The Torso Murders: Cleveland’s serial killer, still at large

Veronica Madell, Staff Reporter

In September 1934, the first body was found. A young man was walking along the shores of Lake Erie when he stumbled upon the lower torso of a woman. Later that week, a dive team found the arms, but never the head. Little did the city of Cleveland know that the most prolific and gruesome serial killer in the city’s history had just begun his reign of terror.

A year later, the killer struck again and with increasing frequency over the next two years. The citizens of Cleveland began to panic as body parts started to appear all around the city. Two teenage boys found two decapitated bodies. An unsuspecting woman opened a basket to find body parts wrapped in newspaper. Two boys found a head wrapped in trousers. Scrappers found one torso wrapped in a double-breasted blazer and another in a quilt. The gruesome murders continued, and the body count grew to 13 in 1938. The citizens of Cleveland were terrified of being the next victim or finding the next body. 

The victims came primarily from an area of the city called Kingsbury Run, a community by the river greatly affected by the Great Depression. The people who populated the shanty towns of Kingsbury Run were prostitutes, the homeless and the jobless. The victims the killer chose were the ones society had already discarded. As a result, only three of the thirteen victims were ever identified, Edward Andrassy, Florence Polillo and Rose Wallace.

However, the lack of identification was not for lack of effort. The Cleveland Safety Director, Eliot Ness, launched the biggest police investigation the city has ever put on to this day. Ness was the city’s hero, the champion over evil, and he was determined to keep up his reputation. 

Ness received his reputation as the “untouchable” cop amongst a corrupt police force back in Chicago, Illinois. In the post-Prohibition era, Ness assembled a team of the most honest and moral cops in the city called the “secret six.” The “secret six” worked to stop the bootlegging of alcohol by gangsters who were selling alcohol illegally to avoid taxes. Every day, Ness turned down a $2,000 bribe ($37,478.63 today accounting for inflation) when his annual salary was only $2,800. His honesty paid off, as Ness and the secret six took down Al Capone and many other big names in the city. 

In 1935, when elected the safety director in Cleveland, Ness moved across the Midwest, ready to show the city the same police and crime reform he performed in Chicago. He gave every reporter the same statement: “I hope to take necessary action first and talk about it later.” 

While Ness continued to experience success in Cleveland, at one time busting as many as one criminal a day, still the Torso Murders stumped him. The city looked to this man as their savior and hero, but the very skills that made him great at busting gangsters prevented him from succeeding as a detective.

As the body count and panic continued to grow, so did the pressure put on Ness. He became desperate. He had the National Guard take aerial photos of the city twelve times. He had detectives interview over 5,000 people. He took a suspect into a hotel and locked him in a room for a ten-day interrogation, forcing him to take a polygraph test, which he failed. Even in 1934, this was illegal and immoral. The “untouchable” cop was only “untouchable” in so many ways. 

In a final act of desperation, Ness lived up to his word of acting before talking. Without any warrants, he evacuated the shantytowns in Kingsbury Run, arresting 63 men and fingerprinting them. Then, Ness proceeded to burn the shantytowns to the ground. Ness knew that it was unlikely the murderer lived in the shantytown due to his knowledge of anatomy that suggested an education; however, Ness hoped that by fingerprinting the arrested men he would be able to identify the next body.

Ness expected praise from the city, but instead, he was insulted by the press that once loved him. Everyone knew that Ness was desperate and this assault on people already down on their luck was just another long-shot attempt at finding the killer. 

But the crazy thing is, the murders stopped. 

No one was ever arrested for the crime. The biggest serial killer in Cleveland’s history is a case left unsolved. This case has haunted many people: the ones who found the bodies, the ones who knew the victims, the city who read about the story every day for two years, but, most of all, it haunted Eliot Ness. 

After resigning from Cleveland Safety Director in 1942 after he covered up his own drunk driving incident, Ness faded from the spotlight. In 1957 he died an unemployed alcoholic, but years before that, he could be found sitting at a bar reminiscing. He told stories of his big police days, busting gangsters and taking down Al Capone. But he never told stories of his time with the Torso Murders.

Ness can be remembered in the glorifying autobiography published four months posthumously, which put him back into the public eye in TV adaptations and movies. But he can also be remembered through the detailing of his whole life in the books and documents at the Western Reserve Society. A piece of Ness will always live in Cleveland through the lasting memory of his final case, which to this day remains unsolved.