Headless Clue– The Cleveland Torso Killer

The Rayon plant in 1935. Just off to the left of the picture, the body of Victim 5 was found on July 22, 1936.

Cleveland had been red faced during the Republican National Convention in June 1936. The Tattoo Man  had just been found in Kingsbury Run a few days before it opened. Somehow the predator shadow of the shanties had set upon him at the right moment and killed him by beheading, then stripped him of his clothes, bundled his head in his pants, and trotted him further into the Run and there under a willow left the ghastly parcel to be found on June 5 by two boys playing hooky.

The Plains Dealer had already drawn a connection to Jack the Ripper. That was all Cleveland needed during the Republican Convention. But the comparison wasn’t out of place. Of all the cities in America, Cleveland had its own unique Whitechapel.

As one of the great Midwestern cities, it had already become a valve for the Depression migration. Hobos rode the rails from east to west, coming out of the farm belt and coming from failure in the great eastern cities.  Cleveland was situated so that it had both the Cuyahoga River Valley and then running into this was Kingsbury Run. These gorges were never used for settlements. The railroads occupied the Run, industries the Cuyahoga River Valley. Clevelanders sat on top, their communities built on the buttes and hills around these gorges. The city gently sloped with the landscape until it reached the beaches of Lake Erie. In between was downtown Cleveland.

As such, when the Depression intensified, Cleveland’s Kingsbury Run and Cuyahoga Valley became clefts of shanties. Hobos and bums built their towns. Even to those Clevelanders who lived in the districts nearby, the Run and Valley were distant vistas. Thin white  smoke curled up in little groups marking hobo encampments. Their shanties looked like little cardboard boxes in the distance. The campfires were like weak breaths, the lean-tos like houses of cards compared to the great plumes of dirty smoke that belched up from the railroad engines and streamed out of the smokestacks of the factories. It looked like this from Jackass Hill and from every other community on the shoulders of the surrounding buttes; and yes, this even included the view from little Ralphie’s house as well. The hobos came and went to and from Cleveland via the railroads in the Run, which acted like arteries transporting the blood of the Depression.

Others viewed them as the refuse of the Depression.

Within this industrial wasteland stalked the shadow of Kingsbury Run. But he wasn’t some mad itinerant hobo. Andrassy’s murder proves he lurked within the dives of town. This is where the comparison to Jack the Ripper was apropos. He stalked the Roaring 40s. Now in the Summer of 1936 the Tattoo Man’s murder meant that he was also stalking the Run. It had been at least several months since Andrassy and John Doe had been found last September 23, 1935. The “Headhunter” must be a local. He was still around. But this was the first time he killed in Kingsbury Run. Evidence pointed to the probability he was a doctor. Thus it seemed the profile of Jack the Ripper was reborn. Only this was Jack the Beheader.

The neatness of the beheading did, in fact, speak of some familiarity with anatomy or, very likely, lots of practice. Some shadow, the “Jack the Headhunter,” was prowling the down-and-out in the Run and in the dives of the nearby Roaring 40s and murdering them for some unknown reason. Just like Red Jack.

Cleveland must have sighed in relief when the Republican National Convention finally left. But it wasn’t long before Clevelanders would be shocked again. On July 22 another body was found. But it wasn’t in the Run. It was west of the Cuyahoga, in the Brooklyn area. Marie Barkley had been walking in the quiet evening, down West 73rd and then crossing the railroad tracks she walked along heading for the wooded Big Creek. Just behind the Rayon plant on Walford, she strolled through the woods to reach Clinton Road. Beyond that was Big Creek. The railroad tracks were just to her right. They separated the Rayon plant from the wooded area. She suddenly game upon what looked like a bronze mummy. It was a nude, beheaded man, chest down in a gully.




Victim No. 5

It took a while for Cleveland police to get to the location. But the local police had insisted. They said it bespoke of the Headhunter of Kingsbury Run.

So it did. The body was nude, the clothes striped afterward and found about 15 feet away, partially concealing the head. The neck bones revealed no scratches. The “Headhunter” knew his stuff. The coroner publically stated it would take an expert to take someone’s head off this neatly.

In many ways Victim 5’s murder appears a dry run for the Tattoo Man. And it seems that it did occur before that. The body had been there for at least 2 months, meaning Victim 5 had been murdered in late May 1936, before the Tattoo Man.


The appearance of the topography of the general area.

