A Forgotten Lunatic Killer of Old New York

The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation

By Harold Schechter

When not handling his professorial duties as prof of literature at Queens College, writes penetrating true crime books about serial killers.

Schechter picked a richly disturbed mind to mine for this one, and mine it he does to enlightening effect, while also doing a good job of recreating the old Eastside of Manhattan, parading forth a large and interesting cast of characters, and exploring the tricky landscape of insanity pleas.

On Easter Sunday in 1937, the police were called to the Beekman Place apartment of Mary Gedeon, where they discovered her, her daughter Veronica (also known as Ronnie, party girl and nude model, among other things), and a lodger, Frank Byrnes, all murdered. Robert (birth name Fenelon) Irwin intended on murdering the woman who obsessed him, Ronnie’s married sister Ethel Gedeon, but she wasn’t present. The multiple murders provided the press with sensational fodder, which they made the most of.

While lost in the march of history and thousands more murders, Robert Irwin certainly could be cast as the archetype of the deranged killer. Raised, a word that barely applies, by a hyper religious mother who woefully neglected him and his two brothers, both criminals at an early age, Irwin began exhibiting violent behavior at a young age. Very bright, a voracious reader, and a skilled artisan, something of an autodidact, Irwin apprenticed with Lorado Taft, until, as with all the jobs he held, his violent temper got the best of him. As he grew older, he began spending more time in mental hospitals and as he became more possessed by his overarching theory of visualization, a method of projecting an object in what we would call holographic detail, he nearly disassociated from reality. His statements and writings, amply reproduced by Schechter, present an intriguing peek into a truly disturbed psyche, of which this is but a sample from his murder confession:

“Even if I die, that won’t be the end of it. That cycle comes back. These people I killed aren’t lost. Theirs are borrowed lives, and if I live I will reap them. I only meant to borrow one life. I will repay these lives by developing that power of visualizing, which is the next step in the evolution of the human race.”

In a time when the police could be quite brutal and the treatment of the mentally ill was in transition, Irwin did manage to gain the support of both compassionate and helpful people. Among them were psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a pioneer in forensic psychiatry and Samuel Leibowitz, the attorney known as the “Great Defender,” who worked tirelessly and at his own expense to acquit and free the Scottsboro Boys.

Schechter supplies plenty of period color, from somewhat scandalous details and salacious newspaper headlines, and enough insights to make the read worthwhile. Includes footnotes, bibliography, index, and a selection of photographs. w/c

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