The Mad Butcher
After the stock market crashed in 1929 the United States was thrown into a decade long financial crisis during which millions of Americans were left broke, unemployed, and homeless. With nowhere else to go many people were forced into more affordable accommodations, or ramshackle housing, as it were on unused public property called “shanty towns”. Kingsbury Run, a suburb in the southeast of Cleveland, Ohio had provided such a place which housed vagrants and much of Cleveland’s discarded workforce that had been evicted from their homes.
While the living conditions in Kingsbury Run were appalling and the neighborhood itself had garnered a reputation for being a dark place for scandalous deeds, there was a more sinister presence lurking about in the wake of Cleveland’s economic collapse. Cleveland had an allusive serial killer running around and with names like “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” and “The Cleveland Torso Killer” one can imagine what this particular villain liked to do with their victims.
The Mad Butcher Arrives in Cleveland
“The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” as he was eloquently named, began his reign of terror in 1934 when a man looking for driftwood around the shoreline of Lake Erie came upon the lower half of a woman’s torso. She was nude, cut in half at the waistline with the bottom half still connected to her pelvis and thighs with her legs removed at the knees. She was also covered in a strange chemical agent that had turned her skin red. The rest of her was never found nor was the woman ever identified thus she became “The Lady of the Lake” and was soon lost to Cleveland’s cold case history. However, what police thought was a single horrifyingly gruesome murder was actually the beginning of a series of them, and when it became apparent that The Lady of the Lake might have been the first, she was then referred to as “Victim 0”.
Later in September of 1935 two headless bodies were found at the bottom of a hill in Kingsbury Run lying about 30 feet from each other. Both were adult males, both were nude, both were missing their heads, and to top it all off both had been castrated. One of them had also been covered in a mysterious chemical substance which turned the skin red, much like the woman found in Lake Erie months before. While their heads were later found the younger of the two victims was identified by his fingerprints as 28 -year-old Edward Andrassy, a regular of the Roaring Third; an area east of Kingsbury Run known for its debauchery. Andrassy’s body had rope burns around his wrists indicating that he had been tightly and painfully bound, and both autopsies listed the cause of death as “decapitation, hemorrhage, and shock”.
In other words, neither of these men were dead when the killer began removing their heads. Decapitation is a brutal and extremely gory way to murder someone yet very little blood was found at the crime scene. With that being said, these men were not killed at the bottom of that hill in Kingsbury Run rather they were dumped there. Furthermore, if the manner in which they died wasn’t enough to convey how the Mad Butcher felt about his newest victims, the name of the hill in question, “Jackass Hill” might help. Because the other male had died several days before Andrassy it is possible that the killer dumped the first man, and later boldly returned to Jackass Hill to get rid of Andrassy’s body.
The alternative is that the killer murdered the older male, held onto his mutilated corpse for several days, and only dumped his body when also disposing of Andrassy. Either way, Cleveland’s torso killer was feeling clever and was only getting warmed up.
Early in the morning on January 25, 1936 a dog was incessantly barking at two baskets left behind the Hart Manufacturing Building in Downtown Cleveland. While it can’t be said with certainty which parts were in which basket, together they contained the dismembered remains of 42 -year-old Florence Polilo, a prostitute with a temper and a heavy drinking problem that lived on the edge of the Roaring Third in Kingsbury Run.
Aside from the lower section of Polilo’s torso only one of her arms, one hand, and her thighs were located in the baskets. The rest of her, minus the head, was found several days later along a fence behind an empty house. Like the others Polilo had been alive when her killer began removing her head. While there were four victims at this point, police had not yet linked Victim 0 to the other murders, and it was only after Polilo was killed that a link could be made between Andrassy, Polilo, and Kingsbury Run. At this point, Kingsbury Run was not just part of the tragic backdrop of Ohio’s once booming industry years. The area had also apparently become the hunting ground of a bloodthirsty lunatic that beheaded his victims and left pieces of them all over the city. By the end of 1936 the Mad Butcher had accumulated three more victims. One of them was only a head, found by a couple of kids, wrapped in dirty trousers.
In 1931 Eliot Ness and his legendary team of uncorruptible law enforcement officers famously dubbed “The Untouchables” brought down Chicago’s most notorious mobster, Al Capone.
