The Cleveland Torso Murderer was a serial killer who butchered and dismembered at least a dozen victims between 1935 and 1938. Also known as the Madman of Kingsbury Run the crimes where truly horrific and never solved. Here Unsolved Casebook takes a look at the ghastly murders.
The Lady Of The Lake
It was 8 am on the morning of September 5th, 1984. Frank LaGassie was making his way along the shore of Lake Erie. He was out looking for wood he could burn. In the midst of his hunt for wood, LaGassie spotted something off in the distance which piqued his interest.
LaGassie went to investigate. He initially presumed it was a tree trunk but as he got closer he realized it was no such thing. Instead, LaGassie had made a gruesome discovery he would never forget. In front of him was the decaying remains of a female body.
The remains he discovered consisted of the legs from above the knees up to the lower torso. No other body parts where visible.
The coroner Arthur Pearce, working with what little he had determined that the victim was a female. She was probably aged in her thirties. Pearce estimated the victim was around 5 ft 5 and would have weighed approximately 115 pounds.
Pearce thought the victim may have been dead up to 6 months. He thought at least 3 of those months was spent in the water. He also believed the body may have been in some sort of container initially due to the lack of waterlogging in the flesh.
The torso was also covered in some sort of preservative which had made the skin leathery. Results revealed either chloride of lime or calcium hypochlorite was the chemical used.
The coroner felt the killer had originally applied the chemical to help dissolve the body. However, the killer had instead used the wrong kind of lime. He had unintentionally preserved the deceased.
A scar was also found on the Lady Of The Lake. This was from an operation received in the last year or so to remove the uterus. Due to how common the operation was the information would be of little use in helping to identify the victim.
An Earlier Finding Linked
Two weeks prior to the discovery of the Lady Of The Lake a man named Joseph Hejduk had discovered some remains on a lakeshore estate. After reporting his discovery, police initially wrote them off as animal bones. Hejduk was asked to bury his findings in the sand.
After reading of the discovery of the Lady Of The Lake Hejduk decided to again contact investigators. This time the remains were recovered and taken for examination.
The body parts were found to be human ribs and vertebrae. Coroner Pearce declared they were an exact match for the remains of the lower torso found by Frank LeGrassie.
Over the following days, a number of reported sightings of body parts along Lake Erie were made. Police investigated each one as well as making their own searches. The only other remains found was to be the upper part of an arm.
Several theories were considered and ruled out. The coroner quickly ruled out that the torso been left could have been a mere prank played by medical students. Grave robbery of an already deceased corpse was also ruled out after searches of all the graveyards in the area.
Pearce was quick to dismiss the police’s theory of suicide or an accident in which the victim was hit by the propeller of a boat. The vertebrae that had been discovered showed clear markings that the blade of a knife had been used.
Attempts To Identify The Lady Of The Lake
Investigators looked into all the woman who had been reported missing in the area. Looking at reports for the previous 6 months they came up with nothing. There were no links to the victim they had found at Lake Erie.
Despite there best efforts, police couldn’t identify the victim who became known as the Lady Of The Lake. It would also be several years more before the murder was linked to those committed by the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
The Double Discovery
On September 23, 1935, two boys, Peter Kostura, age 12, and James Wagner, 16, were playing with a ball on Jackass Hill. Jackass Hill was located on the south side of the Kingsbury Run area of Cleveland, Ohio.
Whilst playing the boys ball went down the hill. The pair decided to have a race down the hill to get it back. The older child, James Wagner, raced ahead leaving Kostura to eat his dust. It would be a race he wished he hadn’t won. At the bottom of the hill instead of finding the ball, James instead was met with a ghastly finding. There in front of James was a human body without its head.
Back at the top of the hill siblings, Leonard and Steve Jeziorski were also playing. The brothers watched as the other two young lads raced down the hill but then they also made a terrifying discovery. Out in the distance, the boys spotted a decapitated body in the bushes.
Both sets of boys ran off in different directions to tell of the shocking discoveries they had made. It was originally presumed by police that both sets of boys were reporting the same decapitated corpse. Police stood shocked upon arrival when they discovered not one but two headless corpses.
The Decapitated Corpses
The victim found at the bottom of the hill was a white male, naked but for his socks. The head had been removed and disturbingly so too had the mans genitals. There was a complete lack of blood both around the scene or on the body. Twenty feet away from the body police found the victim’s head buried in the ground.
The second victim appeared to have died earlier than the first. It was obvious his body was suffering from a higher amount of decomposition. The second male victim was shorter and of stockier build than the first and also appeared to be older.
The body also showed signs that some sort of chemical or substance had been applied to it. The skin had turned a reddish colour and had become leathery too. Again the genitals had been removed. The corpse and the surrounding area, like with the first victim, was also bloodless.
Police continued to search the area and eventually some seventy feet away they found the head of the second corpse. The investigators on the scene also discovered the pairs genitals and some items of clothing that were covered in blood. A torch, pieces of rope and a bucket containing a mixture of car oil and blood were also found.
