”The Gray Man”
Albert Hamilton Fish was born May 19, 1870 in Washington, D.C., to Randall Fish (1795-1875). His father, a 75-year-old river boat captain, was 43 years older than his mother. Many members of his family had mental illness, and one suffered from religious mania. Fish was the youngest of three living siblings: Walter, Annie, and Edwin Fish. He later asked to be called “Albert” after a dead sibling to escape the nickname ”Ham and Eggs” that he was given at the orphanage in which he was abandoned by his mother at an early age after the death of his father, victim of a heart attack in 1875 in Washington, D.C. During his stay at the orphanage, Fish observed and experienced numerous acts of perversions including forced masturbation in front of other children and brutal beatings. Albert would become sexually aroused by these acts, which helped to further his obsession with sado-masochism. Fish would later say, “That place ruined my mind.”
By 1879, his mother got a government job and was able to look after him. However, his various experiences before this had affected him and the youth introduced Fish to such practices as drinking urine and coprophilia. He also had started a homosexual relationship in 1882, at the age of 12, with a telegraph boy. Fish began visiting public baths where he could watch boys undress, and spent a great portion of his weekends on these visits.
By 1890, Fish had arrived in New York City, and he said he became a male prostitute. He also said he began raping young boys, a crime he kept committing even after his mother arranged a marriage. In 1898, he was married to a woman nine years his junior. They had six children: Albert, Anna, Gertrude, Eugene, John, and Henry Fish. He was arrested for embezzlement and was sentenced to incarceration in Sing Sing in 1903. He regularly had sex with men while in prison.
Throughout 1898 he worked as a house painter, and he said he continued molesting children, mostly boys under six. He later recounted an incident in which a male lover took him to a waxwork museum, where Fish was fascinated by the thought of bisecting a penis; soon after, he developed a morbid interest in castration. During a relationship with a mentally retarded man, Fish attempted to castrate him after tying him up. The man became frightened and fled. Fish then began intensifying his visits to brothels where he could be whipped and beaten more often.
It’s likely that his psychosis actually manifested much earlier but according to the testimony of one of his children, his weird and unpredictable behavior did not begin to surface until January 1917.
It was at this time that his wife ran away with John Straube, a slow-witted handyman who boarded with the Fish family. Fish returned from work one day to find the house deserted and stripped of its furniture.
Mrs. Fish was apparently a bit odd herself. She once returned to her husband with Straube at her side and asked if they could move in with the family. Fish said that she could but that her loved could not and so she agreed and sent Straube away. Days later, Fish discovered that his wife had actually secreted Straube in the attic and he lurked there while she smuggled food up to him. Again, Fish told her that she could stay but that Straube had to leave. They both departed this time and the family never saw Mrs. Fish again.
Very soon after this traumatic chain of events that most certainly had a ”triggering effect”, unleashing Fish’s sexual and murderous hysteria as he began to behave very strangely . He took his family up to their summer home, Wisteria Cottage, in Westchester County, New York for outings and they would watch, terrified, as he climbed a nearby hill, shook his fist at the sky and repeatedly screamed, “I am Christ!”. Pain seemed to delight him. Whether inflicting it on himself or others, he took strange pleasure in being whipped and paddled. He encouraged his own and neighbor children to paddle his buttocks until they bled, often using a paddle that was studded with inch-and-a-half nails. He also inserted a large number of needles into his body, mostly in the genital region, and burned himself constantly with hot irons and pokers. He even answered classified ads placed with widows seeking husbands. His letters — 46 of them were recovered and entered as evidence at his trial — were so obscene and vile that the prosecution refused to make them public. Basically, Fish told the lovelorn ladies that he was not as interested in marriage as he was in their willingness to paddle him. None of the women accepted his offers.
When and where Fish first became a murderer is unknown. In about 1919, he stabbed a mentally handicapped boy in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Fish chose people who were either mentally handicapped or African-American as his victims, explaining that he assumed these people would not be missed when killed. Fish tortured, mutilated, and murdered young children with his “implements of Hell”: a meat cleaver, a butcher knife, and a small handsaw.
