"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 7, 2014

Burton W. Gibson, Lethal Legal Eagle

“The first thing we do, let the lawyers kill them all.”
-Shakespeare, as allegedly interpreted by Burton W. Gibson

Burton W. Gibson was a lawyer who had a remarkable number of incredibly unlucky clients. People who hired him had a distressing habit of dying or disappearing in various mysterious ways. The list included:

Mrs. Alice Kinnan, who on June 6, 1906, was found lying on the porch of her home in the Bronx. Someone had smashed in her skull. Sometime earlier, Mrs. Kinnan’s mother, Louisa Stenton, had hired Gibson and another attorney to settle a complicated dispute involving the mortgage on some property she owned. She eventually established title to the home, but after two years of Gibson’s peculiar brand of litigation, she somehow wound up more in debt than when she started. At the time of her death, Mrs. Kinnan and her mother were suing their former lawyers in an effort to recover part of their money. Just hours before her murder, Alice Kinnan had been heard to say, “that devil of a lawyer [Gibson] put me to a lot of trouble.” On the recommendation of the coroner's jury, Gibson was arrested, but released on a habeas corpus writ the next day, and the investigation into the death was inexplicably dropped. Gibson later brought a suit for false arrest, but it seems to have been dismissed.  Kinnan's murder remains officially unsolved.

Five weeks before Kinnan died, a man named William Clinchy was also the victim of an unsolved murder. A few days before his death, he took out a life insurance policy on himself, in favor of Alice Kinnan. Burton Gibson had handled the matter for Clinchy.

George Malcolm, Mrs. Stenton’s nephew and the administrator of her estate, filed suit against Gibson to recovery property of hers he had allegedly obtained through fraud. And then Malcolm disappeared. Four days later, his body was discovered in Long Island Sound. The mystery of his death was never solved. In 1910, Gibson produced a previously-unknown “lost” will Mrs. Stenton had supposedly made out. It named Gibson as executor and a Percy McElroy as residuary legatee. Stenton’s relatives contested this mysterious document, and the will was eventually rejected for probate.

Michael Shippo, the caretaker of Mrs. Stenton’s estate, and his wife Marie lived on the Stenton property. They were the first to discover Kinnan after she had been attacked. The Shippos afterward testified that Kinnan’s last gasping words were “Lawyer--hit--me.” They also claimed that Gibson had offered them money to leave the country. Michael Shippo was attacked and nearly killed by an unknown assailant in 1907, and he and his wife both often said they feared for their lives after the Kinnan murder.

In 1909, Shippo was found dead in two feet of water in New York's Pelham Creek. The official verdict was that he drowned, but the exact circumstances of his death were never determined.

In 1911, Gibson represented John Rice O’Neil in a suit for damages against a railroad company, which netted a settlement of $10,000. O’Neil put Gibson in charge of investing this money. Not long afterwards, O’Neil left his home for a meeting with his lawyer. He was never seen again. When questioned, Gibson said blandly that he had paid his client some money he was owed, after which O’Neil left his office. That, he shrugged, was all he knew of his whereabouts.

Edward Minnicks, another Gibson client, was awarded some $5,500 from a lawsuit.  The day before this money was delivered to Gibson, Minnicks also disappeared, never to be seen again. Minnicks' wife complained that all she ever received from Gibson was $100.

Mary Walker asked the Legal Aid Society to help her gain control of her son's estate, which was then in Gibson's hands.  Before any action could be taken, Walker joined the list of vanished Gibson associates.

Early in 1912, Gibson placed a very curious advertisement in various newspapers:

“Daughter of Paul Dillon, also known as Paul Low, and in European circles as Paul D’ Ailau: Before his death your father left securities, vault keys, maps, full instructions with me. Communicate. European papers please copy. B. W. Gibson, attorney, 55 Liberty Street.”

Gibson told a reporter that Dillon was a European adventurer who left an estate of several hundred thousand dollars. He knew Dillon had a daughter living in Europe, but he had no idea of her first name, or how to contact her. I have been unable to find any more about this story, so I have no idea what this busy little lawyer was up to, but with his track record, one shudders to think what it may have been.

Rosa Szabo, via Library of Congress

In July of 1912, Rosa Szabo went boating in New York’s Greenwood Lake with her attorney, Burton W. Gibson. During this outing, Gibson later explained, she fell out of their boat and drowned. A few months earlier, Gibson had drawn up a will for her, naming her mother as heir to her estate of over $11,000. When Gibson brought the will for probate, he attached a waiver of citation signed by Szabo’s mother. The authorities began to show an interest in the proceedings when it was discovered that Szabo’s mother had died in Austria two years before she had supposedly signed Gibson’s document. They became even more interested when it became known that Szabo, who was illiterate, had told numerous people that she intended to leave her property to her five brothers and three sisters. The inference was that Szabo had had no idea of what sort of will she was really signing. And when she was exhumed, doctors who examined the corpse declared that she had not drowned, but died of strangulation. Then everyone became very interested indeed in Mr. Gibson’s doings.

Crowd awaiting Gibson's arrest for Szabo's murder. Via Library of Congress.

And a fat lot of good it did them.  He was tried twice for the killing of Rosa Szabo, but neither jury was able to reach an agreement. Subsequently, however, it was established that he had fraudulently obtained over seven thousand dollars from Szabo’s bank account. This time around, a jury had little difficulty in finding him guilty of grand larceny. He was sentenced to five to ten years in prison, plus a fine of $7800. (It was said that during his imprisonment, he gave “advice to the other prisoners which was not for the good of the community.”)

Every accused serial killer gets his fan club.  From the Syracuse Herald, Sept. 16, 1912.

Incidentally, the source of Rosa Szabo's wealth is one of the many unanswered questions about this extraordinarily murky story. During Gibson's first trial for her murder, an acquaintance of the dead woman named Anthony Gaytz came forward as a witness. Rosa's husband, Veila, had died suddenly in 1904, supposedly of pneumonia. A native Austrian, he had been unable to make a living in New York, leaving his wife virtually penniless. Gaytz described how, on the night Veila Szabo died, he went to visit Rosa. Gaytz found her in the company of Gibson and a well-to-do jeweler named William Schumann. After her husband's death, Mrs. Szabo went to work for Schumann--who was partially paralyzed--as his live-in housekeeper. After this, Mrs. Szabo somehow banked a great deal of money--nearly $10,000. Her bank books were kept in the vaults of Schumann's jewelry firm. Then, Schumann--as people in Gibson's orbit often did--abruptly dropped dead. His relatives--who were given no advance warning of any sort of illness--were told he died of...pneumonia.

Soon after Schumann's death, Mrs. Szabo and Gibson appeared at Schumann's bank, asking for her bank books. Gibson took them into custody. And Mrs. Szabo died not long afterward.

The newspapers reported that the police would be opening investigations into the deaths of Mr. Szabo and William Schumann, but if so, these inquiries evidently came to nothing.

Gibson was disbarred while he was in Sing Sing--an action one can hardly call unjustified--but I regret to say I have found nothing more about this remarkable man's subsequent history.  Once he was released from prison, he may no longer have been a lawyer, but I have the feeling he still managed to find himself many, many things to do.


  1. You would think that someone would have taken an interest in this villain long before the police did. But then, getting away with things is what lawyers do for a living...

    1. Yes, you'd think after the first few deaths and disappearances, more eyebrows would have been raised, but go figure.


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