DO NOT READ IF UNDER THE AGE OF 16 OR IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO READ GRAPHIC ACCOUNTS OF CRIMES COMMITTED
The Werewolf of Wysteria – Albert Fish – Part 1 & 2
Albert Fish preyed on young children in the early 1900s, molesting, murdering, and even cannibalizing them. He wasn’t caught until the 1930s, when three of his most horrifying crimes came to light. This week, Greg and Vanessa discuss Fish’s tumultuous childhood, his paraphilic disorders, and two of his most infamous victims.
It’s not just crime novels and TV shows that I enjoy, I have now branched out to listening to podcasts as well. I stumbled across this on my recommended page and I was hesitant to start it because it is ‘true crime’, not fictional. But I decided to push forward with it.
I tend not to go for the ‘I had a rough childhood and that made me a monster’ line of speech because I think anyone has the ability to turn into a monster regardless of how they were brought up. However, it is clear that in this scenario, upbringing played a serious part in Albert Fish’s psychology. That still doesn’t excuse his behaviour or the heinous acts he committed. I am in awe that they managed to convict Fish at a time where there was no such technology to assist in capture (note – I wrote this while still listening to the first part of the story).
Fish tended to go for low profile targets because a lot of his victims remained unknown because they lived in poor neighbourhoods and there was no one to report those children as missing. Fish targeted a high-profile target, Francis, but still managed to escape and avoid capture. He used the lure of sweets or money to coax the children to willingly come with Fish.
Fish never gave a reason for why he targeted Francis in 1924. He was an opportunist and very skilled in not getting caught but he targeted Francis all the same. He approached when Francis was with his friends and without an adult around to witness the event.
Billy Gafney 1927, four years old – was Fish’s next target but it was Grace Bud’s snatching that he made a mistake, and this is what led to his capture and confinement in prison.
Billy Gafney was playing with his friend Billy Beaton in the complex they lived in. Billy Beaton was found on the top floor by his father, but when asked, Billy Beaton announced that the ‘bogyman’ had taken Billy Gafney.
I find early serial killers – from the time where modern technology wasn’t available – incredibly interesting because it is only in the present that we can dissect these men and women with the knowledge and information of how far science has come along. However, some of these serial killers were caught and brought to justice way before any modern technology was available to them and I find that simply fascinating. I am sure that police work was a lot more frustrating when there was less to go on and fewer ways of testing. I can’t imagine how those working the Fish case felt but the relief of finally catching him was probably euphoric.
I find it interesting that people called him ‘The Werewolf of Wysteria’, ‘The Vampire’ and ‘The Bogyman’. He killed children across states for so long. Fish was a sado-masochistic who enjoyed inflicting pain on others and receiving pain in return. His unpleasant life in the orphanage led to this development but let’s not forget that while what happened to Fish as a child was horrible, there was more than one path he could have gone down. He chose to walk this path and become a serial killer. He was also likely schizophrenic.
Fish killed 15 of his victims and ate 4.
Following the same ruse he carried out with Francis, Fish managed to take Billy Gafney without incident by using the tactic of offering sweets and gaining the trust of Billy. Billy Gafney’s body was never found, despite Fish admitting that he’d taken Billy on a trolley and dumped his body far away in a dump.
Fish’s confession revealed much but still kept a lot hidden. He stripped Billy of his clothes, tied him up and left him overnight. When he returned, he tortured Billy, cut up his body, threw some of it in the water and then took the rest of it home, to eat over the next four days. It was a gruesome way to kill someone, but it was the first instance of his cannibalism.
Although it was his first confession of cannibalism, he went into great detail about the methods he used to cook the flesh, and what body parts he enjoyed eating the most. That’s why I said his confession contained a lot of secrets even though he came some of those up. Fish was a very clever man who was able to conceal himself and knew enough to keep those holding him in custody, on a long leash.
Cannibalism isn’t something I every really want to think about, but I do know it is a part of the history of humans. Fish was obsessed with stories about cannibalism and collected books and news articles that spoke about cannibalism. Fish’s obsession about cannibalism came from when Fish was a young boy and he heard stories from his brother who was in the army. Fish’s obsession with cannibalism could have been caused by a number of things, but it seems most probable that it came from being abandoned by his mother and felt like he needed to consume another to gain that attachment or type of love.
However, the abandonment doesn’t explain the sexual aspect of his cannibalism. Where he said he would get the most pleasure from eating the flesh of his victims. To a sadist, consuming his victims would give him complete control over his victims. Though this makes no sense to normal people, it would have made perfectly sane for Fish. His religious delusions and hallucinations made Fish believe that he was acting in God’s name, participating in the most sacred of rituals by killing and eating his victims.
1928 would bring Fish back to his gruesome ways and his most infamous victim.
Mr Howard saw the add that Edward Bud had placed in the newspaper, needing work. Mr Howard paid a visit to their home and ended up hiring both Willy and Edward. When Mr Howard returned to pick up the boys, he met the third sibling, Grace Bud for the first time and was completely entranced by her. She was only 12 years old here. Mr Howard informed them that they wouldn’t be going to the farm right away because he needed to attend a children’s birthday party and he came up with the idea that Grace could go to the party with him and he’d bring her back by 9pm.
Grace’s parents were understandably unsure about accepting the offer for, although Mr Howard had been a godsend turning up when he did and offering employment, they didn’t know him at all. Not wanting to be rude or possibly lose the jobs they’d just accepted, the parents eventually decided to let Grace go to the party with Mr Howard…and she was never seen again.