On July 11, 1924, Fish found eight-year-old Beatrice Kiel playing alone on her parents’ Staten Island farm. He offered her money to come and help him look for rhubarb. She was about to leave the farm when her mother chased Fish away. Fish left but returned later to the Kiels’ barn, where he tried to sleep but was discovered by Hans Kiel and forced to leave. During 1924, the 54-year-old Fish, suffering from psychosis, felt that God was commanding him to torture and sexually mutilate children. Shortly before his abduction of Grace Budd, Fish attempted to test his “implements of Hell” on a child he had been molesting named Cyril Quinn. Quinn and his friend were playing boxballon a sidewalk when Fish asked them if they had eaten lunch. When they said that they had not, he invited them into his apartment for sandwiches. While the two boys were wrestling on Fish’s bed, they dislodged his mattress; underneath was a knife, a small handsaw, and a meat cleaver. They became frightened and ran out of the apartment.
He confessed to six killing and referred vaguely to dozens more, although the victims, dates and places were lost to his hazy memory. He did confess to murdering a man in Wilmington, Delaware; mutilating and torturing to death a mentally retarded boy in New York in 1910; killing a colored boy in Washington also in 1919; molesting and killing four year-old William Gaffney in 1929; and strangling to death five year-old Francis McDonnell on Long Island in 1934. The most sensational murder carried out by Fish was the abduction and horrific slaughter of Grace Budd in 1928. Her abduction led to a man hunt that lasted for six years. The police have given up hope of ever solving her mysterious disappearance until a slender clue, gleaned from an anonymous letter sent to the girl’s parents, led detectives to Albert Fish.
Fish introduced himself to the Budd’s in a way that never raised suspicions with the hard-working family. Albert Budd, Grace’s father, earned a modest living as a doorman but it never seemed to be enough to adequately take care of the entire brood, which consisted of his wife, Delia, eighteen year-old Edward, Albert Jr., Grace and the youngest child, five year-old Beatrice. To help his father make ends meet, Edward advertised in the May 27, 1928 issue of the New York World Telegram for a job. His ad read: “Young man, 18, wishes position in the country,” followed by his name and address.
That same afternoon, a nicely dressed Albert Fish answered the ad and showed up at the Budd home in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. He introduced himself as Mr. Frank Howard, a farmer from Long Island who was willing to pay $15 per week to a willing young worker. The family could scarcely believe Edward’s luck and good fortune and quickly invited Mr. Howard into the house. After hearing Fish’s description of the farm, Edward readily accepted the position Mr. Howard promised to return the next week and take not only Edward out to the farm, but his friend Willie as well. Howard stressed that he had enough work for both of the young men.
Fish did not return as promised on June 2, the following Saturday, but he did send an apologetic telegram, and arrived on Monday instead. Impressed by his manners, the Budd’s greeted him warmly and invited him to stay for lunch. Fish behaved just like a visiting grandfather and passed out treats and dollar bills to the children. He presented two of the bills to Eddie and Willie and while he had a prior engagement, he promised to return that evening to pick them up and take them to his farm. However, he had a special treat for the oldest daughter, Grace, he told her trusting parents. If they were agreeable to the idea, he wanted to take her to a children’s birthday party at the home of his married sister at 137th Street and Columbus Avenue. The Budd’s readily agreed and Grace left with Fish, holding onto his hand, still wearing the pure, white dress that she had worn to church that morning. The two of them walked off down the street together. The Budd’s waved goodbye to their little girl — and never saw her alive again.
The police wrongfully accused and arrested 66-year-old superintendent Charles Edward Pope on September 5, 1930 as a suspect, accused by Pope’s estranged wife. He spent 108 days in jail between his arrest and trial on December 22, 1930. He was found not guilty before Fish was ever suspected.
