by Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.
April 24, 2008
There is nothing new under the sun. It’s my opinion
that the first serial murderer was born shortly after Adam and Eve left
the Garden. Or, if you prefer, after the first Caveman came out into the
Albert Fish. H. H. Holmes. Peter Kudzinowski. The Axe
Man of New Orleans. These are but a few serial killers who plied their
bloody trade in the decades between 1880 and 1920. Now add J. Frank
Hickey to that list.
On October 11, 1911, seven-year-old Joey Joseph
disappeared from the streets of Lackawanna, New York. After his father,
an immigrant laborer, reported his son missing, police launched a full-scale
search. But it seemed the boy had vanished into thin air.
Joey Joseph may have never been found if the killer
had not begun sending letters and postcards to police and the parents.
Some messages described the heinous crime while others expressed an
obviously false remorse. The killer was enjoying his control of the
Finally, in one letter, the writer gave police
directions to the body. The next day, authorities dug up the skeletal
remains from the pit of a communal outhouse near Joey’s home.
As the case was sensationalized by the media, a young
psychiatrist named Nelson “Kid” Wilson published a detailed description
of what the killer might be like. His “profile” was so close to the
truth that the prosecution team later hired him.
With no real leads, police decided to publish copies
of the postcards in a local newspaper. Almost immediately, several
people contacted authorities to say they recognized the handwriting as
that of an eccentric drunkard and prolific correspondent named J. Frank
After his arrest, Hickey confessed to three murders
and numerous sexual assaults of children. Along with Joey Joseph, ten-year-old
newsboy Michael Kruck and 34-year-old Edwin W. Morey were also victims
of the killer.
Hickey was suspected of at least twelve other murders.
During the two decades he roamed New England, dozens of children went
missing or were found murdered. (At least two other serial murderers,
Albert Fish and Peter Kudzinowski, were also active in the general area
at the same time.)
J. Frank Hickey was a hopeless alcoholic. He was
something of a dandy while sober, but when drunk he confided to
detectives that he harbored a secret sexual attraction for children.
Most of his numerous assaults were spontaneous—-when he was tipping the
demon rum, he claimed that he couldn’t control himself.
I emailed the author and asked how he came to write
The Postcard Killer. Dr. McLaughlin wrote: “As
usually happens, I [was] researching some other topic and [stumbled] on
to something else. I was collecting a great deal of data on homicides in
Buffalo. While looking through old newspapers, I kept stumbling into
Hickey. So I decided to write a book.”
I’m glad he did. The Postcard Killer
is well-written and brings to life a case that that I’d never heard
about. It also presents a view of blue-collar New England that is
For instance, among the working class in the
Victorian era, children in the Northeast were required to work to help
support the family. Many pre-teen boys sold newspapers for money to add
to the family coffers. They were constantly harassed by “chicken hawks,”
or child molesters, who attempted to entice the children into committing
sex acts. These newsboys were Hickey’s favorite victims.
Somehow Hickey escaped the electric chair. He was
instead convicted of second-degree murder and sent to Auburn prison.
When jurors were interviewed as to their curious verdict, one said,
“Would you shoot a dog because he acts this way?” The jury thought he
was insane. But Hickey was too dangerous to be placed in a mental
institution where he might escape or be released so the second-degree
murder conviction effectively kept him locked up until he died.
Robert A. Waters -