The mad butcher of kingsbury run: clevelands torso murders
The mad butcher carved up his victims throughout the 1930’s, evading capture from an entire police department, headed up by none other than the infamous Eliot Ness. During the Great Depression times were hard and in Cleveland, they were all the more dificult as the dank, dark streets of the local shantytown were stalked by a crazed psychotic with a penchant for decapitation.
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The Mad butcher of Kingsbury Run: Cleveland Torso Murders
As lonely freight trains clattered through the cold nights of Cleveland, the metallic scrapes entwining with the industrial din of the factories on the edges of the Cuyahoga River (Ky uh ho guh), men, women and children tucked themselves in to bed in ramshackle housing built from scavenged wood, cardboard and corrugated steel. Their home was a barren stretch of disused land known as Kingsbury Run. Amongst weeds, wild grass and decaying refuse, a shanty town built out of necessity and desperation had sprung up, housing those driven to the fringes of society, gripped by the poverty of the great depression. Living among the squalor was not easy, even less so with someone skulking in the shadows holding a penchant for decapitation. This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Cleveland in the early 30s
Throughout the 1920s, the city of Cleveland, Ohio boomed. The cities economy was largely dominated by the manufacture of steel, iron, cars and their respective replacement parts, chemicals and textiles and employment was relatively high. As the 6th largest city in the entire US, it was a city on the up. Two entrepreneurs, brothers with a focus on real estate, Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen, took note of the potential of Cleveland to house an emerging, sizable middle class and they wasted no time in building a suburban dream. They planned and oversaw construction of homes and parks around new, modern private and public schools complete with tree-lined streets. Noting that a key part of a successful suburb was it’s transport links to central Cleveland, they purchased the Nickel Plate Railroad and built up a public transportation network to cater for both the workforce and commercial aspirations of Clevelanders, culminating in the construction of The Cleveland Union Terminal in Public Square, in the heart of the Downtown area. It was a grande building, with extravagant ceilings and Art Deco finishings. Terminal Tower, a large skyscraper standing at 235 metres, was the second largest building in the world when construction was completed in 1930. At a cost of $179 million, it was a serious monument to the industrial boom and as both commercial centre and transport hub, it heralded a sign of great things to come for the future of Cleveland. This opulence, however, was not felt by all residents. Despite this prosperous facade, a gradual decline of quality of life and employment had slowly started creeping up unawares since 1927 and by October of 1929, the Great Depression had officially struck nationwide, turning this gradual slide into a severe downward spiral throughout both Cleveland and the country.
One obvious reflection of this decline could be seen in the work undertaken by the Associated Charities, a community driven and funded group in Cleveland who were helping those in need with financial assistance. In 1929 Associated Charities had 712 families officially on their books, by 1932, this number had increased to 26,000. Despite work initiatives, offering low paid, menial labour for up to three days per week, a 1931 census found that almost 50% of the Cleveland population were unemployed or working low paid, low hour jobs, unable to support their families. Although many of the hardest hit were already struggling immigrant and African American communities who, following the crash of industry, now suffered from 90% unemployment rates, the middle class that just a handful of years prior were looking forward to a bright future, now found themselves being hit just as hard, their children were being taught by unpaid teachers and at times, being sent home for not having shoes. Entire families were being fed for up to two weeks on one days pay from the working initiatives of $4.50 and what started as small soup kitchens in 1927 had evolved into an industrial affair, with food and clothing now being distributed by local charities as an accepted norm.
In 1933, the Cuyahoga County Relief Administration was set up, enveloping the Associated Charities and with it, taking on board the 33,000 families it was officially propping up. By 1935, this number had more than doubled to 76,000. In 1931, there were 9,300 evictions citywide, a number that too had doubled since 1930 and by 1934 rose to 13,000. Times were indeed tough and civil unrest was high, workers strikes and protests were a common occurrence and not always peaceful.
As for the Van Sweringens, their dream lay in tatters, several of their railroads had fallen to bankruptcy and they had defaulted on a 48 million dollar loan from J.P Morgan. With little to show financially from their promising earlier years, both men died within two years of each other. At the time of their deaths in ‘34 and ‘36, their net worth had fallen from $3 billion to just $3,000.
With poverty and homelessness at such a high, shantytowns had risen up. Known as “Hoovervilles”, a name they took from Herbert Hoover, the President in office at the time. These were ramshackle enclaves of scavenged wood and steel, closely packed and full of a population driven by financial desperation. Two of the largest Hoovervilles in Cleveland were known as Kingsbury Run and Whiskey Island. They were a harsh representation of an economic situation that gripped the US population and squeezed tighter as each month passed.
Kingsbury Run, was a dark and dangerous place. Populated by the poor, homeless, dispossessed and those hit hardest by the great Depression, it was a refuse filled area of land on the Eastern side of Cleveland, nestled on the banks of the Cuyahoga River. In reality, it was little more than a dumping ground for the cities waste, but it had land enough and so the population grew. In the west was an area known as “The Roaring Third”, a den of illegality, home to many of the cities bars, brothels and gambling houses, it offered both a refuge for some and a problem for the authorities.
