LIT True-crime fans will know the name Harold Schechter: the prolific author and Queens College professor has written books on such nefarious characters as H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, and Ed Gein, as well as mystery novels centered around Edgar Allan Poe. His latest is The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, 386 pp., $24 hardcover, $9.99 eBook). It tells the disturbing story of Robert Irwin, a talented yet deeply troubled sculptor who slaughtered three people, including the mother and glamorous sister of a woman he was obsessed with, in 1937 New York City.
The killings — which took place in an upscale neighborhood that was, oddly, no stranger to violence — seized the public's imagination, and the police investigation and Irwin's trial were exhaustively covered by the tabloid media. Though the case has largely been forgotten today, the story still makes for undeniably compelling reading. I called up Schechter to learn more.
SF Bay Guardian How did you come across the story of Robert Irwin?
Harold Schechter For my last book — Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of — I was looking at crimes that had generated a lot of publicity in their time, but had since faded from public memory. The Irwin case was one that I became fascinated with. I wrote an entry on it in that book, but the more I looked into it, the more substantial a subject it seemed.
Originally, [The Mad Sculptor] was just going to be about the Irwin case, but then I kept coming across references to these other tabloid-sensation crimes that had occurred in the same neighborhood, Beekman Place, in the span of 18 months. So that became the book.
SFBG What transforms a crime into a "tabloid-sensation" crime?
HS I just came across this really interesting quote from a well-known book that was published in the 1930s. The person said, referring to [1922's highly publicized] Hall-Mills murder case, "The Hall-Mills case had all the elements needing to satisfy an exacting public taste for the sensational. It was grisly, it was dramatic, it involved wealth and respectability. It had just the right amount of sex interest, and in addition, it took place close to the great metropolitan nerve center of the American press."
When I write my books, I look for crimes that have a certain kind of story to them. It's not just the gruesomeness of the murder, or the number of murders. Some of the most famous crimes in American history, like the Leopold and Loeb case, just involved one single murder. But it had colorful characters involved, plus that combination of money, violence, and sex. In the case of Robert Irwin, the mere fact that the tabloids could call him "The Mad Sculptor" made it immediately gripping. It conjures up all of these horror-movie elements.
SFBG Other than newspapers, what were your research sources?
HS The psychiatrist who treated [Irwin], Fredric Wertham, was another thing that attracted me to the case. I've been interested in him for many years, partly because of his connection to the comic-book industry. [Wertham wrote 1954's The Seduction of the Innocent, which accused comic books of contributing to juvenile delinquency.] Also, the second true-crime book I ever wrote was Deranged, about cannibal pedophile Albert Fish, and Wertham had been his psychiatrist, too.