Stories of serial killers range from the interesting to the downright disturbing. Some cases, like the Ted Bundy case, have a story that focuses on privilege and charisma as much as it focuses on the more gruesome details of the murder. They’re easier to swallow than the stories of killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, who was a cannibal.
Before we dive into the story of Albert Fish, it must be said that this is one of the harder cases to learn about. Even if you watched the Night Stalker documentary or enjoyed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, don’t be surprised if some of the details in this case make you queasy. The story of Albert Fish has every element that could turn people off of listening to true crime: pedophilia, child murder, cannibalism, etc. Proceed with caution, and know that some of the most gruesome details of his correspondence with his victims’ families are available online but won’t be placed on this site.
With that being said, let’s learn about the murders and crimes of Albert Fish. Although he is only linked to three confirmed victims, some historians believed he killed up to 100 people. That would put him on the list as one of the most prolific serial killers of all time, but again, this is far from confirmed.
Albert Fish was born Hamilton Howard Fish on May 19, 1870. He changed his name to Albert after he had been given the nickname “Ham & Eggs.” Fish spent most of his time at an orphanage, where he was allegedly beaten. The beatings aroused him, which only resulted in more beatings.
Fish stayed in the orphanage for a few years until he was nine years old. When he was returned to his mother, it was reported that he often wet the bed. Oddly enough, this is a very common trait among boys who grow up to be serial killers. (Violence to animals and setting fires are also common traits - the three traits together are known as the Macdonald triad.)
Around the age of 12, Fish also developed a bizarre habit with a boy whom he was in a romantic relationship with. The two would eat and drink each other’s urine and fecal matter.
Although the date of his first crimes may never be known, Albert Fish allegedly had started sexually assaulting young boys when he was as young as 20 years old. This continued on for at least a decade, and the exact number of victims may never be known. In 1903, Fish was arrested for white collar crimes, including embezzlement and grand larceny, and sentenced to prison at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. He was eventually released.
Fish did have six children with a woman whom he had been arranged to marry, but historians doubt that he committed these crimes against them. He did, however, engage in very bizarre behavior before and after the children were born and it’s no surprise that Fish’s wife left him. It is a surprise, however, that Fish was left with the children when his wife decided to run off with another man. The youngest of these children was five years old. When Fish got out of prison, he started experimenting with sexual mutilation and various forms of self-harm. He would stick himself with needles so far that they just disappeared into his body, poke himself with hot pokers, and ask his children to paddle him with a nail-studded paddle. Fish also used the paddle on himself. In addition to these bizarre interests, he would also claim to hear voices.
Although Fish had intended on killing his first victim, he claimed the weather was too hot. Fish had already been torturing and sexually assaulting this victim, a 19-year-old boy with an intellectual disability, over the course of two weeks. The torture included cutting off half of the boy’s genitals and pouring peroxide over the wound.
Nine years later, Fish stabbed a boy with an intellectual disability. Allegedly, the murders of children continued between 1919 and 1924, but the details of these victims, or how many there were, haven’t been uncovered. Allegedly, Fish chose children with disabilities or African-American children as victims because police were less likely to investigate their disappearances or murders. Historians do know that many of his victims became his meals. Fish was interested in cannibalism and even invited his children to eat raw meat with him.
In 1924, Fish killed nine-year-old Francis McDonnell by strangling him with suspenders. The boy’s body was sexually assaulted and hung up by a tree in the boy’s Staten Island neighborhood. McDonnell’s body was discovered and neighbors came to the police with descriptions of an older man with a grey mustache who was last seen with the child. But police did not immediately assume that this older man was the one that killed Francis - based on the coroner's lengthy description of the damage done to the child, the police assumed that someone younger must have been involved. Ironically enough, Fish claimed that he would use children to lure his victims to him throughout his life of crime.
Fish, although not immediately caught for the murder of the boy, became known as The Grey Man until he was caught ten years later. Police were on the hunt for him.
The Grey Man is one of many nicknames given to Albert Fish during his life of crime, including:
- The Werewolf of Wysteria
- The Brooklyn Vampire
- The Moon Maniac
- The Boogey Man
The last nickname came about after Albert Fish murdered four-year-old Billy Gaffney in 1927. Billy Gaffney was playing with his neighbor, also named Billy, when they both mysteriously disappeared. Police were able to find the 3-year-old Billy. When they asked the boy who took the four-year-old child, his neighbor claimed that “the boogey man” took Gaffney. Gaffney’s body was never recovered, although he wasn’t immediately thought to be a victim of “The Grey Man until Fish had already been arrested for a later murder.
