Eliot Ness & The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run
In one of his last high-profile cases, the famous “untouchable”, Eliot Ness, investigated a series of notorious murders in Cleveland. Many of the murder victims were indigent men who exhibited signs of homosexual molestation and homophobic rage expressed as genital mutilations.
Ness’ prime suspect was a literal lunatic. This man’s political and family connections—and by voluntarily checking himself in and out of a mental institution at whim—allowed him to avoid prosecution for at least 13 unsolved murders, however.
Eliot Ness was certain he knew who the killer was; in this case, though, it would be the murderer, and not Ness, who was “untouchable”.Credit: Cleveland Independent
In America’s cities, the indigent and transient, forced into squalor, occupied what cheap housing they could. Eventually they created their own settlements in a city’s badlands: its empty lots, its riverfronts, and its lake shores. These squatters built their hobo jungles from cardboard and tin, salvaged lumber and newspapers.
And because he was largely blamed for the Depression these hobo squats were called “Hoover-villes” (for then-President Herbert Hoover).
Upon Hoover’s election, U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was personally charged with bringing down gangster Al Capone.
The Government used a two-pronged investigative tack for this task. First was to nail Capone for Volstead Act violations (violations of the myriad laws surrounding Prohibition). If that failed, a second chance to get Capone lay in charging him with tax evasion (a very petty offense, but a Federal crime nonetheless).
Eliot Ness was selected to lead the Capone task force. Because of Chicago’s law-enforcement corruption Ness had to carefully screen his assistants. Out of hundreds of interviewees and candidates, Ness initially chose 50 team members, later reduced to 15. This number settled to just eleven men who became known as “The Untouchables” (a moniker credited to Capone who allegedly learned to his dismay that neither Ness nor his men could be bribed).
Within six months The Untouchables had seized or destroyed about a million dollars’ worth of illegal stills and breweries (over $13 million dollars today). The main intelligence gathering source for this operation was extensive wire-taps (most not legally executed). Because of his relentless crusading, a number of murder attempts were made on Ness; a close friend of his was killed.
The Untouchables made a serious dent in Chicago’s illegal booze trafficking operations. Capone's operations specifically suffered major revenue losses. But it was ultimately for income tax evasion a federal grand jury indicted Capone. On October 17, 1931, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. After his early release he died of complications from late-stage syphilis in the 1940s.
Cleveland got its first sign something was amiss in September 1934. An unidentified woman’s lower torso (her thighs still attached, but amputated at the knees) washed ashore on Lake Erie. The Cuyahoga County Coroner noted some sort of chemical preservative on her skin, turning it red, tough and leathery. A subsequent area search yielded a few other body parts. She was believed to be in her mid-thirties. Her head was never found, and she was never identified. She became known as “The Lady of the Lake”. At the time, her discovery was thought to be incidental; two years later she would be included in the mounting Kingsbury Run murder count.
Half a female body was found neatly wrapped in newspaper and packed in two half-bushel baskets in January 1936. All but her head was recovered about ten days later in a vacant lot on nearby Orange Credit: Cleveland IndependentAvenue. As with Edward Andrassy, the cause of death had been decapitation. The killer waited for rigor mortis to set in before disarticulating the rest of this body, though. Fingerprints led to the identification of Florence Polillo, a waitress/barmaid and part-time prostitute. She was the second of three victims positively identified.
In June 1936 two young boys discovered the head of a white male wrapped in a pair of trousers close to the E. 55 Street Bridge. Police discovered a roughly mid-20s man’s corpse the next day, dumped in front of the Nickel Plate Railroad Police building.
It, too, was clean and drained of blood. This corpse was intact except for the head. Coroner Pierce again determined decapitation as the cause of death. Despite a fresh set of fingerprints, and the presence of six distinctive tattoos on various parts of the body, this victim was never identified. A plaster death mask along with sketches and body location of his tattoos were displayed at the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936. More than one hundred thousand people saw the “Death Mask” and tattoo chart—no one reported recognizing the man.
A teenage girl, in July 1936, stumbled upon the decapitated remains of a forty-year-old white male in the woods near the west side of Kingsbury Run. He had been dead about two months. His head and a heap of bloody clothing were found nearby. Inspection of the enormous quantity of blood soaked into the ground led to the conclusion he had been killed on-site.
A hobo tripped over the upper half of a man's torso as he tried to hop a train in Kingsbury Run in September 1936. A nearby pool (actually a big open sewer) was searched; the lower half of the torso and parts of both legs were recovered. A few hundred people came to watch the recovery effort; police theorized the killer may have been among the gawkers. This victim was in his late twenties; his cause of death, yet again, was decapitation. His head had been cut off with one bold, clean stroke, and he died instantly. Coroner Pierce theorized the lack of hesitation marks on the body indicated a confident killer, familiar with human anatomy. Identification of this man was never made.
