From 1934-1938, the brutal murders of 13 individuals ravaged the city of Cleveland, Ohio. The case is famously known as “The Cleveland Torso Murders,” because none of the victims’ bodies were intact. The killer beheaded and dismembered each victim, leaving only their torsos to be discovered by the public. Officials positively identified only two of the victims, and to this day, no one knows who the killer is for certain. Here are their stories, and how one shantytown ties them together, according to the Cleveland Police Museum.
Although the city’s iron industry boomed and things looked positive for workers, the Great Depression left many citizens in Cleveland impoverished. Often gathering in shantytowns like Kingsbury Run, people rode the train that passed through to escape the filthy living conditions. The Roaring Third, located east of Kingsbury Run, was a collection of brothels, bars and gambling houses. For five years, the “Mad Butcher” of Kingsbury Run scattered his victims throughout this area.
One day in September of 1934, a man discovered the lower half of a woman’s torso washed up on the shore of Lake Erie. The killer amputated her body at the knees and covered her in a chemical sheen that turned her skin red and leathery. Coroner A.J. Pierce determined that the woman was in her mid 30’s. Authorities never identified her, and she obtained the nickname “The Lady of the Lake.” Investigators did not include her in the official body count of the Cleveland Torso Murders until two years after her discovery.
Victims 1 and 2
A year later, two teenage boys found the beheaded and emasculated torso of 28-year-old Edward Andrassy outside Kingsbury Run. His body was cleaned, drained of blood and covered with rope-burns. Through fingerprint science, investigators identified Andrassy due to his criminal record. After, Coroner Pierce determined his death a result of decapitation. Meaning, the killer decapitated him while he was alive. Interestingly, further investigation revealed that Andrassy frequented the Roaring Third.
A second body was found nearby, also decapitated and emasculated. The 40-year-old man was never identified and had been dead for a few weeks prior to discovery. Investigators noticed that his skin was covered in the same chemical residue as “The Lady of the Lake.”
In January 1936, a woman came across half of a woman’s body wrapped in newspaper and packed in two separate baskets. She found the baskets next to the Hart Manufacturing building, and 10 days later investigators found the remainder of the woman’s body in a nearby vacant lot. Like Victims #1 and #2, her cause of death was decapitation. Also like Andrassy, she was identified through fingerprinting as Florence Polillo. Polillo was a waitress who lived right outside the Roaring Third.
Victims 4 and 5
Two young boys came across the head of a man in June 1936. The boys found the head wrapped in a pair of pants underneath the East 55th Street Bridge. The police found the rest of his body the next day in front of the Nickel Plate Railroad Police Station. The police never identified him, despite clear fingerprints and six distinctive tattoos. His body was cleaned and drained of blood, and he died from decapitation. A plaster cast of his head, called the “Death Mask,” debuted at the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936. The Mask now hangs in the Cleveland Police Museum.
In July of the same year, a teenage girl stumbled upon the remains of a 40-year-old man. She walked through the woods on the west side of the city when she found the decapitated body. The police found his head nearby, along with a pile of bloody clothing. They determined that he was killed where he was found, as a large amount of blood was soaked into the ground.
A railroad traveler found the upper half of a man’s torso while trying to hop the train in Kingsbury Run. Police searched a nearby pool of water to locate the rest of the body. Six hundred onlookers showed up and witnessed a diver recover the other half of the man’s torso. The victim was in his late 20’s and died from decapitation. However, his wounds left a huge clue to the identity of the killer.
Coroner Pierce noted that the lack of hesitation marks on the body suggests that the killer was strong and confident. Additionally, he had to be very familiar with the human anatomy: the killer cut the victim’s head in one clean stroke, killing him instantly. Six victims in a single year led The Cleveland Press, The Cleveland News and The Cleveland Plain Dealer to cover the case almost everyday. This put pressure on the police department to solve the case and intensify the investigation.
In 1936, Coroner Pierce called for a meeting of investigators and other experts to discuss the information gathered from the case and to profile the killer. The press called it “The Torso Clinic.” As a result, Safety Director Eliot Ness became more involved in the investigation.
