The other day I saw the 2012 documentary by filmmaker John Borowski, Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance.
It is a biography of Carl Panzram (1891 – 1930), an American serial killer, rapist, arsonist and burglar. Known for his confession to his only friend, prison guard Henry Lesser, in graphic detail Panzram confessed to 21 murders and to having sodomized over 1,000 males. He is arguably one of the most violent and evil men who ever lived, a psychopath, and the perfect product of American prisons and punishment.
His life of mayhem was so repellently distinguished that it inspired a 1970 biography, Killer: A Journal of Murder, by Thomas Gaddis and James O. Long, a book that was later adapted into a 1995 film of the same title, starring James Woods. His story is also recounted in lurid detail by a New York police detective named Mark Gado in an article entitled “Carl Panzram: Too Evil to Live” that appears in the “Serial Killers from History” section of Court TV’s website.
Penzram was born into the family of five brothers and one sister, a single mother—a harsh disciplinarian—and all lived on a small, worked-out northern Minnesota farm. He began stealing at an early age, and in 1903 at age 11 he was sent by his mother to the Minnesota State Training School at Red Wing, where his education began.
According to some of the accounts and records from this period, the “strict administration policies” of the school included severe punishment that often strayed into torture and brutality.
By Panzram’s account, which he left behind in a lengthy memoir that is preserved at San Diego State University, the nearly three years he spent at Red Wing contributed mightily to his burgeoning criminal pathology. Upon admission to the institution, he recalls being strip-searched and rigorously queried about his sexual history. The guard, Panzram says, “examined my penis and rectum, asking me if I had ever committed fornication or sodomy or I had ever had sodomy committed on me or if I had ever masturbated.”
It apparently didn’t take Panzram long to run afoul of the authorities at Red Wing, and to the end of his life he retained and regularly recounted graphic details of the punishments he received in the school’s paint shop, which was where the harshest discipline was administered. According to Penzram, it was called the “paint shop” because the boys left the facility with black and blue bodies.
“They used to have a large wooden block which we were bent over and tied face downward after first being stripped naked,” said Panzram. “Then a large towel was soaked in salt water and spread on our backs from the shoulders to the knees. Then the man who was to do the whipping took a large strap about a quarter of an inch thick by four inches and about two feet long. The strap had a lot of little round holes punched through it. Every time that whip came down on our body the skin would come up through these little holes in the strap and after 25 or 30 times of this, little blisters would form and then would burst, and right there and then hell began… I used to get this racket regularly, and when I was too ill to be given this sort of medicine, they used to take a smaller strap and beat me on the palms of my hands.”
Panzram was deemed reformed and granted his release from Red Wing in 1905. “I was reformed all right,” Panzram later said. “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.”
Before leaving Red Wing, however, Panzram took his revenge upon the authorities of the place by starting a fire that destroyed the school’s paint shop, industrial building, laundry, tailor shop, and other facilities. The source of the fire went undiscovered until Panzram confessed to it late in his life.
“I had fully decided when I left there just how I would live my life,” said Penzram. He went on to murder and dominate indiscriminately, to punish the entire human race for how he had been treated.
In late 1929, while he was serving a 25-year-to-life sentence at Leavenworth KS for stealing a radio, the torture briefly ended and Panzram was treated in a humane way by his captors. “It’s so long since I’ve been beaten and kicked around… No one abuses me in any way… I’ve come to the conclusion that if in the beginning I had been treated as I am now, there wouldn’t be quite so many people in the world who have been robbed, raped and killed, and perhaps very probably I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
A few months later, Panzram was hanged to death for the murder of his 22nd victim, a prison worker who tormented him. He did not resist his sentence or try to delay it. He was probably never happier than on the day of his death.
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