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Robert George IRWIN






A.K.A.: "Easter Killer"
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Former insane asylum inmate
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: March 27, 1937
Date of arrest: June 26, 1937
Date of birth: 1907
Victims profile: Veronica Gedeon, her mother and a man lodger
Method of murder: Strangulation / Stabbing with icepick
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Status: Sentenced to life imprisonment on November 1938. Died in 1975

Robert George Irwin (1908-1975), an artist-sculptor and recurring mental hospital patient, pled guilty to killing three persons on Easter weekend in 1937 in the Beekman Hill area of New York City’s Turtle Bay neighborhood.

One of his victims, Veronica “Ronnie” Gedeon, was a model who often appeared in seductive pulp magazine pictures. The crime, its investigation, Irwin’s arrest, and the resulting court proceedings were heavily publicized, often with eye-catching photos of Miss Gedeon and headlines describing Irwin as the “mad sculptor.” Veronica Gedeon left behind a portfolio of sexy photos that, in retrospect, had no relevance to the crime, its cause or Irwin’s responsibility for it. However, that coincidence kept the story on front pages of newspapers around the country for months, publicity which ultimately helped to bring Irwin into custody.

Irwin’s prosecution, which ended through a plea-bargain that kept him incarcerated for life, renewed debate about the use and scope of New York’s version of the insanity defense. Once sentenced, Irwin was deemed “definitely insane” by state psychiatrists. He spent the rest of his life in secure mental institutions.

Personal background

The son of evangelist parents, Irwin was reportedly born in a tent on an old-fashioned camp meeting ground in Portland, Oregon. His father deserted the family before Robert was three years old, leaving them impoverished. When a family court judge noted that Robert could learn a trade at a state reformatory, he volunteered and spent fifteen months there, where he first learned to sculpt. He soon idolized Lorado Taft, one of the leading American sculptors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and later moved in with Taft’s family. Then, working for a waxworks studio in Los Angeles, he carved commercial busts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other public figures.

Irwin’s descent

Irwin was considered “brilliant if erratic and at times violent.” He tried to emasculate himself, using a razor. He then consented to be committed to a state mental hospital, where he initially stayed for a year. After his discharge, he moved into a New York City rooming house owned by Mary Gedeon. There, Irwin had become infatuated with her daughter Ethel, but his love for her was not returned. He underwent further mental illness treatment for two more years at Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, and was released in the summer of 1936. By then, Ethel Gedeon had married George Kudner. Irwin then made a sculpture of Ethel with a cobra coiled around her neck.

He enrolled as a student at the Theological School of St. Lawrence University at Canton, New York. However, he was expelled on March 18, 1937, ten days before Easter, because of “instability.” He then rented (for a single day) a $2.50-a-week room in a house on 52nd Street in New York City, several blocks from Mary Gedeon’s rooming house at 316 E. 50th Street. After considering and rejecting the idea of drowning himself in the East River, he instead walked to the Gedeon rooming house.

The Easter Weekend murders

On March 28, 1937 (Easter Sunday), relatives arriving at the Gedeon's flat for dinner discovered the partially-clothed bodies of Mary Gedeon and her younger daughter Veronica, in Veronica’s bedroom. Mrs. Gedeon had been strangled and stabbed, and Veronica had been strangled. In a nearby room, they discovered the body of Frank Byrnes, a deaf English waiter who had been stabbed many times. The ensuing police investigation revealed that around 3:00 a.m., Veronica had returned, intoxicated, from a date. Fifty minutes earlier, Charles Robinson, an upstairs neighbor, had noticed the door to the Gedeons’ flat was partially open, and had closed it. This led detectives to conclude that the assailant had entered the apartment before Veronica arrived, and waited for her. They also concluded that Brynes was likely killed while he slept.

Police attention focused initially on a driver, then on Mary Gedeon’s ex-husband, Joseph Gedeon. By April 7, however, their attention had shifted toward Irwin, in part because a sculpture carefully carved in ordinary bath soap was discovered at the crime scene. A nationwide manhunt for Irwin followed. State Inspector John Lyons was reported as stating of Irwin, “It makes no difference whether he committed three hundred murders, so far as the State is concerned. His psychopathic background shows he is insane."

The hunt for Irwin, and his surrender

In late June 1937, a pantry maid in Cleveland's Statler Hotel saw a picture of Irwin in a pulp magazine and noticed a resemblance to a bar boy who been working at the hotel for less than two months, under the name of Bob Murray. He cleaned out his locker and disappeared soon after she asked him about his last name and whether he knew about Robert Irwin. Once again, the search for Irwin became the lead story on the front pages of daily newspapers nationwide.

