The story refers to two of my grandmother’s first cousins, Tom and John Irwin. Tom stood accused with two other men -- and all were later convicted -- in the rape of a woman and the armed robbery of the woman and her husband. Tom’s family, though, remained convinced that it was Tom’s brother John, dubbed by the Times as the ‘twin,’ who actually committed the crime. Five years later, as the Times documents, John came forward and publicly admitted his guilt
Through the years, my Dad would occasionally talk about these brothers. They were his mother’s cousins, described as longshoremen in the Times article, and they lived together, with their spouses and young children, in the hardscrabble Irish ghetto of Hell’s Kitchen, on Manhattan’s West Side.
My father shared their story with me, how, in his telling, John, nicknamed Yerkie, let his brother Tom, then 28, take the rap for this heinous crime. My Dad heard that Yerkie’s relatives would later pressure Yerkie to turn himself in and free his brother.
The Irwin brothers were grandchildren of Irish immigrants William and Margaret Irwin (nee Dinnin), as was my grandmother, Susan Regan (nee Condon). Sue Regan told me that she heard that the Irwins emigrated from Ballyjamesduff, County Cavan, though we haven’t been able to prove that connection.
My father related to me what he knew of their story many decades after the events transpired. It came to his attention when his father, Raymond V. Regan, brought my Dad, then a boy, to a wake in Hell's Kitchen for an Irwin relative. My father recalled seeing a man brought in to pay his respects, wearing shackles and an ill-fitting suit, most likely prison issue, with burly plainclothes cops on each arm. Inquiring, my Dad was told the man was Tommy Irwin.
Pictured, Susan and Raymond V. Regan circa 1918, shortly after they married. Sue's grandparents were Irish immigrants William and Margaret Irwin (nee Dinnin), a relationship she shared with her cousins Tom and Yerkie Irwin.
My Dad later overheard snippets of conversation between the adults in their modest Richmond Hill home that Tommy was serving a sentence for a "rape," though his brother John had done the crime. The extended family, including my grandparents, were not pleased at Yerkie's apparent reticence to free his brother. My grandfather later encountered Yerkie working in a newsstand near Manhattan’s bustling Penn Station, my Dad further recalled.
According to the sworn statement given the police by Maxime and Henriette Jolivet, the victims, on Oct. 16, 1926, three men broke into an apartment at West 41st Street and 9th Avenue about 1 a.m. There, they awoke the Jolivets, and while one man held the couple at gunpoint, another raped Henriette. The rapist later struck her husband in the face. The assailants stole the woman’s diamond ring, forced the couple to strip and then fled. The rapist, Tom Finn, was quickly arrested in the hallway, while the other two assailants escaped through a window and down a fire escape.
In fact, we know from the Times article that three years into Tom’s sentence, in July 1931, nearly two years into The Great Depression, Yerkie asked a judge to release Tom and jail himself in Tom’s stead. Despite this confession, it seems Tom would serve 17 more years before he was paroled, his minimum sentence for good behavior.
How could Yerkie and other key witnesses, including the two other convicted perpetrators, remain silent in the face of this apparent miscarriage of justice? During trial, did Tom simply plead not guilty and then decide to refrain from vigorously defending himself, perhaps reluctant to ‘rat out’ his brother? Did the infamous ‘code of the streets,’ play a role, that is, in the city’s Irish demi-monde you didn’t share information with the authorities, even if you ended up unfairly convicted yourself.?
Tom and his two alleged co-conspirators received a 20-40 year sentence in January 1928 after their conviction on a charge of 1st degree armed robbery. None of the three were prosecuted on the rape count, perhaps to spare the victims from the embarrassment of testifying about that. Upon Tom’s admission to Sing Sing Prison, a secretary noted on the prison’s blotter that “he states his brother committed the crime, and blamed him as they look alike.” They were, according to The New York Times, born only 11 months apart, in the vernacular, “Irish twins.”
Only one of the perpetrators, Thomas Finn, was arrested on the scene. Fully 11 weeks after the crime, Tom Irwin found himself arrested, likely picked out of a lineup by one or both of the victims. Might she have picked the wrong brother? We presume Yerkie ‘went on the lam.’ Why didn’t Tom present an alibi to save himself? And why didn’t his two alleged accomplices, apprehended and previously tried and sentenced, exonerate Tom, and, by necessity, implicate Yerkie?
Pictured, an article from the New York American newspaper, dated Saturday, January 14, 1928.
At the time of the crime, Yerkie and Tom shared a flat at 511 West 43rd Street, just west of 10th Avenue, along with their wives and three young children, none older than 8. Did their two families, retiring the night of the assault, have any inkling of the impending nightmare?
Why would no one step forward with an alibi for Tom? Why would Yerkie later admit to a role in the robbery if in fact he was innocent? Why was Yerkie’s belated confession not sufficient to gain Tom’s release from prison?. So many haunting questions!
My colleague (and fellow WG member) James Dore and I are committed to finding the truth, and presenting it to as large an audience as we can generate. If you have any suggestions tips, or want to otherwise help us unravel this mystery, we’d welcome those. To learn more and to better share perspectives on family ‘black sheep,’ please join the group on TheWildGeese.irish we’ve created specifically to advance the story, titled, “The Irwin Brothers: In Search of the Truth.”
One aspect of this story does seem certain: One father languished in prison for many years, while another father remained free, indicted in the hearts of his own family.
Please share your stories of searching for your family’s "black sheep" with Jim Dore and I here on TheWildGeese.Irish's newest group, titled 'The Irwin Brothers: In Search of the Truth.' And stay tuned for more developments in the search for the whys and wherefores of this decades-old family mystery!
DRAMATIS PERSONAE (AS OF MARCH 11, 2016)
Front stage are:
John ‘Yerkie’ Irwin
Family members include
Raymond V. Regan
Graham Witschief, New York State Supreme Court Justice
Moses Sachs, counsel for Yerkie Irwin