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How Poverty Leaves People Vulnerable to Horrific Crimes

From the mutilated corpses of the Cleveland Strangler to the castrated cadavers of the Mad Butcher, victims of Northeastern Ohio's most notorious murders have had little agency and even less money.


Cleveland police confronted the city's eighth headless body mystery in two and a half years on Feb. 23, 1937. The decapitated body of a woman was found on Lake Erie's shore. Here, police carry away the torso. (AP Photo)

It was a warm September day in 1935 when 16-year-old James Wagner stumbled upon a headless body at the bottom of Jackass Hill, an embankment just east of Ohio's Cuyahoga River. Clad only in black socks, it was almost as if the corpse had dressed for the rare bit of sunny weather in Cleveland.

His head was soon found—28-year-old Edward Andrassy was described in official reports as "handsome" even in death—along with another body. The second victim was an older man, also headless, and badly decomposed, though his body bore traces of a chemical preservative. Both corpses had been drained of blood and, to the gruesome delight of Cleveland's newspapermen, castrated. The killings caused a stir in the city, but it wasn't until nine months later, in June 1936, when another headless body was discovered only a little ways away from the first two, that the legend of Cleveland's Torso Murders was born.

Over the course of four years, 13 killings would be attributed to the work of "The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run," but the culprit was never apprehended.

Kingsbury Run is a gravel and scrub-filled no man's land that runs along the Cuyahoga River's crooked banks. In the 1930s, this was where the industrial guts of Cleveland were spilled: crude oil refineries belched hydrocarbons and trains trundled by on their way in and out of what was then the country's sixth-largest city. A shantytown had sprung up in Kingsbury thanks to the effects of the nationwide depression. The nearby "Roaring Third," as the city's bar-and brothel-infested Third Police District was known, provided plenty of fleeting relief—or inevitable damnation, depending on whom you talked to—for Cleveland's down and out. It was in this stew of poverty that the Mad Butcher would find his victims, empowered in his hunt by the slum's social disarray.

On June 5, 1936, in a scenario ripped from the nightmares of free-range parents, Alum Cheely, 11, and Gomez Ivory, 13, decided to play hooky from school and go fishing. Instead, they found the decapitated head of a young man and sparked a city-wide existential panic. John Stark Bellamy II, the author of several books on Cleveland's worst crimes, industrial accidents, and fires, chronicled the drama in detail in his 1997 book, The Maniac in the Bushes. The victim's naked torso, speckled with tattoos, was located soon after the boys' discovery, Bellamy writes, though there was not much blood at the scene. That fact would go on to feed macabre imaginations—the killer must have done his work in some sinister hideaway.

A few months earlier, the dismembered remains of a barmaid and sometime-prostitute named Flo Polillo had been found in a basket left in an alleyway, and in September 1934, the headless corpse of a woman had washed up on the shores of Lake Erie. The Cleveland Press seized upon the opportunity to connect the deaths, and on June 6, the day after the discovery of the tattooed man, it plastered the headline, "HUNT FIEND IN 4 DECAPITATIONS" atop an article that mongered more than a little fear:

Somewhere in the countless byways of the crowded Southeast Side, detectives believe today is the grisly workshop of a human butcher who in the last 10 months [sic] has carved up and decapitated four persons.

In an attempt at crowd-sourcing their problem, Cleveland police put the head of the most recent victim on display at the morgue, in the hopes that someone might know who the long-lashed young man was. He was never identified. Police took a mold of the man's face, worked up a death mask, and displayed it at the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936-1937 just in case.

The Torso Murder-mania only built from there. A month after the Press proclaimed the existence of a Butcher, there was another body. Then another two months later. One victim's thigh was found wedged in bridge pilings while the rest of his body parts drifted down the Cuyahoga like grotesque flotsam. Many of the dismemberments appeared to have been carried out by someone with surgical skills, the coroner suggested. In September 1936, Cleveland's safety director, the untouchable Eliot Ness, seemed more than a little touchy on the subject of the Kingsbury Run killings. "I want to see this psycho caught. I'm going to do all I can to aid in the investigation," he said. Ness convened what the local papers deemed the "Torso Clinic," bringing together the police, coroner, and outside experts to discuss the killings. The city was transfixed. Two detectives decided the best way to catch the killer would be to embed in the Kingsbury shantytown and lure him out—they spent two years dressed as "hobos" with no success.


