Creepy,  Historical True Crime,  Mysteries and Unsolved Cases,  Podcast

Heads Up! The Creepy Chronicles of Cleveland’s Torso Murders

⚠️Trigger Warning ⚠️

This episode describes graphic acts of violence and murder. Listener discretion is advised.

TLDR; 🔪✨ Swing dance your way into 1930s Cleveland, where a creepy unidentified killer (or killers?!) known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run was on the loose! 🕵️‍♂️💀 Unsolved murders, dismembered bodies, and a city in fear. Eliot Ness, famous crime fighter, tried his best, but 12+ bodies later this noir mystery stayed unsolved. 😱👀 Discover how the Great Depression, Prohibition, and social issues all played a part in this grisly tale. Tune in if you dare—but friends, don't lose your heads!! 🔦✨

Welcome to Bygone Echoes, a history podcast. I’m your host, Courtney. Friends, today we’re going to venture into the mysterious and eerie world of the Cleveland Torso Murders—because who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned, .unsolved mystery with a dash of 1930s noir?

Picture it: Cleveland, 1930s. The Great Depression has hit Americans hard. The air was thick with jazz, prohibition woes, and the scent of freshly baked apple pie cooling on the windowsill. But beneath this seemingly ordinary facade, Cleveland was grappling with something far more sinister.

Did you know that in a time when swing dancing was all the rage, the city of Cleveland had its very own version of Jack the Ripper, only creepier? The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, as he was chillingly known, was responsible for a series of gruesome and perplexing murders that left everyone—from local citizens to famed lawman Eliot Ness—scratching their heads. And friends, these weren’t just any murders. We’re talking about a killer who had a very particular modus operandi: dismembering his victims and leaving their torsos for all to find.

In today’s episode, we’ll uncover the grim details of the Mad Butcher’s murders, explore the gritty world of 1930s Cleveland, and piece together clues that baffled even the sharpest minds of the time. We’ll also examine how the Great Depression and societal undercurrents, including Prohibition’s legacy of crime and corruption, influenced this terrifying series of events. Because remember, history isn’t just about the past; it’s about understanding how we got to now and where we might be heading next.

So grab your fedoras and magnifying glasses, and get ready to step back in time to a world where danger lurked around every corner, and no one could guess when the Mad Butcher might strike next. Stay tuned, friends—this is one unsolved mystery you won’t want to miss!

Let’s set the scene. The 1920s and 30s were a tumultuous decade for many around the globe. Europe was simmering with political upheaval. They’re still suffering from the repercussions of the Great War aka WWI.

The rise of fascism in Italy and Germany was casting long, dark shadows over the continent, setting the stage for the catastrophic events that would soon unfold. In Asia, Japan was aggressively expanding its empire, leading to conflicts and colonization efforts that brought turmoil and suffering to many regions. Over in South America, countries were wrestling with economic instability, political unrest, and social strife.

Now, let’s zoom in on the United States, who is already years into Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, the 18th Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Those pushing for the amendment had good intentions, they wanted to curb the social issues associated with drinking, but it ended up creating a whole new set of problems.

Prohibition led directly to a massive rise in organized crime. Speakeasies, illegal bars hidden away in basements and backrooms, flourished. Bootleggers made fortunes smuggling liquor, and mobsters such as the Mayfield Road Mob made their names through violent turf wars. The police were often outmatched and underfunded, and corruption was rampant.

Enter Eliot Ness and the Untouchables—a group of federal agents who gained fame by seeming incorruptible in their efforts to stop illegal access to alcohol. They were hailed as heroes by many in their day for their relentless efforts to bring down Al Capone in Chicago. But, teams like the Untouchables were rare and their exploits were often exaggerated.

The repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933 brought back legal alcohol, but it also left a legacy of crime and corruption that persisted into the 1930s. The infrastructure for illicit activities had been established, and it didn’t just disappear overnight. This, combined with the economic struggles of the Great Depression, created a perfect storm of social instability.

The Great Depression hit the entire nation, plunging millions into unemployment and poverty. This was like the 2008 Great Recession, but much worse. The once-booming economy had come to a screeching halt after the stock market crash of 1929.

By the mid-1930s, cities across the country were struggling to cope with the widespread economic despair. At the height of the Great Depression, almost 25% of Americans were considered “unemployed”. It’s also important to point out that “unemployed” didn’t just mean people who weren’t working in case anyone else out there was as naive as I was. The term “unemployed”, even today, is more complex than it’s given credit for.

During the Great Depression, the “Unemployed” numbers primarily counted white men who were not working, maybe laid off or their jobs were eliminated, BUT they were also actively searching for work. That’s it. That made up the majority of unemployment figures.