A year later, Fish saw an ad in the paper for a man named Edward Budd who wanted work in the country. Fish came to the man’s home and claimed to be a farmer from Farmingdale. The family, when interviewed by police later, claimed that Fish appeared to be a kind, older gentleman who was trustworthy. The deal was made and Fish agreed to come by a few days later to pick up Edward and bring him to the farm. Fish originally had planned to murder Edward, but changed his tune once he got to know the family more. He met 10-year-old Grace Budd and decided to set his sights on her instead.
Fish told the family that he was attending his 10-year-old niece’s birthday party later that day and convinced the family to let him take Grace with him. That was the last time that Grace Budd was seen again.
Fish killed 10-year-old Grace Budd in an abandoned home outside of town. He did not return to the Budd family, either. When her disappearance was reported, police already had many witnesses to testify about the man who was last seen with her. The address that Fish had given them for the birthday party, as well as the name that Fish gave the family, were completely fake. Although Fish was a suspect in the murder, another man was accused of killing Budd but released after it was clear that he was not the murderer. For years, newspaper reporters and detectives looked for Fish, but he was nowhere to be found.
There are five other cases that may be linked to Fish between the years 1926-1932, but what we do know is that Fish was arrested for the murder of Grace Budd in 1934. He was caught after sending a horrifying letter detailing the murder and consumption of Grace’s body to her parents. (The letters can be found online, but please note before you read them that they are incredibly disturbing.)
The letter matched a telegram to the family that Fish had sent when he first met them. By tracing the letter back to Fish’s apartment, he was caught and arrested in December 1934. He did not deny the murder of Grace Budd, and admitted to everything including his original intent to kill Edward. Some of Budd’s remains were found. Fish also claimed to have written a similar letter that was sent to the parents of Billy Gaffney. Once again, the letter contained vile and sickening details of Fish killing and eating the child.
Despite his claim to have written the letter, Gaffney’s mother and law enforcement were not entirely convinced that he was the murderer in both cases. When he stood trial, it was solely for the murder of Grace Budd.
Trial and Death
Albert Fish was put on trial for the murder of Grace Budd in March 1935. There was no question about whether or not he killed Grace Budd, but more questions about Fish’s mental state and how his punishment should have been handled. Fish pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity and told the court that he was hearing voices. The voice of God, allegedly, were telling him to kill and torture his victims.
Many mental health experts and psychiatrists took to the witness stand to testify on Fish’s insanity. One commented on his ability to remain calm and rational as he testified and confessed to police about the horrifying murder of children. He didn’t appear to be in a state of psychosis. Another commented on Fish’s perversions, of which there were many. There wasn’t any sort of sexual deviance that Fish didn’t practice. A lot of them agreed that he was insane, but he was ultimately found guilty for his crimes. After the trial was over, some of the jurors claimed that although they thought Fish was guilty, they still thought that he should be executed for his crimes against his young victims.
Fish was sentenced to death at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the same prison where he had first served time so many years ago for much less violent crimes. He sat on death row for 10 months before he was finally given the electric chair. His six adult children did not come to visit him, which was allegedly confusing to him. Fish also told police that he “had children in every state,” which to this day confuses historians. While some believe he means that he fathered children in every state, others believe he was admitting to killing children in every state. That’s the thing about serial killers - sometimes you just don’t know what they’re talking about.
Reportedly, when Fish sat down to be executed, he told the executioner that he didn’t even know why he was there. He also claimed to be excited to be in the electric chair, as it was “the only thing he hadn’t tried.” With two jolts, Fish died on January 16, 1936 at the age of 65. He was the oldest prisoner to ever be executed at that facility.
When Fish’s body was examined, coroners found over two dozen needles lodged into his groin and abdomen. This was part of Fish’s fetish for self-mutilation. Although news reporters alleged that these needles assisted in the electrocution’s ability to shock and kill Fish, this has since been debunked. It’s not unusual for someone to die within a manner of minutes by electrocution.
Before Fish had died, he had reportedly given a final statement to his lawyer. The hand-written notes were apparently so gruesome that Fish’s lawyer refused to share them with the public. Journalists repeatedly pressed the lawyer to do so, but the contents must have been terrifying - worse than the letters sent to Fish’s victim’s families - that they will never be seen by another person.
Albert Fish will forever be known as one of the most horrifying, nauseating serial killers in American history. For many, stumbling upon Albert Fish while learning about true crime as a hobby is a stark reminder that some of the serial killers that fascinate us so much are just plain evil.