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Ivory Soap Murders – Podcast #60

It was back on March 28, 1937, when Joseph Gedeon showed up with a bouquet of white lilies to 216 East 50th Street in the fashionable Beekman Hill section of New York City. Gedeon had been separated from his wife Mary for the previous few years and he had been invited by her to join the rest of the family for Easter dinner. Upon arrival at the apartment building, he pressed the buzzer to be let up, but there was no reply. So, he waited in the lobby for his daughter Ethel and her husband Joseph Kudner. Upon their arrival, they buzzed up again but still received no answer.

The trio sought out the building’s superintendent and proceeded upstairs. To their surprise, the door to the 4th-floor apartment was ajar. At first, everything seemed fine. No one was in the living room, bathroom, and kitchen. Dad proceeded to his wife’s bedroom and, again, it was empty.

Mrs. Gedeon sublet two of the bedrooms to boarders, so they first checked the room of a professional model named Lucy Blacco. Upon opening the door, Mr. Gedeon discovered the nude body of his 20-year-old daughter Veronica – Ronnie for short. She had been strangled to death.

They then proceeded to the last bedroom in the house, which had been sublet to a 35-year-old man named Frank Byrnes. He too was dead – brutally stabbed eleven times.

But there was no sign of the mom. Police quickly arrived and began to assess the situation. Mrs. Gedeon’s dog Touchi, a Pekingese, kept whining while hiding beneath the bed that Ronnie was lying dead upon. Then, suddenly, the dog lurched out and nipped at one of the detectives before retreating back under the bed. That’s when Joseph Gedeon got down on his knees to grab the dog and discovered the body of his wife. The 54-year-old mother had also been strangled.

So here we have an apartment with four people, three of which were dead. Immediately, attention turned to the missing roommate Lucy Blanco, but daughter Ethel knew that she was out of town for the holiday weekend.

The press reported that there was little evidence of what had happened. Ronnie had some bruises on her neck and throat, probably from trying to fend off her attacker. Her hair was partially in curlers, which told detectives that she must have been in the bathroom and had been unable to complete putting them on. A search of the bathroom found that the remaining curlers were on the edge of the sink, while her dress, slip, and brassier were sitting on a hamper. What was really bizarre was that her fur coat and pocketbook were inside –yes inside – the hamper.

A neighbor said that she heard a scream about 1 AM, which police concluded was the time that mom was killed. They deduced from the evidence that the murderer then went to Frank Byrnes’s room, where the coroner determined that the fatal blow came from a very thin, sharp instrument – something like an awl or icepick – that had been pushed through his ear canal and into his brain. The murder weapon was never found. It was also learned that Byrnes was an out-of-work waiter who lost his most recent job because he had lost most of his hearing. That means that he never heard the murder of Mrs. Gedeon and probably was asleep at the time of his attack.

One further clue was the dog itself. Witnesses said that the dog barked incessantly at strangers, but they hadn’t heard a single woof during the time of the murders. That suggested to the police that the murderer was someone that both the dog and the family was well acquainted with.

The murderer appeared to have waited for Ronnie to get home, upon which he murdered her and left. There was no sign of a robbery or fight. The police were fairly certain that Ronnie was the prime target, so all attention turned to the many acquaintances that she had.

So, this would be a good point to take a brief pause and tell you a little bit about Ronnie Gedeon. One could say that she was a bit of a wild one. Her dad was later quoted as saying “It’s hard to say now, but Ronnie was wild and undisciplined. She simply wouldn’t listen to a word that I said.”

Blonde and beautiful, Ronnie was already a seasoned photography model at the age of twenty. Most of her work was on the lurid side – either nude or semi-nude – which made this case a sensational news story in its day. She had posed for a number of true crime magazine pictorials and covers, which, when looking back, seemed to eerily predict how her life would come to an end. Titles that she posed for included “Pretty But Cheap”, “Party Girl”, and “I Am a White Slave”. All classics. Right…

She had been married at sixteen to a guy named Robert Flower, but the union was later annulled on the grounds that she was a minor. Ronnie then moved in with her parents, but dad couldn’t tolerate her wild ways and moved out to live alone behind his upholstery shop.

Ronnie was known to have had numerous boyfriends and was engaged to a guy named Lincoln Hauser. The engagement couldn’t have been too serious, since she was out on a date with a Wall Street messenger named Stephen Butter, Jr. on the night of the murder. Drunk as a skunk, he returned her home at 3 AM. A short time later she was dead.