The deputy coroner Wilson Chamberlain performed the autopsies. Victim 1 had already been identified as Edward Andrassy. This was thanks to his fingerprints been on record and checked by the time of the autopsy. Andrassy was 29 years old, 5 ft 11 and weighed 150 pounds.
Chamberlain stated the deceased had been dead two to three days. The head had been severed by a knife. The knife had been used with a great amount of strength and force but also with precision. The coroner also noted that the heart was virtually bloodless.
Chamberlain was in no doubt that the cause of Edward Andrassy’s death was decapitation with a sharp instrument. This was extremely rare as a form of death. Most decapitations are done post-death after been killed in some other manner such as strangulation.
The second victim had remained unidentified. Unfortunately for police the amount of decomposition on the deceased made it impossible to recover any usable fingerprints. The victim was 5 ft 6 and 165 pounds and Chamberlain estimated he was between 40 and 45 years old. Chamberlain again declared the cause of death as decapitation with a sharp instrument.
The coroner believed victim 2 had been killed some 7 to 10 days earlier. Chamberlain also stated he believed the substance found on the second corpse to be some kind of acid. Despite leaving a similar reddish tone and leathery appearance, no link was made at this point to the Lady Of The Lake murder.
Several years later the time of death and the substance found where questioned.
In 1938 W.H Hay stated that in his opinion the body had been covered in oil and set on fire. However, the fire was not enough to burn the skin. It had merely scorched it thus the skins leathery and reddish appearance. Hay also stated that he believed the deceased had been killed some three to four weeks prior to its discovery.
Police started to look into the life of Edward Andrassy in the hope of finding the killer. Andrassy was well known to police. He had numerous arrest on his record. These were usually the result of drunken brawling but he was far from a master criminal.
Andrassy also had something of a reputation as a ladies man. The family of Andrassy told officers that two weeks earlier a man had come to the family home. The man told Edward in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t leave his wife alone he would kill him. Unfortunately, the family could give little else to help find this man and he was never traced.
Edwards sister Edna also told police Edward had been worried and frightened prior to his death. She said weeks earlier he had gotten into an argument with an Italian and stabbed him. Because of this act, Edward feared that he had made himself a target for a revenge attack. Police looked into this lead. They found no record of any such incident. As the sister didn’t have a name for the man her brother had allegedly stabbed it became another dead end.
Identifying Victim No.2 and suspects
Despite the best efforts of the police, they were unable to identify the second body found on that September morning. Raymond Stedronsky and Edward Faulkenberg were both strongly looked at as possible identities but both ruled out. Any leads to tie him to an associate of Edward Andrassy went nowhere or were quickly ruled out too.
Attempts to find a viable suspect had also come to nothing. Other than leads that went nowhere through Andrassy’s life, investigators also looked into other possibilities but all to no avail.
A man who was regularly spotted on Jackass Hill looking shifty and with a pair of binoculars turned out to be a man looking for a woman across the hill to send a signal that her husband wasn’t home.
A bloody note with instructions on how to cremate a body led nowhere. A strange man who was seen near a pile of clothes which were found to be bloody after he left went the same way.
The trail went cold. The discoveries of the two corpses near Jackass Hill had started to fade into the memory. That was until four months later when another horrific discovery was made.
On a freezing morning on January 26, 1936, a woman walked into the White Front Meat Market. She told butcher Charles Page that she had seen two hams wrapped in newspaper and in baskets behind the nearby Hart Manufacturing building. Assuming they had been stolen Page went to retrieve them. He soon discovered it wasn’t hams that the baskets contained but human body parts.
Investigators found the baskets contained the parts of a woman. The lower torso, a right arm, a right hand, and two thighs to be exact. Police searched the area but found no traces of the rest of the victims remains.
Fingerprints taken from the hand found at the scene revealed that the victim was Florence Polillo. Flo, as she was more commonly known, was a heavy drinking waitress. She also was a part-time prostitute that was well known to the police in the area.
The County Pathologist Dr Reuben Straus performed the autopsy. The victim, who was in her early forties, was 5ft 4 and weighed roughly 160 pounds.
Straus was of the belief that Polillo had been dead between 2 and 4 days before her few remains were discovered. Her landlady would later recall last seeing Flo Polillo at 8:30 pm on the 24th. It is therefore almost certain she was murdered later that night when compared to the autopsy findings.
Her right shoulder had been removed at the shoulder blade. The thighs had been separated at the hip and the torso severed at the second lumbar vertebrae. All were made with clean cuts. The pathologists noted the cause of death as criminal violence.
Florence Polillo associated herself in some dubious circles. This gave police no shortage of people that they were interesting in speaking to. None of the leads took them any nearer to an arrest.
Another Grim Discovery
On February 7 at around 5 pm John Gaembeline was making his way across the yard of the Bennett Trucking Company on 1419 Orange Avenue. It was here that he was met with a grave and grotesque sight. Gaembeline had discovered the upper torso of Florence Polillo’s body. After running to get his boss Harry Bennett the pair discovered other body parts around the yard.
