EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — Nearly 100 years after his death, it's still up for debate where Carl Panzram's life first went wrong.
It might have been in a boxcar heading west, when Panzram claimed to be the victim of a vicious sexual assault by a group of fellow hobos which left him with a deep hatred of humankind. It might have been in the Red Wing Training School for Boys and Girls, the first place he got a taste of the violence of the American prison system as a pre-teen. Or it might have been even earlier, growing up hard and poor on a homestead nestled between the Red and the Red Lake rivers in the modern-day heart of East Grand Forks.
Panzram, recognized as one of the most prolific serial killers of the 20th century, himself wondered if maybe he had just been born that way -- but shortly before his death by hanging in 1930, he reflected in his extensive writings about his life whether there could have been another course for him.
He seemed to begin asking himself that question while in a progressive prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. For the first time in his extensive history of incarceration, he was not beaten and tortured by prison guards.
"After (killing a prison employee and bludgeoning several inmates), I walk into a cell fully expecting to be chained up and beaten to death. But what happens. The exact reverse of that," he wrote. "No one lays a hand on me. No one abuses me in any way. This is how things have been for the past three or four months. I have been trying to figure it out and I have come to the conclusion that, if in the beginning I had been treated as I am now, then there wouldn't have been quite so many people in this world that have been robbed, raped, and killed, and perhaps also very probably I wouldn't be where I am today."
Joel Goodman, a retired U.S. Bureau of Prisons official, described Panzram as many things: brilliant (despite having almost no formal education) thoughtful, likely introverted and extremely nomadic.
"And he was also a man without conscience," Goodman said. "He did horrible things to other people. ... But the other thing is, is that he could connect on an authentic human level with this kindly jail officer, Henry Lesser. And so by Henry showing some compassion and treating him as a human being, Panzram responded as such."
An East Grand Forks boy
In 1891, Prussian immigrants Johann and Matilda Panzram bought a modest plot of land on which to make their living and raise their family. Their son Charlie -- who as an adult would go by Carl -- was born one year later in 1892, one of seven children.
The triangle of land belonging to the Panzrams is bordered today by Bygland Road, Rhinehart Drive and Sixth Street Southeast. By his own account, Panzram's early years in East Grand Forks were difficult, and only became harder after his father left the family when he was 8 years old.
Panzram was arrested for the first time at 11 years old for incorrigibility and burglary, a crime which led to his first stint behind bars at the Polk County Jail. A short time later, after robbing a neighbor, Panzram was sent to the Red Wing Training School for Boys and Girls in Red Wing, where he claimed he was regularly beaten and sexually assaulted. After two years there, he hopped a train to the Pacific Northwest, when he claims he was assaulted by a group of hobos he met on-board. He was about 13 or 14.
From there, his movements can be tracked through military records as well as records from reform schools, jails and prisons. For more than 20 years, it seems Panzram murdered, robbed and raped his way across the U.S., Europe, Africa and Central America.
What sets him apart from other serial killers isn't his crimes, though -- it's the hundreds of pages he wrote of his recollections of his life, his crimes and his thoughts.
Panzram first met Henry Lesser, a kindly young prison guard, in 1928 in the Washington Asylum and Jail in Washington, D.C. Lesser treated Panzram with kindness, and the two became friends. Eventually, Lesser urged Panzram to write down his life's story, and Panzram did, writing in his cell with the nub of a pencil and handing finished pages off to Lesser as he completed them.
Due to his extensive criminal record, nearly everything he wrote can be verified or corroborated by official jail records. In fact, the only provably false thing he wrote in his reflections -- known today as the Panzram Papers -- was that a building he burned resulted in $100,000 in damage when in fact, it was only $25,000 in damage.
The Panzram Papers famously open with Panzram's confession to a lifetime of crimes:
"In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and, last but not least, I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings," he wrote. "For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me. I don't believe in man, God, nor devil. I hate the whole damned human race including myself."
After bludgeoning the prison staff member to death in Leavenworth Prison in 1929, Panzram was sentenced to death. He died by hanging in 1930.
A century of jails and prisons
Lesser spent 40 years trying to get the Panzram Papers published before he succeeded.
Without those pages, and without Lesser's work to give them to the public, Panzram likely would have faded into obscurity, said Tom Gitchoff, a professor emeritus of criminology at San Diego State University. Even after his story was told, Panzram does not appear to be widely known. While reporting this story, the Grand Forks Herald reached out to the Polk County Historical Society, the Minnesota Historical Society and more than a dozen Minnesota historians, none of whom were familiar with Panzram.
Gitchoff and Goodman both separately and vividly recalled coming across the Panzram Papers after their publication as "Panzram: A Journal of Murder," edited by Thomas Gaddis and James Long, in the 1970s. Gitchoff and Goodman each agreed Panzram's writings changed their perspectives on criminal justice and changed the course of their careers.
Gitchoff, now 83, and Goodman, his former graduate student, have both studied Panzram extensively. After meeting and interviewing Lesser at San Diego State in 1979, they were both instrumental in persuading him to donate the original Panzram Papers to the university's special collections, and giving him the recognition he had never received for helping to tell Panzram's story.
The original Panzram Papers, as well as Lesser's correspondence with Panzram after he was transferred out of the Washington Asylum and Jail, have since been digitized, and are available to be read on the university's website.
In his writing, Panzram urged adults to raise their children better than he was raised -- to teach them morals, and treat them with kindness.
That was a very progressive idea for the time, and one that's as relevant today as it was then, Goodman said.
"You just don't treat somebody who's in, to quote Henry, in the clutches of the law," Goodman said. "You don't abuse them. You treat them as human beings, and you give them what they got coming, and nothing else. That is what a professional does."
Gitchoff, who spent much of his career working with delinquent young people, agreed that the shape of a child's environment can play a large part in shaping that child.
But while there has been improvement in the criminal justice system's treatment of children since Panzram was first incarcerated as a boy, Gitchoff said the American criminal justice system still largely struggles with adequately reaching troubled children and teens.
"If you work with youth, you offer them education, training, counseling, families are usually broken down, but no one wants to take the time to do that," he said. "And personally, you know I've worked with delinquents, and it's a pain ... to put it bluntly, but that's what it takes. I'll put it this way -- how interested can you get in someone else's kid? That's the problem right there."
The American justice system's shortcomings aren't limited to its treatment of youth, Gitchoff said. While today, there is generally much more awareness of prison issues due to increased media attention, many prison systems have made less progress since Panzram's time than people realize, Gitchoff said.
"If you think our prison system is bad today, it's only changed because we've put new icing on an old rancid cake, and it makes it look nicer," he said. "But the kind of horror stories that used to go on in prison still go on, even though they're shinier or newer, and they cost us billions of dollars more. The question is how many of these people are helped or turned around, and most of them are not. When you go to prison, it's like saying you failed and we, society, failed too, because all we're doing is putting you on ice for a while and then you come out and do it again."
Both Gitchoff and Goodman agreed that Panzram's awareness and thoughtfulness looking back on his life is striking. Despite Panzram's lifetime of undeniably evil acts, both criminologists said they believe there are still lessons to be learned from Panzram's writings.
“Is it unnatural that I should have absorbed these things and have become what I am today, a treacherous, degenerate, brutal, human savage, devoid of all decent feeling, without conscience, morals, pity, sympathy, principle or any single good trait?" Panzram wrote. "Why am I what I am?”
At the end of his life, Panzram wrote that it made very little difference to him whether he lived or died. He expressed remorse for only two things.
“These two things are: I am sorry that I have mistreated some few animals in my lifetime, and I am sorry that I am unable to murder the whole damned human race.”