During the Great Depression, a serial killer called The Torso Murderer preyed on the homeless and transient populations of Cleveland, OH. This twisting tale involves The Untouchables’ Eliot Ness, cutting edge forensics at the time and a possible tie to the famous Black Dahlia case. Also known as the Butcher of Kingsbury Run, was anyone truly safe from this killer’s madness?
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In the 1920s, the stock market had rapid expansion with its peak in August of 1929. In the aftermath of rapid expansion and wealth in the Roaring 20s, production was declining and unemployment was rising with low wages, high debt, and agricultural struggles. Stock prices started declining in September. Panic set in and a record 12,894,650 shares were traded. Some investors tried to balance the market by buying large blocks of shares, but on October 29, the New York Stock Exchange crashed due to 16,410,030 shares being traded in a single day. This started the Great Depression, which continued through 1939.
The Great Depression
In Cleveland, Ohio, the working poor were living in a ramshackle shanty town (aka “Hooverville”) in the Kingsbury Run along the east side of Cleveland near Shaker Heights down to the Cuyahoga River. Shaker Heights is one of Cleveland’s earliest suburbs established in 1909. Kingsbury Run was in the part of Cleveland known as the Roaring Third (the third district).
A “Hooverville” was a shanty town built during the Great Depression. They were named after President Herbert Hoover who was in office during the onset of the Depression and was widely blamed for it. People would build shelter from crates, cardboard, scraps of metal and whatever they could find. They would use newspapers as blankets and line their worn out shoes with cardboard. Residents often relied on public charities and begging for food.
Many victims of this story remain unidentified to this day. It is believed the Cleveland Torso Murderer preyed on the homeless and transient populations.
The Victims of The Cleveland Torso Murderer
On September 5, 1934 on Euclid Beach off Lake Erie in Bratenahl, Ohio, a female torso was discovered by a young man named Frank LaGassie. The torso was missing arms, head and legs below the knee. The skin of the body had been coated in a chemical preservative (possibly lime chloride, a bleaching agent) that made the skin red, leathery and tough. Police searched and were able to find a few more body parts, but her head was never found and she remains unidentified. She was given the name “The Lady of the Lake” and is buried in a plot at Highland Park Cemetery in Highland Park, Ohio. It is believed that The Lady of the Lake was the first victim of the serial killer later dubbed the Cleveland Torso Murderer or The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.
On September 23, 1935, Edward Andrasy’s body was found at the base of Jackass Kill in Kingsbury Run by two teenage boys. Edward Anthony Andrassy was born September 3, 1906. He worked as a hospital orderly and had an arrest record for having a concealed weapon, meaning his fingerprints were on file. At the time of his disappearance, he was living with his parents who mentioned to police that Edward had a run in with a local mobster only a few weeks before. The man alleged that Edward was “paying attention” to his wife and threatened him. After staying home for a few days in fear, Edward returned to his normal life and was last seen September 19.
When the body was found, Edward was completely naked except for a pair of socks. His head and private parts were removed with the head found buried near the rest of the body, and the body was both cleaned and drained of blood. Areas of the skin were coated in the same chemical as The Lady of the Lake, leaving the skin red and leathery. The coroner noted rope burns around the wrists and the cause of death was ruled a combination of decapitation, hemorrhage and shock. It was estimated he had been deceased for two to three days, and the coroner also noted that the removed body parts were done skillfully by someone with an understanding of anatomy and butchery. It was believed an axe or butcher’s knife were used for the beheading.
While searching the area, police discovered a second body. This man was estimated to be dead at least 1 week but possibly up to 3 or 4. He was estimated to be in his 40s. He was also beheaded, castrated and coated with the chemical substance. The body had also been saturated in oil and lit on fire. The skin had been treated with the same chemical as the Lady of the Lake and Edward, turning the skin red and leathery. His head was found in the same shallow grave as Edward’s, but the man was never identified. He is still known simply as John Doe #1 in the case.
It would be 4 months before the killings started again.
On January 26, 1936, a woman found two half-bushel baskets next to the Hart Manufacturing Building on Central Avenue in Cleveland. A half-bushel basket is approximately 18” around and 12” high. In these baskets where a woman’s torso, upper legs and right arm/hand, all wrapped in newspapers from the day before. The rest of her body was recovered from a trash pile in a vacant lot across town 10 days later. It was believed her throat was slit, but it was unable to be confirmed without her head which was never found. She was identified as Florence Genevieve Polillo.
Florence was born Florence Sawdy on December 6, 1891 and spent her early youth in Erie, Pennsylvania’s 4th ward with her mother Nellie and father Fred. As a child, Florence’s family moved around often as her father struggled to find work.
