Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil To Live, Part I

Leavenworth Federal Pen

The U.S. Federal Penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was an awesome sight. Surrounded by 40-foot high concrete walls that descended 20 feet underground, it was a veritable fortress. Situated on more than 1,500 acres of flat unobstructed land, the prison was originally built after the Civil War to house military prisoners and, though it was used continuously since then, by 1890 the institution had fallen into disrepair through underfunding and neglect. A new construction plan was put into effect by 1895, and work began in earnest a few years later. The inmates housed in the old Civil War unit performed all the construction and physical labor. The main section was completed by the inmates in mid-1903. Later that year, more than 400 prisoners were moved into the new facility. Almost 23 acres were contained inside its prison walls, which surrounded four barracks and various support facilities. By 1906, two years before Panzram arrived, all the prisoners from the old section of the prison had been successfully transferred to the new prison.

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, Kansas (CORBIS)
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary,
Kansas (CORBIS)

In May 1908, his hands shackled and leg irons firmly attached, Panzram entered into the gloomy confines of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for the first time. Prison authorities did not know that he was just 16 years old, so he was treated like any other man. Prisoners had to stand in formation every morning regardless of weather. Guards invoked a regimen of strict discipline and mandatory obedience. Like many other institutions of its day, a strict code of silence was enforced and if an inmate was caught speaking out of turn, he was whipped and thrown into solitary. This code of silence, born in Auburn Prison in the State of New York during the 19th century and maintained by a legion of penology reformers for decades, was a powerful tool of control used by the nation's prisons during that era. Any infraction was punished without delay.

Panzram suffered numerous beatings and soon became desperate to break out. "I wasn't there long before I tried to escape but luck was against me," he said. Instead, he decided to burn down one of the prison workshops, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage. Though he was never charged with this crime, Panzram was constantly in trouble for breaking a multitude of other prison rules.

Guards thought nothing of torturing prisoners since it was the only way they could think of to keep control. A convict could not remain unpunished for breaking the rules. To do so would encourage more violations and ultimately, anarchy. Prisoners and guards lived under a fragile pact of restraint and fear. Every guard knew that, if a revolt occurred, they had little chance of getting out alive. The only way to ensure a subdued prison population was too keep them down, punish them severely, be brutal to those who rebelled and make an example out of the ones that were caught.

Panzram was chained to a 50-pound metal ball. He had to carry the weight no matter where he went, even when he slept at night. He was assigned to break rocks in a quarry, which he did for 10 hours a day seven days a week. But he grew strong and muscular all the while, planning for the time when he would get out. Day by day, he grew bitter and angry, consumed by vengeance, waiting for the day when he would roam free again.

"I was discharged from that prison in 1910. I was the spirit of meanness personified...Well, I was a pretty rotten egg before I went there," he wrote years later, "but when I left there, all the good that may have been in me had been kicked and beaten out of me." He was released in August that year. He walked outside into the fresh air convinced he would never see Leavenworth and its hated walls again. But he was wrong. Twenty years later, he would be confined at Leavenworth again. But this time on death row.

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