Along with the Black Dahlia, the Zodiac Killer, and the death of JonBenét Ramsey, the Cleveland Torso murders fall among America’s most notorious unsolved crimes.
Taking place in the 1930s, it has now been over 80 years that the murders have gone unsolved. The Cleveland Torso Killer claimed the lives of at least 13 people, but it is suspected that there are more victims who have never been found. Of the remains that were discovered, only 2 were able to be identified, as most victims were severely mutilated before being dumped at Kingsbury Run; which at the time was an industrial area populated by sufferers of the Great Depression. The Torso Killer’s preference of dismembering his victims led to the media nicknaming the murderer “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.” The coroner had determined that each of the killer’s victims had been decapitated while they were still alive.
In 1934, the first set of remains were found floating off the shore of Lake Erie, near Bratenahl, Ohio. It was the torso of a woman in her mid-thirties. The victim’s limbs were missing, as well as her head. The media referred to this victim as “The Lady of the Lake.” She was never identified.
That same year, Eliot Ness, one of America’s most famous prohibition agents and member of “The Untouchables,” became Cleveland’s Safety Director. It was Ness who was ordered to investigate the murder of the Lady of the Lake, and later, he’d be tasked with the investigation of the Torso Killer.
September 1935 would see the discovery of two more bodies. Both victims were male, and both were found in Kingsbury Run. One of the victims was in his 40s and was never identified, while the other victim was 28-years-old and was identified as Edward Andrassy. Once found, authorities in Cleveland finally determined that the deaths were the work of a serial killer. Once the murders caught the attention of the media, the Torso Killer began to taunt law enforcement officials working on the investigation. The first incident occurred in January 1936, when the Torso Killer placed the body parts of his next victim, Florence Polillo, into baskets and placed them outside the Hart Manufacturing building in the flats. Polillo’s head was never found.
Later in 1936, the head of the 5th victim was tossed on the side of the E. 55th Street Bridge. In an effort to continue taunting the police, the Torso Killer dumped the rest of the victim’s tattoo-covered body in front of the police station. In an effort to help identify the victim and generate leads, the Cleveland police made a mask of the unidentified male’s face. The hope was that by putting the mask on display at the Great Lakes Exposition, the public may recognize the face and provide clues. Despite this, victim #5 remained unidentified. This mask and the masks of other victims can still be viewed today at the Cleveland Police Museum.
The final half of 1936 would see the discovery of the 6th and 7th victims. One was a white male in his forties who had been decapitated. His bloody clothes and his head were found in close proximity to the body. The other victim’s upper torso was found near the train tracks on E. 37th Street. Police had divers search an unattended sewage pool nearby, where they found the victim’s lower torso and both of his legs. Like the other victims, he had died as a result of decapitation. The amputation sites on victim #7 led investigators to believe that the Torso Killer may have been a doctor, as the lack of hesitation marks conveyed precise surgical cuts that could only be made by someone in the medical field.
Three more victims would be found in 1937. First, in February, the upper torso of a woman was washed onto the shore near Bratenahl, like Lady of the Lake. The victim’s lower torso washed ashore months later. She was in her twenties at the time of death. Unlike the other victims, she had been decapitated after she died. In June, the skull of a woman in her mid-forties was found under the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. Next to the skull was a burlap sac that contained the victim’s other bones. She would become the Torso Killer’s only other identified victim, after dental records allowed investigators to identify her as Rose Wallace. The next month, the 10th victim would be found floating in the Cuyahoga River at Kingsbury Run. This victim was in his mid-thirties and his head was never found. He had been killed in a more brutal fashion than the other victims, as he had been gutted and his heart had been ripped out of his chest.
The final known victims of the Cleveland Torso Killer were found in 1938. The lower leg of victim #11 was found in the bank of the Cuyahoga River. The rest of the remains were found inside of burlap sacs that investigators pulled from the river. They were the remains of a female. Her head was never found. The remains of the last two victims were both found at a dumpsite on the corner of E. 9th Street and Lakeside Avenue. This was the Torso Killer’s final attempt at taunting Eliot Ness, as the dumpsite was in plain view from Ness’ office window. The killer had dismembered the bodies and wrapped the limbs and the heads with butcher paper and rubber bands.
Just 2 days later, Eliot Ness would raid Kingsbury Run with more than 30 law enforcement officials. They cleared the shanty homes of the poor citizens in the area and took 63 men into custody. After searching each home, Ness ordered the officers to burn Kingsbury Run to the ground, leaving many families homeless. The city was outraged at Ness, which cost him his bid to become Mayor of Cleveland in 1947. However, the murders did stop, but the identity of the Torso Killer remains unknown.
Ness claimed that he had solved the murders and knew the Torso Killer’s identity, but he refrained from disclosing who it was. Many historians believe that the Torso Killer was Dr. Francis E. Sweeney, an army-physician who served in WWI. He reportedly worked in a med-unit that performed amputations on soldiers. Sweeney was investigated by Ness and failed two polygraph tests. However, Dr. Sweeney was the first cousin of Congressman Martin L. Sweeney, who was one of Ness’ biggest political opponents. Congressman Sweeney had ridiculed Ness over his handling of the case and due to this, Ness felt that he’d never be able to bring a successful prosecution against Sweeney’s cousin. Despite this, Dr. Francis Sweeney committed himself to a psych-ward in 1938, which many believe was an attempt to avoid prosecution in the future. While hospitalized, he taunted Ness by mocking him with postcards until the 1950s. Dr. Sweeney died at a veterans’ hospital in Dayton, Ohio, in 1964.
In 2008, it was announced that Matt Damon would play Eliot Ness in Torso, a film about the Kingsbury Run investigation. The film was to be released by Paramount Pictures and directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, The Social Network). However, marketing executives at Paramount were not on board with Fincher’s plan for the project to be a black-and-white film. Eventually, in 2013, David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) was tapped to direct the project. Then, in 2017, it was announced that Paul Greengrass (The Bourne series, United 93) was hired to be the film’s director, and that now the film would be titled, Ness. But last year, Deadline reported that Greengrass was no longer attached after the team could not agree on a screenplay for the movie. If Paramount eventually does release an adaption of Ness, the film will be the first time that the Cleveland Torso Killer is given a high-profile depiction on the big screen.
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