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8 October 2003

I can't understand why a true-crime book with a title like Torso is out of print. What are publishers thinking? The title alone merits a new edition, and Steven Nickel's study of 1930s Cleveland has more than just a snappy spine: it is a thought-provoking and evocative look at a serial killer who preyed on the "forgotten men" of the Great Depression.

Late in 1934, headless bodies started to appear here and there in Cleveland, Ohio. Some washed up on the beaches, some in the Cuyahoga River; several were found in a stretch of industrial wasteland called Kingsbury Run. That dismal location gave the serial killer one of his names. The Kingsbury Run killer was also called the Torso killer (most of the heads were never recovered) and simply the Butcher.

This was one insane guy. He carved up his victims neatly, washed the disaggregated body parts, and carefully drove them to his dumping grounds. Eeriest of all aspects of the crimes was the fact that ten of the thirteen eventual victims were never identified. The head of one, called only "#4" or "the Tattooed Man," continues to haunt the viewer from pictures. Who was he? Why did no-one miss him? How did he meet his grisly end?

The Kingsbury Run killer came to Cleveland about the same time that Eliot Ness did. (No, there's nothing to the idea that Ness himself was the killer.) Ness, fresh from Untouchables fame, became the city's public safety director, a sort of grand commissioner and dictator for police, fire-fighting, traffic, and public morals. He cleaned up the police, cracked down on drunk drivers -- and failed to catch the Butcher.

I never had any idea what became of Eliot Ness after Al Capone went to prison, except in the general sense that he morphed into Robert Stack and thence into pulp legend. Steven Nickel paints a sensitive picture of a man who had achieved great things by his early 30s and then had nowhere to go but down. After some success in Cleveland, Ness started partying heavily. He had to resign his public-safety job after (of all things) being involved in a hit-and-run crash after he'd been drinking.

Ness's failure to catch the Butcher did not propel him to his downfall. But it dented his reputation as a miracle worker. Here was the cop who had taken down Capone, unable to deal with a common murderer.

Yet the very commonness of the Kingsbury Run killer was his camouflage. He preyed upon the commonest layer of society, the anonymous drifters who thronged to the cities during the Depression. Eliot Ness's trademark gangbuster techniques -- the daring raids, the brazen personal confrontations -- were not much use against a criminal who was the antithesis of personality, who worked in the dark and alone.

The 1989 edition of Torso includes several stunning photos of the ordinary discoverers of the Kingsbury Run corpses, standing in the banal industrial settings of the crimes. It's like a catalog of urban despair in the 20th century. Yet most compelling, for me, of all the pictures is a 1947 poster for Ness's Cleveland mayoral campaign. It's tacked to a tree and seems to be fading even as we look at it. Both Ness and the Butcher faded from the public imagination until (posthumously) TV and the movies revived the hero, leaving his nemesis in obscurity.

Nickel, Steven. Torso: The Story of Eliot Ness and the Search for a Psychopathic Killer. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1989.