Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil to Live, Part II

Dannemora — The Hell Hole

American prisons during the early part of the 20th century were horrifying places to spend even a little time. Conditions at some institutions were worse than bad. They were barbaric. Places like Sing-Sing in New York, Florida's infamous torture camps and Georgia's chain gangs exemplified the widespread abuse in America's prisons. There was no national, unified standard on how to treat, rehabilitate or care for convicts. The concept of punishment and deterrence, though unproven and rarely studied, was widely accepted in the penal system. Most times, it was left up to the wardens to formulate and carry out a workable policy of conduct toward convicts. In some jails, this could be a good thing. In others, it could be very bad. Prisons were the autonomous kingdoms of the wardens, who frequently resorted to beatings, whippings, solitary confinement and even torture to control their prison populations. Such a place was Upstate New York's Clinton Prison, better known as Dannemora, the hell hole, the place of no-return and America's most brutal, repressive prison institution.

Carl Panzram at Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, NY 1923
Carl Panzram at Clinton
State Prison in Danne-
mora, NY 1923 (photo
courtesy New York
State Archives)

Panzram was taken to Dannemora, just 10 miles from the Canadian border, in October 1923. Like in many other prisons of its time, the guards carried steel-tipped canes that were used to prod and sometimes beat the convicts into submission. Panzram was stripped naked, and whatever possessions he had were confiscated. There was no talking back to these guards and no disrespect from convicts was tolerated. The staff at Dannemora was unique. Many of the guards were related due to several generations of prison employees, mostly French-Canadians, who were raised and still lived in the surrounding area. As a result, their methods of supervision and attitudes toward the convicts were passed on to each successive generation and perpetuated by decades of repression and abuse. Life was brutally hard for the inmates, who worked under the crushing yoke of successive generations of guards. In their view, inmates were animals who deserved the harshest treatment. Many of the prisoners suffered mental breakdowns. And those who did were simply carted across the courtyard and dumped into the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, whose corridors were filled with deranged, forgotten inmates, lost in a sea of bureaucracy and appalling neglect. It was the last stop before hell.

North yard of Clinton Prison, NY
North yard of Clinton Prison, NY

Within a few weeks, Panzram devised a firebomb to burn down the workshops. But some of the guards found the device and dismantled it. Later, he tried to kill one of the guards by attacking him as he slept in a chair. "I hit him on the back of the head with a 10 pound club," he said later, "It didn't kill him but he was good and sick and he left me alone after that." The work was long, hard and very tedious. The food was greasy slop, unfit for animal consumption. Panzram made his first attempt at escape within a few months. He climbed one of the prison walls and immediately fell 30 feet below onto a concrete step. He broke both legs and ankles. His spine was also badly injured. He received no medical attention for his injuries. He was carried into a cell and dropped on the floor.

"I was dumped into a cell without any medical attention or surgical attention whatever. My broken bones were not set. My ankles and legs were not put into a cast...The doctor never came near me and no one else was allowed to do anything for me...At the end of 14 months of constant agony, I was taken to the hospital where I was operated on for my rupture and one of my testicles were cut out." But still, he did not change his ways. Shortly after his operation, Panzram was caught committing sodomy on another inmate. He was thrown into solitary where he was virtually ignored by prison staff:"I suffered more agony for many months. Always in pain, never a civil answer from anyone, always a snarl or a curse or a lying, hypocritical promise which was never kept. Crawling around like a snake with a broken back, seething with hatred and a lust for revenge, five years of this kind of life. The last two years and four months confined in isolation with nothing to do except brood...I hated everybody I saw."

He began to make elaborate plans on how to kill as many people as he could. He wanted to blow up a railroad tunnel while a train was passing through and send poison gas into the wreck. He wanted to dynamite a bridge in New York and then rob the dead and injured as they lay dying on the ground. The Panama Canal would suffer the same fate if Panzram had his way. But his most elaborate plan, and the one he was sure would kill the most people, was his plot to poison the water supply and kill everyone in the Village of Dannemora. "I finally thought of a way to kill off the whole town: men, women, children, and even the cats and dogs," he wrote later. He wanted to drop a large quantity of arsenic into a stream that fed into a reservoir.

In July 1928, after serving five long, hard years, Panzram was discharged from Dannemora. Permanently crippled by lack of medical attention and lost in the depths of madness, he was sent out into an unsuspecting world again.

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