Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arthur Shawcross, the Genessee River Strangler

Shawcross Revisited

Arthur Shawcross in prison
Arthur Shawcross in prison
Despite the fact that Shawcross was convicted and much of his story taken by the jury with a rather large grain of salt, his reputation for certain claims he made lives on.  In Cannibal: The Real Hannibal Lecters, a 2003 HBO documentary, British reporter Katherine English chose Shawcross as one of her three subjects.  He agreed to an interview, although he was rather scornful of her attempts to get him to describe morbid acts (her perception is that he took great delight in it). 

She starts her interview at Sullivan Correctional Facility with him by saying he claimed to have eaten the genitalia of three of his victims.  (She does not say how these tales evolved under the influence of many therapists.)  While one vagina had been cut out (she says, repeating the inaccurate reporting), there was no evidence of that in any other, nor of his having actually consumed it.  He apparently also had claimed at one point that he'd eaten the genitals of the little boy, Jack Blake, although this is not raised in the documentary.  Nor did anyone find it credible.

English hoped he would explain himself.  He clearly toys with her.  Like Lewis, English accepts the stories of abuse that he told, but he says he does not wish to talk about certain things with a woman.  He does admit that he tracked two Vietcong women through the jungle.  He grabbed them, tied one up, and cut the other up to cook over a fire and eat.  "I took the right leg of that woman's body, from the knee to the hip…took the fat off…" and ate it while he stared at the other girl.  "When I bit into it…she just urinated right there."

English asks him what it tasted like, and he said, "When was the last time you had nice roast pork?"  (This had become his favorite description of human flesh, and he'd told this story endlessly to others, who eventually doubted it.)

"Why did you eat it?" English asked.

"I have no idea," he tells her with a smirk.

"Were you hungry?"


She urges him to talk about cannibalizing his prostitute victims.  He again says, "That's hard to talk about, lady."  (It wasn't so hard with therapists, both male and female, who were providing an insanity defense.)  He says he cut parts off, finally mentioning "the vagina" and that he "consumed that."

Were they symbolic? She wonders.

"I thought I was killing my mother.  The things I was eating, I thought it was my  mother."

English ends her encounter with him by saying that she was uncomfortable when he took delight in telling her what her flesh would taste like, but she does not actually show him saying this.  A common reporter's trick is to fill in lines they had hoped their subject would say but did not.  In other words, they have an agenda to fulfill, and if they must, will put the words in someone's mouth.  One leaves this piece with the impression that English was disappointed and decided to add something to make it more substantive than it actually was. 

All Shawcross gave up in this interview were tales already dismissed as probably false and an admission that any psychiatrist could have fed to him about his mother.  He does not come across like the cannibal she interviews after him, Issai Sagawa, who really did explore the taste of human flesh.  Even Dorothy Lewis, the psychiatrist who was ready to believe most of what he told her, did not believe these descriptions. With no corroborating evidence to back up his recollections, it's difficult to include him on the list of notorious "cannibal killers."

Nevertheless, he is a serial killer of some renown, and clearly an interesting study for those who want to understand the roots of violence and who can patiently plow through the shifting variety of stories the man has told over the years.

In a handwritten report in 1990, Shawcross says, "I should be castrated or have an electrode placed in my head to stop my stupidness or whatever.  I just a lost soul looking for release of my madness."

Arthur Shawcross went into cardiac arrest on November 10th, 2008, at the Albany Medical Center and died there at 9:50 p.m.

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