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The Kneeling Corpse Murders: Leslie 'Mad Dog' Irvin

The Kneeling Corpse Murders: Leslie 'Mad Dog' Irvin

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The Kneeling Corpse Murders: Leslie 'Mad Dog' Irvin

381 pagine
5 ore
Jan 6, 2021


In the mid-1950s, six chilling murders tightened the grip of fear on the residents of southwest Indiana and northwest Kentucky. Victims and locations were random: a pregnant woman working in the family store, a filling station attendant, a rural housewife, and three members of one family. There was one significant common factor in all the murders. Each victim was made to kneel, their hands tied behind their backs, and shot once in the head with a .38 caliber weapon. Newspapers dubbed the slayings ‘The Kneeling Corpse Murders.’

With no leads, no suspects, and virtually no clues to point to one, police were stymied in their attempts to identify the murderer. A chance encounter would bring the break they needed. After he was apprehended, it would be a long time before the tumult caused by Mad Dog Irvin was finally over. The relaxed and trusting days before the killings would be forever altered and the case would go on to the U.S. Supreme Court producing a decision that affects legal journalism to this day.

Jan 6, 2021

Informazioni sull'autore

A good chunk of my time growing up in southern Indiana was spent reading books; all kinds of books, but especially mysteries. In spite of various earlier occupations in my life, I have worked as a Registered Nurse for a couple of decades. Among my passel of hobbies, one of my favorite is genealogy. I started pestering busy adults with questions about my family history when I was twelve years old. Over the years, I have dug through family papers and photos, scrolled through and squinted at faded and tattered microfilm, traveled to distant places in search of crumbling documents, and spent countless hours in cemeteries searching for stones. I was lucky enough to experience the thrill of discovering and uncovering the markers of some very long lost ancestors. I enjoy writing mysteries that combine genealogy and history, and I hope my readers enjoy it as well.

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The Kneeling Corpse Murders - Cynthia Raleigh


From December of 1954 through March of 1955, southwestern Indiana and northwestern Kentucky were held in thrall by a series of chilling murders. Investigation of the crime was scant; there were no suspects and virtually no clues to point to one. The only pattern was that all the victims were made to kneel and shot in the head with a .38-caliber weapon. Even though the murderer was caught, the communities affected never returned to the more relaxed, trusting days they had enjoyed before the killing started. It would be a long time before the tumult caused by the Mad Dog killer was put to rest.


I grew up in Evansville, Indiana. Although my childhood took place after this story had come to an end, it was soon enough afterward that I remember the name of Leslie Irvin being spoken in hushed tones evoking the dread his short but disastrous killing spree ignited, not just in Evansville, but throughout the tristate area. The house I lived in as an adult until a few years ago was a scant four blocks from the site of the first murder. Every time I’d pass the old store, which was nearly every day, I’d remind myself to look into that crime and get the whole story to put together the fragments I’d heard as child. Now, working as a writer, I finally had time to step into the 1950s to find out as much as I could about Leslie Irvin and the people whose lives he changed forever.

This book tells ‘Mad Dog’ Irvin’s story. I wanted to write a book that includes more than solely the well-known events. Because these events occurred just over sixty-five years ago, as of this writing, sources of information are more limited than for crimes committed today. Contemporary newspapers, court documents, death certificates, funeral home records, and taped or written interviews with people who remember are my main sources.

I’m a lifelong, avid reader of history, a genealogist, and have spent most of my working career as a Registered Nurse, so it comes naturally for me to be detail-oriented. I haven’t embroidered the story because the truth is appalling enough. Where there is supposition, I state it as such. What you’ll get in this book is what happened: before, during, and after the murders. Law enforcement procedures and investigative protocols of 1955, both in the police departments and in the courtroom, were quite different than today in many ways. I didn’t want to lose that flavor by embellishing or sensationalizing the content.

Because fewer techniques existed for the discovery and processing of evidence at the time, there is scant information about the comparatively small amount of evidence obtained in the case for which Leslie Irvin was tried. Evidence collected for the other five homicides was sometimes referred to in the press but was not discussed in depth since those cases never went to trial. While the Evansville law enforcement agencies in 1955 did have specialized personnel to collect fingerprints, do ballistics testing, and for crime scene photography, the 1950s were still an era of putting shoe leather to pavement to solve crimes. But without a solid clue, without direction, where to go?

