Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Dark Tale of Casinos, Elliot Ness, and the 1930's

Some big news for Clevelanders; next month, after a long wait – the Horseshoe Casino is opening right here in fabulous downtown Cleveland. Truthfully, I’ve been really looking forward to it because it’ll be a great place to visit and – despite everything the morally outraged naysayers would have you believe – it is a good thing for Cleveland. It’ll bring money in, it’ll keep money here (that would have otherwise gone to Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Ontario), and it will continue to provide downtown the long coming renaissance it so desperately needs to avoid becoming Detroit.

My first thought was to list some great gambling movies . Even from a non-genre standpoint, I love a good gambling movie in general, but there are few and far between examples in the horror/sci-fi/ nerd genre where I live. That’s not to say a few didn’t come to mind.

Take for example Howard Hawks’ brilliant 1951 classic, The Thing from Another World. I mean, if you’re stranded at the North Pole at a remote military outpost… you’re going to play some poker… you know?

Or we could talk about the Charles Band/Full Moon film – Dead Man’s Hand: Casino of the Damned. For the record – I’ve never seen it and found it through a cursory Google search; but I absolutely love Full Moon Video. Michael Berryman and Sid Haig make it a must see! Back in college, they were a go to horror movie night. Puppetmaster, Meridian, Pit and the Pendulum, Demonic Toys? That’s some awesome stuff there!

The thing is, I decided to steer away from movies and indulge another of my loves (something I do rarely enough on this blog, dear undead reader) – and talk about Macabre History!

I’ve done it in the past (my visit to the Night of the Living Dead cemetery in Evansville PA, my visit to the Monroeville Mall where they filmed Dawn of the Dead, or even my relating of my close personal tie to the local Lundgren killings in nearby Kirtland OH), but I don’t do it enough.

With that said, I wanted to write an article about the heyday of gambling here in Ohio, now that the second wave is arriving with the building and opening of the Cleveland Horseshoe Casino. I’m of course talking about the roaring times after Prohibition and the seedy underbelly of Cleveland’s dark past.

That’s right, in the shadow of the new casino and unknown to many of the tourists who’ll flock here, Cleveland had its very own serial killer back in the 1930’s. And our serial killer was a twisted bastard alng the lines of Jack the Ripper, or Ed Gein, or even H. H. Holmes.

Between 1935 and 1938, a deranged killer stalked the streets of Cleveland, a madman with a taste for dismemberment, medical experimentation, and brazen trophy taking.

I’m, of course, talking about the Torso Murderer.

Sit down, my grotesque kiddies, for Doctor Zombie is about to relate a tale of terror!

A few blocks south of the current site of the Horseshoe Casino, there is an old riverbed calls Kingsbury Run. Today, it’s a part of the sewer and overflow system and most of it looks like the LA River in that it’s been turned into concrete. It also follows the tracks of the main railroad artery through Cleveland.

The Kingsbury Run begins at roughly E. 90th St and Woodland near the Cleveland Clinic. The old run’s course runs towards downtown, bounded on the North by Woodland and on the South by Broadway, where it passes a few blocks south of the new Casino, and empties into the Cuyahoga River in the heart of the Flats.

Today, it’s a desolate wasteland in the heart of Cleveland’s decayed urban wasteland, but back in the early twentieth century it was a dark, dimly lit, tree lined valley that was the home of shantytowns, brothels, gambling parlors, and cheap penny saloons that served the working poor of Cleveland. It was home to hobos and those dispossessed by the Great Depression. It was like a black, clogged artery in the chest of a corpse and a place of ill repute and squalor… And it was the stalking ground of a killer unlike any seen in Cleveland before.

The Torso Murderer, as he became known, was also known as the Kingsbury Run Butcher because many of his victims were found within the Run, but he made all of Cleveland his personal slay ground. The first body was found in September of 1934 in the waters of Lake Erie near Euclid Beach. The first unknown victim, known locally as ‘The Lady of the Lake’, was only a well preserved torso found bobbing in the brown lake water. The body (what little there was of it) was preserved in some kind of chemical that retarded decay and gave the skin an eerie, red, leathery cast.

In September 1935, at the base of the humorously named Jackass Hill near East 49th St where it overlooks Kingsbury Run, two local boys found another victim. This body was of a male who’d been decapitated and emasculated. Fortunately, the killer left the victim’s hands and fingerprints identified him as Edward Andrassy. While they were recovering the body, the Cleveland Police Department found yet another body nearby – preserved by the same weird chemical.

Andrassy was a known homosexual who haunted the bars and gambling halls of the Run, and it stands to reason that he met his killer there.

In January of 1936, near the corner of East 20th Street and St.Clair Road, a local woman was walking to the market when she found half of a woman’s body packed neatly in two bushel baskets. Over the course of a few days, the rest of her was found in a vacant lot a few blocks away – everything, that is, but her head. This woman was identified by fingerprints as a Florence Polillo, a bar maid and prostitute who frequented and plied her dubious trade in the Kingsbury Run,

During the heat of June 5th, 1936, another human head was discovered near the E. 55th Street Bridge where it crosses the Kingsbury Run. The victim, it was determined, had been alive when his head was removed. The next day, the rest of the unknown man’s body was discovered by police investigators near the doorstep of the nearby railroad police station. Although he had several distinct tattoos, and a death mask was made, he remains unidentified to this day. Given where the body was found, was the killer taunting his pursuers?

