Hi friends! Well, another month has come and gone, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write this, but I’ve been a slow reader recently. However, I’ve been super excited because I started (and finished) reading Panzram: A Journal of Murder by Thomas Gaddis and James Long.
I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance back in 2013. The documentary was made by the same man who made H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer, John Borowski.
I’ll give credit where credit is due and put it out there that my sister actually got me addicted to crime stories: books, movies, documentaries, articles, memoirs – anything. She had always been a fan more of the psychology aspect of things. She loves Law and Order SVU, she’s read a ton of memoirs on drug addiction and alcoholism, and one of her favorite books is In Cold Blood – Truman Capote. So yeah, that’s where I learned it from. Thanks, sissy.
Anyway, I watched that documentary and the second I was done watching it, I re-watched it. It was so interesting, and tantalizing, and terrifying, too. But mostly it just made me think. I hadn’t really thought about the documentary until recently when I saw it on Netflix and immediately re-re-watched it. I loved it. I honestly wanted to finish it and watch it again (because apparently I have nothing better to do).
Instead, I decided I would read the book that the documentary was based on. That’s where you guys come in! So I started reading it in early June, and was breezing through it. Or rather, going at a slightly faster snails pace than I recently have been. Side note: I feel like a horrible reader! I used to read a hundred pages a night, and now I’m lucky if I read 25. I’m so ashamed.
So I was reading this book at a pretty decent rate. I think the first three nights I read 61 pages. There are 253 pages total. But once I started hitting about 140 pages I very quickly slowed to a pace of about ten pages a night, or every other night. Not because I didn’t have the time to read, but because it got tedious. I’ll explain:
The book is not just about Carl Panzram, it’s partially (mostly in the beginning) written by Panzram. Panzram met a young guard named Henry Lesser in a Washington D.C. jail, and soon became friends with the guard – one of the only guards who had proven to him to be a friend and not a vile human being. Because of their friendship, Panzram agreed to write down his life’s story. That’s where his written account comes from in the novel.
Panzram was born into a life that wasn’t very happy or loving, but certainly wasn’t cruel. Growing up in Minnesota he always wanted to run away to the West and be a cowboy. When he attempted to steal a gun at the age of 12 to finally live out his dream of cowboy, he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School, which was a “reform school” for boys of the ages 7 to 21, notorious for it’s abuse.
Minnesota State Training School – Red Wing
Bob Dylan actually wrote a song about the horrible school that finally legitimate reformation in 1906 after a botched hanging of a Minnesota inmate. The song was called The Walls of Red Wing, with a stanza saying:
“It’s many a guard
That stands around smilin’,
Holdin’ his club
Like he was a king.
Hopin’ to get you
Behind a wood pilin’,
Inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.”
Panzram was brought to the school in 1903. He endured unimaginable torture at the hands of men who repeatedly said they were doing it for Panzram to learn to be a good Christian. He stated that the guards “most popular [form of punishment] with them was to take us to the “Paint Shop,” so called because there they used to paint our bodies black and blue.”
Panzram spent two years in the school with repeated attempts to escape. One of his attempts was actually used to burn down the “Paint Shop,” an action that not only caused an uproar by the people who ran the place, but also created a huge boost of morale for the students. Panzram was beaten almost to death for his act, but it was that act that caused Panzram to change his method of survival: pretending to “be a good Christian.”
He fooled the higher ups of the school and was finally let free in 1905, at the age of 14. Panzram, to the day he died, hated religion and everyone who believed in it. He had seen horrendous things done at the hands of believers.
Carl Panzram was finally free to go to The West and be a cowboy. He “rode the rails” for a year. Jumping from freight car to freight car. Unfortunately this ended in Panzram being raped by several men. This experience would change his mentality completely. He no longer wanted to be a cowboy, he just wanted to steal from, sodomize, and murder as many men and people as possible – something he did very well.
His life outside of prison didn’t last long, though. He joined the army, lying about his age, but was sent to prison only a couple months later. Because he had lied about his age, saying he was 18 years old instead of 16, he was sent to an adult prison: Fort Leavenworth Military Prison in Kansas.