It is safe to say that the times were hard and financial instability was cutting deep into the population of Cleveland, as around the US. In this atmosphere of severe poverty, decaying refuse, civil unrest and desperation, their was another, more violent nightmare coming over the horizon. It was within Kingsbury Run that a man who would become known as the Mad Butcher was preparing to throw down his violent and bloody stall.
Enter the Mad Butcher: Victim 0
On September 5th, 1934, 34 year old Frank Laggasi was searching by the banks of lake Erie for driftwood. He noticed something bobbing in the water. On closer inspection, Lagassi realised he had discovered something very grim indeed. What he originally thought to be a tree trunk turned out to be the headless, limbless, lower half of the torso of a woman, her legs removed from the knees. Cuyahoga County Coroner A.J Pearse noted in reports that her body had been treated, or preserved with some kind of oil that had given the skin a leathery appearance. With so little of the woman’s body found, it was impossible to both identify her, or to give a confident Cause of Death, the only notable detail about the victim being that she was in her 30’s. Her body was estimated as being in the water for up to 3 or 4 months, though with the preservative treatment, this was difficult for the police to nail down with any certainty. This unnamed woman was never identified, nor was the remainder of her corpse ever found. She became known as The Lady of the Lake and two years later, Victim 0. For now however, she was simply the victim of a gruesome murder that left no leads to follow. For the next year, her remains faded into an obscure memory, the perpetrator long forgotten.
Things were far from quiet in the streets of Kingsbury Run, but at least no more pieces of bodies were found. That was, until just over one year later, on the 23rd of September 1935. two young boys, James Wanger and Peter Pastora were playing catch atop an embankment known as Jackass Hill, in Southern Kingsbury Run when one made an otherthrow and the ball careered down the slope. The boys chased it down the hill, stopping at the bottom to route around in the bushes where they had last seen it as it bounced and disappeared from view. Rather than a ball, however, what they found was so traumatic that the first boy to discover the body leapt backwards and dragged the second over to the scene, speechless. In the bushes lay the decapitated body of a man, naked except from his socks. After the police arrived, they begun the search to find the victims head and instead found a second body, around 30 feet away, once again decapitated. The police continued the search and found both heads, partially buried, the first around 20 feet away from his body and the second around 75 feet away. They also found a metal bucket that contained a torch and an oily substance that had mixed with traces of blood left on the rim. Once again, the Coroner Pierce was given the duty of determining cause of death and his findings were macabre in the least.
Aside from the initial, obvious, decapitation of both bodies, pierce found that the first body had rope burns around his wrist and the second had hardened skin that had become discoloured. Upon closer examination they found that his body hair had been burnt away and thus concluded that:
“Appearances, together with certain findings to indicate that this body after death was saturated with oil and fire applied. The burning however was only sufficient to scorch, hence the peculiar condition of the skin.”
He also found that both men had had their penises removed. The first was a white male, 5’11” and weighing 150 lbs, in his twenties with blue-grey eyes and brown hair. He was presumed to have been dead for 2-3 days. The second was a white male, 40-45 years old, 5’6” 165 lbs with dark brown hair. He had been lying in the bushes a while longer with initial estimates placing his death 7-10 days prior, though this was later revised to 3-4 weeks. In both cases cause of death was attributed to “Death by decapitation, hemorrhage and shock”, meaning that the victims had been alive when they were decapitated. Despite what would have been massive blood loss, there was no blood found at the scene, aside from the small amount found on the metal bucket, both bodies appeared to have been drained and then cleaned before being cast into the bushes.
This time, the police did manage to identify one of the bodies from his fingerprints. The first man found was positively identified as Edward Andrassy, the 28 year old son of Hungarian immigrants. His father and brother were called in to the morgue and they gave a positive ID on Edward, who they had last seen four days earlier in perfect health. Edward Andrassy had lead a somewhat colourful life and was known to frequently hang around the bars of The Roaring Third. Rumours flew around that Edward was bi-sexual and his sister was aware that he had had run ins with mobsters in the past, police called him a “Snotty Punk” and his own father commented that he hung around people of “questionable character”. The police therefore found themselves dealing with a victim who could, in all likelihood have been killed by any one of a large number of people, leaving many leads, which of course, were entirely fruitless. The second body was proving to be quite the opposite of Andrassy, it was never identified and simply chalked up as “Victim 1”. Despite some of the obvious similarities, the police were yet to tie the two murders to the earlier discovery of “The Lady of the Lake”, though they had linked andrassy and Victim 1, deciding that they probably knew one another and were killed by the same person. The dust eventually settled and investigations ceased after they had effectively lead the police nowhere. Of far more interest in the press than a couple of murders, was the interesting new addition to the Cleveland police ranks, when the by now infamous Eliot Ness was called in by the new Mayor of Cleveland Harold Burton to clean up crime and corruption in the city.
Eliot Ness rode into Cleveland fresh on the coattails of his successes fighting crime lord Al Capone. Capone is of course, now equally infamous for his activities as co-founder of The Chicago Outfit, an Italian-American organised crime organisation who rose to power during the period of prohibition. Ness made quick time in Cleveland, cleaning up the police force of corruption, attacking the gambling dens and initiating new programs and concepts in the police force, ensuring the police were clearly represented on the streets by introducing marked police cars and revamping police academy training to better equip new police with the realities of working on the force. As Ness made headlines in the local press almost daily, the people of Cleveland may have been forgiven in thinking that their streets were on the way to becoming safer. That however, would soon change.
