Major Crimes in History

Cleveland Torso Murders of the ’30s

One day in September of 1935, in the Kingsbury Run area of Cleveland, Ohio, two bodies were found in the bushes. Police were called immediately and, after looking over the crime scene, were able to confidently state that there were two male bodies that had been emasculated and beheaded. This was the beginning of the Cleveland torso murders – the work of perhaps the first serial killer in U.S history.

cleveland torso murders

The scene at the foot of Jackass Hill, September 23, 1935: Edward Andrassy’s headless, emasculated corpse. Photo courtesy of Marjorie Merylo Dentz.

There was no blood at the scene, and this led detectives to conclude that the people had been killed elsewhere and transported to the crime site. One of the bodies remained unidentified, but the other body was that of Edward Andrassy, who the police already knew as a petty criminal. Curiously, police determined that the anonymous man had been killed several weeks before Andrassy.

The Cleveland Torso Murders

Police work began in earnest and the workload increased when the body of a female showed up in January of 1936. She had been killed in a similar manner to the two men. Detectives were puzzled that the killer had changed the gender of his victims, which was unusual. The body was soon identified as Flo Polillo, a frequent patron of bars in the area.

At this point the famous Eliot Ness became involved, as he was Cleveland’s chief of Public Safety. He added himself to the growing number of law enforcement working on the case.

The murders continued. In June of 1936 a male body surfaced that featured several notable tattoos. Despite those distinctive markings, authorities could not identify the body.

In September, a partial body lie with a hat nearby that authorities later identified as one given to a homeless man by a local woman. This reinforced the theory that the Cleveland torso murders involved only people from the lowest rungs of society.

There was a slight lull in the murders and, although the investigation continued at a frantic pace, Ness and the police were not any closer to finding the killer.

The killer apparently killed six more times before the last canonical victim emerged in August of 1938 (like Jack the Ripper, there was some disagreement among law enforcement as to the number of murders the killer committed).

cleveland torso murders

Eliot Ness, Cleveland Chief of Public Safety (AP Photo/The Plain Dealer, File).

Possible Suspects

The hunt for the murderer hit one dead end after another. Investigators were hopeful when they identified a man who often went to a bar patronized by several of the victims. People described this man to become prone to anger and threatening when drunk. Police took this man into custody and, after some time, he confessed to one murder. Unfortunately, he killed himself before they fully questioned him about the other murders. Suspiciously, after his death, his autopsy revealed several broken ribs, which acquaintances of the man said he didn’t have when police took him into custody. This led the press and general populace to believe his confession was worthless, because it appeared that police had obtained it under physical force.

Later, Ness himself oversaw the pursuit of another man, a doctor with a history of mental illness. Police brought him in, and the doctor failed a primitive lie detector test. Ness felt he was finally on the path to the killer and continued to press the medical man. The suspect eluded Ness by voluntarily committing himself to a mental institution, which placed him out of reach of Ness and his team. Had Ness pursued the doctor further, the doctor had an insanity defense virtually locked in place.

Murders Stop

Coincidentally, the Cleveland torso murders appeared to stop after the doctor went into that mental hospital. Cleveland police continued to investigate the crimes. However, they made no convictions and the murders remain a cold case. Perhaps with new evidence or technology police may be solve the murders in the future. Or they may remain a puzzle from the realm of 20th century true crime.

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Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved
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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries