Henderson County, Kentucky History


Irvin arrested 11 days later near Evansville

It was cold for March. Patches of snow still clung to the rural Henderson County landscape under a gray low-slung sky as the temperature hovered near freezing throughout most of that spring day in 1955.

Goebel and Mamie DUNCAN must have felt a surge of excitement nonetheless. They were grandparents again.

Raymond DUNCAN had taken the day off from his job as a foreman at the Jasper-American Manufacturing Company because his wife, Mary Alice, had given birth to the couple's first child the previous night at Community Methodist Hospital.

That morning, March 28, he planned to take his parents and sister-in-law, Elizabeth DUNCAN, to visit his wife and newborn son.

The boy was still unnamed with the bodies were discovered.

Seventeen-year-old Wallace BROWN was riding in a passing automobile when he spotted the bodies of Raymond and Goebel DUNCAN lying face down in a muddy marsh off Trigg-Turner Road not far from the elder DUNCAN'S 150-acre farm near Geneva.

The 51-year-old father and his 29-year-old son had lived in houses less than one mile apart so they could tend that farm as well as a large amount of rented farmland. Both had been shot in the back of the head with a .32-caliber pistol, hands tied with their own belts behind their backs.

Shortly after noon, as investigators removed the bodies and began to comb the scene, Sheriff Lee WILLIAMS - accompanied by Gleaner reporter Cecil WILLIAMS and photographer Bill ARMSTRONG - climbed into his police cruiser and drove toward Goebel DUNCAN's home on Corydon-Smith Mills Road to tell Mamie DUNCAN of the tragedy.

"Sheriff," the reporter murmured, "we might find something else at the house."

The sheriff stopped first at Raymond and Mary Alice DUNCAN'S house but found no one home. When his knock at the elder DUNCAN'S home went unanswered, he drew his revolver and pushed open the door to the four-room farmhouse. WILLIAMS and ARMSTRONG followed him inside.

"The officer and the newsmen, no strangers to life's darker side, were totally unprepared for the scene of horror that greeted then," Gleaner reporter Hugh Edward SANDEFUR wrote a few days later.

Mamie DUNCAN, 49, and Elizabeth Greenwell DUNCAN, the 19-year-old wife of another DUNCAN son, Dorris Ray, were lying face down on beds in adjoining bedrooms, hands bound behind their backs with lamp cords.

Both had been shot once in the head, presumable with the same weapon that had killed Goebel and Raymond DUNCAN.

In one room, police found the elder Mrs. DUNCAN still alive with a gunshot wound to her temple. She was rushed to Community Methodist Hospital, where an armed guard was stationed outside her room.

The body of Elizabeth DUNCAN was found in another, her blue jeans and underclothes piled neatly on the floor.

Two-year-old Shirley Faye DUNCAN sat on the bed beside her mother's body, clutching the stuffed rabbit that had been a birthday present two months earlier.

"Mommy is sleepy," she whimpered as the sheriff and newsmen stood at the bedroom door.

"A tiny girl, her blonde, curly hair hanging loosely over a pair of dazed blue eyes, sat upright on the bed, stroking her mother's face and whispering into an unhearing ear," Cecil WILLIAMS wrote in an evocative first-person account published the following day. "ARMSTRONG took the child in his arms, put his coat around her and carried her into the front room."

Panic washed over the community as news of the DUNCAN killings spread. In the week that followed, gun and ammunition dealers reported record sales and police warned against unannounced visits between friends and relatives after dark.

"A woman, alone with six of her children at her home in Geneva, heard a knock on the door," The Gleaner reported. "She asked who was there. When there was no reply, she fired through the door."

A seed-corn salesman and the assistant county farm agent postponed their rounds after being greeted at more than one door by a gun-wielding housewife.

"The wave of panic which swept the county in the wake of Monday's brutal triple slaying now hold the entire community in its terrifying grip," the newspaper said. "A peace-loving community is now a bristling 'armed camp.'

"A citizenry is prepared for anything that might happen, while all local law enforcement officers work night and day in a united effort to seek out and bring to justice the cause of the blanket alarm."