So who did we miss? Well, this didn’t include farmers, who saw their lifestyles completely uprooted due to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. It doesn’t reliably include women, because during the 1930s traditional gender roles were the norm and men were expected to be the sole breadwinners; but we forget that sometimes those people die, leave the family, or aren’t involved in the family. Minorities were missed, because ontop of facing discrimination in society, including the workplace, they were overall undercounted. Discouraged workers, those who had given up looking for work because they believed no jobs were available were not included in the unemployment counts. Underemployed is also frustratingly never counted, because if you worked part-time or worked a job well below your skill-level you still, technically were employed. But, lets say you were fortunate enough to find or keep your job, lucky you. Those who were working saw their income drop by nearly half.

But not everyone suffered during this time. People such as Joseph Kennedy, Sr., the father of future President Kennedy, actually became richer by doing what today would be considered unethical practices, including insider trading, but thats a story for another day.

Among the cities hit hard by the Great Depression was Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland had historically been a bustling industrial hub, known for its steel production and manufacturing. The city was home to grand theaters, bustling department stores, and held a vibrant cultural scene. Immigration was at an all-time high as people were drawn to the promise and opportunity that the city held.

Yet despite the economic prosperity, Cleveland was marked by significant wealth disparity. Wealthy industrialists and business owners enjoyed luxurious lifestyles. People like John D. Rockefeller owned beautiful, decadent mansions on the exclusive stretch of Euclid Avenue called Millionaires Row. While they lived the high life, most of those they employed lived in poverty.

Cleveland was incredibly vulnerable to economic downturns due to its reliance on manufacturing. The city’s economy was heavily tied to national and global markets, making it susceptible to economic shocks. So when the Great Depression hit, the city keenly felt it. Unemployment rates were sky-high, and many families found themselves struggling to make ends meet. The wealth disparity became even more glaring, with opulent mansions standing in stark contrast to the shantytowns that had sprung up in the city’s less fortunate areas.

One such shanty town was Kingsbury Run, located on the southeast side of Cleveland. Named after James Kingsbury, an early white settler in 1797, this area was part of the Western Reserve—a portion of land in the Ohio Territory claimed by Connecticut.

I probably should cut from this episode because it’s not super relevant but hey! Last episode we talked about Connecticut and their witch trials, and here Connecticut is again! It has nothing to do with the story besides he was from there, but I’ve never thought of Connecticut so much in my life. Cool beans.

Anyway! Kingsbury Run is part of a winding, natural watershed where creeks drain stormwater into the Cuyahoga River from areas around Cleveland. In the late 1800s, Cleveland commissioned a new sewer tunnel system project. This was constructed to pass through the Kingsbury Run area under one of its streets. Then in the early 1900s, this area was actually doing great due to its proximity to railroads and industrial centers. However, as the Great Depression took hold, Kingsbury Run transformed into a desolate neighborhood and a refuge for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

I wanted to point out some terms related to this specific population during the Great Depression. You had hobos, these were men who had lost everything and traveled from town to town by hopping freight trains in search of work and a better life. This is different than a tramp, who only worked when necessary which also was different than a bum, who didn’t work at all. Hobos were willing to do any job they could find. Their lives were marked by uncertainty and hardship, symbolized by their iconic bindles and worn-out clothes as they walked the railroad tracks seeking hope.

The community of Kingsbury Run included passing hobos, displaced WWI veterans, out-of-work laborers, and those who had simply fallen on hard times. During the Depression, these people were often overlooked and marginalized by society. They created makeshift shelters from whatever materials they could find and lived in harsh and often dangerous conditions with limited access to basic necessities like clean water and medical care.

Despite the hardships brought about by the Great Depression, a sense of community existed in Cleveland. People looked out for one another, often sharing whatever little they had. The city of Cleveland, hoping to boost spirits and create opportunities, even hosted a Great Lakes Exhibition, honoring the city’s achievements, exploring its future, and showcasing the diverse immigrant population. It aimed to be a “World’s Fair”, similar to the Columbian Exposition that we covered in episode one, but it didn’t make the cut. But! It did help boost the local economy which was its primary goal.

And so, it is within this context—an industrial city reeling from economic collapse, a society grappling with the aftershocks of Prohibition, and a community living in despair and trying to make the best of it—that the terror of the Mad Butcher unfolded. This series of unsolved gruesome murders would haunt Cleveland for years to come.

In 1934, one of the strongest dust storms of the Dust Bowl brought topsoil from places like Kansas all the way to Chicago and even as far as New York City, blotting out monuments such as the Statue of Liberty. Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down during a police ambush in Louisiana. And, in Cleveland, a 30-year old white woman went missing.

