The true story of lifelong criminal and serial killer, Carl Panzram who wrote his autobiography for a jail guard in 1928.
The quality of the films I get to review for this fine website amaze me to no end. One day I’ll get the cinematic equivalent of bilge water (“Panman“) and then I’ll get something like this little flick which, upon reading the title, I just knew was going to be awful. Instead I found that this is the rather gripping story of one Carl Panzram, who just might have been the craziest yet most sane man alive before his execution on September 5th, 1930.
Directed by John Borowski, who also directed documentaries of serial killers Albert Fish (“In Sin He Found Salvation”) & H.H. Holmes (“H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer”), this documentary tells the story of Carl Panzram and as the film begins we hear Panzram (Voice over by John DiMaggio) tell the viewer that “In my lifetime I have killed 21 human beings. I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arson’s and last but not least I have committed sodomies on more than 1000 male human beings. For all of these things I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me, I don’t believe in man, god or devil. I hate the whole human race, including myself…I am Carl Panzram”. I recounted those lines because as soon as I heard them I became immediately fixated on what I was watching. As I have never heard of Panzram those opening lines immediately piqued my curiosity and I wanted to know more.
We are then introduced to Robert Ray, an archivist at San Diego State University, who has three pages from the actual diary of Carl Panzram on display in front of him. Those opening words that made my ears stand up and take notice? They were written by Panzram in his diary, they weren’t the words of a screenwriter as I had initially assumed. Now I’m REALLY interested in Panzram and his life and luckily Boroski has made a film that recounts Panzram’s life in a very meticulous fashion thanks to the help of some historians, the surviving diary pages and one elderly man who was a guard at one of the many prisons Panzram was held at.
Carl Panzram was arrested for housebreaking in Washington circa 1928. Upon his arrest he told the police that the charge he was being held on was minor and he was guilty of numerous murders over the years. The authorities had no idea that he had been arrested all over the country for a plethora of crimes because he always used a different name. He began to tell them about some of the murders he committed and slowly the story got out to the local newspapers. The story of a man being held for a petty crime who is telling the police about other more heinous crimes he’s committed became a big deal in Washington and soon everyone knew the name Carl Panzram. That included a prison guard named Henry Lesser who slowly developed a dialog with Panzram. Although Panzram trusted no man, Lesser slowly gained his trust by showing him the one thing no one ever had before…kindness. He witnessed some of the torture that the warden & other prison guards had put Panzram through because of his reputation.
Lesser became very upset over the treatment Panzram was suffering through and sent him a dollar bill for use in the prison canteen. Slowly the two men began a sort of friendship and after hearing some of Carl’s exploits Lesser encouraged him to write his autobiography. Panzram initially demurred, claiming he wasn’t educated enough to write anything but after a few weeks of encouragement (& some paper and a pencil) Carl began to write his story out. The deal was that Lesser would provide the paper and pencils and Panzram would leave the completed pages in between the bars of his cell when he was done. The film suggests that Lesser was going to use the completed work as a sort of example for people to understand what makes people like Panzram do what they do. When finished, Panzram wrote about 40,000 words detailing his life from his childhood on.
Sadly life seemed to be against Carl right from the beginning. He tells the story of a mastoid operation he underwent as a child that took place on his kitchen table as his family couldn’t afford a proper procedure in a hospital and it is intimated that he might have suffered some sort of brain damage because of it. From then on he began his life of crime and we’re told of the constant beatings he suffered as a child at reform school. It’s never too long between beatings and one of the promises Carl makes to himself is that he would “Have his revenge just as soon and as often as I could injure someone else, anyone at all will do. If I couldn’t injure those who injured me then I would injure someone else”. It’s theorized that it was around this time that he began to think of himself as the worst of the worst, someone who could not be rehabilitated.
