CARL PANZRAM – I: Seeds of Evil Crime File

Evil has no manifestation worse than a man who kills human beings indiscriminately for no reason other than a deep-seated hatred for the human race. But in some cases one is left wondering if the evil-doer is also wherein the evil germinated, or whether he was just a place where the evil took residence having come from elsewhere, or if he was where all conditions necessary for the evil to come into being came together to produce evil. These questions are hard to answer in isolation, and in a majority of serial killing cases, they do not even arise. But in this one, they do arise despite the fact that the serial killer involved is among the most brutal serial killers the world has known, and was also the one who was motivated by a furious, unforgiving hatred for the mankind.

This human being who was more of a “human animal” by his own unrepentant, frank and unforgiving admission right from the day he was born on June 28, 1891, was called Carl Panzram, to begin with. Later, he took many names and aliases to deceive law enforcement. He was born to hard-working but poor parents of German descent and had five brothers and one sister, all of whom were honest individuals with no trace of any such trait that Panzram came to be known for in his time of infamy.

Carl was just seven when his parents decided to part ways, but people belonging to their strata did not go through the legal process of divorce. They simply ended it with his father leaving the house forever. As a result, the family faced a bleak future. They worked the farm from sunup to sundown with very little to show for their labours. During these early years, Carl was beaten by his brothers continuously for any reason no matter how insignificant. “Everybody thought it was all right to deceive me, lie to me and kick me around whenever they felt like it, and they felt like it pretty regular,” he later wrote. Carl broke into a neighbour’s home when he was 11. He stole anything he could get his hands on, including a handgun. He was quickly found out by his brothers, who beat him unconscious. Carl was later arrested for the crime and in 1903 sent to the Minnesota State Training School, a reform institution for juveniles. Contrary to the objective of the institution, reformation was the last thing that happened in this correction home meant to reform child offenders.

CArl PanzramThe Minnesota State Training School housed some 300 boys between 10 years to 20 years of age. These 300 boys were supervised by the jailers, who ran the institution as per their own whims and fancies with no external checks worth the name, which bred an extremely abusive and unhealthy atmosphere in the institution. The admission log for October 11, 1903 mentions Panzram’s offence as “incorrigibility”. Panzram arrived at the facility a scared little boy and was examined by a male staff member who had him stripped. “He examined my penis and my rectum, asking me if I had ever committed fornication or sodomy or had ever had sodomy committed on me or if I had ever masturbated,” Carl wrote later.

The inmates were supposed to undergo Christian training, and the attendants expected every inmate to learn their lessons with due diligence whereas Carl, who had had little education at the farm, could not read very well, which invited regular punishments in the form of severe beatings. The repeated and consistent maltreatment embittered him towards the attendants, and the hatred turned into boiling rage with an intense desire to seek revenge. The juvenile delinquent in Carl was hardening from inside and turning darker within with every passing day of torture and beatings. He was hit with things as varied as thick leather straps, wooden planks, whips and heavy paddles, and with each blow his hatred grew. He wanted revenge. And on the night of July 7, 1905, he set off a massive fire in a school workshop with the help of a pretty unsophisticated device. The fire burnt the workshop to ashes while Carl laughed his heart out at his revenge. Carl was never held responsible for the fire, for the authorities could not find as to how the fire broke out exactly.

Carl was released in 1905 after he had convinced the parole board by deception that he was a reformed soul. “I was reformed all right…I had been taught by Christians how to be a hypocrite and I had learned more about stealing, lying, hating, burning and killing…I had learned that a boy’s penis could be used for something besides to urinate with and that a rectum could be used for other purposes…,” Carl would write after many, many years.

He was brought back home, and though he was never a very outgoing kid earlier, he was even more withdrawn now. And he was beginning to intensely dislike his mother, too. In his little life, all he had learnt was that the world was full of torture, beatings and mean individuals. And the only way he had learnt to react to all of it was with intense hatred for everything and everyone. “I fully decided when I left there just how I would live my life. I made up my mind that I would rob, burn, destroy and kill everywhere I went and everybody I could as long as I lived,” Carl wrote, and remained true to it for ‘as long as he lived’.

In January 1906, at the age of 14, Carl managed to persuade his mother to send him to another school so that he could avoid working on the farm day long. But he got into a fight with a teacher at school and got beaten up by the teacher on several occasions with a whip. Enraged, he somehow got his hands on a handgun and brought it to school to kill the teacher in front of the class. The attempt failed when the gun fell out of his pocket and he was expelled. He was back on the farm. When the farm looked like his future, he got on a freight train and bid goodbye to the farm forever. Carl was a cannon fired at the world, and nothing had prepared the world for something quite as lethal and as unrepentant and unrelenting as Carl.

However, life was hard for Carl as he wandered around the Midwest catching sleep in freight cars, riding under the trains, begging and stealing for food and running away from railroad cops who seemed to be chasing him all the time. Soon after he had left Minnesota, Carl got another cruel lesson at the hands of the world. He came across four men while he was riding a freight train heaving out of Montana. They promised to buy him nice clothes, get him plenty of food and a warm place to sleep, but before that they wanted the boy to do something for them. Men took turns sodomizing Carl while he– to borrow from his own writing — “cried, begged and pleaded for mercy, pity and sympathy”. They let him run away with his life, but did destroy whatever little humanity he might have had in himself.

Carl did not remain free for long, and found himself sentenced to a year in Montana State Reform School at Miles City for burglary. He was 14 when Carl was brought to the Reform School, but he had a well-built body of a grown-up man weighing around 180 pounds. Soon enough he was looked upon as a born, incorrigible criminal and the staff at the Reform School was forced to pay special attention to the defiant boy. One of the guards was particularly hell-bent on making life difficult for Carl, which angered Carl. And one night he got hold of a heavy wood plant at one of the workshops, and one night when the guard turned his back on Carl, the boy brought the heavy plank down on his head hard. The violent act invited severe beating. Carl had had enough of the Reform School and was now looking for a way out.

Finally, in 1907, Carl and another inmate by the name Jimmie Benson managed to flee the Montana State Reform School, and could also lay their hands at a few handguns in a town near the Reform School, after which they travelled to the town of Terry. They went around robbing people and burning churches, which was Carl’s favourite target to practice arsoning on. So, they would rob churches whenever and wherever they could and would then set them afire. Churches were his favourite target because deep down Carl had developed an intense hatred for religion primarily on account of the brutally forced religious training he had received at the first reform school he was sent to.

However, Carl and his companion parted company when they arrived in western Minnesota. They had two handguns each and lots of stolen money that ran into hundreds of dollars. So, they chose to split up and find their own respective ways in the world. Carl, who now called himself Jefferson Baldwin went west into the plains of North Dakota. He was just about to let his animal self loose on another populace.

Originally written for and published in LAWYERS UPDATE  as a four-part ‘Crime File’ in November 2013.

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