Not long ago I read a wildly interesting true crime book, and I thought that I should add it to my crime posts. The book in question is James Jessen Badal's In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders.
But, first, some photographs to get you started. Here are the cover and the title page.
Next, the table of contents.
As you can see, I read the revised edition, which was published in 2014. Because I haven't read the original edition, I can't compare the two versions of the book. But, of course, you should stick with the 2014 edition, since it's the more recent one.
As the title indicates, Mr. Badal's book is about the Cleveland Torso Murders, a series of twelve unsolved homicides that took place between 1934 and 1938. The story of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run doesn't seem to be much discussed these days, which is odd, since these serial murders intersected with the career Eliot Ness, who became the Cleveland safety director during the time of the murders. Given Ness's place in American popular culture, regardless of how inaccurately his exploits are usually portrayed, you would think that more attention would be paid to his hunt for a serial killer. It's hard not to think that we won't eventually see a major Hollywood movie based on this story.
Mr. Badal makes a good case that Ness and the Cleveland police managed to identify the murderer, a doctor named Francis Edward Sweeney. Unfortunately, though, they were never able to prosecute him for the crimes. He spent much of the remainder of his life in and out of mental institutions, occasionally sending a taunting postcard to Ness through the mail.
If you read much true crime writing, you've no doubt noticed that a lot of it, stylistically speaking, doesn't rise above the level of semi-literacy. Fortunately for us, Mr. Badal's book is highly literate. I found his book to be well written and properly sourced. He does his best to support his conclusions with real evidence, and thus avoids the sort of speculation that sometimes ruins an otherwise good true crime book.
In some of my earlier crime posts I complained about a lack of maps. Mr. Badal's book contains maps of the relevant areas of Cleveland, but I have to say that they strike me as being somewhat rudimentary. Here are a couple of examples:
As maps go, these aren't especially informative, and since Cleveland doesn't have much of a place in our popular imagination, I sometimes had trouble getting a sense of where the murders took place. Some aerial photographs of Kingsbury Run would have been helpful, I think, but perhaps there are no such photos from the 1930s.
Since part of the mystery surrounding the murders involves precisely where Dr. Sweeney (if he was in fact the killer) killed, decapitated and dismembered his victims, perhaps it was fitting that from time to time I had trouble imagining the killer's hunting grounds. But don't let the poverty of my imagination deter you from reading this excellent book. I highly recommend it.
One word of warning. Mr. Badal's book contains several grisly photographs of the Mad Butcher's victims (or, in some cases, merely their severed body parts). So just keep that in mind if you're squeamish about such things.
Mr. Badal has written two other books connected to the Cleveland Torso MurdersThough Murder Has No Tongue: The Lost Victim of Cleveland’s Mad Butcher and Hell’s Wasteland: The Pennsylvania Torso Murdersthat I hope to read someday.