Episode #76 The Cleveland Torso Murders
What do an ancient riverbed, Elliot Ness, and at least 12 headless torsos have in common? They are all involved in tonight's episode! Tonight we are diving into our first real foray into true crime. We discuss one of the nation's craziest unsolved serial murder cases ever. And the best part is… It takes place in our own backyard! Tonight we discuss the Kingsbury Run Torso Slayings, better known as the Cleveland Torso Murders.
The Kingsbury Run area of Cleveland Ohio is actually built on an ancient riverbed that once fed into the Cuyahoga river, long before it caught on fire of course. This area is just south of downtown Cleveland and within the area known as the Flats. While the first body attributed to the Torso Killer was found in September 1934, there are questions as to when the killings actually started as the first mention of a headless body in The Run was in the Cleveland Leader on November 13,1905. A woman scavenging in the Case avenue dump for saleable scrap came across the headless body of a man who was shot in the chest. In early September Frank LaGossie was walking along the beach near his house cleaning up the beach and collecting driftwood when he saw something that didn't really look right sticking out of the sand. As he got closer La Gossie realised what he was seeing wear the lower half of a human torso. Severed at the waist, it was still attached to the thighs but missing it's lower legs. La Gossie ran to his friends house and called the police. It was determined that the body was that of a woman in her mid thirties, about five foot six and weighing 120 pounds. There was evidence that a chemical was used on the body and the coroner claimed the killer tried to use something like quicklime to destroy the body but used slaked lime instead which accidentally helped preserve the body. The body was not water logged so it was determined there Torso was not in the water that long. No other clues were found so police began looking through the missing persons files for women who may match the description they could come up with.
Having read the reports of the murder, Joseph Hedjuk phone Cleveland police reporting that he had found human remains along the beach in North Perry, which is about 40 miles east of Cleveland, two weeks earlier. Hedjuk said he'd reported the find to lake county deputy Melvin Keener who determined that the remains were animals and convinced Hedjuk to bury the find on the beach. On September 7 extensive digging unearthed Hedjuks find, part of a shoulder blade,a partial spinal column and 16 vertebrae. All these pieces matched the Torso found by La Gossie and showed similar exposure to lime based chemical preservatives. The next day two brothers digging in the sand near the first torso discovery found a compatible collarbone and shoulder blade. Safety five days of sensational headlines, tons of worthless leads and clues, and tons of conjecture, the nameless Torso, dubbed Lady Of The Lake, residentially disappeared from the headlines. Her remains were buried in the Potter's Field section of Highland park cemetery on September 11 and Clevelanders seemingly just moved right on from the grisly discovery. And we've still yet to hear mention of Kingsbury Run!
September 23, 1935 brings us the story of 16 year old James Wagner and 12 year old Peter Costumes. The two boys played that day among the waste and rubble of Kingsbury Run near E.49th and Praha Avenue. Kingsbury Run was a neglected area that was full of weeds, trash, and debris left by drifters and homeless people that dwelt in the area. Around 5 on the boys decided to have a race down a 60ft but known as jackass hill. James got to the bottom first, he asked something strange in the brush nearby. A minute later he was running back up the hill telling Peter that there was "a dead man with no head down there"! They ran to find an adult and called the police. When police arrived they found the headless emasculated corpse of a young white male. The christ was nude except for black socks. While searching the area, detectives soon found another corpse about thirty feet away. It was the headless and emasculated torso of an older man that had a strange orange reddish tinge and unlike the first corpse which was relatively fresh, this one was badly decomposed. They searched the area for more clues and found the severed genitals of both corpses and actually found the head of the first torso found. Their first corpse was eventually identified by fingerprints and Edward Adrassy. The second body has no fingerprints and was never identified. The reddish huge suggested that the body was exposed to some sort of preservatives similar to the first body found a year earlier, but that was not something investigators put together. Andrassy was well known to police as " a drunkard, marijuana user, pornography peddler, gambler, pimp, bellicose barroom brawler, bunko artist and all around snotty punk". He ran in tough circles around many undesirables, which meant there were possibly many people with motive. This includes a man who supposedly visited Andrassys house when he was away and told his parents that he would kill Adrassy if he didn't stop paying attention to the man's wife.
