Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Men and Supermen: The Nietzsche Syndrome

Is There an Overman?

One of the first known international one-man crime sprees, which spanned two continents, occurred between 1910 and 1928. Carl Panzram, arrested for drunkenness when he was only eight, lived a hard life, and he took it out on others. By the age of nineteen, he referred to himself as "the spirit of meanness personified," and he was right. He murdered, raped and sodomized indiscriminately, often whole groups at a time.

Carl Panzram
Carl Panzram

In West Africa, according to David Everitt in Human Monsters, he hired eight black men for a hunt, killed all of them, and sodomized their corpses. He thought that killing people was fun. He also burglarized homes, and for that he was arrested, but being in prison did not stop him from killing. He admitted to the murders of twenty-one people, but added that he had sodomized over one thousand men. He wanted no one to fight for him when he got a death sentence, and was remorseless about his crimes, he said he was only too happy to leave the world. Henry Lesser, a guard who had urged him to write his autobiography, was the recipient of Panzram's manuscript.

In court, Panzram defended himself on charges of burglary and told the surprised jury that he was indeed guilty of breaking into a home and stealing or breaking various items. Then he said, "There's something else you ought to know. While you were trying me here, I was trying all of you, too. I've found you guilty. Some of you, I've executed. If I live, I'll execute more of you. I hate the whole human race. Now I've done my duty, you do yours." That sounds like someone who appreciates the moral relativity that Nietzsche proposed.

The jury convicted him in record time, and he was sentenced to 25 years in Leavenworth. There he killed a man, and was sentenced to be hanged. Many people said later that this was a man who wanted to die. It was likely that he took on his own defense as a way to ensure his ultimate destruction.

Because Brady had the Nietzschean perspective and singled Panzram out as the sort of killer who murdered as a transcendent act, we'll let him have the last word:

"In Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra, the pivotal factor is, in my opinion, the Great Contempt or, more precisely, the Great Self Contempt. Once a man has achieved, in a praiseworthy sense, contempt for himself, he simultaneously achieves contempt for all man-made laws and moralities, and becomes truly free to do as he wills. Plunging into the very depths, he consequently rises above all. Panzram was in the grip of that exhilarating psychic experience."

Book cover: Also Sprach Zarathustra
Book cover: Also Sprach Zarathustra

Panzram wanted no appeal of his capital sentence and, on his final morning, he went to his death jauntily, singing and asking that the process be expedited. "What are we hanging around for?" he wanted to know, urging the hangman to be done with it. Insolent to the end, he was finally executed. Brady says that "a great spirit had flown."

It's difficult to persuade those who embrace the Nietzschean philosophy as a justification of cruelty and murder that they have misunderstood the philosopher's intent. They need such justifications to put emotional distance between themselves and their acts. Yet, Panzram aside, most of them crumble when caught and become something much less than an Übermensch. Nietzsche may inspire, but he doesn't make the man.


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