Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
The Tattooed Man
Favorable press, an overhaul of the police department, and the systematic raids on organized crime were right in line with Mayor Harold Burton's program to build a positive image for the city. All of these newsworthy events were dovetailing nicely as city was preparing for the Republican National Convention, which was to start the first week of June, 1936.
During the week before the Republican National Convention, Eliot Ness worked almost continuously as he personally supervised every tiny detail of the security plan for the candidates. Checking and rechecking each item in the plan, he was acutely aware that his reputation was on the line if there were any assassination attempts or violent demonstrations in the coming week.
By Friday, June 5, the delegates were starting to pour into the city to begin a weekend of caucusing and partying before the convention officially began on Monday. Those political visitors, most of whom had never seen Cleveland, would take back with them impressions of a dazzling, modern downtown with many new buildings, magnificently landscaped with trees and fountains. In the years just prior to the Depression, Cleveland had undertaken an enormous number of public construction projects in the downtown area. The focal point of this massive urban development program was a large mall with its new city hall and other splendid examples of classical-style architecture. The most memorable of them all was the Terminal Tower, a distinguished-looking forerunner of the modern skyscraper, and one of the tallest buildings in the world at that time. While the front of this splendid tower opened onto Public Square, whose hotels, restaurants, and department stores were a central attraction for the convention delegates, just behind the tower, the landscape suddenly dropped into a world far different that most conventioneers never saw.
Just a few blocks away from the elegant and sophisticated Public Square, the vast industrial belly of Cleveland stretched out for many miles around its lifeblood, the Cuyahoga River. This stinking, oily river was used to feed iron ore and other raw materials to the blast furnaces and mills, while a huge network of railroad tracks, fanning out like capillaries in every direction, took the finished metal products to every part of the country.
This was the ugliest part of the city, filthy from the black soot of the coal fires, overpowering in its sulfurous stench, and strewn with trash and industrial waste. Almost symbolically here, too, was the dumping place for the city's human refuse, the thousands of men who once lived in rural Ohio, West Virginia, and Indiana, made homeless by the Depression. This inexhaustible supply of unwanted labor, "hobos" as they were called, rode the freight trains into Cleveland, looking for nonexistent jobs in the mills. There in back of the splendid Terminal Tower, the hobos camped in squalid, corrugated metal shacks, creating a city of their own.
It was there at the Cuyahoga River where the long, deep gully called Kingsbury Run began and cut through the city's East Side like a jagged wound. Kingsbury Run had been a beauty spot long ago when the only the stone quarries were there and the area was dotted with lovely, sylvan lakes. But many years later on the bed of this ancient ravine, cut into the earth by some long-dead stream, were the tracks of the Erie and Nickel Plate railroads. At the far end of the ravine, some fifty blocks east of Public Square, sat the office of the Nickel Plate railroad police who patrolled the track area, trying to keep the hobos off the trains.
That Friday morning before the convention began, two young boys had set off to go fishing and took a shortcut through Kingsbury Run. They saw a pair of pants rolled up under a bush and when they poked at the bundle with their fishing pole, a man's head rolled out. Terrified, they ran back to the older boy's house and waited all day until his mother came home and called the police.
Later that afternoon, the police found the head and began a search for the man's body. The next morning they found the naked, headless corpse, almost directly in front of the Nickel Plate police office, hidden in some sumac bushes. Whoever had put it there seemed to be playing a grim joke on the railroad police, whose job it was to keep the area secure.
The victim had been a tall, slender man with a sensitive, handsome face, estimated to be in his mid-twenties. There were six distinctive tattoos on his body, which suggested he might have been a sailor: a cupid superimposed on an anchor; a dove under the words "Helen-Paul;" a butterfly; the cartoon figure "Jiggs"; an arrow through a heart and a standard of flags; and the initials "W.C.G." A pile of expensive bloodstained clothing was found near the body. On the pair of undershorts was a laundry mark indicating the owner's initials were J.D.
Even though he was found in the heart of the hobo country, the young man was probably not one of them. Unlike the hobos, he was clean-, well nourished, and very well dressed in almost new clothing. As the police investigated, it seemed likely the man was killed somewhere else and brought to Kingsbury Run. For one thing, there was no evidence of blood soaked into the ground near the places where the head and body were laying. The body had been drained of blood and washed clean, an impossible task in that area of Kingsbury Run.
Coroner Pearse became distinctly uncomfortable when he examined the victim. Apparently, the man had been killed by act of decapitation itself, just like the prostitute murdered in January of 1936, two men found in Kingsbury Run the year before, and perhaps even that woman who washed up on the lake shore back in 1934. Death by decapitation was a most difficult thing to do and very, very rare in the history of crime. Pearse saw a terrifying pattern emerging, even though the police wanted to ignore it.
