We’ve all heard of—or seen—the boogeyman. He’s the monster who hid under your bed and in your closet when you were a kid. He gave you nightmares and made you afraid of the dark. But what happens when a real-life boogeyman exists? In the early 1900s, too large a number of unfortunate children found out.
He’s been known by a couple different names: “The Werewolf of Wysteria,” “The Gray Man”, even the “Brooklyn Vampire”. No matter the alias, Albert Fish is the notorious Boogeyman Killer whose attacks took place over the span of ten years, causing terror in New York and throughout the United States.
Born Hamilton Fish, he changed his name to Albert to commemorate a dead sibling. Fish's father was 43 years older than his mother, and died by the time Fish was five. Many of the facts regarding his early years are largely unknown; however, what little details we do have point toward a deeply troubling childhood.
Mental illness and religious mania ran in his family. After his father died from a heart attack, Fish's mother placed him in an orphanage. The reasons behind this are unknown, but we can safely assume they are linked to his mother’s wavering income and her inability to care for all four children she had.
The orphanage was where Fish had his first exposure to violence. He was repeatedly whipped and beaten. After these beatings had gone on for a time, Fish began finding sexual pleasure in the beatings which brought on vicious teasing from the other children in the orphanage. In 1882, his mother landed a government job and was able to bring Fish back under her roof, but by then, the damage had already been done.
Fish began a consensual relationship with a telegraph boy at 12. This boy introduced him to less-accepted sexual practices, including drinking urine and feces. Fish began spending his weekends in public baths, watching the young boys undress. He was still just in his early teens.
Upon arriving in New York City in 1890, Fish claimed that he became a prostitute. When this was no longer enough to satisfy his urge, he began raping young boys. This practice continued even after he agreed to a marriage arranged by his mother to a woman six years his junior. The couple had six children.
He was arrested for embezzlement and spent a handful of years in prison. During that time he carried out sexual relations with countless men. When he was released he began an affair with a lover, despite his marriage. One afternoon, Fish and the man visited a waxworks museum where the pair witnessed the bisection of a penis. From that moment, Fish developed a fascination with castration.
Later, Fish managed to tie up his male partner, who thought it was part of a game. But when Fish attempted to castrate him, the man panicked, managed to escape and ran away. No one knows what became of him.
After this, Fish increased the number of times he visited brothels, where he asked to be beaten and whipped.
In January of 1917, Fish’s wife left him for the handyman who had been staying with them. She took their six children with her. Shortly after their departure, Fish began hearing voices. He once rolled himself up in a carpet, saying that he was following the orders of John the Apostle.
What may have been Fish’s first attack was recorded in 1910, a stabbing which killed a child named Thomas Bedden. A few years later in 1919, Fish stabbed a mentally handicapped boy. From this time on, Fish’s victims were nearly always either mentally disabled or African American: Fish believed no one would notice when these children went missing.
Over the next decade, FIsh’s crimes became increasingly violent and frequent. Although it’s unknown just how many children he killed, thanks in part to his tendency to choose victims that would go unnoticed, the murder of three children by Fish can be confirmed.
Young Francis McDonnell was discovered missing by his parents in 1924. Out for the day playing catch with friends, McDonnell never returned home. McDonnell’s friends and mother both reported seeing a “grey man” watching the boys play. After a search, McDonnell’s body was discovered, with extensive signs of torture and sexual assault.
One other exception to Fish’s rule of choosing victims at the edge of society was Billy Gaffney. Fish attacked Gaffney, who was playing in the hallway outside his family’s apartment in Brooklyn with his friend Billy Beaton in 1927. Both boys mysteriously disappeared. The neighbors immediately started looking for them. Hours later, Beaton was found on the roof. When he was asked what happened to Gaffney, the child famously said “the boogeyman took him.”
Beaton was reported missing and sightings began flooding in, including one claiming to have seen an older man with the boy on a trolley. The boy was crying for his mother while the man was trying to quiet him. Eventually, the man dragged the boy off the trolley. The police matched the description to Gaffney’s. Gaffney’s body was never found—Fish later confessed to murdering him, dismembering the body, cooking and eating it.
Just over a year after this crime, Fish committed perhaps his most infamous murder. He came across a classified ad in the Sunday paper by a young immigrant boy, Edward Budd, seeking employment. Fish responded, posing as a farmer wanting to hire a farm hand.
When discussing this crime with authorities after his arrest, he noted his intention had been to kidnap and murder Budd. But then he saw Budd’s younger sister Grace, and his plans changed. He returned for a second meeting, offered Budd the job, and asked if the parents would allow Grace to accompany Fish to his niece’s birthday party that evening at his sister’s home. He said the girls were about the same age and would likely make great friends. The parents granted permission and Grace left with Fish that day, but never returned.
What’s creepiest about all this? After her disappearance, not only was the wrong man tried for the crime, serving nearly a year in jail before the actual culprit was caught, but the family also received a letter from Fish. Riddled with misspellings, the note relayed what exactly had happened to the girl and how Fish came to his lust for human meat. Although in the letter, Fish claimed the girl “died a virgin,” he confessed during an interrogation with police that he did rape her. However, Fish was known to compulsively lie, so it is impossible to know the facts of the case.
The trial for the murders of the three children lasted ten days. Fish pleaded insanity, claiming to have heard the voice of God telling him to kill the children. The jury heard evidence from his children, doctors, and his victims’ relatives. The most famous and disturbing evidence from the trial was an X-ray of Fish’s genitals. Over 20 needles had been embedded there by Fish himself. There was much debate on whether his sexual fetishes meant he was insane, but ultimately the jury found him sane and guilty, and the judge ordered the death sentence.
Upon his initial arrest, Fish boasted that he had “had a child in every State.” This would skyrocket the number of his victims, exceeding 50; however, it remains undetermined if this meant molestation, cannibalization, or both. As Fish was also known to lie and exaggerate, it is unclear if we should believe his boast. As it is, the deaths of the three children (Budd, Gaffney, and McDonnell), were enough to send him to the electric chair at Sing Sing.
Thanks to his hunger for human flesh and horrifying fetishes, this boogeyman will live in infamy.
Featured photo: Murderpedia