Even in the most depraved works of horror fiction, you’ll be hard pressed to find a villain as heinous as Albert Fish – a living, breathing nightmare who preyed on the children of Brooklyn and beyond.
In the annals of crime in the County of the Kings there is no one more sinister than the ferocious Fish. At trial, attorney James Dempsey stated, “Nowhere in legal or medical records was there another individual who possessed so many sexual abnormalities.”
Dempsey was the counsel for the defense.
This violent, sadomasochistic sexual deviant went by many names, known as the Gray Man, the Werewolf of Wysteria, the Moon Maniac, and The Boogey Man. Yet none was more chilling for the children of the Depression than the Brooklyn Vampire. For years stressed-out Brooklyn housewives scared their naughty children into obedience with the specter of Albert Fish and his awful deeds.
It was a chilly morning in Brooklyn on February 11, 1927. America was in the midst of Prohibition as the Roaring 20s unwound into the age of consumerism, a time when America’s wealth more than doubled. In Brooklyn people still left their doors unlocked, their children unwatched.
Gentle three-year old Billy Beaton was playing in the hallway of his Brooklyn apartment building with his 12-year-old brother and a friend, four-year-old Billy Gaffney.
Then the shadow cast by Albert Fish came across the boys.
The sequence of events is clouded, as it tends to be when trusting the recollections of the pre-pubescent. But a few things were clear. At some point the older boy left the hallway, and that was when the younger boys disappeared.
As reported in The Brooklyn Eagle, Billy Gaffney’s mother said her child was a precocious scamp. Billy, she said, talked freely to people, and was trusting. She told a reporter Billy was out of her sight for less than five minutes that afternoon.
As Beaton’s father came up the stairs of the apartment house, arriving home from work, Gaffney’s mother poked her head out the doorway. “Where are the wee Billies?” she asked in her Scottish lilt.
After a frantic search, young Beaton was discovered on the black-tarred roof of the building.
He was alone.
When questioned, Beaton’s answer chilled investigators, uttered in a small, frightened voice: “Billy went away with a big man … The bogeyman took him.”
Billy Gaffney was never seen alive again.
A desperate manhunt ensued. Authorities scooped up Peter Kudzinowski, a Polish-born railroad worker, who was released after questioning. Kudzinowski was later convicted of a serial-killing spree throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but Billy Gaffney was not among his victims.
The crime remained unsolved for years, as the trail grew cold.
The break in the case came after Fish was arrested in 1934 on suspicion of murdering a young girl, Grace Bud. That murder occurred in 1928. The ghoulish Fish sent a taunting letter to Grace’s mother, and investigators were able to track it back to him.
When Fish’s gaunt image splashed throughout newspapers nationwide, the depraved details of his crimes drew many to take a closer look. Joseph Meehan, a Brooklyn trolley operator, recognized that face. Though it was seven years since he’d seen it, Meehan recalled Fish boarded his trolley on the day of Billy’s disappearance in the company of a young boy. Meehan remembered the episode distinctly, because the boy was without a jacket, unusual for a cold Brooklyn day in February. The episode was further memorable as the boy was whining for his mother, forcing an exasperated Fish to drag him from the trolley.
Meehan thought little of it then, until he saw Fish’s photo.
Detectives from the Manhattan Missing Persons Bureau jumped at the lead, discovering that Fish had the opportunity to abduct Gaffney. Fish worked as a house painter for a Brooklyn real estate company at the time of the disappearance and was assigned to a job located nearby Billy’s home.
Little did investigators know what horrors awaited when Fish confessed, in the form of a gruesome letter he wrote to his attorney. Here is an excerpt. WARNING, these contents are disturbing:
I brought him to the Riker Ave. dumps. There is a house that stands alone, not far from where I took him … I took the G boy there. Stripped him naked and tied his hands and feet and gagged him with a piece of dirty rag I picked out of the dump. Then I burned his clothes. Threw his shoes in the dump. Then I walked back and took trolley to 59 St. at 2 a.m. and walked home from there.
Next day about 2 p.m., I took tools, a good heavy cat-of-nine tails. Homemade. Short handle. Cut one of my belts in half, slit these half in six strips about 8 in. long. I whipped his bare behind till the blood ran from his legs. I cut off his ears – nose – slit his mouth from ear to ear. Gouged out his eyes. He was dead then. I stuck the knife in his belly and held my mouth to his body and drank his blood. I picked up four old potato sacks and gathered a pile of stones. Then I cut him up. I had a grip with me. I put his nose, ears and a few slices of his belly in the grip. Then I cut him thru the middle of his body. Just below his belly button. Then thru his legs about 2 in. below his behind. I put this in my grip with a lot of paper. I cut off the head – feet – arms – hands and the legs below the knee. This I put in sacks weighed with stones, tied the ends and threw them into the pools of slimy water you will see all along the road going to North Beach. Water is 3 to 4 ft. deep. They sank at once. I came home with my meat. I had the front of his body I liked best. His monkey and pee wees and a nice little fat behind to roast in the oven and eat. I made a stew out of his ears – nose – pieces of his face and belly. I put onions, carrots, turnips, celery, salt and pepper. It was good.
As the trial proceeded, it became apparent that Billy Gaffney was one in a long line of this monster’s many young victims.
Born in 1870 to a family of minor historical note (politician Hamilton Fish was a distant relation) and mental illness, Fish was placed in an orphanage at the age of five when his riverboat-captain father passed away. There Fish was raped and beaten for four years, developing sadomasochistic tendencies. By the age of 12, fish was a serial rapist and practicing cannibal. Fish boasted at trial that he “had children in every state.”
Fish arrived in Brooklyn at the age of 20, working as a male prostitute, a cover he used to lure and rape young boys. Three decades of sexual perversion of the most debased nature followed, as Fish became fascinated with sexual mutilation, paraphilia (perversions involving human excrement) and cannibalism. He selected children less likely to be missed, such as children of the poor, minorities and the mentally disabled.
He protested that God commanded him to torture and mutilate the children. Fish placed the count of his victims at 100, though did not specify if these were rapes and/or murders.
Following a 10-day trial, covered by the mainstream media of the day, Fish was convicted of the murder of Grace Bud.
On January 16, 1936, the Brooklyn Vampire was executed by electric chair at Sing Sing.
Before execution, Fish handed his attorney Dempsey his last words on pages he’d written. Dempsey refused to share those pages. “I will never show it to anyone,” he told reporters. “It was the most filthy string of obscenities that I have ever read.”