The Cleveland Torso Murderer
|Other names||Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run|
Span of crimes
|September 23, 1935–August 16, 1938|
The Cleveland Torso Murderer (also known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run) was an unidentified serial killer who was active in Cleveland, Ohio, United States, in the 1930s. The killings were characterized by the dismemberment of twelve known victims and the disposal of their remains in the impoverished neighborhood of Kingsbury Run. Most victims came from an area east of Kingsbury Run called The Roaring Third, known for its bars, gambling dens and brothels. Another name for this area was "Hobo Jungle", as it was home to many vagrants. Despite an investigation of the murders, which at one time was led by famed lawman Eliot Ness, then Cleveland's Public Safety Director. The murderer was never apprehended.
The official number of murders attributed to the Cleveland Torso Murderer is twelve, although recent research has shown there could have been as many as twenty. The twelve known victims were killed between 1935 and 1938. Some investigators, including lead Cleveland detective Peter Merylo, believe that there may have been thirteen or more victims in the Cleveland, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh areas between the 1920s and 1950s. Two strong candidates for addition to the initial list of those killed are the unknown victim nicknamed the "Lady of the Lake," found on September 5, 1934, and Robert Robertson, found on July 22, 1950.
The victims of the Torso Murderer were usually drifters whose identities were never determined, although there were a few exceptions. Victims numbers 2, 3, and 8 were identified as Edward Andrassy, Florence Polillo, and possibly Rose Wallace, respectively. The victims appeared to be lower class individuals — easy prey in Depression-era Cleveland. Many were known as "working poor", who had nowhere else to live but the ramshackle Depression-era shanty towns or "Hoovervilles" in the area known as the Cleveland Flats.
The Torso Murderer always beheaded and often dismembered their victims, occasionally severing the victim's torso in half or severing their appendages. In many cases the cause of death was the decapitation or dismemberment itself. Most of the male victims were castrated. Some victims showed evidence of chemical treatment being applied to their bodies. Many of the victims were found after a considerable period of time following their deaths, occasionally in excess of a year. In an era when forensic science was largely in its infancy, these factors further complicated identification, especially since the heads were often undiscovered.
During the time of the "official" murders, Eliot Ness held the position of Public Safety Director of Cleveland, a position with authority over the police department and ancillary services, including the fire department. While Ness had little to do with the investigation, his posthumous reputation as leader of The Untouchables has made him an irresistible character in modern "torso murder" lore. Ness did contribute to the arrest and interrogation of one of the prime suspects, Dr. Francis E. Sweeney. In addition, he personally conducted raids into hobo shanties and eventually burned down Kingsbury Run, from which the killer took his or her victims, in an attempt to stop the murders. At one point in time, the killer taunted Ness by placing the remains of two victims in full view of his office in city hall.
Most researchers consider there to be twelve victims, although some have counted as many as 20. New evidence suggests a woman dubbed "The Lady of the Lake" could be included. Only two victims were positively identified; the other ten were six John Does and four Jane Does.
