From 1935 to 1938, the unsolved murders of 12 people rocked Cleveland, Ohio. The true victim count of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, also known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, could be as many as 20 people, all dismembered and dumped around Cleveland, ranging from the 1920s to the 1950s. These grisly murders have remained unsolved in the nearly 100 years since they were committed. A majority of the victims have not been identified and were drifters, easy prey for a serial killer. Edward Andrassy, victim #2, and Florence Polillo, victim #3, were identified, and another possible identity was found for victim #8, Rose Wallace. Many of the victims were what one would call the “working poor” during the Great Depression, and lived in the shanty towns present at that time (Wikipedia).
The Torso Murderer decapitated and dismembered his victims, many of the male victims also being subjected to castration, and some victims showing signs of some kind of chemical treatment on their skin. Many times, the decapitation or dismemberment was the cause of death. The dismemberment was sometimes done in the middle of the torso, while other times occurred through the separation of the limbs. Most of the heads of the victims have not been recovered, possibly having been dumped somewhere else or kept somewhere by the killer. This made identification that much harder, along with the fact that victims would sometimes go undiscovered for more than a year. In this era, forensic science was barely a thing. Identifying a victim through just a few of their bones was much harder than now, where we can extract DNA from bone marrow and test it (Wikipedia).
The bodies began to be discovered in September 1935. At the base of Jackass Hill, where 49th street ends, two teenage boys found the decapitated body of Edward Andrassy, referred to also as victim #2. Andrassy was nude with the exception a pair of socks, had rope burns around his wrists, and had been drained of his blood. Due to his criminal record, Andrassy was identified through his fingerprints. He was known to have frequented the Roaring Third, an area of town near Kingsbury Run where gambling dens, flophouses, brothels, and bars were common, and it was rumored that Andrassy was gay as well. After an autopsy was done, it was determined that he had died from decapitation and had been dead for likely some time by the time his remains were found (Badal 2016). Near Andrassy, the remains of another young man were found. Like Andrassy, he was decapitated, but he was also fully castrated. His skin, like other victims, showed signs of having been treated with some form of chemical (Casalé 2016). A few months later, in January 1936, half of the body of a young woman was found dismembered and wrapped in newspaper in two baskets near the Hart Manufacturing building on Central Avenue by East 20th street. 10 days later, in a vacant lot by Orange Avenue, the head of the victim was found. Decapitation was once again the cause of death, but the body had not been dismembered until after rigor mortis had already set in for some reason. Just like Andrassy, this victim, Florence Polillo, was identified through her fingerprints. She worked as a waitress and sex worker at the time and lived on the edge of the Roaring Third (Badal 2016).
Bodies continued to be found throughout 1936. In June the decapitated head of a white male was found by two young boys, wrapped up in men’s pants. The body of the victim was found the next day in front of the Nickel Plate Railroad police station, drained of blood just as Andrassy was and with the same cause of death: decapitation. The man, now known as The Tattooed Man, was heavily tattooed and a death mask was made of his face; he remains unidentified. A teenage girl found the body of a white man in his 40s in July, not far from where his head and bloody clothes were found. It is likely, based on the amount of blood found at the scene, that his victim was killed at the scene. The body of the next victim was found when the torso was tripped over, at East 37th street in Kingsbury Run. Police found his legs and the lower half of his torso nearby in a pool that was actually a sewer and sent down a diver. It was noted that this victim, victim #6, had no marks that showed hesitation. The person who killed this victim was confident in what they were doing and had knowledge of the human anatomy (Badal 2016).
During the time of the investigation, thousands of people were interviewed in relation to the case. The two detective that worked it full time, Peter Merylo and Martin Selewski, went undercover through Kingsbury Run and the Roaring Third. In November of 1936, a new coroner took over. Pierce was replaced with Dr. Sam Geber, who would later find fame working on the case of Marilyn Reese Sheppard (Badal 2016).
Through the years, the victim count continued to rise. In 1937, victims were found along shorelines, under the Loraine-Carnegie bridge, and in the Cuyahoga River. Through 1938, more victims were found in the river and at a dump site at East 9th and Lakeside. A raid took place as well in 1938, ran by Eliot Ness, on the shanty towns where the Torso Murderer seemed to frequent. On Ness’s orders, the shanty town was burned down (Badal 2016). While the media criticized the unnecessary aggression shown in the act of burning the shanty town down, it is true that the attacks seemed to cease afterwards (Casalé 2016).
As we see with the Jack the Ripper case, there are canonical victims, who are ratified as true victims, and those victims that are theorized to be Cleveland Torso victims. One of these victims has been named the Lady of the Lake, and was found not far from where victim #7 was found on the shore of Lake Eerie. She is sometimes referred to as Victim #1or Victim #0 by some researchers. Another victim thought to be done by the Cleveland Torso Murderer was found in a boxcar in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1936, and three more in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania in 1940. Each victim bore injuries with a striking resemblance to the canonical victims of the Cleveland Torso Murderer. From the years 1921 to 1934, and again from 1939 to 1942, dismembered bodies were being found in the swamps located near New Castle, Pennsylvania. The New Castle Swamp killer, as dubbed by the media, committed eerily similar murders to the ones committed in Cleveland. Some believe that the two killers are the same person, likely traveling along the Baltimore and Ohio rail that connected the two very similar areas. The train along that route ran twice a day, and there are those convinced that the killer used that train to commit the murders in both areas. In 1950, a badly decomposed body was found in Cleveland belonging to Robert Robertson. Like the Torso Murderer’s victims, Robertson appeared to be decapitated. Unfortunately, at the time police investigated the crime as a separate case and it is unknown if the case is connected (Wikipedia).
While no arrests have been made in the case and it is officially unsolved, there have been suspects in the case. Frank Dolezal, 52, was taken in under suspicion related to the murder of victim #3, Florence Polillo (Wikipedia). However, Dolezal’s confession was incoherent and was found to be unreliable, and he was found hanged in his cell before he could clear his name or be charged. This hanging, however, is suspicious as a suicide, as the rope was longer than Dolezal’s height and he had broken ribs at the time. Dolezal’s name was officially cleared in 2010, decades after his death (Casalé 2016). Dr. Francis Sweeney, a veteran of the first world war, was also under suspicion for the crimes. He worked in a medical unit during the war and was involved in amputations. Reportedly, Sweeney failed two polygraph tests, but was never actually arrested as Eliot Ness, who was in charge during the investigation, felt they had little chance of a successful prosecution. On top of that, Sweeney was related to one of Ness’s major political opponents. Beyond the suspects, another theory has emerged: there was no single Torso Murderer. Instead, mistakes were made during the investigation and the murders were not connected (Wikipedia).
“Cleveland Torso Murderer.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 June 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleveland_Torso_Murderer.
Badal, James J. “Torso Murders.” Cleveland Police Museum, 2 Dec. 2016, www.clevelandpolicemuseum.org/collections/torso-murders/.
Casale, Steven. “The Ghoulishly True (And Still Unsolved!) Tale of the Cleveland Torso Murderer.” Gizmodo, Gizmodo, 6 Jan. 2016, gizmodo.com/the-ghoulishly-true-and-still-unsolved-tale-of-the-c-1724192826.