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.