Authors: Robert Keller
Confessions of a
The Shocking True Story Of
Depraved Child Killer Albert Fish
Copyright © 2015
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be copied or reproduced in any format, electronic or otherwise, without the prior, written consent of the copyright holder and publisher. This book is for informational and entertainment purposes only and the author and publisher will not be held responsible for the misuse of information contain herein, whether deliberate or incidental.
Much research, from a variety of sources, has gone into the compilation of this material. To the best knowledge of the author and publisher, the material contained herein is factually correct. Neither the publisher, nor author will be held responsible for any inaccuracies.
Monday, July 14, 1924 was a hot summer’s day in Staten Island. In the Port Richmond area of the borough, Anna McDonnell, wife of a New York City police officer, sat on the porch of her house enjoying the early afternoon sunshine with her children, eight-year-old Francis, Albert, 5, and Annabelle, just one-month-old and sleeping contentedly against her mother’s breast. Staten Island in those days was a fairly isolated place, and the street where the McDonnell family lived, particularly so. Strangers stood out, so when the old man shuffled into view Mrs. McDonnell immediately noticed him.
He was a peculiar sight, slight of build and perhaps five and a half feet tall. His clothes were shabby, one step removed from those of a vagrant. His gray moustache was unkempt and there was a weekend’s worth of gray stubble on his jowls. When he raised his hat in salutation Mrs. McDonnell noticed that his gray hair was greasy and unkempt. The man appeared to be muttering to himself, clenching and unclenching his hands in an odd nervy gesture. Moments later he had shuffled past, heading (Mrs. McDonnell assumed) for the nearby Charlton’s Woods. She forgot about him the moment he was out of sight.
A couple of hours later, after Mrs. McDonnell had gone inside to feed the baby, Francis and his younger brother Albert were playing with some neighborhood boys at the edge of the woods. The boys were tossing a ball between them when the old man suddenly reappeared at the edge of the tree line. For a short while, he stood watching the children, his gaze darting nervously from one to the other. Eventually, his attention zoomed in on Francis and when the boy made eye contact he crooked a finger, beckoning him. As the other children continued their game, Francis walked hesitantly over.
The time was 4:30 p.m. Standing on his porch abutting the woods, a man named George Stern watched Francis and the old man in conversation. Then Francis turned and walked into the woods with the old man close behind. Just before they disappeared from view, the oldster cast a furtive look over his shoulder. Then both he and the boy were gone.
In the modern era, any adult watching this scenario play out would immediately have been suspicious. But this was the 1920s, a more innocent, more trusting time. Stern took no action, assuming, as he’d later testify, that Francis must have known the man to follow him so willingly. It would prove to be a fatal miscalculation.
When Albert McDonnell arrived home, he made no mention of his brother’s whereabouts and his mother didn’t think to question him. It was only when suppertime arrived and Francis had still not appeared, that Mrs. McDonnell asked about Francis and it was only then that Albert told her about the gray-haired old man. Arthur McDonnell had by then arrived home. Still dressed in his police uniform, he immediately went looking for his son. When that search proved fruitless, McDonnell made a call to his colleagues at the local precinct. Soon a massive search had been launched, with police and civilian volunteers scouring the neighborhood for the missing boy, working through the night without success. It would be a trio of Boy Scout volunteers who found Francis the following morning.
The body lay a few hundred yards into the woods, inadequately concealed under a pile of leaves and broken branches. Francis had been severely beaten and then strangled to death with his own suspenders, which had been pulled so tightly around his throat that they’d cut into his flesh and drawn blood. The boy’s shorts and underwear had been violently ripped from his body, leaving him naked from the waist down. This strongly suggested a sexual motive for the crime, something that was later hinted at in the New York dailies but never officially confirmed.
For now though, a feeling of outrage permeated the borough, particularly its policemen, who had seen the son of a brother officer violated and brutally slain. Within hours, fifty officers where at the scene, including the Chief of Detectives and the head of the homicide squad. By the following day, 250 plainclothes officers had been assigned to the case. Albert McDonnell, who was attached to a Manhattan precinct, was transferred temporarily to Staten Island, to participate in the hunt for his son’s killer. Meanwhile, officers were posted near the crime scene to prevent curious onlookers from trampling through the woods and destroying potential evidence.
The investigation soon took on the form of police enquiries the world over, before and since. Detectives and uniformed officers went door-to-door asking questions; potential suspects were brought in and given the third degree; a grid search was carried out in the woods looking for clues. An appeal also went out to the public for information and it wasn’t long before leads began pouring in, all of them useless. It seemed that every child and young woman on Staten Island had recently had a close encounter with a potentially murderous, gray-haired vagrant. Far-fetched as most of these stories were, the police had to check out every one of them.
The autopsy had in the interim revealed the full extent of the beating Francis had suffered prior to death. This cast doubt on the killer being the frail old man that Mrs. McDonnell had seen. How could someone that infirm have carried out such a vicious assault? Perhaps he’d had a younger accomplice, detectives speculated. There was certainly no shortage of suspects.
For a time, two orderlies at the nearby Sea View Hospital headed the suspect list, then it was an escapee from a New Jersey insane asylum, then a group of vagrants said to frequent an area of Charlton’s Woods known as Rattlesnake Nest, then a truck driver with a prior conviction for “impairing the morals of a minor.” There were incidents of mob justice too. A man named John Eskowski, found squatting in the woods, was chased down by an angry mob. He shot himself rather than enduring a lynching at the mob’s hands. It was later determined that Eskowski had been nowhere near Staten Island at the time of the murder.