Detectives drew the measure implications from the clues and bodys. First, the victims knew each other and the body of the unidentified victim was held until the bodies could be dumped together. Second, the bodies were drained of blood and washed before being dumped, there was no other explanation for the complete absence of blood around the bodies at the scene. Three, a park of motor oil found at the scene was most likely there to burn the bodies. The oil had traces of blood and hair in it. Also they suggest that the careful placement of the body suggests that the body's were not dumped hastily but placed carefully and purposefully. Some suggested that the castration was some sort of criminal ritual like a mafia gesture. Beyond this this police had nothing and soon Clevelanders began to forget about this horrific crime. One last thing about this crime: detective Orly May uttered something to his partner that would end up being somewhat prophetic, he told his partner " I've got a bad feeling about this one."
1936 rolled around and we find Elliot Ness fresh off his celebrated fight against the Capone crime syndicate. He was the newly appointed Director of Public Safety in Cleveland. On the night of January 25th into the morning of the 26th, several dogs were raising the alarm around the Hart Manufacturing Company. At one point a resident decided to do something about one of the barking dogs. As she entered an alert where the dog was she found the dogs straining at it's leash trying to get to a bushel basket that was laying against the back wall of the building. The resident looked into the woman walked back out and found a local butcher named Charles page and told him there were some hams in a basket in the alley. Page went to investigate believing this may be evidence that a butcher shop may have been robbed in the area. What he found was something completely different. He found body parts in the basket. More specifically an arm, two thighs, and the lower half of a female Torso. The body parts bite evidence of coal dust and coal lump imprints. They also found a burlap sack nearby with a pair of cotton underwear wrapped in newspaper in it. Also another sack was found nearby containing chicken feathers. The body was identified after an expert named George Koestle looked through more than 10,000 possible matching fingerprints to finally find a match to a Florence Polilo. She had been married at least twice and was divorced from her second husband Andrew Polilo in the late twenties. As with our last victims Ms. Polilo was no stranger to police. According to police she figured in a number of barroom brawler and vice activities. She was arrested for soliciting in 1930 and occupying tons for immoral purpose in 1931. She was also arrested for prostitution in Washington D.C. in 1934 and again in Cleveland in 1935 for illegally selling intoxicating beverages. She'd been reportedly going downhill fast in the time leading up to her death. The police find that she had many aquaintances but no one really knew her. They looked for a man she lived with when she moved back from D.C. who reportedly beat her. They also had reports she was in a barroom brawl with a black man in the night of her death. They sought men locked to her with amazing names such as Captain Swing and One Armed Willie, but nothing came off these queries. The police determined the body was place where it was found at around 2:30am which is when all the dogs were heard barking. Police surmised that a very sharp knife in the hands of an amateur was used. A couple weeks later, on February 7th the rest of Ms. Polilos relative were found… Minus the head. Detectives were quick to mention there was no connection between this and the Andrassys killings.
We're going to kind of run through the rest of the victims here somewhat quickly for the sake of time.
June 1936: Early one morning in Kingsbury Run, two young boys discovered the head of a white male wrapped in a pair of trousers close to the East 55th Street bridge.
Police found the body of the twenty-some-year-old man the next day dumped in front of the Nickel Plate Railroad police building. Clean and drained of blood, the corpse was intact except for the head. Pierce again determined the death had been caused by decapitation. In spite of a fresh set of fingerprints and the presence of six distinctive tattoos on various parts of the body, police were never able to identify the victim. There was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in his system. And the contents of his stomach showed his last meal was baked beans and judging by the state of suggestion he was killed a day or two before the body was found. Day after three Torso was found the head was out on display the county morgue in hopes that someone could identify him. A plaster reproduction of the man’s head, along with a diagram of the kind and location of the tattoos, were made to display at the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936. More than one hundred thousand people saw the “Death Mask” and tattoo chart. The “Tattooed Man” was never identified. The original Death Mask, along with three others from the case are on display at the Cleveland Police Museum. This would be the murder that would spark the legend of the Cleveland Torso Murders and the hubby for The Mad Butcher Of Kingsbury Run. Police and experts still differed on opinions on the case including whether the first body was part of this whole messed and some even doubted whether Polilo was part of it. As Parents began telling their children to stay away from the Run, city editors started giving serious thought to a Cleveland Jack the Ripper!
