"Untouchable" Eliot Ness
History, Hauntings & The Mad Butcher of
The American equivalent of the terrifying crime spree of
Jack the Ripper was undoubtedly the "Cleveland Torso Murders" that took
place in an area called Kingsbury Run in the middle 1930’s. Like the
Ripper case, the murders left a number of mutilated victims behind and
they remain unsolved to this day. It was a series of killings that had
tragic results, terrifying the city of Cleveland, ending human lives and
destroying the career of an law enforcement icon, "Untouchable" Eliot
Kingsbury Run was a barren wasteland on the east side of
Cleveland in 1935. It tore through the rugged area, sometimes plunging to
depths of 60 feet, and was scattered with overgrown weeds, patches of wild
grass, tumbling pieces of old paper, piles of garbage and even the occasional
skeletal remains of an abandoned car. Along the edges of the ravine were
ramshackle frame houses, built close together and of such shabby construction
that they seemed to almost be teetering on the brink of collapse. As the
ravine angled toward downtown, it emptied out into the muddy waters of the
Cuyahoga River, where concrete and steel bridges, tanks and old factory
buildings dotted the banks.
Kingsbury Run was a forbidding and shunned place in those
days and yet among the refuse and decay were small cities of homeless men,
forced into the ravine by the blight of the Great Depression. They squatted
there in cardboard boxes and in shacks made from scavenged wood, huddling near
small campfires and trying to ignore the lonesome cries of the freight trains
that passed nearby.
It was through this desolate region that two young boys
walked home from school on a warm afternoon in September 1935. As they ambled
along a weed-covered slope known as Jackass Hill, one challenged the other to
a race and they plunged down the steep incline to the bottom. The older of the
two, James Wagner, reached the bottom first and as he stopped running, he
noticed something white in the bushes a short distance away. He peered a
little closer and was stunned to see that the "something" was a pale, naked
body from which the head had been severed!
The police arrived soon after and started their
investigation. The body was that of a young, white male, clad only in a pair
of black socks. The man’s head and his genitals had been removed. The body had
been positioned on its back with the legs stretched out and the arms placed
directly at its sides. And as they began searching the area, they discovered
another shocking surprise! Just 30 feet away from the first body was another
corpse, this time of an older man. This body was placed in the same position
and the head and genitals had also been removed.
The area was cordoned off and soon a clump of hair was seen
protruding from the ground. Officers carefully dug around it and discovered
one of the missing heads. The other was also found a short distance away, as
were the severed genitals. It looked as though the killer had merely tossed
them away like garbage. One thing the search did not reveal however was the
murder site. It appeared as though the men had been killed somewhere else, as
no blood was found on the ground or on the bodies. The corpses had obviously
been cleaned after bleeding from the fatal wounds had ceased.
autopsy examination that followed
revealed even more puzzling evidence. The body of the older man turned out
to be badly decomposed and the skin discolored from some sort of solution
that the pathologists believed had been used to try and preserve it. The
man had been dead for about two weeks and yet someone had kept the body,
only dumping it when it had become too decayed to keep any longer. The
younger man had been dead for about three days and his fingerprints
enabled the police to identify him as Edward Andrassy, 28, who had a minor
police record for carrying a concealed weapon. He lived near Kingsbury Run
and had a reputation for being a drunk and for frequently getting into
The most chilling discovery came when pathologists realized
that Andrassy had actually died from the decapitation. He had been alive at
the time and bound hand and foot by ropes, against which he had struggled
violently. The operation was done very skillfully and the investigators
suspected that the killer might be a butcher, a surgeon, or at least someone
familiar with killing animals.
The older man turned out to be impossible to identify but
the police hoped that it would be easy to find Andrassy’s killer by following
the dead man’s trail through the sleazy bars and gambling parlors that
Andrassy had frequented. He was known to be a procurer of young girls for
prostitution and also admitted to having male lovers. Detectives followed lead
after lead from dangerous characters who bore Andrassy a grudge, including a
husband who had vowed to kill the man for sleeping with his wife. The
investigations and interrogations led nowhere though and lead after lead came
to a dead end. Every clue just seemed to fall apart in both murders - just as
it would with the murders that would follow.
