Hamilton Howard “Albert” Fish, (May 19, 1870 – January 16, 1936) was an American serial killer. He was also known as the Gray Man, the Werewolf of Wysteria, the Brooklyn Vampire, the Moon Maniac, and The Boogey Man. A child rapist and cannibal, he boasted that he “had children in every state”, and at one time stated the number was about 100. However, it is not known whether he was referring to rapes or cannibalization, nor is it known if the statement was truthful. He was a suspect in at least five murders during his lifetime.
Fish confessed to three murders that police were able to trace to a known homicide, and he confessed to stabbing at least two other people. He was put on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Grace Budd, and was convicted and executed by electric chair. His crimes were dramatized in the 2007 film The Gray Man, starring Patrick Bauchau as Fish.
Birth and childhood
Fish was born in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 1870, to Randall (1795 – October 16, 1875) and Ellen (née Howell; 1838–c. 1903) Fish. Fish’s father was American, of English ancestry, and his mother was Scots-Irish American. His father was 43 years older than his mother and 75 years old at the time of his birth. Fish was the youngest child and had three living siblings: Walter, Annie, and Edwin. He wished to be known as “Albert” after a dead sibling and to escape the nickname “Ham & Eggs” that he was given at an orphanage in which he spent much of his childhood.
Fish’s family had a history of mental illness. His uncle suffered from mania. A brother was confined in a state mental hospital. His sister was diagnosed with a “mental affliction”. Three other relatives were diagnosed with mental illnesses, and his mother had “aural and/or visual hallucinations”.
His father was a river boat captain and, by 1870, was a fertilizer manufacturer. The elder Fish died in 1875 at the Sixth Street Station of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Washington, D.C. of a heart attack. The Congressional Cemetery records show that Randall died on October 16, 1875, and was buried on October 19, 1875, in grave R96/89. Fish’s mother then put her son into Saint John’s Orphanage in Washington, where he was frequently abused. He began to enjoy the physical pain that the beatings brought. Of his time at the orphanage, Fish remarked, “I was there ’til I was nearly nine, and that’s where I got started wrong. We were unmercifully whipped. I saw boys doing many things they should not have done.”
By 1880, his mother had a government job and was able to remove Fish from the orphanage. In 1882, at age 12, he began a relationship with a telegraph boy. The youth introduced Fish to such practices as urolagnia (drinking urine) and coprophagia (eating feces). Fish began visiting public baths where he could watch other boys undress and spent a great portion of his weekends on these visits. Throughout his life, he would write obscene letters to women whose names he acquired from classified advertising and matrimonial agencies.
1890–1918: Early adulthood and criminal history
By 1890, Fish arrived in New York City, and he said at that point he became a prostitute and began raping young boys. In 1898, his mother arranged a marriage for him with Anna Mary Hoffman, who was nine years his junior. They had six children: Albert, Anna, Gertrude, Eugene, John, and Henry Fish.
Throughout 1898, he worked as a house painter. He said he continued molesting children, mostly boys younger than age six. He later recounted an incident in which a male lover took him to a waxworks museum, where Fish was fascinated by a bisection of a penis. After that, he became obsessed with sexual mutilation. In 1903, he was arrested for grand larceny and was sentenced to incarceration in Sing Sing.
X-ray of Fish’s pelvis and perineum, introduced as evidence at his trial, demonstrating more than two dozen self-embedded needles
Around 1910, while he was working in Wilmington, Delaware, Fish met a 19-year-old man named Thomas Kedden. He took Kedden to where he was staying, and the two began a sadomasochistic relationship; it is unclear whether or not Fish forced Kedden to do these things, but in his confession he implies that the man was intellectually disabled. After ten days, Fish took Kedden to “an old farm house”, where he began to torture him. The torture took place over two weeks. Fish eventually tied Kedden up and cut off half of his penis. “I shall never forget his scream, or the look he gave me,” Fish later recalled. He originally intended to kill Kedden, cut up his body, and take it home, but he feared the hot weather would draw attention to him; instead, Fish poured peroxide over the wound, wrapped it in a Vaseline-covered handkerchief, left a $10 bill, kissed Kedden goodbye, and left. “Took first train I could get back home. Never heard what become of him, or tried to find out,” Fish said.
