In September of 1934 a woman’s torso, with thighs still attached, washed up on the shore of Lake Erie near Cleveland, Ohio. Her skin was red and textured like leather—indicating that some kind of harsh chemical had been applied to her body.
She became known as the “Lady of the Lake.” Because her head was never found, authorities failed to identify her, and the case went cold. It wasn’t until 1935 that police connected the headless corpse to a grisly new discovery.
Kingsbury Run was a low-lying industrial area along the east side of Cleveland. It once contained a natural watershed that drained storm water into the nearby Cuyahoga River. It also carried a rough reputation in the 1930s, as impoverished families, many of whom lost their homes during the Great Depression, set up shantytowns there.
In September of 1935, two teenagers wandering through Kingsbury Run came across the body of a man stripped nude save for a pair of socks. Washed clean and drained of blood, the man’s wrists showed signs of rope burn. Both his head and genitalia had been removed. Lucky for police, the victim could be identified via fingerprints as Edward Andrassy—a drifter who had prior arrests.
Not far from Andrassy’s remains were those of another male victim. A bit older, he had also been decapitated and fully castrated. This corpse, however, had likely been dead for far longer, and his skin was covered in the same chemical burn as the Lady of the Lake from 1934.
The pieces were coming together, but just who was the culprit?
Clues were sparse. Then in January of 1936 a woman stumbled upon two baskets near a manufacturing plant. Tucked inside were the remains of a woman’s body, neatly wrapped in newspaper, with her head nowhere to be found. Similar to Edward Andrassy, police used fingerprints to positively identify the victim as Flo Polillo, a bartender and occasional prostitute.
Six months went by before a new victim surfaced—this time close to home. Cleveland authorities discovered the remains of a young man right next to a police precinct. Washed, drained of blood, and with his head removed, the victim’s body was adorned with distinctive tattoos. He became known as the “Tattooed Man” and authorities worked to identify him. They even fashioned a plaster version of the victim’s head and circulated photos among the public in hopes that someone might recognize his face.
Alas, just like the Lady of the Lake, the victim’s identity remained a mystery.
New victims continued to surface throughout the Cleveland area. All were decapitated, with many of the heads nowhere to be found. Clearly, authorities were dealing with the work of a serial killer—someone who preyed upon those in the lower ranks of society and whose identities were difficult to track.
By 1938, the city of Cleveland was on edge and the police had reached a breaking point. They turned to the site that seemed to be the source of the mysterious killer’s bloodlust—the homeless encampment in Kingsbury Run. Just after midnight on August 18, police raided the shantytown. They rounded up 63 men and searched for clues, before setting the entire encampment ablaze.
The media roundly criticized the raid for its unnecessary aggression. Nevertheless, after that fiery night in August, the deadly attacks ceased.
As the city breathed a sigh of relief, authorities doubled down on their investigation. In July of 1939, they zeroed in on a bricklayer named Frank Dolezal, who had once lived with Flo Polillo. Further investigation revealed that Dolezal was connected to Edward Andrassy. Dolezal also knew a woman named Rose Wallace, a missing person widely believed to be Jane Doe VI, a torso murder victim, although authorities could not conclusively prove the two were one and the same.
Authorities arrested Dolezal in connection with Polillo’s murder that August. Dolezal confessed to the killing, yet he did so in such an incoherent manner that its reliability remained uncertain.
The bricklayer never had another chance to clear his name. He was found hanging in his jail cell before the case ever went to court. Strangely, Dolezal died by a makeshift noose that hung just five feet and seven inches off the floor—this despite standing five-foot-eight inches tall. An autopsy revealed that the suspect had sustained broken ribs while in custody.
Was Dolezal’s death truly a suicide? Or had police decided they found their man, regardless of guilt? In 2010, researchers from Cuyahoga Community College released evidence that cleared Dolezal’s name.
To this day the story of the Cleveland Torso Murderer case remains one of America’s most disturbing murder mysteries. It has inspired everything from In the Wake of the Butcher by James Jessen Badal to the graphic novel Torso by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko to a nod in the film Seven Psychopaths.
Officially, the case remains unsolved. Given the time that’s passed since the first murder took place, the killer’s identity will likely remain a mystery forever.
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All photos courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project and the Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University