Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
The Mad Butcher
In mid-September of 1936, the American Legion Convention was just a few days away, providing a nice finale to a bustling summer after the Republican convention and the Great Lakes Expo. Cleveland was starting to fancy itself as having a great future as a convention town when the bold headlines in the afternoon papers reminded everybody that a grisly serial killer was still on the loose.
The spotlight was once again on Kingsbury Run where on September 10 a hobo from St. Louis sat near E. 37th Street waiting for an eastbound freight. There in an oily, coffee-colored stagnant pool, he saw two halves of a human torso floating in the water. When the police arrived, they used grappling hooks to drag the awful-smelling pool for the missing head, hands and legs. Sergeant Hogan got over there as soon as he could. By that time, two legs, cut at the knees, and a blood-soaked denim shirt, cut at the neck, were found nearby.
Hundreds of morbidly curious spectators crowded around to watch the cops drag the pool for the head. Hogan could feel the hysteria growing among the people who lived in small, clapboard shanties perched on the rim of Kingsbury Run. If the afternoon papers were any indicator, he and Ness would never be able to keep a low profile on this latest murder. The papers had already found a name for this fiend: The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.
Later that day, Hogan talked to the coroner who confirmed the death occurred a day or two earlier by expert decapitation. The victim this time was a white man between 25 and 30 years old, medium height and muscular build with traces of light brown hair on his body. That night, the sergeant and twelve of his detectives stayed up very late trying unsuccessfully to match the victim's description with missing persons files.
The next morning, the gruesome discovery was still the major front-page story when divers descended into the murky depths of pool, looking for the head and hands that might give some hope of identifying the dead young man. The number of spectators had multiplied from the day before, standing for hours watching the hunt. After two hours of high-pressure flushing by fire hoses failed to bring up any other parts of the body, Hogan called in the Coast Guards to use their special equipment to drag every inch of the rubbish-covered bottom of the pool.
Hogan was ready to kick himself for saying to a reporter that he thought the murderer lived somewhere in or around Kingsbury Run. As if the unfortunate people who lived around there didn't have enough to worry about with this "mad butcher" using their backyard as a graveyard. Now after reading that Hogan thought the killer lived among them, they were afraid to go outside. The population of large police dogs was rising rapidly.
The following morning, an irritable Eliot Ness pulled himself away from his research into police corruption and got personally involved in the Kingsbury Run case. The timing of this latest murder was horrible. Ness had been rushing to put the finishing touches on his evidence for Frank Cullitan for the largest graft prosecution in the city's history. He wasn't pleased to have to interrupt this crucial work because of this lunatic. Unfortunately, he couldn't ignore the case any more. It had become too big to delegate to Hogan alone.
Once again, Ness went over every detail of the case, personally interviewing several of the detectives who had been working on it. He indicated that a particular suspect, a dangerous escaped mental patient, was being hunted for questioning. In the meantime, Ness ordered a clean up of the section in Kingsbury Run where the bodies had been found. Every hobo in that area was brought in and questioned, warned about the killer and urged to find somewhere else to live.
Twenty detectives were permanently assigned to the case until it is solved, although with the meager clues, it wasn't at all clear what twenty full-time detectives were going to do after they interviewed all the bums in the area. But in no time, the twenty detectives had plenty to do, as everybody in the city seemed to have their own idea that the killer was. Detectives were inundated with calls about the strange behavior of neighbors, relatives, and co-workers. Anybody, who kept unusual hours, carried large packages out of his house, or kept a knife in his pocket was fair game, not to mention every butcher, physician, male nurse, mortician, and hunter. The worst of it all was that Eliot Ness said every tip, no matter how trivial it sounded, must be followed up. The detectives estimated it would take months, maybe years, to finish.
Following up tips was not the only thing the detectives did. They repeatedly scoured the records of the state hospital for the insane, as well as followed and watched recently discharged patients.
