Born Charles Panzram in Minnesota, the son of Prussian immigrants, Johann "John" and Matilda Panzram, he was raised on his family's farm. By his teens, he was an alcoholic and was repeatedly in trouble with the authorities, often for burglary and theft. He ran away from home at the age of 14 and claimed to have been gang-raped by a pack of hobos.
In adulthood, Panzram was a prolific thief and was caught and imprisoned multiple times. While incarcerated, Panzram frequently got into trouble by attacking guards and refusing to follow their orders. The guards retaliated, subjecting him to beatings and other punishments. Panzram served a jail sentence from 1908 to 1910 at Fort Leavenworth's United States Disciplinary Barracks for larceny shortly after enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1907. William Howard Taft, the future president, was then Secretary of War approved the sentence. In August 1920, Panzram burgled Taft's New Haven home, stealing a large amount of jewelry and bonds, as well as Taft's Colt M1911 .45 caliber handgun, which Panzram then used in several murders.
In his autobiography, Panzram wrote that he was "rage personified", and he would often rape men whom he robbed, not necessarily because he was homosexual, but because it was his method of dominating and humiliating people. He was noted as having extreme physical strength, which aided him in overpowering most men he encountered. He also engaged in vandalism and arson, at one point considering an ambitious plot to scuttle a British warship docked in New York harbor in order to provoke a war between Britain and the United States.
By his own admission, one of the few times he did not engage in criminal activities was when he was "employed" as a strikebreaker against union employees. On another occasion, he tried to sign aboard as a ship's steward on a US Army Transport vessel but was discharged when he reported working intoxicated. He served time in prisons in California; Texas; Idaho; Montana (#3194); Oregon (#7390); Connecticut; New York's Sing Sing (#75182); Clinton Correctional Facility New York; Washington D.C. (#33379); and Leavenworth, Kansas (#31614).
On June 1, 1915, Panzram burgled a house in Astoria, Oregon and was arrested soon after while attempting to sell some of the stolen items. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, to be served at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, where he arrived on June 24. On arrival, he became inmate number 7390 and was under the supervision of warden Harry Minto, who believed in harsh treatment of inmates, which included beatings and isolation among other disciplinary measures. Later, Panzram stated that he swore he "would never do that seven years and I defied the warden and all his officers to make me."
Panzram was disciplined several times while incarcerated, including 61 days in solitary confinement, before escaping on September 18, 1917. Earlier, he helped Otto Hooker escape from the prison, and Hooker killed Minto while evading capture. As a fugitive, Panzram was involved in two shootouts before being returned to the prison. On May 12, 1918, he sawed through the prison bars and escaped again. This time, he avoided capture and caught a freight train heading east. He changed his name to John O’Leary and shaved off his moustache. He would never return to the Northwest.
In 1920, Panzram committed his first murders. He lured sailors in New York away from bars, got them drunk, raped and shot them with a Colt .45 pistol, and dumped their remains into the river. He claimed to have killed ten in all. He was stopped only when the vessel he was in was shipwrecked near Atlantic City, New Jersey; his last two potential victims escaped to parts unknown. Panzram then went to Luanda, Angola, where he claims to have raped and killed an 11- or 12-year-old boy. In his confession to this murder, he wrote: "His brains were coming out of his ears when I left him and he will never be any deader." He also claimed that he hired a rowing boat, shot the rowers and threw their bodies to the crocodiles.
Back in America, Panzram claimed he shot a man dead for trying to rob him. He also asserted that he raped and killed two small boys, beating one to death with a rock on July 18, 1922 in Salem, Massachusetts and strangling the other later that year in New Haven, Connecticut. After his last arrest in 1928, he claimed to have committed a murder while burglarizing homes between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and two murders in Philadelphia in 1923 and 1928. Four of these last six killings were confirmed. With the death of the Oregon prison warden, Panzram was involved in at least one murder, as an accessory before the fact, prior to 1920.
Imprisonment and confession
In 1928, Panzram was arrested for burglary and held in Washington, D.C. During his interrogation and jail time, he voluntarily confessed to killing two boys. At this time, he was befriended by a young prison guard named Henry Lesser (1902–1983). Lesser gave Panzram some writing materials which the prisoner used to write his autobiography, detailing his crimes and his nihilistic philosophy:
" In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and, last but not least, I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry."
In light of his extensive criminal record, he was handed a 25-year sentence which was to be served at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. "I'll kill the first man that bothers me," Panzram told the warden; on June 20, 1929 he killed Robert Warnke, foreman of the prison laundry in Leavenworth, battering him to death with an iron bar. Panzram was sentenced to death. He refused to appeal, even threatening to kill human rights groups that attempted to appeal on his behalf.
Panzram was hanged on September 5, 1930. When they put the noose around his neck, he allegedly spat in his executioner's face and declared, "I wish the entire human race had one neck, and I had my hands around it!" When asked by the executioner if he had any last words, Panzram barked, "Yes, hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could kill ten men while you're fooling around!"
Henry Lesser pressed for the manuscript to be published for forty years, and it finally was released in 1970 as Killer: A Journal of Murder. It has gone through a number of reprints, the latest being in 2002. The 1996 movie Killer: A Journal Of Murder was based on Panzram's final years, with James Woods as Panzram and Robert Sean Leonard as Lesser. Lesser donated the Carl Panzram papers (archival material) to the San Diego State University in 1980.