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Panzram, Carl (1892-1930) | Special Collections & University Archives

Name: Panzram, Carl (1892-1930)

Historical Note:

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. At age 11, he robbed a neighbor and was sent to the Minnesota State Training School where he was beaten and sexually abused. This experience was the first of many at various reform schools, jails, and prisons.

Panzram left home at age thirteen or fourteen, traveling around the Northwest. He was arrested for larceny and sent to the Montana State Reform School in 1905. Upon his release, he 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 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, and a single month before returning to the United States where he 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 to work 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, 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. Lesser encouraged Panzram to write down his life’s story. Panzram wrote a few pages at a time, and Lesser smuggled them out of jail. Panzram was later transferred to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas to serve a twenty-five year sentence, but 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.

Panzram 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 dedicated his life to prison reform and attempted to publish Panzram’s autobiography.  He travelled around the country lecturing to 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.  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.

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