|Order of discovery||Victim||Date found||Location||Autopsy report||Estimated time between death and discovery||Date of murder||Probable order of murder|
|September 23, 1935||Jackass Hill area of Kingsbury Run (near East 49th and Praha Avenue)||Andrassy was found lying about 30 feet (9.1 m) from John Doe I. He had been decapitated and emasculated. His head was recovered.||Two to three days||September 1935||2|
|2||John Doe I||September 23, 1935||Jackass Hill area of Kingsbury Run||Male body was never identified. Emasculated and decapitated, head recovered. The skin was treated with a chemical agent that caused it to become reddish and leathery.||Initial estimates were seven to ten days. It was later revised to three to four weeks.||September 1935||1|
Florence Genevieve Polillo
|January 26/February 7, 1936||Between 2315 and 2325 East 20th Street in downtown Cleveland and 1419 Orange Avenue||Her body had been dismembered, the head was recovered.||Two to four days||January 1936||3|
John Doe II
"The Tattooed Man"
|June 5, 1936||Kingsbury Run||The victim was decapitated while alive. His head was recovered. [*]||Two days||June 1936||5|
|5||John Doe III||July 22, 1936||Big Creek area of Brooklyn, west of Cleveland||The victim was dismembered while still alive. His head was recovered. This unidentified male body was the only known West Side victim.[**]||Two months||May 1936||4|
|6||John Doe IV||September 10, 1936||Kingsbury Run||Only half the torso was found. Nothing remained below the hips. The head was never found nor the body identified.||Two days||September 1936||7|
|7||Jane Doe I||February 23, 1937||Euclid Beach on the Lake Erie shore||The unidentified female body was found at the same spot as the 1934 noncanonical victim nicknamed "The Lady of the Lake" (see below). The head was never found.||Three to four days||February 1937||8|
Jane Doe II
|June 6, 1937||Beneath the Lorain-Carnegie bridge||Only black victim. The body was decapitated and missing a rib. The head was recovered. [***]||One year||June 1936||6|
|9||John Doe V||July 6, 1937||Pulled out of Cuyahoga River in the Cleveland Flats||Body of this male was recovered but the head was never found.||Two to three days||July 1937||9|
|10||Jane Doe III||April 8, 1938||Cuyahoga River in the Cleveland Flats||On April 8 only the victim's lower leg was recovered. On May 2 a human thigh was discovered floating in the river to the east of the West 3rd Street bridge. A police search under the bridge found a burlap sack containing the victim's headless torso cut in two halves, another thigh and a left foot. The head and the rest of the body were never found. Only victim to have drugs in her system.||Three to five days||April 1938||12|
|11||Jane Doe IV||August 16, 1938||East 9th Street Lakeshore Dump||Decapitated female body. Head recovered.||Four to six months||February – April 1938||11|
|12||John Doe VI||August 16, 1938||East 9th Street Lakeshore Dump||Discovered at the same time as Jane Doe IV. Male decapitated body. Head was found in a can. Victim never identified.||Seven to nine months||November 1937 – January 1938||10|
Edward Andrassy was buried in St Mary Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio; Florence Polillo is buried in Pennsylvania Five of the John/Jane Does ("Lady of the Lake"; and victims John Doe #1; John Doe #2; John Doe #4; Jane Doe #1) were buried in Potter's Field Section of Highland Park Cemetery, Highland Park, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
Several noncanonical victims are commonly discussed in connection with the Torso Murderer. The first was nicknamed the "Lady of the Lake" and was found near Euclid Beach on the Lake Erie shore on September 5, 1934, at virtually the same spot as canonical victim number 7. Some researchers of the Torso Murderer's victims count the "Lady of the Lake" as victim number 1, or "Victim Zero".
The headless body of an unidentified male was found in a boxcar in New Castle, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1936. Three headless victims were found in boxcars near McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, on May 3, 1940. All bore similar injuries to those inflicted by the Cleveland killer. Dismembered bodies were also found in the swamps near New Castle between the years 1921 and 1934 and between 1939 and 1942. In September 1940 an article in the New Castle News refers to the killer as "The Murder Swamp Killer". The almost identical similarities between the victims in New Castle to those in Cleveland, Ohio, coupled with the similarities between New Castle's Murder Swamp and Cleveland's Kingsbury Run, both of which were directly connected by a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line, were enough to convince Cleveland Detective Peter Merylo that the New Castle murders were the work of the "Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run". Merylo was convinced the connection was the railroad that ran twice a day between the two cities; he often rode the rails undercover looking for clues to the killer's identity.
On July 22, 1950, the body of 41-year-old Robert Robertson was found at a business at 2138 Davenport Avenue in Cleveland. Police believed he had been dead six to eight weeks and appeared to have been intentionally decapitated. His death appeared to fit the profile of other victims: He was estranged from his family, had an arrest record and a drinking problem, and was on the fringes of society. Despite widespread newspaper coverage linking the murder to the crimes in the 1930s, detectives investigating Robertson's death treated it as an isolated crime.
