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Carl Panzram Papers, 1928-1980Add to your cart.View associated digital content. | Special Collections & University Archives

Title: Carl Panzram Papers, 1928-1980Add to your cart.View associated digital content.
ID: MS-0007
Extent: 0.84 Linear Feet
Predominant Dates: 1928-1930
expand icon 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.

expand icon Administrative Information
Acquired: 09/17/1980. 1980-006, 1995-008
Restrictions: This collection is open for research. Please note that only photocopies are available for use. 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 Note: Henry Lesser, Thomas Gitchoff, Joel Goodman
Related Publications:

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.
Collection Material Type: Personal Papers
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.
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