In my last blog, I wrote about everyone’s favorite vampire, Bela Lugosi and his relationship to Brooklyn or, at least, Brooklyn gorillas. In this post, I want to discuss a real Brooklyn vampire. And, I ain’t foolin’.
His name was Albert Fish and he worked as a house painter from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression. As he aged, he resembled a cuddly uncle. But, over those four decades, he abducted, raped, killed and ate children all over metropolitan New York. His work as a house painter gave him access to perfect hiding and abduction spaces like cellars, basements, hallways and sheds; and lethal access to children. Four decades. We still don’t know how many tenement kids fell into the clutches of this real live boogieman.
One such unfortunate child was four-year-old Billy Gaffney. He had lived in my neighborhood. In fact, Billy was abducted in 1927 while playing in front of his tenement no more than five minutes from my 1950s boyhood home. His body was never found because Fish ate most of it. (If you are not of squeamish disposition you can read Fish’s description of that act in excruciating detail on Wikipedia. He makes Hannibal Lecter, Freddie Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers and Norman Bates look like the Vienna Boys’ Choir.)
Billy’s abduction hit close to home for me (literally and figuratively) because of something that happened to me while I was playing in front of my tenement in 1957.
This was that incident…
One day, a strange man wearing dark sunglasses who was or pretended to be dumb appeared on my block accompanied by a large, menacing dog. He rang my tenement’s vestibule doorbells in an attempt to sell an obviously second-hand Mickey Mouse film projector. The Mickey Mouse Club was every kid’s “must watch” show so this projector was prime Pied Piper bait.
The stranger was quickly told to fuck off by the housewives annoyed at having been drawn away from their soap operas and quiz shows. I then inexplicably offered to take him around the corner to a neighbor I was sure would want to buy his piece of plastic crap. I trustingly placed my seven-year-old hand in his and led the way with his dog nipping at my heels.
The neighbor’s vestibule door was unlocked so I didn’t bother ringing her bell and escorted my new friend into her very dark hallway. I heard her TV blaring and knocked on her door. She answered with an angry expression that quickly changed to alarm. She told the stranger to fuck off and slammed the door. (I still wonder why she didn’t pull me inside, then slam the door and call the cops! But, maybe she wanted to get back to her soap.)
I shrugged and took the strange man and his snarling dog back out into the sunshine. As we exited the building a group of my friends shouted from the corner with obvious and uncharacteristic alarm, “Hey, Jackie, ya mother wants ya. She sez get up da house. Now!” I turned to apologize to the man but his dog bared its teeth and lunged at me. I jumped back, looked into the face of my new friend and saw that he was leering at me with an evil smile. Only then did I realize that I had broken the cardinal rule of childhood. He was a stranger. One of the strangers I’d been told not to talk to. Not to get into cars with. Not to take candy from. I was in danger. Stranger danger. With a sudden surge of fight-or-flight energy, I turned and bolted the fuck away from him and his mutt.
This incident (whether the threat was real or imagined) is why I have always been especially horrified and fascinated by Albert Fish. I can’t help wondering if Billy Gaffney also turned and saw his “new friend” leering down at him; if Billy felt the same shock of terror run through his little body as the one I can feel as I sit here typing more than six decades later.
Ironically, the sensational trial of Albert Fish was knocked off the front pages by the even more sensational Lindbergh baby kidnapping. But, I’m convinced it was not knocked from the collective folk-memory of my Brooklyn neighborhood; its shared shuddering-memory of a Brooklyn vampire who had stalked its children in cellars, basements, hallways and sheds not that many years before I played in those dark, hidden, dangerous places.
If you can stomach a disturbing but cathartic journey into the darkest of dark places then spend some time on the internet searching for Albert Fish the Brooklyn Vampire. There have been two awful movies made about Fish and countless TV documentaries and books of varying quality. I recommend the book Trail of Blood by Michael Angelella.