In the early hours of Sunday, January 26th 1936, people in Kingsbury Run lay in their beds trying to sleep. This was made difficult for some as the barks of a dog punctured the cold winter night. Later that morning, local butcher and owner of the White Front Meat Market, Charles paige was startled by a woman insisting that she had found a basket of what she believed to be hams was lying outside the Hart Manufacturing Building on East 21st Place. The woman had alerted Charles paige, concerned that his butchers shop might have been robbed and so he accompanied her back to the basket. As it turned out, the items were not quite hams, rather, the first item Paige removed from the basket was an arm, wrapped in newspaper. The police were called immediately and Lieutenant Harvey Weitzel, Lieutenant David Cowles, Sergeant Hogan and detectives Shibley and Wachsman promptly arrived on the scene and discovered several pieces of a human body wrapped tightly in the basket and nearby several more pieces were stuffed into two burlap sacks. Over the next ten days, the search turned up around half of an entire human female body, most of which had been left in a nearby vacant lot on Orange Avenue, along with a set of white cotton underwear wrapped in newspapers.
The barking dog turned out to belong to james Marco, who provided the police with the time of the dogs apparent distress at around 2:30am, giving the detectives at least a window of time for which to investigate further. Outside of this clue, however, little information was forthcoming until the body was identified via her fingerprints as local woman Florence Polillo. Florence was known locally as Flo, was 42 years old and worked as a barmaid, waitress and had previously been arrested on several occasions for working as a prostitute. Her ex-husband gave a statement to police, telling them of how they had married for six years, however, Flo’s drinking problem had caused rifts in the relationship that were eventually too great for the couple to overcome. She split with her husband after six years of marriage, intending to straighten herself out, however she wound up instead existing on the fringes of society, living hand to mouth, with much of her money being sucked up by her ongoing and ceaseless problem with drink that led her to violent outbursts. She had had several relationships since her split, many of them winding up abusive. On February the 7th, the remainder of Flo’s body parts were found minus the head, scattered against a fence behind a vacant house. Along with these parts was the upper half of her torso, from which Coroner Pierce was able to confirm that Flo had died, once again, from decapitation.
The police traced forensic evidence left on the scene but it all led nowhere and Flo’s friends were equally unhelpful in uncovering any new evidence. Once again, the dust settled on the murder, but once again, the quiet period would not last.
The Tattooed Man
Despite all the problems facing Cleveland throughout the thirties, it was a city that just about clung onto it’s successful facade. The recent completed construction works and tree lined suburbs belied the reality, however, the shantytowns and slums were more than a clear reminder to any who ventured just a few blocks from this commercial front. In June of 1936, the Republican National Convention rolled into town, bringing with it a host of delegates who would of course not take in the sights on the banks of the filthy Cuyahoga river, flowing just behind the shimmering Urban Developments they were instead presented with.
At 8:30am on the morning of Friday, June 5th, just three days before the start of the convention, two young boys aged 11 and 13 were skipping out on school to go fishing. As they approached the East 55th bridge, they spotted something in the bush and prodded it with their fishing poles. Wrapped in a pair of trousers, to their surprise, was the head of a man. Shocked and traumatised by the sight, the boys ran home, where they hid until one of the boys mothers returned home from work, eventually allowing them to alleviate themselves of the grim discovery. At first, they were too terrified to cooperate with police, refusing to lead the police back to the site, but after some convincing, they took the police to recover the head and begin the search for the remainder of the man’s body. The next day, the body was found in what appeared to be a direct affront to the police, it had been dumped in some bushes directly in front of the Nickel Plate Police Department. The victim was 20-25 years old, thought to have been murdered 2 days before it’s discovery and had been drained of blood and cleaned. Cause of Death was determined by pierce once again as decapitation.
The Coroner also discovered that the man had six tattoos, a Cupid on an anchor, the names Helen & Paul, with a dove, a butterfly, the top hat wearing, cane carrying cartoon figure known as “Jiggs”, an arrow through a heart and the initials W.C.G. Photographs of the tattoos were circulated around tattoo parlours throughout the country, fingerprints were taken and a plaster cast of the man’s head was even taken and displayed at the Great Lakes Expo in an effort to garner information of his identity, however no further information was forthcoming and he was never identified.
The body of the man was confusing for the detectives, the coroner’s report stated that he was well nourished, clean shaven and dressed in clean, relatively new clothing. This description did not match with the poor and destitute victims they had previously seen. This made it all the easier for police to deny what the press would not. That these murders were very likely to all have been connected. The next day, The Cleveland Press ran the headline “Hunt for fiend in four decapitations” to an article that read:
“Somewhere in the countless byways of the crowded Southeast Side, detectives believe today is the grisly workshop of a human butcher who in the last 10 months has carved up and decapitated four persons.”
