Prof. Schechter describes the Boogeyman
Megan Cloherty, WTOP Reporter
Elise Widerlite, special to wtop.com
WASHINGTON - It's a phrase commonly used in horror films and taunting childhood games: "Watch out for the Boogeyman!"
But the real Boogeyman has local ties.
Albert Fish -- otherwise known as the Boogeyman -- is considered to be one of the most deranged and perverse serial killers in the history of American crime. And papers from Fish's psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, are now available at the Library of Congress.
While most of Fish's crimes were committed after he left the District, his time spent in D.C. was largely influential in his psychological development.
His father, a Potomac River boat captain, died in 1875 when Fish was 5 years old. That same year, his mother placed him in St. John's Orphanage, located in D.C's Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
"While there, he was subjected to all manners of physical and sexual abuse and humiliation and torture, which completely warped his personality out of shape. It turned him into the kind of monstrous being that he was," says Harold Schechter, a professor of American Literature at Queens College, City University of New York and author of "Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America's Most Fiendish Killer."
Schechter believes that Fish's time spent at the orphanage was a defining moment in his life because torture experienced in childhood is a common factor in the backgrounds of serial killers.
"It just completely turns them into beings who are filled with this nihilistic rage and this hatred of the world and this desire to inflict pain on the world in the way that they were tortured," he says.
Fish also had a family history of severe mental illness and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
"He was really the living incarnation of every parent's worst nightmare and every child's worst nightmare. What the Boogeyman is," Schechter says.
According to Schechter, Fish preyed exclusively on children.
"He didn't just kill them, he raped them, he mutilated them and again he took this gloating delight in it."
Fish was also known for his habit of self-punishment, Schechter says. One example of this comes from a time when Fish was incarcerated and jailers noticed he was unable to sit comfortably. He told jailers he had put needles into sensitive areas of his body, and an X-ray of his pelvic region confirmed his claim, showing he had 27 needles "floating in his bladder and pelvic area."
So why is the Boogeyman missing from D.C. folklore?
Marilyn Bardsley, editor of Crimescape, explains that Fish left the city and moved to New York with his mother before he committed his worst crimes.
"He never did anything of note in Washington and when you get out of a city at the age of 15 -- unless you've done something really dramatic and gotten caught at it -- there wouldn't be any particular reason for him to have been some sort of legend in Washington," she says.
However, Schechter has another theory.
"I think, partly, his crimes were so depraved and so hideous and so horrendous that the general public doesn't want to really hear too many details about him," he says.
That's not to say that Fish's legacy isn't well-known. He‘s most known for kidnapping a 12-year-old girl named Grace Budd, brutally killing her and dismembering her body to cook in a stew that he consumed over the course of a week. He got away with the crime, but eventually turned himself in when he wrote an obscenely graphic letter to Budd's parents several years later, detailing what he had done to their daughter. He was eventually convicted and executed by electric chair.
Schechter also explains that Fish's appearance was unassuming.
"He looked like a little old grandfatherly guy," explains Schechter, who says his outward appearance portrayed him as harmless -- an assumption that's far from the truth.
Imagining a person capable of committing such hideous crimes instilled a great deal of terror among New York parents. They warned their children that a Boogeyman was on the loose.
"Obviously, the Boogeyman is a mythical figure, but if anybody, any real flesh and blood human comes close to actually embodying that myth, it's Albert Fish," says Schechter.
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