Reviewed by Annalee Newitz
With the essay Angel Killer, science historian Deborah Blum (a DTU editor) takes us into the disturbing world of Albert Fish, a serial killer who raped, murdered and ate perhaps dozens of children in New York City during the 1920s. But this essay is more than an elegant true crime story of atrocious transgression and dogged detection. It exposes the origins of a clash between the scientific and religious approaches to punishment, by reminding us of the most important aspect of the Fish case. Generally, the "Gray Man," as he was nicknamed, is remembered for his ghoulish crimes against children -- and himself, as he was fond of driving needles into his groin. In Angel Killer, however, Blum makes the case that his trial is what should go down in history. It was the first high-profile trial where psychologists argued that a murderer should not get the death penalty for reasons of insanity.
Though we hear the phrase "not guilty by reason of insanity" a lot in fiction, Blum points out that in reality it is not generally a successful plea. Even today, very few criminals are found to be insane, even when they've done things that are as beyond the pale as Fish's cannibalistic rituals. By retelling the story of Fish and the society that condemned him to death, Blum is able to explore one of the areas where scientific reason is most often swept aside for an Old Testament notion of "eye for an eye" justice. Though judges, juries, and even psychologists knew that a child killer like Fish was in fact insane and therefore unable to distinguish between right and wrong, they could not bring themselves to treat him the way psychology would demand. Instead of offering him treatment, Fish's peers resorted to an ancient and ultimately superstitious notion that he was simply evil and therefore should be struck down by the state for his acts.
Though we can see the war between scientific and religious ideas of transgression slowly building throughout Blum's essay, she never beats the reader over the head with socio-political analysis. Instead, she allows the story to speak for itself. One of the most intriguing characters to emerge, other than the mysterious Fish, is the psychologist who worked most on the killer's case. That was the young Fredric Wertham, who became famous in the 1950s for arguing that violent and sexual images in comics were inspiring juvenile delinquency in his book The Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham, who worked with many of New York's poorest populations, was eager to take on Fish's case because he was all too familiar with how little attention was usually paid to the sorts of working class and impoverished families who had lost their children to Fish's knife.
Wertham was also oddly sympathetic to Fish. After hours of interviews with the jailed killer, Wertham became convinced that Fish was absolutely insane. Aside from his known crimes, Fish also spoke to angels, mutilated himself, and had religious delusions about becoming a god. He'd even been committed to asylums a couple of times, once by his own daughter. Wertham wanted to find out how such a man could have been in and out of mental institutions without anyone ever noticing that he was violently unstable. In court, Wertham argued that Fish could not have understood that his crimes were wrong, and that he deserved life in a mental institution rather than the electric chair.
What emerges from Blum's tale of Wertham's court battle is a profound sense of our struggle as a culture to deal scientifically with mental illness. Most people fundamentally believe that criminals like Fish are "bad" and "evil" and should therefore be killed. Psychologists today still fight to convince juries and the public that some criminals have damaged minds, shaped by horrific circumstances. Fish's story, which begins with his abusive childhood in an orphanage, is a classic tale of a troubled person who was neglected and mistreated by the very institutions that were supposed to aid him. Even the psychologists who saw him as an adult, and knew about his profound delusions, released him onto the street because he was "sane enough." Instead of recovering, Fish only sank more deeply into madness.
Blum's essay is available via the Atavist app, whose enhancements make the experience of reading almost cinematic. The story begins with a haunting 1920s-era film of Staten Island ferries docking in downtown Manhattan, set to period music. Maps of the crime scenes walk us through the early twentieth century streets of New York City like we were cops on the beat. And Blum treats us to snapshots of the screaming headlines about Fish's murders and trial, which help us understand how his crimes were depicted at the time. At one point, we have the opportunity to pull up a creepy letter that Fish sent to the mother of one of his victims (complete with a warning that it may be too graphic for some readers). The multimedia extras never feel extraneous, and aid enormously with the historical scene-setting required here.
Ultimately Angel Killer is not a story of crime -- it is a story of how we understand crime. More than that, it is about how science has the opportunity to change profoundly the way we treat both criminals and the mentally ill. The tragedy is that when it comes to human atrocity, science often fails to persuade us and superstition takes over. Albert Fish was killed in the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1936.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, and the author of the forthcoming book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive the Next Mass Extinction.