History

An Army veteran robbed President Taft’s house as revenge for a military punishment

In September 1920, Carl Panzram finally caught up to Taft. He broke into Taft’s mansion, stealing jewelry, bonds, and his M1911 pistol.
president taft panzram
President Taft (left). 1915 mugshot of Carl Panzram (alias at the time Jeff Baldwin) at the Oregon State Penitentiary (right).

Carl Panzram had always been “a bad egg,” as he put it. Born in 1891, he grew up on a farm in Minnesota where his parents would force him and his six siblings to work the farm through the night. Abused and starved, all the kids fled. He was first arrested at age 8 for being drunk and disorderly. Things did not get better from there.

As a youth, he was arrested for drunkenness and theft a number of times and was often sent to any number of reform schools, even attempting to burn one of them down. He ran away from home and the law at 14, but things didn’t get easier for the young man. Life on the lam back then meant he took the occasional beating and was often raped by homeless men.

Panzram made his way about the country, still getting into trouble with the law for theft and public intoxication. After a night of drinking, he accidentally enlisted in the U.S. Army. Sent to Montana’s Fort William Henry Harrison in 1907, he didn’t exactly excel at being a soldier, either. He was insubordinate and refused to follow orders. After stealing $80 worth of Army supplies (more than $2,400 in today’s dollars), he was arrested.

His sentence was a two-year stint in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Keep in mind, this wasn’t the Leavenworth prison we all know today. This was a nearly medieval place, where prisoners did hard time, hard labor, and heard other prisoners get executed by hanging. William Howard Taft, then the Secretary of War, personally approved Panzram’s sentence.

Carl Panzram would never forget or forgive President Taft. He would later say that any shred of goodness left in him when he was sentenced to Leavenworth was gone by the time he got out. He left the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks with a dishonorable discharge and was a large, muscular and evil man, by his own admission.

thief of president taft
Mugshot of serial killer Carl Panzram taken in Washington, DC, September 2, 1928.

Once freed, he again became a career criminal, but this time his crimes were much more than stealing apples. He called himself “rage personified” and began stealing anything he wanted. When he robbed men, he would usually use his newfound strength to rape them, too. All across America, he robbed people, was arrested, imprisoned under an assumed name, released, and free to repeat the cycle.

In September 1920, he finally caught up to President Taft, who had served as President of the United States between 1909 and 1913. He broke into Taft’s mansion in New Haven, Connecticut, stealing jewelry, bonds, and his M1911 pistol. He used the money from the theft to buy a yacht, and then went on an eight-year international killing spree.

He would get sailors drunk in New York City, take them to his boat and beat them before raping, robbing, and murdering them with Taft’s gun. Even after he sank his yacht, he continued his spree that even extended into Africa. Most of his worst criminal exploits are too terrible even to write here. It was only after a botched robbery in Washington, DC, that Panzram was finally caught – and none too soon. He was planning some kind of mass killing.

When they realized who he was and all he’d done, Panzram began confessing to a litany of unsolved murders, many of which authorities were able to confirm. He was sentenced to 25 years to life and sent to the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Within a year of his sentence, Panzram killed a fellow inmate and was sentenced to death.

He refused any help from anti-death penalty crusaders, saying, “The only thanks you and your kind will ever get from me for your efforts on my behalf is that I wish you all had one neck and that I had my hands on it.”

While on death row, he wrote an autobiography of his crimes, admitting to 21 murders and more than a thousand rapes, along with untold smaller crimes. He also said he had no remorse about any of them. Panzram was hanged on Sept. 5, 1930.