By Sunday, the day before the convention was to start, stories of a psychopathic maniac on the loose were in every newspaper. Ness quietly met with Sergeant James Hogan, his newly appointed head of the Homicide Division, and David Cowles, the head of the crime lab. Ness wanted Hogan, the tall, white-haired veteran police detective, to give him the background of these decapitation murders that were filling the newspapers. Ness had already spoken to the coroner who mentioned four possibly even five, decapitation murders going back as far as 1934.
Hogan began with the woman the newspapers called the "Lady in the Lake," a slender woman in her late thirties. The lower half of her body had washed up on the shores of Lake Erie in September 1934. A couple of days later, the upper part of her torso washed up some thirty miles away. Her head, arms, and lower legs were never found.
A person skilled in anatomy did the decapitation and severing of the body into two pieces, said the coroner. The killer had coated her body with calcium hypochloride, a preservative which gave her skin a strange, scorched look and accounted for the comparatively good condition of the body, considering it had been in the lake for three or four months.
Hogan said that his department had scoured the records of the thirty-one women reported missing that year. After a couple of weeks, they realized that whoever she was, nobody in the city had reported her missing. With no fingerprints or head by which to identify her, the case was filed away with other unsolved homicides.
The next decapitation murders took place in September of 1935, several months before Ness and Hogan had taken over their current jobs. There were two bodies this time, both found at the base of Jackass Hill in Kingsbury Run, not far from where the body of this young, tattooed man had recently been found. The two of men in 1935, headless and emasculated, were laid out neatly on the ground with their heels together and arms by their sides, as though a mad undertaker had carefully positioned them for some bizarre funeral rite.
Hogan anticipated Ness's next question. No, like the "Tattooed Man," the two men in September weren't killed in Kingsbury Run either. That was clear enough. There was no blood on the ground beneath their bodies. In fact, the cold, stiffened flesh had been drained of all blood and washed clean. The heads and sex organs were found near by, along with some bloody clothes of one of the victims.
Hogan showed Ness the picture detectives had taken of the steep slope called Jackass Hill. The killer must have carried the two bodies down that treacherous hill in the dark. There was just no other explanation of how the bodies got there, since it was impossible to get a car near that part of the gully.
Hogan handed Ness the autopsy photographs to look at while he summarized what the coroner had to say about the deaths. Like the tattooed man, both of these men were killed by the act of decapitation. Long, clean skillful sweeps of a large, heavy knife suggested a killer experienced in cutting flesh. A butcher very possibly, a hunter perhaps, even a surgeon for that matter.
The older victim, a short, heavy, middle-aged man, had been murdered a week or so earlier than the younger one. The skin on the older one was dark and tough from some chemical, possibly a preservative. The police had never determined who he was and virtually forgot about him after they identified the younger man.
The coroner thought the younger victim was killed forty-eight hours before he was laid out in Kingsbury Run. On his wrists were deep, ugly rope burns, raising the grotesque possibility he was conscious as the heavy knife cut through his neck.
Normally very impatient, especially when Eliot had so much on his mind as he did that convention weekend, the young man surprised Hogan with the level of detail he wanted to hear about the case. Hogan told him everything they had been able to dig up about the younger man. Fingerprints identified him as Edward Andrassy, a handsome, cocky troublemaker in his late twenties. Hogan struggled for euphemisms to describe Andrassy to his strait-laced boss. He was probably a "pervert," Hogan told him, using the common police parlance for homosexual, bisexual or anyone whose sexual activities deviated from the norm of the day. Even though Andrassy had been married at one time and fathered a child, there were numerous rumors of him being a male prostitute and having affairs with people of both sexes. Supposedly, he also procured young boys and child pornography for older men.
Others described Andrassy as a ladies man and a pimp. He was often seen with exotic women, usually black and Oriental. There was even one story of him posing as a "female doctor" to a young couple from West Virginia who had fertility problems. With her husband waiting in the next room, Andrassy took the woman into her bedroom and then, under the pretense of examination, took sexual liberties with her body.
Among Andrassy's many diverse sexual affairs, his tendency to pick fights when drunk, and his often outrageous behavior, there seemed to be a no end of motives for the man's murder. Hogan believed this killing was a "nationality case," meaning one of the many Slavic immigrants around Kingsbury Run killed Andrassy and the other man for looking the "wrong way" at his girlfriend. "These Eastern Europeans all learn how to butcher in the old country," he explained to Ness. The emasculation of the two men seemed to support the notion of some kind of sexual revenge.
