Stopping the Boogeyman: How Albert Fish was Caught

Albert Fish was one of the first publicized serial killers, between 1924 and 1928, who received several titles from the newspapers of the time: The Gray Man, The Brooklyn Vampire, The Boogey Man, The Werewolf of Wysteria, and the Moon Maniac. Fish is known to have murdered 3 children (and possibly more that remain unknown) and to have molested hundreds of children across the United States. In his own words, he claimed to have “a child in every state” although that is unconfirmed. He admitted to choosing children who were mentally handicapped or black because at the time they were less likely to be investigated or believed.

Fish (front center) upon his capture

Hamilton Howard Fish was born in May 1870 in Washington, D.C. Due to bullies calling him “Ham and Eggs,” Fish started going by Albert, the name of a brother who passed in infancy. When he was born, his father, Randall Fish, was 75 years old, and his mother, Ellen Fish, was 43. His father died when he was 5 years old. His mother, unable to care for her children due to poverty and mental illness, sent her children in and out of orphanages in their childhood. It was here that Albert claims to have witnessed beatings, sexual assault, and other abuse at the hands of nuns and other employees. Here he claimed to have become sexually aroused at the sight of others being beaten and being beaten himself. He looked forward to the abuse, as it brought him pleasure. This stuck with him in his life.

Upon reaching adulthood, Fish moved to New York, where he worked as a prostitute to support himself. In 1898, at age 28, Fish married 19-year-old Mary Hoffman. This marriage was arranged by his mother. She and fish had 6 children together: Albert, Anna, Gertrude, Eugene, John, and Henry Fish. In 1917, Mary left her family, fleeing with another man, never to return. The children remained with Albert, who they later recalled to be a good, stable father who treated them well. In hindsight of his later actions toward other children, this is rather surprising.

Later during his trial in 1935, his children recalled sadistic “games” that they would play which, at the time, seemed like fun to their innocent minds. In one of these “games,” Fish would dress in brown trunks, and position himself on his hands and knees. One of his children would sit on his back with a paddle that had nails sticking out of it, facing towards his bottom. While staring at the floor, Fish would guess how many fingers his child were holding up. If he “guessed” wrong, they were required to paddle him the number of fingers they were holding up. He often purposefully guessed numbers that were far more fingers than they had on one hand. In a different game, again wearing his brown trunks, he would throw them up over his shoulder, allowing them to slide down his back where they were told to claw his back on the way down, leaving him often bleeding.

This x-ray shows the needles Fish inserted into his own groin, some were so old they had become corroded

While performing masochistic acts on himself, like inserting needles into his groin and whipping himself with a homemade cat o’ nine tails, he also began eating raw meat. He would offer this raw meat to his children. After the murder of Grace Budd, Fish wrote a grotesque, detailed letter to her parents, explaining that he had, “cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms, cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little [behind] was roasted in the oven. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body.”

A paddle with nails Fish used on himself, and had his children use on him during “games”

During his trial, his children did not show support for his actions, but still expressed how good their father had been to them, despite now understanding the motive for his “games.” His oldest son, Albert, explained that while he loved his father, he was not surprised by what his father had done. In adulthood, several of his children had witnessed his self-abuse. Albert Fish received the death penalty for the torture and murder of Francis McDonnel, age 8, (1924), Billy Gaffney, age 4, (1927), and Grace Budd, age 10, (1928). He was put to death in the electric chair on January 16, 1936.

How was Albert Fish Caught?

In 1928, Albert Fish answered an ad that he saw in the newspaper, posted by Edward Budd. Budd was looking for work in the country, to escape the city of New York briefly, and make money to help support his family. After already killing his first two victims, Fish sought this 18-year-old as his third victim. Fish visited the Budd family home, dressed and presenting himself as a wealthy farm owner. He met Edward and his parents, introducing himself as Frank Howard. He assured Edward, he would return in one week to pick him up and take him to his farm to begin working. However, one week passed and “Howard” had not appeared. He sent a telegraph to the Budds, apologizing, and promising to come to their home the next day.

When he arrived at their home, Fish stayed for lunch with the family. This is when little Grace Budd appeared, in her Sunday best. She sat on Fish’s lap, giving him a kiss on the cheek. He gave the family a basket of strawberries and cheese, brought from his “farm,” but really purchased at a nearby shop. He had asked this shop owner to hold a package for him so he didn’t have to carry it, and the shop owner agreed. This package held the murder tools he planned to kill Edward with. He asked where the telegraph he had sent was, or if they had thrown it out. They still had it, so he made a note to take it back, eliminating any trace of Frank Howard.

In 1934, 6 years after her murder, Fish wrote a torturous letter to the Budds, detailing how he had led Grace to her death. In the letter, Fish said, “Grace sat on my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her.” This was when Fish changed his target from Edward to Grace. He told the Budds that his sister was having a birthday party for his niece nearby, and he had to attend, but that he would be back later to pick up Edward. He asked if Grace could attend with him, and have fun with the other kids. Grace’s father agreed, but her mother was not so easily convinced. Not wanting to jeopardize her son’s job opportunity, or offend his new boss, she agreed. She stood by a window and waved as Albert Fish walked away with her daughter. She was never seen alive by her family again. Fish stopped at the shop to retrieve his package, sealing Grace Budd’s fate.

The letter Fish wrote to the Budds

In 1934, the investigation into the Grace Budd murder was full-throttle, led by William F. King. Due to the time between murders, they were not initially connected. It was the letter that Fish send to the Budds, taunting them of Grace’s murder, that eventually became his undoing. The envelope led investigators to the “N.Y.P.C.B.A.” which stood for the “New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association.” Investigators spoke to a janitor, who admitted to taking stationery to his apartment, and leaving it behind when he left.

Investigators went to this apartment to find the current tenant. The landlord confirmed the next tenant was none other than Albert Fish. However, at the time he was not living there. He was still having checks from his son, Albert Jr., delivered there, so he often returned to pick them up from the owner. Police had no other choice but to wait for Fish to return. Eventually, after a significant amount of time, Fish returned and police approached. When approached, Fish brandished a razor blade from his pocket, which was swiftly disarmed by King. The Boogeyman had been caught.

On January 16, 1936, Fish was executed. His last words were reportedly, “I don’t even know why I’m here.” Guards later said that before his execution, Fish said, “It will be the supreme thrill, the only one I haven’t tried,” clearly in reference to his sadomasochistic abuse. Legend says that it took two jolts of electricity to kill Fish, as the needles in his groin short-circuited the chair. Witnesses dispute this, but the legend lives on.