There are many different huge events throughout history that have greatly impacted both society and culture. Events like The Civil Rights Movement, the 9/11 Attacks, and the Columbine Shootings all had wide, long-lasting effects on our world. In Silent Shift, we focus on the smaller, less publicized events. In this edition of Silent Shift, we focus on Fredric Wertham, a villain to Comic fans everywhere, and the true evil he encountered, and his attempts to stop the spread of.

For any comic book fan, or anyone who enjoys entertainment history, there is one piece of comic history that has remained a black mark; The Comic Code. Instituted in 1954, the Comic Code forbid many of the practices and styles that horror comics of the era, like EC comics, used in their art and stories.

An entire genre essentially shriveled and died overnight. It was a moment of pearl-clutching and old age naivety from the elder statesman of the country. It would never have happened, if not for Fredric Wertham.

But why did this older German psychologist seemingly hate comics so much? Why did Fredric focus all his attention on saving the youth, that he was willing to fabricate and warp the truth in his book SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENCE? To understand Wertham, we need to understand the world that he built his career in.

“There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute”- P.T. Barnum

America of the early 20th century was a country in transition. The country had recently gone through its industrial revolution, bringing America into the modern age. At the same time, though, the country was transitioning out of its wild west roots, as the remainder of the great frontier was finally being settled, and the dirt was still settling from years of bloody Indian wars.

Wertham
The 1898 Chicago World’s Fair, which saw the glory of technological advancements, and the horror of H.H. Holmes Murder Castle.

It was during this transition period that the darker streak of humanity started to blossom. With such exponential growth and change, the common people of the world found themselves lost in a daze. Con men, criminals, and murderers alike found themselves at home using and abusing the star-struck populace.

Snake oil salesmen seemed to appear on every street corner, hawking their false and insidious wares. Crime ran rampant, both in small western towns and big, newly bustling metropolises. Murder of insidious and serial nature began to appear in the populace, such as the murder castle of H.H. Holmes or the seething hate and fury of Carl Panzram.

Growing Pains

When Wertham arrived in the United States in 1922, the country seemed to have finally started to move past this phase. Most of the country had begun to industrialize, and the economy had taken a huge upswing, making riches for bankers and farmers alike. From the outside, America seemed to have settled into an economic renaissance.

This was all a trick of the eye, though. America was a house of cards, teetering on the edge of complete disaster. Over-farming on the prairies of the interior states brought upon the great Dust Bowl. The immense and accelerated growth of the stock market caused a balloon of unemployment and debt to go unnoticed. Crime was still rampant, as there was more wealth to steal than ever. America was still suffering from growing pains, but nobody wanted to deal with.

“Fit” For Trial

Wertham was one of the few who got to see this ugliness up close. Wertham was a classically trained psychiatrist, having years of experience working in the birthplace of the mental science, Munich, Germany. He even kept a correspondence with Sigmund Freud, who helped shape his views on psychiatry. Wertham’s focus was on the effects of social and environmental factors in shaping a person, specifically on children.

Silent Shift: 5 Influential Killers From The ’70s Serial Killer Boom

Wertham started his career in America at John Hopkins Hospital, working under Adolf Meyers. It wasn’t long, though, before Wertham accepted a senior position at Bellevue Mental Hygienics Clinic. Bellevue’s focus was on psychiatric evaluations of convicted felons, specifically for use in court. It is here that Wertham met the dregs of society.

Wertham worked at Bellevue from 1932 until the mid-1940s. During his time there, he interviewed hundreds of convicted felons. He would interview felons with crimes ranging from armed robbery to rape and murder. These were the hardest criminals that New York City produced, and Wertham had to determine their sanity for trial. Of all the criminals Wertham interviewed, one specifically stands out among the rest, for his violence and cruelty; Albert Fish.

The Gray Man

Albert Fish may have been the closest actualization of the Boogeyman. Born to a wealthy family in 1870, there was always something off about Albert Fish. He was a fidgety child, who showed early tendencies towards self-harm. By his early twenties, he had already started his crime spree, becoming a violent pedophile.

Along with this horrific crime, Fish became fascinated with bodily mutilation, both to himself and others, after a fateful visit to a wax museum. All of this led to his eventual descent into child killing.

Wertham
Albert Fish.

Albert Fish was able to operate for decades, and across the country, once boasting he “had children in every state.” He became the boogeyman, talked about in hushed whispers between children. His appearance was just as frightening as his demeanor, as he had sunken, ashen skin, and a white wispy beard, which earned him the terrifying nickname “The Gray Man.”

Fish would sometimes hide at the edge of the woods, chasing after children that walked by, or other times he would simply walk down the street, his hands always fidgeting, grabbing a child that he fancied and walking away. He became a walking cautionary tale, a dark fairy tale parents tell at night to keep their children in line.

Fish began to escalate his violence as he grew older. His rapes became murders, his murders became mutilations, his mutilations became cannibalism. He was both a sadist and a masochist, looking to cause and suffer pain at every opportunity.