Her disappearance was never reported. And, we’d probably never known she existed at all if it wasn’t for a fateful day in September 1934. Her torso, with thighs still attached but amputated at the knees, casually washed up on the shore of Lake Eerie and was discovered by a young man walking the shore. She was dubbed “The Lady of the Lake”, and although police found additional body parts they were never able to locate her head. Oddly, her body was covered in some homebrew of chemical preservatives causing her skin to appear red, tough, and leathery. At first, her death wasn’t linked to a serial killer, but it was later considered his first grisly act.

In 1934, Cleveland also welcomed Elliot Ness as the city’s Safety Director. With the end of Prohibition, the team of Untouchables had been disbanded. Cleveland was riddled with corruption, even in the police force, and Ness, with his upstanding record and boy-scout-like demeanor, was selected to oversee the police and fire departments. He took it upon himself to clean up the police force, introduce modern police practices and forensic science, and sought to improve safety in the city.

From 1934 through 1935, Ness led an ambitious campaign to rid the city of crime and corruption. He was doing considerably well. On the southeast side of the city, two local boys were having fun climbing an embankment in Kingsbury Run known as Jackass Hill. They’d probably climbed this hill a thousand times before, and took advantage of the pleasant weather on this late September day. They joyfully raced to the top of the hill, but immediately stopped in their tracks. They had inadvertently made a gruesome discovery.

The police were alerted, and they found not only one headless man, but two, each emasculated and drained of blood. The police report read:

“the bodies of two white men, both beheaded, lying in the weeds; both bodies were naked except that one of them had socks on. After an extensive search the heads of both men were found buried in separate places, one about 20 feet away from one of the bodies and the other head was buried about 75 feet away from the other body. We also found an old blue coat; light cap and a blood stained union suit. Nearby was a metal bucket containing a small quantity of oil and a torch.”

Strangely, the men appeared to be covered with the same homebrewed chemical preservative as the Lady of the Lake, although I don’t think the connection had been made yet that the crimes were linked. The news shocked the city and drew immediate media attention. One of the men has never been identified. The other was eventually determined to be a man with a highly questionable reputation who lived on the fringes of society, named Edward Andrassy.

In January 1936, another body was found. This time it was a woman, discovered near the East 55th Street bridge. Like the previous victims, she had been decapitated and her body was mutilated. The killer’s signature—decapitation and dismemberment—was becoming disturbingly clear. The police investigated the crimes thoroughly, even employing the new forensic techniques introduced by Ness such as fingerprinting and the use of the city’s first crime lab, which used advanced forensic techniques to analyze evidence, but got nowhere.

In the summer of 1936, Cleveland hosted the “Great Lakes Exhibition” which celebrated the city’s centennial with exhibits, and rides, and drew over 4 million visitors. It helped boost the city’s economy during the Depression and was an overall success. The police used the opportunity to try and identify one of the Butcher’s latest victims, known only as the “Tattooed Man”. In this era, groups that would get tattoos included sailors, soldiers, circus performers, and members of certain subcultures such as criminals. His tattoos were apparently very unique, and so police created a plaster reproduction of the man’s head, along with a diagram of the kind and location of the tattoos, and displayed these at the police booth during the exhibition.

Could you imagine, as a child, walking through the Great Lakes exhibition? The sights you’d see, the cultural experiences, the scent of popcorn and fair foods, playing games on the midway, and then you get to the police booth and see the plaster of a dead man’s head on display? Because that happened.

There is a direct quote from a man who recalled his childhood experience of seeing the Tattooed Man’s death mask :

“His features were so peaceful and lifelike, it was as if he might open his eyes at any moment.”

I swear I read somewhere that this man also said the experience gave him nightmares for years. Fun fact, you can see this deathmask and the deathmasks of a few other victims today at the Cleveland Police Museum. We also have a few pictures on our website!

The fourth victim was successfully identified as Florence Polillo, and she was discovered in pieces between two different locations. She was a waitress and barmaid, known to frequent the area’s cheap hotels. Seven more unidentified bodies were found between 1936 and 1938. Some were found in the open, others in more secluded spots, some around the Cuyahoga River, some slightly further out, some were recently deceased and others were in various stages of decomposition.

Eliot Ness initially kept a low profile when it came to the Mad Butcher murders, assigning others to the case but keeping tabs on it from afar. But as the case went on the Mad Butcher proved to be an adversary like no other. The investigation was intense and exhaustive. Ness employed every resource available, from seasoned detectives to the latest forensic techniques. They interviewed hundreds of people, followed up on thousands of leads, and even enlisted the help of psychiatric experts. But the Mad Butcher remained a ghost in the shadows. The press had a field day with each new discovery, sensationalizing the murders, soon criticizing Ness and his inability to catch the killer and all the while keeping the public on edge.

