Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil To Live, Part I

The Odyssey Begins

At the age of 14, Panzram was relegated to working the fields on his mother's farm. Envisioning a dismal future of backbreaking labor with no reward, he convinced his mother to send him to another school. There, he soon became involved in a dispute with a teacher who beat him on several occasions with a whip. Carl managed to get a handgun and brought it to school so he could kill the teacher in front of the class. But the plot failed when, during a hand-to-hand struggle, the weapon fell out of his pants and onto the floor of the classroom. He was thrown out of school and returned to the farm. Two weeks later, he hopped a freight train and left the Minnesota farm forever.

For the next few years, Carl wandered across the Midwest, sleeping in freight cars, riding under the trains and running from the railroad cops, who in many cases were more dangerous than the outlaws. He begged for food and stole it whenever he could. He became part of the vast, mobile culture of hobos and beggars who populated America's rails during that era. These were the prewar years, a time of craziness, frantic activity and sweeping social change. It was a period of expansion in the United States, a rising financial boom that would come to an abrupt end with the stock market collapse of Black Tuesday in 1929. Later would come a time of lawlessness, inspired by the experiment of the National Prohibition Act of 1919, which created an almost universal disrespect for authority. Everywhere, it seemed, criminals were at work. The rails were no exception.

Shortly after he left Minnesota, Carl rode a freight train heading west out of Montana. He came upon four men who were camping in a lumber car. They said they could buy him nice clothes and give him a warm place to sleep. "But first they wanted me to do a little something for them," Panzram wrote years later. He was gang-raped by all four men. "I cried, begged and pleaded for mercy, pity and sympathy, but nothing I could say or do could sway them from their purpose!"

He escaped with his life but the incident may have destroyed whatever feelings of compassion he had left. A short time later, Panzram got locked up in Butte, Montana, for burglary and received a sentence of one year in the Montana State Reform School at Miles City.

In the spring of 1906 Carl Panzram, age 14, arrived at the reform institution. He had the body of a man and weighed nearly 180 pounds. In a few weeks, he developed a reputation as a born criminal and the prison staff paid special attention to the defiant teenager. One guard made it his business to make life miserable for Panzram. "He kept on nagging at me until finally I decided to murder him," he later wrote. He found a heavy wood plank outside one of the workshops and, one night when the guard turned his back, Panzram bludgeoned the man over the top of his head.

"For this I got several beatings and was locked up and watched closer than before," he said years later. He had enough with prison life and decided to break out, even if it meant his own death.

In 1907, Panzram and another inmate, Jimmie Benson, escaped from the Montana State Reform School. They managed to steal several handguns in a nearby town and headed toward the town of Terry. "I stayed with him for about a month, hoboing our way east, stealing and burning everything we could," Panzram wrote. "I taught him how to set fire to a church after we robbed it. We got very busy on that, robbing and burning a church regular every chance we got." Throughout his life, everywhere he went, Panzram burglarized and burned churches, one of his favorite crimes.

Churches held a special significance in the mind of Carl Panzram, ever since he learned to hate Christianity while at Red Wing. "Naturally, I now love Jesus very much, " he said, "Yes, I love him so damn much that I would like to crucify him all over again!"

Benson and Panzram traveled along the road to the state line, passing through the towns of Glendive, Crane and Sidney, robbing people and homes along the way. When they finally arrived in western Minnesota, they were armed with two handguns each and hundreds of dollars in stolen money. They decided to split up in the city of Fargo and go their separate ways. Panzram, who had changed his name to Jefferson Baldwin, eventually drifted west, back across the state and into the vast plains of North Dakota.

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