A lot was reported about Leslie Irvin and the crime scenes from before his arrest and the coverage continued throughout his trial. That fact was the impetus for the dizzying amount of appeals, motions, petitions, and hearings batted around for eight years like the birdie in a never-ending badminton game. Eight years isn’t unusual for appeals cases now but the 50s were the days of death sentences being carried out within months not thirty years later.

I’ve chosen to write about the events as they happened. The book starts with the first murder, citing what facts were known at the time the murder was discovered, and continues through the conclusion of all trials and appeals with the more detailed information included as it emerged.

Throughout the text, I’ve included quotes from key figures in the trial as well as Mad Dog himself; they offer us a glimpse of the personality of the people involved. Leslie Irvin didn’t testify in his behalf and when in public he was most often silent. When he did say something, it was printed in the newspaper.

If you prefer true crime with a heavy forensic slant and detailed accounts of interrogations as they happened, those things just aren’t available other than in the form of witness testimony. The trial transcript weighs in around 4,500 pages and the Gibson County Clerk’s office has verified that it is no longer in their possession. A copy was requested by a judge in New York back in the 1960s and it seems probable that the one and only copy was shipped to him but was never returned. I did obtain the 175 pages of court dockets to use as a guide which helped me better understand what happened when. I also contacted the Evansville Police Department two times to find out if the recorded confession still existed, not in an attempt to obtain a copy — although that would have been a real prize — but to see if it was still around. Did it survive? I never received a response.

The initial trial is a large part of how this case ended up where it did and is the source of most of the detail of the murders. I’ve included as much information as possible about who the witnesses were, what they said, how the attorneys from both sides approached their case, and how all of this affected the eventual outcome of Leslie Irvin’s sentence as well as the toll it took on the survivors and family. There were lots of witnesses, much testimony, many exhibits. I’ve included it. It’s all a part of the history of this landmark case and it reveals insights bit by bit as the witnesses speak.

An historically notable fact about this case is that it wound up being heard by the Supreme Court of the United States and that decision impacted the way court cases are covered in the media as well as the laws governing legal journalism to this day.

I’m a genealogist at heart and I love people’s stories. The lives of the victim’s families have little to do with the moment they found their loved one in a puddle of blood. The witnesses are more than the person who spent a few minutes on the stand. Law enforcement officers aren’t two-dimensional figures represented solely by a comment given to a reporter as they hurry about their duties. I like to know what happened to the people left behind. Who were they other than the bereaved family member? What was special about them? It’s all part of the history.

Likewise, the historian in me is interested in places: homes, businesses, and locations where the crimes took place as well as the businesses Leslie Irvin frequented. Are those places still there? If not, what is there? What did the city look like when Mad Dog was roaming the streets?

For those who share my curiosity, Part Four of this book is divided into four sections. The first contains the recollections of people who lived in the area during Leslie Irvin’s killing spree or who remember their family members talking about it. In the second and third sections are brief biographies of the surviving family members, key law enforcement officers, legal representatives for both the state and defense, and the courts. I’ve also included information about the criminal charges against, and the fate of, the two men who were inmates at the same time as Leslie Irvin and who provided statements about his escape. They had their own crimes, their own stories, and in one case, there’s a hint of another possible crime from the past.

I wanted to give these people, whether willing participants or not, a presence, a voice, meager though it may be. The fourth section contains the status of locations that were part of Leslie Irvin’s life and crimes.

Cynthia Raleigh

July, 2020


The Murders

Mary Holland

Evansville, Indiana

It was just after 11 p.m. on December 2, 1954. The bell suspended over the door clanged as a customer exited with his purchase. Mary Frances Holland was alone in the Bellemeade Liquor Store she and her husband co-owned with her father, Timolean Foster. The usual steady stream of cars on the mostly residential street had slowed for the night. Only an occasional car or truck made their way past the store perched on the sidewalk close to the street. Snow crunched under tires as it froze again after the day’s traffic. Mary’s husband, Addison, better known around Evansville as Doc, would be arriving after finishing his shift at the L&N Railroad.

Business had been good that day; people were stocking up for Christmas entertaining. Mary had kept busy with customers and the cases of locally-brewed Sterling beer delivered that morning sat unopened just inside the front door. Some of the boxes had ‘Merry Christmas’ printed in scrolling letters on the side.

