Friday, February 02, 2007

Carl Panzram.

Painter Joe Coleman has immortalized Carl Panzram in portraiture. The notorious killer might seem an unlikely subject for an homage, but Coleman is no ordinary artist. He has been known to honor all types of creeps in his quest to display his nihilistic philosophy. But Panzram seems to hold a special place in Coleman's heart. This mass murderer, who confessed to dispatching 21 human lives, was put to death in a Kansas prison in 1930. He was only actually ever tried with kiling his last victim... a civilian foreman in the Leavenworth Prison laundry facility where he worked. But he spent decades in jails and prisons across America, serving under assumed names for crimes as diverse as arson, assault, and theft.

Perhaps most extreme was Panzram's penchant for sodomy. In his autobiographical memoirs, Panzram brags about "riding" 1000 men. As if to validate the future claims of feminists, he explained that he wasn't (per se) homosexual, but rather that he commited these acts to assert his dominance over others. His motto was "might makes right". This was a lesson he learned as a very young man. His parents were hardscrabble Prussian immigrants, trying to make their living on a Minnesota farm. Shortly after Carl's birth (he was the fifth child), his father flew the coop. Panzram's brothers assumed the paternal role, and seemed to have been brutal in their attempts to curb the wild behavior of their charge.

Panzram's travels began after stints in reform school. He ran away from home, deciding to ride the rails and meet his fate. His path unfortunately led to a group of hoboes, who gang-raped the teenager in a boxcar. That experience simply increased his rage toward humanity. He made numerous return trips to incarceration, and was treated in the brutal manner of the penal standards of his day. He experienced every form of torture that the system could devise to deal with recalcitrant prisoners. He was beaten, hosed, shackled and kept in various "holes". Eventually he was beyond all redemption, and he hated himself as much as he hated mankind.

Several escapes from bondage burnished the image of this muscle-bound monster. He was able somehow to attain seamen's papers, which he used to travel to, and work in multiple foreign countries. It was during this time that he committed his first murders. He stole a yacht and lured sailors aboard... only to rob, rape, and kill them. He lured 12-year old boys to their deaths, sodomizing them first. And he killed six Africans in a single day, and fed their bodies to crocodiles. He was absolutely ruthless.

Interestingly, if it were not for the formation of an unlikely friendship- nobody would have ever known the extent of Panzram's crimes. Henry Lesser was a liberal-minded guard in a Washington DC prison when he met the notorious inmate. Slowly a mutual regard arose between the two. As a result of the relationship, Panzram wrote an account of his crimes... along with his thoughts on prisons, criminality and philosophy. When the convict was later transferred, the two maintained contact through a heavily censored series of letters. Panzram's lack of regard for humanity is compellingly contradicted by the tone of his letters to Lesser.

Despite allowing that brief glimpse into his pained soul, Panzram retained his steely attitude when faced with execution. He refused to allow the court-appointed attorney to defend him, or to make any case for insanity. When he feared that complications might keep a jury from applying the death penalty, he attempted to devise a strategy that would ensure that the state take his life. Authorities were stymied by his position... confused that they may be assisting his suicide by hanging him. Eventually Carl Panzram got his final wish. His last words were, "Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could kill 10 men while you're fooling around!"

Panzram's correspondance with Lesser, and his memoir notes outlining his criminal career are presented in Gaddis and Long's Panzram: A Journal of Murder (1970). In addition to the captivatingly repetitive accounts of his crimes, the authors include copious commentary and footnotes that add context to Panzram's personal story.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

chilling to thing any man could be so brutally insane.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

The society gets the criminals it deserves. Panzram was adamant in his belief that he was created through the actions of his fellow man.

7:58 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

"The society gets the criminals it deserves."

Counterpoint: That's a pretty loaded generalization. If you meant it to raise an issue for discussion, that I can understand...however, as part of the "society" you attribute the problem to, I feel the need to react to that statement. Wouldn't it be fairer to everyone in society to say that "the people in society who influence criminal behavior deserve the criminals they've created (and thus deserve)"? While I have no doubt Penzram could be correct in his assessment of how he got to where he did, did his "fellow man" refer to those people with whom he came into contact, or society in general? I can't see how "society" can be blamed for the actions or inactions of some parents, or of some media people, or some politicians, et al. Perhaps I'm taking a too-narrow view, but I don't see how I deserve some of the blame for many of the the criminals out there. I'm asking myself, just which ones do I deserve, and which ones have I created?

8:34 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

There are problems inherent in the very perspective of the collective (and the nature of the system that we share) that contribute to a violent, crime-ridden culture. We all share a stake in the problems of society. No one is completely detached from blame. We choose to vote, act and say things in one way or another, we make consumer decisions... these all have consequences. The positions we hold individually cause reverberations externally. Sometimes they are subtle and disceet, and at other times they are patently obvious to any objective observer. Sure.. it's all a matter of degree... but we are all involved. I think your last question is an appropriate one to ask, now and again... just so you have a chance to reflect upon your own role. That's one of the more unpleasant, yet necessary aspects of living an examined life. Sometimes we are complicit in ways we never stop to think about.

11:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont see how anyone would be able to read his biography (Panzram: A Journal of Muder) and not feel that the Monster that was Panzram was molded by the society he was brought up in. He may have been born a rotten apple, but he was bred to be something much worse.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And to respond to the first comment. If you do read his biography, you'll learn that he was not "insane", as you put it.
Albert Fish, and Ed Gein were insane, but not Carl Panzram.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

anon,

Yeah, I believe I (more than) touched on Panzram's experiences of abuse during his youth. They certainly helped make the man he was to become.

11:26 PM  

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