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. His father was American, of English ancestry, and his mother was Scots-Irish American. Fish said that he was named after statesman and politician Hamilton Fish, a distant relative. 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 myocardial infarction. Fish’s mother then put her son into Saint John’s Orphanage in Washington, where he was frequently treated sadistically. He began to enjoy the physical pain that the beatings brought. Of his time at the orphanage, Fish remarked, “I was there till 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. 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 a woman 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. At the age of 41, during his stay in St. Louis, Fish began sexually molesting an intellectually disabled man named Kedden. Fish attempted to mutilate the 19-year-old with a pair of scissors after tying him up, but the agonized look on the man’s face frightened Fish, and he fled the city after binding the wound and leaving Kedden a $10 bill. Fish then increased the frequency of his visits to brothels, where he engaged in sadomasochism. In 1903, he was arrested for grand larceny and was sentenced to incarceration in Sing Sing.
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. 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.
Fish later claimed to have attacked Thomas Bedden in Wilmington, Delaware in 1910, though police said they had no record of that attack. In about 1919, he stabbed a mentally handicapped boy in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.. Fish chose as his victims people who were either mentally handicapped or African-American, 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 acquaintance named Cyril Quinn. Quinn and his friend were playing boxball 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 in Fish’s bedroom, they discovered Fish’s “implements of Hell” hidden under his bed. 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.
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.
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.
During the night of July 14, 1924, eight-year-old Francis McDonnell was reported missing by his parents. He failed to return home after playing catch with friends in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island. A search was organized and his body was found – hung 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 gray mustache. A neighbor also told the police he observed the boy with a similar-looking man walking along a grassy path into the nearby woods. Francis’s 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 gray hair and his drooping gray mustache. Everything about him seemed faded and gray.”
This description resulted in the mysterious stranger becoming known as “The Gray 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 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’s. 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.
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.”
- May, 19, 1870
- Washington D.C.
- January, 16, 1936
- Ossining, New York
Cause of Death
- Execution by electric chair.
- Sing-Sing Prison Cemetery
- Ossining, New York