Of course, there was no Mr Howard, it was all an elaborate ruse created by Fish to lure his victim away. His original target with Edward but he didn’t like how he looked and with Willy, he wasn’t sure he could overpower him. When he saw Grace, he changed his plan. Fish changed his MO by inserting himself into the family and leaving witnesses around. Fish had four decades of abusing children under his belt but perhaps he wasn’t getting the same enjoyment from his crimes as he had in the past, perhaps that was why he changed up his MO and went for such a drastically different tactic.
This new tactic allowed him to take complete control over the victim and the situation. It was all part of his plan and it wasn’t the first time he had faked his identity and used it to exploit or take his victims.
After riding several trains and arriving at a cottage, Fish went upstairs, laid down his tools, stripped his clothes so he wouldn’t get blood on them and called Grace up. He strangled her to death and then dismembered her body, keeping the preferred parts to himself so he could eat them at a later date and over the course of nine days.
Though Fish took both boys and girls, he preferred boys from his time in the orphanage getting pleasure from watching other boys punished. However, he didn’t sexually abused Grace at all. It was an odd difference for him, because he had victimised other girls and killed them, but he was very insistent that he didn’t sexually assault her. She was also the only victim whose murder Fish admitted to.
Grace’s abduction and murder proved to be his downfall because he began being reckless and was arrested three times for larceny but released each time. He was also arrested after he sent a graphic and violent letter to a woman, again using the ruse that he had a son that needed to be punished by a strong hand. Here, he was sent to a mental institute to be examined by psychiatrists.
The examination proved that Fish was ‘normal’ and that there was no indication of hallucinations. He was in full control of his mind and could remember details. However, from watching crime TV, reading crime books and my own research into such conditions, I know that the most sadistic killers are often the ones who can hide it the most. The ones that just ‘look like everyone else’ and are able to live a normal life alongside their killing side. I feel like it was probably quite easy for Fish to manipulate the psychiatrists around him and present himself as a man without troubles because he’d used that ruse so many times before.
The killer part of him was something he kept inside and only released to his victims, so to me, it’s almost crystal clear that Fish saw himself with two distinct personalities that created one whole. I think that’s can account for how his managed to kill for 4 decades and how he managed to keep himself in check and steady over that period of time.
In 1930 Fish was 60 years old and he seemed to be like a general old man. The episode agrees that Fish knew exactly what to say to avoid further suspicious and to hide the side of him he wanted no one to see.
But, he couldn’t stop when he was out, and shortly spent another stay in a different hospital for sending more obscene letters but the conclusion again was that he was a gentle quiet man.
You can say that Fish’s age played a part in his altered behaviour and that his difficulties were becoming more prominent, but it is also clear that Grace Bud’s murder affected him. She became the one that he felt any remorse over. I wonder what it was about her that caused him to make silly mistakes. In his confessions, he said many times that he wished he could go back and kill himself instead.
Although Fish had managed to lie to an entire family and had created a new MO which was probably a high for him, the change in MO greatly affected his state of mind and the deviation of his usual MO and usual victims.
Fish hated the mental institutes because he was under total control, but he didn’t like that feeling. He didn’t like not being in control of his life, however, when he was out, he quickly spiralled back into his old habits. His son noticed these changes when Fish started to desire raw meat. Following this, Fish started to have nightmares where he called out the name ‘Bud, Bud’, as well as hitting himself with nails while masturbating.
He was quickly spiralling from age.
The Detective on the case used ‘fake news’ to trap Fish and force him out in the open. Although Fish denied ever having seen the article in the newspaper, a few days later a letter arrived at the Bud house. This letter is considered to be one of the most gruesome and chilling to be received. It contained the information on how Fish had killed Grace and how it had taken him 9 days to eat her.
The letter was rushed from the Bud household to the police where it was confirmed that the handwriting in the letter matched that of the fake Frank Howard. The police now knew that whoever had written the letter was Grace’s murderer.
I had to pause in listening here because the letter reminded me of so many stories or plot’s I’ve read, watched and listened to over the years. Some have been real events while others have been fictional but generally killers only send letters or information either when provoked or when they feel they are invincible and beyond capture. Surely Fish must have realised the consequences of sending such a letter to the Bud’s. Or perhaps, he realised that his golden age of killer was drawing to a close. He said he hated the control of the mental institutes, but I wonder if secretly he enjoyed being in a place that controlled his urges.
It was through the Detective following lead after lead that they were finally able to locate and arrest Fish. Fish admitted to writing the letter and killing Grace and even led police back to the cottage and told them where they could find Grace’s remains.
I think perhaps Fish felt paranoid about the police and the fake news printed. Perhaps he sent the letter, because he didn’t have a personal connection with the police but did have that connection with the Bud family. There is much to be thought about in terms of why a serial killer would do such a thing as write a letter and I am sure that there are many more reasons to why a killer would break from routine. In the case of Fish, I think, like I have mentioned before, that it was likely he felt life draining away from him and that his terror of killing was perhaps reaching its end. He was after all, still killing in his 60s when his body became less fit and athletic – that was the reason he switched from Edward to Grace Bud, because he didn’t think he’d be able to take down Edward with his own body.
I find Fish an interesting study because it really shows the consequence of a bad upbringing and how the trauma that is inflicted on a child will stay with them for life. You can argue that despite his upbringing, he should have had better control over his actions and sought out a better life but when you take into consideration his mental health issues and his schizophrenia, and how much abuse he must have suffered at the orphanage, I wonder whether his mind realised there was any alternative to living.
I found this case sad in both the deaths mourned and the live Fish lead. On all sides the case is traumatic and violent, and his cannibalism was injected with intensity and longing that I wasn’t quite ready for.