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Monday, January 23, 2017

Panzram: A Journal of Murder (Crime, Autobiography)

Author: Thomas E. Gaddis & James O. Long (with additional  material written by Carl Panzram)

Publisher: Amok Books (November 1, 2002) (original published as Killer 1970 by Macmillan Company)

Paperback 312 pages.

Finished Reading:  1/23/2017

Amazon Listing

          “In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings. I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons, and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than a thousand male human beings. For all these things I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me. I don’t believe in man, God nor Devil. I hate the whole damned human race including myself.”- Carl Panzram
Mass Murderer Carl Panzram
          An incredibly brutal, partial autobiography of Carl Panzram, amass murderer and serial sodomist. His confession was written in prison and given to a guard, Henry Lesser, that he had befriended. Due to its very shocking content and roaringly immoral tenor (even more appalling in 1930 when Panzram was executed) it was not published for 40 years.
          The author’s back up Panzram’s account with official files and information as available, occasionally making corrections in the chronology or adding details that he was not aware of. Included is also much of the correspondence (written independently of his confessional autobiography) between Lesser and Panzram, which gives a much rounder view of the killer’s character. The letters show intelligence and a jaundiced affection towards the only person Panzram “didn’t wish ill upon.”
          Gaddis and Long do a very detailed and interesting background account of the various prison’s Panzram is interred within. From Dannemora to Levenworth, the display the commonplace brutality and punishments, the inedible food, and the overcrowding of a system bent completely towards punishment, rather than rehabilitation.
Cover of the original edition
          Panzram’s case story takes a strange turn during his murder trial, he crushed a foreman’s head in with an iron bar while imprisoned at Levenworth. He decided to represent himself and plead not guilty, but openly stated his intent was to gain the death penalty and be executed. Similar to Gary Gilmore in the 1970’s this caused quite a stir at the time and questions of sanity were brought into play.
          The popular perception is that state executions happened every other day back in the old times and were almost a routine matter. Kansas, where the prison was located, had abolished capital punishment as had seven other states. Even then implementing a death sentence was much rarer than it is today.  Panzram had killed a federal employee however so his trail went before a federal judge. As such he is eventually executed in a state that had no death penalty.
          Several attempts are made by various anti-death penalty groups to appeal to the president to have Panzram’s sentence commuted to life imprisonment. These attempts angered the inmate and he wrote several letters threatening them, claiming his motto was, “Rob ‘em all, rape ‘em all, and kill ‘em all.” He even sent a letter to then President Hoover informing him that he would reject any amnesty or commutation of sentence, stating that it was his constitutional right to be executed.

          Also of interest is the large number of historical individuals that Panzram seems to have run across over his life. Beginning with him burglarizing the apartment of former president William Howard Taft. He also indirectly crosses paths with Henry F. Sinclair, the richest man in American history to go to prison. He was given one year for contempt of Congress due to his refusal to answer questions about the Teapot Dome Scandal. Lesser was his guard and mentions Panzram to him. Apparently he worked for Sinclair's company, Sinclair Oil, in Guatemala and when fired, burned the rig down. Finally, Panzram was also locked up in Levenworth with Robert F. Stroud, the famous Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud mentions Panzram in his book and unsuccessfully tried to get him a razor, so Panzram could commit suicide rather than be hanged by the state.
         While the material is fascinating, Panzram often follows into patterns of self-aggrandizement typical of many prison and criminal memoirs. He hates all of society, blames it for being who he is, blames his upbringing (which is believable), and in the end hates himself most of all. He yearns for his death most of all because he could never not be who he is.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

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