July 1936: A teenage girl came across the decapitated remains of a forty-year-old white male while walking through the woods near Clinton Road and Big Creek on the near west side. The victim had been dead about two months and his head, as well as a pile of bloody clothing, was found nearby. Judging by the enormous quantity of blood that had seeped into the ground, this man had apparently been killed where his body was found. He had no distinguishing marks. Although authorities didn't know it yet, this would be the only torso vision to turn up on the west side of Cleveland. Judging by the clothes going and other clues, police determined the victim to be a resident at a hobo camp in the Big Creek woods not far from the crime scene. Oddly enough Elliot Ness, still basking in the headlines he made for fighting police corruption and organized cringe remained silent on the subject.
September 1936: A transient trips over the upper half of a man's torso while trying to hop a train at East 37th Street in Kingsbury Run. Police searched a nearby pool, which was nothing more than a big open sewer, and found the lower half of the torso and parts of both legs. Police sent a diver in to make the recovery. The number of onlookers that turned out to watch the grim spectacle was estimated at over six hundred, and the killer may well have been among them. Victim number six was in his late twenties and the cause of death, yet again, was decapitation. Coroner Pierce noted that the lack of hesitation marks in the disarticulation of the body indicated a strong, confident killer, very familiar with the human anatomy. The head had been cut off with one bold, clean stroke. The victim died instantly. Identification was never made. Six brutal killings in one year and the police had neither clues nor suspects. The Cleveland Press, The Cleveland News and The Cleveland Plain Dealer all reported almost daily on the killings and the lack of a suspect. Tension was high. Who was the "Mad Butcher" of Kingsbury Run?
Giving in to mounting pressure from Mayor Harold Burton, recently appointed Safety Director Eliot Ness gets more involved in the case. Coroner Pierce calls for what the newspapers dub a “Torso Clinic”: a meeting of police, the Coroner and other experts to discuss information and to “profile” someone who could be responsible for these gruesome killings.
The police department put detectives Peter Merylo and Martin Zelewski on the case full time. They move deftly through the seedy underworld that constitutes the Run and the Roaring Third, often dressing the part, often on their own time. By the time the case had run its course, the two had interviewed more than fifteen hundred people, the department as a whole more than five thousand. This would be the biggest police investigation in Cleveland history.
The November elections return Harold Burton as Mayor, but Coroner Pierce is replaced by the young democrat, and now legendary, Sam Gerber. Gerber’s fierce dedication to medicine, along with his degree in law, put him at the forefront of the investigation.
February 1937: A man finds the upper half of a woman's torso washed up on shore east of Brahtenahl. Unlike all previous victims, the cause of death had not been decapitation; this had happened after she was already dead. The lower half of the torso washed ashore three months later at about East 30th Street. The woman was in her mid-twenties. She was never identified.
June 1937: A teenage boy discovered a human skull under the Lorain-Carnegie bridge. Next to it was a burlap bag containing the skeletal remains of what turned out to be a petite black women about forty years old. Dental work allowed for the unofficial identification of one Rose Wallace of Scovill Avenue. Police followed every lead they had on her – they led nowhere.
July 1937: There were labor problems in the Flats that summer and the National Guard had been called in to maintain order. A young guardsman standing watch by the West 3rd Street bridge saw the first piece of victim #9 in the wake of a passing tugboat. Over the next few days, police recovered the entire body, except for the head, from the waters of the Cuyahoga River. The abdomen had been gutted and the heart ripped out, clearly indicating a new element of viciousness in the killer’s approach. The victim was in his mid to late thirties; he was never identified.