They also tried some unorthodox methods, which must have been terribly funny to observe. Detectives dressed as hobos hid in the bushes of Kingsbury Run, looking for suspicious characters. Other detectives hung around gay bars and steam baths, trying to get leads on homosexual men with sadistic tendencies. It's hard to imagine any of the detectives posing convincingly as either a hobo or a homosexual, but they did try. At least one detective was beaten up by a hobo who knew immediately that he was a cop.
There was a lot of excitement was the police arrested a stocky, powerfully built butcher who was addicted to both alcohol and marijuana. "We have checked his record," the arresting detective said, " and it looks like every time he was released from the workhouse one of these headless murders was committed."
The head of the federal narcotic bureau in Cleveland told the detectives that it was most likely a marijuana addict committed the murders. "There's a plentiful supply of this deadly weed growing wild around the railroad tracks in Kingsbury Run. Both the desire for a thrill and a homicidal obsession are easily induced by the loco weed cigarettes."
A few days after the murder, The Cleveland News offered a $1000 reward, quite a sizable amount for those days, for information leading to the conviction of the Kingsbury Run murderer. The Cleveland City Council was also voting on a resolution to offer a similar reward.
There is something in the mystery of an unsolved series of murders that stimulates the imagination. The best example of this stimulation is Jack the Ripper, who after killing a mere five London prostitutes, a novice by today's standards of serial killers, inspired numerous books, movies and theories about his identity. Had the Ripper been captured, he would be less interesting that his fearful legend.
On a smaller scale, the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run inspired the same type of imaginative speculation. The newspapers in the Midwest became obsessed with the cleverness of the killer. The lack of clues left by the killer was not accidental. There is never a coin, a key, or a scrap of paper to incriminate him. Nor are there any bloody fingerprints on the bodies.
It was clear to the detectives that the killer was playing a game with them. Leaving so many of the bodies in the same area, especially when the railroad police, hobos and Kingsbury Run inhabitants had been on the lookout for strange happenings since the first double murder a year earlier. When the body of the "Tattooed Man" was placed so close to the office of the Nickel Plate Railroad police, it seemed that the killer was thumbing his nose at them. It was also clear that the murderer was very smart, probably smarter than the detectives working on the case.
The newspapers let their imaginations run wild when they speculated about the motives of this unusual killer. One popular theory was the murderer was a wealthy doctor who killed people from the lower classes for sport. Then there was the religious zealot notion, which had the murderer ridding the world of prostitutes and homosexuals because "God told him to." One of the more popular theories was an otherwise normal person who kills only during occasional lapses into madness.
Typical of the language that saturated the newspapers at the time was this editorial in The Cleveland News: " Of all the horrible nightmares come to life, the most shuddering is the fiend who decapitates his victims in the dark, dank recesses of Kingsbury Run. That a man of this nature should be permitted to work his crazed vengeance upon six people in a city the size of Cleveland should be the city's shame. No Edgar Allan Poe in his deepest, opium-maddened dream could conceive horror so painstakingly worked out..." If nothing else, the Mad Butcher gave quite a number of reporters an unprecedented opportunity to wax eloquent.
Even though Eliot Ness did not have available to him, the body of knowledge that today's law enforcement agencies about serial killers, he knew that this murderer was no ordinary one. It was time to bring together a group of experts to share information. Invited to this meeting at Central Police Station were Coroner Pearse and Dr. Reuben Strauss, the pathologist who had performed many of the autopsies of the victims, County Prosecutor Cullitan, Police Chief Matowitz, Lieutenant Cowles, Inspector Sweeney, Sergeant Hogan and several outside medical consultants.
After a number of hours, the group agreed on what they knew about this killer:
All six victims were murdered by one man working alone. The "Lady of the Lake," who was almost certainly an earlier victim of the same serial killer, was not included in the official count because the murder happened in 1934, a full year before.
This killer, while clearly psychopathic, was not necessarily obviously insane. There was disagreement as to whether to killer was a male homosexual, considering the genital mutilation of the corpses. However, some of the non-genital mutilation may have been done to thwart identification or make it easier to transport the body. While they all agreed that the killer had some knowledge of anatomy, the medical experts felt there was no evidence to establish that the murderer was necessarily a physician. After all, a butcher or hunter would recognize anatomical landmarks almost as well as a surgeon.