The press soon began calling the killer the "Mad Butcher of
Four months after the first bodies were found, on a cold
Sunday afternoon in January, the howling of a dog led a woman who lived on
East Twentieth Street (not far from Kingsbury Run) to make another gruesome
discovery. She found the chained animal trying to tear open a basket that was
standing near the wall of a factory. Minutes later, after a brief glance
inside, she told a passing neighbor that the basket contained hams. The
neighbor recognized the "hams" as being a human arm! A burlap bag was pulled
from the basket and they discovered a female torso, from which the head, the
left arm and lower legs were missing. The police were able to trace the
fingerprints to a 41 year-old prostitute named Florence "Flo" Polillo, an
overweight and unattractive woman who was well known in the local dives and
Once again, there were plenty of leads to follow in the
investigation but once again, they all led nowhere. Two weeks later, Polillo’s
left arm and the remainder of her legs were found discarded in an empty lot
but her head was never recovered.
The discovery of the woman’s body had dire repercussions
for detectives assigned to the earlier murders. They had been convinced that
they were dealing with a homosexual killer and the investigation had been
slanted in that direction. Now, with the latest victim being a woman, it
appeared that the killer had no real motives in mind. To make matters worse, a
"cold" case from 1934 was recalled when the torso of an unknown woman was
found along the shore of Lake Erie. The newspapers began calling her "victim
zero". It began to look as though the so-called "Mad Butcher" was really mad
The biggest advantage in the case, as seen by the citizens
of Cleveland, was that since the double murder in September, a new director of
public safety had been appointed to oversee the police department. His name
was Eliot Ness and he had achieved fame just a few years before for cleaning
up the city of Chicago with the assistance of his "Untouchables". He had come
to Cleveland to fight the gangsters, gambling and corruption in the city and
soon found himself embroiled in the hunt for the sadistic killer. The
newspapers and the people on the street were confident that Ness would make
the city safe again. Ness was not so confident. It soon became clear to him
that hunting down a lone killer was not like battling organized crime. The
Butcher struck at random, leaving no clues behind, and despite well-organized
searches and investigations, the killer managed to stay several steps ahead of
the police department and Cleveland’s famous public safety director.
The police work to recover the remains
of the "tattooed man" under a bridge in Kingsbury Run.
The killing began again that summer with
the head of a young man being found wrapped in a pair of trousers beneath
a bridge in Kingsbury Run. Two boys discovered the head on June 22 and
summoned the police. The body was found a quarter mile away and this time,
it was obvious from the blood at the scene that the man had been killed at
the site. He had also been killed by being beheaded but it was unclear to
investigators how he had been restrained by the murderer while the deed
was being committed. No identification could be found for the man,
although it was estimated that he was about 25 and was described as
Three weeks later, a hiker discovered another decapitated
male body in the ravine. The head was found nearby and but again, the man
could not be identified. The body was so decomposed that examiners realized
that he had been killed before the previously discovered victim.
The Butcher struck again in 1936. The body of a man who was
about 30 was found in Kingsbury Run. His genitals had been severed and his
body was sliced completely in two. A hat that was lying nearby did manage to
give detectives one lead. It was identified by a housewife who lived nearby as
being one that she had given to a homeless man. Not far from the site where
the body was found was a "hobo camp", where those who rode the rails and
drifted would sometimes sleep or look for something to east. Apparently, this
was where the Butcher had found this latest victim.
Months passed and while the Butcher was silent, the
newspapers were anything but quiet. Attention was being paid to the murders by
press all over the country. Just recently, Cleveland had been the scene of a
Republican convention and a Great Exposition and this led to even more police
activity and harsh criticism from the press. The weight of this fell on the
shoulders of the police department and most specifically, Eliot Ness. As no
leads in the case panned out, the investigators could do little more than wait
for the Butcher to strike again - and hope that he made a mistake.