Ultimately however, despite the very best efforts of the police, the case ground to a standstill. Francis McDonnell was buried at St. Mary’s church on Staten Island and it seemed to all that his killer would escape justice. The gray man had appeared out of nowhere to commit his atrocity. Now he was nowhere to be found.
Billy Gaffney had just turned four. His best friend, Billy Beaton, was younger still, just three years old on the mild, late-winter afternoon when the gray man reappeared. The day was February 11, 1927, a Friday, and the boys were playing in the corridor of the Brooklyn tenement where their families were neighbors. Another boy, 12-year-old Johnny McNiff, came out for a short while and joined in the game. But then his younger sister, who he was babysitting, started crying and he had to go inside to tend to her. When he returned, just a couple of minutes later, the two little boys were gone.
Johnny was perplexed. He’d left the youngsters engrossed in their game. Where could they have disappeared to so suddenly? He was still puzzling over that question, when Billy Beaton’s father, home minding his children while his wife was in the hospital, emerged from his apartment. “Where’s Billy?” Mr. Beaton asked. Johnny said that he didn’t know, that the boys had been there just a moment ago. “Perhaps they went to the Gaffneys?” he offered.
Mr. Beaton tested that theory, but the boys were not at the Gaffneys’ apartment. Alarm growing now, fearful that the toddlers might have wandered down to the busy street below, Beaton dashed down the two flights of stairs to the sidewalk. Neither his son, nor Billy Gaffney, was there. The roof then, perhaps they’d climbed the stairs up to the roof. That thought was scarcely more comforting.
Taking the steps three at a time, Beaton raced towards the upper floors with Johnny close behind him. As they emerged onto the top floor, Beaton spotted his son, standing by the ladder that led up to the roof of the building. He sprinted across the corridor and scooped up the little boy in his arms, a palpable sense of relief washing over him. That was replaced almost immediately by a sense of parental angst. “Where were you?” he demanded of Billy.
“We were on the roof,” the little boy replied, casting his eyes skyward along the extent of the ladder.
Beaton followed his son’s gaze and a jolt of concern ran through him. The trap at the top of the ladder, far too heavy for either of the boys to have lifted, stood open. “Where’s Billy Gaffney?” he asked. “Is he still up there?”
The little boy shook his head.
“Where is he then?” Beaton asked.
“The boogeyman took him,” was Billy’s solemn reply.
By the time police officers arrived at the Gaffneys’ apartment, it was already dark and the Beaton and Gaffney families, along with other neighbors, had searched the building top to bottom looking for the little boy. Their effort had been unsuccessful and the hastily arranged police search fared no better. It was as though Billy had vanished into thin air.
By morning, twenty-five officers had been assigned to the case. Officially, it was being treated as an abduction. But Sergeant Elmer Joseph, heading up the investigation, thought differently. The Gaffneys were dirt poor, with no money to pay a ransom. It was far more likely that Billy had simply wandered off. Hopefully some Good Samaritan would find him wandering the streets and take him to the local precinct. There were fears however, that he might have drifted in the direction of the nearby Gowanas canal, and fallen in. A police scow was dispatched to the canal to discount that awful possibility. Hours of dredging stirred up nothing but sludge and garbage.
Over the weeks that followed, the number of police officers looking for Billy Gaffney was increased to three hundred and fifty. In what was to become one of the biggest searches in the history of New York City, those numbers were swelled by scores of civilian volunteers. No building, gutter, crawlspace or alleyway was left unsearched, but no sign of Billy Gaffney was ever found.
The police, of course, followed other lines of enquiry, including questioning the last people to see the missing boy – Mr. Beaton, Johnny McNiff, and little Billy Beaton. Only Billy had anything substantive to offer, but his insistence that his friend had been taken by the ‘Boogeyman’ was dismissed as the fanciful imaginings of a child. It would be six years before the NYPD realized that the little boy had been right all along.
In the interim, the police and Billy Gaffney’s parents had to deal with any number of crank letters, some of them simply misguided, others deliberately cruel. All of these had to be checked out, diverting police resources from the work of finding the missing child. As in the McDonnell case, there were a number of arrests that briefly raised hopes, only for those hopes to be dashed again. Even Billy Gaffney’s father came under suspicion, while Billy’s mother, Elizabeth, wavered between deep despair, and the absolute certainty that she would see her son alive again.
Then, in early March, the police at last had a solid lead. A trolley car conductor by the name of Anthony Barone came forward to recount something he’d witnessed on the evening of Friday, February 11, the day Billy Gaffney went missing. At around 7 p.m. on that evening Barone’s trolley had stopped at the corner of Prospect and Hamilton Avenues, just two blocks from the Gaffney residence. There, an elderly man had boarded with a small child matching Billy’s description. Barone had noticed them because the child was crying and because he wore only shorts and a thin shirt, despite the chill weather. According to Barone, the pair rode to the end of Hamilton Avenue. As they alighted, the old man asked for directions to the Staten Island ferry. Asked to describe the man, Barone said that he was slight and gray-haired, with a heavy gray moustache.
The police regarded Barone’s story as an important clue, especially after it was verified by trolley driver Joseph Meehan and by a number of passengers who’d been on the tram that night. But despite vigorously following the lead they got no closer to Bill Gaffney. Eventually they were reduced to desperate measures, employing a psychic and even trying out a “mechanical bloodhound” invented by a local crackpot. It all led nowhere. By the early spring, the Gaffney story, which had so dominated the New York dailies, had been reduced to the occasional few column inches on the inner pages. Billy Gaffney was gone. And the man who had snatched him away from his family was still out there.