The letter was unsigned. Why this person would send it so suddenly was a mystery, but that he knew small details confirmed his probable role in the crime. The handwriting was identical to that on the Western Union form that King had saved from the 1928 telegram Frank Howard had sent the Budds to announce his Sunday visit.
King looked over the stationery and the envelope in which the letter had arrived. He noticed an emblem over an address that had been obscured with scribbling. It was hexagonal in shape and bore the letters NYPCBA—the New York Private Chauffeurs’ Benevolent Association, located in New York City at 627 Lexington Avenue. He called the organization’s president, Arthur Ennis, and asked for an emergency meeting of the members. Then he assigned other detectives to start looking at their handwriting. None matched Frank Howard’s. King asked the members whether someone might have taken any of the organization’s stationery.
A young man named Lee Sicowski, who worked there part-time as a janitor, admitted to taking a few sheets and envelopes, although he hadn’t used them. He gave King the address of his rooming house, but when King investigated, he was crushed to find no one on the register whose handwriting matched Howard’s. He questioned Sicowski again, pressuring him, and then the janitor remembered that he had stayed briefly at another rooming house, at 200 East Fifty-second Street. He recalled that he had left four envelopes with the NYPCBA insignia on a shelf over his bed there, in room 7.
King made another trip, once again filled with hope. He spoke to the landlady, Mrs. Frieda Schneider, asking about Frank Howard, but she did not know the name. The man who had taken the room after Sicowski moved out, she said, was Albert H. Fish. In case “Howard” was an alias, King described the man who had come to the Budds’ residence in 1928, and that description resembled Fish: an elderly man who had boarded with the Schneiders for about two months. In fact, Mrs. Schneider said, he had left only days ago, on November 11. King asked to see the register, and using the letter to Mrs. Budd, he compared the handwriting to Fish’s signature. He thought it was a match.
Detective King believed he might be near the end of his long road. The best suspect he’d ever had was nearly within his grasp, as long as he could trace where the man had gone. Although the landlady had no forwarding address, she told King that Fish’s son sent him regular checks from Georgia and he had mentioned to her that one more would be coming. King alerted postal inspectors to be watching for it and set up round-the-clock surveillance at the boardinghouse. He then tracked down the address Fish had given in the letter he had written to Delia, 409 East 100th Street, and learned that an elderly man had boarded there temporarily in the summer of 1928.
Fish had also used one of the envelopes to write to a man at the Holland Hotel, but no one by that name lived there, so the letter was returned to the chauffeurs’ organization. They turned it over to King.
King knew that something had to break soon. They were just steps behind this offender. Then he learned that the check from Georgia had arrived at the Grand Central postal office on December 4. It was for twenty-five dollars.
“I knew he would return for the check,” King told
reporters, “and I kept a constant watch on the place.”
But Fish did not come right away, and King worried over whether he had sniffed out the surveillance. It was a week before the short, elderly man finally arrived on December 13 to claim his check. Mrs. Schneider called King and then detained Fish until the detective could get there to arrest him. Although Fish attempted to defend himself with a razor blade, King was much more powerful. He twisted the blade out of the shriveled old man’s hand and took him to headquarters for questioning.
This “undersized wizened house painter with restless eyes and thin, nervous hands,” as reporters referred to him, danced around in denial before finally confessing in lurid detail. At no point did he display any emotion. He seemed to have expected to be caught.
Fish, aka Frank Howard, stated that he had originally meant to kidnap Edward, but the boy was larger than he had expected. While at the home the second time, he had spotted Grace and decided to kidnap her instead, so using the ruse of the party, he took her away. He’d brought a parcel of tools—the “implements of hell”—with him (a saw, butcher knife, and cleaver), wrapped in a piece of four-by-six-foot canvas. He stowed this bundle near a newsstand before going to the Budds’, and retrieved them with Grace in tow. Together they boarded a train, bound for Westchester County, where he once had lived. He knew of an isolated, abandoned house there, called Wisteria Cottage, that he could use.