Upon arrival on the scene, detectives were in no doubt as to whom the remains belonged to. They recovered all the remaining parts of Flo’s body with just one exception – her head. Despite a thorough search of the area the next day the head still couldn’t be found.
The police were rigorous in there investigation. They followed up on every lead they could find, no matter how small it appeared. None of the leads followed got police any nearer to the identity of the man who had murdered Florence Polillo. At this point, police had yet to link the Cleveland Torso Murders. That would soon change in the summer of 1936
The Unidentified Head
On June 5 youngsters Gomez Ivey, aged 13, and Louis Cheeley, 11, had decided to skip school. The boys had instead decided to go fishing. Upon their route, they came across a bundle wrapped in a pair of trousers whilst walking through Kingsbury Run at 8:20 am.
The pair, deciding there may be money in the pockets, prodded the trousers with their fishing rods. To the young lads’ complete horror a human head released itself from the bundle and rolled into view.
No other body parts were in the bundle. It did contain a white polo shirt, a brown striped shirt, blue shorts, a belt, and a handkerchief. Most of the items covered in blood. A pair of shoes and socks, with the laces tied together, and a brown cap were also discovered nearby.
In order to try and gain an identification, the head was placed on display at the morgue. A face mask was made in the event that the man remained unidentified but needed burying. Despite over a thousand people seeing the head over the next 24 hours, no positive ID was given.
The Tattooed Remains
The day after, 300 yards away from where the head was found another discovery was made. Railroad workers discovered the naked body of a heavily tattoed man.
The coroner Wilson Chamberlain determined the man to be between 20 and 25 years old. The victim was 5ft 11 and weighed 165 pounds.
Chamberlain put the time of death at been around 48 hours before the victim’s head was found. Unlike in the case of the first two male victims, this one hadn’t been emasculated. The cause of death was the same though – death by decapitation.
The man had 6 tattoos upon his body. They were:
- A heart and anchor on the left forearm.
- A butterfly on the left shoulder.
- The letters W.C.G on the left forearm.
- The names Helen and Paul on the right forearm.
- The comic strip character Jiggs on the left calf.
- A cupid and anchor on the right calf.
Detectives were now extremely confident of gaining an identity for the victim. They had the man’s fingerprints and highly identifiable tattoos. Yet despite the best efforts of the police, they were unable to get an identity for the deceased.
The anchor tattoos gave the police the suspicion that the man may well have been a sailor. Once again though despite there persistent efforts and after following several possible leads they found nothing substantial.
By this point in the investigation, police had linked the murder of victim no.4 to the two victims found on the Jackass Hill area of Kingsbury Run.
Detectives weren’t as convinced the male victims were connected to the Lady Of The Lake or Flo Polillo murders. The press, on the other hand, did. They quickly added Flo Polillo to the list of victims killed by the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
Due to believing there was a link investigators looked into the possibility that victim no.4 may be an associate of Edward Andrassy. Despite yet more thorough work by the detectives involved they could not find anything to link the two victims.
To this day the victim would never be identified and simply remain known as victim no.4.
The Body In The Woods
At 11:30 am on the 22nd of July, 1936 teenager Marie Barkley was hiking in the woods. During her hike, she discovered the next victim of the Cleveland Torso Murderer. 17-year-old Barkley stumbled across the naked body in a gully in the Big Creek area of Brooklyn, west of Cleveland. This would be the only victim found on the west side. Again as with the previous victim’s the head had been severed.
Detectives located the missing head some 6 yards from the body along with the victims clothing. It also appeared that this time the victim had been killed were his body was discovered.
Murder Victim Or Not?
Pathologists Reuben Straus determined the victim to be around 40 years old, 5ft 5 and roughly 145 pounds. Due to the sheer amount of decomposition of the corpse not much information of use could be gathered. Like victim no.4 though the genitals hadn’t been removed.
Straus did decide though that due to the amount of decomposition the man had been dead approximately 2 months. This would mean the victim no.5 would actually have been killed before victim no.4 – the tattooed man.
Pathologists Straus put the cause of death as probable murder. Due to the decay and rotting of the deceased Straus was unable to determine any pacific knife wounds. In fact, he was unable to definitively prove the man was a murder victim.
The coroner, A.J. Pearce was under no such doubt. He proclaimed the cause of death as death by decapitation once more. Pearce changed this opinion later though. He stated later that there was no evidence to prove that the head hadn’t merely fallen off. The head could have been detached due to decay and been moved by animals.
With no fingerprints to go on police were once again left with little other option than to trawl the missing person files in the hope of revealing an identity for the newest victim in the Cleveland Torso Murders. The identity was not to be forthcoming.
Return To Kingsbury Run
On the morning of September 10, 1936, a 25-year-old homeless man named Jerry Harris discovered two parts of a headless, legless and armless human torso in the creek near East 37th on Kingsbury Run.