“Is there somewhere in the county a madman whose strange God is teh guillotine? Or has some fantastic chemistry of the civilized mind converted him into a human butcher? Does he imagines himself a legal executioner of the French Revolution or a religious zealot saving the human race with an axe?”
The period of time the bodies were uncovered may have been a fudge on the part of the press, but both they and the police knew this was a story that had legs and thus the narrative of the Mad Butcher was thrust upon the public.
Eliot Ness met with Sergeant James Hogan and head of the Crime Lab, David Cowles to discuss the investigation of the murders. Hogan did not agree with the press and believed them to be unconnected due to their not sharing any common links in terms of motive, jealousy, sexual deviation, revenge, none seemed to make much sense. Both Ness and Cowles, however, did agree with the press and believed them to be connected. Ness promised Hogan more support and manpower, instructing Cowles to put his department at Hogans disposal. Hogan would have welcomed this greatly, as it would not be long before the “Mad Butcher” was to raise his head in kingsbury Run again.
The police were still working hard to track down leads from the victim now known as “The Tatooed Man” when the next call came in on the 22nd June. Hogan had been called out to the woods near the Big Creek area of Cleveland, after a teenage girl named Marie Berkley had called in the discovery of headless remains. He reported that:
“The dead man was lying on his stomach in the nude, and the head was partly wrapped up in his clothing about fifteen feet north of the body. It appeared that the body had been lying at this point for at least two months and was very badly decomposed.”
The victim this time was a 40 year old man and he appeared, unusually, to have been killed on the scene as he lay on a large pool of blood that had soaked into the ground. Coroner Pierce noted that:
“the body was in an advanced state of decomposition with skin and flesh denuded in large areas. Rodents, maggots, and the process of decomposition had removed portions of the internal viscera. The head had been separated from the body at the junction of the second and third cervical vertebrae, the ends of which bones showed no evidence of fracture.”
The state of decomposition was in fact, so advanced that the head was nothing more than a skull by this point, which led Pierce to conclude the body had been laying on the ground between 2 and 3 months. Hogan finally came on board with the other police, admitting that the killer seemed to have been just one man. The decapitations showed too many signs of a skilled cut, not just a brutal severing. Ness had ensured that this line of thought was kept from the press however, who were still enjoying their own storytelling. During June, the Republican Convention and the Great Lakes Expo was enough to keep the story from flying too high in the press and Ness was happy to keep things that way.
After the two conventions however, there was little to shield the story from the public and the papers had a field day when, on September 10th, Detectives Orley May and Emil Musey responded to a call from a man named Jerry Harris concerning something he had seen floating in a filthy pool of water on East 37th Street of Kingsbury Run that resembled a torso.
“The torso was removed from the creek and was sent to the County Morgue. A search was immediately begun alongside of the creek and the weeds for the balance of the body. The fire rescue squad was then called and the creek was dragged with grappling hooks with a view of recovering the remainder of the body in the outlet of this creek which comes out of a tunnel at this point, at which point the body was dumped over and small portions of flesh were found on a ledge where the torso struck when it was thrown over the edge into the creek. We were unable to recover any portions of the body with the grappling hooks so we proceeded in using ceiling hooks and we recovered two legs below the knee. We then continued to search further…and recovered the right thigh. I then searched the woods and picked up a gray felt hat, rather dirty, which appeared to have blood spots on the top and a small black band which had the label Laudy’s Smart Shop, Bellevue, Ohio. A blue work shirt was found wrapped in newspaper along the bank of the creek where the body was thrown into the creek. The shirt was covered with blood.”
As the police dredged the lake, hundreds of spectators crowded around to see what the commotion was about. A diver later found the rest of the man’s body, though by now, the press and locals had seen all they needed. The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run was a household name and people talked openly about his reign of murder. The Cleveland News ran an editorial on the murders offering a $1000 reward for information on the man dubbed “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” and went on:
“Of all the horrible nightmares come to life, the most shuddering is the fiend who decapitates his victims in the dark, dank recesses of Kingsbury Run. That a man of this nature should be permitted to work his crazed vengeance upon six people in a city the size of Cleveland should be the cities shame. No Edgar Allan poe in his deepest opium maddened dream conceive horror so painstakingly worked out.”
Pierce concluded that this latest victim could not be identified, however had been in the pool for around 2 days, had been in his late 20’s, and the cause of death had been decapitation. He also noted that the cuts had been done by a confident hand, leading speculation to a natural conclusion. Whoever was killing these people was a professional of some sort, someone who knew their way around anatomy and could handle a blade, as well as amputations.
Ness could not push the murders aside any longer and now decided that it was time for he himself to become more directly involved along with enlisting twenty detectives to work on the case full time, headed up by Peter Merylo and Martin Zelewski. The pair of detectives worked tirelessly, calling in and interviewing every homeless person they could find in the Kingsbury Run area. By the end of investigations, they interviewed over 1500 people alone, almost a third of interrogations undertaken by the entire department. They also took to undercover work, dressing as homeless and spending days and weeks at a time in the Kingsbury Run area, or riding the rails. They hunted down rumours of men with names like “The Chicken Freak”, “Witch Doctor” and “The giant of the Run”, but all came to nothing.
