Edward Joseph Leonski
12 December 1917
|Died||9 November 1942 (aged 24)|
|Cause of death||Execution by hanging|
|Other names||The Brownout Strangler|
The Singing Strangler
|Motive||"To get their voices"|
|Conviction(s)||Premeditated murder (3 counts)|
Span of crimes
|3 May – 18 May 1942|
|22 May 1942|
Edward Joseph Leonski (12 December 1917 – 9 November 1942) was a United States Army soldier and serial killer responsible for the strangling murders of three women in Melbourne, Australia in 1942. Leonski was dubbed The Brownout Strangler, after Melbourne's wartime practice of dropping the electricity voltage to conserve energy. His self-confessed motive for the killings was a twisted fascination with female voices, especially when they were singing, and his claim that he killed the women to "get their voices".
Leonski was initially arrested by Melbourne police, but was then transferred to U.S. military authorities for prosecution. He was court-martialed for murder under American military law, sentenced to death, and executed. Leonski was the first and only citizen of another country to have been tried and sentenced to death in Australia under the law of their own country.
The sixth child of immigrants John Leonski, laborer, and his wife Amelia, née Harkavitz, in Kenvil, New Jersey, Leonski grew up in an abusive, alcoholic family. One of his brothers was committed to a mental institution. According to a psychologist who interviewed Leonski during his trial, his mother had been overprotective and controlling. Leonski had been bullied by other neighborhood kids and called a mama's boy. Accordingly, the psychologist ruled that Leonski's crimes were born of his resentment and hatred of his mother and thus constituted "symbolic matricide."
Leonski worked for a time as a delivery boy.
He was called up for the U.S. Army in February 1941 and arrived in Melbourne, Australia, on 2 February 1942, after the United States had entered World War II. The Army had set up a temporary base (Camp Pell) in Royal Park just north of the city and the university. Prior to departing to Australia, Leonski had assaulted a woman in San Antonio, but was never disciplined for this.
On 3 May 1942, Ivy Violet McLeod, 40, was found dead in Albert Park, Melbourne. She had been beaten and strangled, and because she was found to be in possession of her purse it was evident that robbery was not the motive. Six days later 31-year-old Pauline Thompson was strangled after a night out. She was last seen in the company of a young man who was described as having an American accent.
Gladys Hosking, 40, was the next victim, murdered on 18 May while walking home from work at the Chemistry Department at the University of Melbourne. That same night, another woman said that a dishevelled American man had approached her asking for directions, seemingly out of breath and covered with mud. This description matched the individual Thompson was seen with on the night of her murder, as well as the descriptions given by several women who had survived recent attacks. These survivors and other witnesses were able to pick 24-year-old Leonski out of a line-up of American servicemen who were stationed in Melbourne. Leonski, a private in the 52nd Signal Battalion, was arrested and charged with three murders.
Trial and execution
Although Leonski's crimes were committed in Australia, the trial was conducted under American military law. Leonski confessed to the crimes and was convicted and sentenced to death at a general court-martial on 17 July 1942. American general Douglas MacArthur confirmed the sentence on 14 October, and a board of review, appointed by MacArthur, upheld the findings and sentence on 28 October. General Court-Martial Order 1 promulgated Leonski's death sentence on 1 November. In a departure from normal procedure, on 4 November, MacArthur personally signed the order of execution (in subsequent executions this administrative task was entrusted to MacArthur's Chief of Staff, Richard Sutherland). Leonski was hanged at HM Prison Pentridge on 9 November.
Leonski's defence attorney, former Colorado lawyer Lieutenant Ira C. Rothgerber, Jr., attempted to win an external review, even from the U.S. Supreme Court, but was unable to do so. Leonski was temporarily interred at several cemeteries in Australia. His remains were eventually permanently interred in Section 9, Row B, Site 8 at Schofield Barracks Post Cemetery on the island of O'ahu, Hawaii. His grave is located in a section of the facility reserved for prisoners who died in military custody.
In the 1950s, the case was the subject of a two-episode radio dramatization titled "A Strong Man", which was part of a series titled D24. In keeping with usual practice on the series, some names and details were changed, although the dramatization otherwise followed events faithfully.
- "Melbourne Police hunt "Brownout" Strangler". The Sun. Sydney, NSW. 20 May 1942. p. 3. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
- "Leonski, Enigma In Life And In Death, Carries His Secret To Grave". Truth. Sydney, NSW. 15 November 1942. p. 14. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
- "Killed To Show His Strength". Mirror. Perth, WA. 19 April 1952. p. 8. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
- Hore, Monique, "Edward Leonski hanged by US military on Australian soil in The Hangman's Journal, part IV", (Melbourne) HeraldSun, 7 June 2012.
- Robinson, Russell. "Macabre and detailed hangman's journal reproduced in detail for True Crime Scene". The Daily Telegraph. News Corporation. Retrieved 26 December 2017.