Victim 5 was killed near to the railroad line that comes straight out of the Run. It is only a thin nuisance here. The tracks are 10 or more deep in the hub that is Kingsbury Run, but they each eventually branch out, and like this single line of tracks they snake away through the countryside. It is only minutes from Kingsbury Run by rail, though it is quite a distance from Cleveland’s downtown by car. But more importantly here, it was in a wooded area where hobos had been. Their campfires had been found, cold and without a curl of smoke, but they had been here.

Putting this murder together with that of the Tattoo Man and an interesting sequence is uncovered. It appears that Victim 5 was a dry run. This would be the first victim that the “Butcher of Kingsbury Run” killed on the spot. Previous victims Edward Andrassy and Flo Polillo had been identified, and with this the newspapers were full of reports of some hidden lair where this expert but deranged killer did his insidious work. The result was that the Headhunter shifted his MO and killed the Tattoo Man on the spot in the Run. The motive? It may have been to divert theorizing away from the idea he was medically trained and had an establishment in Cleveland. However, Victim 5 was truly the next victim, not Tattoo Man. He was also far from the Run, though on a line that led from there. Why? Something creeps to mind. Logistically, the Headhunter  would have to see if it was possible to kill and behead on the spot and not get caught.

The Run as like Piccadilly. The Headhunter would need some place remote to try this out. In this light Victim 5, though far from the Run, fits perfectly into the chain of events of the crime spree. Victim 5 fits even better when the Tattoo Man is added to the equation.Victim5-location

1, Kingsbury Run, 2, the location of Victim 5.

Yet the Headhunter returned to the Run. The object always seemed to be the bums around the Run. He wanted to strike in the Run. He wanted to kill the bums in the heart of Cleveland.

There are many reasons why. Perhaps it was a political move. He wanted to cause social and political unrest. Jack the Ripper was thought to dovetail on this idea as well, as I showed in Scarlet Autumn. The pickings were also quite regular in the Run. In the boondocks, like those near the Rayon factory, it was hit and miss. The cold hobo fires attest that hobos did not always bivouac here.


On Walford, looking through the old Rayon plant to the railroad tracks. Beyond them in the wooded area the body had been found.

It had been a few months since Flo Polillo had been murdered. Was it worth the Headhunter to take this amount of time to scout out an area where he could find a bum from time to time and eventually at the right moment strike?

The unidentified beheaded hobo was found near to the tracks, but this does not mean a madman was riding the rails. Where else would you find hobos but near tracks? The area was also between a major factory and the main roads that led to the area, these being Denison and Clinton. Someone could just as easily drive to the area from Cleveland and not stand out.


Given the timeline, Jack the Headhunter he was soon back in the Run killing the Tattoo Man. Yet again, another “lady in the lake” would be found soon. Though found a year later, it is clear that the “official” Victim 8 was killed in the Summer of 1936 and her torso and head put in the Cuyahoga Valley near the Run. The Summer of 1936 was a busy time for the “Butcher.” But there were reasons to suspect more than one killer was afoot now.

Cleveland police detective Peter Merylo was being assigned the case. He wanted to ride the rails and try and see if this really was a mad hobo or someone educated posing as one. We can guess why he proposed this tack to superiors. The railroad, once again,  went straight out of the Run to the spot where Victim 5 was found. But more provocative was that another beheaded victim would be found, this time to the east of Cleveland. Near the railroad lines to the east, just across Ohio in Pennsylvania, a gruesome history would be uncovered.

The Murder Swamp around New Castle was well known to the local sheriffs. Since the 1920s headless skeletons had been found there. The cops thought it was mob killings. But now this new discovery indicated that the Butcher of Kingsbury Run was striking along the railroad lines and was not a local Clevelander.

Elliot Ness was now officially in charge of the case. He sent his assistant along with the police to investigate the area around New Castle. Disagreements would erupt between the departments as to just how many killers were responsible.

It would be easy to say that a definite progressively logistic mind  was at work here, one who wanted to perfect his strikes in the Run where victims were easy. To do so he familiarized himself with the wooded area by the factory and practiced killing on the spot, using as his guinea pig the hobo he found. He killed him in a gully, so the killer certainly didn’t want to take the chance he might be seen. All this would fit perfectly if not for the discoveries at New Castle. Was there a madman riding the rails? Or are two killers involved? We must look at The Murder Swamp in our next post.


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Since 1990 Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.


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