Twelve-year-old Grace Budd disappeared from her New York home in 1928, in the company of a seemingly kindly middle-aged man named Albert Fish. He’d ingratiated himself with Grace’s parents and convinced them to allow him to take their daughter to a birthday party. He stopped long enough to retrieve the weapons he’d hidden. His plans involved no birthday party.
Grace never returned, and her disappearance became a sensational case with many strange twists. Six years later, her family received a bizarre letter from Grace’s abductor, who described how he’d killed little Grace and cooked her into a stew. He’d eaten her.
The Budd family turned this letter over to the police and a dogged investigator traced the stationery to a former tenant of a flophouse – Albert Fish. Under arrest, he confessed in lurid detail, admitting to the crime and adding an abundance of child abuse incidents. Eventually, he confessed to more murders.
Dr. Frederic Wertham, the senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital and a proponent of Freud’s psychoanalytic approach, examined Fish extensively before his 1935 trial. These records have been sealed for a long time, but in 2010, the Library of Congress released them for public research. In fact, all 222 containers of Wertham’s research files are now available.
John Borowski, who’d made a documentary about Fish in 2007, was eager to see the records. “Dr. Wertham’s files are not only important as an insight into the demented mind of Albert Fish,” he writes in the Introduction to his latest book Albert Fish: In his Own Words, “but they are also important because they draw attention to the gaping holes in the American justice system…”
In this book, Borowski includes what Wertham wrote about his experience with Fish in his 1949 book, The Show of Violence. Also included are Fish’s psychiatric exams, the trial transcripts, the brief autobiography Fish had penned for the New York Daily Mirror, and his correspondences. Some of this material has never been seen before. You even get to see the notes made on Fish’s responses to the Rorschach test, as well as photos of his handwriting.
This is the most comprehensive collection of raw data on the Fish case that I’ve ever seen. Researchers will be grateful to Borowski and true crime readers who think they know this case will learn much more.
Fish, it turns out, had a lot to say. He was a “man of passion,” he said, and he compared his perverse desires with a horse whose tail was lit on fire. The horse ran “but the fire went with him.” That, Fish said, is the man of passion. “The fire chases you and catches you and then it’s in your blood. And after that, it’s the fire that has control, not the man.”
And, he adds, “there are lots of us.”
Fish told Wertham that his wife’s faithlessness had opened up the floodgates of his sexual troubles; he’d allowed himself to express his desires, uninhibited. And they were persistent and bizarre.
“I have always had the desire to inflict pain on others and to have others inflict pain on me,” Fish stated. Finding things with which to hurt himself was uppermost in his mind, such as inserting the stems of roses into his urethra. Wertham counted eighteen different paraphilias, from cannibalism to vampirism to necrophilia. Fish also liked to whip and mutilate boys. And he whipped himself.
In his drive to feel pain, Fish shoved needles into his groin between the anus and scrotum, and according to X-ray evidence, two-dozen were still there in varying stages of decay.
The contents of this book can be overpowering. I don’t recommended perusing it while you’re eating or before you go to sleep. Fish discusses his targeted victims and what he imagined doing to them. He also describes what he did do to some of them. When he talks about dreams and visions, he’s even more perverse. Borowski includes it all. You can count on him to be unflinching, as he has been in his prior work.
When my students view Borowski’s documentary about Fish, they’re fascinated and appalled. It’s definitely memorable. So is this book, and his most recent film on Serial Killer Culture.
About Albert Fish, Wertham wrote, “However you define the medical and legal borders of sanity, this certainly is beyond that border.” If you have a strong enough stomach to read this book all the way through, you’ll probably agree.