Carl Panzram (June 28, 1892– September 5, 1930) was an American serial killer, rapist, arsonist, robber and burglar. In prison confessions and his autobiography, he claimed to have committed 21 murders, most of which could not be corroborated, and over 1,000 sodomies of boys and men. After a series of imprisonments and escapes, he was executed in 1930 for the murder of a prison employee at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
Early life 1892–1906
Born in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, the son of East Prussian immigrants Johann “John” and Matilda Panzram, Carl was raised on his family’s farm with five siblings. Carl Panzram felt odd from a young age: by the age of five or six he was a liar and thief and claimed to become meaner the older he grew. In 1899 Panzram was in Juvenile Court on a charge of being drunk and disorderly; in 1903 he was in County Jail for being drunk and incorrigible; In 1903, at the age of 11, he stole some cake, apples, and a revolver from a neighbor’s home. Soon after, his parents sent him to the Minnesota State Training School, October 11, 1903. While there, he was repeatedly beaten, tortured, and raped by staff members in what attendees dubbed “The Painting House”, because children would leave “painted” with bruises and blood. Panzram hated this place of torture so much that he decided to burn it down, and did so without detection on July 7, 1905. In January 1906, Panzram was reported to be paroled from Red Wing Training School after stealing money from his mother’s pocketbook. By his teens, he was an alcoholic and was repeatedly in trouble with the authorities, often for burglary and theft. He ran away from home at the age of 14, in January 1906, merely 2 weeks after attempting to kill a Lutheran cleric with a revolver, to become a hobo on the rails. He often traveled via train cars; he later claimed that on one train he was gang raped by a group of hobos.
In 1907, at the age of 15, after getting drunk in a saloon in Montana, Panzram enlisted in the U.S. Army. Shortly thereafter he was convicted of larceny and served a prison sentence from 1908 to 1910 at Fort Leavenworth’s United States Disciplinary Barracks. Then-Secretary of War William Howard Taft approved the sentence. Panzram later claimed that any goodness left in him was smashed out during his Leavenworth imprisonment.
After his release and dishonorable discharge, Panzram resumed his career as a thief, stealing anything from bicycles to yachts, and was caught and imprisoned multiple times. He served time under his own name and various aliases in Fresno, California; Rusk, Texas; The Dalles, Oregon; Harrison, Idaho; Butte, Montana; Montana State Reform School in Miles City; Montana State Prison (as “Jeff Davis” and “Jefferson Rhodes”); Oregon State Prison (“Jefferson Baldwin”); Bridgeport, Connecticut (“John O’Leary”); Sing Sing Correctional Facility, New York (“Jeff Baldwin”); Clinton Correctional Facility, New York (“John O’Leary”); and Washington, D.C. 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 encountered. 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 Juárez, Mexico in the winter of 1910 to try to enlist in the Federal Mexican Army; he then left on a train for Del Rio, Texas and got off in a small town 50 to 100 miles east of El Paso, Texas where about a mile south of that town he claimed to have abducted, assaulted, kicked, and strangled a man and then stolen $35 from the victim.
In the summer of 1911, Panzram, aka Jefferson Davis, was arrested in Fresno, California for stealing a bicycle. He was sentenced to 6 months in county jail but escaped after 30 days.
In 1913, Panzram, aka Jack Allen, was arrested in The Dalles, Oregon for highway robbery, assault, and sodomy. He broke out of jail after 2–3 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, aka Jefferson Davis, was admitted to State Prison, Deer Lodge Montana. He escaped on November 13, 1913. Within a week he was arrested as Jeff Rhoades in Three Forks, Montana for burglary and returned to Deer Lodge for an additional year. He was released on March 3, 1915.