Her ex-husband, her fiancé, and Ronnie’s date the night of the murder were all tracked down and all had alibis. Someone else must have done it. When her vacationing roommate Lucy returned, she was asked to look to see if anything was missing. The only thing she noticed missing was the alarm clock in her room. Maybe it was lost or maybe it was stolen, but it does seem like an incredibly odd thing for a murderer to steal.

The police then turned to Ronnie’s diary, which she had kept for five years. In it, she indicated that she had an affair with a married artist and that an illegal operation was performed. I’ll let you fill in the blanks as to what that illegal operation was. They tracked him down and he admitted to the affair, but again had a solid alibi for the night of the murder.

She also had a Little Black Book – really just an address book with more than 125 men and women listed in it. Police did their best to check every one of these leads. Some turned out to be photographers and artists for whom she had posed, others were models themselves, and still, others were doctors and the other normal address book contacts.

All the evidence seemed to point to just one man – the man that found the bodies in the first place – the father Joseph Gedeon. The police needed conclusive proof to charge him with the crime but needed to stall for time to gather it.

They searched his upholstery shop and found three pieces of evidence that further suggested his guilt. First, he had a collection of nude photography. Second, he had long, thin upholsterer’s needles that were suitable for stabbing. And finally, he had an unregistered pistol. It was on the gun charge that he was arrested.

He was questioned by police for more than 30 hours and claimed that he had been out bowling that night. Police determined that this was untrue. His bond was set at $10,000 (about $160,000 today), which was an absurd amount of money for failing to register a gun. His lawyers were able to get it reduced to $1,000 and he was released. And the first thing he did was to go back to the scene of the crime with his lawyers.  Dumb move. If the press and public could act as the jury, Gedeon was tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime.

But, secretly, the police knew otherwise. First, there was a single gray, suede glove found, which was much too large for Mr. Gedeon’s hands. Then there was a bloody fingerprint that didn’t match, either. Investigators found bits of skin and beard stubble under both of the female victims’ fingernails, but, as you could probably guess, he had no scratches on his face.

And lastly, there was the soap. Two soap carvings to be precise. They were believed to have been carved during the time period between the murder of mom and the boarder and the murder of daughter Ronnie.

At the time, soap sculptures were a big thing. Each year, Proctor & Gamble, the makers of Ivory Soap, had a national contest to see who could create the best soap sculpture. Now, these were not simple carvings like the tiki heads that I made in middle school, these were extravagant, highly detailed, and original pieces. And the two pieces left behind by the killer were supposedly no exception.

Police contacted the foremost expert on Ivory Soap carvings – a guy named Henry Bern – and he was asked to examine the evidence. He told investigators that he had no clue who may have carved the pieces, and dismissed them as being amateurish. He later admitted in P&G documents that he recognized the carving style as that of the previous year’s winner, but couldn’t state that because of the bad publicity that would have come from the association of Ivory Soap with the murders. To this day, no one knows if he correctly knew the murderer or not.

Two days after Gedeon’s release on bail – April 7th of 1937 – about ten days after the murder – that the police suddenly announced that they knew who the real killer was. His name was Robert Irwin and he was a sculptor who had been in and out of mental institutions. BINGO! In what was to become the largest manhunt since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping 5-years-earlier, police spread the word that they now believed that the 29-year-old artist had committed these crimes.

Robert Irwin
Robert Irwin. Image appeared on page 2 of the June 28, 1937 issue of the Bergen Evening Record.

They thought that they would find Irwin quickly, but it just didn’t work out that way. Nearly three months later, the police got the break that they needed.  Irwin was working as a busboy and dishwasher in the bar at Cleveland’s Statler Hotel. In his spare time, the artist would draw pictures to earn some extra cash. He had a bit of downtime one night and decided to sketch a 19-year-old pantry maid named Henrietta Koscianski. While he drew, she had nothing better to do than to study his face.

Two days later, while reading a story on the triple homicide in a detective magazine, she couldn’t help but notice the strong resemblance between her busboy-slash-artist friend and the suspected murderer pictured in the magazine. The next day she went into the kitchen and questioned him as to what his last name was. He replied Murray, as in Bob Murray. He denied ever hearing of a Robert Irwin, but as soon as Henrietta was out of sight, he walked right out the back door of the place.

