The Mad Sculptor Murders
In the wee hours of Easter morning in 1937, scandal sheet model Veronica “Ronnie” Gedeon and a boy friend, Stephen Butter, Jr., both tipsy from a night on the town in New York City, arrived back at her East End apartment in Turtle Bay near the East River. The two had been drinking heavily at his father’s home on Lexington Avenue earlier and then stopped at a grill on East 51st Street for several glasses of beer each before Stephen walked her home that dark morning. They made love before she entered her apartment on the fourth floor, where she lived with her mother and an Englishman boarder. Butter wandered off into the night, while Ronnie made her way into her apartment, undressed in the bathroom and reentered the main room, unaware that a killer hid in the shadows.
The night before, a man known to the family, went to the apartment at 316 East 50th Street, murdered Veronica’s mother and then hid, waiting for Ethel, Ronnie’s sister to arrive. He had gone to the apartment, planning to kill Ethel, but things went awry. Then, hours later at about 3 am, Ronnie arrived home.
Ronnie Gedeon was beautiful, with blond hair and blue eyes. She was just twenty years old and was already a seasoned New York model who posed luridly for crime magazines. She was described by her employer at Inside Detective, as, “an honest girl from a family in straitened circumstances who was trying to earn her own living with the natural talents with which she was endowed. She was not cheap.” She enjoyed drinking, did many photo shoots in the nude and semi nude and kept a racy diary of her exploits.
Her father, Joseph Gedeon, wanted nothing to do with her, since he found her behavior disgusting. “She made fools of men,” Joseph said. “It’s hard to say now, but Ronnie was wild and undisciplined. She simply wouldn’t listen to a word I said.”
Ronnie lived in Manhattan, on the fashionable East Side in Beekman Hill in the Turtle Bay neighborhood in an apartment with her mother, Mary Gedeon, 54, and a boarder Frank Byrnes, 35, a bartender and waiter. Ethel, her older sister, was married and living with her husband. She and the girls’ father were expected for Easter dinner later in the day.
Jospeph Gedeon was the first to arrive, followed soon after by Ethel. When Joseph made his way into the unlocked apartment, he discovered the three dead bodies. After the police arrived, it was estimated that at least eight hours had passed since the murder. It had been a prolonged night of terror for all three. Both women were strangled, possibly sexually assaulted, and left semi nude where they died. Frank Byrnes had been stabbed in the temple and throat repeatedly with an ice pick. Only a pet Pekinese was left alive.
Robert Irwin was a 29 year old former mental patient and talented sculptor. He was a dapper dresser, 5’ 9” tall, weighing 140 pounds and described as stocky, with wavy blond hair. He was once a divinity student at St. Laurence University. He had lived in California in 1912, which he later described as “like a village.” His parents were evangelists and he had been orphaned at a young age. It was also believed that he had once tried to emasculate himself. But in 1937, he was in love with Ethel Gedeon and he planned on killing her. But, Ethel had married another man and Robert was obsessed to the point where he contemplated suicide or murder. He settled on murder. Bob Irwin, who his attorney later described as “crazy as a bedbug,” made a mess of things instead. He planned on waiting in Ronnie’s apartment for Ethel to arrive on a visit and then murder her. Instead, he got into a quarrel with her mother, killed the mother, then Ethel’s sister, and finally a boarder who was asleep in the next room.
Robert Irwin told a friend the story of the triple murder soon after. He said later that the friend betrayed his trust and went to the police, suggesting they interview Irwin about the murders. He was quickly confronted with newsboys screaming “extra” and hawking papers featuring his name and picture. Afraid of being caught, he decided to get out of town as quickly as quietly as possible. On the Lam Irwin first went to Grand Central Station, checked his bags and then went to Philadelphia, for the day, later catching a bus to Washington, DC. He said the newspapers were full of the story of the murders and his picture was on page one. He began hopping freights, eventually ending up in Cleveland, Ohio, where he got a job as a bus boy. That job ended abruptly when a young girl he worked with asked him if he knew a Robert Irwin, after she saw his photograph in the newspaper. He turned away, told her no and walked out the kitchen door to the train station and took a day coach to Chicago.
Irwin claimed that he was ready to face the music in New York, but only had enough money to get to Chicago. Irwin contacted the Hearst newspaper in Chicago. He told them, “I wanted to kill Ethel because she was the dearest object in the world to me. I loved her and hated her. I dreamed of modeling her as if beheaded, with her head far back and the mouth open.”
