"The Gray Man"
- that was the term that Edward Budd Sr., used to describe the little
grandfatherly man, Albert Fish, who
took his 12 year old daughter away and savagely murdered
her on a warm day in 1931.
Albert Fish started life on a rough road - at the age of five his father died and he was sent to an orphanage. Albert was a sensitive, nervous child, he would later say,"...that place ruined my mind." He was the youngest boy at the institution and witnessed many terrible acts. Boys being whipped, teachers forcing the youths in their care to strip and then masturbating them in front of the other children. This is where Fish had his first, as he put it, little "sex feelings."
At seventeen he was out in the world. He traveled to Europe and became a male prostitute, servicing both men and women. Fish was basically a homosexual - women were only a means to vent certain perverse feelings. When Fish returned to America he criss-crossed the country working at a variety of odd jobs. His main trade was painting, but his real vocation was to indulge in as many perverse pleasures as he could seek out. Children were his preference, especially young boys. It has been estimated that in his sordid career he attacked over one hundred children and murdered a large percentage of them.
His taste for blood started when he picked up a young boy in his travels, took him to a run down rooming house and partially castrated him. He intended to kill the boy but could not bring himself to finish the job. As he stated later "I couldnt do it when I looked at his sweet face." Instead he left the poor lad in pain with a $10.00 dollar bill and skipped town.
Fish married for the first time in his 30s - his bride was only 19. The two had six children together. By all accounts he was a good and caring father and never abused his own children. But there was strangeness connected with this part of Fishs life as well. One day Albert returned home to find his six children alone in the house that they rented. His wife had run away with their border, John Straube. Sometime later she contacted Albert and pleaded to return. He was willing to take her back until she asked if the man she had run away with could come with her! Fish was still willing to have her back with the family, but not Straube. She agreed to his demand and all seemed well for a little while - until one day he discovered that the border had been hiding in the attic and continuing the affair with his wife. Shortly after that the wife and Straube left once again, never to return.
Fish was not a particularly smart man, cunning maybe, but he did have amazing luck. Except for a short term in prison for embezzlement he never served a lengthy sentence until he was captured for the murder of Grace Budd. In fact he had even been institutionalized in a mental hospital for some lewd behavior, but after a short time was released. When his activities came under scrutiny he would just move on.
When he wasnt hunting children, or flogging himself with a spiked paddle of his own design, his favorite pastimes were reading the bible and writing obscene letters. He would chose his victims from the lonely hearts columns or of all places the want ads. Thats where he came across an ad placed by young Edward Budd Jr.
Edward, the 18 year old brother of Grace, had placed an ad looking for summer work. Using the name Frank Howard, Fish contacted the Budd family. He told them that he owned a small farm in Long Island and could use the help of a strong boy. His real plan of course was to take young Edward, torture him, murder him, then eat his flesh. Yes, Fish was also a cannibal. However, when Howard/Fish saw young Gracie he knew he must have her instead.
He returned to the Budd home a few days later on May 27th. Edward Jr. had his bags packed and was ready to go. But Fish had other ideas, he asked if first he could take young Grace uptown to his sisters home. He told them she was having a party and there would be a lot of children Graces age there. At first Mr. and Mrs. Budd were reluctant to let her go, but Grace pleaded with them. After all, he seemed like such a nice man. Hand in hand the old man and the little girl left for the uptown subway.
First Albert Fish stopped at a news-stand and retrieved a parcel that he had left there earlier. The parcel of canvas contained a sharp butchers knife, a small saw and a cleaver. He would later call them his "Implements of Hell."Uptown the two boarded a train and traveled up to Westchester county. In the early afternoon they arrived at the town of Greenburgh. As they stepped off the train Grace pulled away from Fish and ran back into the car. Fish stood there not knowing what to do - had Grace become suspicious? Shortly Grace returned carrying the parcel of canvas which he had forgotten. They walked a ways to an abandoned, secluded house, known as Whisteria Cottage. Some years before, Fish had stood on a hill near the house ranting that he was Christ while his children looked on.
