Archive for September, 2013

Cleveland Torso Murders

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The Cleveland torso murders are considered by many to be one of the most gruesome and mysterious serial murders in American history. For forensic scientists, the case presented the nearly impossible task of identifying multiple victims based on body parts. An American Jack the Ripper, the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run murdered, mutilated, and dismembered 12 victims between 1934 and 1938, most of whom were never identified. Despite meticulously following thousands of leads, the police were continually stymied by dead end investigations, and the Kingsbury Run murders remain unsolved.

Kingsbury Run was a ravine cutting across Cleveland’s East Side to the Cuyahoga River that funneled the city’s railroad traffic to Youngstown. Scattered along the scar-like gorge were shanties and shacks of the transient and marginalized population of the depression era. On September 23, 1935, two boys slid down the steep side of Jackass Hill into the ravine. At the bottom of the hill they noticed something in the weeds and investigated. What they found – two headless male torsos – was the beginning of a reign of terror that gripped Cleveland until 1938, when the killings abruptly ended for no apparent reason.

Though these murders were more horrific than normal, crimes were not unusual in the Kingsbury Run neighborhood, which was accustomed to violence and murder. Detectives found the initial two torsos neatly laid out and cleaned. There was no sign of a struggle, no blood on the ground, and decomposition had already begun. The officers concluded that the victims had been killed elsewhere and moved to Kingsbury Run. This was no simple feat given the steep incline into the cut. A search of the area uncovered two heads buried nearby but no other substantive clues. Authorities turned to the morgue for answers.

The coroner’s office could not offer much information. The cause of death was recorded as decapitation. Death by decapitation is very rare in murders, and the coroner took particular notice of the professionalism of the cuts to the bodies. The bodies were so badly decomposed that victim number one could only be described in general physical terms of height, weight, and age. A fingerprint from victim number two identified him as 28-year-old Edward Andrassy, a local tough, brawler, and drunk. Inquiries ascertained that Andrassy was estranged from his family and had lived on the streets for several years. He was considered a womanizer, and there were also whispers of homosexuality.

No one in the police department immediately connected the double murder with a killing of nearly identical circumstances the previous year. An unemployed carpenter waling the shores of Lake Erie happened across the lower torso of a woman buried in the sand. Several days later, the rest of the body was located farther along the beach. Dubbed the “Lady of the Lake” by the press, she was never identified, and the case was closed. As the torso investigation progressed, the woman became an unofficial part of the case and was ultimately designated as victim zero.

Four months after the grisly discovery of the two torsos, the howling of a dog alerted neighbors to some half-bushel baskets near a factory wall. The police arrived to discover portions of a body neatly wrapped in burlap. The morgue obtained fingerprints that identified the remains as those of 42-year-od Florence Polillo, like Andrassy, a shadowy figure of the Kingsbury neighborhood. Decapitation was again the cause of death. Despite the best efforts of the police, promising leads evaporated. One year later, the killer stuck again. Labeled the “Tattooed Man” by law-enforcement authorities, this victim was also decapitated. Although a fingerprint search returned no identification, detectives were reasonably optimistic about getting a name due to six distinctive tattoos with either a name or initials in them. Photos were distributed and even a death mask was made. During the summers of 1936 and 1937, officials estimated that more than seven million people saw the victim’s photo or mask at two fair-like Great Lakes expositions. There were no results. Even an aggressive search of missing-person files, tattoo parlors, and merchant-seaman hangouts failed to put a name to the body.

Two other murders, both decapitations and dismemberments, followed in rapid succession. No identifications of the victims was possible. Eliot Ness, of Chicago fame, Cleveland’s new public safety director, assigned 20 detectives to the case. Detectives checked the state mental facilities and followed up on recently released patients. Investigators went undercover in Kingsbury Run shanties hoping to lure the killer into action, and the Cleveland News and the city council offered $1,000 rewards for any information, all to no avail. Ness ordered a cleanup of the Kingsbury district. Every hobo was brought in for an interview, warned about the killer, and urged to find another place to live. On a professional level, Ness called for a meeting of the major players in the case that became known as the “Torso Clinic.”

