Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth


Just as Eliot Ness was starting to feel that the police department and the city's criminals were getting under control, the "Mad Butcher" surfaced again on February 23, 1937. This time it was a virtual repeat of the Lady of the Lake murder back in 1934. The upper portion of Victim Number Seven was found washed up on the beach at 156th Street, almost the same place where the earlier woman had been found.

Like the others, she was headless. Her arms had been amputated and the torso bisected. While the torso was taken to the morgue, Detectives Merylo and Zalewski followed what looked like a trail of blood and questioned the residents in the area. As in the earlier murder, the question remained: was she dumped in Lake Erie where she washed up on the beach or did her body float from Kingsbury into the Cuyahoga River and then into the lake? More than two months later, the lower portion of the woman's torso was found floating off East 30th Street, much closer to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River.

It was time for the newly elected Coroner Samuel Gerber to show his stuff. His report was very thorough. When the upper portion of the torso was found, the woman had only been dead two to four days and had been in the water not more than three. The headless woman was between 25 and 35 years old, weighed approximately 100 to 120 pounds, had a light complexion and medium brown hair. The only other things that they knew about her were that she lived in the city, given the dirt in her lungs, and that she had been pregnant at least once. Despite a thorough investigation, this was all they would ever know of the woman who became known as Victim Number Seven.

While her legs were removed with two "clean sweeping" strokes of a heavy knife and the arms were removed were the murderer's usual skill, the bisection of the torso showed multiple hesitation marks. Unlike most of the other victims, death did not appear to be caused by decapitation. The arms, legs, head and clothing were never found. Nor was her identity every discovered.

In March, Gerber produced a summary of the seven victims. Oddly enough, 1934's "Lady of the Lake," was still not included in the official victim count. Like his predecessor Arthur Pearse, Gerber was convinced that all of the murders were committed by one individual. He considered the dissection of the corpses and the missing hands and heads a means for the killer to easily transport the body and to foil identification. After all, the last victim to be identified was Number Three, Flo Polillo.

The killer was a right-handed man using a heavy, sharp knife. The killer's knowledge of anatomy was clear. For the first time, the notion of a surgeon, medical student, male nurse or veterinarian was suggested as well as a butcher or hunter. Gerber found the sex factor in the crimes difficult to evaluate and unique in the history of such crimes. The "Mad Butcher" appeared to be the first on record to murder members of both sexes.

Ness took an unprecedented step and contacted his newspaper friends with a special plea. Armed with advice from several important forensic psychiatrists, he urged the newspapers to significantly tone down the sensationalism about the recent murder. The carnival like atmosphere whipped up in the front-page headlines in 1936 was feeding the warped ego of this maniac, encouraging him to kill again. Not only that, but the media driven hysteria of the previous year had resulted in most of the police department chasing down worthless tips from well-meaning citizens. For months, it seemed to the police department that everybody knew the identity of the '`Mad Butcher": someone's eccentric cousin, the man next door, the guy down the street that kills chickens, etc.

The editors agreed to cooperate and began to abridge their coverage, beginning with Dr. Gerber's report. Gerber, a man with a sizeable ego himself, was furious with Ness for suppressing publicity. This was the beginning of a feud between the coroner's office and the safety director's office that only worsened with time.

The serial killer problem went from bad to worse when on June 6, 1937, a teenager was watching the Coast Guard boats on the Cuyahoga River. On his way home, he made a gruesome discovery under the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. Lying in a rotting burlap bag along with a newspaper from June of the previous year, was the skeleton of a Negro woman. Gerber described Victim Number Eight as a tiny woman, no more than five feet tall with small, delicate bones. Even though her arms and legs were missing, there was a skull with extensive dental work.

The police were sent a letter referencing a long-dead dentist and proposing that the victim was a prostitute named Rose Wallace. After a lengthy investigation of Rose Wallace's life and her August, 1936, disappearance, both Dr. Gerber and Sergeant Hogan rejected the identification. Detective Merylo however firmly believed the victim to be Rose.

Determined to force his way back into the spotlight, the "Mad Butcher" struck again a month after the woman's skeleton was found. So there could be no doubt about his identity, the killer chose Kingsbury Run once again. On July 6, 1937, the upper portion of a man's torso, plus his two thighs, floated in the Cuyahoga River just below Kingsbury Run. For the next week, pieces of the victim floated downstream. Just about everything was retrieved except for the head. This man, who was never identified, was approximately five foot eight and approximately 150 pounds. He had well groomed fingernails and was about forty years of age. He had been dead a couple of days when the first parts of his body were found.

Decapitation was the cause of death and the disarticulation bore the signature of the "Mad Butcher," but there was something new this time. Some of the surgery was very sloppy and some was very skillful. For the first time, the killer had removed all of the abdominal organs and heart, none of which were ever found.

Ever since Dr. Gerber had suggested that the Kingsbury Run murderer could be a medic, the police began to focus on doctors. In fact, all the area physicians, medical students and male nurses were checked out. Special surveillance was warranted for doctors that had a history of eccentricity or a weakness for illicit sex, drugs or booze.

One of these physicians was a Dr. Frank E. Sweeney, who seemed to fit the profile of the murderer they were seeking. He was physically very tall, large and strong. Sweeney had grown up in the Kingsbury Run area and at various times had his office there. He had a serious problem with alcohol that caused his separation from his wife and sons and the loss of his surgical residency at St. Alexis, a hospital very close to Kingsbury Run. Furthermore, he was rumored to be bisexual and had a very violent temper. Eventually in 1937, the police abandoned Dr. Sweeney as a suspect because he was frequently out of town at a veteran's hospital in Sandusky when a fresh victim was discovered. While Dr. Sweeney was no relation to the highly respected police officer Joseph Sweeney, he was a first cousin to a flamboyant U. S. Congressman named Martin L. Sweeney.

Martin L. Sweeney and Sheriff Martin O'Donnell were the heads of a powerful political machine within the city and county. In March of 1937, Sweeney unleashed his oratorical fury at Mayor Burton and "his alter ego, Eliot Ness," who spent all their efforts persecuting cops that took $25 years ago, when major crimes like the Kingsbury Run murders went unstopped. Late that summer with the mayor election a few months away, Congressman Sweeney continued to exhort Democrats to work together to "send back to Washington the prohibition agent who is now safety director."

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'