April 1938: A young laborer on his way to work in the Flats saw, what he at first thought was a dead fish, along the banks of the Cuyahoga River. Closer inspection revealed it to be the lower half of a women’s leg, the first piece of victim #10. A month later police pulled two burlap bags out of the river containing both parts of the torso and most of the rest of both legs. For the first time Coroner Gerber detected drugs in the system. Were the drugs used to immobilize the victim or was she an addict? The answer might come when they found the arms; they never did. She was never identified.
August 16, 1938: Three scrap collectors foraging in a dump site at East 9th and Lakeside found the torso of a woman wrapped in a man’s double breasted blue blazer and then wrapped again in an old quilt. The legs and arms were discovered in a recently constructed makeshift box, wrapped in brown butcher paper and held together with rubber bands. The head had been similarly wrapped. Gerber noted that some of the parts looked as if they had been refrigerated. While searching for more pieces, the police discover the remains of a second body only yards away. These two bodies had been placed in a location that was in plain view from Eliot Ness’s office window, almost as if taunting him. Both victims #11 and #12 were never identified.
August 18, 1938: At 12:40 A.M., Eliot Ness and a group of thirty-five police officers and detectives, raid the hobo jungles of the Run. Eleven squad cars, two police vans and three fire trucks descend on the largest cluster of makeshift shacks where the Cuyahoga River twists behind Public Square. Ness’s raiders worked their way south through the Run eventually gathering up sixty-three men. At dawn, police and fireman searched the deserted shanties for clues. Then, on orders from Safety Director Ness, the shacks were set on fire and burned to the ground.
The press severely criticized Ness for his actions. The public was afraid and frustrated. Critics said the raid would do nothing to solve the murders. They were right, but for whatever reason, they did stop.
July 1939: County Sheriff Martin O’Donnell arrested fifty-two-year-old Bohemian brick layer Frank Dolezal for the murder of Flo Polillo. Dolezal had lived with her for a while, and subsequent investigation revealed he had been acquainted with Edward Andrassy and Rose Wallace.
His “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, Dolezal was found dead in his cell. The five foot eight Dolezal had hanged himself from a hook only five feet seven inches off the floor. Gerber’s autopsy revealed six broken ribs, all of which had been obtained while in the Sheriff’s custody. To this day no one thinks Frank Dolezal was the torso killer. The question is: why did Sheriff O’Donnell.
Most investigators consider the last canonical murder to have been in 1938. One suspected individual was Dr. Francis E. Sweeney. Born May 5, 1894, Sweeney was a veteran of World War I who was part of a medical unit that conducted amputations in the field. Sweeney was later personally interviewed by Eliot Ness, who oversaw the official investigation into the killings in his capacity as Cleveland's Safety Director. During this interrogation, Sweeney is said to have "failed to pass" two very early polygraph machine tests. Both tests were administered by polygraph expert Leonarde Keeler, who told Ness he had his man. Ness apparently felt there was little chance of obtaining a successful prosecution of the doctor, especially as he was the first cousin of one of Ness's political opponents, Congressman Martin L. Sweeney, who had hounded Ness publicly about his failure to catch the killer. After Sweeney committed himself, there were no more leads or connections that police could assign to him as a possible suspect. From his hospital confinement, Sweeney sent threatening postcards and harassed Ness and his family into the 1950s. Sweeney died in a veterans' hospital in Dayton on July 9, 1964.
In 1997, another theory postulated that there may have been no single Butcher of Kingsbury Run because the murders could have been committed by different people. This was based on the assumption that the autopsy results were inconclusive. First, Cuyahoga County Coroner Arthur J. Pearce may have been inconsistent in his analysis as to whether the cuts on the bodies were expert or slapdash. Second, his successor, Samuel Gerber, who began to enjoy press attention from his involvement in such cases as the Sam Sheppard murder trial, garnered a reputation for sensational theories. Therefore, the only thing known for certain was that all the murder victims were dismembered.
Black dahlia connection:
The gruesome 1947 murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, THE BLACK DAHLIA, which inspired countless books and films, remains unsolved. Yet, Short’s killer, many believe, may have been the Cleveland Torso Killer. On January 15, 1947, her nude body was discovered cut in half and severely mutilated in a vacant lot near Leimert Park in Los Angeles.