On August 24, 1939, a Cleveland resident named Frank Dolezal, 52, was arrested as a suspect in Florence Polillo's murder; he later died in suspicious circumstances in the Cuyahoga County jail.
Most investigators consider the last canonical murder to have been in 1938. One suspected individual was Dr. Francis E. Sweeney. Born May 5, 1894, Sweeney was a veteran of World War I who was part of a medical unit that conducted amputations in the field; after the war, Sweeney became an alcoholic due to pathological anxiety and depression derived from his wartime experiences. Sweeney was later personally interviewed by Eliot Ness, who oversaw the official investigation into the killings in his capacity as Cleveland's Safety Director. Before the interrogation, Sweeney was detained and he was so found to be so intoxicated that he was held in a hotel room for 3 days until he sobered up. During this interrogation, Sweeney is said to have "failed to pass" two very early polygraph machine tests. Both tests were administered by polygraph expert Leonarde Keeler, who told Ness he had his man. Ness apparently felt there was little chance of obtaining a successful prosecution of the doctor, especially as he was the first cousin of one of Ness's political opponents, Congressman Martin L. Sweeney, who had hounded Ness publicly about his failure to catch the killer. After Sweeney committed himself, there were no more leads or connections that police could assign to him as a possible suspect. From his hospital confinement, Sweeney sent threatening postcards and harassed Ness and his family into the 1950s and the postcards only stopped arriving after his death. Sweeney died in a veterans' hospital in Dayton on July 9, 1964.
In 1997, another theory postulated that there may have been no single Butcher of Kingsbury Run because the murders could have been committed by different people. This was based on the assumption that the autopsy results were inconclusive. First, Cuyahoga County Coroner Arthur J. Pearce may have been inconsistent in his analysis as to whether the cuts on the bodies were expert or slapdash. Second, his successor, Samuel Gerber, who began to enjoy press attention from his involvement in such cases as the Sam Sheppard murder trial, garnered a reputation for sensational theories. Therefore, the only thing known for certain was that all the murder victims were dismembered.
In popular culture
Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher: Hunting America's Deadliest Unidentified Serial Killer at the Dawn of Modern Criminology, by Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz, was published August 4, 2020.
The Cleveland torso killer has been referenced in various episodes of Criminal minds.
- Black Dahlia, a Los Angeles murder case that some investigators have suggested may have been committed by the same killer.
- Orley May, detective who worked on the case
- Thames Torso Murders, another series of murders in which the torsos of victims were left behind
^ *: The victim, found at Morgan Run, near E 55th Street, Cleveland, was estimated to be 20-23 years old, light complexion, reddish brown hair, chestnut colored eyes, stood 5 foot 10" or 11" tall, slender build, weighed 165 lb. He had six unusual tattoos on his body: a bird and band and the names "Helen and Paul" on the inner side of his left forearm, a heart and anchor in red and blue on the outer side of his right forearm, a flag and the initials "W.C.G." on the inner side of his right forearm, a butterfly on his left shoulder, the head of the comic character "Jiggs" on his left ankle, and an image of Cupid on his right ankle. His undershorts bore a laundry mark indicating the owner's initials were J.D. Despite morgue and death mask inspections by thousands of Cleveland citizens in the summer of 1936 at the Great Lakes Exposition, the victim known as the "tattooed man" was never identified
^ **: The victim was believed to be a 40-year-old man. Clothing was muddied and piled up next to the head, ten feet from the nude body, in an isolated East Side woodland section. There were bloodstains on the coat and blue polo shirt, part of the clothing found with the head. Coroner A.J. Pearse said that the preliminary investigation disclosed that there was some doubt that the man was murdered. Not a single clue was found with the body other than the clothing.
^ ***: Victim was possibly Rose Wallace. Dental work was considered a close match by police and her son (who said he was certain that the victim was his mother). Exact identification could not be achieved because the dentist who carried out the work had died years before. Doubts remained because the body was estimated to have been dead for a year, whereas Wallace had only been missing for 10 months.
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