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Lesser, Henry (1902-1983) | Special Collections & University Archives

Name: Lesser, Henry (1902-1983)

Historical Note:

Henry Lesser (1902-1983) was a jail and prison officer, advocate for prison reform, and men's clothing salesman who formed a friendship with convicted murderer and career criminal Carl Panzram, corresponding with him until Panzram's execution in 1930. He is known for having persuaded Panzram to write his autobiography while in jail, which along with the two men’s correspondence established Panzram's reputation as a violent and misanthropic criminal.

Lesser was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, the youngest of four children. His father, Lazar Lesser, worked as a door-to-door salesman to support the family.

Lesser dropped out of school in the 10th grade to follow his brothers to Washington D.C. There he found work in a men's clothing store, but was later fired for his efforts to unionize the salesmen, an event which prefigured his lifelong interest in social reform and progressive causes.

After working as a hospital attendant, Lesser applied for a job as a jail officer. He began his career on March 1, 1928, at the district jail in Washington D.C.

In August of that year, Carl Panzram was incarcerated at the district jail on charges of housebreaking. While awaiting trial, Panzram was twice beaten by guards. Taking pity on the prisoner, Lesser had another guard pass a dollar to Panzram, and the two men began an unlikely friendship.

Intrigued by the prisoner's provocative statements and anti-social attitude, Lesser encouraged Panzram to write his autobiography and provided him with writing materials. In his manuscript, Panzram detailed the abuses he suffered as a child — at home and in a boy's reformatory school — and his early crimes, including theft and arson. He claimed to have went on to commit 21 murders and thousands of acts of sodomy, espousing a hatred of humanity that has made him a case study among criminologists and psychiatrists, and an object of fear and morbid curiosity to the general public.

Panzram was eventually transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he murdered Robert Warnke, a foreman in the prison laundry. For this crime, the only murder for which he was convicted, he was executed by hanging on September 5, 1930.

Lesser had already begun trying to publish Panzram's manuscript before his execution. He would spend the next four decades doing so, until significant parts of it were eventually published in 1970 in the book Killer: A Journal of Murder, co-written by Tom Gaddis and James Long. In the interval, a typed copy of the manuscript was loaned to various journalists and criminologists, who returned it either because they found the subject matter unpublishable or simply could not commit to the venture due to personal constraints, even as they acknowledged the manuscript’s value. Among those with whom Lesser corresponded were the journalist H.L. Mencken, criminologist Sheldon Glueck and psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who had evaluated Panzram in prison and declared him sane at the time of Warnke’s murder.

Lesser rose in the prison profession, working for several years as a parole officer, and later as the junior warden’s assistant at the federal reformatory camp in Petersburg, Virginia. However, he grew despondent over the lack of improved conditions for prisoners and the slow rate of prison reform. He resigned from his position in 1935, while the country was still in the midst of the Great Depression. After a period of unemployment, he returned to work as a men’s clothing salesman the following year. That same year he met and married Esther Brookes, and their son Richard was born a year later. The family later settled in Los Angeles, where Lesser found work in a department store.

In 1955, having exchanged hands many times, the Panzram manuscript came into the possession of Tom Gaddis, who had written Birdman of Alcatraz, a biography of the convict and ornithologist Robert Stroud. For the next fifteen years, Gaddis struggled to produce a book based on the manuscript, as work, school and family commitments called him away. Twice Gaddis had to return the manuscript to Lesser, who was growing despondent over the delay and feared he would not see a book about Panzram published in his lifetime. Finally, Lesser’s literary agent brokered a deal in which Gaddis would write the book, and it was eventually completed with the help of co-author and Oregon-based investigative reporter James Long.

Published in 1970, the book was not a commercial success and soon went out of print. However, its reputation continued to spread through word of mouth until in 1995 a film adaptation brought the story of Panzram to a wider audience.

In his later years, Lesser continued trying to secure a film adaptation of the book, but without success. In 1979 he made the first of two visits to San Diego State University to speak before students in the criminal justice program. He was invited by criminal justice professor Thomas Gitchoff  and Joel Goodman (1954-), a graduate student and employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. During this visit, Lesser, Goodman, Gitchoff and criminal justice professor Ron Boostrom conducted a filmed interview, “Killer’s Guard: An Interview with Henry Lesser.”

In the last years of his life, Lesser carried on a correspondence with Goodman, exchanging items of interest on criminological matters until an extreme bout of depression — with which he struggled off and on all his life — left him incapacitated. Before his death Lesser donated the Panzram papers and related correspondence to San Diego State University, where they are held in Special Collections & University Archives.

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