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Albert Fish

“It took me nine days to eat her entire body. I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.”
—Albert Fish, writing to his ten-year-old victim’s mother
The infamy of some serial murderers is such that they deserve star treatment in terms of their stories. And if there is a superstar among serial murderers, it is Albert Fish—and if there is a superstar among detectives pursuing serial killers, Will King of the New York Police Department is near the top of the list. His pursuit of Fish is the stuff of legends. On May 27, 1928, an ad appeared in the Saturday afternoon edition of the New York World Telegram

Young man, 18, wishes position in country. Edward Budd, 406 West 15th Street.

Albert and Delia Budd had placed the ad for the oldest of their five children, Edward. The family lived in a tiny basement apartment, and the idea was that Edward could get a job and help support them. The next afternoon, there was a knock on the door and Delia Budd, who was home alone, answered it.

Framed in the doorway was a small man, maybe 5'5" and 130 pounds. He was very well dressed in a three-piece navy blue suit, blue shirt, black felt hat, and polished black brogues. He had white hair, watery blue eyes, and Delia guessed he was in his sixties. In summary, he looked like a well-to-do gentleman.

Later, Delia Budd would say that the only thing that tarnished the image of the man was his teeth. They were missing, broken, and discolored. They vaguely reminded Delia of an animal’s teeth.

He identified himself as Frank Howard and said that he was a farmer and had seen Edward’s ad, and that he wanted to talk with him about working on his farm. Delia was excited by the prospect and invited him in. When young Edward came in a short while later, he too expressed interest in working for the well-dressed elderly man. Howard explained to the Budds that he owned a farm in Farmingdale, Long Island, and that business had recently picked up to the point that he needed to hire someone to help. He was willing to pay $15 per week, a large sum at the time.

The Budds were very impressed with Howard, particularly his obvious wealth. At one point in the conversation, he pulled out a roll of greenbacks that would have choked the proverbial horse. For a family who lived on the fiscal edge, it was an aweinspiring display.

Howard offered Edward the job, and Edward enthusiastically asked him whether he might have an additional position on the farm for his friend Willie Korman. Mr. Howard said yes. He promised to return the following Saturday and pick them both up. On the following Saturday, the Budds waited patiently for Howard to pick up Edward and his friend Willie, but Howard didn’t show. That night, they received a telegram from Howard, saying he had unexpectedly had to go to New Jersey on business. He promised to be at the Budds’ home the next day.

This time Howard showed up at around eleven o’clock in the morning, again dressed to the nines, ready to take the boys to his Long Island farm. But Howard was early, and they were not ready to go. As Howard and the Budds waited in the living room for the boys, ten-year-old Grace Budd came into the room.

She was a thin, sickly sort of child, but today, Sunday, she was looking her best. She had on her white confirmation dress (she had been confirmed in the Catholic Church just three weeks earlier), her soft, dark brown hair was bobbed, and her large blue eyes twinkled. Howard gushed at what a beautiful child she was. Grace took to the old man immediately, walking over and sitting on his lap. And Howard took to her. He engaged her in a game of counting his money. He had $91 on him, an impressive amount, and rewarded her counting ability by giving her a half-dollar for candy. Then Howard had an idea. His niece was having a birthday party at her home at 137th Street and Columbus Avenue. They had a few hours before they needed to leave for the farm. Might it be OK to take Grace to the party?

Delia Budd resisted the idea, but her husband Albert championed it. How often, he said, did Grace get a chance to get away from their cellar apartment? Grace put on a gray coat and left with Howard, who said he would have her back in a few hours.

The Budds accompanied the pair out of the apartment and watched as Grace walked, hand in hand, with Howard as he walked along in his bowlegged, rolling gait toward Ninth Avenue. Later, Delia Budd would admit to having an almost subconscious concern for her daughter as she watched them walk away. But she did nothing. Just before they turned the corner, Grace turned and yelled something, but they could not hear what she said.

If only the Budds had known a simple fact, Grace Budd might have lived. Columbus Avenue ended on 105th Street. The intersection of 137th Street and Columbus did not exist.

Howard did not return with the little girl at the appointed time. The Budds wondered where they could be, and Edward and Willie were anxious to get going to their new jobs. Maybe, the Budds thought, Howard and Grace had been in an accident. Incredibly—and this is something that has never been explained—the Budds did not contact the police about their daughter until the next morning.

At the time of Grace’s disappearance the NYPD had recently formed the Missing Persons Bureau, which dispatched two detectives to see the Budds and try to determine what had happened. One of the detectives was Will King. King was a gruff-talking, heavy smoker who believed in order and discipline and whose life was being a cop. He was also gutsy, patriotic, and had that most important attribute of a great detective, determination. Frank Howard would have been better off if Sherlock Holmes and not Will King had come to investigate the case.

