Charles "Carl" Panzram was a high experienced criminal. The serial killer, spree killer, mass murderer, rapist, child molester, arsonist, robber, thief, and burglar was born on June 28, 1891 on a farm in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, the sixth of seven children for East Prussian immigrants Johann "John" Gottlieb Panzram and Mathilda Elizabeth "Lizzie" Panzram (née Bolduan).
He and older brothers (and one younger sister) were all raised on the family farm, and forced to work until truancy laws came into effect which made it illegal for parents to not send their children to school.
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Panzram's parents were unhappy to be losing their children’s labor to schooling, and forced them to work in the fields through the night; Panzram later reported he would get two hours of sleep before he would have to get up for school. Punishments varied from being chained up to being starved of food.
Panzram reflected on his early childhood that he was not liked by other children. He recalled that he became meaner the older he grew. Panzram’s father abandoned the family when he was six or seven years old. Eventually, his older brothers left as well; one of them died.
In prison confessions and in his autobiography, Panzram confessed to twenty-one murders, only five of which could be corroborated; he is suspected of having killed more than a hundred men in the United States alone, plus some in Portuguese Angola.
He also confessed to having committed more than a thousand acts of rape against males of all ages. After a lifetime of crime, during which he served as many prison terms as he made escapes, he was executed by hanging in 1930 for the murder of a prison employee at Leavenworth Federal Prison.
Panzram's run-ins with the law started early; in 1899, at age 8, he was charged in juvenile court with being drunk and disorderly, and in 1903, at age 11, he was arrested and jailed for being drunk and "incorrigible," a term used when detaining youths.
Not long after this second arrest, he stole some cake, apples, and a revolver from a neighbor's home. In October of that year, his mother sent him to the Minnesota State Training School, purportedly a reform school; according to his autobiography, while there he was repeatedly beaten, tortured, and raped by staff members in a workshop the children dubbed "the paint shop" due to leaving the room "painted" with bruises and blood. Panzram hated the school so much that he decided to burn it down, and did on July 7, 1905.
In January 1906, Panzram was paroled from Red Wing Training School, where he had been detained after stealing money from his mother's pocketbook. By his early teens Panzram had an alcohol dependence problem and a lengthy criminal rap sheet, mostly for burglary and robbery offenses.
At age 14, a couple of weeks after his parole and two weeks after attempting to kill a Lutheran cleric with a revolver, in late adolescence Panzram ran away from home to live on the streets. He often traveled via train cars, and later recalled having been gang raped by a group of homeless men on one of these occasions.
Panzram claimed that after escaping from a Montana State Reform School he and a fellow escapee named James Benson committed a string of burglaries, robberies, and arsons throughout the Midwest until the pair split up. In 1907, at age 15, after getting drunk in a Montana saloon, Panzram enlisted in the United States Army and was assigned to the 6th Infantry at Fort William Henry Harrison. Refusing to take orders from officers and being generally insubordinate, he was convicted of larceny for stealing $80 worth of supplies and served a prison sentence from April 20, 1908, to 1910 in the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, United States Secretary of War William Howard Taft officially approving Panzram's sentence. Panzram later claimed that while he had been a rotten egg before imprisonment at the military pen any shred of goodness left in him was smashed out during his Leavenworth stint.
After his release and dishonorable discharge, Panzram resumed his career as a thief. Stealing items that ranged from bicycles to yachts, he was caught and imprisoned multiple times. He served prison sentences both under his own name and various aliases in: Fresno, California; Rusk, Texas; The Dalles, Oregon; Harrison, Idaho; Butte, Montana; Montana State Prison (as "Jeff Davis" #4194 #3194 and "Jefferson Rhodes" #4396); Oregon State Prison ("Jefferson Baldwin" #7390); Bridgeport, Connecticut ("John O'Leary"); Sing Sing Correctional Facility, New York ("John O'Leary" #75182; Clinton Correctional Facility, New York ("John O'Leary" #75182); and Washington, D.C. (Carl Panzram #33379) and Leavenworth, Kansas (Carl Panzram #31614). While incarcerated, Panzram frequently attacked officers and refused to follow their orders. The officers retaliated, subjecting him to beatings and other punishments.