When prohibition ended Ness was transferred to Cincinnati and later Cleveland where he became the Director of Public Safety in 1935. Ness was put in charge of essentially cleaning up Cleveland both within its own law enforcement and the criminals on the streets. However, by the time Ness was sworn into duty the first three torso victims had already been discovered, and because of Ness’ prolific career the pressure was on to reform Cleveland and apprehend the Butcher and do so quickly. Ness enjoyed the work hunting gangsters and flushing out corrupted officers that otherwise tainted the system. But finding the Butcher would prove especially problematic. Al Capone was a dangerous and challenging adversary but he was also one Ness could wiretap and keep tabs on. Ness of course, had no such benefit with the Butcher.
What Ness did have was a profile of the killer. Cleveland’s police deduced that the killer must have been a large man, strong enough to move the bodies on his own, and primarily chose victims from Kingsbury Run presumably because the killer himself frequented the Roaring Third, and the poverty combined with the unscrupulousness of the area made the people there easy targets. Because of the manner in which the body parts were removed it was thought that like the infamous “Jack the Ripper”, the killer might be a physician or at least someone with knowledge of human anatomy. The killer did not seem to have a gender preference as he tore apart men and women alike though he did seem to have a particular scorn for the men. Don’t forget he’s castrated two of them so far and left them in a location named “Jackass Hill”. However, the first torso victim of 1937 wasn’t a man but a woman and the location in which she was found was telling. The second Jane Doe torso victim to be pulled from Lake Erie was found in the same spot as the first one in 1934, Victim 0 -the Lady of the Lake. Like all the others she too had been mutilated and her head was never found.
The next victim, Jane Doe number three was found the following June of 1937 under the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge (Hope Memorial Bridge today) in Cleveland. Up until this point all of the torso victims had been white but the Mad Butcher’s newest victim was black. In the end she was the only black victim of the Butcher however, it wasn’t his sudden change in the victim’s ethnicities that had police scratching their heads. Jane Doe III as it turns out wasn’t a new victim at all rather, she had been dead for over a year. Police made efforts to identify her and ultimately concluded that she was more than likely a missing woman from the area named Rose Wallace. This conclusion however, was based solely on unsubstantiated dental records. With that being said, if Rose Wallace was indeed the dismembered woman found under the bridge in Cleveland, Ohio in 1937 then this would make her the third and final identifiable victim of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.
The last four victims of the Torso killer were strange compared to the previous victims which in a series of horrifyingly brutal murders this naturally begs the question: how? One of them, a male in his mid-to late thirties was pulled out of the Cuyahoga river and the peculiarity here was that his heart had been ripped out and he had been completely disemboweled.
The next victim was also pulled out of the Cuyahoga river, but only her leg. Other parts of her were not found for almost another month when her headless torso was finally discovered in a burlap sack cut in two halves. What separated this victim from all the rest was that she was the only one discovered with drugs in her system, more specifically morphine. It could not be determined if the victim was an addict or if the drugs had been used to incapacitate her. Her arms, had they been among the parts recovered would have certainly been scrutinized for drug use and perhaps would have answered that question.
As for the last two victims, unlike some of the other serial killers we have discussed on this blog, Cleveland’s torso killer never wrote letters to the police but he did find other morbid ways to taunt them, particularly Eliot Ness when he left the remaining two victims within view of Ness’ office window. The thing about the last two was that each of them died at different times. It wasn’t like Andrassy where the male found with him had only been dead about a week or so longer. The deaths of the last two victims were not separated by a week or two but months. So where did the killer keep these victims all that time prior to dumping them in front of Eliot Ness’ office window? Another thought is that the killer must have had both bodies stored somewhere when he killed victims 9, 10, and 11. Ness responded in a highly controversial move by having Kingsbury Run evacuated and burned to the ground in 1938. Ness was able to raid Kingsbury Run through a legal loophole that, as the Director of Public Safety allowed Ness to “inspect” property without a warrant.
The raids led to sixty-three arrests but none turned out to be a person of interest and in the end the burning of Kingsbury Run aggravated an already substantial housing problem in Cleveland at the time but did not produce the Butcher. Who’s to say but more than likely the killer was among the onlookers that watched as Kingsbury Run went up in flames and thus sat back and watched as Ness’ life began to fall apart. The decision to burn Kingsbury Run did not bode well for Ness in the public eye and his career as well as his personal life continued to downward spiral from that point on.
