Feb 10, 2014


My unintended marathon reading of true crime books continues with The Cannibal: The Case of Albert Fish. This non-fiction account of Albert Fish's cannibal crimes against his adolescent victims was written by Mel Heimer, a former reporter. The book itself is quite slim 150 pages or so and a breeze to read, technically. However, it does delve into some pretty graphic descriptions of Fish's crimes, using both his own words and those of the author, so it can be difficult to traverse, depending on your own icky scale.

Neighbors, friends, and families of serial killers more often than not describe them as quiet, friendly, unassumingly, and nice. Ed Gein was looked at as a harmless old hermit. John Wayne Gacy was a clown at children's parties. But Albert Fish has the distinction of being among the oldest serial killers ever caught. It was his elderly and distinguished appearance that led so many people to instantly trust him. Though he claimed responsibility for at least a hundred murders, police work and his own confessions totaled a solid number of five lives taken. He was given many nicknames once news of his crimes hit the media, chief among them being the "Werewolf of Wysteria" and "The Grey Man."

The most infamous of Fish's murders was that of Grace Budd, nine-year-old sister of Ed Budd Jr., who had placed an ad in the paper that he was looking for work outside of the city, and to whom Fish was responding when he contacted the Budd family to explain that he owned a farm and was looking for a farmhand to help out with everyday work. He used the pseudonym of Frank Howard, and to further sell his lie regarding his farm, he had brought with him a small jar of cottage cheese, which he claimed derived directly from his farm's resources. (He had in actuality stopped off at a market before arriving at the Budds.) Once there, Budd made nice with the family, sitting down with them and making polite conversation. His original target being Edward Jr., Fish changed his mind upon arriving, deeming the boy "unattractive" for Fish's purposes. Instead he set his sight on young Grace and managed to convince her parents that he knew of a nearby party that he was considering attending and that Grace should accompany him. The Budds instantly trusted Fish due to his almost statesman-like appearance and agreed to let Grace attend the party with him.

Fish then left with Grace. The Budds never saw her again.

The book then recounts Fish's plan, beginning with taking her to an abandoned cottage, and ending with his method for disposing of her body.

Grace was reported missing, and for six long years, the police turned up many clues and followed up on many suspects, none of which or whom proved to be helpful. Soon the case became stagnant, though not altogether dead, and it was a simple piece of stationary that led the police to finally capture the Werewolf of Wysteria.

The poor family had been deluged over the years with all sorts of crank letters and claims, and it got to the point that they stopped reading them and simply delivered them directly to the police. It was on a piece of unique stationary that Fish had anonymously sent the below letter to Grace Budd's mother.
Dear Mrs. Budd:

In 1894 a friend of mine shipped as a deck hand on the Steamer Tacoma, Capt. John Davis. They sailed from San Francisco for Hong Kong, China. On arriving there he and two others went ashore and got drunk. When they returned the boat was gone. At that time there was famine in China. Meat of any kind was from $1–3 per pound. So great was the suffering among the very poor that all children under 12 were sold for food in order to keep others from starving. A boy or girl under 14 was not safe in the street. You could go in any shop and ask for steak—chops—or stew meat. Part of the naked body of a boy or girl would be brought out and just what you wanted cut from it. A boy or girl's behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price. John staid there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh. On his return to N.Y. he stole two boys, one 7 and one 11. Took them to his home stripped them naked tied them in a closet. Then burned everything they had on. Several times every day and night he spanked them – tortured them – to make their meat good and tender. First he killed the 11 year old boy, because he had the fattest ass and of course the most meat on it. Every part of his body was cooked and eaten except the head—bones and guts. He was roasted in the oven (all of his ass), boiled, broiled, fried and stewed. The little boy was next, went the same way.

At that time, I was living at 409 E 100 St. near—right side. He told me so often how good human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it. On Sunday June the 3, 1928 I called on you at 406 W 15 St. Brought you pot cheese—strawberries. We had lunch. Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her. On the pretense of taking her to a party. You said yes she could go.

I took her to an empty house in Westchester I had already picked out. When we got there, I told her to remain outside. She picked wildflowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and called her. Then I hid in a closet until she was in the room. When she saw me all naked she began to cry and tried to run down the stairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mamma. First I stripped her naked. How she did kick – bite and scratch. 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. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body. I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished.

She died a virgin.

In my previous recommendation of Edward Gein: America's Most Bizarre Murderer, I explained I prefer a true-crime account to be comprised majorly of the subject's own words. In that regard, The Cannibal is equally fascinating, though likely more so. To directly compare, while Gein never seemed quite to know why it was he killed those he did, as well as cannibalized them and even lived with dug-up corpses, it's made quite clear that Fish simply enjoyed everything he did, though he sometimes suggested that he didn't know why he did the things he did. He referred to himself as "queer" (referring to the mid-20th century meaning of the word), and in letters to the few of his children that continued to correspond with him, he often wondered what compelled him to kill and devour.

Once captured for his crimes against Grace Budd, a physical examination of him revealed over 20 needles purposely inserted in his pelvis. His reasons for having done so varied greatly, and soon there were five very distinct explanations he offered, each conflicting with the other.

And it's actually this very random factoid where my only real criticism of the book comes into play: the more unusual facts about the peculiar Albert Fish will stick immediately in your mind, so when this information is repeated later in the text, you'll definitely notice. Several accounts, such as the strange needle story, or the manner in which Fish was finally caught by authorities, appear at least twice  and these are just to examples. It certainly doesn't diminish the reading experience in any way, as you could likely read about a man sticking needles into his pelvis a hundred different ways and never become bored, simply because, god damn, that's fucking weird, but perhaps a more discerning editor would have cut out these reuses so as not to harp on some weird anecdotes in a book already full of them.

Of all the true crime books I've read so far, The Cannibal might so far be the most vicious, and this has to do not only with the age of Fish's victims, but the brutality committed against them. Though he tried to feign confusion and even alarm about himself, he never made it a secret that he enjoyed killing and maiming. "I have had kids in every state," he even once bragged, though it was unknown whether that represented murders or rapes (or both). Still, The Cannibal is terribly interesting in the way true crime is meant to be. The accounts of Fish's crimes are presented objectively, leaving no stones unturned. His own words are especially powerful, and the letter presented above is just one example.

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