The outlook for Millard Wright was grim in 1947. He’d been arrested for a series of burglaries in Mt. Lebanon and faced a long prison term as a repeat offender. At age 38, he’d spent 15 years in jails, prisons and reformatories.
You’d never know by his appearance, though. Wright wore rimless spectacles over his sad eyes and looked like an overworked accountant or maybe a professor. One newspaper called him “scholarly.”
Still, he was a thief.
“I have an uncontrollable urge to steal,” Wright said. “I would give anything to be able to enjoy the rest of my life as a peaceful citizen.”
Maybe science had an answer. Wright requested that he be allowed to undergo an surgical operation on his brain that might cure him, kill him or, as The Pittsburgh Press said, “make him a lunatic for life.”
A judge agreed to allow the operation, called a prefrontal lobotomy. It was performed free of charge at Montefiore Hospital on April 15, 1947, by Dr. Yale David Koskoff, “in the interest of science.”
Suddenly, Wright became famous. Newspapers across the country wrote about him and the “great experiment” to cure crime. Wright became known as the “Brain Burglar.”
After 63 days in the hospital, Wright was sent to Western Penitentiary. A news photographer took his picture as he walked through the gate. Escorted by detectives, Wright wore a business suit and carried his belongings in a shopping bag. He served 2 ½ years before being paroled in the fall of ‘49.
A year later, newspapers reported good news: Wright had found a steady job at a North Side candy factory, was abstaining from liquor and was regularly attending church. And he had a wife — a fair-haired young woman named Roberta.
Perhaps science had indeed found a cure for crime.
The grand experiment unraveled in June of 1952 when stolen goods at a North Side pawn shop were traced to Wright. Police poked around in his apartment on Monterey Street and found a hidden room filled with radios, cameras, mink coats, clocks, luggage, furniture, guns, even a fully equipped doctor’s kit. All the items were stolen. The value: $25,000.
“I made a serious and sincere effort to go straight after the operation,” Wright said. “I don’t know what came over me. I just got nervous and moody.”
His wife Roberta was arrested, too. She admitted she and her husband had been stealing since at least October of 1950. Wright at that time had been out of prison less than a year.
In an attempt to clear cases, police took Wright on a tour of burglary sites in Western Pennsylvania. While in a jail cell in Butler, Wright broke a lens in his glasses, used a shard to slice open veins in his wrists, then hanged himself from a rope made of bed sheets and underwear.
“I am sentencing myself to death for my evil deeds,” read his suicide note.
His ashes are buried in Homewood Cemetery.