If anyone’s ever told you that the boogeyman wasn’t real, they were lying. The boogeyman isn’t just an urban legend, or that “thing” your mother warned you about as a child to deter you from coming home after the street lights went on, he was a very real man, and his name was Hamilton Howard “Albert” Fish.
When you envision the boogeyman, you probably think of someone sinister-looking roaming the streets late at night, or even during broad daylight, snatching up children and doing the unthinkable to them. Well, that’s exactly what Fish, who was also nicknamed the Brooklyn Vampire, the Gray Man, the Moon Manic and the Werewolf of Wysteria, did. The only difference here is that his appearance was unassuming, like that of a sweet, harmless grandfather whose lap you’d sit on for story time. It’s how he was able to escape detection for so long.
This assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth.
To say Fish was one of the most monstrous people who ever walked the earth would be an understatement. He committed murders so horrific that police initially couldn’t believe the details of his confessions.
Fish was born in 1870 in Washington, D.C., to a family who had a long history of serious mental illness. To put it lightly, their disorders could have filled an entire medical textbook. Fish himself was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which is a chronic condition requiring lifelong treatment for the delusions, disordered thinking and behavior, and abnormal interpretations of reality that accompany it. Needless to say, Fish never received any treatment.
But the real story began when Fish’s father, who was a Potomac River boat captain, died in 1875. At that time, he was only five-years-old, far from capable of grappling with the effects of losing a parent. Sadly, that same year, his mother abandoned him, dropping him off to live in St. John’s Orphanage, located in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
This is where psychologists believe the demons inside Fish began to awaken. At the orphanage, he was beaten and whipped daily; to the point that after suffering from the abuse for four straight years, he actually began to enjoy it. When he was nine-years-old, his distraught mother showed up and brought him back into her custody. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done and could not be reversed.
His time spent at the orphanage was a defining moment in his life, especially considering the appalling torture he experienced as a child is the common factor in the backgrounds of the majority of serial killers.
“While there, he was subjected to all manners of physical and sexual abuse and humiliation and torture, which completely warped his personality out of shape. It turned him into the kind of monstrous being that he was,” says Harold Schechter, a professor of American Literature at Queens College, City University of New York and author of Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Fiendish Killer.
As a teenager, Fish started to display unusual and alarming behaviors, such as drinking urine and eating feces. In 1890, at the age of 20, he found pleasure in snatching young boys off the street in Manhattan, where he moved with his mother, and raping them. But this is just the beginning of a story most folks would just rather forget.
Two years later, after visiting a wax museum where he saw a penis divided into two equal parts, this “polymorphous pervert” became obsessed with sexual maiming. From that point, he began practicing even more deviations — from sadism to sodomy and even self-mutilation.
Surprisingly, in 1898, he was married and fathered six children. According to one of their testimonies during Fish’s trial, they lead average lives until their mother ran off with another man in 1917. That’s when Fish’s children recall his strange and unpredictable behavior surfacing — occasionally requesting them to join in on his sado-masochistic games, watching him eat large quantities of raw meat, proclaiming he was Christ, and collecting published material on cannibalism.
As time went on, the fantasies he performed on children grew more fiendish and horrifying, and often ended in murdering and cannibalizing his naive victims with his “instruments of hell.” These instruments were made up of a butcher knife, a meat cleaver and a hand saw. He was a real-life Hannibal Lecter as portrayed in Silence of the Lambs.
Fish’s first arrest was not for something you’d imagine from a wicked serial killer. In 1903, he was detained for theft, but released a short while later only to begin having hallucinations of the apostles commanding him.
For the next 27 years, he captured raped, murdered and ate countless innocent children. Although he only officially confessed to the murder of three people, he later claimed that during his 65 years as a free man to have hunted and killed more than a hundred “children in every state.” According to Fish, he preyed exclusively on children because they were “tasty.”
He was once quoted saying, “I never ate any roast turkey that tasted half as good.”
Fish flew under the radar for many years. It wasn’t until he murdered 10-year-old Grace Budd in 1928 that things started to take a turn. The investigation into this little girl’s disappearance went on for six years before detectives got a break into the puzzling case.
Then, on November, 11, 1934, Grace’s grieving mother received an anonymous letter detailing the horrors he committed.
“Grace sat in my lap and kissed me,” the letter said. “I made up my mind to eat her. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it.”
As if to offer some sort of consolation, Fish told her that Grace had not been sexually assaulted, just killed and eaten.
Police were able to trace the paper Fish wrote the letter on back to his residence, where he immediately began confessing to killing the young girl, as well as the others.
According to his captors, Fish probably started murdering people as far back as 1910.
He was eventually convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution, something he was rumored to be very excited about.
On January 16, 1936, he was executed, a death that came too late for his victims.
To this day, Fish is considered one of the most deranged and wicked serial killers in American history.
Undoubtedly, he was the living manifestation of every parent and child in the world’s worst nightmare — worse than any boogeyman I’d ever heard of growing up. So, why haven’t more people heard about this evil soul?
“I think, partly, his crimes were so depraved and so hideous and so horrendous that the general public doesn’t want to really hear too many details about him,” says Schechter. “Obviously, the Boogeyman is a mythical figure, but if anybody, any real flesh and blood human comes close to actually embodying that myth, it’s Albert Fish.”
The papers from Fish’s psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, are now available at the Library of Congress.