Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil To Live, Part I

Minnesota

Carl Panzram was born on June 28, 1891, on a desolate farm in northern Minnesota. His parents were of German descent, hard-working, stern and like most other immigrants of that era, dirt poor. Carl eventually had five brothers and one sister. He later said that his siblings were honest and dedicated farmers, though the same traits were not passed on to him. "I have been a human animal ever since I was born...I was a thief and a liar," he said. "The older I got the meaner I got." When Carl reached the age of 7, his parents ended their marriage. Of course, for people at their economic level, there was no divorce, no courts, no alimony. His father simply left the farm one day and never returned. As a result, the family faced a bleak future. They worked the farm from sunup to sundown with very little to show for their labors. During these early years, Carl was beaten by his brothers continuously for any reason no matter how insignificant. "Everybody thought it was all right to deceive me, lie to me and kick me around whenever they felt like it, and they felt like it pretty regular," he later wrote. Carl broke into a neighbor's home when he was 11. He stole anything he could get his hands on, including a handgun. He was quickly found out by his brothers, who beat him unconscious. Carl was later arrested for the crime and in 1903 sent to the Minnesota State Training School, a reform institution for juveniles.

Minnesota State Training School (Minnesota Historical Society)
Minnesota State Training School
(Minnesota Historical Society)

Located in the town of Red Wing on the Mississippi River, south of St. Paul, the Minnesota State Training School contained about 300 boys whose ages varied from 10 to 20. The school population was at the mercy of the jailers who were under little or no outside supervision, a condition that promoted or at least allowed a level of abuse that cannot be imagined today. The admissions log, dated October 11, 1903, lists Panzram's crime as "incorrigibility" and the relationship of his parents as "quarrelsome." When Carl arrived at Red Wing he was brought into a reception office where a male staff member examined him. The frightened boy was stripped naked and questioned about his sexual practices. "He examined my penis and my rectum, asking me if I had ever committed fornication or sodomy or had ever had sodomy committed on me or if I had ever masturbated," he later wrote. It was an admonition of what was to come.

A punishment slip (Mark Gado's collection)
A punishment slip
(Mark Gado's collection)

The inmates also received Christian training and when they misbehaved or failed to learn the lessons properly, they were attacked by angry, vindictive attendants. Because Carl received little formal education when he lived on the farm, he was unable to read very well. For this he was also beaten regularly. "I may not have accomplished much in a scholarly way while there but I learned how to become a first class liar...and the beginnings of degeneracy," he said. Soon he developed a hatred for the attendants and everything connected to religion, which he saw as the cause of his suffering. "I first began to think that I was being unjustly imposed upon. Then I began to hate those who abused me. Then I began to think that I would have my revenge just as soon and as often as I could injure someone else. Anyone at all would do," he later said.

The more beatings he endured, the more hateful he became. He was hit with wooden planks, thick leather straps, whips and heavy paddles. But during all that time, Carl was planning revenge. On the night of July 7, 1905, he prepared a simple device that started a fire after he left the building. The fire quickly consumed the workshop at the school and it burnt to the ground while Carl lay in his bed laughing at the spectacle of sweet revenge.

In late 1905, Carl was on his way out of the horrors of the Minnesota State Training School. He learned to say the things the staff wanted to hear and when he appeared before the parole board, he convinced them that he was a changed boy and had been "reformed" by the school. "I was reformed all right...I had been taught by Christians how to be a hypocrite and I had learned more about stealing, lying, hating, burning and killing," he said, "I had learned that a boy's penis could be used for something besides to urinate with and that a rectum could be used for other purposes..."

During that winter, Carl's mother, Lizzie Panzram, arrived at the Red Wing school to bring him home. Carl had changed. Never an outgoing child even at home, he became more withdrawn, quiet and brooding. But his mother had too many other things to worry about. One of Carl's brothers had recently died in a drowning accident and her health was fragile. She had no time for a rebellious child who had a habit of getting into trouble. She may have thought that Carl would eventually work out his own problems. But even at this early age, he felt deep resentment toward his mother.

"Mother was too dumb to know anything good to teach me," he said years later, "there was little love lost. I first liked her and respected her. My feelings gradually turned from that to distrust, dislike, disgust and from there it was very simple for my feelings to turn to into positive hatred towards her."

He knew nothing else in his brief life except suffering, beatings and torture. His youthful mind dwelled on things of which most children knew little. "I fully decided when I left there just how I would live my life. I made up my mind that I would rob, burn, destroy and kill everywhere I went and everybody I could as long as I lived, " he wrote years later.

It was January 1906, and Carl Panzram was about to be unleashed on the world.

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