All along, Grace had believed she was going to a party. She had even run to fetch the canvas bag when Fish left it on the train seat. But once they arrived at the dilapidated, eight-room house, he prepared to kill her. He let her play in the yard while he undressed, and then called her to come in. In an upper room, he strangled her with his bare hands, which took about five minutes. He told one person he had ejaculated twice during her struggle. Then he cut her head off, draining the blood into a can. He tried to drink some of it, but it made him ill. He sawed the body in two and left the lower torso and legs behind the door. Taking the head outside, he covered it with paper. He also removed some of the flesh, which he packaged up and took home. This is what he claimed he had mixed with carrots and potatoes to make a stew which, in a state of constant sexual arousal that lasted over a week, he consumed. Four days after the murder, he returned to the cottage to get rid of the remains. He took the torso and head into the woods and threw them over a stone wall.
“It makes my conscience feel better now that you have found her,” Fish said. “I’m glad I told everything.”
The Budds, father and son, had no trouble identifying Fish as the man who had come to their home. Edward lunged for him and wanted to kill him. In the
Mrs. Budd was quoted as saying, “If only I could lay my hands on that man.”
Fish agreed to take police to Worthington Woods, to show them the place where he had killed Grace and tossed her remains. Her skull was visible in the dirt behind the stone wall, where a rusty cleaver, saw, and the rest of her bones were found; further searching yielded more bones in the floor of the basement of Wisteria Cottage. The police suspected more outrages and sent the bones for analysis, but failed to pin anything further on Fish: the bones were from animals. However, the media, especially the tabloid papers, had no trouble associating “the ogre” with any number of missing or dead children.
So now he had committed crimes for which he could be tried in two different jurisdictions—kidnap in Manhattan and murder in Westchester. His previous police record had been for various charges of larceny and vagrancy, although he had also been suspected in the 1927 disappearance of other children, notably four-year-old Billy Gaffney. A witness had seen them together in the vicinity of the place Fish had worked as a painter. Once he was ensconced in a prison cell, various medical people came to speak with him, even as dental records finally confirmed that Grace Budd was in fact dead. King received a well-earned promotion.The Most Depraved Killer
Dr. Frederic Wertham, a senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital, disliked the distinction between medical and legal insanity (which allowed psychotic people to be deemed guilty). Educated in Europe and England, he came to the United States in 1922 and became an outspoken and controversial figure in the psychiatric world. He founded a counseling service for the disadvantaged in Harlem and attempted to have comic books regulated.
Wertham examined Fish for over twelve hours before his trial. Fish claimed he had been married four times (two of these women denied it), and that his first wife, after having six children, ran off with another man, taking all the furniture and leaving the children for him to raise. He loved them and did a passable job, despite his poverty, seeing them to adulthood. They knew he was eccentric, but did not guess the extent of his depravity. He claimed that his wife’s departure, and her faithlessness, opened up the floodgates of his sexual troubles. He figured it no longer mattered what he did, so he allowed himself to express his desires without inhibition.
It was his sex life that seemed the focus of his pathology, developing in “unparalleled perversity.” Wertham counted eighteen different paraphilias, from cannibalism to vampirism to necrophilia. Fish’s perverse predilections apparently had begun when he was a child, arising from episodes of severe spanking by a female teacher at an orphanage. The act aroused him, as did watching her paddle the bare bottoms of other children. Thus his developing sexual desire centered on children, especially their buttocks. “I have always had the desire to inflict pain on others and to have others inflict pain on me,” Fish told the psychiatrist. Finding things with which to hurt himself was uppermost in his mind, such as inserting the stems of roses into his urethra. He even tried sticking needles in his testicles, but found the pain too intense. “If only pain were not so painful!” he stated.
To Wertham, he described his method for seducing and bribing children, often going naked under his painter’s overalls so he could get himself near them and then quickly remove his clothing. He used many different aliases and chose victims from the poorest classes, especially “colored children,” because they were least likely to raise a fuss or instigate an investigation. Still, he’d been forced to leave town many times when adults heard rumors about him. He also enjoyed writing obscene letters to strangers, hoping someone with a similar inclination would respond. He sought a kindred soul with whom to inflict and receive physical abuse.