Mary rolled up the sleeves of her blouse and switched off the electric space heater. It helped keep the poorly-insulated frame building warm while she served customers but she wouldn’t need it moving boxes and shelving inventory. The piles of boxes were close behind the exterior wooden panel door, the one with white letters hand-painted on the glass window that read, If you are not 21, Stay Out! The warning was repeated on a sign inside the entrance, We do not serve minors. Mary cut open the top of a box and set to work.

Doc Holland had been working for the railroad for about ten years and was now Assistant Yard Master. He thought about Mary as he drove to the liquor store to help close up for the night. He knew she’d be tired. The couple were expecting a child that summer. Mary had been at work in the store since 5 pm and he’d be glad for them to get home, only a couple of blocks away from their business. It was about 11:20 p.m. when Doc walked through the door. There were no customers inside. He didn’t see Mary but it wasn’t cause for alarm. He called her name as he slipped off his coat and tossed it over a stack of opened boxes.

There was still no response from Mary and the store was silent. Figuring his wife was in the stock room and couldn’t hear him, Doc made his way along the narrow aisle. As he neared the counter, he saw an open bottle of Calvert’s whiskey sitting near the cash register. As he got closer, he saw the register drawer was open, and empty. Fear shot through him and for a moment he just stood in place. Doc was spurred into motion when he saw Mary’s purse dumped out on the floor, her billfold gone. Not giving them a thought, he stepped over three dimes lying in the aisle and called out, louder this time, Mary, it’s me! No answer.

Doc hastened to the rear of the shop. A tiny room partitioned off the main area served as a washroom; maybe Mary was hiding or had been locked inside. The light in the room was dim compared to the bright lights of the store. He could barely see his wife slumped on the floor in a partial kneeling position, her hands tied behind her back with twine and her head against the wall. Her body was tightly wedged between the toilet and the wall. She didn’t respond to his voice or his touch. Rivulets of blood covered her face and had dripped down her blouse. Concluding his wife had been savagely beaten in a robbery, Doc ran to the telephone to summon police and an ambulance.

First on the scene were Policewoman Nellie Williams and Sgt. Robert Gander who were patrolling the neighborhood that night. Officer Gander tried to extricate Mary but she was wedged tightly and, afraid of causing more harm, he waited until more officers arrived. Once Mary was freed from her position on the floor, it was clear that, while she had been beaten, it wasn’t her cause of death. She also had a bullet wound in her right temple. The .38-caliber bullet had passed through her skull and brain, exiting on the opposite side. It was now embedded in the wall. Mary Holland was transported to Baptist Hospital where the 33-year-old expectant mother was pronounced dead. The total amount stolen was estimated to be between $150-250.

Whitney Wesley Kerr

Evansville, Indiana

At 29 years old, Whitney Wesley Kerr was a veteran of two wars: WWII and Korea. As part of the 502nd Parachute Infantry, he served as a paratrooper in the Battle of the Bulge. He suffered severe frostbite to his feet and narrowly avoided amputation. He married Peggy Arnold around 1949, soon after he reenlisted. Before he was sent to the Pacific, he and Peggy welcomed two children, Robert Wesley and Debbie. Once Wesley returned home from Korea, it was time to settle down somewhere and raise their family.

The couple had lived in Evansville for a couple of months. Wesley took any odd job he could find while looking for steady work and was glad to have landed a stable job. He worked the late shift at the 24-hour, full-service Barnett’s Standard Oil Station at the intersection of Fares Avenue and E. Franklin, less than a mile from the Kerr home. He’d rather have a day shift, but since he and Peggy had welcomed 3-month-old Glenda Jeannie to their family and Christmas was almost here, he had no complaints.

While Wesley was at work, he and Peggy spent a few minutes on the phone shortly before midnight, the last few minutes of December 22, 1954. They were planning to travel to Dayton, Tennessee to celebrate Christmas Day with Wesley’s family.

Between 1:30 and 1:45 a.m., now the wee hours of December 23, a car pulled into the lot. The driver exited the car and saw a man in an overcoat, whom he assumed was the attendant, open the door and step outside. The driver hollered for him to stay inside where it was warm since he was only stopping to buy a soda from the machine. The ‘attendant’ returned the wave and stepped back inside but stood watching through the glass door. Soon, the customer was again behind the wheel of his car and waved as he drove off the premises. The man in the overcoat hurriedly left the building, stuffing a wallet deep into his pocket.