All of the victims had been decapitated, most were dismembered, and the cause of death for many had been decapitation. So, they’d been decapitated while still alive. The victims were men and woman of various ages, all from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and one victim was identified as a black woman, speculated to be a local woman named Rose Wallace, but no firm identification was ever made.

One particularly disturbing aspect of the case was the killer’s apparent medical knowledge. The precise dismemberment of the bodies suggested that the Mad Butcher had some understanding of anatomy, leading to speculation that the killer could be a doctor or butcher.

When the final two bodies were found, tauntingly within view of Elliot Ness’ office window, he’d had enough. Two days later, he resorted to drastic measures.

The night of August 18, 1938, was dark and eerie in Kingsbury Run. Eliot Ness, our famed crime fighter, swooped in with a posse of thirty-five police officers and detectives. We’re talking eleven squad cars, two police vans, and three fire trucks rolling into the largest collection of makeshift shacks.

Ness’s crew began sweeping south through Kingsbury Run, rounding up sixty-three men in the process. As dawn broke, the police and firemen scoured the now-empty shanties for any clues. Then, in a controversial move ordered by Safety Director Ness himself, they set those shacks ablaze, burning them to the ground.

The aftermath? Oh, the press had a field day. They tore into Ness for his heavy-handed approach. The raid led to, basically, the eviction of 300 squatters as well as the burning of at least 100 shanty homes. The public was left feeling just as scared and frustrated as before. The timeline of events, at least from what I pieced together, isn’t totally clear. But it sounds like, after the raid on Kingsbury Run, the Cleveland murders abruptly ended–although at the time, they didn’t know that.

The Cleveland police force interviewed hundreds of suspects, but there was never enough evidence to pin any of the crimes on a single person. I’m going to share my two favorite theories on who the Mad Butcher was.

Dr. Francis Sweeney was a WWI vet who served in a medical unit that performed field amputations. During the war, Dr. Sweeny suffered from nerve damage due to a gas attack. After the war he struggled with alcoholism, leading to the end of his marriage in 1934. At some point, he lived near Kingsbury Run, and it sounds like he had a medical practice office next to a coroner’s office. A source claimed Sweeney would practice in their morgue, which would have been a clean and convenient location to kill victims. In 1934, a man also claimed that Sweeny had drugged him but nothing came of the claims.

Eliot Ness personally interviewed Sweeny over two weeks. He tried to sober Sweeny up enough to take a polygraph test, a new police tool, but Sweeny failed each test due to still being too drunk. Unfortunately, any evidence against Sweeny was purely circumstantial and Ness doubted he’d be able to successfully prosecute Sweeny, partly because Sweeney’s cousin was U.S. Congressman Martin L. Sweeney, a vocal critic of Ness.

A few days after being interviewed by Ness, Sweeney voluntarily committed himself to a mental asylum. Oddly enough, the killings in Kingsburn Run ended around the same time. Sweeney remained hospitalized for the remainder of his life and spent his time sending threatening postcards to Ness until Sweeney died in 1960s.  

A second theory is related to a series of unsolved murders that occurred between 1921 and 1942, dubbed the “Murder Swamp Killings”. Nine people—eight of them never identified—were found dead and dismembered in swamps or around train yards near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Both cities were connected by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line. Remember, we talked about hobos earlier, and many people thought hobos were connected to these crimes. Some of the investigators on the Kingsbury Run case even thought these murders were related.

On July 1, 1936, the headless body of an unidentified male was discovered in a boxcar in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Then, on May 3, 1940, three more headless victims turned up in boxcars near McKees Rocks, bearing injuries akin to those inflicted by the Torso Murderer. More dismembered bodies were found in the swamps near New Castle, PA and Youngstown, OH between 1921 and 1934 and again from 1939 to 1942. Remember Youngstown from episode 2? Weird, right!

Some wondered whether these murders could have been a result of organized crime. Rumors suggested that mobsters disposed of bodies in the swamps around Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. This connection to organized crime adds another chilling dimension to the already eerie narratives of these unsolved murders.

Unfortunately, the killer or killers were never caught. The failure to catch the Mad Butcher haunted Eliot Ness for the rest of his life, a dark blot on an otherwise stellar career.

The investigation into the Mad Butcher’s murders was fraught with controversy, primarily due to social biases against the victims. Many victims were transients with no fixed address, making them less of a priority for authorities and the media. This reflected broader societal prejudices against the poor and homeless, underscoring the inequality in how different lives were valued. The police were criticized for slow response times and inadequate investigations, while the media sensationalized the murders without delving into the victims’ lives.

