Cleveland is a city of ghosts. And like most cities, it tries very hard to bury its darker past and paint itself in the most positive light. Mention its “Burning River”, the Cuyahoga, which caught fire over a dozen times and people will shift the conversation to how clean its become; its decreasing population becomes boasting about the gentrification of newly-minted downtown neighborhoods like “Hinge Town”. Every attempt is made to polish away the tarnish of two centuries worth of unpleasantries, yet both the good and the bad are what give Cleveland its true character.
As a native Clevelander, I grew up hearing whispers about the Torso Murders near Kingsbury Run back in the 1930s. Its notoriety is indisputable, yet all traces of the events are difficult to find outside of books and tucked-away museum exhibits. Kingsbury Run itself was essentially a ravine-turned-landfill in those days and has been buried—literally, for the most part—beneath railroad tracks. That’s often what we do with unsavory history: hide it away and pretend it didn’t happen. But you can’t silence every ghost. And the more you take the time to listen to their stories, the more intriguing they can become.
Possibly one reason the Torso Murders are so rarely discussed is the deeply—and “deviant”—sexual undercurrents found throughout the many aspects of the case. Strangely enough, the second victim’s sexuality is a bit hazy (and was a point of rumor, gossip, and questionable behavior even at the time of the investigation). But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the crimes. Questionable queerness can be found throughout the cases, from some of its victims to its suspects, a homophobic police officer, and even a similar murder in Pittsburgh years later believed to be connected to the “Phantom of Kingsbury Run.”
Victim #2: Edward Anthony Andrassy
Two teenage boys playing softball made a startlingly gruesome discovery near Kingsbury Run at a place known locally as Jackass Hill (where Praha Avenue met East 49th Street) on September 23, 1935. Two bodies had been discarded like old tires tossed down a ravine: both nude, headless, and emasculated, with one laying on its side dressed only in a pair of black socks. These two corpses would mark the beginning of the hunt for the serial killer known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. Only one body was identified by its fingerprints (and head discovered later less than 30 feet away in a shallow grave). It was that of 29-year-old Edward Andrassy, an unemployed former psychiatric hospital orderly.
Andrassy was a tall, slender, dashingly handsome man. His good looks and stylish taste in clothing made him quite popular with women in every sense, yet he wasn’t what some might describe as “marriage material.” His one marriage to a nurse he met while working at Cleveland City Hospital ended quickly when she walked out on him. (She later gave birth to his daughter.) Just two months before his death, an irate man visited Andrassy’s parents, accusing their son of “paying attentions to his wife.”
Described by one detective as a “snotty punk,” Andrassy wasn’t a stranger to the law and had a habit of rubbing officers the wrong way. A concealed weapons charge landed him in Warrensville Workhouse, but most of his run-ins with police involved public drunkenness (though he was known to sleep off some of his benders in a local cemetery). He also smoked marijuana and peddled pornography. Upon searching his Fulton Avenue dwelling during the investigation into his death, officers found a stash of “physical magazines” (as bodybuilding/male fitness/physique magazines were referred to at the time; this was 10 years before Bob Mizer created the Athletic Model Guild and began publishing his Physique Pictorial which would become softcore pornographic outlets for discrete gay men); this, coupled with reports of him having several close gay male friends and having had numerous female and male lovers, certainly lends some credence to the idea that he was likely bisexual.
Adding to the peculiarities was the discovery of four photographs taken of Andrassy by a “56-year-old bachelor” named John Moessner at his W. 28th Street home. Moessner admitted that Andrassy had visited him on several occasions, but claimed to have no part in his death. An unidentified young man from the neighborhood told police that Moessner had once “wooed him with…liquor and sexual advances,” and while police combed through the house, they discovered other photographs of young men along with a cache of love letters from some of Moessner’s male acquaintances.¹
The Queer Quack
One high-profile suspect in the investigation was a doctor, known in investigation records only by the self-given (and highly tongue-in-cheek) pseudonym Gaylord Sundheim. (“Sundheim” is German for “house of sin.”) He was the son of a very prominent Cleveland family who had suddenly abandoned his charmed, wealthy life for less comfortable surroundings among the outcasts of the slums along the Cuyahoga. Allegedly, this sudden change happened around the time his family discovered he was a homosexual.
In attempting to draw parallels between Gaylord and the list of suspected killers, one name stands out: Dr. Francis Edward Sweeney. Dr. Sweeney grew up in Kingsbury Run, the son of an impoverished Irish family; it was his strong work ethic and high intelligence that helped him successfully graduate from medical school in St. Louis in 1928. Yet a head injury sustained in battle during World War I may have nudged the doctor closer to psychosis. In 1929, after two years of marriage, Dr. Sweeney began to drink so heavily that he was admitted to the Sandusky Soldiers and Sailors Home for alcoholism. The violent outbursts and abusive attacks toward his wife Mary while under the influence led to their separation in 1934 (a few months before the first victim, the “Lady of the Lake,” washed up on the Erie shoreline) and subsequent divorce in 1936 on the grounds of both physical and sexual abuse.