Only minutes later, William Cooper beat a quick pace toward the door of the filling station. He was used to walking home from his shift at the Chrysler plant but tonight was a particularly cold night and he’d be glad to get inside and warm up. He enjoyed stopping for a chin wag with Wesley now and then before continuing on home.

William pushed open the glass door and stood just inside for moment, enjoying the warmth. He called out for Wes but didn’t get an answer. He waited, listening, then stepped around the counter preparing to call again down the short hallway. He was stopped in his tracks before the words left his mouth. A pair of legs stretched out of the bathroom into the hall. William ran to the door and looked in. Wesley Kerr was lying over the toilet, unmoving. Fresh blood ran down the wall and pooled on the floor. William turned and ran to summon help.

Police estimated the station had been robbed between 1:30 and 1:45 a.m. They interviewed anyone they could find who had been in the station that night. One unnamed customer told police he saw Wesley alive at 1:30 a.m. when the attendant came out to fill his tank with gas but William Cooper found him dead around 1:45. If these times were correct, the time of the slaying was narrowed to a fifteen-minute window. Had someone entered the station, robbed it, shot Wesley, and then fled unseen in that time? Or had that someone already been inside when the last customer pulled in for gas? The customer hadn’t exited the car and drove off as soon as he paid for the gas. He didn’t recall seeing anyone else.

Like Mary Holland, Wesley Kerr was killed in the station’s bathroom. He’d been forced to kneel with his wrists tied behind his back with twine. Although Wesley was also killed execution style with a .38-caliber weapon, he was shot in the back of the head rather than the temple. His body was left where it fell in the grubby bathroom, his feet sticking out the door. There was no sign of a struggle and he had not been beaten; the gunshot was his only wound.

Hearing the news on the radio, the man who stopped for a soda just after 1:30 a.m. returned to the filling station to talk with police. He told them of seeing a man wearing a gray overcoat inside that he’d taken to be the attendant. No gray overcoat was found in the station and Wesley was wearing his own winter coat when he was found. Police asked the customer repeatedly to describe the man in as much detail as he could. He told them he hadn’t gotten close enough to give more of a description of the man than he had thick, dark hair combed back and was wearing dark gloves and a gray overcoat.

Based on cash register receipts, the robber netted about $68. The police took particular note of the three dimes lying on the floor next to the counter. It suggested a link to Mary Holland’s murder not quite three weeks before. When news of this second murder hit the papers, reports began describing the method of killing as ‘Chinese Execution’ or ‘Oriental Execution’ style. In the 1950s, this phrase was a descriptive term often used based on an execution style more commonly used in Asia at the time; being shot while kneeling.


The two December murders spread fear and a fair amount of panic throughout the city of Evansville. Gun sales increased and locksmiths were suddenly busier than they’d been in a long time. School children were closely watched and warned of strangers. Teenagers weren’t cruising the streets or hanging out in the evening. Most people didn’t go outside after dark unless they had to and then they stayed vigilant and took extra precautions. More than one car had a baseball bat handy next to the driver’s seat.

Neighborhoods put together a rotating schedule for the men to patrol at night, carrying loaded shotguns, rifles, or pistols, to make sure no harm came to their families and neighbors. The crimes were the talk of the high schools, work-places, as well as at home. Parents started accompanying their children to and from school rather than allowing them to walk by themselves. Adults paused their daily routines to discuss it in the grocery and hardware stores. Beauty and barber shops were buzzing with theories and ever-growing stories. The December murders were labeled ‘The Mystery of the Kneeling Corpses.’

To the local residents, it was frightening not to know the identity of the one responsible, where he was, or if and when he’d kill again. The city of Evansville offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the murderer.

All went quiet. An uneasy Christmas came and went and the city slipped into the New Year. The murderer had not struck again. People relaxed a little; maybe the gunman had moved on. Maybe he was locked up in the slammer in another town. Good riddance.

Wilhelmina Sailer

Rural Posey County, Indiana

John and Wilhelmina Sailer lived on a large farm in Posey County, Indiana, in the flat bottom-lands close to the banks of the Ohio River. It was very rural but within a reasonable drive to the cities of Mt. Vernon and Evansville. John W. worked the farm and Wilhelmina took care of the house and their 7-year-old son, John R. The Sailer’s first two children had died as infants. It was March 21, 1955 and Spring was on its way. There was a lot to do to get ready for planting.