Once an adult in the 1920s, Florence was said to be an alcoholic who suffered abuse at the hands of her lovers. She was a barmaid, waitress and sex worker who lived on the edge of the Roaring Third not far from Kingsbury Run. Some accounts described her as emotionally unstable. In 1923, she married Andrew Polillo and moved to Buffalo, NY but the couple divorced in 1928 after her infidelity. Florence then returned to the Erie area and she was arrested for the first time in August 1928 for solicitation. In 1930, she then moved to Cleveland. She was arrested again for solicitation in 1930 and “renting a room for immoral purposes” in 1931. In 1934, she was arrested for solicitation in Washington DC but the authorities agreed to drop the charges if she immediately left DC and never returned. She was arrested one last time in 1935 for selling liquor. Due to her many arrests, police were able to identify her body.
On June 5, 1936, the head of John Doe #2 was discovered by two boys near the East 55th Street bridge. The head was wrapped in a pair of pants. The following day, the body of John Doe #2 was discovered naked in font of the Nickel Plate Railroad Police building across town. Like the other victims, he was beheaded, cleaned and drained of blood but there was no other mutilation or torture performed. The coroner determined he had only been dead a few days when he was found. John Doe #2 became known as “The Tattooed Man” due to the 6 unique tattoos on his body, including a butterfly, the comic strip character Jiggs from “Bringing Up Father”, a cupid, Helen-Paul over a white dove, crossed flags with “WCG”, and an arrow through a heart. Investigators hoped the artwork would help to identify him, but they were unable to discover who he was, only able to estimate his age around 25 years old. The crossed flags with WCG could have indicated some military attachment, but it was dead end. Police did find various articles of clothing at the scene as well, including pants, a polo shirt, two additional shirts, a worn hat, underwear with a laundry mark for J.D., a pair of worn shoes with laces tied together and socks placed inside. It is likely some of all of this clothing could have been the victim’s.
On July 22, 1936, another body was found. Again, beheaded and drained of blood, it had been in the elements for an estimated two months, making it impossible to identify. His head was recovered, but they were unable to get fingerprints or facial recognition due to the state of decomposition. The body was discovered in the Big Creek area in the western part of Cleveland, making John Doe #3 the only known West Side victim. A large pool of blood was also found in the area, leading investigators to conclude the murder happened at the same location the body was discovered. The body was found naked, but a pile of clothing was found nearby. Due to the poor quality of the clothing, the victim’s long and unkempt hair, and proximity to a homeless camp, it is believed he was a hobo who rode in or out of the city by train. Due to death occurring in the place the body was found, some question if this was the work of the Cleveland Torso Murderer or not.
On September 10, 1936, John Doe #4 was discovered in a creek in Kingsbury Run. A transient man was trying to hop the train when he saw a torso in the sewer. The torso was cut into two pieces: the head removed between the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae and then a second split at the 3rd and 4th lumbar vertebrae. The victim’s head, kidneys and stomach were not found, and as the other male victims, he was also castrated. The fire rescue squad dragged the creek hoping to find the rest of the body. It was estimated he was dead approximately 2 days when the body was found.
As the authorities began dragging the creek, a crowd of nearly 600 people gathered as a diver searched for more body parts. Again, the coroner noted the killer was familiar with human anatomy and stated the head was removed in a single “bold, clean stroke”. The search also turned up a gray felt hat from “Laudy’s Smart Shop” in Bellevue, OH which possible blood spots on the top, and a blood-covered blue work shirt wrapped in a newspaper near where the body was found.
Things were quiet for a few months, but then on February 23, 1937 the top half of the body of Jane Doe #1 was found in the same location as The Lady of the Lake in 1935 on Euclid Beach. Estimated to be dead for 3-4 days, Jane Doe #1 was disarticulated at the glenoid fossa which is the socket of the shoulder joint and beheaded between the 7th cervical and 1st thoracic vertebrae. Both pleural cavities (the tissue surrounding the lungs) had considerable water and gravel within them. The lungs were observed to have dirt and signs of emphysema indicating she most likely lived and/or worked in an urban area. The lower half of her body washed ashore in May. Her arms, legs and head were never found. This victim was estimated in her mid-twenties and had signs of previously birthing a child, but was never identified.