Although Andrassy spent most of his time in the saloons and back alleys of tough neighborhoods like West 25th Street and Bolivar Road downtown, the young man lived with his respectable parents on the west side of Cleveland. His mother remembered that a few weeks before her son died, a man came to their home threatening to kill Andrassy for sleeping with his wife. Just before that, he had come home from a bar on Bolivar with his head badly cut. His parents couldn't understand how their son who was so quiet and decent at home could get into so much difficulty elsewhere. They last saw him a few days before his body was found in Kingsbury Run but, as usual, they had no idea who he was with or where he was going.
Hogan told Ness that after months of chasing down leads and talking to people who knew Andrassy, the department had reached a dead end. The man who was found with him in Kingsbury Run was unknown to Andrassy's other acquaintances and, because he had been killed at least a week before Andrassy, may have been a stranger to Andrassy also.
Eliot wanted to know if Hogan thought all the cases, including the murder of the prostitute Flo Polillo, were connected. The veteran policeman was reluctant to voice too strong an opinion, in case Ness had an entirely different one.
Hogan's face got red and beads of perspiration popped out on his forehead. Cautiously, Hogan said he saw some similarities between the murders of Flo Polillo and the "Lady in the Lake." Both women had been dismembered in the same way and their bodies disposed of in a manner suggesting the killer didn't want them to be found. After all, it was only by accident that the "Lady in the Lake" washed up on the lakeshore some six months after she died, and Flo's body would have been hauled away by the rubbish collectors if it hadn't been for the dog howling.
The deaths of the three men found in Kingsbury Run seemed different to Hogan. They had all been laid out where they were sure to be discovered in a day or two. There was a different pattern to the mutilations, too. Except for the emasculation of Andrassy and his companion, the bodies were whole from the neck down.
Then there was the issue of motive. Police science in the 1930's dictated that to solve a murder you tracked down everybody who had a motive for the killing until you had the person with the means and opportunity. The motives proposed for the Kingsbury Run double murder, whether it was jealousy, revenge or sexual deviation, didn't fit if the victims were female. If Hogan was right about Andrassy's death being a "nationality" case, some jealous Bohemian butcher was not going to kill Flo Polillo or the "Lady in the Lake" for talking to his wife or looking once too often at his girlfriend.
Ness seemed lost in thought for several minutes, remembering the opinion that David Cowles had shared before Hogan had arrived. Cowles was convinced it was a single killer, but hadn't been able to get Hogan to agree. Hogan sat quietly, waiting for his boss to speak. "Jim, you've got a real problem on your hands," Ness concluded. "The same guy did them all. Too much similarity to be coincidental. Death by decapitation. The expert hand with a knife. Bodies all cleaned up and neat. I can't tell you why he kills women one way and men another, but it's the same man, I guarantee you." Hogan had more sense than to argue with him. He didn't know the "Boy Wonder" well enough to know if he tolerated disagreement from subordinates. Hogan asked him if there was anything special he wanted done, now that he had come to the conclusion about a single murderer.
Eliot was very clear in his instructions. There was to be absolutely no suggestion to the newspapers that they were looking for one murderer and absolutely no further information whatsoever while the convention was going on, otherwise visitors would be afraid to step outside their hotel rooms. After the effort Mayor Burton had gone to getting the convention to Cleveland, he would be furious if some lunatic spoiled it.
"Jim, I want you to do everything in your power to catch this maniac," he instructed Hogan. "Dave, I know you'll put the crime lab at Jim's disposal."
Ness had no intention of getting involved any further in this murder case. That was Hogan's job and he was holding Hogan responsible for results. Ferreting out corruption in the police force had a much higher priority than finding a nut that murdered petty criminals and nobodies.
With the body of the latest victim in such good condition, plus the six unique tattoos, Hogan was cautiously optimistic about learning his identity. While some detectives checked fingerprint files and recent missing person reports, others took the young man's photo to tattoo parlors and sailor hangouts. The face and tattoos received even more exposure on display at the morgue. Two thousand people looked at him the first night and thousands more after that. Detectives put in countless hours of footwork checking out the laundry marks and tracing the clothing they found. A death mask, along with photographs of his face and tattoos, was exhibited to the seven million visitors who came to the Great Lakes Expo over the next two years. In spite of all that effort, the "Tattooed Man" remained nameless.
Ness's men had better luck with the Republican National Convention. His security arrangements were superb and the convention successfully concluded with the Republican candidate Alfred Landon, the governor of Kansas, chosen to run against Roosevelt.
Shortly after the convention was over, the city was swept up in the glamour of the Great Lakes Exposition, which was a combination of world's fair and super amusement park. After the misery of the Depression years, it was a magnificent diversion offered at a modest price where even the poor could enjoy the spectacular shows put on by celebrities like Esther Williams, Sally Rand, Billy Rose, and Johnny Weismuller. There was even a police exhibit designed by Eliot Ness showing the latest methods in fighting crime, along with the death mask of the "Tattooed Man."