John W. came back to the house for lunch which Wilhelmina had ready for him. Finished by 1 p.m., he headed back out to work. Wilhelmina was washing the lunch dishes as he left.

Their son, John R., rode the bus home from elementary school. It was a long ride with all the stops to let the kids who lived in the country off here and there. His bus reached the farmhouse right around 4:15 p.m. Everything seemed normal outside, but once inside, all normality vanished. The young boy entered the living room to find his mother sprawled face-down on the floor. Her hands were tightly bound behind her back with the ties from her own apron. Drawers were pulled out, the contents of shelves were scattered, and newspapers littered the floor. And there was blood.

Five minutes later, at 4:20 p.m., John W. pulled up the drive and into the garage. As he exited the car, his son ran to him, breathless and crying, Mommy’s on the floor and won’t get up! John W. hurried into the home and took in the bloody scene. He ran to where his injured wife lay on the living room floor but she was not breathing. She was gone. Shaken and confused, he called the Mt. Vernon police.

The Sailer family was gathered together and given the news that Wilhelmina had been murdered in the same way as the two victims in Evansville three months before. As they comforted each other, they tried to make sense of it.

A family member who lived only a quarter of a mile up the same country road said around 2:00 pm, a dark car was seen pulling into the Sailer’s driveway. A man in a suit got out, walked to the door, and knocked. That’s all they could say about it. Because it hadn’t seemed unusual, they hadn’t stopped to watch any longer. The family member could give no description of the man. The car had been a dark sedan but they could not say how long the car remained in the driveway. It was very little to go on but it did narrow the time of the murder down to between approximately 2 and 4:15 p.m.

Wilhelmina’s clothing had been in some disarray; the most significant factor was that her underwear had been removed. It led to speculation the killer may have attempted to rape her but an examination done by a physician in nearby Mt. Vernon showed she had not been raped and her body bore no signs of a sexual assault. Mr. Sailer was unable to say if anything in particular was missing, maybe just some change from a drawer.

The Duncan Family

Rural Henderson County, Kentucky

On March 28, 1955, 20-year-old Raymond Duncan had the day off work. His wife, Mary Alice, had given birth to a son the night before. He, his father Goebel, his mother Mayme, his sister-in-law Mabel Elizabeth Duncan who was married to Raymond’s brother Dorris, and their 2-year-old daughter Shirley were all going to the hospital in the city of Henderson to see the baby.

The Duncan’s tobacco farm covered 150 acres in rural Henderson County. The older couple lived in the original farmhouse and Raymond and his wife lived in a second home on the property about a quarter mile from the main house.

An acquaintance of the Duncans passed the father and son in Raymond’s car traveling northwest on Trigg-Turner Road toward Geneva. He saw Raymond raise both hands in greeting, waved back, and drove on.

Less than fifteen minutes later, a car with two men threaded its way through the fields along Trigg-Turner road. The passenger, 17-year-old Wallace Brown, gazed out the window at the frost-nipped fields. As they passed a stand of trees, something caught his eye. He asked the driver to pull over. The car eased off the pavement onto the soft, chat-covered shoulder. The driver asked Wallace what he’d seen. The young man said he didn’t know but it looked like it might have been a deer.

Both men got out of the car and walked back along the road then down the sloping bank to the slough and the grove of trees. Their casual curiosity rapidly changed to alarm as they got closer and two shapes, not one, were visible lying in the muck. They stopped short as the vague shapes on the swampy ground became recognizable as the lifeless bodies of Goebel and Raymond Duncan. Blood glistened around the gunshot wounds to the back of their heads. Both were face-down, their hands still tied behind them. The shocked men looked around nervously as they stumbled back to the car and raced away to call police, scattering gravel from the shoulder of the road as the tires spun in the damp soil.

It took some time for officers to arrive at the rural location. Sheriff Lee Williams interviewed the two men who found the bodies then let them go. The coroner was on his way so after Sheriff Williams conducted his own cursory inspection of the still warm bodies, it was time to give Mayme the bad news. Cars were pulling over along the road to see what was happening; the Sheriff indicated for one of the deputies to move rubberneckers along

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