As she notes on her blog, Deborah Blum’s latest piece of nonfiction writing is one to be read with the lights on.
Blum, a UW-Madison professor of journalism and author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” tells the true-crime story of Albert Fish, by all appearances a harmless old man who harbored a history of kidnapping, killing, and sometimes eating children. His is the story of a deranged serial killer-cannibal who took directions from the voices of angels who came to visit him, a man who felt that each victim he claimed was a sacrifice to God to atone for his sins.
In “Angel Killer,” a short piece of crime writing that Blum published through The Atavist website, she steps into the mind of a madman and raises more than a few disturbing ethical questions, along with the fine hairs on the back of the reader’s neck.
Blum introduces Fish through the eyes of Anna McDonnell, a Staten Island policeman’s wife and the mother of 8-year-old Francis, a friendly boy who happened to be playing ball with friends when approached by the “Gray Man.”
Francis failed to return home later that evening. The next morning his body was found in the woods near where the boy had last been seen. He had been strangled by his own suspenders.
Anna McDonnell later described a man she witnessed shuffling down the street prior to Francis’ disappearance, mumbling to himself, looking faded and gray. She begged reporters to “help us find the gray man.”
The year was 1924, and the Gray Man would continue to prey upon children until his arrest 10 years later. The case that would finally put an end to the Gray Man’s bloodshed is the gruesome story of Grace Budd, a 10-year-old Manhattan girl who the killer lured away from her parents, then tortured, killed and consumed.
Fish would not have been caught for that murder if he hadn’t written an anonymous letter to Budd’s mother, detailing Grace’s killing. Detectives tracked him down and arrested him; he did not attempt to deny his guilt. In fact, he signed six confessions.
One of the most compelling parts of Fish’s story is the way that he’s handled by the psychiatrists of the day — alienists, they were called then, from the French word for “insane.” The psychiatrist who worked with Fish wanted the jury to consider the mean circumstances in which Fish was raised; his mother suffered from hallucinations and placed the young Fish in an orphanage, where he was whipped and humiliated.
When his case came to trial, the defense tried to prove that he was insane to avoid the death penalty, while the prosecution worked to prove the Gray Man’s sanity in order to send him to the electric chair. And herein lies the quandary, the one Blum writes of being haunted by since she immersed herself in Fish’s story.
“Was he crazy enough to be put away in a mental institution or did we want him to be sane enough to go to the electric chair?” she writes on her blog. “And what side should the scientists who study madmen take in a case like this — if they take a side at all?”
Indeed, the story of Albert Fish is one that puzzled the legal and scientific minds of the time, with questions that continue to linger. It’s also a story that — one can conclude with certainty — is not for the faint of heart.