Book Review: In the Wake of the Butcher

James Jessen Badal, In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2001. xii, 255 p., Paper, $18.00, ISBN 0-87338-689-2.)

With respect to serial murder, “Jack the Ripper” of late 19th century London renown has nothing on the “torso murderer” of Depression-era Cleveland. The two serial killers have much in common, including the unfortunate fact that the identification of both murderers remains subject to speculation.

While several scorebooks have been published on the famous Victorian murderer of London prostitutes, James Jessen Badal is the first to give the torso murderer of Kingsbury Run the scrutiny these notorious crimes merit. Drawing on previously unexploited collections, including detailed police files, Badal tells us probably all we can ever hope to learn about these gruesome crimes.

As one of the major industrial cities in the United States at the time, Cleveland experienced the Great Depression with shattering effect. Already suffering from high unemployment, homelessness, and poverty, Clevelanders also lived in fear of a horrific murderer who killed and grotesquely mutilated perhaps a dozen victims between 1934 and 1938. Some students of the crimes put the number higher and insist that the murderer did not mutilate his last victim until 1950. In any case, the crimes mesmerized Cleveland, stupefied local law enforcement, and captured national attention.

The Cleveland killer preyed on transients, drunks, and the impoverished residents of the Flats and Kingsbury Run area of the city. It did not require a modern criminal profiler to determine that the crimes appeared to be committed by the same individual, probably a good sized man with more than passing knowledge of human anatomy. The killer left the fruits of his labor–decapitated heads, legs, arms, and torsos–in dumps and along the shores of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River.

Pressed by an angry, fearful public, Cleveland crime investigators worked doggedly on the case that would never officially be solved. The legendary Eliot Ness, brought in as Cleveland’s safety director to combat Depression era crime, assumed his post just months before the murders began. Ness may have conquered Al Capone but he never brought the Kingsbury Run murderer to justice. Neither did the vainglorious Samuel R. Gerber, the city’s coroner for half a century, and the man most responsible for the wrongful conviction of Sam Sheppard for the murder of his wife in 1954. That infamous crime, for which Sheppard was declared not guilty in upon retrial in 1967, has long overshadowed the Kingsbury Run murders in the crime annals of northeast Ohio.

Badal, who teaches history at Cuyahoga Community College, effectively illuminates the key personalities and carefully considers all the suspects who were investigated for the Kingsbury Run murders. The most likely candidate, Ness’s top suspect, was Francis Sweeney, a physician who suffered from a broken marriage, alcoholism, and mental illness, and who fits the timeline and profile of the murderer. But the case against Sweeney could never be proven and the crimes are destined to remain a subject of speculation.

Students of true crime and Ohio history will benefit from Badal’s exhaustive and engaging study. The book is handsomely produced–but grotesquely illustrated with several photographs of mutilated corpses–by Kent State University Press.

Walter Hixson
University of Akron