Friday, June 4, 2010

Call Me Crazy

by Deborah Blum

If it hadn’t been for that constant itch, that need to gloat, the letter he just had to send to the dead girl’s parents, he might never have been caught. He could have finished his life in the shadows, stayed the boogeyman, the gray man, the Brooklyn Vampire, all those names they called him after he was safely locked away.

But the business felt unfinished; it pricked at him over the years. He needed someone to know. Not just anyone, really. He needed the little girl’s parents to know how she died – and how she tasted. How she’d fought him, kicking and scratching. And how “I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven.”
The letter arrived in November 1934, more than six years after 10-year-old Gracie Budd (right) had vanished from her Brooklyn home. In the intervening years, the police had mistakenly arrested a neighbor and been forced to let him go. The real killer had been twice sent to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital for stalking and harassing women. He was both times treated and released.
But this time all the pieces came together – the killer, the letter, and a police detective who set a perfect trap. Their quarry was a disappointing sight at first, just an aging house painter with a tired face. Albert Fish didn’t look so much dangerous as exhausted, a scrap of a man, gray-haired and thin, dark rings circling pale eyes. But when the police found him, he pulled a straight razor from his pocket, slashing at the face of the closest one.

Fish didn’t regret the letter even after he was in prison. He’d gained such pleasure from telling the parents how clever he was in gaining their daughter’s trust, how he’d savored her piece by piece. “It took me nine days to eat her entire body.” And while in prison, he continued to brag, giving the names of other children he’d cooked, other recipes that he’d tried.

He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Of course he did. He was a murderer, a torturer, and a cannibal. He ate children, didn’t he? And yet, Albert Fish’s trial lasted ten days, most of it consumed by that very question. Was he insane? Or merely an example of the very darkest edges of normal human behavior?

In fact, the 1935 trial of Albert Fish, still regarded as one of the most horrific serial killers in American history, set the stage for a near brawl by some of the country’s distinguished psychiatrists over that question: who qualifies as crazy in the criminal justice system? And who has the power to decide?

It was a moment in which the profession of psychiatry was starting to flex its muscles, argue that the science of behavior was now strong enough to make judgment calls, even those that could make a difference between life and death. It was also a moment that crystallized the natural conflict between the goals of the criminal justice system and the goals of impartial science.

Because there was nothing academic about that debate over the sanity of Albert Fish. His life - and the lives of deviant murderers to follow - depended on that outcome of that scientific quarrel. Lunatics aren’t executed for the crimes, after all. The verdict would send him either to an asylum or to his death.

Fish was born in 1870 and most experts agreed that his childhood had undoubtedly helped shape him as a killer. His father died when the boy was five years old and his mother, unable to care for him, put him into an orphanage where – it was later learned – children were regularly stripped naked and whipped bloody.

But he was distinguished from the orphanages’ other victims in that he learned to enjoy the pain. As an adult he regularly whipped himself raw and drove needles into his groin; after his an arrest, an x-ray found 28 needles so deeply embedded that they could not be removed without surgery. As an adult, he also sought out brothels where he could be whipped and beaten.

And he discovered that inducing pain in others, especially young boys, offered him equal pleasure. By the time he was arrested, Fish claimed to have raped and murdered children in every state. In New York, at least, the police were able to confirm a number of these claims, some of which involved torture murders and at least one of which also included claims of cannibalism. The victim was a four-year-old boy named Billy Gaffney, whom Fish claimed to have roasted with onions and served with gravy. But first “I stuck the knife in his belly and drank his blood.”

No wonder then that his defense attorney, James Dempsey, assumed that his client was a natural candidate for a lunatic asylum. As he told the jury, Fish was a “psychiatric phenomenon;” he himself had never defended anyone so riddled with perversions and bizarre behaviors.

Dempsey’s expert witness parade began with the psychiatrist, Frederic Wertham (right), who would later become famous for his book, Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comic books and cartoons lured children into accepting and condoning violent behavior.

But that book was published 20 years later. At the time of the Fish trial, Wertham was running a clinic for the New York courts, which provided psychiatric examinations of convicted felons. After examining Albert Fish, Wertham concluded that the man was delusional, believing that he needed to sacrifice children as penance for his sins. Fish also believed that his cannibalism was a form of communion, he said. When asked directly about Fish’s mental state, Wertham was blunt: "He is insane." Two other psychiatrists called by Dempsey said they had reached the same conclusion.

Prosecutors responded by calling four of their own experts, beginning with Menas Gregory, famous as the alienist who had established modern psychiatric treatment at Bellevue Hospital. I’d actually researched Gregory for my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, because I was following a chloroform serial killer who ended up in the psychopathic ward at Bellevue. I’d admired his sense of compassion; he wrote papers deploring the way vengeful families sent unwanted relatives to lunatic asylums, fought for better treatment of those who needed help.

But at the Fish trial, it was very clear that Gregory had a goal in mind. He wanted to see Albert Fish go to the electric chair. In fact, he testified that some of Fish’s perversions – not only pedophilia but also coprophilia (hording feces, eating feces, defecating on another for sexual pleasure) – were “socially perfectly alright” and that, in this case, Fish was just like millions of others. My favorite of these expert statements – in terms of its complete absurdity – was by another psychiatrist, Charles Lambert, who agreed that coprophilia was common practice and that religious cannibalism might be bizarre but "was a matter of taste" and not evidence of a psychosis.

It seems to me that in this case the phrase “matter of taste” was poorly chosen. And it also strikes me that this does not represent a high moment in the history of expert testimony – at least, unbiased expert testimony. One can understand why so many people wanted to see a cannibal killer of children like Albert Fish face the most severe punishment possible, one can understand why a life sentence in an asylum would seem so unsatisfying (although asylums of the time were pretty horrible.) But scientists should not be in courtrooms to crusade, or to bend their own science to a need for vengeance. There’s no situation that demands research integrity more than a courtroom in which a life is at stake.

But the arguments in the trial also remind us that we have yet to really answer the essential questions - who do we call truly crazy? How much compassion, if any, should we extend to a mentally unbalanced serial killer? Do we yet grasp why any human being would behave this way? In his beautifully researched book about the Fish case, Deranged, writer Harold Schechter notes that years later, Wertham bitterly criticized the prosecution's psychiatric witnesses for making "extraordinary statements under oath" that served to give a "black eye to psychiatry." He argued that “society would have been better served by understanding what made Fish who he was.”

And from that statement, you can probably figure out the ending to this story. Albert Fish, found sane, died in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on January 16, 1936.

No comments: