The man was grabbed off of a street corner in broad daylight. He was a large man with big hands, spectacles, and a mustache. He did not necessarily look like trouble, but inside he was certainly troubled. His name was Dr. Francis Sweeney, and on that afternoon in August 1938, he was kidnapped and brought to a hotel suite somewhere in downtown Cleveland. 

Sweeney’s travails came at the behest of the city’s Director of Public Safety. The well-dressed Republican suspected Dr. Sweeney of committing crimes most foul but did not have enough hard evidence to slap cuffs on the big man and bring him before a judge. Instead, the hotel suite became an interrogation room. Sweeney was sweated for hours, if not days. He was denied an attorney. He may have been smacked around. Everything that happened was illegal, and yet, after it was all said and done, Sweeney never went to the courts to seek redress. He was escorted out of the hotel and voluntarily committed himself to a mental hospital on August 25. Sweeney would stay there until his death in 1965 [1]

The details of Sweeney’s interrogation have been lost to time. However, we know why the doctor was grilled by Cleveland police officers, and we know that Sweeney and the Director of Public Safety met face-to-face [2]. The Director of Public Safety suspected Dr. Sweeney of being a serial killer. And not just any serial killer, but the Torso Killer, aka the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run or the Cleveland Torso Murderer. Since 1934, the murderer had been cutting up the city’s indigent population, male and female alike, and leaving their dissected carcasses in Lake Erie or in the Kingsbury Run area, a known hobo settlement. The Director of Public Safety had his reasons to suspect Dr. Sweeney, and these reasons have been echoed by many historians since the case went cold before the dawn of the 1940s. This is some vindication for the man who failed to catch a killer and suffered politically because of it. 

That man’s name was Eliot Ness. 

Contemporary depiction of the Torso Killer. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Police Museum.

Ness is best known today as the leader of the Untouchables, a small group of G-men supposedly immune to corruption. The Untouchables went to war with Al Capone in Chicago during the final days of Prohibition. They used Tommy guns and tough tactics to break-up Capone’s illegal stills and breweries, thus costing “Scarface” time and money. The exploits of the Untouchables earned them articles and fame, later to be immortalized in print by a sports writer named Oscar Fraley. Fraley’s 1957 account of the Untouchables inspired a television show in the 1960s and an Oscar-winning film by Brian DePalma in 1987. Did Fraley tell a truthful tale? No. Fraley and Ness, who provided the writer with several interviews over the course of several months, exaggerated the Untouchables so much that many people operate under the assumption that it was they who took down Capone. In truth, the Untouchables went after Capone for Volstead Act violations—the enforceable and unpopular arm of the Eighteenth Amendment. Capone did not go to Alcatraz on charges related to the Volstead Act. Instead, an owl-eyed investigator with the Internal Revenue Service named Frank J. Wilson led the charge to convict Capone of tax evasion. Wilson, not Ness, did the most to end the career of America’s foremost mobster. 

None of this is to say that Ness did not matter. Ness mattered a lot, and the American public of the Great Depression loved him as a hero. Ness may have been a media-made celebrity, but he did win several battles in the War Against Crime. He won notoriety in Chicago, but accomplished the most in Cleveland, a city once synonymous with corruption. Ness went to his grave believing that his greatest achievement was disrupting Cleveland’s small but powerful Italian American mafia. In particular, as Cleveland’s Director of Public Safety, Ness used municipal power to crack down on mob-controlled gambling dens like the Harvard Club and labor union protection rackets [3]. Ness also instituted public safety measures such as installing the first traffic lights in the city. All in all, Ness’s tenure in Cleveland can be seen as a success, and yet the city’s powerbrokers drummed him out of town because of his drinking, his failed marriage, and his failure to catch the Torso Killer. A pretty-boy hero one day, a scapegoat the next. It is a story as old as time. 