Seven years later, in November 1934, an anonymous letter was sent to the girl’s parents which led the police to Albert Fish. The letter is quoted here, with all of Fish’s misspellings and grammatical errors:
Dear Mrs. Budd. In 1894 a friend of mine shipped as a deck hand on the Steamer Tacoma, Capt. John Davis. They sailed from San Francisco for Hong Kong, China. On arriving there he and two others went ashore and got drunk. When they returned the boat was gone. At that time there was famine in China. Meat of any kind was from $1-3 per pound. So great was the suffering among the very poor that all children under 12 were sold for food in order to keep others from starving. A boy or girl under 14 was not safe in the street. You could go in any shop and ask for steak—chops—or stew meat. Part of the naked body of a boy or girl would be brought out and just what you wanted cut from it. A boy or girl’s behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price. John staid [sic] there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh. On his return to N.Y. he stole two boys, one 7 and one 11. Took them to his home stripped them naked tied them in a closet. Then burned everything they had on. Several times every day and night he spanked them — tortured them — to make their meat good and tender. First he killed the 11 year old boy, because he had the fattest ass and of course the most meat on it. Every part of his body was cooked and eaten except the head—bones and guts. He was roasted in the oven (all of his ass), boiled, broiled, fried and stewed. The little boy was next, went the same way. At that time, I was living at 409 E 100 St. near—right side. He told me so often how good human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it.
On Sunday June the 3, 1928 I called on you at 406 W 15 St. Brought you pot cheese—strawberries. We had lunch. Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her. On the pretense of taking her to a party. You said yes she could go. I took her to an empty house in Westchester I had already picked out. When we got there, I told her to remain outside. She picked wildflowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and called her. Then I hid in a closet until she was in the room. When she saw me all naked she began to cry and tried to run down the stairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mamma. First I stripped her naked. How she did kick — bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body. I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.
Mrs. Budd was illiterate and could not read the letter herself, so she had her son read it instead. Fish later admitted to his attorney that he did indeed rape Grace. Fish was a compulsive liar, however, so this may be untrue. He had told the police, when asked, that it “never even entered his head” to rape the girl.
The letter was delivered in an envelope that had a small hexagonal emblem with the letters “N.Y.P.C.B.A.” standing for “New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association”. A janitor at the company told police he had taken some of the stationery home but left it at his rooming house at 200 East 52nd Street when he moved out. The landlady of the rooming house said that Fish had checked out of that room a few days earlier. She said that Fish’s son sent him money and he had asked her to hold his next check for him. William F. King, the lead investigator, waited outside the room until Fish returned. He agreed to go to the headquarters for questioning, but at the street door lunged at King with a razor in each hand. King disarmed Fish and took him to police headquarters. Fish made no attempt to deny the Grace Budd murder, saying that he had meant to go to the house to kill Edward Budd, Grace’s brother.
A psychiatrist who examined Fish stated, “There was no known perversion that he did not practice and practice frequently.” Albert Fish was obsessed with sadomasochism. Most disturbingly, Fish was obsessed with cannibalism. He carried writings about the practice in his pockets. When he was arrested, Fish confessed to the murders of other young children whom he claimed to have eaten. Although nearly everyone agreed that he was insane, including the jury deciding his fate, he was nevertheless sentenced to die. Reportedly, his last statement was a handwritten note filled with filthy obscenities. At a meeting with reporters after the execution, Fish’s lawyer James Dempsey revealed that he was in possession of his client’s “final statement”. This amounted to several pages of hand-written notes that Fish apparently penned in the hours just prior to his death. When pressed by the assembled journalists to reveal the document’s contents, Dempsey refused, stating, “I will never show it to anyone. It was the most filthy string of obscenities that I have ever read.”