Believing himself at times to be Christ or Abraham, and obsessed with sin and atonement, Fish had made a practice of beating his naked body with spiked paddles and sticking lighted cotton balls, soaked in alcohol, inside his anus. “The trouble with pain,” he said, “is you get tough and always have to invent something worse.” He also believed he needed to kill children (“lambs”) as a human sacrifice to please God and/or save their souls. Whatever he did he justified with quotes from the Bible. (He’d once been a church caretaker and had even painted angels on its ceiling.) Among the things he did to children were binding, castration, removing parts of the penis, anal assault, and beatings. He liked to hear them cry out in pain. He would then leave them, sometimes bound, for someone else to find. In fact, he had intended to castrate the Budd boy, and had even tried to castrate himself.
Wertham did not quite believe one of the claims Fish made, but could not deny its veracity. In his drive to feel pain, Fish actually shoved needles into the area of his groin between the anus and scrotum, and according to X-ray evidence, over two dozen were still there. It seemed astounding that a man would do this, but Fish had many different religious delusions that involved being a martyr. He claimed he had performed a similar act on some of his victims. In fact, he had roamed the country and estimated he had sexually abused over one hundred children in twenty-three states.
Wertham noted that Fish admired the work of a notorious killer from Germany, Fritz Haarmann, the “Hanover Vampire,” who had been convicted in 1924. Fish had a number of clippings about the man in his possession, so Wertham looked into the case. Haarmann was a butcher with a low IQ and a record of commitments to a mental institution. During the 1920s, he would find wayward young men, invite them home for a meal, force sex on them, and then murder them. He teamed up with a male prostitute, Hans Graf, who could better lure the boys. Together, over a period of five years, they trapped and killed an estimated fifty young men. They were finally stopped after someone found skeletal remains in a canal. Since Haarmann lived nearby and had been arrested before, investigators searched his home. They found clothing from several missing boys, as well as bloodstains on the walls. Under arrest, Haarmann confessed.
He referred to his victims as “game” and described how he grabbed them as they dozed after a large meal or intense sexual activity, and while sodomizing them would chew into their necks until the head was nearly severed (or so reports said). As he tasted their blood, he achieved orgasm. He would then dissect bodies and remove the organs. He’d also cut the flesh from their bodies, eat some or store it under his bed, and sell the rest as butchered meat. He claimed the obsession was too great for him to overcome. Armed with grisly evidence for twenty-seven of the murders, investigators ensured Haarmann’s conviction and he was sentenced to be beheaded. Moments before the blade fell, Haarmann announced that this was his “wedding day.” It sounded exactly like Fish himself—the kindred soul for whom he was searching.
To Wertham’s astonishment, Fish had been committed to Bellevue twice since the kidnapping, but no one had spotted his demented fantasies as a danger to anyone. He was also picked up in New York City several times for impairing the morals of a minor, yet no one connected him to the high-profile case of Grace Budd. To sum it up, Wertham wrote, “However you define the medical and legal borders of sanity, this certainly is beyond that border.” By his estimate, Fish had killed as many as five children and had intended, or tried, to kill a few more. Wertham heard figures from officials as high as fifteen, but these numbers were not corroborated.
Fish entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, and was transported to Westchester for a first-degree murder trial. At this time, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was being tried for the Lindbergh kidnapping, and was convicted. Once that trial concluded, the New York media turned its attention back to the Fish proceedings. They soon had the drama they were looking for, and the
even ran a five-part series that was supposedly Fish’s depraved memoir.
Just before the trial commenced in March 1935, Fish used a sharpened fish bone from a bowl of soup to cut his chest and abdomen. However, his injuries were not serious. The guards wondered if he was trying to commit suicide, but he refused to reveal his motive. Some who had talked with him believed he was merely searching for a way to inflict pain. Alienists had already examined Fish to support or refute his plea of insanity. Fish had expressed a fear of the electric chair. He did not believe he should die.