Between 1935 and 1938, a serial killer murdered and dismembered at least 12 victims - only 2 of which were ever positively identified. This killer is officially unidentified, yet researchers of today are quite certain who committed these horrible crimes.
By Dr. James J. Badal, updated 2022
During the 1920s, Cleveland was a city on the rise. The population was booming, with new immigrants from around the globe joining the workforce that served the backbone of the city's industrial and manufacturing economy. The city's wealthy lived in the grand homes along Millionaire's Row and supported many new educational and cultural institutions.
However, Cleveland was hit hard by the Great Depression of 1929. During the 1930s, city leaders worked to help its struggling citizens and raise the community's morale. The Great Lakes Exposition and the Republican National Convention were scheduled for 1936.
Against this backdrop of a large city improving economically, one of the most prolific and gruesome serial killers of all time carried out his acts of horror, distracting the citizens of our city from the pride and prosperity of the times. Thirteen people were brutally murdered over the course of four years, beginning in 1934. All of them decapitated, most of them while they were still alive. Then, the murders ended as abruptly as they began. Although Safety Director Eliot Ness claimed to have solved the crimes, no suspect was officially identified, and no one was brought to trial. To this day the Kingsbury Run Murders remain one of the most sensational and intriguing unsolved crimes in our nation's history.
Kingsbury Run is a prehistoric riverbed running from The Flats (the area along the Cuyahoga River near Lake Erie) to about East 90th Street. Train and rapid transit tracks still run through the Run. Bordered on the north by Woodland Avenue and on the south by Broadway Avenue, Kingsbury Run was a dark, dreary and dangerous place in the 1930s. The dispossessed of the Great Depression lived in appalling conditions. Trash and filth dominating the makeshift “hobo jungle” that occupied much of the Run. These people, most of them transients, often rode the rails to escape the brutal Cleveland winters or simply to keep moving. The area just to the east of the Run was known as “The Roaring Third” Police Precinct home to bars, brothels, flophouses and gambling dens. In this grim setting, the most notorious murder case in Cleveland’s history would unfolded.
September 1934: A young man found the remains of a woman in her mid-30s. The torso with thighs still attached, but amputated at the knees, had washed up on the shores of Lake Erie just east of Bratenahl. Cuyahoga County Coroner A.J. Pearse noted that a chemical preservative on the skin which had turned it red, tough and leathery. The subsequent search yielded just a few other body parts, but her head was never found. The woman was never identified as soon referred to as “The Lady of the Lake”. It wasn’t until two years later that this find was included in the official killing total and thus became known as victim #0. It would be another year before the case began officially, and then it would be in another part of the city-the now infamous Kingsbury Run.
September 1935: Two teenage boys discovered the decapitated, emasculated corpse of a white male at the base of Jackass Hill, where East 49th Street dead ends into Kingsbury Run. The body, naked save for a pair of socks, was clean and drained of blood, with rope burns around both wrists. Coroner Pearse determined the cause of death had been decapitation. Fingerprints identified this victim as Edward Andrassy, a twenty-eight-year old white male who frequented the Roaring Third. While searching the crime scene, police discovered a second body nearby, also decapitated and emasculated. It appeared to be covered with the same chemical preservative as the Lady of the Lake. This body apparently had been dead for at least a couple of weeks. The forty-year old white male was never identified.
January 1936: A woman discovered parts of a woman's body neatly wrapped in newspaper and packed in two half-bushel baskets. The baskets were left alongside the Hart Manufacturing building on Central Avenue near East 20th Street. The rest of the remains, except the head were recovered about ten days later in a nearby vacant lot on Orange Avenue. As with Victims #1 and #2, the cause of death had been decapitation. In this case, however, the killer waited for rigor mortis to set in before disarticulating the rest of the body. Cleveland Police used fingerprints to identify Victim #3 as Florence Polillo, a waitress and bar maid, who at the time of her death resided at East 32nd Street and Carnegie, right on the edge of the Roaring Third.