Grace Budd

Fish’s reign of terror ends until 1928, with the death of 10-year-old Grace Budd. Fish had gone to the Budd house initially looking to ensnare the 18-year-old Edward Budd. Fish arrived at the house, presenting himself as a wealthy farm owner looking for a strapping young farm hand. During Fish’s visit, he set his eyes on the young Grace Budd, and his evil plan transferred over to her.

Fish would visit the household several more times, lulling the family into a sense of security. He would dress well, playing the part of wealth, even though with a closer examination, it was clear his clothes were shabbier and dirtier than they first appeared. Fish knew what he was doing, and he was doing it well.

On June 3rd, 1928, Fish arrived once again at the Budd household. Fish continued his promise of employment for the elder boy, but, as he was leaving, asked if the Budd’s would allow him to take Grace to his nieces birthday party. Not wanting to anger the man offering them employment, the Budd’s agreed. That would be the last time they saw Grace alive.

Wisteria Cottage

Fish brought the young Grace Budd to a dilapidated house in Wisteria, NY, known as the “Wisteria Cottage,” a home that was torn right from a horror film. There he killed, mutilated and ate the young girl, using his “Implements OF Hell” (a meat cleaver, a butchers knife, and a saw). 6 years later, Albert Fish, in a move of absolute cruelty, sent the infamous Budd Grace Letter to the Budd household, where he outlined the last hours of Grace’s life.

Wertham
The infamous “Wisteria Cottage.”

It was through this letter, though, that police were able to finally catch Albert Fish. Using the unique emblem Fish put on the letter, police were able to trace the Gray Man back to a tenant building that Fish was staying in. With the help of a stalling landlord, police were able to apprehend Fish. Fish finally saw an end to his reign of terror in 1934, at the age of 63.

Face to Face With A Monster

It is at this point where Wertham and Fish meet. Wertham, in his job responsibilities, began to interview Fish. During these interviews, Wertham heard all the dirty, horrific details of Fish’s life. The numerous abuses of children, the numerous acts of violence Fish took against both others and himself (such as his infamous “pin cushion,”)  and the joy he took in murder and mayhem.

Silent Shift: The Fanatic Faith That Grew From The Shattered Hippie Movement

Wertham was also the first to learn of Fish’s fanatical view on religion, and how he had started to hallucinate religious imagery. Fish believed he needed to complete the sacrifice of Abraham and Issac, in that sacrificing a child would absolve him of his sins. He believed that, if it was truly a sinful act, angels would stop him from completing the act. Fish’s cannibalism was also attributed to this zealous belief, as Fish saw it as a twisted version of “communion.”

Wertham looked into the void; he saw the evil nature of man, and how it could corrupt and destroy the innocent. At Fish’s trial, Wertham answer to Fish’s sanity was simple; “He is insane.” Fish was deemed fit for trial and thus fit for the death penalty (later, jurists said they believed him insane, but still felt he should die). Fish died by electric chair in 1936, at the age of 65. (anyone interested in learning more about Fish should read DERANGED, by Harold Schechter, where the majority of this information was gathered).

Seduction of The Innocent

Wertham continued to work as a psychiatrist, his focus moving back to children after his time at Bellevue. During this time, he started to focus and hone his thesis; the corruption of children. Wertham saw the worst the world could produce. Now, he had to make sure another monster like that couldn’t exist again. Wertham set his sights on what he felt was corrupting the youth of the country; comics.

Wertham lumped all comics together, calling them “crime comics.” He believed that children were being influenced by what they saw, such as the supposed homosexual undertones of Batman & Robins companionship and Wonder Woman’s strength.

Wertham
Fredric Wertham.

Wertham really focused his attacks on horror comics, though. Comics like those of EC comics had made an industry out of terror and horror. Books like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR saw the brunt of Wertham’s attacks, their violence, and usually dark ironic endings being a center point.

Wertham took his findings and published them in SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT in 1954. The book was a huge hit and caused a massive backlash against the comic industry. Using the clout he had gained through his years of being an expert witness at Bellevue, Wertham took his findings to the Senate, where he argued that the government must take action against the comic industry.

Controversy

It must be noted, though, that there’s no scientific basis to Wertham’s finds. The majority of his research was based on anecdotal evidence, as well as many cases of “correlation implies causation” fallacies. Further, in 2010, all his research became public. After analyzing the data, Carol Tilley, assistant professor at the Graduate School Of Library And Information Science at the University of Illinois concluded that:

Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.

It didn’t matter though. While the Senate did not believe that comics caused crime, the comic industry was rightly spooked by the flex of bureaucratic muscle. Later that same year, the Comic Code Authority began.

Comic Code Authority

The Comic Code Authority came to life in September of 1954. Headed by New York Magistrate Charles F. Murphy, the Code became the new rulebook all comics found themselves abiding by. The new code could be described by one of its overarching rules; “good will always triumph over evil.” The new law of the land forbade anything “fun”; no horror, no gore, no sexuality. Any and all authority figures had to be morally right, and couldn’t be written as corrupt or wrong.

