History And Ethics #1: The Mad Butcher And Eliot Ness

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Today in 1936, the dismembered body of Florence Polillo was found in a basket and several burlap sacks in Cleveland. She was the third victim in 18 months to be found dismembered with suspicious skill. The murderer was dubbed the “Mad Butcher,” and by the summer of 1938, the body count had reached double digits, and the body parts much higher. The Cleveland policee, desperate to find the Mad Butcher (also known as “the Torso , persecuted an actual butcher named Frank Dolezal, who was interrogated for 40 straight hours until he confessed to killing Polillo. It was a coerced confession, however, and he changed his story many times before committing suicide in his cell.

Then and today, nobody really believes poor Dolezal was really the Mad Butcher. His role was as an instrument of a cover-up. The real story is one of deception, privilege, and a conflict of interest involving an iconic law-enforcement figure, Elliot Ness.

In Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz’s “Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher,” we learn that the famously uncorruptible law man who helped clean up the mobs in Chicago was Cleveland’s safety director as the Mad Butcher was terrorizing the city. Ness (he’s on the left in the photo above) officially took charge of the mystery on September 12, 1936; public concern, press scrutiny, and political pressure had gown intense. Martin L. Sweeney, the Democratic congressman from the 20th District, began criticizing Ness as the body count grew. Finally, Ness and investigators believed that they had their butcher after hours of interrogation and a lie-detector test. He was a medical doctor, and he was clearly insane. Unfortunately, he was also Rep. Sweeney’s cousin, Francis Edward Sweeney.

In March of 1938, a family’s dog walked into a local house with a severed human leg in its jaws. This occurred not far from the halfway house where Francis Sweeney lived, and sparked the police investigation. Convinced that publicly accusing a family member of his most prominent critic was out of the question, Ness secretly negotiated a compromise with Sweeney’s wealthy family: he would be confined for life in a veteran’s home, but never arrested or tried. Ness received threatening postcards from the good doctor for years until Ness’s death by heart attack 1957.

Ness died broke: he never took a bribe, but he allowed an innocent man to be hounded to death for murders he didn’t commit, and he accommodated a wealthy and powerful family while perverting justice and deceiving the public.

A final question unrelated to the ethical issues: How can it be that this story has never been made into a major movie, or ten? There is one independent film about the Torso Murders, but dozens about Jack the Ripper, and quite a few about the Black Dahlia (whose murder some believe was also committed by Sweeney).

3 thoughts on “History And Ethics #1: The Mad Butcher And Eliot Ness

  1. Ness is buried in the same Cleveland cemetery as James A. Garfield’s tomb. I saw it on one of my pilgrimages to see Presidential burial sites.

    I’ve never heard of this story before. Thanks!

    • My South Side of Chicago born and Catholic school raised mother grew up with a guy who himself grew up to be a mobster named, quite spectacularly, at least in my book, “Three-fingered Jack White.”

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