert on bird-related diseases, writing two books on the subject, and also studied studied law. Still an inmate, he died of natural causes on 21 November 1963-- the day before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, at the Medical Center For Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. 

Robert Stroud Leavenworth mugshot, 1920's
I found Robert Stroud's name in the Leavenworth index, but for some reason, I could not find Panzram's. Though Panzram had used many aliases in his transitory, criminal life, he had given his real name since he'd been arrested in D.C. I made allowances for misspellings, and still could not find him... weird. Maybe the index isn't yet complete.

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