Upon a search of the creek, the lower half of both legs were also dredged from the water. Bloody clothing was also found around the scene.
All this was done in front of a growing crowd of worried and anxious onlookers. Newspapers later proclaiming a crowd of over one hundred had gathered to watch the shocking scenes unfold.
Again Pathologists Reuben Straus examined the body. He put the victim at around 25 to 30 years old, 5ft 10, and weighing 145 pounds.
The head had been severed from the body with two clean but powerful cuts by a strong blade. Straus noted that all the cuts were made without hesitation. They were made with an accuracy which made Straus believe the killer had expert knowledge of the human anatomy.
The genitals had been removed as was the case with Edward Andrassy and victim no.2. The man’s heart revealed that the victim was horrifyingly still alive when the body started to be brutally dismembered. The cause of death was again marked as death by decapitation.
With no arms and no head, detectives knew that identification would be almost impossible. Hence the department put a huge effort into searching the waters for the remaining body parts.
For the next month, the waters were continuously searched. They discovered another body part, this time the man’s thigh. Unfortunately, they were unable to find the head or arms they were so desperate to uncover.
New Faces Put On The Case
It was now now clear that they had a serial murderer on their hand’s. Detectives Peter Merylo and Martin Zalewski were put to work on the case full time. The pair would be involved in investigating, interviewing and following up on thousands of leads and eliminating numerous suspects.
On September 12, 1936, and due to the ever-mounting pressure the murders put on the mayor, Eliot Ness was placed in charge of the investigation. Eliot Ness had gained his high reputation for his work in enforcing the prohibition law in Chicago as the leader of “The Untouchables” law enforcement team.
Ness had been the safety director in Cleveland since December of 1935. It was now Eliot Ness’s job to find the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
A Brief Respite Comes To An End
Despite the close proximity of the last two murders, the killer would be more patient before taking his next victim. Over 6 months had passed since the discovery of victim no.5. On February 23, 1937, the interval in the brutal Cleveland Torso Murders would come to an end.
At around 1:40 pm Robert Smith, aged 55, was making his way across the shore of Beulah Park on Lake Erie. He was out looking for driftwood. During Smith’s search, he spotted something that at first glance he assumed was a sheep. It wasn’t. Smith had come across the latest victim of the sadistic killer.
The unfortunate Smith had stumbled upon the headless and armless upper torso of a woman’s body. There were no signs that the body had been deliberately left at that point. It was suspected it was merely the location in which it had washed up on shore.
Lady Of The Lake Part 2
Despite nothing to say otherwise, it was one hell of a coincidence. The body had washed up in a spot that was eerily close to where the original Lady Of The Lake body had been found.
The coincidence also wasn’t lost on the media. For the first time, they were now starting to talk of the Lady Of The Lake as a possible victim in the Cleveland Torso Murders.
The victim was determined to be between 25 and 30 years old. She stood between 5ft 5 and 5ft 8 and weighed roughly 125. The woman had been deceased for between 2 and 4 days.
A Copycat Killing?
Two points coroner Straus made about the latest murder would put question marks against whether the latest victim was in fact killed at the hands of the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
First Straus noticed hesitation marks in the cuts made, not evidenced in the earlier murders. Secondly, Straus confirmed that the cause of death was not on this occasion due to decapitation. This time the heart had already stopped beating before been severed.
Not everyone involved was convinced that the second Lady Of The Lake was a victim of the Cleveland Torso Murderer. It was decided by the majority that she should be included among the killer’s victims.
A Familiar Pattern
Despite investigating several tantalizing leads the case again took a familiar path. Each lead seemingly fizzling out, leaving the police no nearer to finding the madman responsible.
Some three months after the initial discovery on May 5 the lower half of the victim’s torso was found. Howard Yochem made the discovery in the lake. The cold water of Lake Erie had kept the lower torso in a surprisingly good condition. Thanks to this it was easily matched with the upper half at the morgue.
Despite further searches, the rest of the body parts and the victims head would never be found. The victim would once more become another nameless victim of the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
Bones In The Garbage
On June 6, 1937, at around 5:30 pm, 14-year-old Russel Lauer was making his way home walking across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge that ran over the Cuyahoga River. It was here where he would make a discovery which would forever remain etched in his memory.
Sticking out from a pile of garbage the young teenager had spotted a human skull. Upon arrival, the police found the skeletal remains of a human, however, the arms and legs were absent.
From the skeletal remains Professor Of Anatomy Dr T W Todd was unable to state the exact cause of death. He was able to determine that there were knife marks and signs of cutting at the points. These were in the same areas as previous victims had been decapitated.
Pathologist Reuben Straus declared the victim to be an African American female of a petit build. He put her height and weight at around 5ft and 100 pounds. Initially considering her age as between 25 and 35, Straus decided the victim was more likely in the 30 to 40-year-old range. The victim had been dead around a year.