Meanwhile, Coroner Pierce put together a team of individuals including himself, Ruben Strauss, the pathologist who had worked on the previous six victims, County Prosecutor Cullitan, Police Chief Matowitz, Lieutenant Cowles, Inspector Joseph Sweeney and Sergeant Hogan. The team also consisted of several heads of local Insane Asylums and Mental Health hospitals. The newspapers dubbed this group “The Torso Clinic” and the team held meetings to discuss who the killer may have been. Whilst this may seem ordinary now, this was in fact one of the first examples of modern day “profiling”. The Torso Clinic concluded that:
The killer was one man, that the Lady of the lake was not to be included in the canonical murders as far as investigations were concerned, as it was judged to have been done too long before the recent spat of murders. The killer was psychotic, but not insane and must’ve been able to uphold himself in public. He must be large and strong, as he was transporting bodies, along with a size 12 footprint that had earlier been found. He was likely a resident of the Kingsbury Run area and must have had a private place in which he could kill and clean the bodies. That he was picking on the lowest rungs of society, seeing them as easy prey and that he was either a butcher, hunter or possible nurse, at least, all agreed that he held some level of anatomical skill. They stopped just shy of calling out the possibility of him being a doctor directly, most likely a form of classist elitism, however as the picture of the man they hunted was sketched out, detectives were to begin investigating physicians in the local area with a history of mental instability.
In November, a new Coroner was elected as County official named Sam Gerber. He was Qualified with degrees in both Medicine and Law and the press saw him as another star on the County’s judicial force. It was not to be long before he would have his first chance to directly investigate the Mad Butcher.
On February 23rd, 1937, in a repeat of the Lady of the Lake, the upper half of a woman’s body was found washed up on the shore by 156th Street. Unlike those victims before it, cause of death was determined not as decapitation, though the head had been severed, it was judged by Coroner Gerber to have been done after death which was no longer than 4 days prior. She was in her mid twenties, weighing 120 lbs and medium brown hair. Her arms had been removed and the lower half of the torso had been cut in half and washed up separately, three months later. The victims arms, legs and head were never discovered, along with her identity. The only solid piece of information that was noted was the dirt in her lungs, suggesting she was a resident of the city.
Gerber later summarised that whoever the killer was, he was now convinced he had anatomical skill and the search for a learned man and even the possibility he was a doctor became a serious line of enquiry. Ness contacted the local press and asked them to tone down the manner of their reports on the case, suggesting that the killer may, at this point be killing for show, enjoying the gruesome attention he was garnering from the numerous, daily, headlines. They obliged to a degree, but it was to little avail as on the 6th June, the police were once again investigating a further body.
Russell Lawer was the 14 year old boy who made the grisly discovery of a skull under the Loraine-Carnegie bridge. Upon searching the area, the police found a burlap sack filled with the incomplete skeletal remains of a woman in her 40s. Along with the remains was a newspaper dated June 1936, published a full year before it’s discovery. The victims arms and legs were missing, however the skull showed signs of considerable dental work and through these, the woman was identified as a prostitute by the name of Rose Wallace. Rose was confirmed as having gone missing 10 months previously by her son, who was convinced the remains were that of his mother, though both Gerber and Hogan were not as convinced. Merylo however, accepted the identification. Her remains were donated to Western County Med school and doubts remained over her identity, along with cause of death, which due to the treatment of Quick Lime to the body was impossible to verify.
One month later, with civil unrest having reached boiling point, the National Guard had been called in to take control over a bout of labour strikes. on July 6th, guardsman John Smith, watching over the river by the West 3rd Street Bridge saw a piece of human remains floating by on the wake of a passing boat. Police were called and over the next several days, they trawled the river, pulling out the almost complete body, minus the head, of a man in his mid to late 30s, approximately 5’8” tall and weighing 150 lbs. Gerber concluded the body to have been in the river for 2-3 days and the cause of death was decapitation. Perhaps tiring of his usual MO, this time the body had further grim secrets waiting to be discovered. The internal organs had all been removed along with his heart, which had been torn from his chest, with little skill or precision of the usual cuts. Of course, no identity was ever found. Local nurses, physicians and medical students were checked out by the detectives and special surveillance warrants were issued for any that showed signs of “unusual behaviour”, meaning any that showed signs of illicit drug use, prostitution, alcohol or, a depressing sign of the times, homosexuality. Despite these and other tireless efforts by the detectives on the case, the trail fell as cold as the coming winter months and 1937 closed quietly for the butcher.
On the 8th April, 1938, as the quiet winter slipped into spring, a young laborer on his way to work walked along the banks of the Cuyahoga River, he spotted what he initially thought was a fish, however soon discovered it to be a severed limb. For a month the police department held hopes that it would lead to nothing more, however, these were dashed when in May, the remainder of the body, found in 2 burlap sacks, were hauled out of the river. The sacks contained the naked remains of a woman’s torso that had been cut in half, her thighs and feet. The arms, legs and head were never found. Gerber concluded the woman to have been between the age of 25 and 30, around 5’3” tall and 120 lbs with cause of death predictably being decapitation and no identity ever realised.