June 1936: Early one morning in Kingsbury Run, two young boys discovered the head of a white male wrapped in a pair of trousers close to the East 55th Street bridge. The next day, Cleveland Police found the body of the twenty-some-year-old man the next day dumped in front of the Nickel Plate Railroad police building. Clean and drained of blood, the corpse was intact except for the severed head. Pearse again determined the death had been caused by decapitation. In spite of a fresh set of fingerprints and the presence of six distinctive tattoos on various parts of the body, police were never able to identify the victim. A plaster reproduction of the man’s head, along with a diagram of the kind and location of the tattoos, were displayed at the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936. More than one hundred thousand people saw the death mask and tattoo chart, but the “Tattooed Man” was never identified. The original death mask, along with three others from the case, are on display at the Cleveland Police Museum.
July 1936: A teenage girl came across the decapitated remains of a forty-year-old white male while walking through the woods near Clinton Road and Big Creek, on the near west side of Cleveland. The victim had been dead about two months and his head, as well as a pile of bloody clothing, was found nearby. Judging by the enormous quantity of blood that had seeped into the ground, this man had apparently been killed where his body was found. Victim #5 was never identified.
September 1936: A man tripped over the upper half of a man's torso while trying to hop a train at East 37th Street in Kingsbury Run. Cleveland Police searched a nearby pool, which was nothing more than a big open sewer, and found the lower half of the torso and parts of both legs. Police sent a diver in to make the recovery. The number of onlookers that turned out to watch the grim spectacle was estimated at over six hundred, and the killer may well have been among them. Victim #6 was in his late twenties and the cause of death, yet again, was decapitation. Coroner Pearse noted that the lack of hesitation marks in the disarticulation of the body indicated a strong, confident killer, very familiar with human anatomy. The victim died instantly when the head was cut off in one bold, clean stroke. Victim #6 was never identified.
Fall 1936 - Media Frenzy: Six brutal killings in one year and the police had neither clues nor suspects. The Cleveland Press, The Cleveland News and The Cleveland Plain Dealer all reported almost daily on the killings and the lack of a suspect. Tension was high. Who was the "Mad Butcher" of Kingsbury Run?
Giving in to mounting pressure from Mayor Harold Burton, recently appointed Safety Director Eliot Ness got more involved in the case. Coroner Pearse called for what the newspapers dubbed a “Torso Clinic” - a meeting of police, the Coroner and other experts to discuss information and to “profile” someone who could be responsible for these gruesome killings.
The police department put detectives Peter Merylo and Martin Zelewski on the case full time. They moved deftly through the seedy underworld that constituted the Run and the Roaring Third, often dressing the part while off-duty. By the time the case had run its course, the two had interviewed more than fifteen hundred people, the department as a whole more than five thousand. This would be the biggest police investigation in Cleveland history.
The November elections returned Harold Burton as Mayor, but Coroner Pearse was replaced by the young democrat, and now legendary, Samuel Gerber. Gerber’s fierce dedication to medicine, coupled with his law degree, put him at the forefront of the investigation.
February 1937: A man found the upper half of a woman's torso washed up on shore east of Brahtenahl. Unlike the previous victims, the cause of death had not been decapitation; this had happened after she was already dead. The lower half of the torso washed ashore three months later at about East 30th Street. The woman was in her mid-twenties. She was never identified.
June 1937: A teenage boy discovered a human skull under the Lorain-Carnegie bridge. Next to it was a burlap bag containing the skeletal remains of what turned out to be a petite black women about forty years old. Dental work allowed for the unofficial identification as Rose Wallace of Scovill Avenue. Police followed every lead they had on her – they led nowhere.
July 1937: There were labor problems in the Flats in the summer of 1937 and the National Guard had been called in to maintain order. A young guardsman standing watch by the West 3rd Street bridge saw the first piece of victim #9 bobby in the Cuyahoga River, in the wake of a passing tugboat. Over the next few days, police recovered the entire body, except for the head, from the waters of the Cuyahoga River. The abdomen had been gutted and the heart ripped out, clearly indicating a new element of viciousness in the killer’s approach. The victim was in his mid to late thirties. He was never identified.