Taking the parcel from her, he told Grace to pick wild-flowers from the side yard while he went inside. He climbed the rickety stairs and entered one of the side rooms. He opened his parcel on an old table and laid out his tools. Then Fish removed all his clothes and called for Grace to join him. When she reached the upper landing Fish stepped out. Seeing that he was naked she yelled, "Ill tell Mama!" Before she could run Fish grabbed the frail girl and dragged her into the room. He put her on the floor, digging his knee into her chest and started strangling her. Once he had squeezed out the last shallow breath from her body, he began to use his "Implements of Hell" to cut her body into pieces.
First he sawed off her head, draining her blood into an old can. After cutting off the choice pieces of her body that he wanted to eat, he placed the rest of her dismembered corpse in various places about the house and yard. To finish off this unholy event, the terrible old man stuffed cotton soaked in lighter fluid up his rectum and touched it off with a match. Howling with pain and pleasure he danced wildly about the room as the air filled with the smell of his own burning flesh.
Fish reached climax, cleaned the blood from his body, dressed, then carefully wrapped up the remaining pieces of Grace and left. Over the next nine days he ate her flesh prepared in various ways. At night he would masturbate, reliving the terrible incident over and over again. For that whole time he remained in a heightened state of sexual excitement.
His downfall came a few years later after a letter he had written to the Budd family led to his arrest. It was a rambling document talking about the famine in China and how young boys and girls were being slaughtered and sold to butcher shops. He closed his letter with the statement "...I did not fuck her, though I could have. She died a virgin."
It was Detective William King, chief detective on the case that successfully traced the letter to a rooming house where Fish had recently resided. He had moved on but still had his mail delivered to that address. King was surprised when he finally came face to face with the monster he had hunted for so long. Instead of a red eyed demon there stood before him a small, wizened old man. Quickly he realized though that the little gray man was truly from hell when Fish produced a razor blade from his pocket and tried to slit his own wrists.
Once in custody it wasnt long before Fish confessed to murdering the little girl. He also confessed to a number of other brutal murders of young children stretching over a number of years.
When Fish was moved to the Eastview jail in White Plains, New York, James Dempsey was appointed by the court to defend him. Dempsey brought in the well known psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham to examine his client. Wertham is best remembered today as the author of the book "Seduction of the Innocent." The book was an indictment of the comic book industry and was instrumental in bringing in the repressive comics code in the 1950's.
The psychiatrist conducted three lengthy interviews with Fish. At the end of the interviews he concluded that Fish was indeed very mentally ill and a danger to society. Wertham stated that there was no known perversion that Albert did not practice and practice frequently.
One of the perversions that Albert told the Doctor, shocked even him - the practice of inserting the thorny stem of a rose into his penis and then eating the stem afterwords.
While in jail a routine physical exam disclosed another perversity. An x-ray revealed that over two dozen needles, some of them over a foot long, had been inserted in the old man's body with many of them around the groin area. Some had been in for many years and were showing signs of deterioration.
Lawyer Dempsey entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and a trial date was set. During the trial the prosecution attempted to show that although Fish was abnormal in his thinking, he was perfectly sane. That he understood the difference between right and wrong. The trial ended after two weeks and the jury convicted the old man of murder in the first degree. His sentence was death in the electric chair.
Both Dempsey and Dr. Wertham tried to have the sentence overturned. Neither believed that Fish should ever walk free again. But they did believe that he was insane and did not know the difference between right and wrong. He should be instutionalized and studied - not put to death. There was the potential to learn a great deal about mental illness by probing the dark recesses of his brain.
In the end however, all their efforts failed and on January 16, 1936, Albert Fish, now in his mid 60s, took that last walk to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. As the story goes the first time the switch was thrown there was some type of short circuit - some believe it was the needles in the old man's body that caused it. But with the second jolt he passed from this world. Strangely it probably was a final pleasure for him.
A letter arrived from Fish at Dempseys office a couple of days after the execution. For some reason it had been held up in the mail. Most of the letter was thanking Dempsey for all his efforts. However one section made a shiver run through the lawyer as he read it. Near the close of the missive Fish stated,"I do not wish to die, God has more work for me to do."
By Brendan Faulkner