On June 6, 1937, the body of a woman believed to be Rose Wallace was discovered beneath the Lorain-Carnegie bridge by a teenage boy. Dental work allowed for unofficial identification, but she is technically recorded as Jane Doe #2. The victim had a prominent underbite and extensive dental work with gold crowns. The remains were found in a rotting burlap bag with a newspaper from June of 1936 suggesting time of death was approximately one year prior. This added to the dispute of victim identification because Rose Wallace only disappeared 10 months prior to the body being found. Jane Doe #2 is distinct as the only African American victim of the killer. While she was the 8th victim discovered, she was most likely the 6th killed. She suffered the same decapitation and mutilation as other victims, but was also missing one of her ribs.
One month later on July 6, 1937, parts of the body of John Doe #5 was pulled from the Cuyahoga River approximately 2 to 3 days after his death. The body was decapitated and disarticulated. The upper torso was found in a burlap chicken feed sack while other body parts were simply found floating in the water on their own. The head, heart and abdominal organs were never found. It was noted that the victim had well-groomed fingernails which would have been odd for a homeless or transient victim at the time.
April 8, 1938, the lower leg of Jane Doe #3 was discovered floating in the Cuyahoga River. In May, her thigh was found leading to a search of the second area. Police were able to find her torso – cut in half – another thigh, and the left foot in a burlap sack. This was the only victim to be found with drugs in their system. She had morphine at a level of 2mg in a 100g sample. It is unknown if she was drugged by the killer or if she was a drug user. It was most likely an injection of liquid morphine, meaning the 2mg was a fairly high dose. Intravenous morphine overdose can occur at 3-10mg in the first 4 hours after injection. There were indications that she had a cesarian section at one point as well as possible natural birth of another child.
On August 16, 1938, the decapitated body of Jane Doe #4 was found. Her torso was wrapped in a man’s blue blazer and an old quilt. The legs and arms were found in a makeshift box wrapped in brown butcher paper and held together with rubber bands. Her head was recovered wrapped in a similar manner. Cuyahoga Country coroner S. R. Gerber, MD also noted that it appeared some of the body parts may have been refrigerated. Lead Detective Peter Merylo later dismissed Jane Doe #4 as one of the serial killer’s murders due to signs of embalming on the remains. No other Torso Murder showed any signs of embalming. It was determined she had been deceased for 4-6 months.
The same day while searching for more of Jane Doe #4’s body, the skeletal remains of John Doe #6 were discovered in plain view of Safety Director Eliot Ness’ office. Some accounts say John Doe #6’s head was found in a can, but this is not in the official police reports. All other extremities were removed at their major joints. It was estimated he had been dead for 7-9 months.
There is a possibility the Cleveland Torso Murderer could also have committed the murder of Robert Robertson who was found on July 22, 1950 in Cleveland. He had been dead 6-8 weeks and was decapitated like the other victims. His general profile also fit the victimology as he was estranged from his family and lived on the fringed of society. Newspapers widely linked the murder to the serial killer, but police investigated the death as an isolated incident.
The Investigation of the Cleveland Torso Murderer
At the time all the murders occurred, Eliot Ness was the Public Safety Director of Cleveland overseeing the police and fire departments. While he had little to do with the actual investigation, his reputation as the leader of The Untouchables brought a lot of attention. Ness did contribute to the arrest of one of the prime suspects, and led a raid on the shanty town in Kingsbury Run. Detectives Orley May, Emil Musil, Martin Zalewski, and Lead Investigator Peter Merylo all worked the case of The Cleveland Torso Murderer from the beginning.
The two main suspects in the case were Frank Dolezal and Francis E. Sweeney.
Frank Dolezal once lived with Florence Polillo and had connections to the other known victims Edward Andrassy and Rose Wallace. He was a bricklayer by profession and spent much of his time in the Roaring Third. In July 1939 he was arrested. Investigators thought it was a “slam dunk” and allegedly beat him until he confessed. He recanted the confession soon after. In August 1939, he was found dead in his cell. It was ruled a suicide but few actually believed this. The hook he was found hanging from was 1” lower than he was tall. Additionally, he did not have the skills or knowledge to carve up bodies in the manner of the Cleveland Torso Murderer.
Francis Sweeney was a brilliant doctor and surgeon. He was also a WW1 veteran who suffered intense PTSD. At the time, mental health was not understood or cared for the way it is today and Sweeney’s mental health deteriorated. His wife appeared in Probate court twice asking to having him committed to a psychiatric institution saying he neglected his medical practice, drank excessively and disappeared for days at a time.
Sweeney was put under surveillance in secret because his cousin was a Congressman and had been relentlessly criticizing the handling of the Torso Murders. The surveillance was unsuccessful and a month later, Jane Doe #3 was discovered.