Word of what was then regarded as an abduction spread fast, and soon newspapermen of the day were assaulting 406 West Fifteenth Street, swarming all over the Budds for tidbits about Howard and the little girl. Under immense pressure to solve the case, the head of the Missing Persons Bureau assigned fifty detectives to it, forming a task force with King as the head. People of the day said that the only case that rivaled it in intensity was the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby.

To King, there was little question that Grace Budd was dead. But it riled him that a man could walk in off the street, take a little girl, and never return. King pursued the case with a withering ferocity.

The detectives spread out and talked to hundreds of people. They dusted the entire house for prints, they questioned Western Union at length about the telegram Howard had sent the Budds, they went to Farmingdale to question farm owners. They followed every lead possible, but after a few months they had come up with nothing, and the task force members were reassigned to new cases. It remained an open case, but the police department started to forget about it.

However, Will King did not forget. He handled other cases, but in a mind-boggling display of determination, not a single day went by that he did not pursue one lead or another in the Budd case.

Some of the earliest leads came from ordinary folks. When the case first hit the media, the Budds were deluged with mail both sympathetic and crank, and from time to time they would receive letters that seemed to contain actual leads and would turn them over to the police. Will King doggedly tracked them all down.

Mail leads continued even after the police had stopped actively investigating. King specifically instructed the Budds to turn the mail on Grace over to him unopened, but invariably when he got it, it would be open. His relationship with the Budds became less than cordial—while King understood that they just wanted to find their daughter, the Budds were contaminating evidence.

Weeks turned to months, then to years. Soon it had been more than six years since Grace Budd had disappeared with the kindly old Howard, and not a single day had gone by when Will King had not worked on the case. In fact, his superiors started to worry about him—and their worry proved well founded.

In early 1934, Will King, working night and day on his other cases as well as on the disappearance of Grace Budd, collapsed and was confined to a hospital for three months. Before he was discharged, his doctors warned him about overexerting himself. The police department, concerned for his health, assigned him to a desk job.

But, of course, he did not stop. He pursued every lead, however thin, that turned up, and continued his awe-inspiring pursuit of the kidnapper. Besides the overall frustration of not solving the case, there were also the promising leads that didn’t pan out. To King, each lead was a new hope, a new road that could lead him to the kidnapper—and each was a dead end.

Then, on November 2, 1934, Will King got a telephone call from Delia Budd. She had received a letter from someone, and it looked like it was about Grace. Did he want to see it?

He did. Edward Budd brought over the letter—this one unopened—and King carefully opened it and read it. The contents of the letter were later to be read into the court record and would stun and repulse people, but King was excited: It was the handwriting. He did not have to be a graphologist to know that the spidery-inked handwriting in this letter to Delia Budd was written by the same man who had written the telegram to the Budds six years ago, telling them that his arrival would be delayed because of business in New Jersey—Frank Howard.

The letter read, in part:
  • On Sunday June 3 1928 I called on you at 406 W. 15th St. . . . Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her: On the pretense of taking her to a party. You said Yes she could go. I took her to an empty house in Westchester I had already picked out. When we got there, I told her to remain outside. She picked wild flowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and called her. Then I hid in the closet until she was in the room. When she saw me all naked she began to cry and tried to run downstairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mamma. First I stripped her naked. How she did kick-bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms, Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me nine days to eat her entire body. I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.
A Break in the Case
What followed was a masterpiece of detective work on the part of Will King. He noticed that the legal-sized envelope the letter arrived in had an emblem and some initials on it, and that someone had attempted to scratch them out. But by holding the envelope up to the light, he could read them clearly enough: NYPCBA.

A check of the phone book revealed that NYPCBA stood for the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association, at 627 Lexington Avenue in New York City. King went to the headquarters and explained his business to the president of the association. The president was concerned that King suspected one of his members, but King reassured him that he just wanted to check handwriting samples.

Working more than seven hours, until past midnight, King checked the handwriting samples on applications for membership in the NYPCBA. None was close to the handwriting of Frank Howard. King tried another tactic. A few days after reviewing the applications, he spoke in front of the seventy-five-member group and asked whether anyone had used any of the NYPCBA envelopes or had taken any for personal use. He made it clear that no one would get in trouble if they had, but he was vague about why he wanted to know.

After his speech, he waited in the president’s office until a small, red-haired man named Leo Sicoski came in. After being reassured by King that there would be no punishment, Sicoski admitted that he had taken some of the envelopes and used them while he lived at a rooming house at 622 Lexington Avenue. He said he might have left some around.

King immediately shot to the rooming house, where he was disappointed yet again—no one had rented Sicoski’s room since he had left it. It was boarded up tightly, and a canvas of the neighborhood proved fruitless: No one knew anyone who looked like Frank Howard.

