On the outside, Albert Fish appeared to be an eccentric, grandfatherly old man, but beneath the surface laid a monster with a horrific appetite for children. Fish was a real life “Boogey Man,” only much worse than his fictional counterpart. He committed his most heinous crimes between 1924 and 1928, when he ate two out of the three child victims he confessed to murdering. For this, he was aptly nicknamed the “Werewolf of Wisteria,” but his crimes against children as a serial rapist dated back to the 1890s. Albert Fish was a cold, cunning and opportunistic predator, who used his job as a house painter to find and lure child victims.
Born: May 19, 1870, Washington, D.C.
Died: January 16, 1936, Ossining, New York
M.O.: Lure children, particularly young boys, from low-income neighborhoods with candy, treats and money to a secluded location where he would torture and rape them; for the children he killed uninterrupted, Fish dismembered and ate their bodies.
Motive: Sadistic and masochistic sexual gratification
Victim Count: Raped an estimated 100 children and possibly killed 15, but only confessed to 3 and was convicted of 1.
Best known for: Cannibalism, child predation, religious-themed hallucinations and delusions, self-flagellation during masturbation, and an x-ray showing 27 needles embedded in his pelvic region, used in the pursuit of masochistic sexual gratification.
“I had sort of an idea through Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice. It always seemed to me that I had to offer a child for sacrifice, to purge myself of iniquities, sins, and abominations in the sight of God...If it wasn’t right, then an angel would stop me at the last moment,” Albert Fish.
Born Hamilton Howard Fish, this serial killer had a family history of mental illness, and according to his psychiatrist, Fish personally suffered paranoid psychosis with a religious complex. One of his delusions was believing that he was atoning for his sins and doing God’s work by sacrificing children. A more modern diagnosis of his symptoms would put Fish on the Schizophrenia Spectrum. He also had multiple Paraphilic Disorders, including Sexual Sadism, Sexual Masochism and Pedophilia. Fish’s first sexual feeling ignited during his time at St. John’s Orphanage as a child. One of the teachers regularly punished the boys by stripping and whipping them; Fish enjoyed being whipped and liked watching the other boys scream as they endured the same punishment. It’s likely that seeing a religious authority figure perpetrate such sadistic, brutal acts led Fish to believe that his own actions were sanctioned by God.
Psychologically, Fish also developed during this time his sexual attraction to small children and began equating sexual gratification with inflicting pain on others and having pain inflicted on himself. Fish officially changed his name to “Albert” at the age of 15 to shed the victim identity he gained from the orphanage. For a time, he worked as a prostitute before launching his career as a house painter. His job took him all around the country and ensured he never stayed in one place for too long, lest his predilection for small children became known. He was an opportunist, but not a risk taker, and did not call attention to himself for fear of getting caught. In each new place, Fish lured his unsupervised child victims into the basements of the houses he worked on. He typically targeted children from low-income areas, reasoning that the police and newspapers would make little fuss over them. In 1911, he tortured a nineteen-year-old mentally handicapped boy for weeks and nearly killed him. However, there was something in the boy’s eyes that reminded him of his days in the orphanage and Fish could not go through with the act. Yet, that didn’t stop him from fantasizing about dismembering and eating him.
Even after his wife of nineteen years abandoned him and their six children in 1917, Fish didn’t commit his most violent acts until several years later. As a testament to his delusional state, he believed that the gravity of her desertion was on par with his serial rapes and murders. While it’s unknown whether he abused his own children, his sons did not seem particularly surprised when they learned about the hideous deeds he committed.
Fish planned to dismember and eat Francis McDonnell, the first of the three children he confessed to killing, but was interrupted by the sound of someone else approaching in the woods. He succeeded, however, with the next two children. According to Fish, eating their flesh was like the sacrament of Holy Communion, and he experienced “absolute sexual gratification” from it. To draw out the pleasure, he ate the children over the course of several days. Consuming his victims allowed him to exert absolute power over them, while also forcing them to stay with him.
After four decades of abusing children, Fish needed a thrill. He abandoned his normally careful luring practices, kidnapping his last murder victim right out from under her parents’ noses. However, unlike with his previous victims, who were all male, Fish did not assault or torture Grace Budd. Rather, he took her to an abandoned house called Wisteria Cottage, strangled her and consumed her body. And surprisingly, out of all the crimes he committed, Fish regretted this one and wished he could trade his life for hers. After a certain point, he couldn’t even bring himself to return to the place where he killed her and had nightmares. The more he aged, the more his mental health declined, and the less he was able to hide his depravities. The mistakes he made in the years following the murder, such as writing to the Budd family about eating their daughter, ultimately led to his arrest, conviction and execution in a Sing Sing prison electric chair.