Ness’s story began on April 19, 1903. Ness was born the youngest of five children to Peter and Emma Ness. Peter and Emma relocated to the Kensington neighborhood of Chicago from their native Norway. Peter owned and operated his own bakery, which meant that his children often found themselves grinding away with flour and dough in order to help out their dad. Young Eliot showed promise as a child, which likely made up for the handicap that he was unwittingly named after a woman (his parents were big fans of the novels of British writer George Eliot, real name Mary Ann Evans). Eventually, after graduating from Christian Fenger High School, Ness matriculated at the University of Chicago. He graduated with a degree in Economics in 1925. A square’s life beckoned, as Ness got a sensible job as an insurance investigator for the Retail Credit Company. Ness’s duties included examining insurance claims and conducting background research on customers and companies. According to later biographies, the work bored him. Yet, Ness did have a passion for investigations. This passion led him back to the University of Chicago, where Ness earned a master’s degree in the new and novel discipline of Criminology. 

August Vollmer in uniform. Image courtesy of Berkeley Police Department.

One of Ness’s instructors during his graduate coursework was the legendary lawman, August Vollmer (1876-1955). Born in New Orleans to German immigrant parents, Vollmer served with distinction in the U.S. Army in Puerto Rico and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. From there, after moving to California, he won election as the first ever Chief of Police for the new city of Berkeley. As Berkeley’s top cop, Vollmer oversaw massive innovations such as creating one of the earliest police academies in the United States, the creation of the first motorcycle squads, the installation of radios in all police vehicles, and the creation of the first motorized patrol units [4]. Vollmer believed that all police officers should be streetwise sociologists, and as such he mandated that his men attend college courses. Later, Vollmer’s recruits needed to have college degrees in order to be considered at all. 

Vollmer’s ideas meshed well with the burgeoning study of Criminology, and, after a disastrous time as the Chief of Police for the Los Angeles Police Department, wherein the idealistic Berkeley cop failed to change LAPD’s culture of corruption, Vollmer began a new career as a university lecturer. Ness took Vollmer’s theories to heart, and for the remainder of his career he would be seen as a “college boy detective” unimpressed with the old ways of doing things. Ness got his first crack at real police work thanks to Alexander Jamie, his brother-in-law who worked for the Treasury Department’s Chicago office. In 1927, Ness joined the Treasury Department as an agent with the Prohibition Bureau. The Chicago of the 1920s had a well-deserved notoriety for wanton violence. When Prohibition became law, the city’s criminals divided the town between them. The Irish, led by a florist and bootlegger named Dean O’Banion, claimed the North Side. The South Side went to the Italians and their head honcho, Johnny Torrio. The South Side crew became known as The Outfit, a powerful and dangerous branch of La Cosa Nostra that came to rival the Five Families of New York City. However, in the mid-1920s, New York considered The Outfit an offshoot of their operations. That is why a Brooklyn lieutenant with years in the Five Points Gang, Al Capone, got orders to relocate to Chicago and work with Torrio. 

A mutually acceptable Chicago to both gangs did not last long. O’Banion grew envious of the money being made on the South Side. He started muscling his way in. Torrio tried to mollify the hot-tempered O’Banion with beer rights in Cicero, but nothing stuck. Finally, in 1924, O’Banion double-crossed Torrio by not warning him of an upcoming raid on the Sieben Brewery, which both men had stakes in. Because he had no prior Prohibition arrests, O’Banion walked away. Torrio was not so lucky, and ultimately lost over a million dollars in today’s money. Still, Torrio wanted to play nice. The Genna brothers of the South Side did not, and after a testy phone call with O’Banion about debts, a hit was placed on the diminutive crime boss. On November 10, 1924, while O’Banion clipped chrysanthemums, Brooklyn gangster Frankie Yale (Capone’s boss) and two Genna gunmen entered O’Banion’s flower shop. As soon as Yale and O’Banion shook hands, the gunmen unleashed two shots to the torso and two to the throat. After O’Banion fell to the floor, they pumped two more shots into his skull for good measure [5].  By the time that Special Agent Eliot Ness took his desk at the Treasury Department’s Chicago field office, the city’s underworld convulsed with open warfare between Italians and Irish gangsters.  

