Who was the monstrous serial killer who slaughtered seven men and five or six women, dismembering most of them with a skill that suggested a knowledge of human anatomy..?
Cleveland, Ohio, the 1930s – a city with an ever-growing population. Despite the effects of the Great Depression, many people were again doing well.
Yet a prolific and gruesome serial killer was on the prowl. Fourteen, perhaps even more, victims were brutally murdered over four years, from 1934. All were decapitated – most while they were still alive. And it seemed to be the work of one killer, dubbed The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.
Although there were a few exceptions, most of the victims, male and female, appeared to be from the lower class – easy prey in Depression-era Cleveland.
Then the murders ended as abruptly as they had begun. To this day, the Kingsbury Run Murders remain one of the most sensational and intriguing unsolved crimes.
The Kingsbury Run area was a dark, dangerous place then, home to those dispossessed by the Great Depression, transients and low-life criminals. The squalor of the makeshift ‘hobo jungle’ occupied much of the Run.
The area just to the east of the Run was known as The Roaring Third, an inner-city area that was the hub of the city’s gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Violence and crime was rife. In this grim setting, the most notorious case of a serial killer in Cleveland’s history would unfold.
Victim number zero, September 1934:
Not noted originally as the start of a gruesome catalogue of victims, this killing was later identified as the first of the Butcher’s murders. The lower half of a women’s body, thighs still attached, but cut off at the knees, was washed up on the shores of Lake Erie. The coroner found a chemical preservative on the skin had turned it red, tough and leathery. A search found only a few other body parts of the woman in her mid-30s. The head was never found, the victim never identified. She was known only as ‘The Lady of the Lake’.
Victims number one and two, September 1935:
The decapitated, corpse of a man was found. The body, naked apart from socks, was drained of blood. There were rope burns around both wrists, and shockingly the corpse’s penis had been cut off. The coroner said the cause of death had been decapitation. Fingerprints identified this victim as Edward Andrassy, 28. Andrassy had an arrest record and frequented the Roaring Third.
Police discovered a second body nearby, a man in his 40s, also decapitated and with their penis chopped off. It appeared to be covered with the same preservative as the Lady of the Lake. This body had apparently been dead for at least a couple of weeks. The victim was never identified.
Victim number three, January 1936:
Half the body of a woman was discovered, wrapped in newspaper and packed in two baskets, outside a factory. Everything except her head was found about 10 days later. She had also been decapitated, as well as being dismembered. Fingerprints identified her as waitress, barmaid and prostitute Florence Polillo, who’d lived on the edge of the Roaring Third.
Victim number four, June 1936:
Early one morning in Kingsbury Run, the head of a man in his 20s was found, wrapped in a pair of trousers. Police found his body the next day, drained of blood and dumped in front of a police building. Again, the death had been caused by decapitation. Despite six distinctive tattoos on his body, police were never able to identify the ‘The Tattooed Man’.
Victim number five, July 1936:
The decapitated remains of a 40-year-old man were found in woods. He’d been dead for about two months and his head, as well as a heap of bloody clothing, was found nearby. He had apparently had been killed where his body was found.
Victim number six, September 1936:
The upper half of a man’s body was found in the Run. Police found the lower half of the torso and parts of both legs in a nearby pool. The man was in his late 20s, and the cause of death, yet again, was decapitation. His head had been cut off with one stroke, killing him instantly. Identification was never made.
Six brutal killings in one year and the police had neither clues nor suspects. The Press at the time all reported almost daily on the killings and the lack of a suspect. Tension was high. Who was the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run?
Under mounting pressure from the Mayor, recently appointed Safety Director Eliot Ness – famous for his efforts to enforce Prohibition in Chicago – became more involved in the case.
Two experienced detectives were assigned the case full-time. They often worked undercover in the seedy underworld of the Run and the Roaring Third.
By the time the case had run its course, the detectives had interviewed more than 1,500 people, the department as a whole more than 5,000. In the November elections, a man named Sam Gerber was appointed city coroner. Gerber’s medical expertise and his degree in law put him at the forefront of the investigation.
Victim number seven, February 1937:
The upper half of a woman’s torso was washed up on the shore. Unlike all previous victims, death was not caused by decapitation – this had happened after she was dead. The lower half of the torso washed ashore three months later. The woman, in her mid-20s, was never identified.
Victim number eight, June 1937:
A human skull was found under a bridge. Next to it was a bag containing the skeletal remains of a petite black women of about 40. Dental records unofficially identified her as Rose Wallace. All leads the police had on her led nowhere.
Victim number nine, July 1937:
The first piece of this victim was discovered in the river. Over the next few days, police recovered the entire body, except for head, from the water. The abdomen had been gutted and the heart ripped out. The victim was in his mid-to- late 30s. He was never identified.
Victim number ten, April 1938:
The lower half of a women’s leg was found on the banks of the river. A month later, police found two sacks containing both parts of the torso and most of the rest of both legs in the river. For the first time, the coroner found drugs in the victim’s system, perhaps used to sedate her, or perhaps she an addict. She was never identified.
Victims eleven and twelve, August 16, 1938:
Scrap collectors foraging in a dump site found the torso of a woman wrapped in a man’s jacket and an old quilt. The legs and arms were discovered in a box, wrapped in brown paper and held together with rubber bands. The head had been similarly wrapped. It appeared some of the parts may have been refrigerated. While searching for more body parts, the police found the remains of a second body, only yards away. The bodies of the two victims had been placed in a location that was in plain view from Eliot Ness’ office window. Neither victim was identified.
At 12am on August 18th 1938, Ness and 35 police officers and detectives in 11 squad cars, two police vans and three fire trucks raided the hovels of the Run. The officers worked their way through the Run, eventually gathering up 63 men. At dawn, police and fireman searched the deserted shanties for clues. Then, on orders from Ness, the shacks were set on fire and burned to the ground.
The murders stop…
The Press severely criticised Ness for his actions. The public was afraid and frustrated. Critics said the raid would do nothing to solve the murders – but, for whatever reason, they did stop.
Then, in July 1939, police arrested 52-year-old bricklayer Frank Dolezal for the murder of Flo Polillo. Dolezal had once lived with her, and subsequent investigation revealed he also knew victims Edward Andrassy and Rose Wallace.
Dolezal ‘confessed’, although many suspected this had been as a result of police using force. Before he could go to trial, Dolezal was found dead in his cell, supposedly having hanged himself. He had broken ribs that coroner Gerber said had happened during his custody. To this day, no-one believes Dolezal was the serial killer.
So if not Dolezal, who was the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run and why had he killed so many people? There are many rumours as to their identity.
It seems that the police did have a suspect who they believed was undoubtedly the killer and yet they were unable to bring this person to justice…
Dr Francis E Sweeney was a WW1 veteran who’d worked in a medical unit that conducted amputations and operations in the field. Suffering from severe mental health issues, he committed himself into psychiatric care. From his secure hospital, threatening postcards bearing Sweeney’s name were sent, mocking and harassing Ness and his family into the 1950s.
In the 1970s, Ness’ family donated his papers to a historical society. Among them were the bizarre postcards. They were, for the most part, incoherent. But there was a name on one card, reading – F E Sweeney, paranoidal nemesis.
He died in hospital in 1964.
All official police records on this case have been lost, destroyed, or removed.