In his autobiography, Panzram wrote that he was "rage personified" and that he would often rape men whom he had robbed. He was noted for his large stature and great physical strength—due to years of hard labor at Leavenworth and other prisons – which aided him in overpowering most men he attempted to; he also engaged in vandalism and arson. By his own admission, one of the few times he did not engage in criminal activities was when he was employed as a strikebreaker against union employees. On one occasion, he tried to sign aboard as a ship's steward on an Army transport vessel, but was discharged when he reported to work intoxicated.
Panzram claimed in his 1929 autobiography that after serving a short sentence at Rusk, Texas, he went to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, in the winter of 1910 to try to enlist in the Federal Mexican Army. He took a train to Del Rio, Texas, and got off in a small town 50 to 100 miles (80 to 161 km) east of El Paso. He later claimed to have abducted, assaulted, and strangled a man about a mile from town and then stolen $35 ($566.12 USD in 2021) from the victim.
In the summer of 1911, Panzram, going by the alias "Jefferson Davis", was arrested in Fresno, California, for stealing a bicycle. He was sentenced to six months in county jail, but escaped after thirty days. He claimed that after his escape while riding on a train boxcar in California he disarmed an armed man he either called a "railway Detective" or a "railway brakeman" whom he then forced to rape a homeless man at gunpoint and threw them off the train. In Oregon he made a living as a logger. In 1913, Panzram, going by the alias "Jack Allen", was arrested in The Dalles, Oregon, for highway robbery, assault, and sodomy. He broke out of jail after two to three months. While he was on the run, he used the alias "Jeff Davis". He was arrested in Harrison, Idaho, but again he escaped from county jail. He was arrested in Chinook, Montana, under the alias "Jefferson Davis" and sentenced to one year in prison for burglary, to be served at the Montana State Prison
On April 27, 1913, Panzram, under alias "Jefferson Davis", he was admitted to the state prison in Deer Lodge, Montana. He escaped November 13 of the same year. He was arrested for burglary within a week, under alias "Jeff Rhoades" in Three Forks. He was locked up in Deer Lodge for another year. He claims he committed sodomy while imprisoned. He was released March 3, 1915 with a new suit, $5, and a ticket to the next town.
He rode the rails to Oregon where on June 1,1915 Panzram burgled a house in Astoria, where he was also arrested while attempting to fence some of the things he stole.
This time under alias "Jeff Baldwin", he was received a seven year stint in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, where he was taken on June 24. Warden Harry Minto believed in harsh treatment for the inmates under his care, beatings and isolation, among other disciplinary measures, were common. Later, Panzram swore he "would never do that seven years and I defied the warden and all his officers to make me."
The same year Panzram helped fellow inmate Otto Hooker escape from the prison. While attempting to evade recapture, Hooker killed Minto. This was Panzram's first known involvement in a murder, as an accessory. In his prison record (which noted alias "Jefferson Davis" and "Jeff Rhodes",) he gave both a false age and place of birth. His stated occupation was "thief".
Panzram was disciplined a lot at Salem, including 61 days of solitary confinement before he escaped on September 18, 1917. After multiple shootouts, he was recaptured and returned to the prison. On May 12, 1918, he escaped again by sawing through the bars of his cell and rode the rails back east. He using a new alias "John O'Leary" and shaved off his mustache. He never return to the Pacific Northwest.
He ended up in New York City and sailed on the steamship James S. Whitney to Panama where he tried to steal a boat with the help of a drunken sailor who killed everyone on board. Panzram travelled to Peru to work in a copper mine. After that, he traveled to Chile, Port Arthur, Texas, London, Edinburgh, Paris, and Hamburg.
In 1920 he committed a robbery in Newport, Rhode Island. In August 1920, at the William H. Taft Mansion in New Haven, Connecticut, residence of William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States. Panzram specifically targeted Taft's mansion for revenge for his time at Leavenworth. He stole a large amount of jewelry and bonds, as well as Taft's Colt M1911 .45-caliber handgun.
With the money stolen from Taft he bought a yacht, the Akista, and went on a murder spree over nearly a decade across several countries with multiple victims. Sailing south to New York City, Panzram lured sailors away from port bars onto the yacht, got them drunk, raped them, and then murdered them with the firearm he stole from Taft, and then leaving their bodies near Execution Rocks Light in Long Island Sound. Panzram claimed to have killed ten men this way. The sailor murders ended only after the Akista ran aground and sank near Atlantic City, during which his last two potential victims escaped. On October 26, 1920, using his alias "John O'Leary", he was arrested in Stamford, Connecticut, for burglary and possession of a loaded gun. In 1921, he served six months in jail in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Panzram caught a ship to Southern Africa and landed in Luanda, the capital of colonial Portuguese Angola. In 1921, Panzram was foreman of an oil rig in Angola; he later burned it down out of spite. His words. He claimed that while in Angola he raped and killed an 11 year old boy.