Over the course of more than twenty years, Panzram would spend time in two reform schools, nine large prisons for dangerous inmates, and hundreds of smaller jails. He would break out of most of them.
In the mid 1920’s Panzram was in Dannemora Prison. He attempted escape up a 30 foot cement wall. His makeshift ladder broke and he felt those thirty feet onto the concrete. When the guards found him he had broken both of his ankles and legs, fractured his spine and “ruptured himself.” He was taken to a hospital to lay without medical attention for five days. After those five days he was made put into a cell, still with no medical attention, for 8 months. For another six months he would need to walk with crutches or a cane. After 14 months he was finally granted surgical attention. They repaired his “ruptures” and removed one of his testicles.
In Panzram’s mind, he was more concerned with making sure his reproductive organs still worked, and attempted to commit sodomy on another inmate. For this infraction he was denied care and put back into his cell to heal on his own. From that day on, he couldn’t walk without a sideways gait and limp.
Once he was freed from that prison, it wasn’t until 1928 that he was arrested again in Washington D.C. for housebreaking. This is where he met the guard Henry Lesser.
After becoming friends with the guard, and giving him the story of his life, he was transferred back to the first large prison he ever got stuck in, Fort Leavenworth. During his stay, he murdered one guard, and had planned on killing thirteen more, had they been where he thought they would be. He would live in this prison for two years before his execution by hanging on September 5, 1930.
So, the review. I think this story is fantastic. I think it’s a great example of a regular kid trying to rebel to get the attention of his family and friends, who was then turned into a hardened criminal by the surroundings he was forced into.
Now I know that I could be totally wrong. Maybe this guy was born evil and it was just a matter of time before he started murdering and raping everything he saw. But from what I’ve read, I truly believe that this man was put under horrible conditions from a very young age; was forced to do horrible things, and in turn only learned about hatred, lies, and manipulation. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s despicable. But I don’t necessarily think he would have been despicable.
Through Panzram’s entire confession, he repeatedly states that he wants to be executed. He wants to die before he hurts more people. He believes that all humans are inherently evil, including himself, and thus he is “reforming” them by killing them. Yes, this is the rationale of a crazy person. But is it not also the rationale of someone who had been subjected to torture, brain washing, and molestation from a very early age? As someone who had grown up in “reform” schools, does it not seem odd that he would go through life “reforming” those he met?
Maybe that’s not the topic at hand – maybe I should just review the story – but I feel like I would missing a huge opportunity to explain to people just how dangerous the American prison system can be. Even one hundred years later, there are still stories and confessions of people exactly like Panzram, who are arrested from an early age, not given an opportunity to better themselves, and often are sent out of prisons into a new life of crime that they may not have had to deal with, had they had the right opportunities and the right people helping them.
But here’s what I think of the book: I’m going to give it 4 out of 5 stars. Not because the entire book was wonderful. Because I really feel like after the first 150 pages it got really slow, with not too much to add from Panzram’s side other than how he wanted articles to read before he died. Once he was brought to Fort Leavenworth for the second time, he was basically in isolation for two years – that doesn’t really give you a lot to talk about. So instead that time was spent reading about Panzram just wanting to die. I preferred reading about Panzram’s life and his ideals – the way he reacted towards other people and how he handled life in prison for almost thirty years.
That said, the writing by Gaddis and Long was exquisite, the writing by Panzram was dark, horrible, and depressing – but it was fantastic. I think this book deserves 4 stars, or two thumbs up, or fifteen Quatloos, simply for this man’s story, and the amazing amount of research that Gaddis and Long did on the penitentiaries and towns that Panzram had visited, as well as the research into Panzram himself.
If you are a fan of crime books, or are intrigued by this kind of thing, I highly recommend that you read it. It’s well worth the read. If you’re not a fan, I hope you at least enjoyed this post!
If you have any opinions on anything I’ve mentioned or if you have anything at all you want to say I really would love to hear all about it. You can comment below or send me an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading, and until next time,