On July 22nd of the same year, across the river in Brooklyn – near Big Creek – another headless victim was found. This was strange because, although the body – like previous victims – showed that the poor hapless soul was dismembered while still alive, the victim was the only one found on the West Side. His clothes, copious amounts of blood, and his head were found nearby; indicating he was killed at the discovery site some two months previously.

Like the previous victims, autopsy revealed that the heads had been removed with one powerful strike of a large cutting instrument – while the victim was still alive. At this point, the public was in a panic. So, the mayor called in a celebrity to handle the investigation. Enter Elliot Ness.

Yes, THAT Elliot Ness. After making a name for himself as the head of the Chicago task force nicknamed ‘The Untouchables’, and being the man responsible for bringing down Al Capone, Elliot Ness came to Cleveland and took on the job of Public Safety Director. Unfortunately, Ness’ star would prove to be tarnished by the Torso Murder case.

The summer led to the fall and, on September 10th, 1936, a hobo was trying to hop a train near East 37th Street in Kingsbury Run (where I-77 crosses Kingsbury Run today) and tripped over yet another torso. No other body parts were found. In February of the next year, another woman’s body was found in near the same spot near Bratenahl and Euclid Beach as the ‘Lady in the Lake’. The body’s mutilations had so many similarities; it had to be the same killer.

July 6th, 1937 - A boy finds a skull in a bag beneath the Lorain Carnegie Bridge. Nearby was discovered the remains of a petite black woman later ID’d as Rose Wallace. Again, no head, but it also showed that the killer was an equal opportunity madman, because this would be the Torso Murderers only black victim.

July 6th, 1937. A torso is pulled out of the Cuyahoga River in the Flats near where the Kingsbury Run emptied it’s noxious effluvia into the river famous for – in the 1970’s – catching fire because of all the industrial pollutants in it. No head was ever found, but it looked as though Torso had upped his vicious game. The torso showed signs of having the heart ripped out and the victim being gutted.

April 8th, 1938 - The Cuyahoga gives up another victim – a leg of woman and nothing else. Interestingly, toxicology revealed the woman had drugs in her system. Was Torso drugging his victims like Cleveland’s second most popular serial killer – Anthony Sowell?

Finally – on August 16th of 1938 – two more victims were found at the dump at the end of East 9th Street. Today, this site is the home of the Cleveland Port, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Cleveland Browns Stadium. Back in the 30’s though – it was a dump that, like the Run, was home to a shantytown and similar squalor. Three scrap collectors found a woman’s torso wrapped in a blanket. A search of the dump found her head, as well as the torso and decapitated head of another male victim. Like the previous victims, they were never identified.

What was interesting about the victims at the dump was that they were placed and positioned in such a way that they would have been visible from Elliot Ness’ office in city hall. Again, the killer was brazenly taunting the authorities.

On August 18th, Elliot Ness had had enough. He swooped into the Kingsbury Run and arrested 63 men and burned the Shantytown down. Criticized for his zealousness by the local press, it did seem to stop the killer.

A man was arrested in the murder of Flo Polillo – a Bohemian brick layer named Frank Dolezal. It was discovered that he knew Edward Andrassy and Rose Wallace, and he confessed to the murders… but he recanted and died in police custody. An autopsy revealed that he had been beaten severely and it is generally believed his confession was coerced.

Nobody knows what happened to the Torso Murderer. Recent theories have shown that he may have worked for the railroads and subsequent research has shown similar murders at the same time and along the same railways that ran through the Kingsbury Run and into Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Elliot Ness himself thought he knew who the murderer was, but he never divulged who it was. It is interesting to note that the suspect spent years taunting and sending letters to Ness –which would fit the brazenness and hubris of the Torso murderer.

Torso also was Ness’ biggest failure. He never recovered the glamor and reputation he’d once had. After an unsuccessful run for Cleveland mayor, he died in Cleveland and is buried in Lake View Cemetery, never having caught his man.

Ohio’s a weird place, dear reader. It’s said that more serial killers come from Ohio than any other state. We had Jeffrey Dahmer, who grew up about 30 miles down the Cuyahoga River in Bath, Ohio. I’ve already mentioned Anthony Sowell who killed women on Cleveland’s East Side - and within walking distance to the former haunts of Torso – and even Charles Manson was born and raised here.

My advice? Don’t drink the water, friend.

And so that brings us back around to Dan Gilbert’s baby, the Horseshoe Casino. Cleveland was a thriving prohibition era magnet. Many of our downtown buildings hid speakeasies and gaming parlors fueled by Canadian whisky that was brought from Canada which lies a mere 30 miles north across the Lake

Hopefully, new visitors will come, spend money, and learn to appreciate the unique Midwestern appeal of our fair city. Cleveland has a rich, storied history. And that history is no darker than any other cities, but we are experiencing a renaissance and maybe the Horseshoe Casino will bring some much needed change that – while not erasing the past – will add to the history. I for one am looking forward to spending some time at the Horseshoe’s restaurant and pub, The Tilted Kilt, and have been polishing up my black jack skills and playing a ton of other casino games.

You should too!

For more information on the Torso Murderer, make sure you check out and/or visit the Cleveland Police Museum.

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