Hamilton Fish, in 1870, America’s most notorious 20th century cannibal was the product of a respected family living in Washington, D.C. A closer examination, however, reveals at least seven relatives with sever mental disorders in the two generations preceding Fish’s birth, including two members of the family who died in institutions. One suffered from religious mania; one brother was fibble-minded and another alcoholic.
His father died when Fish was five years old, and his mother placed him in an orphanage while she worked to support herself. Records describe young Fish as a problem child who “ran away every Saturday,” persistently wetting the bed until his eleventh year. During his stay at the orphanage, Fish observed and experienced numerous acts of perversions including forced masturbation in front of other children and brutal beatings. Albert would become sexually aroused by these acts, which helped to further his obsession with sado-masochism. Fish would later say, “That place ruined my mind.” Finally, at age 7, Fish was reunited with his mother. Shortly thereafter, he fell from a cherry tree causing severe head trauma causing him dizzy spells and severe headaches. After graduating from high school, Fish started working odd jobs and traveling around the country. This gave him perfect opportunity to commit crimes. He also began calling himself “Albert,” discarding the hated first name, which led classmates to tease him, calling him “Ham and Eggs.”
At twenty-eight, Fish was making an irregular living as a housepainter and handyman. He married a nineteen-year-old woman who would eventually abandon him for another man – John Straube, She came back once, with him in tow, and Fish took her back on the condition that she send her lover away. Later, he discovered that his wife was keeping Straube in the attic, and she departed after a stormy argument, never to return, leaving Fish to care for their six children. He was an affectionate father and grandfather. At the same time, he admitted to other feelings toward children. As he grew older, he became increasingly possessed by what he described as a “lust for their blood.”
Soon after, Fish began to behave very strangely. He took his family up to their summer home, Wisteria Cottage, in Westchester County, New York for outings and they would watch, terrified, as he climbed a nearby hill, shook his fist at the sky and repeatedly screamed, “I am Christ!”. Pain seemed to delight him. Whether inflicting it on himself or others, he took strange pleasure in being whipped and paddled. He encouraged his own and neighbor children to paddle his buttocks until they bled, often using a paddle that was studded with inch-and-a-half nails. He also inserted a large number of needles into his body, mostly in the genital region, and burned himself constantly with hot irons and pokers. On night of the full moon, his children later testified, Fish would consume huge quantities of raw meat. Over the years, he collected a great amount of published material on cannibalism and he carried the most gruesome articles with him on his person at all times. Before he ever turned to murder, Fish was examined several times by psychiatrists at Bellevue but he was always released and judged “disturbed but sane.”
After that, Fish’s personality steadily deteriorated while his behavior became increasingly bizarre, and finally murderous.