On the 16th of August, three scrap collectors foraging on a dump site found the torso of the next victim of the Mad Butcher. The torso was of a female and was twice wrapped in a mens, double breasted blue blazer and a quilt. The legs and arms, were found nearby in a makeshift box and wrapped in brown butchers paper, tied up with elastic bands and the head was found a little way further wrapped similarly. As the police combed the area for any more body parts or forensic evidence, they came across the scattered skeletal remains of a second body, this time of a man who had several limbs wrapped in brown paper. Both sets of remains were determined by Gerber to have belonged to individuals between the ages of 30 and 40, and though both victims were thought to have been murdered some months before, it was concluded that they could only have been dumped 2-3 weeks prior to their discovery. With no cause of death able to be determined and enough deviations from the previous ten bodies, there was some doubts that these were victims of the Butcher at all, however, they did show signs, particularly of dismemberment and decapitation. One detail of note concerning their final dumping place was that both bodies had been left within plain view of Eliot Ness’ very own office window.
The press had a field day with the most recent finds and heavily criticised Ness for his inability to stop the butcher. Ness had to do something drastic and fast.
Fire and Brimstone
On the night of August 18th, just two days after the most recent discoveries of the bodies, Ness led a raid on the shantytown of Kingsbury Run, he took the small neighbourhood by storm with 35 police officers, 11 squad cars, 2 vans and 3 fire trucks. The fire trucks might have seemed out of place at first, but their presence was made apparent by what was to come next. Once Ness had rounded up the population of the shacks and meticulously searched the place. He ordered the entire squat burnt to the ground, a move which was as drastic as it was harsh. Unsurprisingly he was heavily criticised by the press who came down on him hard for the draconian measure. The Cleveland Press ran a story that read:
“That such Shantytowns exist is a sorrowful reflection upon the state of society. The throwing into jail of men broken by experience and the burning of their wretched places of habitation will not solve the economic problem. Nor is it likely to lead to the solution of the most macabre mystery in Cleveland’s history.”
As for the men who were evicted from the shantytowns and whose makeshift homes were burnt, they were charged with being homeless. Rather dryly, to this they pleaded guilty.
Despite the heavy criticism and one can only speculate if it was a direct result of the raids or not, the Butchers reign of murder appeared, at least on the surface to have ceased. The murders finished as suddenly as they had started. In January of 1939, a letter sent from LA to The Cleveland Press and addressed to Chief of Police Mantowitz was the final public call on the affairs of the Butcher. It read:
“Chief of Police Matowitz,
You can rest easy now, as I have come to sunny California for the winter. I felt bad aperating on those people, but science must advance. I shall astound the medical profession, a man with only a DC.
What did their lives mean in comparison to hundreds of sick and disease-twisted bodies? Just laboratory guinea pigs found on any public street. No one missed them when I failed. My last case was successful. I know now the feeling of Pasteur, Thoreau and other pioneers.
Right now I have a volunteer who will prove my theory. They call me mad and a butcher, but the truth will out.
I have failed but once here, the body has not been found and never will be, but the head, minus the features is buried on Century Boulevard, between Western and Crenshaw. I feel it is my duty to dispose of the bodies as I do. It is Gods will not to let them suffer.”
The letter was signed off with an X and sounded suspicious at best. Nevertheless, the particulars were investigated and no head ever turned up in LA.
Despite all the forensic evidence recovered from the scenes of the 12 murders considered canonical by police, along with Victim 0, the lady of the lake, no killer was ever traced. There were in fact very few cast iron suspects at all, a fact that remains until this day over 80 years later.
At the time of the murders, suspects were numerous, however only one was ever really nailed on for any of the investigators and even then, it wasn’t a unanimous line of thought. Unusually for such a historical case, this continues until today and there is not a litany of suspects, in fact, it appears as if there were only ever really two and it could be argued quite easily, that realistically there was only one who the leaders of the investigation believed as a serious suspect. Whether or not the suspect is particularly strong or that the killer apparently did a very clever job of covering his tracks is a debate that still continues.
One suspect was discovered whilst investigating the death of Edward Andrassy. Police found a photo negative which when developed, showed Andrassy on the bed in an unknown room. Police tracked down the room after publishing the photo in the local press and found it belonged to a gay man who lived with his two sisters. Traces of blood were found on the floor of the room and a large butchers knife was found stashed in a trunk. Upon further investigation however, it turned out that the blood belonged to the suspect himself, who was prone to nosebleeds and the knife showed no evidence of having been used in any murder. The final nail in the coffin for this line of enquiry was hammered home when police discovered the suspect had actually been in jail when victims were showing up around Kingsbury Run. This case is not uncommon in the story of the Torso murders and numerous other stories of suspects that lead nowhere are littered throughout. There were however some which had a little more substance.
The first suspect who was arrested on charges of murder for the Butcher killings was a man named Frank Dolezal. Dolezal in fact confessed to killing Flo Polillo, however, things with Frank were not quite as they seemed.