His next stop was Chicago. Irwin knew that his days of freedom were numbered, so he telephoned the Chicago Tribune and offered to surrender, but they thought he was a screwball and turned him down. He then contacted the Herald & Examiner – a Hearst paper – and they agreed to pay him cash in exchange for his story.

Irwin was hidden away at the Morrison Hotel for a couple of days while the Chicago police hunted high-and-low for him. The papers ran his complete confession with every shocking detail of the crime. It was an incredible scoop for the paper, so they milked it for all it was worth – by splitting the story into multiple parts. He finally surrendered to the Cook County Sheriff and was flown back to Manhattan.

Without going into a lot of detail here – you can find his complete confession in just about any newspaper archive – Irwin was an artistically gifted orphan who had spent much of his adult life in and out of mental institutions. Born in Los Angeles as Fenelon Arroya Seco Irwin, he moved around quite a bit before ending up in NYC in the early 1930s.

In 1932, he needed a place to stay, so a friend took him to a rooming house owned by Mrs. Gedeon. It was as a boarder there that he saw the woman of his dreams for the first time – no it wasn’t her daughter Ronnie – it was her sister Ethel. He became obsessed with her, but she had no interest in the slightest.

It’s not clear if it was his decision or if the court committed him, but he somehow ended up doing a stint at the Rockland Psychiatric Center for nearly three years. During this time, his mental illness became progressively worse. Irwin became convinced that if he could get the obsessive thoughts of Ethel out of his head, then he could live on a spiritually higher plane and finally realize his true artistic potential.

At first, he was determined to emasculate himself. Then his mind turned to just killing Ethel outright.  And that’s why he showed up at the Gedeon’s apartment that night.  Ethel was his only target.

At first, no one was home. When Mrs. Gedeon finally arrived, she asked Irwin to take the dog for a walk, which he gladly did.

Upon returning from the walk, Mrs. Gedeon was friendly and introduced Irwin to her new border Frank Byrnes. Then Bob Irwin waited, and waited, and waited for Ethel to get home. That is when he started questioning Mrs. Gedeon. He didn’t like what she had to say. Ethel wasn’t coming home that night or any other night. She had since married and lived elsewhere. Mom asked Irwin to leave, but he wouldn’t. An argument erupted. He grabbed her by the throat and she put up quite a struggle, causing bloody scratches to her face. He then put her lifeless body under the bed.

Next, Ronnie came home and spent what seemed like an eternity in the bathroom. Upon exiting, he whacked her over the head with a blackjack that he had fashioned out of a towel and a bar of soap. It just shattered, so Irwin grabbed her by the throat, took her to the bedroom, and held her that way for more than an hour before she gasped her last breath of air.

Lastly, in a sequential order that the police got wrong, he walked into the bedroom of Frank Byrnes and stabbed him with the ice pick that he had brought along to kill Ethel with. He calmly washed up and then desperately searched the apartment for things to remind him of Ethel. All he could find was that missing alarm clock and a few pictures.

The Mad Sculptor, as he would become known as in the press, was charged with first-degree murder and was, amazingly, determined by doctors to be legally sane. Represented in court by Samuel Leibowitz – the same lawyer I mentioned in the Bob-Haired Bandit story – he pleaded innocent to the charges. Seven days after the trial started, Leibowitz arranged for Irwin to plead guilty to the charges in exchange for a life sentence. The judge gave him a term of 139 years – eligible for parole on July 26, 2031.

Robert Irwin was sent up the Hudson River to serve out his time at Sing Sing correctional facility. He wasn’t there very long before psychiatrists decided that he was schizophrenic. After 38 years in state prisons for the criminally insane, he died of cancer in 1975 at the age of 67. He is buried on the grounds of the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, NY.

In case you are curious, that gun charge against Joseph Gedeon was dismissed on March 23rd of 1938.

After the murders, no one was willing to rent the apartment that the three victims had lived in. The superintendent was finally able to lease it to a hotel worker named Syndey Pillie, who said that he was “not superstitious”. On August 1, 1940, a little over three years after the murders took place, police arrived at the apartment to arrest Pillie on pornography charges. As they were all leaving, Pillie said that he forgot to turn off the gas on the stove. He went back into the kitchen and jumped out the window to his death. Coincidental? Cursed? Maybe. Let’s just say that the entire building was torn down and replaced by a 6-story building in 1960.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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