Wertham
The cover of CRIME SUSPENSTORIES #22, infamous for its use during the Senate panel. (Crime Suspenstories #22; E.C. Comics; May 1954; Cover art by Johnny Craig)

With the Code, horror comics essentially died overnight. This is no small collapse; by 1954, horror comics compromised a whole 25 percent of comics printed. While EC comics were king of the genre, with their TALES FROM THE CRYPT series, other smaller companies and publications quickly closed up shop, not looking to fight the new rules. DC and Marvel quickly curtailed their horror publications, refocusing all their efforts on the superhero genre.

Some publications were able to persevere in their own way; Warren Publishing was able to skirt the rules by turning their publication into a magazine, able to publish what they pleased without the Code holding them back. They began to print their EERIE and CREEPY magazines, which survived up to the mid-1980s, as well as the creation of Vampirella, who has survived in the horror culture since.

“Judgement Day”

EC comics weren’t as lucky though. The code came after them hard, as they were the fat cats of horror. The battles began early and began hard. Restrictions on the use of the words “terror,” “crime,” and “horror” in the titles of comics ended the publications of several of EC’s flagship comics. The banning of all horror creatures, like zombies and werewolves, made EC comics unpublishable. The majority of the publication saw cancellation within a year of the code.

Wertham
The final panel of “Judgement Day.” (Incredible Science Fiction #33; E.C. Comics; Feb. 1956; Written by Al Feldstein; Art by Joe Orlando)

EC had the last laugh though. In one of the more famous examples of comic book censorship, EC went toe to toe with Code authority Murphy and won. The comic was “Judgement Day,” a reprint of a pre-code comic. Murphy demanded that the race of the main character be changed, from black to white, and William Gaines, the owner of EC, threatened to go to court. Murphy backed down, asking only for the “perspiration” on the main character’s skin be removed. Gaines response? “Fuck you!”

It was a short-lived victory, though; EC wouldn’t survive the year. Their flagship comics were all banned, and profits were plummeting. There was only one chance at survival, and Gaines jumped on it. EC published a specific comedy comic that still sold well, and Gaines, seeing an opportunity, switched the comic into a magazine, getting away from the pearl-clutching rules of the Code. That comic is MAD Magazine, which is still in print to this day. (admittedly, Gaine sold MAD in the mid-1960s, as well as the movie rights to TALES FROM THE CRYPT, which saw success as a film and an HBO television show).

Later Years Of Wertham

After the congressional hearing and the establishment of the Code, Wertham kept his focus on childhood development. Some of his writings on racial segregation and its negative effects became evidence in the landmark Brown vs. The Board of Education case. Wertham also attempted to write a followup to SEDUCTION OF INNOCENT, entitled THE WAR ON CHILDREN, which focused on the ill effects of television. He never found a publisher willing to take the plunge, though.

Wertham continued to write and practice psychiatry until his death in 1981, at the age of 86.

Holy Ghost-amole!!: Serial Killers: Into The Mind Of Madness

Wertham became the villain of many in the comics world. He was a moral knight, believing himself the harbinger of decency. He was known to be pompous in his words and hard-headed in his opinions. Wertham became a driving force behind a whole industry shakeup and is the cause of many lost jobs and comics. He became a stereotype; that of an old man, yelling at the progress of man, wondering why the world seemed cold and scary now.

A Man In Search Of Answers

One must remember what Wertham witnessed. From his early years in psychiatry, his focus was always on children. He focused his life’s work on the understanding of childhood, and how it can be corrupted or saved. In his career, he saw many madmen who became monsters because of their fractured upbringing. He also saw true evil in Fish, a man who fed off of children both figuratively and literally.

A man who took pleasure in the corruption of childhood innocence, and did so for several decades. Wertham looked into this void of empathy, this void of compassion, and his mission in life afterward was to make sure no child became, or was taken advantage by, a monster like that again. His motives may have been misguided and ill-advised, but he did it all with a focus on a better future, a world without another Albert Fish, or anyone like him.

2 Comments

  1. Incognita Jones

    May 9, 2018 at 11:21 pm

    Just so happy to be leaving a comment!

    Reply

  2. Rozzer McSnide

    April 29, 2018 at 8:25 pm

    Hate to spoil a good legend, but Bill Gaines did not turn MAD into a magazine to escape the Comics Code. He turned MAD into a magazine because his editor/creator Harvey Kurtzman had gotten an offer to become an assistant editor at Pageant, a magazine little remembered today, but a successful and “respectable” publication in 1955. Gaines figured correctly that Kurtzman wouldn’t leave to be an assistant if he could stay and be the #1 man running his own magazine.

    It was just a happy bonus that MAD thrived, and that Gaines’ enemies on the Comics Code Authority couldn’t do a thing about it.

    Reply

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!