The “Clinic” was an attempt to profile the killer and coordinate all the information available. The county prosecutor, the chief of police, the pathologist who performed the autopsies, homicide detectives , and outside consultants attended the gathering. The group easily decided that the fiend was a psychopath, but most likely not insane. The culprit was definitely a man and very strong. There was no way a woman could have hauled those body parts into Kingsbury Run. Further, the manner of death by decapitation would have been physically very difficult for a woman. The killer was also likely from the Kingsbury area since he had successfully avoided police surveillance and his presence had not alerted suspicion in any of the residents. The skill of the dissection indicated that the “butcher” had an acute knowledge of anatomy, which always brought the inquiry back to the medical profession. This view was buttressed by the fact that the murderer needed a place of his own where he could work in confidence, undisturbed, to cut up the bodies and clean them. What better place than a doctor’s office or maybe a butcher shop? Finally, based on the basis of the postmortem examinations of the stomach contents of the victims, officials felt the killer lured the indigents to their death with promises of food and shelter. Most were convinced that it was a local doctor, medical student, or male nurse who was responsible for the carnage. Police focused their ongoing efforts on anyone in the medical profession who had a history of drug or alcohol abuse, might have been involved in homosexual activities.

Months went by with no activity, and investigators began to feel that the slaughter was over. Their hopes were dashed in February 1937 with the discovery of the remains of a young woman on the shores of Lake Erie. The site was very near where the “Lady of the Lake” had been found three years previously. June and July provided more unidentifiable torsos and remains, bringing the murder total to 10. The next year, on August 16, 1938, victims 11 and 12 were uncovered at a lakeside dump. After 12 brutal murders, three years of intense investigations, and countless man hours, Ness reacted. The day after the grisly discoveries, he raided the shanties and shacks and burned them down. Seeking a record of all the vagrants, he had each one arrested and fingerprinted. The killings ended.

As police morale bottomed out and public outrage heightened, law-enforcement officials did have a suspect. Ness never referred to the suspect publicly, by name, preferring to call him “Gaylord Sondheim” and speaking of hi only in very general terms. At first glance, Dr. Frank Sweeney appeared to be the embodiment of the American success story. Born and reared on the edge of the Kingsbury Run area, he had worked and put himself through medical school. Sweeney returned to Cleveland to take a surgical position at St. Alexis Hospital, the facility that served the Kingsbury run community. Despite all this, Sweeney was a severe alcoholic who could turn violent when provoked. His family broke up and he separated from his wife in 1934. They ultimately divorced in 1936. At the same time, Sweeney was dismissed from his position at St. Alexis. Realizing his problem, Sweeney periodically checked himself into Sandusky, Ohio, Veterans hospital for rehabilitation. The hospital was his alibi. He always seemed to be out of town at the time a torso turned up in Cleveland.

Ness and his detectives put the all-out press on the suspect doctor. They checked his mail, searched his room, and even followed him on a regular basis. An enterprising detective checked the Sandusky records and realized that there was no accountability for patients; they could come and go from the hospital as they pleased. Sweeney was an outpatient. Ness called Sweeney in and confronted him with his suspicion that the doctor was the “butcher.” Reputedly, Sweeney defiantly said, “Prove it,” and left. Two days after the interview, Sweeney checked himself into the hospital. He remained in one type of facility or another for the rest of his life. He died in 1965. The case remained open for a time but it still remains unsolved.



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When it comes to spaceships and little green men from Mars, most people’s thoughts turn to the notorious events as Roswell, New Mexico, where in 1947, the US government apparently captured an alien who had crashed his flying saucer. US military personnel are then said to have quickly sealed off the area, removed all evidence, and engaged in a complete cover-up.

After a thorough debriefing, presumably in sign language, the little green men sadly died. Much later, the film of the top-secret autopsy supposedly carried out on him was sold on the black market, ending up nearly fifty years later, in 1995, on a prime-time TV documentary broadcast around the world. This program, Alien Autopsy, caused a sensation and “Martian gate” was back on the agenda with a vengeance. As is often the case, those who wanted to believe such a story inevitably did, while those of us really living on planet Earth could smell a rat. In fact, there were rats everywhere.

But it took eleven years before the program maker, Ray Santilli, admitted that the autopsy had been staged, for the most part, in a flat in Camden Town, London. Strangely enough, he owned up to this two days before a humorous parody of his subject was due to be aired on television. He confirmed that his props had included sheep brains set in jelly and knuckle joints and chicken entrails bought from Smithfield meat market.

That should have knocked the Roswell mystery on the head for good, and all those UFO enthusiasts who had been obsessing about the whole affair for years should now be quietly licking their wounds in their garden sheds, or wherever it is they go to study their favorite subjects.

But Roswell wasn’t the first time aliens had been captured before. In 1897, Aurora, a small unremarkable town near Dallas, Texas, became the site of an astonishing event.

On April 17 that year, ten-year-old Charlie Stevens was sweeping his backyard when he looked up to see smoke trailing from a large silver airship flying overhead toward Aurora. Soon after it had flown out of sight, he heard an explosion and saw a thick plume of smoke rise into the air. He was about to rush off to see what had happened when he was stopped by his father who told him he had to finish his chores first. Just imagine that something truly momentous has just happened right in your sleepy little town: a strange airborne vehicle – something you have never seen before, maybe even a raft from another planet – crashes just a few hundred yards away from your own back gate and you are told: “Nope. You finish sweeping that there yard first, boy, and then come inside and help your ma with the breakfast.”

