Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil To Live, Part I

Murder on City Island

The New Haven home of former President William Howard Taft located at 113 Whitney Avenue. (Mark Gado's collection)
The New Haven home of former
President William Howard Taft
located at 113 Whitney Avenue.
(Mark Gado's collection)

In the summer of 1920, Panzram spent a great deal of time in the city of New Haven, Connecticut. He preferred places with activity and lots of people. More people meant more targets, more money and more victims. It also meant the cops were busy; maybe too busy to bother with the likes of him. He went out at night, cruising the city streets looking for an easy mark. If he didn't mug an unsuspecting drunk or rape a young boy, he would look for a house to burglarize. In August, he found a house located at 113 Whitney Avenue that looked "fat" and ready for the taking. It was an old three-story colonial, the home of an aristocrat, he hoped. He broke in through a window and began to ransack the bedrooms. Inside a spacious den, Panzram found a large amount of jewelry, bonds and a .45 caliber automatic handgun. The name on the bonds was "William H. Taft," the same man who he thought sentenced him to three years at Leavenworth in 1907. At that time, Taft had been the secretary of war. In 1920, he was the former president of the United States and current professor of law at Yale University in New Haven. After stealing everything he could carry, Panzram escaped through the same window and hit the streets carrying a large bag of loot.

New Haven CT waterfront
New Haven CT waterfront

He made his way to the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he sold most of the jewelry and stolen bonds. He later wrote that "out of this robbery I got about $3,000 in cash and kept some of the stuff including the .45 Colt automatic. With that money I bought a yacht, the Akista." He registered the boat under the name John O'Leary, the alias he used while he was living in the New York area. He sailed the boat up the East River, eastward through the Long Island Sound past the south shore of the Bronx, the City of New Rochelle, Rye and onto the rocky coast of Connecticut. Along the way, he broke into dozens of boats on their moorings, stealing booze, guns, supplies, anything he could get his hands on. One of the boats was the Barbara II, a 50 footer owned by the Marsilliot family from Norfolk, Virginia. He eventually moored the Akista at the New Haven yacht club where he settled in for a time, enjoying the hot weather, drinking prohibition booze and thinking about his next victims.

When he visited Manhattan's Lower East Side, Panzram noticed hoards of visiting sailors on shore leave from their ships docked along the East River. He realized many of them were looking for work on outgoing freighters or local boats. This was an era of enormous shipping activity, the age of the ocean liner when international travel was mostly accomplished by sea. As he drifted through the narrow streets of the East Village, he devised a scheme of robbery and murder.

City Island welcome sign
City Island welcome sign

"Then I figured it would be a good plan to hire a few sailors to work for me, get them out to my yacht, get them drunk, commit sodomy on them, rob them and then kill them. This I done." For several weeks, he went down to the South Street neighborhood and picked out one or two victims. Panzram told them that he had work on board his yacht and needed some deckhands. He promised them anything just to get them on board the Akista, which he anchored off City Island at the foot of Carroll Street. He remained there for the entire summer of 1920.

The view from City Island, Bronx, New York. (Mark Gado's collection)
The view from City Island, Bronx,
New York.
(Mark Gado's collection)

City Island is a small landmass of about two square miles off the Bronx. In 1920, City Island was a secluded, maritime community of fishing boats, sail manufacturers and residents who tended to their own business. At first, most people paid little attention to "Captain John O'Leary," the brooding stranger who came on shore only to buy supplies and always seemed to have a new crew each week.

Execution Lighthouse, built in 1867 on the
Execution Lighthouse, built in 1867
on the "execution rocks" in Long
Island Sound.
(Mark Gado's collection)

"Every day or two I would go to New York and hang around 25 South Street and size up the sailors," Panzram said. When he convinced them to come on board his yacht, they would work for maybe a single day. "We would wine and dine and when they were drunk enough they would go to bed. When they were asleep I would get my .45 Colt automatic, this I stole from Mr. Taft's home, and blow their brains out." He then tied a rock onto each body and carried them into his skiff. He rowed east into Long Island Sound near Execution Lighthouse, so named because during the Revolutionary War British troops chained rebel colonists to the rocks there and waited for the rising tide to drown the prisoners. There, not 100 yards from the lighthouse, Panzram dumped his victims into the sea. "There they are yet, ten of 'em. I worked that racket about three weeks. My boat was full of stolen stuff," he later wrote. But City Islanders soon grew suspicious of the Akista and its skipper. Panzram realized he had to change venue. He sailed down the coast of New Jersey with his last two passengers until he reached Long Beach Island, where he intended to kill them both. In late August 1920, a huge gale hit and the Akista smashed to pieces against the rocks. Panzram swam to shore and barely escaped with his life.

The two sailors made it to the beaches of the Brigantine Inlet just north of Atlantic City. "Where they went I don't know or care," Panzram said later. They quickly disappeared into the Jersey farmlands, never realizing how lucky they had been to escape certain death by the bullet of a president's gun.

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