The gangster war experienced its apogee and ultimately its conclusion at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, February 14, 1929. Inside of a garage at 2122 North Clark Street, seven men associated with George “Bugs” Moran’s North Side Gang were lined up against a wall and shot. Their killers wore the distinctive uniform of the Chicago Police Department but were in fact South Side gangsters and hired gunmen from out-of-town. This event, known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, shocked the typically cynical Chicago public and galvanized the city and the U.S. government into action. President Herbert Hoover, who styled himself as a progressive reformer and as a tough-on-crime leader, ordered the Justice and Treasury departments to go after Capone, the leader of the South Side Gang and the man responsible for the murders. Ness had his own benefactors as well. In October 1930, Alexander Jamie requested and received an indefinite leave from the Bureau of Prohibition. He took up a new position as the head of the Citizens’ Committee for the Prevention and Punishment of Crime, better known as the Secret Six [6]. The Secret Six were a shadowy group of powerful Chicagoland businessmen concerned about Capone and his criminal empire. They commissioned Jamie to create a small but dedicated force within the Treasury Department to take the fight directly to Capone. Jamie agreed and selected his brother-in-law Ness as the man suitable for the assignment. Thus, the Untouchables were born.

The Untouchables were men handpicked by Ness because of their honesty, their experience, their education (Ness preferred college graduates), and their physical fitness. Most important of all was their willingness to forgo bribes and graft. This was no small feat in Chicago, where police officers and G-men regularly took kickbacks from Capone’s soldiers in order to supplement their meager salaries. The eleven members (excluding Ness) were: former Colgate University football player Lyle Chapman; Irish American agent and bodybuilder, Bernard V. Cloonan; former boxer Martin J. Lahart; ex-Pennsylvania State Police trooper Thomas Friel; department analyst Michael King; the 50-year-old former soldier, athlete, and member of the Chippewa tribe, William Gardner; driver Joseph Leeson; wire-tapping specialist Paul W. Robsky; Sing Sing death row Corrections Officer Samuel M. Seager; private investigator Jim Seeley; and Kentucky-based G-man Albert H. Wolff. It did not take long for these men to become glamorized in the Chicago papers as the fearless and saintly professionals in a world where most cops were amateurs. The fact that many of these members were not as “untouchable” as they claimed to be (there is evidence that more than a few accepted bribes, and most, including Ness, enjoyed privileges courtesy of the media) did not damage their myth. The Untouchables became a sensation because they did sensationalist things like the April 11, 1931, raid on a Capone-owned brewery that resulted in $1.5 million in illicit booze being dumped into Chicago’s sewers [7]. The Untouchables turned the tables on the South Side gangsters by hijacking their hooch trucks and putting guns to the temples of their gunmen. Hundreds of Capone’s men were arrested for Volstead Act violations, which was all that mattered to President Hoover and the city. 

The popularity of Ness and his men made them more friends than enemies, but the enemies they did have were powerful. Ness later recounted to Fraley that Capone sent one of his deadliest assassins after him and his family sometime in late 1930/early 1931. However, of all of Ness’s enemies, his most ardent foe was none other than J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary head of the FBI. The pair’s rivalry did not begin until the final days of the Untouchables. On October 17, 1931, Al Capone was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison for income tax evasion. Despite making most of his money off the sale of illegal booze, Capone’s court records made little mention of the Volstead Act, or the many arrests made by the Untouchables. Dogged and boring paperwork brought the mob boss down, not two-fisted street battles. With Capone out of the way, the Untouchables disbanded. By 1933, everyone knew that Prohibition was a dead letter thanks to the campaign promises of the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ness was no longer in Chicago, having been transferred to Cincinnati to fight moonshiners along the Kentucky border. This period of Ness’s career is the most often forgotten, but the super-sleuth always maintained that it was the most dangerous period of his life. Apparently, Appalachian hillbillies with hunting rifles came closer to killing Ness than Capone’s men ever did. 