In fact Charlie wasn’t allowed to go at all. According to him it was his father who went into town and saw the wreckage scattered about the place. Mary Evans, aged fifteen at the time, also claimed to have witnessed the crash, but stated that her parents wouldn’t allow her to visit the scene either.


About 6 o’clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which had been sailing around the country.

It was traveling due north and much nearer the earth than before. Evidently some of the machinery was out of order, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles per hour and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed over the public square, and when it reached the north part of town it collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went to pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge’s flower garden.

The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one aboard, and while his remains were badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.


Curiously, this story did not make even the front page. Instead it was buried on page five along with several other reports of UFO sightings. It would appear they flying saucer crash at Aurora was not particularly shocking in 1897 – run-of-the-mill, you might say (in more senses than one) – even if it did destroy Judge Proctor’s flower garden.

The story then told by the people of the town is that the Martian pilot, as he was termed, was given a decent Christian burial in the town cemetery and his grave marked with a single stone. The remains of the spaceship were taken away to an unknown location by the authorities and the smaller pieces were thrown into Judge Proctor’s well. No other newspaper covered the story, and amazingly, the alien’s resting place in the Aurora cemetery went unremarked for nearly eighty years, the small town settling back into obscurity.

That was until 1973, when the founder of the International UFO Bureau, Hayden Hewes, announced to United Press International that a grave in a small north Texan cemetery contained the body of an 1897 “astronaut” whom the report at the time had identified as being “not . . . of this world.”

Newspapers all over America took up the story, and interest in the alien grave rapidly gathered pace. Curiously, as the press hounds sniffed around Aurora, they found very few residents willing to discuss the events of 1897, but despite their silence the town soon became a hive of activity as alien hunters from around the world descended en masse.

The International UFO Bureau claimed to have found traces of radiation at both the crash site and the grave, on top of which, they said, the grass glowed red. But they were soon barred from the graveyard by local administrators, who adamantly refused to allow them to start digging around. When the investigators attempted to obtain a court order to exhume the body, the small headstone marking the grave was removed and state troopers were placed at the gates of the cemetery to prevent unauthorized access.

Hayden Hewes, interviewed for a television documentary on the subject, condemned these actions as irresponsible, stating that there was now no way of locating the grave – a site, he claimed, that was of national importance. Interestingly, Bureau representatives have never explained why they didn’t just walk around looking for the red patch they had found only weeks earlier. Abandoning the grave, they turned their intention instead to Judge Proctor’s farm, now under different ownership.

In 1943, Rollie Oats (yes, his real name) had bought the place. He had removed the pieces of spaceship and cleaned out the well so that his family could drink the water. Twelve years later de developed severe arthritis in his hands and, convinced the well water was responsible, had it sealed over with a six-ton slab of concrete.

During the 1973 investigation, metal found on the farm was analyzed at a laboratory, its name never disclosed, and found to be a unique composition that could only have been produced by a very sophisticated refining process far in advance of what was possible in the 1970s, let along the 1890s. This was held up as hard evidence of spaceship material, and the UFO community howled for the government to reveal any information they had. In response the government ridiculed the amateur investigation, describing the Aurora spaceship story as a hoax. But of course they would say that, eh, UFO fans.

Today, amid renewed calls for a full inquiry and a thorough search of Aurora using the latest technology, some town elders now claim that the US military returned many years ago, back in the 1940s, and removed all trace of the spacecraft and its pilot. Others enigmatically refuse to talk about the incident at all. One elderly resident was interviewed for the television documentary in 1973 and clearly stated on camera that the whole affair had been true. (I saw it myself, and she said it all right – there’s no doubt about that, at least.) Her parents, she insisted, went to check the wreckage of the spacecraft and then told her all about it. But later, her great-granddaughter revealed she had been told the whole thing was a hoax and was puzzled why her great-grandmother would appear on camera to claim the accident had really taken place. The lure of the dollar, possibly?

But if it was all a hoax, why play such an elaborate prank in the first place, let alone keep it up for over a century? There is one very good reason – to do with the town of Aurora itself. In the middle of the nineteenth century Aurora had been a busy, bustling trade center with a growing population and two schools. During the early 1890s, the Burlington Northern Railroad had been planning to build a route through Aurora to join the Western Railroad, when disaster struck the town in the shape of spotted fever (a form of meningitis). As the new cemetery began to take in more and more residents, the town was sealed off and people were confined to their homes.