In January 1917, Fish’s wife left him for John Straube, a handyman who boarded with the Fish family. Fish then had to raise his children as a single parent. After his arrest, Fish told a newspaper that when his wife left him, she took nearly every possession the family owned. He began to have auditory hallucinations. He once wrapped himself in a carpet, saying that he was following the instructions of John the Apostle.
It was about this time that Fish began to indulge in self-harm. He would embed needles into his groin and abdomen. After his arrest, X-rays revealed that Fish had at least 29 needles lodged in his pelvic region. He also hit himself repeatedly with a nail-studded paddle and inserted wool doused with lighter fluid into his anus and set it alight. While he was never thought to have physically attacked or abused his children, he did encourage them and their friends to paddle his buttocks with the same nail-studded paddle he used to abuse himself. He soon developed a growing obsession with cannibalism, often preparing himself a dinner consisting solely of raw meat and sometimes serving it to his children.
In about 1919, he stabbed an intellectually disabled 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. He would later claim to occasionally pay boys to procure him other children. 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 box ball on 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.
Fish remarried on February 6, 1930, in Waterloo, New York, to Estella Wilcox but divorced after only one week. Fish was arrested in May 1930 for “sending an obscene letter to a woman who answered an advertisement for a maid.” Following that arrest and one in 1931, he was sent to the Bellevue psychiatric hospital for observation.
Murder of Grace Budd
Grace Budd (1918–1928)
On May 25, 1928, Fish saw a classified advertisement in the Sunday edition of the New York World that read, “Young man, 18, wishes position in country. Edward Budd, 406 West 15th Street.” On May 28, 1928, Fish, then 58 years old, visited the Budd family in Manhattan under the pretense of hiring Edward; he later confessed that he planned to tie Edward up, mutilate him, and leave him to bleed to death. He introduced himself as Frank Howard, a farmer from Farmingdale, New York. Fish promised to hire Budd and his friend Willie, and said he would send for them in a few days. He failed to show up, but he sent a telegraph to the Budd family apologizing and set a later date. When Fish returned, he met Grace Budd. He apparently changed his intended victim from Edward Budd to Grace Budd and quickly made up a story about having to attend his niece’s birthday party. He convinced the parents, Delia Flanagan and Albert Budd I, to let Grace accompany him to the party that evening. The elder Albert Budd was a porter for the United States Equitable Life Assurance Society. Grace had a younger sister, Beatrice, two older brothers, Edward and George Budd, and a younger brother, Albert Budd II. Grace left with Fish that day but never returned.
The police 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.
Letter to the mother of Grace Budd
In November 1934, an anonymous letter was sent to the girl’s parents which ultimately led the police to Fish. Mrs. Budd was illiterate and could not read the letter herself, so she had her son read it to her. The unaltered letter (complete with Fish’s misspellings and grammatical errors) reads:
“My 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 to 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 a famine in China. Meat of any kind was from $1 to 3 Dollars a pound. So great was the suffering among the very poor that all children under 12 were sold to the Butchers to be cut up and 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 girls behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price. John staid there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh. On his return to N.Y. he stole two boys one 7 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 yr 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 Head – bones and guts. He was roasted in the oven, (all of his ass) boiled, broiled, fried, stewed. The little boy was next, went the same way. At that time I was living at 409 E 100 St, rear – 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 wild flowers. 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 stairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mama. 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, though, I could of [sic] had I wished. She died a virgin.”
Police investigated the letter. The story concerning “Capt. Davis” and the “famine” in Hong Kong could not be verified. The part of the letter concerning the murder of Grace Budd, however, was found to be accurate in its description of the kidnapping and subsequent events, although it was impossible to confirm whether or not Fish had actually eaten parts of Grace’s body.
The letter was delivered in an envelope that had a small hexagonal emblem with the letters “N.Y.P.C.B.A.” representing “New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association”. A janitor at the company told the 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 checked out of that room a few days earlier. She said that Fish’s son sent him money and he asked her to hold his next check for him. William F. King was the chief investigator for the case. He waited outside the room until Fish returned. Fish agreed to go to headquarters for questioning, then brandished a razor blade. King disarmed Fish and took him to police headquarters. Fish made no attempt to deny the murder of Grace Budd, saying that he meant to go to the house to kill Edward Budd, Grace’s brother. Fish said it “never even entered [his] head” to rape the girl, but he later claimed to his attorney that, while kneeling on Grace’s chest and strangling her, he did have two involuntary ejaculations. This information was used at trial to make the claim the kidnapping was sexually motivated, thus avoiding any mention of cannibalism.