A major point of contention was Eliot Ness’s decision to raid and burn the shantytowns of Kingsbury Run to flush out the killer. This 1938 raid displaced hundreds of vulnerable people but yielded no significant leads, leading to widespread criticism of Ness’s approach as ineffective and inhumane. Many viewed Ness’s decision as a punitive measure against the poor rather than a strategic move in the investigation, remember this was just a few days after the last victims were staged in plain view of his office. Critics argued that it demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of the social dynamics at play and a disregard for the human cost of such an operation.

The raid also sparked outrage among social justice advocates and community leaders, who saw it as an egregious abuse of power. They argued that targeting the shantytowns did nothing to address the root causes of the problem and instead punished those who were already suffering the most.

The controversies surrounding the investigation into the Mad Butcher’s murders highlighted the deep-seated issues of inequality and prejudice in society. The bias against the victims and the extreme measures taken by authorities underscored the broader systemic failures to protect and value all citizens equally. These events forced a reckoning with the ways in which marginalized communities were treated by both law enforcement and society at large, and they remain a reminder of the ongoing struggles for justice and equality.

So, what happened after the murders stopped? The Torso Murders case remains unsolved, casting a long shadow over Cleveland. Despite his many accomplishments, Eliot Ness couldn’t shake off his failure to catch the Mad Butcher, and this failure haunted him for the rest of his life. He left Cleveland in 1942 and later moved to Pennsylvania, where he tried to rebuild his career but never fully escaped the shadow of Kingsbury Run. He passed away in 1957, largely remembered for his earlier triumphs against Al Capone rather than his struggles in Cleveland.

Two decades after the murders, the city set out to redevelop Kingsbury Run into a low-income housing area as part of the Garden Valley federal urban renewal project. Constructed on a slag dump donated by Republic Steel, Garden Valley was emblematic of a national tendency in the 1950s to relegate renewal housing to marginal inner-city lands. This redevelopment aimed to transform the area from a symbol of despair into a hopeful community space, but it also underscored the ongoing challenges of urban planning and social equity.

Kingsbury Run is still remembered today, mostly for the violent period in Cleveland’s history marked by the Mad Butcher’s reign of terror. When the city government references this area now, it is often to note the vast sewer system that runs through it, a crucial part of the city’s infrastructure. Yet, the shadow of the past lingers, a grim reminder of the era when fear and murder dominated the headlines.

The Kingsbury Run case also spurred advancements in forensic science and investigative techniques. The challenges faced by investigators in the 1930s highlighted the limitations of the tools and methods available at the time. In the following decades, there was a push for better forensic capabilities, including more sophisticated methods for identifying victims and analyzing crime scenes. This drive for improvement has contributed to the modern landscape of criminal investigation, where science and empathy play crucial roles.

In contemporary discussions about the Kingsbury Run murders, there is a strong emphasis on social justice. The case is often revisited in the context of how society deals with poverty, homelessness, and mental illness. It serves as a historical example that informs current debates on law enforcement reform and the treatment of marginalized populations.

So, while the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run was never caught, the legacy of these murders has had a profound and lasting impact. It influenced policing practices, highlighted societal biases, and spurred advancements in forensic science. The story remains a chilling reminder of the dark corners of human nature and the ongoing need for justice and empathy in addressing crime and its root causes.

Well, friends, that’s the tale of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run—a story filled with mystery, tragedy, and lessons on the importance of justice and equality. It’s a chilling reminder of a time when fear gripped the city of Cleveland and how societal biases can shape the course of justice. The unresolved nature of the case leaves us with haunting questions about the dark corners of human nature and the systemic failures that allowed such horrors to persist.

As we reflect on the legacy of the Kingsbury Run murders, it’s essential to remember the victims, often marginalized and overlooked, who bore the brunt of society’s neglect. Their stories remind us of the critical need for empathy and comprehensive approaches to crime and social issues, ensuring that every life is valued and protected.

Thank you for joining me on this eerie journey through Cleveland’s past. I hope you found it as fascinating and thought-provoking as I did. History, with all its dark and light moments, teaches us about our past and helps us shape a better future. Next time, we’ll be exploring another obscure and intriguing corner of history, so stay tuned. And remember: be kind, be curious, and be ready to make history.

More Information:

Interested in Learning More? We recommend:

  • In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders by James Jessen Badal
  • American Demon, by Daniel Stashower
  • The Cleveland Memory Project website for archival materials
  • The “Unsolved Mysteries” episode on the Cleveland Torso Murders