This prompted Ness to have investigators kidnap Sweeney and take him to a darkened suite at the Cleveland Hotel. He was held for over a week with Ness and David Cowles. At the time of the abduction, Sweet was at the end of a bender and took days to sober up enough to be questioned. They even used the brand new cutting edge technology of the time: the polygraph. After multiple polygraph tests, Leonard Keeler reportedly told Ness, “That’s your man. Might as well throw my machine at the window if I say anything different.” However, they were unable to get a confession from Sweeney and had no choice but to let him go. After his release, the last two official victims were found.
At this point, Ness led the raid on Kingsbury Run. Authorities evicted over 300 people and then burned the shacks to the ground. Additionally in his career, he brought down Al Capone and enforced Prohibition in Chicago, but this raid would be a black mark on his record.
In the 1950s, Ness started to receive taunting postcards signed by F. E. Sweeney. He also received a letter that the killer relocated to “sunny California”. Eliot Ness died from a heart attack in 1957. Until he passed away, he was convinced he knew the identity of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, but couldn’t prove it.
Sweeney was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1956 and passed away in 1964 – never being charged.
Theories About the Cleveland Torso Murderer
But there are theories with a different suspect. Cleveland had easy access to trains. Some believe the Cleveland Torso Murderer simply left town and turned up elsewhere. Most notably? Los Angeles, California.
In the 1940s, LA was a sleepy movie town and city for immigrants. The decade saw the construction of the Pasedena Freeway and LAX as well as the founding of In & Out Burger. The world was reeling from World War 2 in the early 40’s, then the aftermath for the rest of the decade.
Elizabeth Short was an aspiring actress. Said to be incredibly beautiful and charming, she grew up in Massachusetts. He father disappeared when she was 5 years old. His car was found abandoned near a lake, and it was assumed he committed suicide. However, years later, Elizabeth’s mother received a letter of apology from him. He was now living in California.
When she was 15, Elizabeth had lung surgery for chronic bronchitis and severe asthma. The doctor suggested she relocate to a warmer climate. At 18, Elizabeth moved in with her father in Vallejo in northern California. After a falling out with her father, she moved out in January 1943. Later that year, she moved to Santa Barbara where she was arrested for underage drinking at a bar in September. She was sent back to her family in Massachusetts before moving to Florida with extended family members.
While in Florida, Elizabeth met Major Matthew Gordon, Jr, a decorate Air Force officer. While recovering from injuries of a plane crash in India, Matthew wrote a letter to Elizabethe proposing marraige. Unfortunately, Major Gordan passed away in a second plane crash on August 10, 1945 – less than a week before the end of the war was declared.
In 1946, Elizabeth relocated back to Los Angeles. She was working as a waitress as she aspired to be a film star. She was last see at the Bilmore Hotel on January 9, 1947 to meet her sister visiting from Boston.
On January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was taking her 3 year old daughter for a walk and discovered the naked body of Elizabeth Short in a vacant lot in Leimert Park. Initially, Ms. Bersinger thought it was a shop mannequin because the body was so pale.
Her body was severed at the waist, drained of blood and washed. She had evidence of torture and rope burns indicating she had been tied up. These details are what lead some theorists to believe the case is linked to the Torso Murderer, however, there are distinct differences in the cases the largest being the lack of decapitation and victimology. Elizabeth was not impoverished or transient like the Torso Murderer victims, and she was killed in a more ritualistic manner.
Elizabeth was determined to have been dead approximately 10 hours when she was found. The body was so rigorously cleaned that there were brush marks and burns on the skin. The corners of her mouth were slashed up to her ears creating the effect know as a “Glasgow Smile”. There were slices on her thighs and chest, some slicing away portions of flesh. Her lower body was posed 1 foot away from her upper body. She was posed with her hands above her head with elbows bent at right angles and her legs spread apart. Nearby, police found a heel print near some tire tracks and a cement sack containing watery blood.
The autopsy determined mutilation was performed after death. She died from blows to the head. Due to her arrest and a former military base position, Elizabeth’s fingerprints were on file allowing her to be identified. The media nicknamed her The Black Dahlia based on her often wearing black clothing and a recent Hollywood film at the time called The Blue Dahlia.
Over 500 people have confessed to the crime, but most believe (including his son) that George Hodel was the killer. Hodel was suspected but never formerly charged. Hodel was a medical doctor and at least 8 witnesses claimed Hodel and Elizabeth Short had an intimate relationship.
Police wiretapped Hodel’s residence as part of a 18 man task force. On the tapes, he was recorded saying, “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They can’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary.”
After Hodel’s death in 1999, his son Steve started investigating the case. Steve is a former LAPD homicide detective and has written several books.
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Researched by Mo from The Squonk & The Hag