The Chicago Herald Examiner secured a paid interview with Robert Irwin before they packed him off to New York detectives. Mary Gedeon. Mary Gedeon, the first to be killed, according to Irwin’s story in the Examiner, was rumored to be having an affair with the boarder, Frank Byrnes.
“I killed Mrs. Gedeon because she caught me in a rage. I did it before I knew it. Mary Gedeon, separated from her husband, had operated a rooming house in the past, as well as several speakeasies.
“I knew that her mother didn’t like me, but if she hadn’t of hollered at me ‘you’re no good, you never were any good- get out of here or I’ll call the Englishman,’ she wouldn’t have gotten it.” “When I hit Mrs. Gedeon I knocked her down but not out. I had to jump on her to keep her from squawking.” “She was putting up a tremendous fight. She was making enough noise, I thought to waken the whole block. And I kept tightening my hands on her throat. I stopped her voice that way, but she was still thrashing about on the floor, fighting. I believe I held her by the throat for at least 20 minutes before the fight went out of her and she was still and dead.” “But I hadn’t done what I had come to do. I had to keep on waiting for Ethel. She was the one I felt I must kill. Must kill, I tell you. I simply had to wait for her to finish what I had planned. “I had an ice pick with me. The door opened, but it was not Ethel who came. It was Ronnie. I was glad that nobody came with Ronnie. I am still glad about that. She had a girl friend, a nice girl. I’m glad nothing happened to that girl. “Well, Ronnie didn’t see me when she came in. She went to the bathroom. She was there a long time. I didn’t intend to kill her. I just thought I would knock her out and then tie her up- and wait for Ethel. “I made a sort of blackjack out of a piece of soap wrapped up in a cloth. I had read that this was effective- that it would stun, but nothing more. “So, when Ronnie came out I was waiting in a position from which I could strike without being seen by her. I hit her, but the soap just splattered. She was not knocked out. So I grabbed her from behind, by the neck. I was very careful not to press too hard – just enough so she couldn’t make a noise but could breathe. I think I held her that way at least an hour. “There were moments when this pressure was relaxed enough so that she could speak a few words, not loudly. I thought she didn’t know who I was. But she did. And what cost her her life was that she said so. She said, “I know it’s you, Bob. Please don’t, I’ve had an operation. “She knew me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to murder the whole neighborhood. I wanted to let Ronnie live if I could. She was beautiful. I hate to destroy beauty. “So I kept holding on – in that careful way – just tight enough to prevent noise, not tight enough to kill – until when I began to think that with Ronnie knowing me as she did – I didn’t have any alternative. I strangled her.” Frank Byrnes After veronica was dead, Robert went into the next room and stabbed the sleeping Byrnes repeatedly with an ice pick. “All this time that lousy Englishman Byrnes, was just a few feet away in his room. He could have done anything, but he didn’t. He must have heard her.” But Byrnes heard nothing. He was deaf. And he was asleep. Irwin said he killed Byrnes at 6 am, just before he left the apartment for home. He was tired after killing three people, so he went home and slept the rest of the day. He said he stayed in his room for a week, only going out after dark. Irwin’s long detailed life following the murders was published under his bi line in newspapers.
In September, 1937, an all male jury was selected to try Irwin. In November, 1938, his attorney, Samuel S. Leibowitz, admitted that Irwin was insane. New York district attorney Thomas Dewey asked for 90 years to life for each of the three murders, to be run consecutively. Irwin ranted and raved in the courtroom before being sentenced, calling the prosecutors “professional liars.” He told the judge that he would be out before ten years. Leibowitz said Irwin’s belief was that he “could melt the iron bars.” Leibowitz, who boasted of 123 murder defendants without ever having a client sent to the gallows, once again triumphed. Judge James Wallace gave Robert Irwin a sentence of 139 years to life. He was sent to Sing Sing Prison, evaluated as “very definitely insane” by doctors, transferred to different state hospitals and died of cancer at Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York in 1975.
Newspapers compared the insanity defense of Irwin with that of the Clarence Darrow defense of the Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold thrill killing of Bobby Franks in the 1920′s. Years later, in the 1944 noir film, Phantom Lady, Franchot Tone played an insane sculptor who strangled women to death, reminding audiences of the real thing seven years earlier. The Irwin murders had an effect on psychiatry in the court room, as well as the way newspapers wheedled their way into police work, causing problems for prosecutors and defendants.
And Ethel, the intended victim? Robert Irwin left the apartment before she arrived.