Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil to Live, Part II

"A Murderous Looking Axe!"

Larchmont was a quiet, well-groomed village on the south shore of Westchester County a few miles from the Connecticut state line. During the 1920s it was famous for its beautiful shoreline and exclusive country clubs where the upper echelon of New York City society would gather on weekends. They could watch the yacht races or shop at village stores, a world away from the frenzied pace of Manhattan's crowded and gritty streets. Panzram had been to Larchmont before. In June 1923, he stole a boat from the Larchmont marina belonging to Dr. Charles Paine. The boat was found a short time later off the coast of New Rochelle; Panzram lost rudder control and smashed the craft onto the rocks.

The Larchmont Train Station as it appeared in 1923.  (photo courtesy of the Larchmont Historical Society)
The Larchmont Train

On the night of August 26, 1923, Panzram broke into the Larchmont train depot on Chatsworth Avenue. Using an axe he found outside, he shattered a large window and crawled inside. He found dozens of suitcases which belonged to passengers for the next day's train. As he was rifling through the baggage, a Larchmont cop, Officer Richard Grube, who was making his early morning rounds, happened to come by. "I went around to different windows and I saw him kneeling in front of the stove in this depot with an open trunk in front of him and I covered him with a gun," Grube told reporters. But Panzram didn't hesitate. The Portchester Daily Item described what happened next: "John O'Leary, a giant in stature and was armed with a murderous looking axe. The officer immediately grappled with O'Leary and after a fierce struggle in the dark, disarmed him and placed him under arrest." He was brought to the police station on Boston Road where he identified himself as John O'Leary. After he confessed to previous break-ins, he was charged with three additional burglaries. In village court the next morning, Judge Shafer set bail at $5,000 and remanded Panzram to county jail pending grand jury action.

As he sat in the village jail, Panzram told cops he was an escaped prisoner from Oregon where he was serving a 17-year sentence for shooting a police officer. Panzram said a lot of things. Maybe too many. Some cops called him a "chiseler," a man who admits to crimes he didn't commit so he will be moved somewhere else.

Larchmont police sent telegrams of inquiry to Oregon. On August 29, Larchmont Police Chief William Hynes received this reply from Warden Johnson Smith of the Oregon State Penitentiary: "Jeff Baldwin is wanted very badly in Oregon his was a noted case that attracted considerable attention all over the Pacific Coast and we are very anxious to send an officer for him at the earliest possible moment." Panzram was known as "Jeff Baldwin" in Oregon and still had more than 14 years left on his sentence. There was even a $500 reward for his capture, which Panzram tried to collect for his own arrest. "O'Leary told the police here that since he volunteered all the information as to his escape from prison, he wished to claim the $500 himself," The Standard Star reported.

The telegram from Oregon Sate Prison to Larchmont dated August 29, 1923.  (photo by author)
The telegram from Oregon Sate Prison to
Larchmont dated August 29, 1923.
(Mark Gado)

Panzram realized that his future prospects were limited. He knew that Oregon wanted him badly, and he either had to escape or face decades in prison. During his recent trip to the city of Kingston and the upper Hudson, he had committed numerous burglaries and robberies, some of which were never discovered. While he was held in the Larchmont jail, Panzram wrote a letter to a mysterious "John Romero" in Beacon, New York, which was directly across the river from Newburgh where George Walosin jumped ship. "This will probably be the last you ever hear from me," he wrote. "I expect to go to jail for the balance of my life so you see I can lose no more. I have never said anything to anyone about you but bear this fact in mind if I should talk and tell what I know, I can and will put you away for a long time." Panzram demanded Romero send him $50 right away and he would forget "all I know." He said that the boat was lost but Romero "could still cash in on the Newburgh deal" and he signed the letter "Capt. John K. O'Leary." The money never arrived and police never found Romero. Panzram remained in custody.

Panzram at Sing Sing Prison 1923
Panzram at Sing Sing
Prison 1923 Inmate
#75182
(Photo Courtesy New
York State Archives)

A few weeks later, he was indicted by the grand jury for the Larchmont burglary. "I at once saw that I could be convicted so I immediately saw the prosecuting attorney and with him made a bargain," he said later. He cut a deal with the DA's office in which he would receive a lighter sentence in exchange for a plea of guilty. But it was not to be. "I kept to my side of the bargain but he didn't. I pleaded guilty and was immediately given the limit of the law, five years. At once I was sent to Sing Sing." But he didn't stay long. Men like Panzram, who were hardened criminals and difficult to control, were routinely sent to upstate Clinton Prison, where they were out of the mainstream prison population and at the mercy of an unusual group of guards who had grown accustomed to hostile inmates.

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