Head of the fourth victim of the Cleveland Torso Murderer: True Crime, Cleveland Torso courtesy of Cleveland Police Historical Society

There has been doubt expressed over the years as to whether or not one individual was responsible for all the torso slayings. Inconsistencies in the skill with which various bodies were dismembered has been noted, and there is at least one instance of a copycat killing. Regardless of whether the spree was the work of a single prodigious killer, one thing is certain: for a time, people began taking notice of the deaths of those they might not otherwise think twice about. The Kingsbury shantytown and its abject poverty, typically hidden away, found itself underneath the brightest of spotlights. After a while, though, Clevelanders seemed to tire of the panic over the city's nobodies. One Plain Dealer reporter wrote of the increasingly disinterested public in 1938:

[The] general attitude seems to be, 'Tsk, tsk. Another torso victim. Too bad, too bad.' Only the newsboys and a few policemen seem to get excited...the murdered people were all too obviously bums or degenerates. Nobody knew them, except in the crumby world in which they moved.

Ness finally decided that if he couldn't catch the killer, he would eradicate his stomping grounds. As Bellamy tells it, on the night of August 17, 1938, Ness—carrying a hammer and accompanied by 25 cops—burst into the Kingsbury Run shantytown and began hustling its residents out. The next day, he ordered the encampment burned to the ground. The public was outraged at the callousness of the police, but just like that, the bodies stopped turning up. Ness's cleansing fire had worked.

Anthony Sowell's home. Photo courtesy of Melvin Smith

One might be tempted look at the Torso killings as a horrific, antiquated example of the Hobbesian deck of cards life dealt the most vulnerable urban dwellers in early 20th century America—were it not for the fact that similarly terrible things have happened in Cleveland much more recently.

In 2009, Cleveland police discovered two dead women in the East Side living room of Anthony Sowell. A search of the rest of the property turned up nine more bodies. All were black women. All had been strangled. Four years later, the world was horrified to learn that Ariel Castro had held three women captive in the basement of his home for over ten years, just across the river from where the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run had first struck. Two months after the news of Castro's crimes broke, Michael Madison was arrested in East Cleveland for the murder of three women whose bodies he had left to decompose in his backyard.

Though separated by seven decades, the accomplice to these crimes and the Torso killings is one in the same—the economy. There are no shantytowns in Cleveland anymore, but there's no doubt that the devastating effects of the housing crisis on the city aided the predation of Sowell, Castro, and Madison. At its peak in 2007, there were over 12,000 foreclosure filings in Cuyahoga County, many of them in the city of Cleveland. By 2013, the city had around 16,000 vacant homes. The city's sparser population has led to what Daniel Flannery, director of Case Western Reserve's Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education, calls "neighborhood disorganization."

"People don't talk to each other as much and they're certainly not paying as much attention to what's going on around them," he says, noting that many abandoned homes are also used for criminal activity, leading to an undercurrent of neighborhood omerta. "When something does happen, you've got other things coming into play as to whether or not to report it to the police."

Like the unknown Torso Killer, Sowell, Castro, and Madison, would have likely been inclined towards violence wherever they landed, but they found conditions in the city that fertilized the fantasies of their psychosis—neighborhoods where the community fabric was loosening. Last year, Gary, Indiana, which has 10,000 abandoned homes, saw the case of Darren Deon Vann, who is suspected of killing seven women and burying them in abandoned buildings around the city.


Tishana Culver. Photo courtesy of Stan Donaldson

By and large, the women victimized in crimes like these are connected to a darker side of city life. Flo Polillo, the Torso killer's third victim, was a prostitute who had a bad habit, according to her landlady, of getting a quart of liquor and drinking it "all by her lonesome in her room." Tishana Culver, whom Antony Sowell killed some time in June 2008, sold herself for drugs—"Whenever she put that red lipstick on, I knew what it meant," her boyfriend Carl Johnson told the Plain Dealer.

But Flo also collected dolls and liked to invite the landlady's daughters up to play with them. Tishana brought plates of food to the homeless men living outside her apartment only a couple of months after living in a park herself.

In news stories and in city legend, victims inevitably become symbols. They are the corpses left to rot and the carved up leg in a basket. Instead of lives lived, they become stand-ins for our worst fears. But there is power in symbols, too. Every once in a while, they force people to see the places most would rather roll up their windows and drive past. It's easy to walk by the street corner addict, but sooner or later, you won't be able to ignore the stench of the bodies stacked high in the basement.

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