The gruesome Cleveland murders that unraveled Eliot Ness
Too bad it’s mostly nonsense, as Stashower shows us in his new book. Ness took a disproportionate share of the credit for capturing Capone, and behind the scenes he was a crass womanizer who even – panting — drank during Prohibition. Arguably, Capone’s gig wasn’t even Ness’ biggest case in his lifetime. It would be the Cleveland Torso murders, one of the most brutal series of murders in American history – a case that nearly destroyed the legend of Ness, let alone the man himself.
The Cleveland murders are the subject of Stashower’s macabre book “American Demon: Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper.” In 1934, beachcombers and schoolboys playing hooky began to come across mutilated bodies in the city. Several had been beheaded or knocked down or had their genitals cut off. Body parts were found in dumps, cesspools, glens, and even, disconcertingly, behind a butcher’s shop. Stashower presents several such scenes in captivating detail, when innocent people turned a corner and suddenly saw something they could never ignore.
Victims spanned just about every demographic – black, white, gay, straight, male, female – but all came from the lower strata of society: the poor, the homeless, prostitutes, the supposedly “perverted” and “deviants”. The lack of connection between the victims forced police to face the terrifying possibility that the assailant, as Stashower writes, was “driven by a compulsive bloodlust, a dark, unfathomable impulse toward murder for his own good”.
The detectives in charge of the case were, to put it mildly, incompetent. The best were stubborn but weak and were desperate enough to start harassing people in the slums and Hoovervilles, trying to bully them into confessing. The few times citizens got legitimate tips, cops opened up their private lives and arrested them on other charges, which kept others from coming forward. A poor suspect, a bricklayer, had six ribs broken during interrogation and twice tried to hang himself in prison. He managed to commit suicide a third time – perhaps, Stashower suggests, with the help of the guards.
After the seventh headless body appeared, the city government brought Ness on the case. He wasn’t the obvious choice: despite his fame, he lacked practical detective skills and had other responsibilities on top of that. Ness was only 20 when he confronted Capone in Chicago, and he found himself unemployed when Prohibition ended and top legal agencies (e.g. the FBI) brought him down. shunned as a glory hog. He ended up being hired as Director of Public Safety in Cleveland, the bureaucrat in charge of the city’s police force. Some of Ness’ work in this role was admirable, like breaking crooked precinct captains. Some were pathetic, like attacking pinball parlors. But in September 1936, Ness was assigned to the Torso Killer case, with much local fanfare. Ness and the killer, in fact, quickly fought over the headlines.
Seeking such publicity was, frankly, stupid of Ness. As Stashower explains: “The work of the Untouchables had been defined by a clear and very visible target. Al Capone was the most famous man in town at a time when Ness was completely unknown, leaving the young agent free to roam in the shadows. Now the script had been flipped. Ness was the most famous man in town, and his career [the killer] had the advantage of anonymity, able to strike seemingly at will.
Without giving too much away, Ness identified and interviewed a prime suspect despite this inconvenience, a former mental asylum patient who was the cousin of a local politician. In a classic game of cat and mouse, he began sending cryptic postcards to Ness, tiptoeing around his misdeeds but never giving Ness anything to pin on him.
Ness did not react well to such frustration. It seems strange to say in a book with so many gruesome bits, but in some ways the murders are a MacGuffin – the mere catalyst for the denouement and downfall of protagonist Ness. His drinking and adventures escalated (he “screwed it all up a skirt,” one ex-wife complained). He also started doing tasteless “jokes” like setting up dates between extremely tall women and extremely short men, just to make fun of them, or hiring people to shoot guns at clubs. at night during scuffles, just to watch his friends run for the exits. Amazingly, the former Prohibition officer even had a hit-and-run drunk driving accident.
Most shamefully, though Ness was charged with cleaning up the Cleveland police force, the Torso Killer case caused him to engage in the same shady tactics he was hired to root out. He once raided a homeless camp under the guise of inducing confessions, then burned down the shacks when he didn’t get what he wanted. A hero.
I came out of “American Demon” somewhat frustrated. It’s no big deal for Stashower, which provides shrewd analysis and paints every scene in vivid, macabre detail. You will sweat reading it. But don’t expect the polished ending of a crime novel. Like a classic noir crime novel, we watch Ness crumble, but there’s no redemption here. Sad to say, Ness peaked in his twenties and Prohibition star G-man never recovered from the intoxicating effects of stardom. He wasn’t untouchable after all.
Sam Kean is the author of five books, including “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and World History from the Periodic Table of Elements.” His most recent book is “The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Hacking, and Other Despicable Acts Perpetrated in the Name of Science.”
Eliot Ness and the hunt for the American Jack the Ripper