It was noted that the victim had 3 gold crowns and had had some bridgework done. This was the detectives best way of trying to identify the latest victim and avoid yet another victim going unidentified.
Detective Merylo believed he had managed to find the identity of the deceased a few weeks later. Rose Wallace was a match in terms of size, build, age and estimated appearance. She had also had bridgework completed that was seemingly matched to her dental records sent from Cincinnati. The problem was that Rose Wallace didn’t disappear until August 21, 1936 – 3 months after the estimated time of death.
Merylo was undeterred by this. He knew that the time of death was only an estimate. Thus he remained convinced investigating Wallace’s disappearance was the best way to go. His colleagues weren’t as convinced. Despite Rose Wallace’s son positively identifying the victim’s items and remains as being those of his mother in April 1938, officially the victim remains unidentified.
A Link Between Victims
Merylo found a possible link between Rose Wallace and the earlier victim Flo Polillo. The detective knew that Rose Wallace was at least a part-time prostitute. He came to believe she may have vanished from the same bar at which Flo Polillo was also last seen.
Wallace was also said to have had a steady relationship with a man known as One-Armed Willie. This same man had also come up during the Flo Polillo investigation. He had supposedly argued with Flo the day before her murder. Despite the connections Merylo had seemingly made, he was unable to make them into anything concrete.
Again the investigation was left with no confirmed name for a victim or a suspect in the Kingsbury Run Murders.
The Torso In The River
On July 6, 1937, at around 10 am Captain Marion Ratterman called the police to report the discovery of a torso floating in the Cuyahoga River. The coast guards were summoned to help recover the torso, the lower half of a male torso, and to look for other body parts that may be located in the same river.
The coast guard retrieved a left thigh, a right thigh, the upper part of the left arm and the lower part of the left leg. In a burlap sack and wrapped in a newspaper they also found the upper torso. Over the next week the right lower leg, the right upper arm and both forearms with hands attached would also be recovered. No such luck was forthcoming searching for the head, it was never to be found.
A New Depraved Act
The victim was around 40 years of age, about 5ft 10 and weighed somewhere in the region of 150 to 160 pounds. This time the Cleveland Torso Murderer had not removed the male’s genitals as he had in several earlier killings.
In a slight change, and possibly a sign of the killers growing savagery and state of mind, the abdominal cavity had been sliced open and everything removed from inside. The heart had also been cut out and removed, the heart was never found.
Pathologists Straus also noted that the cuts made were less clean than earlier murders, eerily noting that the killer’s blade may be getting dull, and there were more signs of “hacking”. Coroner Gerber put the time of death as about 48 hours prior to the victim’s discovery in the Cuyahoga River. A cause of death was unable to be determined.
Once the arms had been recovered a set of fingerprints were taken from the latest victim of the Kingsbury Run Murders. Detectives asked for them to be compared against all available databases. As was now a familiar outcome the fingerprints failed to lead to an identification of the victim.
The Hunt For The Cleveland Torso Murderer
Detectives Merylo and Zalewski continued there hunt for viable suspects. The pair focused their efforts into three categories:
- Names brought to their attention through tip-offs.
- Questionable or strange characters living on Kingsbury Run.
- Suspiciously acting doctors.
Over the following year using the above criteria, Merylo and Zalewski would look into hundreds of possible leads. One interesting lead was that of a secretive voodoo cult led by a man named Dorsey Wade.
Wade had been suspected in a previous murder involving a decapitation in 1928. The “Voodoo Doctor” Wade would become a prime focus for a period from November 1938 until December of 1938 but no charges against him or his group were ever made.
Another person of interest was Phillip Russo. Russo had been spotted on Jackass Hill with binoculars around the time that Edward Andrassy and victim no.2 were discovered but efforts to trace him at the time had failed.
Almost 2 years later he was once more seen on Kingsbury Run, this time with a telescope. Four months later detectives Merylo and Zalewski tracked down Russo. The detectives could find nothing with which to link Russo to the Cleveland Torso Murders.
Dr Hawk & Dr Dabney
The detectives also spent several months investigating a Dr Hawk. They had been given information that Dr Hawk had lost his license to practice and was a drug addict and had lived in the Jackass Hill area. Upon finally finding the man on a ward at Charity Hospital they discovered a 70-year-old weak and broken man.
Another doctor of interest was one Dr Dabney. Dabney had been committed to a mental hospital for the criminally insane after lopping off the head of a patient in Cuyahoga Falls. Again there was no evidence Dabney had anything to do with the Kingsbury Run Murders.
The Butcher Returns
At 2:15 pm on April 8 1938, 35-year-old Steve Morosky was making his way to visit a friend who lived along the Cuyahoga River. Before completing his journey Morosky spotted something he initially presumed to be a dead fish floating upon the river. To his dismay, he would soon discover it wasn’t a dead fish. After prodding his finding with a stick he had in front of him the sickening sight of the remains of a lower leg.
