Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

More Haunted Crime Scenes

Murder Swamp

Elliott Ness
Elliott Ness

In September 1934, part of woman's torso, with legs severed at the knees, washed up on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio.  A year later in the garbage-strewn area known as Kingsbury Run, two headless, mutilated male corpses were found with genitals removed.  The younger one was identified as a small-time criminal, and the police dismissed his murder as his just desserts.  But then early in 1936, the remains of a prostitute were found in a basket behind a butcher shop, and another decapitated male corpse turned up in Kingsbury Run, inspiring the Cleveland Plain Dealer to dub the killer "the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run." Two more mutilated bodies turned up, making seven.

The city's Director of Safety was none other than Elliott Ness, former G-man and founder of the Untouchables.  He assigned a dozen detectives to the case and burned down the hobo camps from where many victims had come, but corpses continued to show up for two more years.  By then the number had reached a dozen, but the killer eluded identification.  In 1938, Ness narrowed in on one suspect, Dr. Francis Sweeney, who, after intensive interrogation by Ness personally, then committed himself to a veterans hospital.

Elliott Ness
Elliott Ness

Crime Library's founder and executive editor, Marilyn Bardsley, investigated this serial murder case in the early 1970s and actually uncovered the identity of the killer, which had been kept secret for decades. The identity of Frank Sweeney as the man that Ness was convinced was the killer was confirmed by two close friends of Ness and the third Mrs. Ness before she passed away. According to Mrs. Ness, there was a deal made between Ness and Dr. Sweeney, which very likely included Dr. Sweeney's first cousin, powerful Democratic Congressman Martin L. Sweeney, that if the alcoholic doctor checked himself into the Soldiers and Sailors VA hospital in Toledo, Ness would not publicize the circumstances. It worked out well for all parties: the killings stopped (until 1950 when Sweeney was on the loose again) and Ness, who was a highly-visible part of a Republican city administration, didn't have to try to get a conviction with the very little hard evidence he had.

Detective Peter Merlyo Undercover
Detective Peter Merlyo Undercover

Troy Taylor, a pre-eminent ghost hunter and expert on the paranormal, writes about the Mad Butcher, also known as the "Torso Killer" on his Web site, Prairie Ghosts.  He says that Detective Peter Merlyo stayed on the case until his death in 1947, believing that the killer had actually murdered many more people than the official tally.  He believed that many of the bodies found during the 1920s in a place nicknamed "Murder Swamp," just outside New Castle, Pennsylvania, were victims the Torso Killer's handiwork.  The detective, who became obsessed with the Mad Butcher and saw his work everywhere including the Black Dahlia case,  thought the killer traveled by boxcar to elude law enforcement and to find victims in other places.

Map of Pennsylvania with New Castle locator.
Map of Pennsylvania with New Castle locator.

In 1925, three headless bodies turned up in Murder Swamp, a seemingly convenient place to dispose of them.  Despite this early notion that murders could be linked via MO and similar terrain, the detective never solved these crimes.  Then more bodies turned up after the final 1938 murder in Cleveland associated with the Mad Butcher.  In October 1939, the corpse of a young male surface in Murder Swamp, and then three dismembered bodies, one with carvings on his chest, were found in some boxcars that had come from Youngstown, Ohio, not far from Cleveland.  Pittsburgh had its own headless body, removed from one of the rivers, along with two human legs found some time later in another river that flowed through the city.  Then another headless corpse.

That these victims were all connected cannot be proven, nor has the Mad Butcher ever been officially identified.  But people in Cleveland preserve the tale, and some say the ghosts of victims show up in the places where they were found, whether it's in the Murder Swamp or the other death scene locations.  Local folklore even suggests that the Mad Butcher still hunts, restless even in death.

Whatever the case may be, it's certain that a Mad Butcher populates scary tales told to kids, especially those who live where the killer once roamed.  Unidentified murderers tend to acquire an immortality that makes them larger than life, and scarier.

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