Albert Fish: A Real Life Boogeyman

In the early 1900s children in New York City faced and feared a real-life Boogeyman. His name was Albert Fish. Fish was a living, breathing monster that was known by several names, besides The Boogeyman. The pulp newspapers of the time called him “The Werewolf of Wysteria,” “The Gray Man,” even the “Brooklyn Vampire.” No matter the alias, Albert Fish was the notorious Boogeyman Killer whose attacks took place over the span of ten years, causing terror in New York and throughout the United States. 

Born Hamilton Howard Fish, he changed his name to Albert to commemorate a dead sibling. Fish’s father was 43 years older than his mother and died by the time Fish was five. Many of the facts regarding his early years are largely unknown; however, what little details we do have point toward a deeply troubling childhood.

Mental illness and religious mania ran in the Fish family. After his father died from a heart attack, Albert’s mother placed him in an orphanage. The reasons behind this are unknown, but we can safely assume they are linked to his mother’s wavering income and her inability to care for all four of her children.

The orphanage was a brutal place where Fish was first exposed to violence. He was repeatedly whipped and beaten. During the course of his beatings, Fish began finding sexual pleasure in them, which brought on vicious teasing from the other children in the orphanage. In 1882, his mother landed a government job and was able to bring Fish back under her roof, but by then, it was too late; the horror and indignation he suffered at the orphanage had already taken the toll on his young psyche planting the seeds for the deranged killer he was to become.

Reports are that Fish began a consensual relationship with another boy at age 12. This boy introduced him to even more extreme sexual practices beyond sadomasochism, such as drinking urine and eating feces. Fish began spending his weekends in public baths, watching the young boys undress. He was still just in his early teens.  

When he arrived in New York City in 1890, Fish became a male prostitute to satisfy his bizarre sexual urges. However, when his day job could no longer satisfy his voracious sexual appetite, Fish took to raping young boys. This perversion continued even after he agreed to an arranged marriage proposed by his mother. Fish married a woman six years his junior, and the couple had six children. 

Fish was eventually arrested for embezzlement and spent a handful of years in prison. During that time, he had sexual relations with countless numbers of men. Upon his release, Fish began an affair with a 19-year old lover, Thomas Kedden, despite still being married. One afternoon, Fish and the man visited a waxworks museum where the pair witnessed the bisection of a penis. From that moment on, Albert Fish developed a fascination with castration.

At one point in their relationship, Fish managed to convince Kedden to be tied up as part of a sexual game. It’s unclear just how much of their sadomasochist relationship was with Kedden’s consent, who most crime historians believe was mentally impaired. 

After tying Kedden up, Fish kept him isolated in an abandoned farmhouse for weeks, torturing him mercilessly during that time. Eventually, the torture escalated to the point where Fish reenacted what the pair had seen at the waxworks museum and sliced off half of Kedden’s penis. Intending to murder Kedden, Fish began to worry that the heat of summer would cause the smell of a hidden, dismembered corpse to be noticed. Instead of killing him, Fish cleaned Kedden’s wound with peroxide and covered it with Vaseline. He left the boy $10 and went home alone. Recounting the tale to police after being captured, Fish said, “I shall never forget his scream, or the look he gave me,” The final fate of Kedden is unknown.

After this disturbing escalation, Fish increased the number of times he visited brothels, where he asked to be beaten and whipped. In January of 1917, Albert Fish’s wife left him for the handyman who had been staying with them. Shortly after his wife’s departure, Fish began hearing voices. He once rolled himself up in a carpet, claiming that he was following the orders of John the Apostle. His children, who remained with him, do not report being abused, although claims that Fish had his children paddle him have surfaced over the years.

The maiming of Kedden took place in 1910. It is believed that over the next few years, Fish mostly curtailed his nefarious activities but began torturing, raping, and killing again after his wife left him. In 1919, Fish stabbed a mentally handicapped boy. From this time on, his victims were nearly always either mentally disabled or African American; Fish believed no one would notice when these children went missing.

The Boogeyman

Over the next decade, Albert Fish’s crimes became increasingly violent and frequent. Although it’s unknown just how many children he killed, thanks in part to his tendency to choose victims that would go unnoticed, the murder of three children by Fish has been confirmed.

Young Francis McDonnell was discovered missing by his parents in 1924. Out for the day playing catch with friends, McDonnell never returned home. McDonnell’s friends and mother both reported seeing a “gray man” watching the boys play. After a search, McDonnell’s body was discovered, with extensive signs of torture and sexual assault.

One other exception to Fish’s rule of choosing victims at the edge of society was Billy Gaffney. Fish attacked Gaffney, who was playing in the hallway outside his family’s apartment in Brooklyn with his friend Billy Beaton in 1927. Both boys mysteriously disappeared. The neighbors immediately started looking for them. Hours later, Beaton was found on the roof. When he was asked what happened to Gaffney, the child famously said, “The boogeyman took him.”

Beaton was reported missing. Soon, reported sightings began flooding in, including one claiming to have seen an older man with the boy on a trolley. The boy was crying for his mother while the man was attempting to quiet him. The police matched the description of the boy to Gaffney. Gaffney’s body was never found—Fish later confessed to murdering him, dismembering the body, cooking and eating it.

Grace Budd and the Letter That Did Him In

Of all the supposed and known heinous acts perpetrated by Albert “The Boogeyman” Fish, the worst was the one that eventually lead to his downfall, the abduction, and murder of Grace Budd, the third confirmed victim of Fish. 

Grace was very different than his usual victims. She was neither feeble-minded, black, nor a boy! Fish had been procuring his victims by answering classified ads for laborers looking for work with the intention of killing, torturing, and consuming the strapping young men who would respond. He answered one such ad placed in the Sunday paper by a young immigrant boy, Edward Budd, seeking employment. Fish responded, posing as a farmer wanting to hire a farmhand.

Fish went down to the Budd’s home to hire Edward and bring him to his country home to torture, rape and eat him. It wasn’t till he got there and stumbled upon his young sister Grace that his plan changed. Once he saw the little girl, he felt he had to have her. Fish told the Budd’s parents that he was also in town for his niece’s birthday party and wondered if Grace would accompany him, he told them his niece was around the same age, and they would get along great. The parents agreed. Grace went with Fish, and she would never be seen again.

Fish took Budd to his country home and tortured, killed, and consumed her. He ultimately was able to get away with the crime for six years until an anonymous letter showed up in the Budd’s mailbox. In Nov. 1934, Mrs. Budd opened the anonymous note to read the gruesome details of her daughter’s death. The letter detailed how, while she was picking wildflowers, Fish undressed, called to her, and grabbed her before she could escape. He then strangled her, cut her up, and roasted her in the oven. He mentioned it took him nine days to fully consume her. The one comforting detail was that he claimed that he didn’t sexually assault her. But, he confessed during an interrogation with police that he had raped her. However, Fish was known to lie compulsively, so it is impossible to know the facts of the case.

Soon after the Budd’s received the gruesome letter, Fish was arrested. The trial for the murders of the three children lasted ten days. Albert Fish pleaded insanity, claiming to have heard the voice of God telling him to kill the children. The jury heard evidence from his children, doctors, and his victims’ relatives. 

The most famous and disturbing evidence from the trial was an X-ray of Fish’s genitals. Over 20 needles had been embedded there by Fish himself. There was much debate on whether his sexual fetishes meant he was insane, but ultimately the jury found him sane and guilty, and the judge ordered the death sentence. 

Even though he confessed to many crimes, Budd, Gaffney, and McDonnell were the only children proven to be his victims – but that was enough for the Boogeyman Killer to meet has end in the electric chair in Sing Sing prison.

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