Carl Panzram, a notorious serial killer and criminal during the 1920s, boasted of killing twenty-three people, committing thousands of robberies and larcenies, and sodomizing a thousand men and boys. In 1928, while in jail, Panzram met Henry Lesser, a sympathetic prison guard. After forming a friendship of sorts, Panzram gave Lesser his autobiography, penned over several months, which Lesser had encouraged him to write. Although Panzram was later transferred to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, he continued to correspond with Lesser. In 1929, Panzram was sentenced to death for killing a prison guard, and on September 5, 1930 he was executed by hanging.
After Panzram’s death, Henry Lesser attempted to publish Panzram’s autobiography and dedicated his life to prison reform. He traveled around the country lecturing to audiences about America’s prison system and its treatment of prisoners, using Panzram’s story as an example of the system’s failures. In 1979, he spoke to Thomas Gitchoff’s criminal justice class at San Diego State University. Shortly thereafter he donated Panzram's papers to SDSU's Special Collections & University Archives. Portions of Panzram’s manuscript were published in Thomas Gaddis and James Long’s Killer: A Journal of Murder in 1970.
The Carl Panzram Papers document Panzram’s experience in America’s prison system as well as his reflections on and assessment of his own violent behavior. The collection includes Panzram’s handwritten autobiographical manuscript, photocopies of an annotated typescript of the manuscript, correspondence between Henry Lesser and Panzram, and Lesser's correspondence with several criminologists, psychologists, and writers, including H.L. Mencken and Sheldon Guleck. The collection also contains copies of some of Panzram’s prison files, which Lesser obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These files include Panzram’s death certificate, the prison case report for the murder of R.G. Warnke, as well as correspondence between psychologist Karl Menninger and prison warden T.B. White.
Although Panzram's descriptions are sometimes graphic and disturbing, they nevertheless provide insightful documentation for the study of penology, prison reform, and prison life during the 1920s. The recently released documentary Carl Panzram: the Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance features portions of Panzram's manuscript.