Investigators were indeed working virtually around the clock to unravel the circumstances behind what the newspaper called "the worst criminal slaughter in Henderson County history."

Detectives interviewed one man who claimed a hitchhiker had nearly forced him to stop near Geneva as he was driving to work around 5:15 a.m. on the day of the murders.

Three Evansville men were arrested after police linked them with bloodstained clothing found discarded near Smith Mills. The three, who were eventually released, said they had been sleeping in a barn near Beals in recent weeks but had not been in the county for more than a week.

Another was taken into custody and questioned when family members said they saw him "snickering" as he viewed Elizabeth DUNCAN'S body at her funeral in Uniontown.

"Suspects under minute scrutiny included know sex maniacs, wife deserters, thieves and hostile, sullen bullies with long police records," the newspaper reported.

Not only did police have few substantial leads in the early aftermath of the killings, they had little evidence to even suggest a motive.

There was no sign of a struggle in either DUNCAN house.

While Elizabeth DUNCAN'S body had been only partly clothed and Mamie DUNCAN'S clothes were in disarray, Coroner Fred Allen TAPP said that neither woman had been raped.

Goebel DUNCAN'S wallet was missing and, according to neighbors, the respected and well-liked farmer had routinely carried large sums of cash which he used to buy livestock and equipment.

But in the house where the two women's bodies were discovered, Elizabeth DUNCAN'S billfold with $18 inside was found in her coat on a couch in the front room.

…Meanwhile, as Mamie DUNCAN clung to life in a hospital and more than 1,500 mourners attended the funerals of her husband and son, the investigation captured the attention of Indiana law-enforcement officials because of striking similarities between the DUNCAN slayings and three other killings within a 20-mile radius in the previous three months.

On December 2, 1954, Mary HOLLAND, a 33-year-old expectant mother, was shot and killed in the Evansville liquor store where she worked. Her body was found slumped over a commode.

Three weeks later, on December 23, 32-year-old Evansville service-station attendant Wesley KERR was also shot to death in a restroom at the station.

And, one week before the DUNCAN murders, Wilhelmina Susan SAILER, a 47-year-old housewife, was shot and killed in her home near Mount Vernon, Indiana.

All three had been shot in the head with a .38-caliber handgun. Mrs. SAILER'S purse had been emptied, her hands bound at her back with an apron.

On April 3, 1955, The Gleaner ran a series of photographs across the top of the front page showing the pastoral setting in which the DUNCANS had lived and worked.

"A rising surge of indignation, horror and absolute fear spurred all police agencies on in their investigation," the newspaper reported.

"Nothing in Henderson County history seems to have created the awful torment as had the slaying of the DUNCANS."

Finally, on April 8, 1955 - 11 days after the murders - police announced that they had a suspect. Leslie IRVIN, a 30-year-old Evansville construction worker, was arrested near Yankeetown, Indiana, after police said his 1947 Chevrolet - with a damaged left side - matched the description of a car seen in the Geneva area on the morning the DUNCANS were killed.

Three Sturgis residents who had been involved in a minor traffic collision near the DUNCAN home shortly before the murders later identified IRVIN as the driver of the other car.

The stocky, dark-haired IRVIN recently had been paroled after serving a nine-year prison sentence on an Indianapolis robbery charge.

A 1947 report by prison psychologist N. S. HOLLIS described IRVIN as a man of "average intelligence (who) never adjusted well, … a typical playboy."

In the three days of intense questioning that followed his arrest, IRVIN admitted committing at least 27 burglaries and stealing at least three handguns - including a .32-caliber weapon he claimed to have discarded along Evansville's Green River Road - but steadfastly denied any involvement in murder.

On April 13, however, police announced that IRVIN had confessed to the DUNCAN slayings as well as the three Indiana murders. Because he had been arrested in their jurisdiction, Indiana authorities won the right to prosecute IRVIN first. The day after his confession, he was charged in the death of Wesley KERR, the service-station attendant.