The next day, the Chicago Tribune received a call from someone claiming to be Irwin and offering to surrender for a price, but the Tribune dismissed the call as a prank. The William Randolph Hearst-owned Chicago Herald-Examiner, however, received a similar call, took it seriously, and made an arrangement under which Irwin would be paid $5,000 for an exclusive story, then surrender. After Irwin came to the newspaper’s offices, its city editor John W. Dienhart, and reporters G. Duncan Bauman and Austin O’Malley kept Irwin in a room in the Morrison Hotel in Chicago, working on the terms of a confession to the Beekman Hill murders that the newspaper would publish as an exclusive, while briefly shielding him from police. The Hearst companies then flew him to New York City, where he was turned over to police. At that point, famous New York criminal defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz, who had represented the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama and was reported to have saved 123 murder defendants from the death penalty, appeared as Irwin’s attorney.

In his published confession, Irwin he stated that he originally intended to kill Ethel Gedeon Kudner because “she was the dearest object in the world” to him, but that he “accidentally” killed the others instead. He explained that he went to the Gedeons’ flat, expecting to find Ethel. He first struck then strangled Mary Gedeon, after she had asked him to leave. After her daughter Veronica arrived, he terrorized her, but strangled her only after she called him by name, showing that she recognized him. Afraid to leave alive a possible witness (but unaware of Byrnes’ deafness), Irwin entered Byrnes' room, then stabbed him to death in his bed. In his confession to New York detectives Irwin compared himself to a radio, explaining:

Bob Irwin is nothing. I am only a receiving set. An extremely imperfect one, which can indistinctly tune in the divine mind. You have heard a radio that isn’t working well. You turn the dials and get a squawking. Only once in a while can we get the pure clear music. My whole idea in life was to perfect myself so ‘the receiving set’ could always get the divine music at its best.

Irwin’s prosecution, plea and sentencing

Hours after New York police took Irwin into custody, he was indicted for three counts of first degree murder. Contrary to Inspector Lyon’s initial view that Irwin was insane, New York now found him normal. As Irwin’s trial date approached in the fall of 1938, William A. Adams (warden of The Tombs detention center) said, “Irwin certainly isn’t crazy now. He’s as normal as any man in prison.”  Irwin attorney Liebowitz, however, replied that Irwin “was, is and will be hopelessly insane. He’s crazy as a bedbug.”

Publicity again peaked as the trial date approached; one news account reported that “not since the Harry K. Thaw murder trial had a case excited wider interest.” Soon after a jury was selected, however, Irwin pled guilty to three counts of second degree murder, in exchange for avoiding the death penalty, and a promise that a pair of trousers that he abandoned in a suitcase left at Grand Central Station in 1937 would be returned to him.

Judge James Wallace sentenced him to 139-years-to-life in prison (99 years-to-life for the slaying of Byrnes, 20 years-to-life for the slaying of Mary Gedeon, and 20 years-to-life for the slaying of Veronica Gedeon). He was then sent to Sing Sing Prison for a psychological evaluation, where prison doctors ruled him “very definitely insane.” On December 10, 1938, he arrived at Dannemora State Hospital.

Death and legacy

Irwin died of cancer in 1975 in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York.

Irwin’s enduring legacy involves the way newspapers exploited his crime through sensationalist headlines and racy photos, culminating with a paid confession that nearly put him in the electric chair. In the immediate aftermath of the crime, New York Daily News publisher Joseph Medill Patterson responded to criticism of the sensationalism, editorializing that “murder sells papers, books, plays because we are all fascinated by murder.” He defended the News’ choice to give the story greater attention than President Roosevelt’s failed attempt to “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court, explaining that “perhaps people should be more interested today in the Supreme Court than in the Gedeon murder, but we don’t think they are.


Easter Killer

Monday, Jul. 05, 1937

Buxom, black-eyed Henrietta Koscianski, 19, a pantry maid in Cleveland's Statler Hotel, gave her starched white blouse a straightening pat and winked at one of the other girls as the young man who washed bar glasses and supplied cracked ice came on duty one night last week. "Say, Bob," she asked, "what's your last name?"

"Murray," he answered quickly. "Why?"

"Oh, nothing. But did you ever hear of Robert Irwin?"

"No," he said, turning away. Few minutes later he disappeared.

Two nights before the bar boy had done a clever pencil sketch of Henrietta, and she had had a chance to study his face as he sketched. Business was slow that night and later she had gone upstairs to borrow something to read from one of the other girls.

In a detective magazine she had seen a picture of 29-year-old Robert Irwin, former insane asylum inmate, sculptor of sorts, wanted in Manhattan for the horrible Easter Sunday murders of the beauteous artists' model Veronica Gedeon. her mother and a man lodger. "Why that looks like our Bob!" she exclaimed. She showed the picture to the other girl who agreed on the resemblance. Friday night she would show it to Bob. It would amuse him.