In November 1933, Ness decided that he needed a change. He applied to join Hoover’s FBI. One would assume that hiring the famous Ness would be a no-brainer. After all, during the crime wave of the Depression, Hoover’s FBI leaned heavily on film and radio to promote the idea that Justice Department G-men were the frontline soldiers in the War on Crime. Adding Ness to the team would have been a propaganda bonanza, and yet it never came to pass. The first issue was pay: Ness balked at the FBI’s annual salary of $2,465, which was well below the Prohibition Bureau’s $3,800 a year [8]. By December 4, 1933, Hoover made it official—Eliot Ness was denied a spot in the FBI. Hoover privately believed that Ness had played no role whatsoever in the takedown of Capone. Hoover also learned from a disgruntled Untouchable that Ness regularly drank on the job and had a rough relationship with his wife, Edna. The final straw was the August 25, 1933, raid on a Chicago moonshine distillery run by a Polish immigrant named Joe Kulak. Ness and his men raided the distillery but ultimately let Kulak go after he produced a note from an aide to Illinois Senator J. Lewis Hamilton. The note claimed that Hamilton had ok’d the distillery. The note was a forgery, but Ness took it as genuine. Hoover saw this as not only naïve, but also indicative of a willingness to bow to political pressure. Hoover not only strangled Ness’s FBI career in its infancy, but also maintained a file on Ness for the rest of his life [9]. Hoover would badger Ness in Cleveland and even after death, going so far as to oversee changes to the television version of the Untouchables, which cast them as Justice Department agents and thereby connected to Hoover’s beloved organization. 

In 1935, Ness, now a member of the renamed Alcohol Tax Unit (a precursor to today’s ATF), left Cincinnati for Cleveland. Much like Jazz Age Chicago, Cleveland was a mob-ruled town where vice was often protected by corrupt local police like Cuyahoga County Sheriff Martin L. O’Donnell. Ness made waves immediately by carrying out highly publicized raids on untaxed saloons and gambling dens in the city. Ness wrote letters back to Vollmer complaining that every business in Cleveland sent protection money to the city’s Sicilian gangs. The corruption seemed insurmountable, but Ness plugged away by going after labor union rackets, protection rackets, prostitution rings, and crooked cops. Once again, Ness was making friends in the general public and powerful enemies behind the scenes.

Eliot Ness as Director of Public Safety in 1935. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Police Museum.

One of the men who saw something potent in Ness was Harold Burton, a local Republican politician. A native of Jamaica Plain in Boston, Burton was the former dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an officer in the U.S. Army during World War I, and an explorer who went to the North Pole multiple times with Robert Peary. In a wicked twist of fate, Burton was also cousins with J. Edgar Hoover. Burton made a name for himself as a “Boy Scout” in Ohio politics for being above-board and serious about defeating vice. He served time in the Ohio legislature before eventually serving in the U.S. Senate. Burton’s final years of service, from 1945 until 1958, saw him as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Before that however, Burton was Cleveland’s mayor, having won a victory over Democrat Ray T. Miller in 1935. One of Mayor Burton’s main concerns was cleaning up crime in the city, and for that he hired Ness as the Director of Public Safety. 

Ness took to his new role with vigor. He conducted routine patrols of the city to make sure that his police officers did their duties without succumbing to the myriad temptations on offer from organized crime and the city’s infamous Roaring Third section of bars and bordellos. Ness did much to clean-up and reorganize the Cleveland Police Department, including establishing a new academy in the mold of August Vollmer’s Berkeley experiment. He started community out-reach programs to convince the city’s destitute youth to steer clear of crime. He enhanced the city’s mobile patrol budget, plus he oversaw the installation of traffic lights, which drastically reduced the city’s traffic fatalities (Cleveland once led the country in automobile deaths). Of course, Ness also used his position to go after organized crime, even going so far as to conduct raids outside of city limits. This did not endear him to Sheriff O’Donnell, a Democrat, and the county lawman made it his mission to bring Ness down a peg or two. 