As a consequence, the railroad abruptly stopped twenty-seven miles short of the town, construction never to be resumed, and Aurora’s business was devastated. Things became even worse when its major crop, cotton, was ruined by boll weevil infestation. Its fate was finally sealed by a fire that destroyed a major part of the town. All this, within the space of a few short years, left Aurora facing ruin – that is, of course, until the spaceship conveniently flew into town. The resulting (albeit somewhat delayed) publicity led to Aurora, eight years on, being declared a place of special interest and becoming one of the most famous towns in Texas, with legendary status among the worldwide UFO community. Even today it is rumored that any unusual pieces of metal found locally are quickly confiscated by the authorities and mysteriously lost or accidentally destroyed.

One of the things that have always struck me about UFO sightings is how they always reflect the era they are reported in. For example, today we have gray aliens with oversize heads who communicate telepathically, like the alien constructed for the Roswell hoax. During the 1970s all spacemen looked like the cast of Star Trek, and prior to that they dressed like Buck Rogers, complete with laser guns, and got in and out of their flying saucers by ladder.

So call me cynical, but when we hear of an interred alien whose cigar-shaped spacecraft crashed into a windmill in 1897, we don’t need to look too far to find out that cigar-shaped airships were first conceived in the 1890s and by 1897 were flying all over America, to the astonishment of country folk, some of whom hadn’t even seen a train before.

And Aurora was far from the only location for such sightings, as soon afterward alien encounters were reported all over the US. Some people even ludicrously claimed they had been paid by aliens, in dollars, for spare parts for their space machines.

So imagine the scene with me. In 1897, old Farmer Gilly is standing out in his field raking the soil when a being from outer space strolls up. “Greetings, Earthling,” he intones in that robotic style favored by aliens the universe over. “The satellite navigation control system on my intergalactic hyperspace craft is up the spout. Do you have anything to repair it?” Farmer Gilly looks him up and down, takes off his hat and wipes the sweat from his forehead with a shirtsleeve. “Sure thing, buddy,” he replies. “Cosmic navigation broken down, has it? Probably explains why you’re in Arkansas, son. Can’t think of no darned good reason why else you’d be all the way out here. Let’s go and see what we’ve got for you in that chicken shed over there.” Presumably the alien pays in dollars for a roll of rusty hog wire and is on his way back to Mars by sundown. Perhaps he even takes an old hoe with him too – as a souvenir. Now, you can believe that if you want to . . .

But why jump to the conclusion that it was a spaceship that had crashed? Even back in 1897, before planes were invented (or at least ones that could fly very far), there could have been an alternative, rather more plausible explanation. Flying over Texas, an early airship, not unlike a zeppelin – or, for younger readers, the Goodyear blimp – might have sprung a leak and lost altitude. It might then have crashed into Judge Proctor’s windmill and destroyed his flower bed. The resulting explosion would have melted the metal framework, which would then have re-formed into new and unrecognizable shapes when it cooled. The poor pilot might have lost his limbs in the explosion and ended up burned to a crisp, so that he didn’t look human anymore. But no one in the UFO community would have bought this rather more down-to-earth explanation. Hayden Hewes can still now be seen on several television documentaries standing wistfully outside the cemetery or pictured pointing forlornly at the well, no doubt wondering how he is going to remove the six tons of concrete slab that stands between himself and his place in history.

The final word on the Aurora spaceship crash should go to the man who had the very first word, journalist S.E. Haydon. Years later Haydon, a notorious practical joker, admitted he had simply made up the story in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of his hometown and to help the dying community. He certainly did that – even if publicity took some decades to arrive – as Aurora, the town we would otherwise never have heard of, is still talked about throughout the UFO-hunting community as one of the most famous sightings of all time. They should put up a statue of him in the town square in Aurora, if there is a town square, that is.

Most UFO encounters can be explained as optical illusions, natural phenomena, meteors, or hoaxes, but a good many remain unexplained. In cases of alien abduction, it is interesting to read reports of victims who have been hypnotized and who describe their ordeals in great detail while under hypnosis. Yet when we compare these reports with those of volunteers who do not claim alien abduction, but instead are asked simply to imagine it, their recollections under hypnosis are almost exactly the same. I think this says more for the power of imagination than it does for likelihood of alien encounters, but then again, ours is a big universe. Infinite, in fact. Only a fool would completely rule out the idea of life on other planets in other solar systems, the closest of which are so far away they would take us seventy-five thousand years to get to in the fastest craft we currently have, which means unless aliens visit us (and possibly they do), then you and I will never know if there is life out there. Maybe, just maybe, we are not alone after all . . .



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