There are many experts here discussing what might have made Panzram so evil and they discuss a lot of the available evidence which seem to point out the direction Carl went in as he grew older. He wrote that he had “Learned more about stealing, lying, burning, hating & killing” from the reform school he grew up in than anything else. Upon his release he became a hobo and was sodomized by four men in a boxcar which only made his resolve to dominate others stronger. He admits to sodmizing hundreds of men over the years, not for the physical pleasure but for the feeling of dominance it gave him.
As he grew into manhood he, among other things, joined the army and found that it was just another form of prison for him. He only lasted a few months before he ended up in the army prison for three years for theft. In those three years he became physically stronger and upon his release he described himself as “The spirit of meanness personified” and his hatred of his fellow man grew stronger. Over the years he was a guest of hundreds of jails, a few prisons and detention centers and he tells of all the abuse/punishment he underwent while he was there. None of it broke him, all of it made him harder, angrier, meaner and during the few periods of his life where he was a free man he made a point to commit as many crimes, murders, rapes that he could claiming that “Many a man has paid for what those men had done to me”.
Strangely there is no mention of women in his story besides his mother. Panzram only raped other men but he never calls himself a homosexual nor describes any overwhelming desire for men over women. He raped other men to assert his dominance over them, perhaps he felt that he was already dominant over women and that they had no real power to stop him as opposed to men who are physically bigger & stronger than women and would prove more of a challenge to him. In addition, he was only abused by males both in and out of prison so perhaps he felt that he had to enact his revenge over men only.
As the film continues we learn that Panzram hated humanity so much that he had devised a plan to start a war between the U.S. and England! A war that would kill thousands of people, perhaps millions in the end. He was also convinced that he could pull this off…if he was a free man and had the time to set the end game in motion, but he didn’t. Carl Panzram’s writings reveal a very intelligent man who but for a few less beatings and a dearth of caring in his early life might have been a productive member of society. But the hatred he faced as a young boy turned him into the monster he became, a monster with no remorse, feeling or love for his fellow man. There was no humanity left in his soul and after watching the film I wondered if he felt he even had a soul.
He died as he lived, violently at the end of a hangman’s noose. His last lines of his autobiography state that children should be taught the word “Truth” for them to grow up properly. He had the insight to realize this even as his hatred of humanity festered inside of him. He left a last will and testament which asked that his corpse be turned into dog food! He also placed a curse on all of mankind in it as well. The last words of his autobiography state that he’s only sorry for two things: “I am sorry that I have mistreated some animals in my lifetime and I am sorry that I am unable to murder the whole damn human race. All that I leave behind me is smoke, death, desolation & damnation”. Now you tell me…is this one serious mofo or isn’t he?
Although I really enjoyed this film I feel guilty saying it. Panzram led a horrid life and as one of the experts in the film surmise, his words felt more like a warning to humanity. A warning that it is creating more Carl Panzram’s daily and maybe we should stop and take a long look at ourselves before it’s too late. It is an amazing story and a very compelling film about a man who was in essence, evil personified, yet smart enough to know he could’ve been different if not for the abuse heaped upon him. And smart enough to know that society had better heed his words in order to avoid creating someone even more dangerous than he was. All technical aspects of the film are up to snuff as far as documentaries go. John DiMaggio’s voice is a dead ringer for Lance Henriksen’s and, as Panzram, it lends a sense of dread and absolute evil to every word he utters. All of the actors playing Panzram from childhood on are efficient although the obviously low budget rears it’s ugly head a bit too much in some of the re-enactments.
I heartily recommend “Carl Panzram: The Spirit Of Hatred And Revenge” to anyone even remotely interested in serial killer history. It’s a fascinatingly sad story made even worse because it’s all true. And Panzram was right, mankind has created people far worse than Panzram in the years after his death. And we will continue to do so until we create the one who will end it all for us, if we haven’t done that already.
You can find the film at www.panzram.com
5 out of 5 shrouds
Carl Panzram: The Spirit Of Hatred And Revenge (2011)