Frank Dolezal was a 52 year old Slaav immigrant who worked as a bricklayer. Frank was found to have been, in general, an okay guy, but was prone to drink and at times, became violent. He had drank frequently at the same bar as both Flo Polillo and Edward Andrassy. He had also lived with Flo for a couple of years. Dolezal had actually been investigated previously by Merylo but rejected as a suspect, this time however, the County Sheriff decided, for whatever reason, that he had more promise and chose to have him arrested on 5th July 1939. A brown substance was found in the cracks of his bathroom floor and it was theorised to be dried blood. He was promptly arrested and whilst in police custody, Dolezal confessed to the murder of Flo Polillo, however they lacked any great detail and many of the obvious facts of the case, such as location and position of the body. In fact, it appeared that he didn’t know much about the body at all. He later recalled his confessions, stating that they had been beaten out of him whilst he was interrogated. Before his court appearance, Frank Dolezal was found dead in his jail cell, apparently from suicide by hanging, though his autopsy showed he had broken ribs, injuries he had not suffered before his arrest. Results had returned by this point of the substance found on the bathroom floor, as it turned out, it was not blood at all. It all appeared to have been a very ugly side of the investigation and the police were left no closer to finding a killer than they had been before the arrest and eventual death of Frank Dolezal.
Before Eliot Ness’ death in 1957, he worked alongside Journalist Oscar Fraley, the man he would later collaborate with to write “The Untouchables”, a book detailing Ness’ time fighting Capone in Chicago. Ness however, told Fraley more than just stories about prohibition in Chicago and apparently went as far as claiming to him that he had figured out who the Mad Butcher was.
He was convinced that the killer was not homeless, despite Merylo’s own convictions. He believed that he had to have owned a house, or at least been associated with a private dwelling that he could utilise to carry out his murders, as well as clean the bodies and dismember them later. He also believed he would have needed a car to transport the body parts before distributing them around Kingsbury Run. He also firmly believed the idea that the killer was likely to be a doctor or medical man. Following these points, he had three agents, Virginia Allen, Barney Davis and Jim Manski inquire quietly among the high society of Cleveland. Allen found a man that he believed fit the bill for Ness and the Torso Clinics earlier profile of the killer. Ness named the man to Fraley as “Gaylord Sundheim”. The name itself was a nom de plume, but the facts behind the name were that he was a relatively wealthy man and a doctor with a history of psychiatric problems. Over the years, the true name of Gaylord Sundheim has been teased out and unveiled as that of one Frank Sweeney, a resident of the Kingsbury Run area and the man that Ness firmly believed to be the killer.
In March of 1938, in Sandusky, a town 65 miles west of Cleveland, a dog found the severed leg of a man. Police began a search of the area accompanied by Lieutenant David Cowles who was interested to know whether there might be any connection with this leg to the murders in Cleveland.
Cowles recalled a surgeon they had previously tailed and who lived in the Kingsbury Run area who had fit their profile of displaying “unusual behaviour”. This particular man had been eliminated as a suspect at the time for his frequent stays in a Sandusky veterans hospice, where he would go to help with his drinking problem. His visits often overlapped with discoveries of bodies in Kingsbury Run and therefore, he appeared to have a fairly watertight alibis. However, after further inquiries, Cowles discovered that in fact, the hospital had very little in the way of security and when patients were staying there, they were more or less free to come and go as they pleased. They had after all, checked themselves in in the first place, it was certainly no prison.
Cowles also discovered whilst in Sandusky, that the hospice shared some facilities with Ohio Penitentiary Honour Farm and that one of the inmates there, Alex Archaki, was familiar with one of the frequent visitors to the clinic, a doctor who in exchange for a supply of alcohol, wrote him illegal prescriptions. As it turned out, the severed leg was in fact the result of a legitimate surgery, however Cowles had a new suspect, the doctor’s name was, of course, Frank Sweeney.
Francis Sweeney was born in 1894 the son of poor Irish immigrants. His father was badly injured and suffered enough that he was unable to work. His mother died when he was nine years old from a stroke. He was a veteran of WW1, where he had worked as a medic and undertaken numerous amputations on the field of battle. He graduated Medical school in 1928, years after he had begun his studies whilst simultaneously working to support himself and his family. Despite the difficult road he had undertaken to better himself, he excelled and was elected as vice president of his sophomore class. After his graduation, he took residency in St Alexis Hospital in the Kingsbury Run area, married a nurse and started a family, with two children.
The stresses eventually got the better of him however, and he started to drink at roughly the same time he graduated. His wife stated that he drank habitually and this eventually led to his expulsion from residency at the hospital as well as the separation from his wife in 1934. Their divorce was granted two years later in 1936 and she filed a restraining order against him, concerned of his violent and abusive outbursts that forbade him from “visiting, interfering or molesting” her in any way.
Equally of interest to the police was his lifetime spent in the Kingsbury Run area, granting him intimate knowledge of the layout. That he lived in Garfield Heights, near to locations where several of the bodies had been found, his alleged bi-sexuality and the discovery that Sweeney’s father had spent the final years of his life in an insane asylum after being diagnosed with “psychosis”.
