Even during the Great Depression, Cleveland was busy in 1936. As the sixth largest city in the United States, Cleveland had sold itself as the “City of Conventions” and welcomed travelers to its new city in the downtown area, with a union station with a variety of chic hotels nearby and a state-of-the-art public auditorium.
The city hosted the Republican National Convention for the second time in a dozen years, but the big event in Ohio that summer – and the summer after – was the Great Lakes Exposition, which celebrated Cleveland’s centenary. The fair, which spanned 135 acres of downtown Cleveland and on the shores of Lake Erie, advertised local businesses such as Higbee Department Store, Standard Oil (John D. Rockefeller founded the company in Cleveland in 1
On June 5, 1936, two boys who had dropped out of school to fish found wrinkled pants under a tree on the east side of town. A man’s severed head was tied in his pants. The naked, bled body was found soon after from nearby railroad tracks. The cause of death was beheading. It was the fourth dismembered body in less than a year, and Cleveland police discovered they had a serial killer on their hands.
A plaster cast of the man’s face and a chart with all the tattoos on his body were displayed at the Great Lakes exhibit. More than 11 million people visited the exhibition in the two summers it was open, but none could identify “the tattooed man,” one of at least a dozen “torso murders” that plagued North Ohio – and possibly beyond.
The killer became known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run as most of the bodies found in this area were described by Cleveland News Reporter Frank Otwell as “an unwholesome, crooked wound that winds carelessly through Cleveland’s lower east side”. The criminal investigators, including Eliot Ness, one of the most famous lawyers of the era.
More than 1,500 people were interviewed in connection with the killings. A shantytown was burned down. Ness’ career ended in ruin. And the case remains officially unsolved to this day.
When Eliot Ness arrived in Cleveland in 1934, he was known as one of the financial agents who helped enforce the prohibition laws and fought with gangsters in Chicago, including Al Capone. Because of his “sacrosanct” reputation, Ness was named director of public safety for the city the following year. Its mission was to professionalize and revitalize a police station that had become a corrupt, lazy unit of political patronage.
By the time Ness took office, the Mad Butcher had already claimed four victims. The first two were found in September 1935, both beheaded, bled and washed; Her genitals had also been cut off. One was never identified. The other was Edward Andrassy. A year earlier, the lower half of a woman’s torso had washed ashore to her knees east of Cleveland. “The Lady of the Lake” was later identified as the Mad Butcher’s first victim.
Body parts continued to accumulate. Police chief investigator Peter Merylo found similarities between the torso murders and other mutilation murders in western Pennsylvania, suggesting the killer might be hopping trains and hiding bodies in boxcars (Kingsbury Run and the city of Cleveland had many railroad tracks). Cuyahoga County Coroner, Dr. Samuel Gerber said the precision with which the bodies were dismembered led him to believe that the killer might have had medical training.
Ultimately, Ness moved to live with Francis Sweeney, a doctor from a prominent Cleveland family (his first cousin, Martin Sweeney, was a Congressman). Residents were frightened and public pressure increased on Ness, who eventually locked Sweeney in a downtown hotel and questioned him for weeks, including with a polygraph. Ness thought Sweeney was the killer, but could never bring him to justice. For years after that, Ness would receive mocking postcards from Sweeney.
“Now just rest”
The killer was known as the Mad Butcher, but the murders themselves drove Ness crazy. Two other bodies – officially the 11th and 12th victims – were discovered on August 16, 1938 in a spot by the lake that could be seen from Ness’ office. Two days later, Cleveland police swept Kingsbury Run, made dozen of arrests, and burned Shantytowns. Ness was upset for his actions – but the murders stopped.
In late 1938, Cleveland Police received an alleged letter from the killer. “You can just rest now,” it read. “I came to sunny California for the winter.” The killer claimed to have killed someone and buried his body on Century Boulevard between Crenshaw and Western in Los Angeles. A body was never found.
Ultimately, Frank Dolezal, a bricklayer who lived with Flo Polillo, the third victim, and knew Andrassy and Rose Wallace, the only other victims ever identified, was the only person ever arrested for the torso murders. Dolezal confessed to killing Polillo, but later revoked it. He died in custody, officially a suicide, but his death remains suspect.
In 1947, the same year that Ness ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Cleveland, a woman later identified as Elizabeth Short was found murdered in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. Short was cut in half, her bowel removed, and her blood stripped – all similar hallmarks of the torso murders. She came to be known as the Black Dahlia, and her murder has one more thing in common with the Torso murders: it remains unsolved.
Ness died in 1957 at the age of 54, broke and broken; The man who was once the nation’s top prohibition agent now had a serious drinking problem himself. Six months after his death, his memoir, The untouchables, was released and became the basis for a television show a year later. Ness has been a pop culture icon ever since. Forty years after his death, Ness was buried in Cleveland with full police honors, and his ashes were scattered in Lake View Cemetery on the east side of town – not far from Kingsbury Run, where the Mad Butcher left a trail of body parts.