However, as it turns out Ness had a secret suspect he came to believe was the Mad Butcher but was never able to prove it as all his evidence against him was circumstantial. The man in question was Dr. Francis E. Sweeny, a former medical doctor that hung around the Roaring Third and was rumored to have suffered from schizophrenia. He was violent, usually intoxicated, and had a habit of disappearing for several days at a time. His wife left him in 1933 and divorced him a year later in 1934 about the same time of the first murder. But it wasn’t just Sweeny’s erratic behavior that made him stand out to Ness. Sweeny had served on a medical unit in World War I and was responsible for carrying out amputations in the field. Take a moment to imagine what that looked like. Sweeny was no stranger to extreme violence which no doubt attributed to his psychological troubles after returning from the war. Sweeny was also savvy often able to throw off the tails Ness put on him for surveillance purposes. In one instance, Sweeny humiliated the officers by first losing them and then purposely popping up directly behind them and waiting patiently for them to notice he was there. So certain was Ness that Sweeny was the killer that Ness locked him in a hotel room for seven days while Sweeny sobered up so he could be interrogated.
The problem Ness faced with this was that Sweeny had ties to powerful people in politics therefore, Ness essentially couldn’t so much as look in Sweeny’s direction after that unless he had concrete evidence. Ness was forced to back off Sweeny and while it’s true that Cleveland’s Torso Killer never wrote letters to the police, Sweeny sent cards to Ness regularly for the rest of Ness’ life.
So …were there any other torso killings that popped up elsewhere after 1938?
If you don’t know the name “Elizabeth Short” chances are you’ve heard of her but don’t know her by that name as she is more famously known as “The Black Dahlia”. Elizabeth Short was 22 years old when she was brutally murdered in 1947 and left in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, CA. Her body was found nude, severed in half at the waistline, she was completely drained of blood, and her face was cut -three inches on each side of her mouth in what is referred to as a “Glasgow Smile”. Her body had been cleaned and there were areas where pieces of her flesh had been removed. She also had ligature marks on her wrists, ankles, and neck. Short’s murder caused a brief revival in the story of the Mad Butcher as police found eerie similarities between Short’s murder and the previous torso killings in Cleveland. The problem with attributing her murder to the Mad Butcher is that there is one problem that stands out like a sore thumb. Elizabeth Short, while gruesomely severed in half and drained of blood, something the Mad Butcher certainly liked to do to his victims, still had her head. If the Mad Butcher was responsible for killing Short then he must have been feeling generous because he left her arms attached to her torso and her legs to the pelvis. Short was indeed the work of a butcher, just not Cleveland’s butcher.
In 1950 a decapitated man was found in downtown Cleveland which strongly hinted that the Mad Butcher might have been responsible though, this case was never formally attributed to the Butcher. However, the creepiest discovery was another series of grisly murders that took place in New Castle, Pennsylvania between 1921 and 1942 that almost mirror those in Cleveland. Like the Kingsbury Run case the killer in Pennsylvania also dismembered and decapitated their victims often discarding their bodies in random places, notably the swamp causing locals at the time to refer to the area as the “murder swamp”. Interestingly, the area had already been dubbed “Hell’s Half Acre” before the murders took place. What is not known is if a chemical agent had been used on the victims as had been done in some of the Cleveland murders. The lack of a chemical agent on the bodies in Pennsylvania does not rule out the Mad Butcher as a viable suspect because the substance wasn’t found on all of his known victims in Cleveland.
In the end, the murders of Elizabeth Short, those committed in Pennsylvania, and those committed by the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run (assuming the Swamp Killer and the Mad Butcher are different people) went unsolved. All that is left now are theories, a series of what ifs and maybes but no certainty. Interestingly enough however, the murders in Cleveland stopped after the burning of Kingsbury Run in 1938. Eliot Ness returned to Cleveland where he unsuccessfully ran for Mayor in 1947. His unpopularity with Cleveland due to his inability to apprehend the Butcher combined with a questionable car accident in which Ness had tried to cover up had led to a landslide victory for his opponent. Ness later moved to Pennsylvania where he died of a heart-attack in 1957 at age 54. As for Ness’ prime suspect, Dr. Sweeny spent the majority of his time willingly checking himself in and out of hospitals and died in 1964. Finally, the Roaring Third which had been located in Kingsbury Run no longer exists and the area today remains largely undeveloped. Most if not all those involved with the investigation have since passed away and the Mad Butcher today is nothing more than a scary story for the ages. Nevertheless, The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury run was real and the terror he inflicted on the people of Cleveland was real. The fact that he was never caught only adds to the allure of the Butcher who will forever remain Cleveland’s grisliest murder mystery.
Managing editor: The Moratorium