After a 9 month hiatus, the Cleveland Torso Murderer had returned. Investigators, as they did with the previous discovery in the Cuyahoga River, borrowed a boat and started to search the waters for further remains. This time there would be no such discovery made by the police.
On May 2 at around 2:00 pm the bridge captain of the West 3rd Street bridge Oscar Meister would report he had discovered a human thigh floating in the river. Upon arrival, officers found the thigh and a burlap sack containing the headless torso (cut in two), a left foot and the remaining thigh.
A New Method
Despite the amount of decomposition of the body parts, the coroner was able to establish that the latest victim of the Cleveland Torso Murderer was female. The coroner determined that the victim was approximately 5ft 2, 120 pounds and aged somewhere between 25 and 30. The victim had been killed around a month prior to the second set of parts been found (around a week before the lower leg was initially found).
The same viciousness with which the cuts were made in the previous murder was again in evidence. The killer had also shown signs that his cuts were becoming more erratic and less measured than in the early stages of his murder spree. The killer had also snapped the ribs with his bare hands.
It also seemed that for the first time in the Cleveland Torso Murders the madman had used drugs on his victim. The victim’s lungs revealed a large enough dose of morphine that would have resulted in causing the victim to become unconscious. In fact, the dose was large enough to have caused death on its own. The exact cause of death was unknown.
Despite further searches of the river over the following weeks, the latest murder would follow a worrying familiar trend, the missing head once more would never be found and nor would the unfortunate victim’s identity.
A Putrid Stench
At around 4 pm on August 16, 1938, three African American men were searching through a dump on the corner of East 9th and Lake Shore Drive looking for items they could spruce up and sell on or other items they could make money from such as various metals.
Upon there search the three men, James Mcshack, James Dawson and Edward Smith came across an item Dawson at first thought was a coat protruding from some rocks. As the trio investigated the unbearable, foul, and putrid stench became ever stronger. When the men started to remove some of the rocks they made a ghastly discovery when they started to see human remains.
Once detectives where on scene they discovered that under the ruble of rocks lay the remains of a human torso wrapped in brown paper, a tattered quilt and a coat. Under the torso laid the thighs also wrapped in the same brown paper.
Slightly away from the torso investigators discovered a cardboard box. Inside the container, they made the grim finding of the victim’s arms and lower legs. Close to the location where the torso was discovered the severed head of the latest unfortunate victim was located. For only the second time in the grisly series of murders, The Cleveland Torso Murderer had left the entire body of his victim to be found.
As had become the norm a huge crowd started to gather to watch events unfold. Several hours after the initial finding at around 7:00 pm Tod Bartholomew, his wife Cecilia and the couple’s friend Jennie Talas would join the masses to sneak a peek at the events which had unfolded.
From their spot in the crowd, Tod noticed a disgusting stench coming from nearby. He looked down at the area he believed the smell to be emanating from. Unwittingly he had discovered the bones of the twelfth victim of the Cleveland Torse Murderer.
No New Clues
Pathologist Straus revealed that the first victim was a white female. She was between 30 and 40 years old and around 5ft 3 in height. Straus put the victim’s weight at around 125 pounds.
The victim had been dead between 4 to 6 months. Although judged to be likely the result of murder the cause of death was officially left as undetermined by Straus.
The bones of the second victim found that day were painstakingly put back together and Straus tried as best he could to give some details. He revealed that the remains included the pelvis, ribs and vertebrae along with a human skull.
The second victim was male and Straus determined he had been dead for at least seven months. The victim was estimated to be between 30 and 40 years old, weighing around 150 pounds and about 5ft 6 tall.
Some of the bones, which were slightly charred, were determined to be non-human and not belonging to the deceased. It was determined that all the bones had been removed at the major joints and the head had been severed at the third inter-vertebral disc. Again though the death was only recorded as a probable homicide and officially undetermined.
With so little with which to identify the victims there true identities would never be revealed.
The Raid On Kingsbury Run
In the early hours of August 18, 1938, Eliot Ness would send a 25 man assault team into the slums of Kingsbury Run. Up until this point, despite the failure to capture the Cleveland Torse Murderer, Eliot Ness had a fairly positive relationship with the press but the assault on the hobo jungles on that August night would turn many against Ness.
The assault team blocked all escape from the shanty villages and made their way from one shack to another. The occupants of around 30 shacks were awoken by either the large searchlight placed upon a fire truck or by the loud banging on their shack doors. The vagabonds were then rounded up and taken to the police station.
The shacks occupied by the vagrants from the hobo jungles were then torn down and burned. At the station the down-and-outs had their fingerprints taken in the event they could be identified should they become future victims of the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
Desperation Or A Well Laid Plan?
Eliot Ness reasoned that the raids were in fact made to help the hobos of Kingsbury Run and were intended to save them from becoming the next victim of the savage killer responsible for the Cleveland Torso Murders. The press, for the most part, was not impressed with the reasoning and slated the raids in the papers.