Stymied, King went back to Sicoski to find out whether he remembered anything else. Sicoski said that, before 622 Lexington Avenue, he had lived at 200 East Fifty-second Street. He had left some NYPCBA envelopes there on a shelf behind a bed. King hurried over there. It was a flophouse, and this time he found something.

He spoke with the landlady and asked her whether she knew anyone who looked like Howard. She did—and said it sounded like Albert Fish, who was staying in No. 7. King looked at his signature on the register. Albert Fish and Frank Howard were the same man! King asked where Fish was. The woman didn’t know, but she said he periodically returned to the flophouse to pick up a check from the Civilian Conservation Corps sent by his son, John.

King checked it all out, and then he set up a stakeout, taking a room at the top of the stairs that gave him a view of the intersection at Fifty-second Street and Third Avenue. He smoked, he exercised, and he ate canned food. He stayed awake for more than twenty hours a day. Fish did not show.

On December 12, 1934, King decided to take a break from his routine and went Christmas shopping. He was away for two hours, and as soon as he returned to his room there was a rapid-fire knocking on the door. It was the landlady. Excitedly, she told him that Fish was back: He had come by a half hour ago, and she had told him his check wasn’t in (it was). He was waiting, but she didn’t know how long he would stay.

King strapped on his .38 and went to Fish’s room. He knocked. The person inside invited him to come in. Inside, sitting on the bed, was a man who perfectly fit the description of Frank Howard: a little white-haired, baggy-eyed man with watery blue eyes. King identified himself as a policeman and told Fish that he wanted to talk to him about some letters he had written, and that Fish needed to accompany him to headquarters. Fish agreed mildly.

King brought him downstairs and then, just as they were about to exit the building, Fish whirled, straight razors in both hands. King quickly subdued and shackled him; he had gotten a glimpse of the real Albert Fish. At the police station, for whatever reason, Fish started to speak. He expounded on the horrendous letter for the detectives. He said that after he killed Grace, he positioned her neck on a one-gallon paint pail and cut her head off, letting her blood drip into the pail. He tried to drink the warm blood but vomited.

Then he used a knife and a cleaver to cut her in half at the navel, and proceeded to cut her into pieces. He planned on eating all of her except her head, guts, and skeleton.

And it was all true. Later, at his trial, he admitted that as he ate Grace Budd over the nine days specified in the letter he was in a state of continual sexual excitement, and the memory of eating her during the day led him to masturbate at night.

Ultimately, Fish led the police to the house where Grace’s murder had occurred, the abandoned Wisteria Cottage (as the locals called it) in Greenburgh, New York. He showed detectives where he had buried the parts he didn’t eat, and they used pickaxes and shovels to break through the frozen ground until they found Grace’s head and various bones.

There was some jurisdictional dispute, but Fish was eventually tried for the murder of Grace Budd in White Plains, New York, and after a nine-day trial in March 1934 he was convicted of her abduction and murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair. He described his upcoming death as the “supreme thrill” of his life; apparently, for a sadomasochistic psychopath, the thought of being electrocuted is quite enticing.

The trial produced some interesting background on Albert Fish—he had some quaint habits. He engaged in coprophagy (he ate human waste), and he liked to stick needles into himself. Indeed, on one occasion he tried to stick needles into his testicles but had to stop. It was too painful, he said. However, when doctors took X rays of Fish at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, they found numerous long pins that had been driven into his abdomen in a kind of gruesome acupuncture. Technically, doing such a thing is known as a Piquer act: jabbing sharp objects into yourself or others for sexual gratification.

On the day Fish was to be electrocuted, January 16, 1936, three of his six children visited him. Less than a year after his trial, Albert Fish had his last meal at eleven o’clock at night. His children were there when the switch was thrown; it was said that it took two full jolts to kill him because of all the needles and pins he had stuck into his body.

Will King knew that Fish, who had roamed the country as an itinerant house painter, had killed other children; in fact, a number of children had disappeared from neighborhoods where Fish had been working. However, he never officially confessed to any killings except the murder of Grace Budd, which was plenty enough to send him to his death.

The Boy Behind the Monster

Albert Fish was pretty much doomed to a life of crime and sadism from the start. He was born on May 19, 1870, in Washington, D.C. When Fish was five years old, his seventyfive-year-old father died in New York’s old Penn Station, leaving only his mother (who, in a striking age difference from her husband, was just in her early forties) to take care of little Albert. She could hardly afford to support herself, so she had no choice but to place Albert in St. John’s Orphanage in Washington, D.C.

When Fish was nine years old, his mother was a little more stable and able to take care of him, so she took him back. However, the orphanage had been a training ground for Fish in the perverse, sexually and in every other way. And, of course, because of his psychological makeup, Fish was ready to use what he had learned.
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