Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil to Live, Part II


Panzram at Leavenworth in 1929 (Courtesy Bureau of Prisons)
Panzram at Leavenworth in 1929
(Courtesy Bureau of Prisons)

On the day he arrived at Leavenworth, February 1, 1929, Panzram was brought in to see Warden T. B. White. Bound in chains, his bulging muscles apparent even under his prison shirt, Panzram was still an impressive physical specimen. He had a brooding presence; an aura of evil that warned people to stay away from him. As the warden read him the rules of the institution, Panzram stood quietly in front of the desk with an attitude of indifference. When the warden finished, the prisoner looked him squarely in the eye and said, "I'll kill the first man that bothers me." The warden called for the guards and had Panzram, inmate #31614, removed to his cell.

Panzram was considered too psychotic to mix with the general prison population. In a handwritten letter to the warden dated March 26, 1929, Panzram asked for a different work detail and wrote: "I want that job because I am doing a long time and I am an old crank and I want to be by myself. I am a cripple and the job I have now I don't like, standing on my broken ankles bothers me. I am very truly, Carl Panzram #31614".

He was assigned to the laundry room where he could work all day alone, sorting and washing inmate clothes. There he could withdraw into himself and have little contact with humans. His supervisor was Robert Warnke, a small, balding man who was notorious for writing up prisoners for minor infractions. Transgressions against the rules were a serious matter at Leavenworth. Punishment included solitary, revocation of concession and library privileges and sometimes torture. Warnke, a civilian employee, and therefore not under the same pressures as the inmates, used his supervisory position to wield power. From the beginning, Panzram had trouble with Warnke. On several occasions, Panzram was written up for infractions, which caused him to be sent to solitary for a time. When he was last released from the hole, Panzram told other prisoners to stay away from Warnke because he was going to die soon. When he next wrote his friend Lesser, he said a new job was in the works. "I am getting all set for a change," he wrote. "It won't be long now."

On June 20, 1929, Panzram was working in the laundry at his usual detail. Leaning against the door was a four-foot long iron bar used as a support for the wooden transport crates. Without a word, he picked up the heavy bar and approached Warnke, who was preparing paperwork. Panzram raised the bar high over his broad shoulders and brought it down squarely on the man's head. Warnke's skull broke instantly. "Here's another one for you, you son of a bitch!" he screamed. As the victim fell to the ground, Panzram smashed the bar continuously on the man's head sending blood and bone matter all over the room. There were other inmates in the laundry that day, and they stood back and watched in horror as Panzram beat Warnke. The men tried to escape, but Panzram decided that since he killed one man, he should kill the others as well. He attacked one of the inmates in the corner of the room and managed to break the man's arm before he could run away. The other inmates tried desperately to get out of the room but the doors were locked. All the men began to scream for help as Panzram chased them around the room, shouting, cursing, swinging the huge iron bar, smashing bones, desks, lights, breaking up the furniture into pieces and sending the terrified inmates crawling up the walls to get away from the raging madman.

A general alarm sounded in the prison and dozens of guards armed with submachine guns and high-powered rifles came running to the laundry. The guards looked through the bars into the room and saw the maniacal Panzram, holding the 20-pound steel bar like a baseball bat, his clothes shredded and covered from head to toe with fresh blood.

"I just killed Warnke," he said to the guards calmly. "Let me in!" They refused until he dropped the bar. "Oh," he said oddly, "I guess this is my lucky day!" The bar fell noisily to the ground and the guards carefully opened the door. Panzram walked quietly to his cell without saying a word and sat down on his bunk.

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