In his confession, he wrote: "His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him and he will never be any deader." He also claimed that he hired a boat with six rowers, shot the rowers with a Luger pistol, and threw their bodies to the crocodiles.
Panzram also said he raped and killed two small boys in Salem, Massachusetts. He beat one to death with a rock on July 18, 1922, and strangled the other near New Haven later in 1922.
Panzram got a job as a night watchman in Yonkers, New York, at the Abeeco Mill factory. Then he stole a yawl in Providence and sailed to New Haven. In June 1923, in New Rochelle, New York, he stole a yacht belonging to the police chief of New Rochelle. He picked up a 15-year-old boy named George Walosin and promised him a job on the boat, but instead, raped him.
On June 27, on the river near Kingston, New York, Panzram used a .38 caliber pistol from the stolen yacht to kill a man attempting to rob him on the yacht. Panzram threw the body into the river. On June 28, Panzram and Walosin docked at Poughkeepsie, New York. Panzram stole $1,000 worth of fishing nets. At Newburgh, New York, Walosin, having witnessed the murder the day before, jumped overboard and swam to shore. He reported to the police at Yonkers that he had been sexually assaulted by Panzram. An alert went out for "Captain John O'Leary" and on June 29, "John O'Leary" was arrested in Nyack, New York.
On July 9, Panzram tried to escape from jail. He also conned his lawyer by giving him ownership of a stolen boat in return for bail money. Panzram then skipped bail, and the boat was confiscated by the government. On August 26, "O'Leary" was arrested in Larchmont, New York, after breaking into a train depot. He was sentenced to five years' imprisonment.
While in county jail, he confessed to the alias "Jeff Baldwin", and that he was wanted in Oregon. In October, Panzram was imprisoned at Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York as Inmate #75182. He was discharged in July 1928, and he allegedly committed a murder that summer in Baltimore, Maryland.
On August 30, 1928, Panzram was arrested in Baltimore for a Washington, D.C. burglary – stealing a radio and jewelry from the home of a dentist on August 20.
During his interrogation, he confessed to killing three young boys; one in Salem, one in Connecticut, and one in Philadelphia. Panzram's confession to killing a boy at Pier 28 on League island near Philadelphia in August 1928 was confirmed. Boston police were unable to corroborate his other confession, the murder of a boy in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Panzram later wrote that he had contemplated mass murders and other acts of mayhem, such as poisoning a city's water supply with arsenic, or scuttling a British warship in New York Harbor to provoke a war.
Panzram was sentenced to 25-years-to-life. Upon arriving at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, identified as inmate #31614, he warned the warden, "I'll kill the first man that bothers me". He was assigned to work in the prison laundry room, where the foreman, Robert Warnke, who was known to bully and harass other prisoners. Warnke soon antagonized Panzram, despite Panzram repeatedly warning him, until finally Panzram beat Warnke to death with an iron bar.
He was convicted and sentenced to death. He refused any and all appeals of his sentence. In response to offers from death penalty activists to intervene, he wrote,
"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."
While on death row, Panzram was befriended by Officer Henry Philip Lesser, who would give him money to buy cigarettes.Panzram was so astonished by this act of kindness that, after Lesser provided him with writing materials, Panzram wrote a detailed summary of his crimes and nihilistic philosophy while awaiting execution. Panzram explicitly denied any remorse for any of his actions and began his journal
"In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and, last but not least, I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry."
Panzram was hanged on September 5, 1930. As officers attempted to place a customary black hood over his head, he spat in the executioner's face. When asked for any last words, he responded,
"Yes. Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard; I could kill a dozen men while you're screwing around!"
He was buried in the Leavenworth Penitentiary Cemetery, where his grave is marked only with his prison number, 31614. Former prison guard Henry Lesser preserved Panzram's letters and autobiographical manuscript. Lesser donated Panzram's writings to San Diego State University in 1980. They are housed in the Malcolm A. Love Library as the "Carl Panzram papers".
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