On this date in 1930, one of the most nihilistic criminals in American history was hanged for murder at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary — in character to his last breath, a sneer at the hangman about to put him to death:
A Minnesota-born son of German immigrants, Panzram was into the juvenile detention system by adolescence, and at 14 hopped a freight train bound for a life of vagrancy. In Panzram’s recounting, his boyhood was a hellscape — even knowing what he became, it’s possible to feel compassion for the the killer’s remembrance, “Everybody thought it was all right to deceive me, lie to me and kick me around whenever they felt like it, and they felt like it pretty regular.”
Worse was to come for Carl — sexual molestation, a gang-rape by fellow hobos — and much worse by Carl.
The rape may have shattered the restraints on his conscience … or maybe they was already gone by then. “Might makes right” became his credo; to alcoholic and thief he added a portfolio of rape and enthusiastic homicide, crisscrossing the country (with a side trip to Africa), escaping or wheedling out of jails when he was picked up for something, and finding it amazingly easy to slay his fellow men.
A full narrative of Panzram’s grisly career is available at trutv.com. Much of this is, again, sourced only to Panzram himself, so the possibility of bloodthirsty braggadocio cannot be dismissed; even at a fraction of its alleged scope and brutality, his career was a triumph in horror.
While I was sitting there, a little kid about eleven or twelve years old came bumming around. He was looking for something. He found it, too. I took him out to a gravel pit about one-quarter mile away. I left him there, but first I committed sodomy on him and then killed him. His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him, and he will never be any deader.
It was the murder of a fellow inmate at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Ks., that sealed his fate. Panzram was in his late 30’s by this time, facing a long prison sentence. Something between the fury that fueled him and the desperate reality of not seeing the outside again until he was an old man may have impelled him to check out intentionally: he had warned that he would murder an inmate, and he responded to anti-death penalty campaigners’ attempts to save him by threatening to kill them, too.
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 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry.
It seems the fate of common criminals, even those as prolific and infernal as Panzram, to shuffle into obscurity in fairly short order. Among devotees of the dark underbelly, Panzram may be well-known; to the larger public, he’s long forgotten.
Panzram’s memoirs, released as Killer: A Journal of Murder, were turned into a 1996 James Woods vehicle of the same title:
Interestingly, Panzram is also name-checked in another more famous literary artifact: In the Belly of the Beast, the tour de force of Norman Mailer protege Jack Abbott, who had conned the litterateur into backing his bid for parole, was rather boldly dedicated to Carl Panzram.* It will not surprise the reader to learn that Abbott, upon his release, killed again.
But a new generation is waiting to rediscover its butchers … and a new documentary, Panzram, is in production to bring the story back to silver screens and Netflix queues of the 21st century.