They only had to wait until February 1937. Unfortunately,
the Butcher was just as efficient as he had been before, leaving the body of a
butchered young woman along the frozen shore of Lake Erie. She was never
identified, but the same cannot be said for the eighth victim. She was
identified by her teeth as Mrs. Rose Wallace. Like the body discovered by the
hiker, it appeared that Wallace had been killed in 1936 and had never been
Victim number nine was a male and was likely another of the
legion of homeless people who had been set adrift by bad economic times. His
body was discovered in the river and his head was never found. The corpse had
also been badly mutilated. The detectives were sent into action by what seemed
to be a promising lead when a witness spoke of seeing two men in a boat the
night before, just near where the body was found. The sighting never panned
out though and the investigation continued to go nowhere.
The Butcher was not heard from again until later that year.
Several months later, a leg was pulled out of the river and three weeks after
that, two burlap bags were found that contained more body parts. The coroner
was able to determine that the body had belonged to a woman, about 25 years of
age. This would mark another period of inactivity for the killer, lasting more
than a year.
But he would return to strike two more times, at least in
Cleveland. In August 1938, the dismembered torso of a woman was found in a
dump along the lakefront and a search of the area revealed the body of a man.
The remains of the twelfth victim were found wrapped in quilt that had been
given to a junkman, but neither body was ever identified.
personally questioned groups of vagrants during the raids into Kingsbury
(Right) One of the
orders from Ness was to burn down the shacks & shanties of the homeless.
Finally certain that the Butcher was selecting his victims
from the homeless and down and out’s of Kingsbury Run, Ness took a drastic
step. Two days after the police found the last two bodies, officers raided the
shantytown that was located in the ravine. They arrested hundreds of vagrants
and burned down the shelters, shacks and shanties. Whether it was a
coincidence or a brilliant move on the part of Eliot Ness, the murders
The Cleveland Torso Murders were officially never solved,
but that has not stopped scores of crime historians and curious readers and
investigators from speculating as to who the "Mad Butcher" actually was.
Detectives in the case believed that they were close to catching the killer
several times. They spent many hours searching for the killer’s "laboratory",
believing that the Butcher was slaughtering his victims in a convenient
location and then dumping the bodies somewhere else. At one point, they
believed they had found it. They found a photographic negative that had been
left behind by one of the early victims, Edward Andrassy, and when it was
developed, it showed Andrassy reclining on a bed in an unknown room. The photo
was published in newspapers and was identified as being the bedroom of a
middle-aged homosexual who lived with his two sisters. Detectives searched the
house and blood on the floor of the room and a large butcher’s knife hidden in
a trunk. Unfortunately though, the blood turned out to be the suspect’s (he
was prone to nosebleeds) and the knife showed no traces of blood on it. To
further prove the man’s innocence, another Butcher victim turned up while the
man was in jail for sodomy and it became obvious he was not the killer.
In January 1939, the Cleveland Press newspaper reprinted a
letter that had been sent from Los Angeles, allegedly from the Butcher
himself. It read:
Chief of Police Matowitz -
You can rest easy now, as I have come to sunny California
for the winter. I felt bad operating on those people, but science must
advance. I shall astound the medical profession, a man with only a D.C.
What did their lives mean in comparison to hundreds of sick
and disease-twisted bodies? Just laboratory guinea pigs found on any public
street. No one missed them when I failed. My last case was successful. I now
know the feeling of Pasteur, Thoreau and other pioneers.
Right now I have a volunteer who will absolutely prove my
theory. They call me mad and a butcher, but the truth will out.
I have failed but once here. The body has not been found
and never will be, but the head, minus the features, is buried on Century
Boulevard, between Western and Crenshaw. I feel it is my duty to dispose of
the bodies as I do. It is God’s will not to let them suffer.
No buried heads were found in Los Angeles and the manhunt
shifted back to Cleveland. Investigators found another suspect while
backtracking through the last days of Flo Polillo and Rose Wallace.
They discovered that the two of them
frequented the same saloon and that Andrassy had also been a regular
there. Another connection was a man named Frank Dolezal, who carried
knives and often threatened people with them when drunk. He was not only a
regular at the same saloon, but he also had lived with Flo Polillo for a
time. He was quickly arrested and a search of his home found a brown
substance that resembled dried blood in the cracks of his bathroom floor.