Ness’s many accomplishments in Cleveland became overshadowed by something evil that began when he was still a G-man. On the morning of September 5, 1934, Frank LaGassie, 34, of Beulah Park busied himself with looking for driftwood to burn on the shores of Lake Erie. At approximately eight o’clock in the morning, LaGassie saw something drifting towards him. The item eventually washed ashore near East 156th Street. Believing that he had found a large tree trunk, LaGassie ran in horror when he discovered that the tree trunk was actually the rotting lower torso of a female corpse that had had its legs amputated below the knee [10]. This victim became known as the “Lady of the Lake,” and like most of those murdered by the Torso Killer, she was never identified. All told, the Torso Killer claimed twelve known victims between 1934 and 1938. Most of the victims were found near Lake Erie or along Kingsbury Run. The killer’s victims were men and women, white and black, young and old. Many of these poor souls were only found as pieces—sometimes just their legs were found, but most of the time it was just their head. Cleveland investigators suspected that most of the victims were either transients or members of the city’s underclass. One victim, whose head and torso were discovered on June 5, 1936 near the East 55th Street Bridge, was nicknamed “The Tattooed Man” for his collection of six tattoos. Given the rarity of inked skin in 1936, homicide detectives suspected that John Doe II (the victim’s official “name”) was likely a sailor or ex-con. 

Not all of the killer’s victims went nameless. Given that the “Lady of the Lake” was not ruled a victim of the Torso Killer until much later, the first official victim of the mad butcher was 28-year-old Edward Andrassy. On September 23, 1935, two teenage boys walking near an area of the city called Jackass Hill (East 49th Street) discovered the naked corpse of a white male. The corpse was found wearing only socks, and had clear rope burn marks on his wrists. The body was headless and emasculated. Cuyahoga County Coroner A.J. Pierce used fingerprints to identify the victim as Andrassy, a man rumored to be a homosexual escort and known a denizen of the Roaring Third. Coroner Pierced ruled that Andrassy had died via decapitation [11]. The discovery of Andrassy’s corpse was actually the first of two discovered on the same day. The other decapitated victim was never identified. 

The third official victim was discovered in January 1936. Wrapped in newspapers and left in baskets near the Hart Manufacturing building on Central Avenue was the remains of 43-year-old Florence “Flo” Polillo, a barmaid and part-time prostitute who lived in the Roaring Third. Flo’s head was never recovered, and yet Coroner Pierce pieced together enough evidence to confirm that she had died via decapitation. The unique fact about the Polillo murder was that the killer had waited until the onset of rigor mortis to begin the dismemberment [12]

The crimes of the Torso Killer followed a gruesome pattern. All of the victims were decapitated and dismembered. Most were decapitated while still alive, and all had their blood drained. Following this, the killer treated the bodies with an unknown chemical solution that gave the corpses an orange-like hue and leathery skin. Most of the killer’s male victims had their genitals removed, while all had their major joints disarticulated. The bodies were often left in or near Lake Erie or dumped in embankments off of bridges. The emasculation of the male victims indicated to investigators that the killer was motivated by sexual sadism, and yet, unlike most homosexual serial killers, the Torso Killer also brutalized women.

The head of victim Edward Andrassy. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Police Museum

To catch the Torso Killer, Ness and the Cleveland Police Department dispatched homicide investigators. Two detectives, Peter Merylo and Martin Zelewski, were assigned to the case full time. The Ukrainian immigrant Merylo proved to be a dogged investigator who never let the case go. Merylo and Zelewski spent years tracking down suspects, many of whom were disgraced doctors or medical professionals. It was believed at the time that the murderer had to be someone with anatomical knowledge given the precision of the mutilations. Merylo played the role of bait several times by dressing up as a hobo and spending nights down in Kingsbury Run. He found a sleazy world of sexual favors and economic desperation, but no killer. Merylo was the first detective to connect the murders to the secretive world of narcotics, noting the presence of bloody marijuana joints at at least one crime scene [13]. It was also Merylo who made the shock discovery of a series of seemingly connected mutilation murders that occurred in nearby New Castle, Pennsylvania. Between 1925 and 1934, in an area of New Castle that came to be known as Murder Swamp and Hell’s Half-Acre, residents discovered four headless and dismembered corpses. The murders stopped between 1934 and 1938. They picked back up again between 1939 and 1942, when six more bodies were discovered [14]. Given that New Castle was an easy train ride from Cleveland, and given that the bodies in both cities were discovered near train tracks, Detective Merylo articulated the idea that the Torso Killer was a psychotic hobo who road the rails and committed murders in Cleveland, New Castle, and Youngstown. Much later, Merylo also posited the idea that the Torso Killer relocated to California and carried out the slaying of Elizabeth Short, aka the “Black Dahlia,” in January 1947. Like the Cleveland victims, Short was mutilated, decapitated, and drained of blood. Her body was also discovered in separate pieces like Andrassy, Polillo, and the other Kingsbury Run victims. 

