James Badal and his extravagant muttonchops can be seen, most mornings, at Civilization Coffee shop in Tremont. Badal, a professor at Tri-C in english and journalism, has lived in Tremont for 11 years and calls it "a neighborhood in the old-fashioned sense of the word." It was there, last Thursday evening, that he held a release party for the new edition of his book, In the Wake of the Butcher (Kent State University Press, © 2014), a true-crime masterpiece on Cleveland's torso murders. Badal caught up with Scene at Civilization before the release, to chat about his gory research.
James Badal: When I was beginning to research the first edition, there was this legend — Eliot Ness himself was the source of the legend — that he had had a "secret suspect" in the case, a suspect whom he refused to name. And he gave him the pseudonym Gaylord Sundheim.
Sam Allard: Gaylord what now?
Sundheim. If you know your German, you can say that loosely translates as House of Sin. Ness said that his operatives were getting very suspicious of this person, but he would not identify him. This, by the way, he told to his biographer 20 years after the fact. They picked the guy up and gave him a lie detector test, which he flunked. But since the police had no evidence against him, they had to let him go.
A lot of people dismiss this story. They say there's no proof it ever happened. Some people said, essentially, that this was Eliot Ness in his older age who couldn't admit that there was a case he couldn't solve. So when I first began looking into this, I had three questions. Did that interrogation really take place? Could the secret suspect be identified? And was that suspect actually the Mad Butcher? In the first edition, I was able to answer those first two questions. Yes it did take place, and yes, I was able to identify the secret suspect.
And in this edition?
In this edition, thanks to some very serendipitous circumstances, and some new information that came forward, I was able to make a far, far, far more compelling case that that secret suspect was indeed the Butcher.
Back in the '40s and '50s, were the Torso Murders still on Clevelanders' minds?
It still is. I learned about it when I was in the 8th grade. Our American History teacher apparently thought the Kingsbury Run murders were up there with Thomas Jefferson and the Civil War. Over a two-day period, he read us an article that appeared in the November 1948 issue of Harper's Magazine. And as I often tell other people who teach, if you want to get the attention of a bunch of 15-year-olds, read them something about people losing their heads. It made an incredible impression on me. I never forgot it.
And so you wanted to write about it yourself?
I developed an interest in Jack the Ripper, and I realized that Cleveland had its own Jack the Ripper. I had some inside information that led me to the story and I thought I could certainly do better than what was out there. The way I looked at it was: This is history. I think we all owe a debt to historical events to portray them as accurately as we can, and that includes crimes.
How'd you go about assembling all the information?
The first thing I did was canvas everything that was available, all the newspaper coverage. I stopped reading those mega true crime anthologies almost immediately because I began to realize that most of that was total shit.
Why so horrendous?
The important lesson is that you've got to live in the city where it happened. You cannot be a visitor and make long-distance visits to a place like Cleveland.
Most of the true-crime anthology folks parachuted in?
I wouldn't even go that far.
Phone call journalism?
I wouldn't even go that far.
At any rate, I'm on the board of the Cleveland Police historical society, so that gave me access to things like bits and pieces of the case that had survived: a police report here, a police report there, photographs, access to all the material at the morgue. Then I was able to get in touch with Peter Murlow's daughter. Murlow was the lead investigator on the case, and she had all her father's papers: his police reports and the tip letters he had gotten. She said she duplicated it all at her daughter's office. It took her eight hours. That year, Santa Claus came in May and wore a FedEx uniform. It was a pile of documents a foot high, which no one had ever seen outside the Murlow family.
So Murlow was a bigger player than Ness?
Ness really didn't have that much to do with it.
I feel like he's the one everyone associates with the torso murders.
He was the Safety Director.
Right, Matt Damon in the squashed Hollywood interpretation. But you're saying he wasn't involved in a hands-on way?
He was after a certain point. The murders officially started in September, 1935. Ness came to Cleveland that December, so the first killings had already started when he arrived. He did not become involved until the summer of 1936. I think he was smart enough to realize that this was something beyond his experience as a federal agent. He was used to people who committed crimes for understandable reasons, greed or revenge or whatever — the term 'serial killer' wasn't even introduced until the mid-1970s. But I think he realized that this was a quagmire. I suppose I should put out there that in the summer of '36 the Republicans were holding their National Convention here.
Can you tell me anything more about Ness' secret suspect without ruining the book? Was his identity scandalous in any way?
No. He was a surgeon. He had become an alcoholic and a drug addict, and had bombarded Ness with— (READ THE BOOK. I PROMISE IT'S SUPER INTERESTING).