In July, 2009, twenty-three-year-old Darlene Haynes, eight months pregnant at the time, was strangled to death with an electric cord. Her abdomen was then cut open and the nearly full-term fetus removed. The perpetrator turned out to be her close friend, Julie Corey, who had suffered a miscarriage three months earlier and evidently felt that the most efficient way of replacing her own lost baby was to murder her friend and rip the unborn child from her womb.
I mention this horrific case (which was back in the news recently when Corey was sentenced to life in prison) because it illustrates a phenomenon I've long been interested in. Killing your pregnant friend, slicing her open, and making off with the baby--which you then try to pass off as your own--is, arguably, a far more appalling crime than, say, a woman conspiring with her lover to free herself from a loveless marriage by murdering her husband. And yet, the Corey case hardly made a dent in public awareness, whereas the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray case, which inspired the classic noir novel and movie DOUBLE INDEMNITY, has entered into American cultural mythology.
Why is it that certain crimes strike such a resonant chord with the public, while others equally--or even more--heinous provoke nothing more than fleeting revulsion? And why do some murders become criminal sensations in their era, only to eventually fade from public memory, while others continue to live on in movies, books, etc.?
These are questions that have long intrigued me and led me to write my previous book, PSYCHO USA: FAMOUS AMERICAN KILLERS YOU NEVER HEARD OF, about once-sensational murder cases, dating back to the early 1800s, that are nowadays unknown even to many students of American criminal history. In researching the book, I happened upon one case in particular that struck me as especially rich in terms of story, character, social history, and other elements I look for in a potential book subject: that of Robert Irwin, a brilliant but profoundly unstable young artist who, on Easter Sunday, 1937, savagely murdered three people, including a beautiful "artist's model" named Ronnie Gedeon, who made her living posing in various states of undress for lurid pulp crime magazines and amateur "camera clubs." With its unbeatable combination of ingredients--a larger-than-life villain (immediately dubbed "The Mad Sculptor"), a stunningly beautiful, sexually adventurous victim, a particularly savage triple homicide, and the ultimate involvement of America's greatest criminal attorney--the case became a tabloid sensation. As I researched it, I discovered so many other fascinating features of Irwin's story--his bizarre religious background, his crackpot philosophies, his obsession with self-emasculation, his friendship with one of New York's leading psychiatrists (who would himself become a media celebrity)--that I couldn't believe no one had written the definitive history of the case before. Now (I can say in all modesty) someone has.
Harold Schechter's The Mad Sculptor was released on 27 February in both hardback and ebook formats.