While Merylo obsessed over the case, Ness tried hard not to think about it. Mr. Untouchable much preferred to focus on fighting graft and organized crime than on finding a serial killer. Public outrage over the crimes would not let Ness skate by, and Mayor Burton demanded that something be done. Forty minutes after midnight on August 18, 1938, Ness and about thirty-five Cleveland police officers raided the Kingsbury Run hobo encampment and systematically went from shack to shack looking for the killer. At dawn, the men set fire to the entire area, thus denying the murderer his favorite hunting ground. The Shantytown Raid did not go over well with the public at all, and Ness received some of the harshest criticism of his career for effectively brutalizing an already down-at-the-heels population. 

This bad press came not long after Mayor Burton himself was excoriated for calling out the Ohio National Guard during an intense labor strike months earlier. Worse still, in July 1939, Ness’s enemy, Sheriff O’Donnell, arrested fifty-two-year-old Czech bricklayer Frank Dolezal and charged him with the Torso Killer murders. O’Donnell’s evidence against Dolezal was puny: the immigrant laborer was a known alcoholic and a former associate of two victims—Andrassy and Polillo. That’s it. O’Donnell eventually got a confession out of Dolezal, which earned the lawman a few seconds of celebration. However, before the case could go to trial, Dolezal hung himself in his cell. What seemed like the suicide of a guilty man proved to be something else. The five-foot-eight Dolezal had somehow hung himself from a hook that was five feet and seven inches off of the floor. An autopsy also revealed that Dolezal had died in O’Donnell’s custody with six broken ribs [15]. All of a sudden, nobody in Ohio believed that Dolezal was the Torso Killer. 

As for Ness, his life took a downward turn. He was no longer the Director of Public Safety in 1939, and he was also a single man, having divorced his wife Edna in 1938. Their marriage had been a rocky one near the end, with Ness drinking too much and coming home not often enough. Ness remarried in 1939. His new wife, Evaline Michelow, was an accomplished artist, illustrator, and author of children’s books. The couple relocated to Washington, D.C., where, during the Second World War, Ness worked for the federal government. The famous crimefighter had a new opponent during the war: venereal disease. Ness worked hard to educate American servicemen about the dangers of prostitution, and he did much to lower the STD infection rates within the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. 

Ness’s last hurrah came in 1947. Eleven years after leaving his post as the Director of Public Safety, Ness ran for Mayor of Cleveland. The Republican Ness lost handedly to incumbent Democrat, Thomas A. Burke. Burke and his team easily dragged Ness’s name through the mud. Ness did not help matters himself by getting a second divorce and third marriage in 1946, plus a drunk driving accident was not kept hush-hush by his old friends at the police department. Ness left Cleveland and Ohio for the Keystone State. Ness lived and died in Coudersport, Pennsylvania as the face of the struggling Guaranty Paper Corporation. His last act was in confiding his exploits to Fraley. Ness died of an alcohol-induced heart attack on May 16, 1957. He was only fifty-four. 

Chief suspect Dr. Francis “Frank” Sweeney. Image courtesy of Marilyn J.

Unbeknownst to Clevelanders at the time, Ness actually came close to solving the Torso Killer case. In the 1970s, it was revealed that Ness suspected Dr. Frank Sweeney of being the Torso Killer. During their illegal interrogation of Sweeney in 1938, Ness had subjected the doctor to a polygraph test, which Sweeney promptly failed. Later, Ness believed that Sweeney was responsible for sending him threatening postcards that taunted the famous crimefighter for his inability to close the Torso Killer case. 

