A Tortured Life


I sat in the prison cell as convicted serial killer Joseph Kallinger calmly and with the flat demeanor of someone who was strongly sedated, told me with not a hint of emotion, that if he was ever released, he would surely kill again.

Kallinger stands out as the most frightening person I have ever met, not because of what he said but because of his dark eyes that disclosed nothing and seemed to open up into a place where no one should ever go.

I interviewed Kallinger more than 40 years ago at the Farview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waymart, Pa. The hospital was built in 1911 and it was every bit a frightening, inhuman medieval warehouse not built to heal but to shield the world from the danger of violent people who suffered from dire psychiatric illnesses.

Kallinger, who committed suicide in 1996, was sentenced to life in prison on Oct. 14, 1976, for killing three people, including his teenage son, and for torturing four families, with another son, Michael, then 12, at his side. The killing spree began in July 1974 when Kallinger was 39 years old. He later pleaded insanity and claimed that God had told him to kill.

He was known in the press as “The Shoemaker” because of his occupation was as a cobbler. His life of madness and crime ended when he committed suicide on March 26, 1996. It came after 11 years on suicide watch and repeated suicidal attempts, including one time when he set himself on fire.

I wanted to get some insight into what can drive a person to such madness. I got few answers.

I had made advance plans for the interview. A guard met me at the front gate of the grey, stone, fortress-like building and walked with me through the hallways of the prison leading to Kallinger’s cell. Along the way, one prisoner stood out because he was doing push-ups and I commented about it to the guard who told me in a matter of fact voice that the prisoner was compulsive and would spend hours doing the exercise.

I can’t say that I disliked Kallinger because he presented no emotion, neither good nor bad. I am certain my opinion would be different had I met him away from prison and at a time when he was not medicated.

Kallinger was alone in the cell, which had a bed and a toilet and was otherwise absolutely without human touch.

He was an unremarkable looking man, on the heavy side with dark hair and a scraggly, unkempt beard. He asked me what newspaper I worked for and why I wanted to speak with him. Then he talked about how he knew he was insane. I tried to read something in his eyes but there was no sparkle and they revealed nothing and it was like looking into a dark, terrifying, lifeless cave. I remember he told me that he was comfortable with living the rest of his life in the state hospital. He knew enough about himself to tell me that he should never be set free.

I left with no insight into the madness of Kallinger. I didn’t get the impression that he didn’t want to let me inside of his head but rather that he was incapable of opening up, either because of his psychosis or because of the drugs. He was a lost man whose only desire was to never be allowed to the outside world again. And I left feeling I had interviewed a wounded animal. I felt no pity or anger but sadness that one human’s life can be so twisted.

A few weeks after the interview, I met with the writer, Flora Rheta Schreiber, the author of the bestselling book, “Sybil.” Schreiber also wrote a book in 1983 about Kallinger, titled, “The Shoemaker: The Anatomy of a Psychotic.”

I met her in her upper east side apartment in Manhattan. Her office was a jumble of books and magazines and Schreiber, a plump unkempt woman in her 50s, talked while chain smoking with the ashes falling where ever. We talked about Kallinger’s poisonous and tortured childhood that portended nothing good would come of his life.

He was placed in foster care as a child after his father abandoned his mother. He was later adopted by Austrian immigrants who heaped the worst imaginable torture on their adopted son, making him kneel on jagged rocks, locking him inside closets, consume excrement, burning him with irons as well as starving him.

Kallinger was married twice. He had two children with his first wife before she left him because of domestic violence. Kallinger married again and had five more children who he abused in many of the same ways that he was abused by his adoptive parents. One of his sons died under mysterious circumstances and Kallinger was ultimately charged with murder.

Kallinger spent the next decade in and out of mental institutions for amnesia, attempted suicide and committing arson.

His final reign of bloody and deadly terror began in July 1974. Kallinger and his 12-year-old son Michael went on a crime spree in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Jersey. Over the next six weeks, they robbed, assaulted, and sexually abused four families and murdered three people, gaining entrance to each house by pretending to be salesmen.

On Jan. 8, 1975, they brought their nightmarish work to a home in Leonia. Armed with a gun and a knife, the two Kallingers overpowered three residents. Others arrived and were forced to strip and were bound with cords from lamps and other appliances.

The final act was the murder of Maria Fasching, a 21-year-old nurse who had the fatal misfortune of being the eighth and final person to arrive at the home. When she refused the elder Kallinger’s orders, he stabbed her to death. One of the victims managed to escape and called police but the Kallingers were able to flee. Kallinger was targeted by police after a bloody shirt was found at the scene along with eyewitness testimony.

His son, Michael, was judged to be under his father’s control and he was sentenced to a reformatory where he was released at 21 and moved out of state with a new name.



Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer

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