By Amanda Lanthorne
Creator: Panzram, Carl (1892-1930)
Extent: 0.84 Linear Feet
Date Acquired: 09/17/1980. More info below under Accruals.
Carl Panzram was born 28 June 1892 in East Grand Forks, Minnesota. When he was about eight years old his father abandoned the family, leaving Panzram’s mother to raise Panzram and his six siblings alone. Around this time, Panzram began working in the fields of the family farm and was often beaten if he made mistakes. When he robbed a neighbor at age eleven, he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School where he was repeatedly beaten and sexually abused. This experience was the first of many at various reform schools, jails, and prisons that would, in part, shape his life of crime.
He left home at age thirteen or fourteen to become a hobo and rode trains all over the Northwest, lying and stealing along the way. He was eventually caught for larceny and sent to the Montana State Reform School in 1905. Upon his release, Panzram joined the military, but was imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for violation of the 62nd Article of War. After serving a three-year sentence, Panzram continued to wander until he found work as a railroad guard and strikebreaker. He then went to Mexico to join the Foreign Legion of the Constitutional Army of Northern Mexico, but only lasted a month. When he returned to the United States, Panzram resumed his life of crime and did prison stints in Oregon and Montana. He eventually went east where he obtained a seaman’s identification card and worked on the James S. Whitney of the Grace Line, which sailed to Panama. From there he travelled to Peru where he worked in the copper mines, then to Chile and back to Panama. In Panama, Panzram became the labor foreman for the Fortification Division of the US government and later worked for the Sinclair Oil Company. In 1919, he sailed for Scotland, where he also spent time in jail. After travelling around Europe, he returned to the United States. According to Panzram, he robbed William Howard Taft’s home in Connecticut and used the spoils to buy a yacht on which he purportedly robbed, sodomized, and killed ten passengers. After wrecking the yacht, Panzram returned to Europe and from there, proceeded to Africa. He spent time in Loanda, Angola (where he allegedly killed six locals in Lobito Bay), Portuguese West Africa, and the Congo, while again working for the Sinclair Oil Company. In 1922, Panzram returned to the United States and spent time in both Sing Sing and Dannemora Prisons.
In 1928, Panzram was charged with burglary in Washington, D.C. and sent to the Washington Asylum and Jail. There, he met Henry Lesser, a prison guard who took pity on him after a particularly savage beating. Lesser encouraged Panzram to write down his life’s story. Shortly thereafter, Panzram began writing a few pages at time and gave them to Lesser in increments. Although Panzram was later transferred to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas to serve a twenty-five year sentence, he continued to correspond with Lesser. In 1929, Panzram beat a civilian foreman to death in the laundry of the Leavenworth prison. As a result, he was tried and condemned to death by hanging. Famed psychologist Karl Menninger assessed Panzram and determined that he was indeed of sound mind when he committed the murder, and therefore the sentence should not be overturned. On September 5, 1930 Carl Panzram was hung by the neck.
During Panzram’s life of crime, he used several aliases including Jeff Davis, Jefferson Baldwin, Jack Allen, and John O’Leary. He justified his crimes by claiming he was only doing to others what had been done to him. Although Panzram often boasted of killing twenty-three people, committing thousands of robberies and larcenies, and sodomizing a thousand men, his prison records indicate that he was only ever jailed for acts of burglary and larceny with the exception of the murder at Leavenworth Prison.
After Panzram’s death, Henry Lesser attempted to publish Panzram’s autobiography and dedicated his life to prison reform. He travelled around the country lecturing audiences on America’s prison system and its treatment of prisoners, using Panzram’s story as an example of the system’s failures. In 1970, parts of Panzram’s manuscript were published in Thomas Gaddis and James Long’s Killer: A Journal of Murder. In 1979, Lesser spoke to Thomas Gitchoff's criminal justice class at San Diego State University, and was later interviewed (Killer's Guard: An Interview with Henry Lesser) by Gitchoff regarding his experiences with Panzram. In 1980, Lesser spoke again at Scripps Cottage and donated the Panzram autobiography, including the Panzram correspondence and related documentation, to San Diego State University.
The Carl Panzram Papers document Panzram’s experience in America’s prison system as well as his reflections on and assessment of his own violent behavior. The collection includes Panzram’s handwritten autobiographical manuscript, photocopies of annotated typescript of the manuscript, correspondence between Lesser and Panzram, reviews and promotional material for Killer, and correspondence with several criminologists, psychologists, and writers, including H.L. Mencken and Sheldon Guleck. The collection also contains copies of some of Panzram’s prison files, which Lesser obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These files include Panzram’s death certificate, the prison case report for the murder of R.G. Warnke, as well as correspondence between psychologist Karl Menninger and prison warden T.B. White. The collection is arranged chronologically.
Panzram’s autobiographical manuscript details his various crimes, as well as the abuses he received in reform school, jail, and prison. He often theatrically describes a crime or event, and then provides the reader with information on how to verify its authenticity. Of particular interest are Panzram's justifications and explanations for his behavior. He blames his treatment in reform school and prison for his violent actions outside of those institutions claiming, “I have done as I was taught to do…. You taught me how to live my life and I have lived as you taught me.” Since Panzram wrote his autobiography a few pages at a time and gave it to Lesser incrementally, not all pages are numbered consecutively and the exact original order is unknown. Once Lesser received the pages, his wife typed transcripts of them and organized the work into three parts with several sections. Lesser then went back over the transcript, making various annotations and notes on the pages, often citing if he had verified a particular event or crime described by Panzram. The collection contains photocopies of these transcripts.
Other highlights include correspondence between Lesser and Panzram in which Panzram describes daily prison life, trinkets he made in prison, inventions he had devised, his feelings on prison and his crimes, and more. In one letter, Panzram casually mentions that he killed his boss in the prison laundry. Panzram's final letters allude to his attempted suicide and his contentment at receiving the death penalty. Also included are letters that Panzram wrote to the Society for the Abolishment of Capital Punishment and President Herbert Hoover urging them not to ask the government to repeal his sentence because he was sane when he committed his crimes.
Thomas Gitchoff and Joel Goodman interviewed Henry Lesser at San Diego State University. Video of this interview (Killer's Guard: An Interview with Henry Lesser) is available on YouTube.
In 2012, the documentary Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance was released, based on the Carl Panzram Papers in Special Collections.
Access Restrictions: This collection is open for research. Please note that only photocopies are available for research. Permission must be granted by the Head of Special Collections to view the original documents.
The copyright interests in some of these materials have been transferred to or belong to San Diego State University. The nature of historical archival and manuscript collections means that copyright status may be difficult or even impossible to determine. Copyright resides with the creators of materials contained in the collection or their heirs. Requests for permission to publish must be submitted to the Head of Special Collections, San Diego State University, Library and Information Access. When granted, permission is given on behalf of Special Collections as the owner of the physical item and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder(s), which must also be obtained in order to publish. Materials from our collections are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials.
When referencing this collection, Henry Lesser must be cited as the donor. Please see the preferred citation below.
Acquisition Source: Henry Lesser, Thomas Gitchoff, Joel Goodman
Gaddis, Thomas E. and James O. Long. Killer: a journal of murder. New York: Macmillian, 1970. HV6248.P26 G32
Gaddis, Thomas E. and James O. Long. Panzram: a journal of murder. Los Angeles: Amok, 2002. HV6248.P26 G34 2002
Preferred Citation: Identification of item, folder title, box number, Carl Panzram Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Library and Information Access, San Diego State University. The collection was donated by Henry Lesser.
Other Note: Please note that only photocopies are available for research. Permission must be granted by the Head of Special Collections to view the original documents.