On June 1, 1915, Panzram burglarized a house in Astoria, Oregon, but was arrested soon after while attempting to sell some of the stolen items. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, to be served at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, where he arrived on June 24. Warden Harry Minto believed in harsh treatment of inmates, including beatings and isolation, among other disciplinary measures. Later, Panzram stated that he swore he “would never do that seven years and I defied the warden and all his officers to make me.” Later that year, Panzram helped fellow inmate Otto Hooker escape from the prison. While attempting to evade recapture, Hooker killed Minto, marking Panzram’s first known involvement in a murder, as an accessory before the fact. In his prison record he falsely gave his age as 30 and his place of birth as Alabama. The one true bit of autobiography he did give was his occupation “thief”
Panzram was disciplined several times while at Salem, including 61 days in solitary confinement, before escaping on September 18, 1917. After two shootouts, he was recaptured and returned to the prison. On May 12, 1918, he escaped once again by sawing through the bars of his cell, and caught a freight train heading east. He began going by the name John O’Leary and shaved off his moustache. He would never return to the Northwest.
Murder spree 1920–1928
In August 1920, Panzram burglarized the William H. Taft Mansion in New Haven, Connecticut, a home of William Howard Taft, whom he held responsible for his Leavenworth imprisonment. He stole a large amount of jewelry and bonds, as well as Taft’s Colt M1911.45-caliber handgun. He then began a murder spree that spanned eight years and multiple countries. With the money stolen from Taft he bought a yacht, the Akista. He lured sailors away from New York City bars, got them drunk, raped them, and shot them with Taft’s pistol, then dumped their bodies near Execution Rocks Light in Long Island Sound. He claimed to have killed ten in all.
On October 26, 1920 Panzram, aka John O’ Leary, was arrested in Stamford, Connecticut for burglary and possession of a loaded handgun. In 1921, he served 6 months in jail in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Panzram then caught a ship to Africa and landed in Luanda, Portuguese Angola. In 1921, Panzram was foreman of an oil rig in Angola, Africa. He later burned the rig down out of sheer meanness. He later claimed that while there, he raped and killed an 11- or 12-year-old boy. In his confession to this murder, 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 German Luger pistol, and threw their bodies to the crocodiles.
After returning to the U.S., Panzram asserted that he raped and killed two small boys, beating one to death with a rock on July 18, 1922, in Salem, Massachusetts and strangling the other later that year near New Haven. Panzram claimed that, in June 1923, he shot a man with a .38 pistol he had stolen from a yacht which belonged to the police chief of New Rochelle, New York.
On June 29, 1923, Panzram, aka John O’Leary, was arrested in Nyack, New York. On July 9, 1923, Panzram tried to escape from jail; he later 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 police. On August 26, 1923, Panzram, again using the alias John O’ Leary, was arrested in Larchmont, New York after breaking into a train depot. He was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment. While in County jail, he confessed to being Jeff Baldwin wanted in Oregon.
On October 1923, Panzram was imprisoned at Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York. He was discharged in July 1928. He is alleged to have committed a murder in Baltimore, Maryland, in the summer of 1928.
Last arrest imprisonment and confession
On August 30, 1928 Panzram was arrested in Baltimore, Maryland for a Washington D.C. burglary -stealing a radio and jewelry from the home of a dentist August 20, 1928. During his interrogation, he voluntarily confessed to killing three young boys—one in Salem, Massachusetts, one in Connecticut and a third in Philadelphia in August 1928. The 1928 Philadelphia victim was identified as Alexander Luszock, a 14-year-old newsboy; Panzram later wrote that he had also contemplated mass killings 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 between the U.S. and the UK.
In light of his extensive criminal record, he received a 25-years-to-life sentence. Upon arriving at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary Inmate #31614, he warned the warden, “I’ll kill the first man that bothers me“, and was given a solitary job in the prison laundry room. On June 20, 1929, he beat the prison laundry foreman Robert Warnke to death with an iron bar, and was sentenced to death. He refused to allow any appeals of his sentence. In response to offers from death penalty opponents and human rights 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 an officer named Henry Lesser (1902–1983) who would give him money to buy cigarettes. Panzram was so astonished by this one act of kindness that after Lesser provided him with writing materials Panzram, while waiting his execution, wrote a detailed summary of his crimes and nihilistic philosophy. In this he made it quite clear that he did not repent in the least of all the robberies, murders, rapes, and arsons he had been involved in. It began with a straightforward statement: 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 black hood over his head, he allegedly 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!” His grave, at the Leavenworth Penitentiary Cemetery, is marked only with his prison number, 31614.