Other crimes discovered after Fish’s arrest
During the night of July 14, 1924, 9-year-old Francis McDonnell was reported missing by his parents. He failed to return home after playing catch with friends in the Port Richmond neighbourhood of Staten Island. A search was organised and his body was found—hanging by a tree—in a wooded area near his home. He had been sexually assaulted, then strangled with his suspenders. According to an autopsy, McDonnell had also suffered extensive lacerations to his legs and abdomen, and his left hamstring had almost entirely been stripped of its flesh. Fish refused to claim responsibility for this, although he later stated that he intended to castrate the boy but fled when he heard someone approaching the area.
McDonnell’s friends told the police that he was taken by an elderly man with a grey moustache. A neighbour also told the police he observed the boy with a similar-looking man walking along a grassy path into the nearby woods. Francis’ mother, Anna McDonnell, said she saw the same man earlier that day. She told the reporters, “He came shuffling down the street mumbling to himself and making queer motions with his hands … I saw his thick grey hair and his drooping grey moustache. Everything about him seemed faded and grey.”
This description resulted in the mysterious stranger becoming known as “The Grey Man”. The McDonnell murder remained unsolved until the murder of Grace Budd. When several eyewitnesses, among them the Staten Island farmer Hans Kiel, positively identified Albert Fish as the odd stranger seen around Port Richmond on the day of Francis McDonnell’s disappearance, Richmond County District Attorney Thomas J. Walsh announced his intention to seek an indictment against Fish for the boy’s murder. At first, Fish denied the charges. It was only in March 1935, after the conclusion of his trial for the Budd murder and his confession to the killing of Billy Gaffney, that Fish confirmed to investigators that he also raped and murdered Francis McDonnell. When the McDonnell confession was made public, the New York Daily Mirror wrote that the disclosure solidified Fish’s reputation as “the most vicious child-slayer in criminal history”.
On February 11, 1927, 3-year-old Billy Beaton and his 12-year-old brother were playing in the apartment hallway in Brooklyn with 4-year-old Billy Gaffney. When the 12-year-old left for his apartment, both younger boys disappeared; Beaton was found later on the roof of the apartments. When asked what happened to Gaffney, Beaton said “the bogeyman took him.” Gaffney’s body was never recovered. Initially, serial killer Peter Kudzinowski was a suspect in the boy’s murder. Then, Joseph Meehan, a motorman on a Brooklyn trolley, saw a picture of Fish in a newspaper and identified him as the old man whom he saw February 11, 1927; the old man had been trying to quiet a little boy sitting with him on the trolley. The boy was not wearing a jacket, was crying for his mother, and was dragged by the man on and off the trolley. Beaton’s description of the “bogeyman” matched Fish. Police matched the description of the child to Billy Gaffney. Detectives of the Manhattan Missing Persons Bureau were able to establish that Fish was employed as a house painter by a Brooklyn real estate company during February 1927 and that on the day of Billy Gaffney’s disappearance he was working at a location a few miles away from where the boy was abducted. Fish claimed the following in a letter to his attorney:
I brought him to the Riker Ave. dumps. There is a house that stands alone, not far from where I took him … I took the G 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 trolley to 59 St. at 2 A.M. and walked home from there. Next day about 2 P.M., I took tools, a good heavy cat-of-nine tails. Home made. Short handle. Cut one of my belts in half, slit these half in six strips about 8 in. 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 thru the middle of his body. Just below his belly button. Then thru his legs about 2 in. 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. Water is 3 to 4 ft. deep. They sank at once. 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 in the oven. Then I picked 4 onions and when meat had roasted about 1/4 hr., 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 hr., it was nice and brown, cooked thru. 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 as sweet as a nut, but his pee-wees I could not chew. Threw them in the toilet.
Elizabeth Gaffney visited Fish in Sing Sing, accompanied by Detective King and two other men. She wanted to ask him about her son’s death, but Fish refused to speak to her. Fish began to weep and asked to be left alone. After two hours of asking him questions through his lawyer, James Dempsey, Mrs. Gaffney gave up. She was still unconvinced that Albert Fish was her son’s killer.