Similarly, detectives Peter Merylo and Martin Zelewsky dedicated themselves to the case full-time. The went undercover in Kingsbury Run in order to interview over 1,500 people. Because of their dedication, the police department interviewed over 5,000 individuals by the end of the investigation. The Cleveland Torso Murders remain the largest investigation in the city.
Victims 7 and 8
In February of 1937, a man discovered the upper half of a woman’s torso washed up on shore near the village of Bratenahl. The investigation took a turn here, as the kill pattern was disrupted by the 20-something victim. Unlike all previous victims, she was decapitated after death. Like the majority of the other victims, the police never identified her.
In June, a teenage boy found a skull under the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. A burlap sack next to the skull contained the skeleton of Victim 8. Investigators identified the body as 40-year-old Rose Wallace through dental records. It is important to note that this is not an official identification, and the police never found further information regarding her identity.
Victims 9 and 10
A month later, the National Guard came to the city to settle labor problems in the Flats. As a result, a guardsman saw part of a human body floating in the Cuyahoga River. Over the next few days, authorities found the rest of the body despite a head. The victim was in his late 30’s and again, the police never identified him. Similar to Victim 7, the kill pattern changed. Victim 9’s abdomen was gutted and his heart was ripped out. Investigators stated that this indicated a new viciousness in the killer.
In April 1938, a young laborer working in the Flats mistook a woman’s leg for a fish floating in the river. The police recovered two burlap sacks a month later, each containing the remainder of the woman’s body. After performing an autopsy, the coroner found drugs in her system. This threw off investigators because no other victim was drugged. Thus, they questioned whether the drugs were recreational or used to sedate the victim.
The Final Victims
On August 16, 1938, three dumpsite workers found the torso of a woman wrapped in a man’s blazer. Her legs and arms lay in a box wrapped in butcher paper, with her head wrapped in a similar fashion. The coroner indicated that the remains showed evidence of refrigeration. Later, while searching the area for more parts of her body, the police found a second body. Unfortunately, authorities never identified either victim. The most confounding factor in the finding of these two victims was that they were in direct view of Eliot Ness’ office. Researchers of the Cleveland Torso Murders believe that the purpose of these killings was to taunt him.
As a result, Ness led a group of 35 police officers on a raid of Kingsbury Run. They gathered over 60 men for interrogation and set fire to the shantytown. Ness charged the majority of the people there with homelessness, and later explained that he believed them to be the primary victim pool. The press heavily scrutinized Ness for his actions, yet the killings stopped. It is unclear whether or not this is a coincidence, however.
In July 1939, the county sheriff arrested 52-year-old bricklayer Frank Dolezal. Not only did Dolezal have connections to three of the victims, but he lived with Florence Polillo, Victim 3. A further investigation revealed that he also knew Edward Andrassy and Rose Wallace. Although he confessed, Dolezal sounded coached and later recanted his confession. Furthermore, before his trial, Dolezal seemingly hanged himself inside his prison cell. However, it is important to note that Dolezal was 5 feet 8 inches tall, and hanged 5 feet 7 inches off the ground. An autopsy revealed six broken ribs all obtained while in police custody. Since his death, virtually no one believes Dolezal to be the killer.
The final suspect, whom researchers believe is the actual killer, is Dr. Francis E. Sweeney. Eliot Ness led a secret investigation into Sweeney in 1938. Sweeney fits the profile of medical professional with a deep understanding of the human anatomy. Apparently, Ness took Sweeney to the old Cleveland Hotel and held him there for about two weeks. During that time, with the help of Leonard Keeler, Ness conducted a lie detector test on Sweeney, which he failed twice. Keeler, the inventor of the lie detector test, was present with Ness and Sweeney.
According to Cleveland Magazine, he said: “That’s your man. I might as well throw my machine out the window if I say anything different.”
Additionally, Ness’ family donated his work to the Western Reserve Historical Society. They found various postcards from Sweeney addressed to Ness. Each postcard poked fun at Ness and contained witty quips taunting him.
Whether Sweeney or some other deranged person was the killer of the Cleveland Torso Murders will always be a mystery. This goes down in history as one of America’s most gruesome unsolved cases.