Opinion has been torn over the years as to whether the raids ordered by Eliot Ness that August night were the acts of a desperate man or a well thought out plan. It was, however, the beginning of the end for Ness in Cleveland, his star would never again shine as bright. It too, however, seemed to signal the end for the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
The double findings of August 16 would seemingly be the last of the brutal killer’s deadly deeds. The reign of terror which had filled the residents of Cleveland, and specifically Kingsbury Run, with fear for the last four years was seemingly over.
Who Was The Cleveland Torso Murderer?
Suspect No.1 – Frank Dolezal
On July 5, 1939, Chief Deputy Sheriff John Gillespie of the Cuyahoga Sheriff’s Department would make the only arrest and charging of an individual in the history of the case. The accused was a 52-year-old immigrant bricklayer named Frank Dolezal.
The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s department had been making their own inquiries into the Cleveland Torso Murderer. During there investigation, they discovered a link between three of the victims – Edward Andrassy, Florence Polillo and Rose Wallace. They claimed the three had all frequented the same bar.
Whilst looking into this lead the Sheriff’s Department discovered that both Flo Polillo and Rose Wallace could be linked to the Slavic born Frank Dolezal. Polillo had at one time lived with the 52-year-old and Dolezal had also visited Rose Wallace on a number of occasions according to there findings. They also found that Frank Dolezal had a fondness for carrying a butcher’s knife and had been known on occasions to have threatened associates with them.
A search of Frank Dolezal’s flat was made. Detectives discovered stains on the floorboards which were sent for testing in the belief they may be bloodstains. Four knives were also found, of which two contained dark stains which again the investigators believed to be possible bloodstains. Frank Dolezal was arrested and taken for questioning.
The Cuyahoga Sheriff’s Department interrogated Dolezal for more than 48 hours at the Cuyahoga County Jail. Eventually, Dolezal cracked and signed a confession stating that whilst in a drunken state he had killed Florence Polillo after a heated argument between the pair. Dolezal was charged with her murder (later reduced to manslaughter at a preliminary hearing).
The team of detectives that had been working the case under Eliot Ness’s command doubted Dolezal was the Cleveland Torso Murderer. Detective Merylo stated on record that he himself had interviewed Frank Dolezal previously and he had been given no reason to believe this was the person responsible for the Cleveland Torso Murders. The case against Dolezal would soon seem to back up Detective Merylo and the rest of Eliot Ness’s team as it began to fall apart.
The samples taken from Dolezal’s apartment were tested by the Western Reserve University and found to be animal blood not human. A bigger problem came when Dolezal took back his confession and instead claimed that it had been forced out of him under interrogation.
Even if the confession wasn’t forced out of Dolezal it still failed to help the Sheriff’s case. Many details that were given in Dolezal’s confession simply didn’t correlate with what police already knew.
In Dolezal’s confession, he claimed he threw the head, legs and left arm of Flo Polillo into Lake Erie but the arm and legs were actually found at the back of an empty property. Other parts of the statement also couldn’t be backed up either, such as the claim that Polillo’s shoes and coat were left at the back of the Hart Manufacturing building (they were never found).
Suicide… Or Was It?
On August 24 while waiting to appear in court Frank Dolezal committed suicide in the waiting cells. Dolezal had seemingly hanged himself. Question marks soon arose about the suicide however when it was discovered that Dolezal had hanged himself from a hook 5 ft 7 inch from the ground, even though Dolezal was 5ft 8 himself.
Further investigations showed that Dolezal also had a total of six broken ribs at the time of his death. The guards also claimed that Dolezal was left alone for no more than 3 minutes but the coroner was adamant that it would’ve taken at least 12 minutes for asphyxiation to occur.
The acquaintances that had made statements during the investigation into Dolezal stating that he had in the past threatened them with a knife also came forward. One of the women, a Lillian Jones, admitted that she made up the confession to satisfy the investigator who was pressuring her for information he could use on Dolezal. She also made the damming statement under a sworn affidavit that the investigator had said the following.
“We have got him in jail and he will never get out of here. We will get it out of him, knock it out of him, he will never get out of here alive.”
Two weeks after Frank Dolezal’s death Coroner Gerber gave his official verdict. He ruled that Dolezal had taken his own life but that his injuries had occurred whilst in police custody. Police argued the injuries occurred during previous suicide attempts.
Questions still remain to this day about whether or not Dolezal did indeed take his own life. Whether he did or didn’t it is pretty unanimously agreed by most experts of the case that Dolezal wasn’t the Cleveland Torso Murderer. Although not responsible for the series of murders some do believe Dolezal was, however, the man that killed Florence Polillo.
It is worth pointing out that the killings did seemingly end after the death of Frank Dolezal.
Suspect No. 2 – Dr Francis Sweeney
In the mid-1950s, Eliot Ness was collaborating with The Untouchables author Oscar Fraley when he revealed details of a previously unknown suspect. The suspect would later be revealed to be Dr Francis Edward Sweeney by Marilyn Bardsley, who discovered the name whilst researching a play.