Trial and execution
Albert Fish’s trial for the murder of Grace Budd began on March 11, 1935, in White Plains, New York. Frederick P. Close presided as judge and Westchester County Chief Assistant District Attorney Elbert F. Gallagher was prosecuting attorney. Fish’s defense counsel was James Dempsey, a former prosecutor and the one-time mayor of Peekskill, New York. The trial lasted for 10 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, which included sadism, masochism, cunnilingus, anilingus, fellatio, flagellation, exhibitionism, voyeurism, piquerism, cannibalism, coprophagia, urophilia, pedophilia and infibulation. Dempsey in his summation noted that Fish was a “psychiatric phenomenon” and that nowhere in legal or medical records was there another individual who possessed so many sexual abnormalities.
The defense’s chief expert witness was Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist with an emphasis on child development who conducted psychiatric examinations for the New York criminal courts. During two days of testimony, Wertham explained Fish’s obsession with religion and specifically his preoccupation with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1–24). Wertham said that Fish believed that similarly “sacrificing” a boy would be penance for his own sins and that even if the act itself was wrong, angels would prevent it if God did not approve. Fish attempted the sacrifice once before but was thwarted when a car drove past. Edward Budd was the next intended victim, but he turned out to be larger than expected so he settled on Grace. Although he knew Grace was female, it is believed that Fish perceived her as a boy. Wertham then detailed Fish’s cannibalism, which in his mind he associated with communion. The last question Dempsey asked Wertham was 15,000 words long, detailed Fish’s life and ended with asking how the doctor considered his mental condition based on this life. Wertham simply answered “He is insane”. Gallagher cross-examined Wertham on whether Fish knew the difference between right and wrong. He responded that he did know but that it was a perverted knowledge based on his opinions of sin, atonement and religion and thus was an “insane knowledge”. The defense called two more psychiatrists to support Wertham’s findings.
The first of four rebuttal witnesses was Menas Gregory, the former manager of the Bellevue psychiatric hospital, where Fish was treated during 1930. He testified that Fish was abnormal but sane. Under cross examination, Dempsey asked if coprophilia, urophilia and pedophilia indicated a sane or insane person. Gregory replied that such a person was not “mentally sick” and that these were common perversions that were “socially perfectly alright” and that Fish was “no different from millions of other people”, some very prominent and successful, who suffered from the “very same” perversions. The next witness was the resident physician at The Tombs, Perry Lichtenstein. Dempsey objected to a doctor with no training in psychiatry testifying on the issue of sanity, but Justice Close overruled on the basis that the jury could decide what weight to give a prison doctor. When asked whether Fish’s causing himself pain indicated a mental condition, Lichtenstein replied, “That is not masochism”, as he was only “punishing himself to get sexual gratification”. The next witness, Charles Lambert, testified that coprophilia was a common practice and that religious cannibalism may be psychopathic but “was a matter of taste” and not evidence of a psychosis. The last witness, James Vavasour, repeated Lambert’s opinion. Another defense witness was Mary Nicholas, Fish’s 17-year-old stepdaughter. She described how Fish taught her and her brothers and sisters several games involving overtones of masochism and child molestation.
None of the jurors doubted that Fish was insane, but ultimately, as one later explained, they felt he should be executed anyway. They found him to be sane and guilty, and the judge ordered the death sentence. Fish arrived at prison in March 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. He was buried in the Sing Sing Prison Cemetery. Fish is said to have helped the executioner position the electrodes on his body. His last words were reportedly, “I don’t even know why I’m here.” According to one witness present, it took two jolts before Fish died, creating the rumor that the apparatus was short-circuited by the needles that Fish inserted into his body. These rumors were later regarded as untrue, as Fish reportedly died in the same fashion and time frame as others in the electric chair.
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.”
Francis X. McDonnell, age 8, July 15, 1924
Billy Gaffney, age 4, February 11, 1927 Grace Budd, age 10, June 3, 1928 Suspected
Emma Richardson, age 5, October 3, 1926 Yetta Abramowitz, age 12, 1927. Robin Jane Liu, age 6, May 2, 1931 Mary Ellen O’Connor, age 16, February 15, 1932. Benjamin Collings, age 17, December 15, 1932.