The colorfully nicknamed cadavers were victims of Cleveland's notorious serial murderer of the 1930s, whom the newspapers called "The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run." The elusive killer skillfully dismembered his prey, then dumped their remains in Kingsbury Run, a barren ravine at Quincy and Woodland near East 37th Street, and in the Cuyahoga River. Only three of the twelve victims were ever identified. The case haunted the city's safety director, Eliot Ness, and remains officially unsolved 61 years later, though crime buffs continue to speculate on the murderer's identity.
A macabre memorial to the so-called Torso Murders is the star exhibit at the Cleveland Police Museum, a tiny but fascinating gallery of local rookies and rogues. Death masks, cast from four of the victims, hang somberly above a 1920s fingerprinting cabinet, along with gruesome autopsy photos that illustrate why the term "butcher" was apt.
The museum, founded in 1983, packs a lot of Cleveland law-enforcement history into a few modest rooms. An actual jail cell, from the women's section of the old police headquarters at East 21st and Payne, gives a sense of what it was like to do time in the '20s. A hand-lettered sign above the lockup advises, "To Find Out What Your Bail Is, Call Clerk's Office. Give Clerk Your Correct Name and What You Are Charged With."
There's a sort of inventors' hall of fame here, including an example of the "Murphy Box," a streamlined police signal devised in 1900 by Cleveland police officer Jerry Murphy. Prior to Murphy's invention, call boxes were large and ungainly; Clevelanders joked that policemen would lock suspects inside them while awaiting the paddy wagon.
Nearby, a display case houses an arresting piece of forensic literature titled Descriptive Book of Thieves, 1887-91. The book, a quaint handwritten ledger with photographs and descriptions of Victorian-era miscreants, evokes a simpler age of record-keeping. Otto Lueth, it reports, a sixteen-year-old German immigrant ("Occupation: Clerk. Whiskers: None. Nose: Large.") was apprehended on June 9, 1884. Next to "Remarks," an officer floridly penned: "Killed Maggie Thompson with hammer."
The Cleveland Police Historical Society, which operates the museum, has far more memorabilia than the present space can accommodate. "We have no room to grow," says museum trustee Andrew Schug. Plans are under way, he reports, to move the museum to roomier quarters "within two to three years." After considering a lakefront location, the society learned that an ideal site was available: the historic Third District police station at East 21st and Payne, now in the midst of renovation. "We'll go from a tiny museum to a huge space," Schug says excitedly, adding that the museum will occupy the station's entire second floor, incorporating its restored courtroom and captains' offices.
Visitors can also contemplate an alarming array of armaments, some used by police and many, far scarier, confiscated from felons. Among the weapons are stilettos, a sword disguised as a walking stick, brass knuckles used by 1930s gangs, assault rifles, and a "throwing star." One is amazed by the ingenuity of the criminal mind (there's a crude shotgun fashioned entirely of plumbing pipes) and grateful for the thin blue line ("Confiscated from Mental Patient" reads a card next to a massive butcher knife). Other artifacts: Harley-Davidson police motorcycles, an early polygraph, photos of Canine Unit patrol pooches, and a 1947 campaign poster from Eliot Ness's failed mayoral bid, signed, "Yours for a Safer, Cleaner, Better Cleveland."
The society will kick off a campaign this year to raise the more than $2 million needed for the new museum. "It will be viable, visible, and user-friendly," Schug promises, "a shining point in the city."
The Cleveland Police Museum is at the Justice Center, 1300 Ontario St. Hours are Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Guided tours are available by appointment; call 216-623-5055.