The brutality and the sheer number of victims in this time frame led to much hue and cry. The police had neither clues nor suspects. The local papers reported daily on the killings and the continued lack of solid leads or of a viable suspect. Eliot Ness, who had originally been brought in to fight organized crime in Cleveland was tapped by Mayor Harold Burton to get involved in the case. Coroner Pierce called for a meeting of police and other experts to discuss the case, its investigation, and to possibly develop a profile of a suspect.
The murders continued. In February 1937 a man found the upper half of a headless woman’s torso washed up on the Lake Erie shore. Unlike all the other victims her cause of death had not been decapitation; this had happened after she was already dead, believed to be from lake action and not outright decapitation. Her lower torso washed ashore three months later. The woman was in her mid-twenties, and like the original 1934 “Lady of the Lake”, she was never identified.
A teenage boy found a human skull under the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge in June 1937. A burlap bag containing the skeletal remains of what turned out to be a petite black woman about forty years old lay Credit: Cleveland Police Museumnext to the skull. Dental work led to an unofficial identification of Rose Wallace of Scovill Avenue. Police work led nowhere in identifying her killer, but at least they knew who she was. Rose Wallace, the only black victim, was the third and last victim to be identified.
The tenth victim, a man, was found by a National guardsman in July 1937. Labor unrest that summer led to the Guard’s being called in to maintain order. A watch guard by the W. 3rd Street Bridge saw the first piece of this man’s body in the wake of a passing tug. Police recovered the rest of it, except for the head, over the next few days. The man had been gutted and his heart ripped out. This added a new element of mutilation to the killings. This man was in his mid to late thirties and was never identified.
In April 1938, a man on his way to work saw what he first thought was a dead fish along the banks of the Cuyahoga River. Upon getting closer, he saw it was the lower half of a women’s leg. A month later police pulled two burlap bags out of the river. These held both parts of this woman’s torso and most of the rest of both legs. For the first time the Coroner’s office detected some form of drug in the victim’s body (type not specified; the victim could have been an addict). She was never identified.
The last two known victims of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run were both discovered on August 16, 1938.
Three scrap-metal collectors foraging in a dump site found the torso of a woman wrapped in a man’s double-breasted blue blazer. This package was swathed in an old quilt. The legs and arms were found in a recently constructed makeshift box that was packaged in brown butcher paper and bound with rubber bands. The head had been similarly wrapped. The coroner believed some of the parts looked as if they had been refrigerated.
While searching for more pieces of this woman, the remains of another body, a male, were found only yards away. Ironically, both of these bodies had been placed in a spot plainly visible from Eliot Ness’ office window. It is possible the killer did this purposefully to goad Ness.
Neither victim was ever identified.
“That such Shantytowns exist is a sorrowful reflection upon the state of society. The throwing into jail of men broken by experience and the burning of their wretched places of habitation will not solve the economic problem. Nor is it likely to lead to the solution of the most macabre mystery in Cleveland’s history.”
The Cleveland public was understandably in a state of panic. A seriously deranged person was killing and dismembering people at an alarmingly frequent rate.
Eliot Ness had a prime suspect, however. During the course of the investigation a certain Dr. Francis Edward Sweeney came to the attention of one of Ness’ investigators.
Sweeney was an alcoholic and depressive. He was also borderline schizophrenic by the early 1930s. He was admitted to City Hospital for alcoholism, but the treatment was unsuccessful.
His drinking worsened; his marriage and career were on the skids by 1934. He was violent and abusive at home. The hospital where he worked cut its ties to him. Eventually, his wife filed for divorce in 1936; in her action she sought custody of the children and an order keeping him from “visiting, interfering, or molesting” her. According to his wife, Sweeney drank continuously starting two years after they married in July 1927. He stayed habitually drunk until they separated in September 1934.
Sweeney’s tailspin seemed to coincide with the time frame of the “Lady of the Lake” discovery (the probable first victim, washed ashore from Lake Erie on September 5, 1934).
Some of Sweeney’s problems may have been genetic. His father was an alcoholic. Mental illness was also an issue, with his father spending the last three years of his life in an asylum (with a condition simply referred to as “psychosis”). Another cause for his issues may have been organic, brought on by the severe head injury he received in France during World War I (for which he was later awarded a partial disability pension).
