That’s about all you can ask for in a true crime story. The murderer in this one hailed from Toronto, Ontario (my personal stomping ground) away back before I was born in the 1940s (I’m not that old you know). This case attracted international attention due to its café society element in New York City. Pour yourself a glass of Chablis, sit back with your toy poodle and truffles, and enjoy.
Patricia Burton Lonergan, a gorgeous 22-year-old brunette, was heiress to the Burton-Bernheimer beer fortune, and was worth seven million dollars. She was an established creature of the night, odd considering you can’t say she needed the cash. Clearly her upper class upbringing hadn’t had much effect on her. She had a low-brow way of partying. Since this fact was well known, at first no one was surprised when she didn’t show up at the family mansion all through Sunday. She had another dinner date on Sunday night, this time with Peter Elser, so there was no need to wake her for food. But during that Sunday afternoon when her mother Lucille discovered Patricia wasn’t in the house, she left for Patricia’s apartment. Letting herself in, she became anxious when she found her daughter’s bedroom door still locked. She called Elser, and when he arrived he removed the door from its hinges.
Before them was the bloodiest scene imaginable. Patricia, lying on her left side, was dead, horrifically injured. On either side of her naked, blood-covered body were two candlesticks, soaked in blood. She had clearly fought for her life. Her attacker’s flesh was embedded under her manicured fingernails. Her arms were raised as if warding off a blow. Her knees and thighs were bent slightly. Her head lay towards the foot of the bed, resting against the headboard, and her reddish-brown hair, matted with blood, had fallen across her face.There were three deep gashes incised into her scalp. A large pool of blood, now almost completely dried, had formed on the floor after seeping through two blankets, a mattress and a box spring. Ouch. Lucille fainted.
Dr. Milton Halpern, who arrived with a posse of police and who later reported to the coroner, said: “Repeated blows on top of her head caused a skull fracture. This could have killed her, but leaving nothing to chance he strangled her…” A bit of overkill, you might say. Someone had killed her with a silver candelabra and strangled her to death. Usually in cases of overkill there is an emotional element to the murder. Patricia knew and was probably intimately involved with her murderer.
Wayne and Patricia Lonergan
Wayne Lonergan was the lucky sod who got to marry the beautiful, wealthy Patricia.In 1939 Wayne Lonergan, 21, was working at the New York World’s Fair as a ”chair boy” who pushed wealthy sightseers around the grounds, (a very upscale job) he met William Burton, brewery heir and portrait painter. Burton’s original surname was Bernheimer but he changed it to Burton during World War I. After some time, Burton introduced him to his daughter Patricia. You have to wonder how it was that Lonergan was able to find people to throw their cash at him. It’s also interesting that Burton became one of his “patrons.” That’s one of those things that makes you say hmm. It’s not surprising that Burton introduced Lonergan to Patricia. Burton was a world-class rake, with a reputation from Long Island’s Gold Coast to the Côte d’Azur. His sexual tastes crossed gender lines, and he supported a stable of strapping “protégées.”
Lonergan himself was very handsome, but he was pretty much penniless. Shockingly, he admitted to being a “morally corrupt playboy“, which was putting it mildly, and it was by pure luck that he met his wife through her father, another man who had been his ”patron.” Lonergan really meant that he was the male lover for a variety of sugar daddies. Lonergan hailed from a dysfunctional family. His overprotective mother had been hospitalized with mental illness at three junctures in his life. Since his teens he had had several male ”patrons” who supported him. He was a gigolo.
In 1940, while still in his 40’s, Burton died after only one year of sexual involvement with Lonergan. Just before his death, he learned that Lonergan had also been having sex with Patricia and gotten her pregnant. Burton urged Lonergan to marry Patricia, you know, to keep her reputation respectable. Lonergan and Patricia Burton eloped to Las Vegas, about seven months before their son, William Anthony, was born. They lived what was described then as a ”wild life,” drinking and carousing in nightclubs until dawn. Now in the 1940s a wild life could mean a lot of things. Carousing with your spouse in a nightclub doesn’t sound too wild to me but it’s possible that the party didn’t end there if you get my drift. in fact, Lonergan continued to have sex with wealthy men and Patricia continued to dominate the night club scene. One of Patricia’s escorts was a Roman interior designer, Mario Gabelline, 43.