They also discovered several knives with old bloodstains on them that
further incriminated the man. Finally, after hours of intense questioning,
Dolezal confessed to killing Flo Polillo and the newspapers hurriedly
announced the capture of the Butcher. Then, the case against Dolezal began
to fall apart.
Forensic tests showed that the "dried blood" on the
bathroom floor was not blood at all and Dolezal’s so-called "confession" was
riddled with holes and full of errors as to where and how the body was found.
In August 1939, Dolezal hanged himself in jail and an autopsy revealed that he
had four cracked ribs, which suggested that perhaps his voluntary "confession"
had been obtained the old-fashioned way -- by force.
The two August 1938 victims turned out to be the last
Butcher killings in Cleveland. In December 1939, three decapitated bodies were
found in railroad boxcars near Pittsburgh and although Ness sent three
investigators to look into it, there was no solid evidence to connect these
murders to the Butcher’s earlier handiwork. It should be noted however that no
real clues were ever found in these murders and they remain unsolved to this
day. Incidentally, the Butcher was also blamed (by some theorists) for the
1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, in
California. Her body was also cut in two parts, just like the Butcher’s
But who was this depraved killer? Eliot Ness believed that
he knew, but sadly, the Kingsbury Run murders really began the downturn of
Ness’ earlier illustrious career. He never really got over the taint that the
murders left on his reputation and the fact they were never solved. The last
decade of his life was full of poverty and frequent disappointment and he
passed away in 1957 at the age of only 54. Ironically, considering his
destruction of the Prohibition bootlegging gangs, Ness became a heavy drinker
and suffered from poor health. He resigned from the position of Cleveland’s
public safety director in 1941, after a scandal involving a hit-and-run
accident, and in 1947 was badly defeated in a run for the Cleveland mayor’s
office. A year later, he was even turned down for a $60 a week job. In 1953,
after five years of poverty and obscurity, he became involved with a
papermaking company and through a friend at the company, he had a chance
meeting with a journalist named Oscar Fraley. The two men would later
collaborate on a book entitled The Untouchables. It came out in 1957
and was an immense success, becoming a bestseller and inspiring two television
series and a popular film. Tragically, Ness would never learn of this success
as he died of a heart attack on May 16, 1957, six months before
Untouchables was published.
Ness would tell Oscar Fraley of more than just his glory
days in Chicago and he told the writer that he was reasonably certain that he
knew the identity of the Mad Butcher and that he had managed to bring him to
at least some semblance of justice.
Ness explained that he had deduced that the killer must
have a house of his own in which he could dismember the bodies and a car that
he could then transport them to the dump sites in. The Butcher could not have
been a homeless person, like the ones that he claimed as his victims. He also
reasoned that the skill of the mutilations would have required some amount of
medical knowledge and that the killer had to have been a big and strong man.
This was evidenced by his easy movement of bodies and by a size-12 footprint
found at one crime scene.
Using this information, Ness had three of his best agents,
Virginia Allen, Barney Davis and Jim Manski, make discreet inquiries among
members of Cleveland high society. Virginia Allen, using a number of socialite
contacts, was able to discover a man who seemed to fit the profile of Ness’
ideal suspect. The man, who Ness called "Gaylord Sundheim", was a large man,
who had studied medicine and who came from a wealthy family with a history of
psychiatric problems. When Ness’ agents called at his home, he shut the door
in their faces, so Ness pressured him into having lunch with him. Sundheim
reluctantly met with Ness and refused to either admit or deny having committed
the murders. Finally, Ness forced him to take a polygraph test and Sundheim
badly failed it. When Ness told him that he believed he was the Butcher,
perhaps hoping to trigger a confession, Sundheim merely laughed and told him
to "prove it".
Soon after he was confronted by Ness, Sundheim (or whatever
his real name was) had himself committed to a mental hospital. After that,
Ness knew that he could never get the man prosecuted for the crimes for even
if charged, he could plead that he was insane at the time of the murders.
Sundheim died in the mental institution around 1940 or 1941 but during the
last months of his life, he continually plagued Ness with a barrage of obscene
and menacing notes. Ness preserved the cards and letters and they have been
saved in the Cleveland archives.
