A Diagnosis of Evil

Albert Fish was a horrible human being. He raped and murdered. He performed serial killings, child molestations, and cannibalism. He was a monster wrapped in a surface gentility and a tragic upbringing. The gravity of his offenses makes the debate about nature versus nurture only an academic conversation. Any discussion of his subsequent trial, however, would be incomplete without a brief and sanitized review of his background.

            Albert Fish was born in 1870. His father was four decades older than his mother. A history of mental illness and hospitalizations ran through the Fish family. Albert’s father died in 1875. Unable to care for the boy, Fish’s mother placed him in an orphanage. By accounts, he was beaten and abused by fellow orphans and the staff. At ten, his mother secured a job that paid enough for her to remove Albert from the orphanage. At home, he began engaging in child molestation and other wide-ranging sexual practices. By his twenties, he’d practiced sexual mutilations on himself and others.

            He did find time to marry and father six children. In 1917, his wife left him for a handyman who boarded at the family home. Some may find it remarkable that she lasted seven years. Around this time, he began to have auditory hallucinations. Reportedly, he wrapped himself in a carpet on the instructions of John the Apostle.

            Fish spent time in prison for theft offenses and was sent to a psychiatric hospital following a string of obscene letters he sent to women. He began killing during these years, believing that God commanded him to torture and mutilate.

            Albert Fish had a kindly face, framed by gray hair and a large droopy mustache. The features made him appear trustworthy. In 1928, eighteen-year-old Edward Budd ran a classified ad in a New York paper seeking a job in the country. Answering the ad, Fish appeared at the family’s door. He spun a tale about having retired to a farm and needing assistance. When he returned to the Budd’s house, he met Edward’s younger sister, Grace Budd. He persuaded her parents to allow Grace to accompany him to his niece’s birthday party. She was never seen again.

            Six years later, a letter arrived at the Budd home. Mrs. Budd was illiterate and asked her son, Edward, to read it. The author described developing a taste for human flesh while a deckhand in China. He then described kidnapping, killing, dismembering, and eating Grace Budd. The letter’s stationery and postmark led the police to Fish’s boarding house.  He admitted to murdering the child. The police, subsequently, recovered her remains. Further investigation linked him to at least two other child homicides.

            Albert Fish’s trial for the murder of Grace Budd began on March 11th, 1935, in White Plains, New York. The trial lasted for ten days. Fish pleaded insanity and claimed to have heard voices from God telling him to kill children. According to psychiatric evaluations, Fish was preoccupied with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Fish’s sacrificing a child was penance for his own sins.

            The standard for determining insanity at the time was the M’Naghten Rule. In 1843, Daniel M’Naghten tried to kill England’s prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. The test emerged that a criminal defendant was not guilty by reason of insanity if, at the time of the alleged crime, the defendant was so deranged that he or she did not know the nature of his or her actions were wrong.

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(As a prosecutor, in explaining the standard for insanity at trial, I presented an example of a man on trial for stabbing. If proven that the defendant genuinely believed he was stabbing Adolph Hitler, the action would still be illegal. The jury might consider that fact in mitigation. If, however, the defendant believed that he was cutting a watermelon, then he would be not guilty. His derangement would prevent him from knowing that his actions were wrong. No law prevents carving a watermelon.)

            This distinction played itself out in the trial of Albert Fish. The defense put on evidence that Fish’s fetishes and distortions were so extensive that he represented a psychiatric phenomenon. They introduced x-rays showing more than twenty self-embedded needles. Fish’s notions of sin and atonement were so insane that questions of right or wrong disappeared, the defense argued. As a defense alienist (psychiatrist) attempted to explain, Fish’s thought process was that if his actions had been wrong, he would have been stopped as Abraham had once been stopped from killing Isaac, by an angel.

            The prosecution, meanwhile, hammered on the language of the M’Naghten test. In jurisdictions where it remains the law, it still does.  Fish functioned normally in other facets of his life and operated in secret to conceal his crimes. He lured Grace from her home with a string of lies. He knew she was a child at the time of her murder.

            The jury quickly rejected the insanity defense. They convicted Albert Fish on March 22nd, 1935. He was executed at Sing Sing prison in January 1936.

            Insanity is a legal determination and not a medical diagnosis. The Fish case makes this distinction clear. Clearly beset with enough mental issues to fill the DSM 5, he was still determined to be legally sane. The case highlights why the insanity defense is so rarely used by defense attorneys. The evidence, instead, is often presented in mitigation. Some states, like Texas, still use a statutory version of the M’Naghten test. Others have definitions that incorporate both the perceptive and volitional issues surrounding insanity.

            The Fish trial, concluding on March 21st, presents a Hannibal Lecter-like character. It brings the distinctions between law and medicine into focus. The story reminds us that while many in the criminal justice system are there because of misfortune or a lapse of judgment, some defendants are evil. The case presents a gripping tale of tragedy. It is my Trial of the Month for March.

Mark Thielman

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