Indiana prosecutors acknowledged at the outset that it was unlikely IRVIN would ever be released for trial in Kentucky.

Nevertheless, Sheriff Lee WILLIAMS filed warrants here charging IRVIN with the murders of Goebel, Raymond and Elizabeth DUNCAN and the attempted murder of Mamie DUNCAN.

The day IRVIN appeared in an Evansville court on the KERR murder charge, Mamie DUNCAN was released from the hospital. The shooting had left her blind and erased all memory of the event.

Meanwhile, the sheriff released a copy of IRVIN'S lengthy confession. According to the statement, IRVIN had come to Kentucky early March 28 looking for "some place to rob."

As he was driving on the Corydon-Smith Mills Road, he said, he was involved in a minor traffic accident. The occupants of the other car had given him $5 for repairs.

As he followed the other car out the blacktop road, he stopped in from of the Raymond DUNCAN home and broke in through a window. While he was inside, he said, Goebel and Raymond DUNCAN had pulled into the driveway. He watched as Raymond scribbled something - presumably the Chevrolet license number - onto an envelope.

When the DUNCANS entered the house, IRVIN said he forced the younger man to bind his father's hands. Irvin snatched the envelope and threw it to the floor, then ordered the men outside and forced them into their car.

"The traffic was heavy on the road," the statement said. "Several cars passed and Raymond DUNCAN threw up his hand at two or three of the passers. He said he asked the DUNCANS for their money and Mr. DUNCAN motioned to his pocketbook with only $1 in it.

"He said Raymond did not have any money on him, so he marched them down the road at gunpoint to his car; made Raymond get into the driver's seat to drive, with Mr. DUNCAN in the back. He got in front with Raymond and they drove approximately four miles on the gravel road toward Geneva to the swamp where the men were found."

IRVIN told the sheriff he had not planned to kill the men. But he remembered the envelope with his license number and "thought it was too dangerous to let them live."

After shooting both men, IRVIN said he returned to the house to retrieve the slip of paper. As he was leaving, he said, a car with the DUNCAN women and a small child inside pulled into the driveway.

He got into the back seat and forced them to drive to the elder DUNCAN'S home, were he tied up and shot both women.

"He asked me how long I had known the DUNCANS," the sheriff wrote. "I told him … most of my life. He then said, 'They were fine people weren't they?' and I told him that I thought they were the best…

"I … asked him about the little girl. He said that the little girl was there all of the time. I asked him why she wasn't harmed. He said he loved children…

"I then asked IRVIN if he ever went to church and Sunday school. He told me that he had gone but not very much and his mother was a devout Christian, he thought. I talked to him for quite a while about why he should have gone to Sunday school and church and he told me he believed in the Lord, but he didn't understand why the Lord had let him do the things that were done…

"He then sat in silence for a few minutes and then looked up and said, 'What do you want to know?' I told him to just start at the beginning and tell me the whole story, and that is the story that you have just read."

On December 20, 1955, Leslie "Mad Dog" IRVIN was convicted in the death of Wesley KERR. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair in Michigan City, Indiana, on June 12, 1956.

One month after his conviction, however, IRVIN escaped from a Princeton, Indiana jail with a set of keys he had carved from hardback book covers.

Ironically, the day after the escape, IRVIN'S lawyers requested a new trial. IRVIN later told police he had hitchhiked to Las Vegas, where he met Victor DAVIS, a pianist in Tex WILLIAMS' orchestra. DAVIS then gave him a ride to Los Angeles, where he burglarized a house and stole an estimated $5,000 in jewelry. After that, he hitchhiked north to San Francisco.

Police recaptured IRVIN on February 9, 1956, as he tried to pawn a stolen diamond.

According to Indiana corrections officials, IRVIN was granted a new trial in the summer of 1961. He was subsequently reconvicted in the death of Wesley KERR but was sentenced to life in prison rather than death in the electric chair.

IRVIN was never tried in the DUNCAN slayings. He died of lung cancer on November 9, 1983, in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City.

Reprinted with permission.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Henderson, KY, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Sharon Wright

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS