‘There is nothing to history. No progress, no justice. There is nothing but random horror.’
–The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Carl Panzram is one of the worst human beings ever to have lived.
If I were asked to name the face of evil, probably I’d say something like Adolf Hitler or if I were feeling more clever, Joseph Stalin or someone else universally considered a despicable human being who was responsible for the deaths of millions or tens of millions of people.
Panzram only claims to have killed 21 people, in addition to the countless burglaries, robberies, assaults, arsons, and rapes his life contained. He had no real redeeming qualities, skills, or hobbies. Panzram seems not to have had a good side left to him by the time he was even approaching adulthood.
He was abused as a child, by his older siblings for being the youngest. By his mother for his alcoholic father running off on the family and Carl inheriting too many traits of the hated man. She sent him to a religious reformatory school to change the direction of his life, and instead all he learned was that religious people were sadistic and hypocritical, and that whoever has power defines justice and rightness.
Getting whiskey-drugged and raped on a railroad boxcar by a group of hobos reinforced this idea, and so, after being abused by his family, his authority figures, and the dregs of society, too, Panzram decided upon being the most evil son-of-a-bitch he possibly could.
Each stint in an increasingly brutal state or federal prison only steeled his resolve to this effect further, convincing him that when he was free and had opportunity, he would subject society to the same sort of things it subjected prisoners to. Why reform when reform would be an admission of defeat, and while reformation would benefit only those whom you despised?
The book takes the memoir Panzram wrote detailing his life, upbringing, and literal crimes against humanity, then places them in historical context and under the scrutiny of other records. The commentary shares the general outlook of Panzram that had the unformed, child-self not been brutalized as an attempted corrective, maybe he wouldn’t have turned out so terribly brutal himself. And yet the editorializing authors do so most effectively in subtlest ways, such as a lengthy footnote detailing just why steel-tipped canes could be deadly-harmful despite their intent as a humane, non-lethal way to limit violence among prisoners.
Panzram writes plainly, competently, and confidently while describing the horrible things that happened to him and that he caused to happen on others. And yet even after chronicling why he is an utterly worthless creature, his joyless rapes of child prostitutes, his sodomy and murder of boys and men who cross his path or have possessions worthy stealing, somehow he can rise to the stature of a heroic figure entirely due to the all-consuming manner of his hatred and the detestable behavior of the structures of the society he lives in.
Panzram does awful things because he is an flawed individual, and his immoral decisions are an accepted part of the human condition. He should be caught, he should be restrained, and he should be punished, but he is an expected result of billions of people living and choosing freely.
What is intolerable is a society that with torture punishes children who are delinquents; that a culture outside of civilized society almost would institutionalize gangrape and forced sodomy on children; that adults who made decisions in hot-blooded moments could have a consensus of sober retribution enacted upon them that involved their near-murder and being left to die in unfit hospital wards. It isn’t surprising a sadist should like to watch another person suffer, but that a structure supposedly composed of sane people should like the same is beyond worrisome.
Carl Panzram may be the worst person to ever have lived, but he redeems himself not through his capacity for love as if a Messiah; rather, he includes himself — the person he knows best — in his misanthropy and secular damnation. And, like A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex DeLarge, his particular brand of individual, conscious evil seems heroic — at least when contrasted with the bureaucratic, inhuman evil visited upon all sorts of people who either were not especially bad, or anyway not rich enough or connected enough to avoid the man-crushing torment of ‘prison reform’ that attempted domination of the person, mind, body, soul.
Panzram made the world a meaner placer than it would have been otherwise, and contributed more suffering than happiness to those who shared life near him. Everyone would have been happier if he’d hanged with an umbilical cord around his neck in 1891 instead of a noose in 1930.
Still, about 100 years on, the perspective and insights he has on the nature of punishment, pain, and outcomes remain relevant. Humanity would be a less rich place without his memories even though every human’s life would be richer if he’d never have lived.
If I have a reason for optimism, and rarely do I, it’s that for all of the betrayal, anger, malice, and spite Panzram had, all it took was one prison guard treating him honestly and with the barest minimum decency for it to throw Panzram totally off. Candles don’t have to spread much light to send away the darkness.
In the face of a life time and near-universal experience of violence and power ruling all relationships, Panzram got to experience one where that was no the case, and spent the rest of his life conversing with the person who’d become his only friend. That’s powerful stuff, and makes you want to create a more just and verdant world in the systems you have to inhabit, as well as your personal life.
The quote at the start of this article comes from an alternate history novel wherein British aristocrats have fled steam-computer bourgeoisie to the Confederate United States and adopted a self-serving strain of Marxism. An ex-pat Marquis has just preached the inevitability of history and in rebuttal, his slave gives that quote.
I like it. A view of history’s progress depends on what people like yourself have experienced, especially recently, and it’s the sort of thing Panzram might have said but certainly would have agreed with. And still, we do have a capacity for improvement as a species where violence is not an accepted resolution to a dispute; reasoning and common ideas of justice can exceed bribery or narrow selfishness. People can raise their children without beating the hell out of them, or beating their spouse, or trying to kill someone else over an aspect of honor.
It’s progress that less people die today from preventable reasons than ever before, and there are less wars or conflicts, and domestic violence and abuse is ever-more unacceptable and likely to be punished. It’s not perfect or enough or happening quickly enough, but incrementally and we hope inexorably, it is happening.
If Panzram were born today, it’s possible he might follow the same path and end up a hollowed-out professional criminal, but the path should be considerably narrower, and include many more escape chutes. He might still end up a disagreeable, nasty person, but he might also find a person he could love and devote himself to, or just live a boring, otherwise solitary life with a loyal dog and a Netflix account.