A child named Billy Gaffney was playing in the hallway outside of his family’s apartment in Brooklyn with his friend, Billy Beaton on February 11, 1927. Both of the boys disappeared, but the friend was found on the roof of the apartment house. When asked what happened to Gaffney, Beaton said “the boogey man took him.” Initially Peter Kudzinowski was a suspect in the murder of Billy Gaffney. Then, Joseph Meehan, a motorman on a Brooklyn trolley, saw a picture of Fish in the newspaper and identified him as the old man that he saw February 11, 1927, who was trying to quiet a little boy sitting with him on the trolley. The boy wasn’t wearing a jacket and was crying for his mother and was dragged by the man on and off the trolley. Police matched the description of the child to Billy Gaffney. Gaffney’s body was never recovered. Billy’s mother visited Fish in Sing Sing to try and get more details of her son’s death. Fish confessed the following:
I brought him to the Riker Avenue dumps. There is a house that stands alone, not far from where I took him. I took the boy there. Stripped him naked and tied his hands and feet and gagged him with a piece of dirty rag I picked out of the dump. Then I burned his clothes. Threw his shoes in the dump. Then I walked back and took the trolley to 59 Street at 2 a.m. and walked from there home. Next day about 2 p.m., I took tools, a good heavy cat-o-nine tails. Home made. Short handle. Cut one of my belts in half, slit these halves in six strips about 8 inches long. I whipped his bare behind till the blood ran from his legs. I cut off his ears, nose, slit his mouth from ear to ear. Gouged out his eyes. He was dead then. I stuck the knife in his belly and held my mouth to his body and drank his blood. I picked up four old potato sacks and gathered a pile of stones. Then I cut him up. I had a grip with me. I put his nose, ears and a few slices of his belly in the grip. Then I cut him through the middle of his body. Just below the belly button. Then through his legs about 2 inches below his behind. I put this in my grip with a lot of paper. I cut off the head, feet, arms, hands and the legs below the knee. This I put in sacks weighed with stones, tied the ends and threw them into the pools of slimy water you will see all along the road going to North Beach. I came home with my meat. I had the front of his body I liked best. His monkey and pee wees and a nice little fat behind to roast in the oven and eat. I made a stew out of his ears, nose, pieces of his face and belly. I put onions, carrots, turnips, celery, salt and pepper. It was good. Then I split the cheeks of his behind open, cut off his monkey and pee wees and washed them first. I put strips of bacon on each cheek of his behind and put them in the oven. Then I picked 4 onions and when the meat had roasted about 1/4 hour, I poured about a pint of water over it for gravy and put in the onions. At frequent intervals I basted his behind with a wooden spoon. So the meat would be nice and juicy. In about 2 hours, it was nice and brown, cooked through. I never ate any roast turkey that tasted half as good as his sweet fat little behind did. I ate every bit of the meat in about four days. His little monkey was a sweet as a nut, but his pee-wees I could not chew. Threw them in the toilet.
Fish remarried on February 6, 1930 in Waterloo, New York to “Mrs. Estella Wilcox” and divorced after only one week. Fish had been arrested in May 1930 for “sending an obscene letter to an African American woman who answered an advertisement for a maid.” He had been sent to the Bellevue psychiatric hospital in 1930 and 1931 for observation, following his arrests.
Trial and Execution
The trial of Albert Fish for the premeditated murder of Grace Budd began on Monday, March 11, 1935, in White Plains, New York with Frederick P. Close as judge, and Chief Assistant District Attorney, Elbert F. Gallagher, as the prosecuting attorney. James Dempsey was Fish’s defense attorney. The trial lasted for ten days. Fish pleaded insanity, and claimed to have heard voices from God telling him to kill children. Several psychiatrists testified about Fish’s sexual fetishes, including coprophilia, urophilia, pedophilia and masochism, but there was disagreement as to whether these activities meant he was insane. The defense’s chief expert witness was Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist with a focus on child development who conducted psychiatric examinations for the New York criminal courts; Wertham stated that Fish was insane. Another defense witness was Mary Nicholas, Fish’s 17-year-old stepdaughter. She described how Fish taught her and her brothers and sisters a “game” involving overtones of masochism and child molestation. The jury found him to be sane and guilty, and the judge ordered the death sentence.
After being sentenced Fish confessed to the murder of eight-year-old Francis X. McDonnell, killed on Staten Island. Francis was playing on the front porch of his home near Port Richmond, Staten Island in July 15, 1924. Francis’s mother saw an “old man” walk by clenching and unclenching his fists. He walked past without saying anything. Later in the day, the old man was seen again, but this time he was watching Francis and his friends play. Francis’ body was found in the woods near where a neighbor had seen Francis and the “old man” going earlier that afternoon. He had been assaulted and strangled with his suspenders.
Fish arrived in March of 1935, and was executed on January 16, 1936, in the electric chair at Sing Sing. He entered the chamber at 11:06 p.m. and was pronounced dead three minutes later becoming the oldest person ever to be electrocuted in Sing Sing at age 65. He was buried in the Sing Sing Prison Cemetery. He was recorded to have said that electrocution would be “the supreme thrill of my life”. Just before the switch was flipped, he stated “I don’t even know why I am here.” Legend has it, that his execution took longer, due to the numerous needles inserted into his privates which disrupted the flow of electricity.