By midnight Friday, Pantry Maid Koscianski was all atremble. The bar boy had obviously skipped town. His locker was empty. The police had been to his $1.50 a week hotel, found only an old pair of shoes and New York newspapers with stories about the Gedeon murders and the recent death threats against a staff physician at Rockland State Hospital where Irwin had once been a mental patient. "I feel like a nickel now," mumbled Miss Koscianski.-"I didn't call the police because I just thought it was a coincidence. I didn't have the nerve to think of him actually as a killer."

Next day, to Hearst's Chicago Herald & Examiner came one of those incredible strokes of luck that make newspaper life worth living. Robert Irwin, the most sought-after murderer then at large in the U. S. (TIME, April 12), had just telephoned the Chicago Tribune ("Worlds Greatest Newspaper"), offered to surrender for a price, was not believed.

So he called the Hearst paper, had his terms accepted, and slouched into their offices to pour out the story of the Gedeon murders in a voluminous, jumbled, sex-loaded signed confession. From late Saturday until Sunday afternoon Hearst writers and cameramen had their prize to themselves. Other papers, writhing as Hearst extra after extra hit the stands, howled to Chicago's police.

Detectives searched the Herald & Examiner office in vain. Irwin had been spirited away to the Morrison Hotel where Hearst men played cards with him, treated him well. When he was finally surrendered to the Cook County Sheriff the next afternoon he looked rested and refreshed and his white linen suit was crisp. Awaiting him in Manhattan by prearrangement was the famed criminal defense lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz. Toward midnight, in a Hearst-chartered transport. Prisoner Irwin was flown to New York City to face the murder charges. It was his first flight, would probably be his last.

Hearstpapers nationwide screamed the headlines IRWIN SURRENDERS!—CONFESSES! EXCLUSIVE! Excerpts:

He went to the Gedeon apartment. . . . "I drew Mrs. Gedeon's picture to kill as much time as possible. In comes this little Englishman. She introduced him to me. He went to his room. . . . I said, 'I am going to stay here until I see Ethel [the elder daughter].' She . . . yelled, 'Get out of here.' I hit her. . . . I choked her. . . . All the time this damned Englishman was in the next room just ten feet away. She put up a hell of a fight . . . my hands were full of blood. I smeared it on her, on her face and on her breast. I threw her in the bedroom under the bed. . . .

"Finally Ronnie [Veronica Gedeon, the artists' model daughter] came in. She went into the bathroom. . . . I thought she was never coming out. . . . I made a sort of blackjack out of a piece of soap in a cloth. . . . I hit her. But the soap just splattered. . . . I grabbed her from behind. . . . I can very well believe that she was drunk because she didn't put up any fight at all. I . . . took her in her room . . . held her just tight enough so that she could breathe. She asked me not to attack her, 'Please don't, I've had an operation.' I strangled her. When Ronnie was dead, I looked at her with a sick feeling all through me. Her beauty was gone. . . . Blue death seemed to issue from her—like a sort of spiritual emanation. . . . My brain was working so fast I could almost hear it. . . . The Englishman. I must kill him too. . . . I stood for a moment over his bed. . . . Asleep? But how could I be sure? . . . I lifted the ice pick, point down, and struck. . . . Afterwards, in the newspapers, I read that he had been stabbed 15 times. I don't know. . . . It was morning when I stepped out and closed the door. . . . There was an overwhelming weariness all through me. . . . I was so sleepy, I could hardly walk the short distance around the corner to my room. I went in and dropped on my bed. It was not until evening that I was awakened by the cries of newsboys below my window. . . . They were yelling about a 'triple murder.' . . . It did not frighten me. I was as calm as I ever had been. I was sure that I would not be suspected. I was so sure of this that I did not even take the trouble to move from the neighborhood—not for a week."

From Manhattan he had gone by train to Philadelphia, by bus to Washington, D. C., by devious means to Cleveland where he had stayed until surprised by the pantry maid's question. The three murders were not intended, he said. He had intended to murder only the elder married daughter, Ethel Gedeon Kudner, with whom he had been in love, years before when he was a roomer at the Gedeons'. The murder was to satisfy an overpowering urge for a tremendous emotional experience. "I thought that after killing Ethel, then they would kill me in the chair, but I didn't care. Then I said to myself that after being in the nut house all of your life, you can't go to the chair. . . . They'll put me in the nut house again and then I'll be there all the rest of my life and catch up with myself, in a spiritual way."

*Her nickel feelings quickly vanished when the detective magazine in which she had seen Irwin's picture awarded her $1,000, gave her an airplane ride to Manhattan, introduced her at a night club, interviewed her on the radio. ''I ddn t know whether I'll return to my job as pantry-maid or not," she said.



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