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Albert Fish Trial: 1935

The M'naghten Rule, Admits To Cannibalism

Defendant: Albert Fish
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: James Dempsey, Frank J. Mahony
Chief Prosecutors: Elbert T. Gallagher, Thomas D. Scoble
Judge: Frederick P. Close
Place: White Plains, New York
Date of Trial: March 11en22, 1935
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: The always-blurred distinctions between medical and criminal insanity became virtually indistinguishable during this trial of one of America's most extraordinary criminals.

On June 3, 1928, an elderly, meek-mannered handyman calling himself "Frank Howard" lured 12-year-old Grace Budd away from her family in New York City, on the pretext of taking her to a party. She was never seen alive again. A huge search initially raised hopes that Grace would be found, but as days, weeks, and then months passed with no news, the Budds resigned themselves to the inevitable.

Like most families in such ghastly circumstances they got on with their lives and tried to put the tragedy behind them. Then, on November 11, 1934, came a bolt from the blue. The letter they received, postmarked in Manhattan, was obscene and rambling, but its gloating account of Grace Budd's death bore ominous hallmarks of authenticity.

Forensic analysis of the monogrammed stationery eventually led detectives to a rooming house on 52nd Street, and a shabbily dressed old man who made no attempt to resist when he was taken into custody on the morning of December 13.

Something had gone horribly wrong in the brain of Albert Fish. To the outside world this 66-year-old house painter displayed an avuncular, even benign warmth, but beneath the surface lurked a demonically disturbed personality. He was a serial pedophile, a cannibal, a fantasist, irredeemably sado/masochistic, and, ultimately, a child killer.

So said Elbert T. Gallagher, the assistant district attorney, when he opened the state's case against Fish on March 11, 1935. Gallagher spared no emotions, either his own or the court's, as he read aloud the infamous letter. In it, the writer described what happened after he had taken Grace to a deserted house in Westchester County. "I first stripped her naked … [and] choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces." These were then roasted in an oven. "It took me nine days to eat her entire body," he wrote, before adding what he imagined to be some kind of palliative: "She died a virgin."

Fish had made no attempt to deny that he was either the author of the letter or the person who had killed Grace Budd. But was he legally insane?

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940