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Edward Leonski

Edward Joseph Leonski (1917-1942) was an American soldier who was trialled and convicted of murder in Melbourne, July 1942.

Leonski was born on 12 December 1917 in New Jersey, the son of Russian born couple John and Amelia Leonski and the sixth child of this troubled family. His mother Amelia had a history of mental illness, two of his brothers had prison records and a third spent time in a psychiatric hospital.

Eddie Leonski was called up for military service on 17 February 1941 as a member of the 52nd Signal Battalion. While stationed at San Antonio, Texas, Leonski developed a reputation among his colleagues for heavy drinking and aggressive, unchivalrous behaviour. During his time in San Antonio he had attempted to strangle a woman, Beatrice Sanchez. Unfortunately Sanchez did not press her assault charge (which may have terminated Leonski’s army career) and in January 1942 Leonski left San Francisco with his battalion, bound for Melbourne.

Reaching Australia in February 1942, the 52nd Signal Battalion was stationed at Camp Pell, Royal Park, Melbourne, where Leonski’s problematic behaviour continued. He spent thirty days in the stockade for drunkeness and allegedly attempted to strangle a young married woman in her St Kilda flat, however she managed to break free. Then, on 3 May Mrs Ivy McLeod was found murdered in the doorway of a shop next to the Bleak House Hotel, Albert Park. The body of Mrs Pauline Thompson was found several days later, on 9 May, near a city boarding house, and Mrs Gladys Hosking was discovered murdered in Royal Park on 18 May. All three women were throttled and though their genitals were exposed, none were found to have been sexually assaulted.

In the press the deaths became known as the ‘Brownout Murders’, referring to the unpopular wartime practice of reduced street lighting in Melbourne. Leonski was arrested for the murders on 22 May through a combination of detective work and the evidence of a fellow soldier to whom Leonski had confided his crimes. Unusually, Leonski was tried in Australia by a United States Courts Martial where he was declared sane and found guilty on 17 July. It was the first time that any person had been tried in Australia by a military tribunal for a crime which violated civil law and also the first time a citizen of another country had been tried under the laws of his own country.

While in custody in the city watchhouse Leonski corresponded with a woman and according to the Barrier Miner, Tuesday 3 November 1943 p 3, he was visited regularly by a ‘beautiful young woman to whom he is greatly attached’. Leonski was hanged at Pentridge Prison on 9 November 1942 and his remains were initially buried there before being transferred to a military cemetery in Honolulu.