- Pierce, Peter. "Leonski, Edward Joseph (1917–1942)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
- "Murderer's body will be brought to Brisbane". Truth. Brisbane. 27 May 1945. p. 18. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
- "Low type trick on killer's mother". Mirror. Perth, WA. 19 September 1942. p. 19. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
- Associated Press, "Killed 3, Charge", The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Washington, Sunday 7 June 1942, Volume 60, Number 24, page 13.
- Sparrow, Jeff (2 July 2018). "The 'Brownout Strangler': how a smiling psychopath terrorised wartime Melbourne". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 22 April 2023.
- "The Brownout Killer: He murdered three women under the cover of city's wartime dimness". Brisbane Telegraph. 16 June 1950. p. 5. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
- "Leonski Hanged - Murderer of Three Women". The Age. Melbourne, Australia. 10 November 1942. p. 3. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
- "Leonski Guilty on all Charges - Sentenced to Death". The Age. Melbourne, Australia. 18 July 1942. p. 3. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
- Biography of Ira C. Rothgerber
- University of Denver Libraries, Special Collections and Archives: Rothgerber Family Scrapbooks and Other Papers: Ira C. Rothgerber, Jr., 1913-1992.
- Killer's Remains To Be Buried For 3rd Time, The (Perth) Mirror, (Saturday, 2 June 1945), p.12.
- Hoover, Will, "How one executed soldier finally arrived at Plot 9", Honolulu Advertiser, 22 April 2001.
- Hoover, Will, "Mysterious Schofield plot filled with untold stories", Honolulu Advertiser, 22 April 2001.
- Harris, James C. (1 September 2014). "Images of Modern Evil". JAMA Psychiatry. 71 (9): 982–3. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2753. ISSN 2168-622X. PMID 25188258.
- on YouTube.
- Chapman, Ivan D., Private Eddie Leonski, the Brownout Strangler, Hale & Iremonger, (Sydney), 1982.
- Dower, Alan, "Women sang for this strangler", The (Melbourne) Herald, (Saturday, 11 April 1953), p.14.
- Killed to show his Strength, The (Perth) Mirror, (Saturday, 19 April 1952), p.8.
- Leonski, Enigma In Life And In Death, Carries His Secret To Grave: Singlet Vital Clue, The (Sydney) Truth, (Sunday, 15 November 1942), p.14.
- Mallon, Andrew, Leonski: The Brown-Out Murders, Outback Press, (Collingwood), 1979.
- Mathews, Jack, "When the Whole Truth is Not Enough", The Age, (Tuesday, 15 October 1985), p.14.
- Mann, Harry, "'So Long Pal, They're Gonna Give Me A Face Lift!': Brutal Slayer Of 3 Women Joked On His Execution Day", The (Perth) Mirror, (Saturday, 19 April 1952), p.8.
- Shaw, Ian W., Murder at Dusk: How US Soldier and Psychopath Eddie Leonski Terrorised Wartime Melbourne, Hachette Australia, (Sydney), 2018. ISBN 978-0-7336-4045-2
National Archives of Australia
- A472: W7493: Part 1: "Court Martial of Edward J. Leonski Pages 10-338 excepting pp 192 & 193 which numbers were missed by the typist, and 240 which is missing."
- A472: W7493: Part 2: "Transcript of Evidence - Leonski Murder Trial - U.S. Military Forces Pages 1-388 and covering letter."
- A472: W7493: Part 3: "Records of Trial Leonski, Edward J. U.S. ARMY Prosecution Exhibits Nos 1 and 51." (NAA catalog entry)
- A472: W7493: Part 4: "Record of trial of Leonski, Edward J. Supplement A (Exhibits)."
- A472: W7493: Part 5: "Court Martial of Edward J. Leonski." (NAA catalog entry)
- A816: 1/301/542: "Private E.J. Leonski." (NAA catalog entry)
- MP508/1: 4/702/943: "Trials of American Servicemen for Crimes under Aust. Law Case of Pte E J Leonski."
- A5954: 287/6: "Leonski Case. Representations to Commander in Chief, Southwest Pacific Area. October 1942."
Australian National Maritime Museum
- 00017254: Three page handwritten letter by United States soldier Private Edward Leonski: page one of a letter, apparently addressed to "Rene", written while Leonski was in custody in Melbourne. (ANMM catalog entry)
- 00017255: Three page handwritten letter by United States soldier Private Edward Leonski: page two of a letter, apparently addressed to "Rene", written while Leonski was in custody in Melbourne. (ANMM catalog entry)
- 00017256: Three page handwritten letter by United States soldier Private Edward Leonski: page three of a letter, apparently addressed to "Rene", written while Leonski was in custody in Melbourne. (ANMM catalog entry)
- Hyde, Penny, "The Prosecutor and the Perpetrator: Murder in Melbourne…", Australian National Maritime Museum, 23 November 2012.