Ness told Fraley that the suspect had once been part of a secret interrogation. To keep the man’s identity from becoming public knowledge and thus embarrassing and causing possible problems with Sweeney’s prominent family (Francis was a cousin to Congressman Martin L Sweeney) the interrogation took place in a hotel room with only a handful of Eliot Ness’s most trusted men present.
During the interrogation, Ness claimed that Francis Sweeney, who seemed to take the whole thing as a joke, failed a lie detector test. Despite this Ness had no real evidence with which to confirm his own strong suspicions and had to let Sweeney go. Upon release Francis Sweeney then committed himself to a mental institution.
A Descent Into Madness
Dr Francis Sweeney had been a surgical resident at St. Alexis hospital in the Kingsbury Run area since graduating in 1928. Unfortunately, Sweeney’s demons got the better of him and he soon after turned to alcohol.
By 1933 he was an alcoholic which in turn made him abusive and violent leading to the breakdown of his marriage. Despite spending time at the City Hospital getting treatment for his alcoholism Francis Sweeney was unable to beat his demons.
In 1934 he lost both his job at St Alexis Hospital and his family as Sweeney’s wife was granted a divorce and custody of his 2 children. He was also served a restraining order by his now ex-wife.
Francis Sweeney was now also displaying signs of psychosis alongside his alcoholism. The timing of this breakdown interestingly coincides with the Lady Of The Lake murder, the murder that was most likely the first committed by the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
There are several other reasons Dr Francis Sweeney is an interesting suspect. Sweeney was born and raised in the Kingsbury Run area of Cleveland so there is no doubt that he would have known the area well. Francis Sweeney was also described as a large and powerful man, so the disposal of the bodies would not have been a problem. Neither would the horrific dismemberments and decapitations that took place throughout the grisly Cleveland Torso Murders due to Sweeney’s medical knowledge and ability.
With all that said there has never been any hard evidence found to connect Francis Sweeney and say definitively he was the Cleveland Torso Murderer. However, just like the killings stopped after the death of Frank Dolezal it also should be said that they also stopped after Francis Sweeney was committed.
For far more information on Francis Sweeney, I highly recommend you check out the excellent book by James Badal In The Wake Of The Butcher.
Suspect No. 3 – Willie Johnson
On June 28, 1942, Willie Johnson took a cab to Kingsbury Run. Upon exiting the cab he proceeded to dump a trunk under a bridge and the contents of a satchel he was carrying were thrown into a nearby bush.
A young girl had seen Willie Johnson dispose of the trunk under the bridge. Although the Cleveland Torso Murderer had seemingly ended his killing spree several years earlier such acts still drew attention and set alarm bells ringing and so the young girl alerted the police.
Before the police could arrive three young black boys came across the trunk and decided to take a look inside. To the young trio’s horror, they saw it contained a female torso. In the nearby bushes, a head and arms were soon discovered (her legs would be found at Johnson’s home a couple of weeks later). Investigators were able to identify the victim as Margaret Frances Wilson, a 19-year-old prostitute.
With the help of the cab driver, 36-year-old Willie Johnson was soon identified and arrested. The powerfully built black man, originally from Helena, Arkansas, was known to police. Johnson had previously served time for highway robbery and had once been questioned in a murder investigation in Indiana.
A Tall Tale
Johnson originally told police that he had gotten into an argument with Wilson which ended with him knocking her out before simply going to sleep, fairly plausible so far. Johnson then bizarrely claimed that upon waking he discovered her in pieces on his floor. The strange story soon turned to a confession before once more Johnson returned to his original fanciful tale.
The jury took just over an hour to return a verdict which would send Willie Johnson to the chair. Upon the verdict, Willie Johnson began acting erratically and so he was taken to an insane asylum to be evaluated. More than a year would pass before he would be officially sentenced to death.
Whilst on death row awaiting his execution Willie Johnson once again changed his story. Johnson now claimed that he was paid $25 to dispose of the body. He gave the name of the supposed real perpetrator as a man who had previously been eliminated from inquiries into the Cleveland Torso Murders.
Despite his claims and still proclaiming his innocence, on March 10, 1944, Willie Johnson was executed in the electric chair. Opinions were torn on whether or not Willie Johnson was possibly the Cleveland Torso Murderer but Coroner Gerber was quoted as saying at the time:
“Willie Johnson has all the qualifications of the so-called torso killer. He is smart, strong as an ox, and entirely capable of these crimes both physically and mentally.”
Although officially the Kingsbury Run Murders remain an open case the truth is we will more than likely never know the person responsible for the repulsive series of killings and the Cleveland Torso Murderer will remain forever unknown. Even more tragically so will the identities of the majority of his poor unfortunate victims.
The Butcher’s Dozen article by John Bartlow Martin about the Cleveland Torso Murderer. Originally featured in Harpers Magazine but also featured in the Library Of America’s True Crime: An American Anthology which can be borrowed and read online for free at Archive.org.