Sweeney was born on May 5, 1894, in the Cleveland area to parents Martin J. and Delia Sweeney. The large Irish Catholic family was prosperous enough, and Sweeney eventually went to medical school before serving in a medical capacity during World War I. Sweeney’s wartime experiences seemed to have permanently damaged him. For most of his adult life, Sweeney went in and out of mental institutions and V.A. hospitals. He was technically a patient at one such hospital in Sandusky, Ohio during the entirety of the Torso Killer crimes. This would normally rule him out as a suspect, but researcher Marilyn J. Bardsley uncovered the fact that Sweeney had special privileges that allowed him to come and go as he pleased. On top of this, a later profile of Sweeney compiled by a V.A. doctor diagnosed him as addicted to barbiturates, a hopeless alcoholic, and a mentally unwell man suffering from a schizoid personality [16]. Given his poor mental health, plus his surgical knowledge and the fact that he had grown up in the Kingsbury Run area (to say nothing of his rumored homosexuality—the apparent reason for his dismissal as a surgeon), Dr. Sweeney was not only Ness’s favorite suspect, but he is currently the most popular suspect among students of the Torso Killer case today. It is believed that Sweeney called Detective Merylo in the spring of 1938 and taunted him about a “sexual secret,” but Merylo discounted the idea. In fact, Detective Merylo never much liked Sweeney as a suspect at all. Still, Sweeney looms large in the story of the Torso Killer. Many believe that his family relationship with Congressman Martin L. Sweeney, an Ohio Democrat and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, saved the guilty doctor from facing the true wrath of justice. Many today still look for the abandoned brewery that Sweeney supposedly used to drug, murder, embalm, and dismember his victims along the shores of Lake Erie. It may be there, and it may not. 

This, the love song of Eliot Ness, comes to a close with a weird disharmony. Ness is remembered for being more successful than he actually was. Ness and the Untouchables did not bring down Al Capone. They did much to hurt his organization, but ultimately played a minor role in the true story. Others, especially those of a certain age in the Cleveland area, remember Ness as a failure—a “boy scout” do-gooder who failed to catch a killer and a drunk who washed out during his lone attempt at political power. And yet Ness was more successful than is popularly remembered. He did much to improve the city of Cleveland, especially its police department. He damaged the Cleveland mob greatly and, for a time, rendered it a pale shadow of itself. Ness made Cleveland a safer city to walk and drive in, plus he did a lot of thankless community work. The man died a hero, albeit a fallible and complicated one. Ness’s story is an all-American yarn from the electric age, and, all things considered, he earned a place in the pantheon of folk heroes.

[1]: Mara Bovsun, “Piles of bones: Eliot Ness hunted Cleveland serial killer, but mystery remains,” New York Daily News, 30 June 2013. Online. 

[2]: Douglas Perry, Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero (New York: Penguin, 2014): 219. Print. 

[3]: “Ness, Eliot.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University. 

[4]: Katrina Schwartz, “How a Berkeley Police Chief Gave Rise to the Modern Force,” KQED, 19 Nov. 2020. Online. 

[5]: Gary Jenkins, “Dean O’Banion Death in the Flower Shop,” Gangland Wire, 27 Sep. 2017. Online. 

[6]: Perry, Eliot Ness, 51.

[7]: Erick Trickey, “Inside the Intense Rivalry Between Eliot Ness and J. Edgar Hoover,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014. Print. 

[8]: Ibid. 

[9]: Ibid. 

[10]: James Jessen Badal, In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders (Kent, OH: Kent State University, 2001): 22. Print. 

[11]: “The Kingsbury Run Murders, aka ‘The Torso Murders,’” Cleveland Police Museum. Online. 

[12]: Ibid. 

[13]: Badal, In the Wake of the Butcher, 157. 

[14]: Ibid. 

[15]: “The Kingsbury Run Murders, aka ‘The Torso Murders.’” 

[16]: Badal, In the Wake of the Butcher, 220. 

— Arbogast is a poet with a blog. He is the author of, most recently, The Shanghai Horror.

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