The murderer was both large and strong. The experts had pretty well discounted that any female could be a suspect in this murder series. The nature of the wounds, plus the fact that at least three of the male victims were carried a considerable distance, argued for a very large man.
The murderer was very likely to be a resident of the Kingsbury Run area. With the exception of the fifth victim who was found on the West Side, all of the victims were found in Kingsbury Run or the Near East Side.
Considering how untidy it is to decapitate a living person with the jugular veins spurting blood in all directions, the experts agreed that the killer had some kind of private residence where the victims were murdered and later cleaned up. Theories ranged from a butcher shop, a doctor's office or even/a home where unsuspecting victims were lured by the promise of food or shelter.
The killer selected his victims from the lowest rungs of society. Whether that selection fulfilled some need to eliminate the "undesirables" of the city or just that there were so many of that social stratum in ready supply was not determined.
They believed that it was no accident that of the six victims, only two were identified and those were among the first three, Andrassy and Polillo. To the veteran homicide officials, the murderer was getting smarter: heads and hands were either gone or too decomposed for identification purposes. Also, even when highly distinguishing marks appeared on the body, such as the "Tattooed Man," nobody came forward to claim these victims as missing persons.
Another unique characteristic of these crimes was the choice of Kingsbury Run as the graveyard. Four out of six victims were found in that godforsaken ravine. The "Tattooed Man," was placed embarrassingly close to the Nickel Plate Railroad police office as though the killer was playing a joke on them. Then, in September of 1936, when every hobo and railroad detective was in a state of heightened alarm, the killer again selected Run for his dumping ground. The killer seemed to be taking unbelievable risks to thumb his nose at them all. After this sixth victim, Ness allocated unprecedented resources to finding the killer. Among the many patrolmen and homicide detectives working on the case, the name of Peter Merylo is most often remembered as the key police figure. Merylo, a very intelligent but eccentric policeman with the ability to speak a number of European languages, began his career as a motorcycle cop. He was a short, stocky man who had the tenacity of a pit bull. Once an idea fixed itself in Merylo's mind, he worked it through to the end, even if it took eighty hours a week.
Homosexuality was illegal in Cleveland in the 1930's and Detective Merylo made a personal crusade out of ferreting out 'perverts" and putting them behind bars. Allegedly, he had filled up a whole wing of the jail with the gay men. According to some of the police officials of that time, Merylo would hang around bars that had homosexual clientele and then follow two men who left the bar together. When they reached their destination, he would wait for awhile and then, when he felt that the men were in compromising situations, he would force his way into the residence or hotel and arrest them. Eventually, judges got wind of Merylo's enthusiastic techniques and were reluctant to try his cases.
Merylo did everything within his power to get him assigned to the Kingsbury Run case full time. His persistence paid off and he was virtually dedicated to the case for years. He and his partner Martin Zalewski were making a career of the Mad Butcher. Nobody on the police force doubted Merylo's zeal in tracking down every potential suspect and clue. However, his methods, which included parading up and down Kingsbury Run in his longjohns in the moonlight to 'bait" the killer, were a source of controversy and snide remarks. No screwball escaped Merylo's scrutiny. Of the estimated ten thousand suspects who were interrogated in the four-year murder investigation, the weirdest were saved for Merylo. There was the "Chicken Freak," who us" to hire Ned prostitutes beheaded chickens while chicken~hile he masturbated, and the "Voodoo doctor" with the "death ray," and the crazed giant who roamed Kingsbury Run with a large butcher knife. All these and their like were hunted down, and given to Merylo to question. Some were criminals, others mental detectives, and still others were simply eccentric, down-at-the-heels vagrants.
With his round-the-clock adventures with the city's crazies, Merylo was a popular source for the newspaper reporters. The dedicated detective never felt constrained by protocol to have his remarks reviewed in advance by the higher ups in the police department. Consequently, Merylo's opinions were often published as though they represented the official police position, when often it was not the case. One official believed that Merylo was allowed to speculate to reporters so that his colorful stories and theories would distract the press from the lack of progress in finding the murderer.