Albert Fish Trial: 1935

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Albert Fish Trial: 1935

Defendant: Albert Fish
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: James Dempsey, Frank J. Mahony
Chief Prosecutors: Elbert T. Gallagher, Thomas D. Scoble
Judge: Frederick P. Close
Place: White Plains, New York
Date of Trial: March 11en22, 1935
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: The always-blurred distinctions between medical and criminal insanity became virtually indistinguishable during this trial of one of America's most extraordinary criminals.

On June 3, 1928, an elderly, meek-mannered handyman calling himself "Frank Howard" lured 12-year-old Grace Budd away from her family in New York City, on the pretext of taking her to a party. She was never seen alive again. A huge search initially raised hopes that Grace would be found, but as days, weeks, and then months passed with no news, the Budds resigned themselves to the inevitable.

Like most families in such ghastly circumstances they got on with their lives and tried to put the tragedy behind them. Then, on November 11, 1934, came a bolt from the blue. The letter they received, postmarked in Manhattan, was obscene and rambling, but its gloating account of Grace Budd's death bore ominous hallmarks of authenticity.

Forensic analysis of the monogrammed stationery eventually led detectives to a rooming house on 52nd Street, and a shabbily dressed old man who made no attempt to resist when he was taken into custody on the morning of December 13.

Something had gone horribly wrong in the brain of Albert Fish. To the outside world this 66-year-old house painter displayed an avuncular, even benign warmth, but beneath the surface lurked a demonically disturbed personality. He was a serial pedophile, a cannibal, a fantasist, irredeemably sado/masochistic, and, ultimately, a child killer.

So said Elbert T. Gallagher, the assistant district attorney, when he opened the state's case against Fish on March 11, 1935. Gallagher spared no emotions, either his own or the court's, as he read aloud the infamous letter. In it, the writer described what happened after he had taken Grace to a deserted house in Westchester County. "I first stripped her naked [and] choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces." These were then roasted in an oven. "It took me nine days to eat her entire body," he wrote, before adding what he imagined to be some kind of palliative: "She died a virgin."

Fish had made no attempt to deny that he was either the author of the letter or the person who had killed Grace Budd. But was he legally insane?

The M'Naghten Rule

Ever since Daniel M'Naghten, a deranged workman, was acquitted of an 1843 murder in London by reason of insanity, the so-called "M'Naghten Rule" had been the benchmark of sanity in the American courtroom. It reads as follows:

To establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as to not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.

Gallagher was emphatic: "In this case, there is a presumption of sanity. The proof, briefly, will be that this defendant knows the difference between right and wrong and that he is legally sane and should answer for his acts."

For chief defense attorney James Dempsey, it was a question of getting as much of Fish's bizarre personal history before the jury as he dared. His was a life given over to wholesale perversion: self-flagellation with nail-studded paddles; needles plunged beneath his fingernails; unspeakable violence toward countless children; all fanned by delusions of religious mania. In 1930 he had been committed to Bellevue, New York's psychiatric hospital, only for them to discharge him as "fit to live in society."

"Bellevue has a lot to account for here," said Dempsey, reminding the jury that it was up to the prosecution to prove that a man who killed and ate children was sane.

Of the four psychiatrists who testified on behalf of the state, Dr. Charles Lambert was the most forceful in his insistence that Fish was a "psychopathic personality without a psychosis."

Dempsey stared incredulously at the witness. "Assume that this man not only killed this girl but took her flesh to eat it. Will you state that that man could for nine days eat that flesh and still not have a psychosis?"

"Well, there is no accounting for taste, Mr. Dempsey," replied Lambert smoothly.

Few in court were prepared for the stomach-churning testimony of the star defense witness, Dr. Frederic Wertham, an eminent psychiatrist who had examined Fish at length and would later write voluminously about the defendant. Certainly it was too strong for Judge Frederick Close, who at the outset had announced his intention of having "a quiet orderly trial." He ordered the courtroom cleared of women before permitting Wertham to recount extraordinary details gleaned from Fish's memory. So outlandish did they seem, that at first Wertham had wondered if what Fish told him "might be fancies, but I have never seen fancies which showed up on an X-ray." This was an X-ray of Fish which revealed no fewer than 29 needles embedded deep in his scrotal region.

Admits to Cannibalism

Gradually, as Fish began to open up during the interviews, came confirmation of his cannibalism. "He definitely told me," said Wertham, "that he ate the flesh of Grace Budd." And Fish had gone on to explain himself thus: "What I did must have been right, or an angel would have stopped me, just as an angel stopped Abraham in the Bible."

Wertham had no doubt that Fish was clinically unique. "To the best of my knowledge, every sexual abnormality that I have ever heard of, this man has practiced." And his conclusion was unambiguous. "He does not know the character and quality of his acts. He does not know right from wrong. He is insane now and was insane before."

Dempsey attempted to press home this advantage in closing, explaining why his client had remained mute. "I do not believe an insane man should be on the witness stand, testifying. Secondly the story of this man's life is one of unspeakable horror. You wouldn't believe it: he would disgust and nauseate you."

By contrast, Gallagher kept hammering away on the M'Naghten Rule. Fish, quite clearly, knew the difference between right and wrong. "If this defendant were operating under psychosis, how could he tell you all of the details about the killing of this girl?"

This extraordinary trial concluded on March 22, when, after four hours deliberation, the jury decided that Fish was sane and guilty of murder.

Sentence of death was automatic, and on January 16, 1936, the man who, by his own admission had murdered at least a dozen children and abused countless others, was executed at Sing Sing prison.

Nothing provides a clearer insight into Fish's tortured mind than his reaction to the jury's verdict: momentary disappointment, replaced almost instantly by a glow of near elation. "What a thrill that will be, if I have to die in the electric chair," he beamed. "It will be the supreme thrillthe only one I haven't tried." Then his mood shifted again, and he mumbled, "But it wasn't the right verdict. I'm not really sane, you know."

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Heimer, Mel. The Cannibal. New York: Pinnacle Books, 1971.

Wertham, Frederick. The Show of Violence. London: Gollancz, 1949.

Wilson, Colin and Pam Pitman. Encyclopedia of Murder. New York: Putnam's, 1961.