In the summer of 1938 at what is today the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, Dr. Sweeney failed a lie detector test—administered in part by Dr. Leonard Keeler (one of the inventors of the polygraph) himself—prompting Dr. Keeler to immediately tell Ness, “Looks like he’s your guy.” Sweeney was also rumored to have been bisexual or gay. Sweeney was eventually diagnosed with alcoholism, drug addiction, and schizophrenia. He’s believed to be the mysterious person who sent Ness taunting postcards until his death in 1964.²
Detective Merylo’s Pervert Crusade
Unhappy with the lack of progress on the case, Police Chief George Matowitz brought in his best detective, Peter Merylo, to head the investigation in September 1936. A stocky, balding, no-nonsense Army veteran, Merylo quickly labeled the Torso Killer to be a “…Sex Degenerate, suffering from necrophilia, aphrodisia or erotomania” and, worst of all in his eyes, most likely a homosexual. And his theory led to what some would consider to be very unorthodox methods of finding the killer.
Famed for going undercover in the shantytowns of Kingsbury Run dressed as a hobo, the detective was known on several occasions to prance around the Flats at night wearing what he described as “homosexual garb” (in some cases, nothing but but a pair of long underwear) in an effort to entice the killer. He and his partner, Martin Zalewski, rifled through the trashcans and mailboxes of hundreds of “known perverts” and frequent the seedy bars and brothels of the Roaring Third, following any rumor they overheard about men cruising for gay sex (which was illegal at the time in Cleveland).³
But this seemed to be more than just an effort to catch a serial killer. (Given the facts that three victims were emasculated and the killer targeted both men and women, authorities were fairly certain from the beginning that they were dealing with a bisexual male culprit.) It was almost a crusade against sexual deviants. “In Cleveland today,” Merylo said of his hunt for the Mad Butcher, “there are 20,000 perverts on the loose.” Some of his fellow officers claimed that Merylo would routinely spend time at bars known to be a safe haven for men seeking men, follow any pairs of men who left together home, and muscle his way in shortly after in an effort to catch them in an intimate act. These arrests were said to be so common that he was rumored to have filled an entire wing of the jail with gay men, though as his dubious methods became known to judges, many of them shied away from trying his cases.†
The Boytoy in the Boxcar?
Officially, the Torso Murderer had a suspected body count of 13, yet dozens of other unsolved murders in both Ohio and Pennsylvania had similarities which have led investigators to question whether or not they were connected with the Kingsbury Run murders. Near Pittsburgh, a string of similar homicides are attributed to Pennsylvania’s “Mad Butcher.”
On May 3, 1940, railroad workers dismantling obsolete freight cars in the P&LE McKees Rocks rail yard discovered three mutilated bodies in three separate boxcars. The first two victims had been dismembered and wrapped in burlap; the third had been decapitated and charred. Carved into his chest in 5-inch letters was the word “NAZI” (though, oddly, the “Z” was carved backward). Fingerprinting was only able to identify the remains of the third man: James David Nicholson.
Just like Edward Andrassy, he was 29 at the time of his death. Originally from Illinois, Nicholson served three years in prison for burglary in Wisconsin. Along with a string of violations for trespassing, he was known to have a record for “homosexual activities.” Those charges were mostly related to his side job as a male hustler.¹ It remains unclear if he held any fascist or racist beliefs, though one could argue that Nicholson and his corpse companions being dumped in old boxcars is vaguely reminiscent of the transportation of Jews, homosexuals, and other groups the Nazis believed to be inferior to the concentration camps.
The Torso Murders not only haunt the memories of Clevelanders, but some believe that the ghosts of the 13 or more victims still roam the crime scenes alongside the mysterious Mad Butcher himself. Perhaps a few of these other colorful characters also linger in their favorite haunts as well. But one thing is certain: the horrific crimes and misdeeds of the past will continually haunt our deepest fears no matter how much we try to pave over the memories.
¹ Badal, James. In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders. Kent State, 2001; p. 9, 33-8, 44-7.
² Tucker, Kenneth. Elliot Ness and the Untouchables: The Historical Reality and the Film and Television Depictions. McFarland, 2011; p. 34-9.
³ Perry, Douglas. Elliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero. Penguin, 2015; p. 170-2.
† Cawthorne, Nigel. The Mammoth Book of Killers at Large. Robinson, 2007.
Header Image: ‘Cleveland Storm’ by Erik Drost.