The Lonergan Divorce
Two years after they married, Patricia and Lonergan separated. Patricia continued to live alone in her East 51st Street triplex apartment. Lonergan picked himself up and tried to join the army out of spite towards Patricia but was judged 4-F on the grounds of homosexuality. Defeated, he returned to his birthplace of Toronto and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Patricia filed for divorce and cut him out of her will. Uh-oh. You just know that doesn’t bode well. Lonergan wasn’t happy about Patricia’s decision and he fixated on a way to change it.
On Oct. 24, 1943, in her East 51st Street triplex apartment in upscale Beekman Hill, Lonergan happened to be in New York on a weekend pass. supposedly he had returned to New York to visit his son. On October 23, at 8 in the morning, he visited his wife’s bedroom, soon after she’d arrived home alone from a long night at the Stork Club with Gabelline. Their toddler was asleep down the hall, under the care of a governess.
This was the dreadful weekend when Lucille Burton found her daughter dead in her triplex apartment. According to his statement to police he went out looking for a soldier to take back to his hotel room. Can you imagine the police raising their eyebrows at that one? Well, that’s cafe society for you. Later Lonergan claimed it was a woman he had kept in his company.
Police were quick to pick up Lonergan for questioning. The estranged couple had argued, and then proceeded to flagrante delicto. Lonergan hit his wife with a nightstand candelabra and choked her after she inflicted “great physical pain” upon him. The details were never spelled out in the news, but detectives hinted that Patricia bit Lonergan on his testicles with her incisors. The media jumped all over that one. The Journal-American scolded, “Possessed of too much money, jaded by normal activities, they turn to the unnatural for diversion.”
Lonergan was arrested and charged with second degree murder. The case caused a sensation worldwide. Millions of people sat beside their radios (there were no television sets available to the public yet) and poured over newspapers to follow the story. The prosecution maintained that Mr. Lonergan killed his wife for reasons of greed. Of course he denied it.
Crime journalists asked Jacob Grumet, the Manhattan DA’s homicide bureau chief whether Lonergan was a homosexual. “Bisexual would seem a better word,” Grumet replied. The Journal-American printed a backgrounder on the subject for “the average normal person.” The paper took it upon itself to explain homosexuality to the public. The story elaborated that there were two types of homosexuals: the “moral leper” and the “sex invert.” The paper said the first variety, “known as a bi-sexual or pervert, is a degenerate in the moral sense…His real cure depends upon his desire to behave normally.” The “pitiable” sex invert was “a person of one sex who will begin to think, feel and act almost entirely like one of the opposite…Men will develop mincing walks, unnatural timidity and feminine emotions while women similarly affected become rough, aggressive and impatient of such womanly attributes as long hair.” How many mincing men with long hair were prancing about in New York, the paper didn’t report.
Lonergan was found guilty of the murder but the jury spared his life. He was sentenced to 35 years to life. After his conviction Lonergan took legal action to win a part of his wife’s inheritance when he began his term in Sing Sing. He got nowhere. A court ruled that because of his life sentence, he was considered ”civilly dead.” Lonergan, in an effort to win a retrial in 1965, testified that his confession had been beaten out of him by the police in Toronto. He was paroled in 1967, on condition that he return to Canada. Incredibly he found a new patron, a Canadian actress named Barbara Hamilton. She had a questionable sense of humour and her pet name for her pet was “killer.” So, if you encountered her at a party, she might ask, “Oh, have you met Killer?” Then she’d wave over a still-handsome, middle-aged man with “Killer, come meet these people!” He lived quietly in Toronto, where he died of cancer at the relatively young age of 67.
In 1954, his son, whose name had been legally changed a decade earlier to William Anthony Burton, inherited what was now the $15 million Bernheimer fortune originally intended for his mother. The murder and aftermath were so much like fiction that it was part of the inspiration for Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock, which was subsequently made into a 1948 film noir thriller of the same name starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. Of course since it was made in the 1940s it was very discreet about the relationship between Burton and Lonergan, as well as Lonergan’s sexual proclivities. I believe that’s known as good old-fashioned censorship.