February 27, 1919
Long Beach, New York
Dr. Walter Keene Wilkins (64) kills his wife but claims the death to be the product of a botched robbery
On February 27, 1919, Wilkins reported a robbery which claimed his wife’s life. He claimed three men were burglarizing his home when he and his wife Julia interrupted the burglars. The trio attacked the Wilkinses, striking both on the head with a piece of lead pipe and a hammer. Julia was killed in the attack and, to prove he had also been attacked, Wilkins showed police his “badly battered hat.” Wilkins was suspected of having a part of the killing, and the suspicion furthered when he suddenly fled the area.
Wilkins was soon apprehended and indicted for his wife’s murder. Initially, it was speculated he had killed Julia for money. She had recently had a new will written, leaving her $200,000 estate to her husband, worth nearly $3,000,000 today. However, the motive was soon changed to involve a model and actress Wilkins had become obsessed with, after she had given the doctor a calling card. It was theorized Wilkins wished to be free of his marital vows to pursue a relationship with the woman.
Audrey Munson had been given the unofficial title of “Miss Manhattan” by her contemporaries and “America’s first super model” by historians. Among her various achievements, Munson modeled for the Walking Liberty Half Dollar. She and her mother moved from New York to Canada relatively shortly before Julia Wilkins’ murder, though police still tracked her down for questioning. She denied involvement in the murder and seemed confused how she was connected to it. Munson confirmed the calling card Wilkins had possessed was hers though she could not remember why or when she would have had an occasion to give it to him.
Wilkins was convicted of his wife’s murder after the jury deliberated for 22 hours and 16 minutes, and was sentenced to death in the electric chair. Before he could be executed, Wilkins died in an apparent suicide on June 28, 1919. Prison officials had feared he would attempt to take his own life and guards were instructed to watch him carefully. According to the Daily News, Wilkins waited for the guards to turn their backs, went into a prison bathroom, slipped a rope noose over his neck, and jumped from a garbage can. The guards took him down from the noose while he still had a pulse and a doctor attempted to resuscitate him, but Wilkins was unable to recover.
Munson’s career was irreparably tarnished by her supposed involvement in Julia’s murder, leading to an attempted suicide in 1922. Her mother had her committed to an asylum soon after, where she remained for 65 years. Munson’s niece found out about her aunt and, in 1984, had the 93-year-old Munson released. She died in 1996 at the age of 104.
Walter Keene Wilkins
The Walking Liberty half-dollar
“The Tragedy of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel.” New England Historical Society. Accessed: February 27, 2020. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/tragedy-audrey-munson-americas-first-supermodel/
Nash, Jay Robert. Crime Chronology: A Worldwide Record, 1900-1983. 1984
“Dr. Walter Wilkins.” Library of Congress. Accessed: February 27, 2020. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014709144/ (image source)
Marshall, Clive. “The Tragedy of America’s “Perfect Model”.” The Washington Post. November 28, 1920
“Wilkins Suicide Probe Reveals Unusual Results.” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. September 12, 1919
“Wilkins Ends Life With Rope in Mineola Jail.” Daily News [New York, New York]. June 30, 1919
“Dr. Wilkins Found Guilty of Killing Wife.” The Herald Democrat. June 28, 1919
“Dr. Wilkins Guilty of First Degree Murder, Must Die.” New York Times. June 28, 1919
“Dr. Wilkins Indicted by Nassau Jury for First Degree Murder.” Wilmington Daily News. March 21, 1919
“Wealthy Physician Sought for Brutal Murder of Wife.” Buffalo Courier. March 19, 1919