April 1938: A young laborer on his way to work in the Flats saw what he at first thought was a dead fish, along the banks of the Cuyahoga River. Closer inspection revealed it to be the lower half of a woman’s leg, the first piece of victim #10 to be recovered. A month later police pulled two burlap bags out of the river containing both parts of the torso and most of the rest of both legs. For the first time Coroner Gerber detected drugs in the system. Were the drugs used to immobilize the victim or was she an addict? The answer might have come if they had found the arms but they never did. She was never identified.
August 16, 1938: Three scrap collectors foraging in a dump site at East 9th and Lakeside found the torso of a woman wrapped in a man’s double breasted blue blazer and then wrapped again in an old quilt. The legs and arms were discovered in a recently constructed makeshift box, wrapped in brown butcher paper and held together with rubber bands. The head had been similarly wrapped. Gerber noted that some of the parts looked as if they had been refrigerated. While searching for more pieces, the police discover the remains of a second body only yards away. These two bodies had been placed in a location that was in plain view from Eliot Ness’s office window, almost as if taunting him. Neither victim #11 or #12 were ever identified.
August 18, 1938: At 12:40 A.M., Eliot Ness and a group of thirty-five police officers and detectives, raided the homeless encampments in Kingsbury Run. Eleven squad cars, two police vans and three fire trucks descend on the largest cluster of makeshift shacks where the Cuyahoga River twists behind Public Square. Ness’s raiders worked their way south through the Run, eventually gathering up sixty-three men. At dawn, police and fireman searched the deserted shanties for clues. Then, on orders from Safety Director Ness, the shacks were set on fire and burned to the ground.
The press severely criticized Ness for his actions. The public remained afraid and frustrated. Critics said the raid would do nothing to solve the murder and they were right.
July 1939: County Sheriff Martin O’Donnell arrested fifty-two-year-old Bohemian brick layer Frank Dolezal for the murder of Flo Polillo. Dolezal had lived with her for a while, and subsequent investigation revealed he had been acquainted with Edward Andrassy and Rose Wallace.
His “confession” turned out to be a bewildering blend of incoherent ramblings and neat, precise details, almost as if he had been coached. Before he could go to trial, Dolezal was found dead in his cell. The five foot eight Dolezal had hanged himself from a hook only five feet seven inches off the floor. Gerber’s autopsy revealed six broken ribs, all of which had been obtained while in the Sheriff’s custody. To this day, few believe Frank Dolezal was the torso killer.
The Kingsbury Run Murders remain one of the most perplexing cases in our nation’s criminal history. Rumors abound as to who may have been the killer. One thing is very clear: Eliot Ness had a suspect who he believed was undoubtedly the killer. This suspect continued to taunt Ness for years after the killings had stopped. All official police records on this case have been lost, destroyed, or removed.
Who was the Torso Murderer?
While the case is officially unsolved, many believe the identity of the Torso Murderer of Kingsbury Run has been known since the 1930s. Mysterious Dr. X was investigated by the police and interrogated by Eliot Ness, but no physical evidence was found linking him to the crimes.
Most likely, Dr. X was Francis E. Sweeney, an intelligent, skilled and very troubled surgeon who lived near Kingsbury Run. Dr. Sweeney had the surgical know-how as well as access to facilities ideally suited for dismembering bodies. Despite a week-long interrogation by Eliot Ness and other high-level investigators, Sweeney never confessed. However, immediately after Sweeney committed himself to a sanitorium, the murders stopped.
For More on The Torso Murders
To read more on this fascinating story order Dr. James Badal’s books In the Wake of the Butcher and Though Murder Has No Tongue. Also see the documentary from Mark Wade Stone entitled The Fourteenth Victim: Eliot Ness and the Torso Murders. All are available from our Cop Shop.