One problem with Frank Sweeney as suspect however, was the small fact of his cousin being Martin Sweeney, a local Democrat congressman and outspoken critic of the Republican administration. Clearly any investigation of Sweeney needed to be discreet. Around the time police were fishing out the limbs of victim 10 from the river, Cowles and Ness arranged for Sweeney to be followed, they searched his office and even his mail.
After the drastic steps taken by Ness to burn down the shantytowns, he went one step further and pulled Sweeney off the streets, taking a room in a local hotel named The Cleveland and placed Sweeney under supervision inside for fourteen days, where he interrogated him as a suspect in the killings. When they picked him up, he had been so drunk that the first three days were simply to allow him to dry out, but once sober, Ness got on with the job proper. He also arranged for Leonard keeler, the man who invented the modern Polygraph, to attend the interrogation and bring along his machine. All of this Ness managed to undertake in complete secrecy. The men grilled Sweeney for a further 11 days and tested him with the Polygraph test twice, both of which he failed on key questions. According to Keeler, Sweeney was their man, which he claimed confidently to Ness.
Despite Ness firmly agreeing with Keeler and convinced of Sweeneys guilt, he had no evidence to take him to court and the Doctor was likely to have been judged insane even if he had. Without any confession, which Sweeney was clearly not willing to give, he was forced to eventually let him go.
Within a week of the interrogations finishing, Sweeney committed himself once again to the veterans hospital in Sandusky where he lived out the rest of his days, bouncing from mental institution to mental institution until his eventual death in 1965. After the interrogation, Sweeneys mental health appears to have drastically deteriorated, to the point he sent Ness postcards with cryptic and obscure messages, often gibberish and signing them off with various names, such as “paranoidal nemesis.”
Whether or not Sweeney was the murderer, it is at least true that Ness must have had a fairly strong confidence in his guilt to have taken the steps to interrogate him for fourteen days, locked in a hotel room. It can’t be ignored that the murders did stop around the same time too, at least if you agree that the canonical murders were the only murders.
In August of 1938, a fascinating story was printed in the press concerning a homeless man named Emil Fronek, who was at the time, residing in Chicago. Fronek claimed that in 1934, before even the murder of the Lady in the Lake, he had been out begging a meal when a man picked him up and took him home to cook for him. He described the man as “Looking like a doctor” and his story went on:
“I was invited to sit down and my host went into another room. Soon he returned with the finest handout I was ever offered. Suddenly I began to feel sick at my stomach. I told this man about it and he said he’ll get em some whiskey. He went into the other room again, but I was getting suspicious. I staggered out of the house and managed to get on an empty boxcar standing on a railroad siding not so far away.
“Some other men found me there three days later. I had been out all that time. There’s no doubt that I was poisoned. And another fact which I stumbled onto later, after I began reading about all those Cleveland murders, convinced me that I might have been murdered too. I ran into another man and told him of my experience, he said “That’s funny, I almost got cut up in that house too.” He said he had begged a meal there and was treated just as I was, and by the same man. He didn’t remember anything more after the meal, until he woke up in what he figured was a private hospital. He had been cut across the abdomen and was slashed down the chest. He escaped from the hospital by jumping over a back fence.”
Fronek later claimed that he went back to find the doctor to “fix” him but could no longer locate his house. He also stated that he didn’t hold much stock in the second mans story, “He talked too crazy for me to believe him”. He said.
Whilst the story sounds possibly far fetched, Fronek was picked up by the police and driven around Kingsbury Run area to look for the doctors house, though once again, he failed to recognise it. Nevertheless, it appears Ness himself believed Fronek and also that he believed Froneks guy to be Sweeney himself. One fact that skews this however, is that Fronek described the Doctor in his experience as being 5’6”, whilst Sweeney was known to be 6’ tall. It does stand however, as an interesting epilogue to the case and appears to have at least some merit if we are to accept that police and Ness both bought Froneks tale enough to pick him up in Chicago and bring him to Cleveland.
The Torso Murders are a grim and savage mark on the history of Cleveland. Ness never quite recovered from the criticism he took for his burning of the shantytown, nor his failure to capture the Mad Butcher and he left the police in 1941.
It is still debated today on how many murders should be treated as canonical and whilst most accept that victim 0, the lady of the lake should be included, there are others who believe, like Detective Merylo that the body count of the Mad Butcher lies much much higher, linking him with over 24 murders in the Ohio and Pennsylvania areas and even linking him to the Black Dahlia.
With a murderer who had such a lose MO, and no motivations other than appearing to just enjoy chopping people up with no apparent preference to gender, age, sexuality or race, it was hugely difficult to gain any clear picture of who the murderer might have been and why he may have chosen his victims. After all these years, we can only trawl back through old records and deduce, much like Ness and Cowles, that Sweeney was the best suspect and possibly, the Mad Butcher. If that’s the case, then why and how did he get away with it all, even after such close interrogations from police? Some suggest deals may have been made to deflect attention from the family that lead him to committing himself, others suggest he was protected by his cousin and there is always the possibility that he was in fact, just an innocent, if somewhat troubled man with an alcohol problem.
Theoretically, the case is still open, though there has been little effort to investigate further and it’s hard to see it ever being pursued after such a long, cold period. The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run instead falls to Dark History, retold by few as a grisly tale of murder and mystery.