Ness learned Sweeney was born, raised, and spent most of his life in the Kingsbury Run area. Sweeney was a large, strong man. He was powerful enough to have carried Edward Andrassy and his unidentified companion down the steep, rugged embankment of Jackass Hill in Kingsbury Run. He also possessed the medical knowledge to decapitate and dismember easily. Finally, Sweeney’s alleged bisexuality could also possibly explain the torso murderer’s choice of both male and female victims.
Dr. Francis E. Sweeney, even though mentally disturbed, had the presence of mind to check himself in and out of a local mental institution on an “as-needed” basis. Ness felt Sweeney was the ideal suspect, and he could place Sweeney out in the public (not in any institution) during the relevant times of the murders.
Sweeney was personally interviewed by Ness. Ness would later write that Sweeney (who, to avoid libel, Ness called “Gaylord Sundheim” in the narrative) during this interrogation “failed to pass” Credit: Cleveland Police Museumtwo very early polygraph tests. Both of the tests were administered by polygraph expert Leonard Keeler; Keeler reportedly told Ness he had the right suspect in hand based upon the polygraph results.
Sweeney antagonized Ness during this interview; at one point Sweeney goaded Ness, defying him to find any proof that he, Sweeney, was the Kingsbury Run Butcher.
However, Ness truly had no hard evidence. Everything about his suspicions of Sweeney was purely circumstantial: Sweeney’s access to preservative chemicals, his ability to disarticulate humans learned in World War I, his predatory sexual leanings, including homosexual ones).
Ness knew he had no real chance of successfully prosecuting Sweeney, however. The doctor was the first cousin of one of Ness’ political opponents, Congressman Martin L. Sweeney. Congressman Sweeney had publicly hounded Ness about his failure to catch the Kingsbury Run Butcher. Likewise, Congressman Sweeney was a political ally of (and related by marriage to) Cuyahoga County Sheriff Martin O’Donnell.
Frank Dolezal had lived with Flo Polillo for awhile; investigation revealed he was also acquainted with Edward Andrassy (the early, known homosexual victim) and Rose Wallace (the petite black woman). Dolezal’s “confession” turned out to be a bewildering blend of incoherent ramblings and neat, precise details, almost as if he had been coached.
Before he could go to trial, though, on August 24, 1939, he died under suspicious circumstances in the Cuyahoga County jail. The 5’8” Dolezal had hanged himself from a hook only 5’7” off his cell floor. At autopsy Dolezal was found to have six broken ribs. His friends said Dolezal had no such injuries upon his arrest six weeks earlier. Apparently he sustained them while in custody, either at the hands of police—most plausibly—or another jail inmate.
[Most criminal researchers think there is no evidence of Dolezal’s involvement in the murders. In the age before Miranda, Dolezal had no civil rights while in custody. At one point he admitted killing Flo Polillo in self-defense. Before his “suicide”, though, he recanted this and two other confessions, saying he had been beaten until he confessed.
This should not be surprising. The police wanted to close the case; certainly Congressman Martin Sweeney wished for someone other than a family member to be guilty.
In the corrupt world of law enforcement and politics at that time, combined with the pressure to bring closure to a heinous crime wave, it is understood how Dolezal could be so handily scapegoated. He was an uneducated, unassuming man, and easily “persuaded”].
Sweeney was not a prisoner of any institution, however. He would voluntarily leave for days or months at a time. During his revolving-door, self-imposed exile he was known to venture off to other parts of Ohio and to Pennsylvania as well.
A headless, unidentified male was found in a boxcar in New Castle, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1936. Three headless victims were found in boxcars near McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, on May 3, 1940. All bore similar injuries to those inflicted by The Kingsbury Run Killer.
Dismembered bodies were also found in the swamps near New Castle, Pennsylvania, during the years 1921 to 1934 and 1939 to 1942. Ness believed these victims, even the ones going back to 1921, could be laid on Sweeney’s doorstep. Sweeney was known to be free at the relevant times, he was mobile, and he was deranged.
Dr. Francis Sweeney stayed put the last time he checked himself into an institution. From his confinement he continually mocked and harassed Ness and his family. He sent threatening postcards to Ness well into the 1950s.
In October of 1955, Sweeney was committed to a Dayton veteran’s hospital for the remaining decade of his life. Still, he was free to wander around the neighborhood, writing prescriptions for himself and his friends until the hospital campaigned with the local pharmacists to cut off his drug supply. He finally died there in 1964.
Eliot Ness died in 1957 at 54 years of age from a heart attack.
Legally, the Cleveland Torso Murders remain unsolved.
Ness, however, sincerely believed he had identified The Kingsbury Run Butcher beyond any doubt. He also (probably rightfully) believed that man literally got away with murder because of his family and political connections.
Eliot Ness writes
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