But if Sundheim was the killer, who killed the three
victims found in the Pittsburgh boxcar in December 1939? If the crimes had
been committed by the real Butcher, then how did Sundheim accomplish them from
the hospital? And if Ness already knew the identity of the Butcher, then why
did he allow detectives to beat a confession out of Frank Dolezal in 1939? And
why did one of the chief detectives in the case, Peter Merylo, pursue the
Butcher into retirement, blaming the killer for more than 50 murders by 1947?
Could Ness have been wrong about who the killer really was?
It seems possible that he was...
On July 23, 1950, the body of a man, with his head and
genitals removed, was found in a Cleveland lumberyard, just a few miles from
Kingsbury Run. This missing head turned up four days later and the victim was
identified as Robert Robertson. Coroner Samuel Gerber, who did the autopsies
of most of the Butcher’s victims, reported that the "work resembles exactly
that of the torso murderer." Thanks to this final killing, and the
confusing run of dead ends and worthless clues that plagued the case, the
identity of the killer - like the whereabouts of most of the victim’s missing
heads - remains unknown.
Murder Swamp -- Hauntings of the
Butcher’s Final Victims?
As mentioned already, one of Ness’
detectives, Peter Merlyo, doggedly pursued the case of the Mad Butcher
until his death in 1947. He was convinced that the monster claimed more
than 50 victims, including those found in the railroad boxcars -- and
others. A number of victims that Merlyo believed were connected the Mad
Butcher were discovered in a place that has been appropriately nicknamed
“Murder Swamp”. It is located just outside of New Castle, Pennsylvania,
near West Pittsburgh. Merlyo had become sure that the killer was riding
the rails, explaining how he appeared and disappeared with such ease, he
after hearing about bodies discovered in Murder Swamp, he become convinced
of their connection to his case.
Detective Peter Merlyo
At least three bodies were reportedly discovered in the
swamp in 1925 and all of the victims had been dead for varying lengths of
time. Each of them, two males and a female, had all had their heads severed.
The terrain around the site was also very similar to that around Kingsbury Run
in Cleveland. Merlyo surmised that this may have attracted the killer to the
location. He also came to believe, based upon the discovery dates of the
earlier victims, that this may have been the place where the Butcher had found
his first victims. Merlyo himself spent some time riding the rails, working
undercover, between New Castle and Cleveland but never got any closer to
finding the killer.
After the final murders in Cleveland in 1938, more bodies
were discovered in and around Murder Swamp. The first was found in October
1939, a young man who had been slain and his body discovered near some
month-old Youngstown, Ohio newspapers. Later on, the gruesome discovery took
place in the railroad boxcars that had been sent to McKee’s Ro9cks, just
outside of Pittsburgh, to be destroyed. There were three bodies found, all
unidentified, and each one dismembered. They had been dead for several months
and one of them had the word “nazi”, with an inverted “z” carved into his
chest. Merlyo investigated and found that the cars had been sent to McKee’s
Rocks from Youngstown, which connected it with the previous body found in
Later that same year, another headless body was found, this
time dumped in the Monongahela River. In spring 1941, two human legs were
discovered near Pittsburgh in the Ohio River and the following year, another
headless corpse was found in the Monongahela. More bodies were discovered, in
various locations that included New York and Michigan, until 1945. Although
none of these victims were ever officially added to the killer’s total, many
investigators, including Detective Merlyo, believed that they were the work of
the same Cleveland killer. IN 1950, it is likely that the killer struck again
in Cleveland and this was likely his final victim.
Who the “Mad Butcher” may have been, as well as who many of
his still unidentified victims might have been, remains a mystery to this day.
The killer simply slipped away and vanished into the mists of time. However,
legends say that many of his victims have not been so lucky. There are those
who believe that some of them still walk.
According to locals, the ghosts of the Butcher’s mystery
victims still prowl through the region around Murder Swamp, haunting the place
where there bodies were found -- and where the riddle of their deaths has
never been answered. Some even go on to say that the specter of the Butcher
himself may walk here as well. If this place is where he truly began his
horrific killing spree, then perhaps he had never left…
Even in death.
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© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.