Robert George Irwin
Robert George Irwin (1907–1975), an artist-sculptor and recurring mental hospital patient, pleaded 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. A new book about Robert Irwin, Harold Schechter's The Mad Sculptor (2014), has been well received. Wall St. J., March 22, 2014, p. C8.
The son of evangelist parents, Irwin was reportedly born in a tent on an old-fashioned camp meeting ground in Portland, Oregon. However, he was actually born in the Arroyo Seco Park near Pasadena, California on August 5, 1907. He was named for the nearby river (as was the park) and one of his father's favorite theologians, François Fénelon (1651-1715). Hence, he entered life as Fenelon Arroyo Seco Irwin. He later changed his name, much to the horror of his devout mother, to honor his philosophical idol the agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899). His father was Rev. Benjamin Hardin Irwin, a nationally known figure in the Holiness movement who had founded a racially integrated radical Holiness denomination in 1898 at a national convention in legally segregated Anderson, South Carolina. He denounced as sinful everything from Coca-Cola to wearing ties. (The body Irwin founded is now known as the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.) In 1900, a sexual scandal ended his career with the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church and the senior Irwin went solo. In Canada sometime during 1902, he married Robert's mother, Mary Lee Jordan of Texas, without divorcing his first wife. 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 into madness
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 Joseph 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 5, 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. When the nationwide search began, Ethel Gedeon and Irwin's psychiatrist expressed doubts that Irwin was capable of committing the murders. 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.
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 at the time of the murders, claiming that he knew the nature and quality of his acts. The office of District Attorney William C. Dodge also announced it would seek the death penalty. The presiding judge postponed the trial in September 1937 to await the findings of a three-member commission of inquiry evaluating Irwin's sanity. However, the commissioners concluded that Irwin was sane. New District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, who had defeated Dodge, resumed the prosecution. 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 pleaded 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.”
The case also focused attention on New York's systematic exclusion of women from juries in first-degree murder cases. On the eve of the initial trial date in September 1937, the process for selection of jurors for Irwin's trial began with the announcement by the Acting Commissioner of Jurors that none of the 841 names of potential jurors in the drum were women, despite the enactment of a statute expressly allowing women to serve as jurors. One day later, the court began to put women on jury lists in such cases.
- “‘Mad Sculptor’ Awaits Trial for his Triple Murder Easter Morn,” Cumberland (MD) Times, 1938-10-16 at p. 3.
- Curtis Gathje, “A Model Crime: A True Fiction” (Donald I. Fine: 1995) ISBN 1-55611-428-1.
- “Irwin May Be Termed ‘Insanity Faker’ by Lunacy Commission,” Lowell Sun, 1938-03-24 at p. 1.
- Editorial, “Upsetting an Insanity Plea,” Syracuse Herald, 1938-03-26 at p. 2.
- “Doctors Declare Irwin ‘Definitely Insane,’” The Daily Messenger, Canandaigua (NY), 1938-12-10 at p. 1.
- “Triple Slaying at Beekman Hill Reported Solved,” Joplin (MO) Globe, 1937-04-06 at p. 1.
- Harold Schechter. The Mad Sculptor. Boston and New York: New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, pp. 61, 80.
- Schechter pp. 53, 56-60.
- Manford Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee, alias Ellery Queen, “The Case of the Mad Sculptor,” The American Weekly, 1957-03-10 at p. 11.
- Jennifer Jane Marshall, “Clean Cuts: Procter & Gamble’s Depression-era Soap Carving Contests,” Winterthur Portfolio, Spring 2008.
- “Triple Slayer Works Out Fantastic Scheme for Cheating Electric Chair,” Joplin (MO) Globe, 1938-10-16 at p. 2.
- “Press: Murder for Easter,” Time Magazine, 1937-04-12.
- “Crime: Easter Killer,” Time Magazine, 1937-07-05.
- "Girl, Mother, Roomer Slain in Apartment," Portsmouth (OH) Times, 1937-03-29 at p. 1.
- “Life on the American Newsfront: The Case of the Murdered Model,” Life Magazine, 1937-04-12 at p. 31.
- "Sculptor Hunted as Triple Slayer; Linked to Weapon," New York Times, 1937-04-06.
- “N.Y. Police in Feverish Hunt for Gedeon Slayer,” Lowell Sun, 1937-04-06 at p. 1.
- Quentin Reynolds, “Courtroom: The Story of Samuel S. Leibowitz,” 119-23 (Macmillan: 1999), ISBN 0-374-52742-3.
- “Fugitive Robert Irwin Flees Ohio Hotel When Recognized As Suspect In Triple Murder,” Charleston (WV) Daily Mail, 1937-06-26 at p. 1.
- “Cross Trail of Triple Slayer,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, 1937-06-26 at p. 1.
- “Economist Editor John Dienhart in Retirement,” Suburbanite Economist, 1972-10-01 at p. S3.
- “Duncan Bauman was one of the Reporters Guarding Killer Irwin,” Humboldt Republican, 1937-07-02 at p. 1.
- “‘They’ll Undoubtedly Find Me Crazy,’ Declares Irwin,” Lowell Sun, 1937-06-28 at p. 1.
- “Widely Sought Murder Suspect in Hands of Law,” Ada (OK) Evening News, 1937-06-27 at p. 1.
- “Irwin Likens Himself to Radio Set,” Lowell Sun, 1937-06-28 at p. 3.
- “Irwin Speedily Indicted on Three Murder Counts; Ethel Is Witness,” The LaCrosse Tribune And Leader-Press, 1937-06-29 at p. 1.
- "Irwin is Indicted Quickly as Slayer," New York Times, 1937-06-30.
- "Irwin Found Sane; Trial Due Soon," New York Times, 1938-03-25.
- "Irwin Trial Set for Fall," New York Times, 1938-08-10.
- “‘Mad Sculptor’ To Go On Trial,” Hutchinson (KS) News-Herald, 1938-10-23 at p. 11.
- ”Irwin Faces Life Imprisonment for Easter Murders,” Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 1938-11-15 at p. 10.
- “Irwin Starts Life Term For Killing Gotham Trio,” Billings Gazette, 1938-11-29 at p. 1.
- “Irwin, Slayer Held Insane at Sing Sing, Is Removed to Dannemora State Hospital,” Syracuse Herald, 1938-12-11 at p. 4A.
- James Woolsey and Robert W. Andrews, “Books: Murdered model makes boffo study of scandal sheets,” “Stars” Sunday supplement, Syracuse Herald American, 1995-03-19 at p. 20.
- "No Women on Jury at Trial of Irwin" New York Times, 1937-09-08.
- "First Women Put on Jury Lists Here" New York Times, 1937-09-09.
- Jon Wallace, "A Murderous Clarity: A Reading of Thomas Berger's Killing Time," in Critical Essays on Thomas Berger, G. K. Hall, 1995. Edited by David W. Madden. p. 126