Albert Fish and Me
It was probably a year ago that I started thinking about telling the story of Albert Fish. But every time I drew close to it – the tale of this serial killer of the 1920s and ’30s, this gifted child kidnapper, this notorious American cannibal – I’d start edging away.
Narrative non-fiction writers like myself spend some time trying to get into the heads of the people they write about. Why did you do this, I’ve asked scientists in books I’ve written. Why did you behave this way. But, obviously, this is a trickier exercise when writing about a murderer. During the time that I was working on my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out an arsenic murderer, Fanny Creighton, famed in the 1930s as an “American Borgia.” I reached a point one day when I couldn’t stand another minute of her treacherous company. I slammed my laptop closed and fled the house.
Still I kept coming back to Albert Fish. It was partly his unusually strange serial killer story; it was partly the improbable way he was captured. But in the end, what made it more than just a serial killer story was the way his 1935 trial unfolded. Here, in the dock, was was this killer, crazy as a bedbug as they say, a man who saw angels floating in his home, heard them giving him instructions about murder and death, who began to plan his days as if he were an Old Testament prophet seeking to atone by sacrifice.
And here was the central question – was he crazy enough to be put away in a mental institution or did we want him to be sane enough to go to the electric chair? And what side should the scientists who study madman take in a case like this – if they take a side at all? All of those ethical complications and more rise like ghosts out of the story of Albert Fish. They haunted both attorneys and psychiatrists involved in the trial for decades. And they’ve haunted me - I still find myself wondering what decision I would have made if I’d sat on that jury and heard this tale of a madman’s journey.
In other words, I did eventually decide to write the story of Albert Fish and it was released this week as a single published by The Atavist. As of today, it’s the #2 best-selling single on Amazon and if you’re interested you can find it in all its formats here. If you find a good answer to my questions, do let me know. Oh and one more thing. If you do decide to learn more about Albert Fish, read his story with the lights on.
Cover image: Courtesy of The Atavist
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-seller, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for a range of publications including Time, Scientific American, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times (and even the literary journal, Tin House). She is currently working on a sixth book about poisonous food.
Follow @deborahblum on Twitter.