WE’VE all heard of—or seen—the boogeyman. He’s the monster who hid under your bed and in your closet when you were a kid. He gave you nightmares and made you afraid of the dark. But what happens when a real-life boogeyman exists? In the early 1900s, too large a number of unfortunate children found out after meeting Albert Fish.
He’s been known by several different monikers: “The Werewolf of Wysteria,” “The Gray Man”, even the “Brooklyn Vampire”. No matter the alias, Albert Fish was the notorious Boogeyman Killer whose attacks took place over the span of ten years, causing terror in New York and throughout the United States.
Born Hamilton Howard Fish, he changed his name to Albert to commemorate a dead sibling. Fish’s father was 43 years older than his mother, and died by the time Fish was five. Many of the facts regarding his early years are largely unknown; however, what little details we do have point toward a deeply troubling childhood.
Mental illness and religious mania ran in the Fish family. After his father died from a heart attack, Albert’s mother placed him in an orphanage. The reasons behind this are unknown, but we can safely assume they are linked to his mother’s wavering income and her inability to care for all four of her children.
The orphanage was where Fish was first exposed to violence. He was repeatedly whipped and beaten. During the course of his beatings, Fish began finding sexual pleasure in them, which brought on vicious teasing from the other children in the orphanage. In 1882, his mother landed a government job and was able to bring Fish back under her roof, but by then it was too late; the damage had already been done.
Fish began a consensual relationship with another boy at age 12. This boy introduced him to extreme sexual practices, such as drinking urine and eating feces. Fish began spending his weekends in public baths, watching the young boys undress. He was still just in his early teens.
Upon his arrival in New York City in 1890, Albert Fish became a prostitute to satisfy his sexual urges. However, when his day job no longer satiated him, Fish began raping young boys. This practice continued even after he agreed to an arranged marriage proposed by his mother. Fish married a woman six years his junior, and the couple had six children.
Fish was eventually arrested for embezzlement and spent a handful of years in prison. During that time, he had sexual relations with countless men. Upon his release, Fish began an affair with a lover, despite his marriage. One afternoon, Fish and the man visited a waxworks museum where the pair witnessed the bisection of a penis. From that moment on, Albert Fish developed a fascination with castration.
At one point in their relationship, Fish managed to convince his male partner to be tied up as part of a sexual game. It’s unclear just how much of their sadomasochist relationship was with the consent of this man, Thomas Kedden, who is believed to have been mentally impaired.
After tying Kedden up, Fish kept him isolated in an abandoned farmhouse for weeks, torturing him mercilessly during that time. Eventually, the torture escalated to the point where Fish reenacted his waxworks museum experience and sliced off half of Kedden’t penis. Intending to murder Kedden, Fish began to worry that the heat of summer would cause the smell of a hidden, dismembered corpse to be noticed. Instead of killing him, Fish cleaned Kedden’s wound with peroxide and covered it with Vaseline. The final fate of Kedden is unknown.
In January of 1917, Albert Fish’s wife left him for the handyman who had been staying with them. Shortly after his wife’s departure, Fish began hearing voices. He once rolled himself up in a carpet, claiming that he was following the orders of John the Apostle. His children, who remained with him, do not report being abused, although claims that Fish had his children paddle him have surfaced over the years.
The maiming of Kedden took place in 1910. It is believed that over the next few years, Fish mostly curtailed his nefarious activities, but began torturing, raping and killing again after his wife left him. In 1919, Fish stabbed a mentally handicapped boy. From this time on, his victims were nearly always either mentally disabled or African American: Fish believed no one would notice when these children went missing.
Over the next decade, Albert Fish’s crimes became increasingly violent and frequent. Although it’s unknown just how many children he killed, thanks in part to his tendency to choose victims that would go unnoticed, the murder of three children by Fish has been confirmed.
Young Francis McDonnell was discovered missing by his parents in 1924. Out for the day playing catch with friends, McDonnell never returned home. McDonnell’s friends and mother both reported seeing a “grey man” watching the boys play. After a search, McDonnell’s body was discovered, with extensive signs of torture and sexual assault.
One other exception to Fish’s rule of choosing victims at the edge of society was Billy Gaffney. Fish attacked Gaffney, who was playing in the hallway outside his family’s apartment in Brooklyn with his friend Billy Beaton in 1927. Both boys mysteriously disappeared. The neighbors immediately started looking for them. Hours later, Beaton was found on the roof. When was asked what happened to Gaffney, the child famously said: “The boogeyman took him.”
Beaton was reported missing. Soon, reported sightings began flooding in, including one claiming to have seen an older man with the boy on a trolley. The boy was crying for his mother while the man was attempting to quiet him. The police matched the description of the boy to Gaffney. Gaffney’s body was never found—Fish later confessed to murdering him, dismembering the body, cooking and eating it.
Just over a year after this crime, Fish committed perhaps his most infamous murder. He came across a classified ad in the Sunday paper by a young immigrant boy, Edward Budd, seeking employment. Fish responded, posing as a farmer wanting to hire a farm hand.
When discussing this crime with authorities after his arrest, he noted his intention had been to kidnap and murder Budd. But then he saw Budd’s younger sister Grace, and his plans changed. He returned for a second meeting, offered Budd the job, and asked if the parents would allow Grace to accompany Fish to his niece’s birthday party that evening at his sister’s home. He said the girls were about the same age and would likely make great friends. The parents granted permission and Grace left with Fish that day, but never returned.
After Grace’s disappearance, not only was the wrong man tried for the crime, serving nearly a year in jail before the actual culprit was caught, but the family also received a letter from Fish. Riddled with misspellings, the note relayed what had happened to the girl and how Fish came to his lust for human meat. Although in the letter, Fish claimed the girl “died a virgin,” he confessed during an interrogation with police that he had raped her. However, Fish was known to compulsively lie, so it is impossible to know the facts of the case.
The trial for the murders of the three children lasted 10 days. Albert Fish pleaded insanity, claiming to have heard the voice of God telling him to kill the children. The jury heard evidence from his children, doctors, and his victims’ relatives. The most famous and disturbing evidence from the trial was an X-ray of Fish’s genitals. Over 20 needles had been embedded there by Fish himself. There was much debate on whether his sexual fetishes meant he was insane, but ultimately the jury found him sane and guilty, and the judge ordered the death sentence.
Upon his initial arrest, Fish boasted that he had “had a child in every State.” This would skyrocket the number of victims, exceeding 50; however, it remains undetermined if this meant molestation, cannibalization, or both. As Albert Fish was also known to lie and exaggerate, it is unclear if he can be taken at his word here. As it is, the deaths of the three children (Budd, Gaffney, and McDonnell), were enough to send FIsh to the electric chair at Sing Sing.
Thanks to his hunger for human flesh and horrifying fetishes, this boogeyman will live in infamy.
By AUDREY WEBSTER