On 9 November 1942, serial killer Edward Leonski was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne.
Edward Joseph Leonski was an American soldier and serial killer responsible for the strangling murders of three women in Melbourne, Australia.
Leonski was known as The Brownout Strangler, given Melbourne’s wartime status of keeping low lighting (not as stringent as a wartime blackout).
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 at their voices.”
Leonski is the first and only citizen of another country to have been tried and sentenced to death in Australia under the law of his own country.
Born 12 December in Kenvil, New Jersey, he was the sixth child of Russian-Jewish immigrants John Leonski, labourer, and his wife Amelia, née Harkavitz.
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 February 2, 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.
On May 3, 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 May 18 while walking home from work at the Chemistry Library at Melbourne University. That same night, another woman said that a disheveled 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 on Australian soil, 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 July 17, 1942.
American General Douglas MacArthur confirmed the sentence on October 14, and a Board of Review upheld the findings and sentence on October 28. General Court-Martial Order 1 promulgated Leonski’s death sentence on November 1.
In a departure from normal procedure, on November 4, 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 Pentridge Prison on 9 November 9.
Leonski’s defense attorney, former Colorado lawyer Lieutenant Ira C. Rothgerber, Jr. (1913–1992), 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 dramatisation 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 dramatisation otherwise followed events faithfully.
A 1986 feature film, Death of a Soldier, directed by Philippe Mora, was based on Leonski, who was played by American actor Reb Brown.
It is believed that the Australian painter Albert Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil series was somewhat influenced by Leonski’s murders.
The 2015 television program Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer (series one, episode one) focused on Leonski.