The Cleveland Torso Murderer: The Scariest Serial Killer You've Never Heard Of
Even in the throes of the Great Depression, there was a lot going on in Cleveland in 1936. Then the sixth-biggest city in the United States, Cleveland had sold itself as the “city of conventions,” welcoming travelers to downtown through its new union train station, with a variety of fancy hotels nearby and a state-of-the-art public auditorium.
For the second time in a dozen years, the city hosted the Republican National Convention, but the big event in Ohio that summer—and the summer after—was the Great Lakes Exposition, celebrating Cleveland’s centennial. The fair, which spread across 135 acres through downtown Cleveland and on the Lake Erie shore, touted local businesses like Higbee’s Department Store, Standard Oil (John D. Rockefeller had founded the company in 1870 in Cleveland), and General Electric, which was showing off its new fluorescent lights. It also spotlighted the handiwork of a serial killer who had been plying his trade for nearly a year.
On June 5, 1936, two boys who had cut school to go fishing found a rumpled pair of pants under a tree on the city’s east side. Tied up in the pants was a man’s severed head. The nude, exsanguinated body was found by nearby railroad tracks soon after. The cause of death was decapitation. It was the fourth dismembered body to show up in less than a year, and Cleveland police realized they had a serial killer on their hands.
A plaster cast of the man’s face and a diagram showing all the tattoos on his body were displayed at the Great Lakes Exposition. More than 11 million people attended the exposition in the two summers it was open, but none could identify “the tattooed man,” one of at least a dozen “torso murders” that plagued northern Ohio—and possibly beyond.
The killer became known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, since most of the bodies were found in that area, described by Cleveland News reporter Frank Otwell as “an unwholesome, crooked gash that meanders carelessly through Cleveland’s lower east side.” The crime bedeviled investigators, including Eliot Ness, one of the era’s most celebrated lawmen.
More than 1500 people were questioned in connection with the murders. A shantytown was burned. Ness’s career ended up ruined. And the case remains officially unsolved to this day.
When Eliot Ness arrived in Cleveland in 1934, he was known as one of the treasury agents who helped enforce Prohibition laws and did battle with gangsters in Chicago, including Al Capone. Because of his “untouchable” reputation, Ness was named public safety director for the city the following year. His mission was to professionalize and revitalize a police department 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 decapitated, exsanguinated, and washed; their genitals had been cut off as well. One was never identified. The other was Edward Andrassy. A year earlier, the lower half of a woman’s torso, down to the knees, had washed ashore east of Cleveland. “The Lady of the Lake” was later determined to be the Mad Butcher’s first victim.
Body parts continued to pile up. Lead police investigator Peter Merylo noted similarities between the Torso Murders and other dismemberment killings in western Pennsylvania, theorizing that the killer might be hopping trains and hiding bodies in boxcars (Kingsbury Run and the city of Cleveland had plenty of railroad tracks). Cuyahoga County coroner Dr. Samuel Gerber said the precision with which the bodies had been dismembered led him to believe the killer could have had some medical training.
Ultimately, Ness was drawn to Francis Sweeney, a doctor from a prominent Cleveland family (his first cousin, Martin Sweeney, was a congressman). Residents were terrified, and public pressure began to mount on Ness, who ultimately holed Sweeney up in a downtown hotel and questioned him for weeks, including with a polygraph. Ness felt Sweeney was the murderer, but could never bring it to trial. For years afterward, Ness would receive taunting postcards from Sweeney.
"Rest Easy Now"
The killer was known as the Mad Butcher, but the killings themselves drove Ness mad. Two more bodies—officially, the 11th and 12th victims—were discovered on August 16, 1938, in a spot on the lakefront that could be seen from Ness’s office. Two days later, Cleveland police swept through Kingsbury Run making dozens of arrests and burning down the shantytowns. Ness was excoriated for his actions—but the murders stopped.
In late 1938, the Cleveland police received a letter purportedly from the killer. “You can rest easy now,” it read. “I have come out to sunny California for the winter.” The killer claimed to have killed someone and buried their body on Century Boulevard between Crenshaw and Western in Los Angeles. No body was ever found.
Ultimately, the only person ever arrested for the Torso Murders was Frank Dolezal, a bricklayer who had lived with Flo Polillo, the third victim, and knew Andrassy and Rose Wallace, the only other victims who were ever identified. Dolezal confessed to killing Polillo, but later recanted. He died in custody, officially a suicide, but his death remains suspicious.
In 1947—the same year Ness unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Cleveland—a woman, later identified as Elizabeth Short, was found murdered in Leimert Park in Los Angeles. Short was cut in half, her intestines were removed, and she was drained of her blood—all similar hallmarks to the Torso Murders. She became known as the Black Dahlia, and her murder has one more thing in common with the Torso Murders: It remains unsolved.
Ness died at 54 in 1957, broke and broken; the man who was once the nation’s top Prohibition agent now had a serious drinking problem of his own. Six months after his death, his memoir, The Untouchables, was published and became the basis for a television show a year later. Ness has remained a pop culture icon ever since. Forty years after his death, Ness was given a funeral with full police honors in Cleveland, and his ashes were scattered at Lake View Cemetery on the city’s east side—not far from Kingsbury Run, where the Mad Butcher left a trail of body parts.