The killer not only cleaved the body in twain and mutilated the corpse, but Short had also been drained entirely of blood and the remains scrubbed clean. Short’s face had also been slashed from the corners of her mouth to her ears, creating a chilling effect known as the “Glasgow Smile”- resembling The Joker.
“It was pretty gruesome,” Detective Brian Carr of the Los Angeles Police Department said. “I just can’t imagine someone doing that to another human being.”
Dubbed “The Black Dahlia” by the press, the case made headlines for weeks as every aspect of Short’s brief life was examined by LAPD detectives and the media.
The closest thing they had to a clue was that Short had been working as a waitress before meeting her untimely end. A round-up of the café’s habitues yielded nothing.
The exhaustive homicide investigation went nowhere. As per usual in a high profile murder case, there were several confessions by kooks and a plethora of sketchy witnesses looking to get their names bold-faced in the tabloids.
Black Dahlia Evidence
The Elizabeth Short murder remains one of the most bizarre cold cases in history, fueling a true crime cottage industry of novels and films that purport to solve the crime.
Yet, The Black Dahlia may have been a victim of an infamous serial killer who terrorized America’s heartland: The Cleveland Torso Murderer.
As the bodies piled up, The Torso Murderer always chopped the heads from his victims’ bodies, often cleaving the torsos in half. Several of the male victims were castrated and others were cleaned with a chemical solvent. The victims’ remains were inevitably found months or years after they had been mercilessly butchered. Identification by police was often impossible as the victims’ heads were rarely found. Often it was truly “a hank of hair, a piece of bone…”
Initially, LAPD investigators probing the Elizabeth Short murder conducted a reexamination of the Cleveland Torso Murderer case files. While the similarities were uncanny, the link to the Dahlia case proved inconclusive at first.
In 1980, a former Cleveland Torso murder suspect, Jack Anderson Wilson, was under investigation by renowned LAPD homicide detective “Jigsaw” John P. St. John.
St. John claimed he was close to proving Wilson had not only been the Cleveland Torso Murderer but had also butchered, Elizabeth Short – the Black Dahlia. Before St. John could arrest him, the suspect died in a fire in 1982.
A local Cleveland man who studied the case for years named James Nadal is certain that the aforementioned doctor Frances Sweeney is indeed the killer. He lays out evidence in an interview with Cleveland magazine in 2014. He puts forth on his 2001 book that there was a vagrant named Emil Fronek who claimed a Cleveland doctor tried to drug him in 1934 — right around the time the murders may have begun. Badal also believes he's identified the butcher's laboratory, the place where he disarticulated his victims.
You can find the Cleveland magazine interview online if you're interested. It's good reading and definitely interesting. The story of the vagrant being poisoned we are going to include here because it's pretty interesting and it's definitely an intriguing part of the tale:
In November 1934, Fronek supposedly was walking up Broadway Avenue, looking for food. He said he found himself on the second floor of a doctor's office. The doctor said, "I'll give you a meal."
While Emil was shoveling the food down, he began to feel woozy and wondered if he'd been drugged. So he ran down the steps, onto Broadway and into Kingsbury Run, got into a boxcar, fell asleep and awoke three days later. He said he went back to Broadway and East 55th, but couldn't find the doctor.
He decided Cleveland was pretty dangerous, so he went to Chicago and got a job as a longshoreman. In August 1938, his story got back to Cleveland. Detective Peter Merylo was sent to Chicago to bring him back.
Two policemen drove Fronek up Broadway slowly. When he got to the area around East 50th and East 55th, he says, "It's here someplace." They walked up and down the street several times, but he couldn't find anything that looked like a doctor's office.
Ness interviewed him. Officially, they decide — this is what the papers report — that they didn't think it had anything to do with the butcher. They were convinced the butcher's laboratory was close to downtown.
Another interesting theory involves a series of killings actors the pond. They were also dubbed The Torso Murders. They happened forty years earlier, in London. While Jack the Ri