After Al Capone, the ultimate untouchable took on a notorious serial killer
Ever since the time of Jack the Ripper, the notion of a serial murderer getting away with his or her crimes has terrified the public at large. And the recent surge of interest in true crime across all mediums indicates that this interest in the macabre details of death and destruction shows no signs of abating. Daniel Stashower launches his new book American Demon: Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper, deep into the distant past of the 1930’s to discuss not just the murders committed by a serial killer whose identity police have never really solved, but also to highlight the efforts of a legendary lawman to root out corruption from the police department tasked with solving the crimes of the “Butcher of Kingsbury Run.”
American Demon is an engaging look at the period when Eliot Ness, fresh off his quest to bring down Al Capone, arrived in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, with a mandate to reform the police department and to crack down on organized crime. Having won fame as leader of “The Untouchables”, lawmen so honest and dedicated that Capone couldn’t buy them off, Ness took to his new job with fervor as well as a desire to see his name in print.
His ego inflated by newsmen who saw Ness as the man who put Capone behind bars, Ness liked the spotlight, and soon he began to run through the police department taking down crooked cops left and right, making enemies along the way. But amid all his efforts at reform, one case began to dog him and ultimately ruin his reputation as a Boy Scout who would never abuse his office in order to solve a case.
Concurrent with Ness’s arrival, the city was gripped by gruesome murders in which the victims were decapitated and chopped up, with body parts often scattered across dump sites in the poorer sections of Cleveland. With victims both male and female, white and Black, there was no clear pattern to the killer’s spree, and all roads leading to unmasking the killer seemed to go nowhere. As Stashower shows, even today there is no consensus on who the killer was, or even if it was all the work of one killer or perhaps two or more operating independently. To this day, the Cleveland Torso Killer has at least eleven victims to his credit, if not more, and remains unidentified officially.
Stashower integrates the story of Ness and the investigation into the slayings to show that the former Treasury agent was perhaps ill-suited to the task of discovering the killer’s identity. Tactics that he’d employed to corner Capone, such as raiding breweries, weren’t going to work here, though a desperate raid of Kingsbury Run to round up the inhabitants of the killer’s hunting ground did occur, which served to dent Ness’s reputation. The confusion among different coroners regarding the victims at times seemed to undermine any efforts to establish when they had died or even if they were victims and not dead bodies used as pranks. In one instance, the bones of a supposed victim turned out to be those of a skeleton from a medical college.
Ness even tried working around law enforcement through a secret group of informers, called “The Unknowns,” who mingled among the mob and the homeless inhabitants of the city to try and uncover leads that the cops couldn’t. And you can’t tell the story of Ness’s efforts to uncover the killer without mentioning how he came tantalizingly close to tying the murders to a physician whose cousin, a sitting United States senator, was a political opponent of Ness’s boss, the mayor of Cleveland.
Police never charged the suspect, Frank Sweeney, with the murders, but no other major suspect has ever emerged to take his place as the most likely culprit. Ness picked up the former doctor and illegally held him in custody for days, trying to coax a confession out of him via a polygraph machine, which only served to earn him undying hatred from Sweeney (who taunted Ness for the rest of his days with bizarre, rambling letters and postcards).
In the end, the Butcher of Kingsbury Run remains an elusive mystery, though Stashower shows that Ness and many in the Cleveland police department tried their best to end his reign of terror. While police never tied anyone to the killings officially, Ness considered Sweeney to be the most likely murderer, and Sweeney spent the remainder of his days in an asylum. This chapter of Ness’s life, which hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves, fleshes out his biography and makes it fuller. American Demon helps to correct the record, showing Eliot Ness in all his complexity and his failings, and how he managed to change Cleveland for the better even as he failed to rid the city of its most dangerous ghoul.
Minotaur Books (September 6, 2022)