Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leonski, Edward Joseph (1917–1942)

by Peter Pierce

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Edward Joseph Leonski (1917-1942), soldier and murderer, was born on 12 December 1917 at Kenvil, New Jersey, United States of America, sixth child of Russian-born parents John Leonski, labourer, and his wife Amelia, née Harkavitz. The family moved to East 77th Street, New York, during Edward's infancy. Leaving junior high school in 1933, he took a secretarial course and finished in the top 10 per cent of his class. He held several clerical jobs before working for Gristede Bros Inc. Superior Food Markets. When called up for military service on 17 February 1941, he left behind an unhappy family: a mother mentally unstable, two brothers with prison records and a third in a psychiatric hospital.

While stationed with the 52nd Signal Battalion at San Antonio, Texas, Leonski began to drink heavily, preferring such concoctions as whisky laced with hot peppers; he displayed his strength by vaulting on to bar counters and walking along them on his hands. About this time he tried to strangle a woman. The American authorities failed to comprehend the problem that they shipped to Australia in January 1942.

Arriving in Melbourne in February, Leonski was quartered at Camp Pell, Royal Park. He resumed his ferocious drinking and allegedly attempted to rape a woman in her St Kilda flat. Drunkenness led to thirty days in the stockade, but release was followed by another binge. On 3 May Mrs Ivy McLeod was found murdered in the doorway of a shop next to the Bleak House Hotel, Albert Park. Melbourne newspapers immediately dubbed it a 'Brownout Crime'. The unpopular wartime reduction of street lighting helped Leonski to commit two more murders undisturbed: of Mrs Pauline Thompson outside a city boarding house on 9 May and of Mrs Gladys Hosking in Royal Park on the 18th. All three were throttled; all were older than the killer; and, though their genitals were exposed, none was sexually assaulted.

Efficient detective work and the evidence of a soldier in whom Leonski had confided led to his arrest on 22 May. Sensitive to relations with its American ally, the Curtin government decided—after consultation with Britain and in the face of some strenuous opposition—that Leonski could be tried by a United States court martial. Following some dispute, he was declared sane, and was tried and found guilty on 17 July. Fair haired and of middle height, Leonski was powerfully built, boyish in appearance and cheerful in demeanour. He gave no explanation for his crimes, other than to say of one of his victims, 'I wanted that voice. I choked her'.

Held in the city watchhouse, he corresponded with a woman at Eltham, learned Oscar Wilde's 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' and became a communicant of the Catholic Church. Leonski was hanged at Pentridge prison on 9 November 1942. His remains were finally buried in a military cemetery in Honolulu. Albert Tucker's painting, 'Memory of Leonski' (in his 'Image of Evil' series, 1943), is privately owned; Leonski was also the subject of a novel by Andrew Mallon (1979) and of a feature film, Death of a Soldier (1986).

Select Bibliography

  • I. Chapman, Private Eddie Leonski, the Brownout Strangler (Syd, 1982)
  • M. McKernan, All In! (Melb, 1983)
  • People (Sydney), 30 Aug 1950
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4, 11-15, 20-29 May, 14-15 and 17-18 July 1942.

Citation details

Peter Pierce, 'Leonski, Edward Joseph (1917–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leonski-edward-joseph-10814/text19183, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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