Autodidact: self-taught


Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

by V. L. Craven

Carl Panzram documentary


Carl Panzram  was arrested for murder and confessed to an impressive number of crimes including thousands of robberies, larcenies, arson, 22 murders and over 1,000 instances of sodomy on males. This was in 1928, when that level of depravity was simply unheard of. How could anyone be that evil?

This documentary is partially about Panzram himself, but it’s largely about the penal system, and its failings. Panzram got his start with the U.S. justice system very early on when he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School when he was twelve, where beatings to the point of bruises and blood were the rule of the day. He ran away on more than one occasion and was always punished with much vigour upon being caught.

Several experts weighed in–one of whom was Katherine Ramsland , a professor of forensics psychology. She pointed out that often serial killers will blame their behaviour on other people–Panzram blamed his poor treatment by his parents. Ramsland points out Panzram had several siblings who all turned out all right, intimating that their childhood could not have been so bad. Perhaps she wasn’t taking into account his brain trauma, which is a key part of the triumvirate of causes of sociopathy. (The other two being extreme abuse and mental illness.) Or that he was severely beaten and humiliated at school, which his siblings weren’t? Or that the siblings of serial killers don’t generally turn out to be serial killers themselves.

One of the other people consulted was artist¬† Joe Coleman , who is something of an expert on the man, having done an intricate painting about his life. Coleman’s pieces are always painted with a paintbrush with one hair. His contribution to the film was a highlight.

Panzram by Joe Coleman

A large portion of the documentary is about Panzram’s memoirs, which were written with the help of a guard in one particular prison. The guard brought pencils and paper and would take them away again once he had filled the pages. If either had been found out they both would had been in trouble. One more than the other, though, obviously.

One of the most striking (and disheartening) features is how little the penal system has changed in the decades since his imprisonment and death. People are put into a dehumanizing system and are then expected to behave like model citizens. Panzram’s thoughts on this are particularly eloquent.

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance was an interesting enough documentary about one of the U.S.’s first well-known and most brutal serial killers and the way the criminal justice system has (not) changed. I’d rate it 7/10.

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