A son of Prussian immigrants, born at Warren, Minnesota, in 1891, Panzram logged his first arrest age eight, for drunk and disorderly conduct. Three years later, a series of robberies landed him in reform school, and he set the place on fire at age 12, causing an estimated $100,000 damage. Paroled to his mother’s custody in 1906, he ran away from home soon afterward. Life on the road meant more conflict with the law, and Panzram spent time in various juvenile institutions. He volunteered for the army while drunk, but could not adapt to the discipline. Court-martialed for theft of government property in April 1907, he served 37 months in Leavenworth before his release from prison – and military service – in 1910. Upon discharge, Panzram described himself as “the spirit of meanness personified.”
Back in civilian life, Panzram launched a career of robbery and indiscriminate murder spanning two continents. After one big score, he hired a yacht and lured several sailors out with promises of liquor; once on board, the men were drugged and raped, then murdered, their bodies dumped into the sea. In Portuguese West Africa, Panzram hired eight blacks to help him hunt for crocodiles, then killed them, sodomized their corpses, and fed them to the hungry reptiles. Back in New York, he strangled a Kingston woman on June 16, 1923, “for the fun it gave me.”
Five years later, on August 16, 1928, Panzram was arrested following a series of burglaries in Washington, D.C. Conviction earned him 20 years in Leavenworth, where he promised to kill the first man who “crossed” him. His victim, selected without apparent motive, was Robert Warnke, a civilian laundry foreman. Panzram crushed his skull on June 20, 1929, and was promptly sentenced to hang.
From death row, the killer wrote, “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. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry.” When opponents of capital punishment fought for his life, Panzram responded with venomous letters. “I wish you all had one neck,” he wrote, “and I had my hands on it.” Mounting the scaffold on September 5, 1930, he seemed eager for death. “Hurry it up, you bastard,” he snapped at the executioner. “I could hang a dozen men while you’re fooling around.”
“I sat down to think things over a bit.
While I was sitting there,
a little kid about eleven or twelve years old came bumming around.
He was looking for something. He found it, too.
I took him out to a gravel pit about one-quarter mile away.
I left him there,
but first I committed sodomy on him and then killed him.
His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him,
and he will never be any deader.”