How many times have you walked on a beach? Generally, the experience is pleasurably common: you feel the sand between your toes, you pick up seashells, you hold hands with a loved one while you watch the sunset, you feel a light ocean breeze on your cheeks. What is uncommon, however, is if you happen upon a headless human torso on your stroll. It is with this gruesome discovery that Daniel Stashower’s latest historical true crime, American Demon: Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper, begins. After a prologue revealing Stashower’s connection to Ness (Ness extensively wrote about Stashower’s father in his scrapbooks) and how Cleveland, Stashower’s hometown, was rife with criminality during the Depression, readers are introduced to Frank LaGassie.
September 1934: LaGassie, while walking on Euclid Beach, once home to one of America’s largest amusement parks, saw what he thought was a tree trunk. Upon nearing the object, he realized it was an oddly preserved dismembered woman’s body. The newspapers got hold of the story after the coroner’s results were released. They sensationalized the horrific details of the homicide, but they also helped with the investigation. When another witness read about the grisly finding, he emerged to tell police about the bones he found, bones he thought came from a dead animal. After the coroner connected those human remains with the found torso and law enforcement dealt with a series of dead ends, “The Lady in the Lake” (as she became known) would not get justice. She began to disappear from Cleveland’s consciousness. A new subject of interest began to seize headlines: the arrest of bootleggers by a confident, camera-ready introvert. Thus began the era of Eliot Ness and his “Untouchables.”
Stashhower, in his first section, writes about Ness’s growth as a lawman. To speak about the ones chasing the killer is usually problematic for nonfiction police procedurals. Since there is limited information about the serial killers themselves, writers tend to focus on the not-as-compelling narrative surrounding the killings. American Demon, however, is successful in making Ness an enthralling, flawed protagonist who got credit for Chicago’s infamous Al Capone’s incarceration, even though he did not have much to do with it. Thanks to his constructed reputation as an enforcer and his strong-enough capabilities as a lawman, he moved up the ranks professionally.
Because Stashower knows Cuyahoga County, Cleveland and its surrounding areas, like Jackass Hill and Kingsbury Run (where two male corpses were found in 1935), he is able to bring out the area’s personality as well. Cuyahoga County has an industrialized beauty, surrounded by beaches and rivers, while also devastated by manufacturers, the railroad, bootlegging and prostitution, gambling, police misconduct, and the building of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. Stashower speaks of working immigrants who decided to construct houses on the cliffs overlooking the Cuyahoga Valley and factories that would pollute the Cuyahoga River so much that in 1969, a fire broke out on its contaminated surface. In a chapter entitled “Lake Torso,” Stashower speaks about one body being found by a wooded area of Big Creek, which is close to a suburb (Brooklyn Village) and the B & O Railroad tracks. In essence, Stashower recognizes how the once bucolic Ohio landscape changed and became an odd but compelling mixture of countryside and steel.
American Demon’s second section is devoted to Ness’ tenure as Cleveland’s Safety Director, during which he created another elite group called “The Unknowns.” Stashower follows Ness’ arduous attempts to clean up corruption and build his resume. At this time, he is thrust into finding a cold-blooded killer, who strikes again in 1936, leaving another incomplete corpse behind Hart Manufacturing Company and White Front Meat Market, as well as the body of a heavily tattooed man near the Shaker Rapids Transit tracks. Stashower provides readers with an understanding of how the killer had comprehensive knowledge of the area, which was comprised of Dick Tracy-esque villains, heroes, and easy marks, and how s/he inconspicuously killed, confusing detectives and officials alike. Also, we are made privy to ways detectives were able to find out who the victims were. Some methods were helpful, like fingerprinting, while others did not go as well. For example, one of the more memorable scenes in American Demon describes how the police department unsuccessfully displayed the tattooed man’s head on 9th Street so pedestrians could identify him.
Much of Stashower’s timeline stems from three newspapers: Plain Dealer, Cleveland News, and Cleveland Press. Historically, this makes American Demon rich with public information while showing readers how America’s salacious media machine has since not changed. Journalists, like Stashower, know how to frame a story to make capital, and “The Mad Torso Killer,” as the papers called him/her, made it easy for them to write purple prose, exacerbating what were heinous crimes. Speckled throughout American Demon are catchy headlines, which are then used by Stashower to draw his own potential readers. These writers know their audience is fascinated with serial killing.
Stashower, through newspaper articles and interviews, paints Ness as more focused on firing bad police officers than trying to find “The Mad Torso Killer.” Short of creating an “Untouchables”-like group to seek out leads that went nowhere, he seemed completely uninterested that headless corpses, skeletons, bloodless body parts, and skin samples were randomly being placed around the city. Instead, Ness was more interested in staging photo-ops to ensure he kept his job. That is not to say, though, that Stashower writes about Ness with judgment. American Demon is objective in style and in content, and Ness is not always portrayed as the hero.
The final section of American Demon speaks to how Ness, “The Unknowns,” detectives, and coroners were unable to find out who was killing victims and dumping the dismembered bodies around the city. There are several theories, all stemming from circumstantial evidence: it was a Black man who killed his lover; no, it was a Slovak bricklayer who confessed under duress; no, transients living in a shantytown by Kingsbury Run did it; no, it was gravediggers playing a joke; how about a doctor or butcher who started another killing spree in Pennsylvania; no, it was the cousin of a prominent district politician who later either got sent to or voluntarily went to an asylum; etc. By the end, the investigation runs cold, leaving readers feeling like they watched an unfulfilling Criminal Minds episode. Stashower finally provides his perceptions as to who committed the killings, but very much like his predecessors, his perceptions come from inconclusive hearsay.
As for Ness: He died young as a twice-divorced, indebted, functioning alcoholic. He spent the rest of his days as a happy husband to his third wife and a good father to his adopted son, working odd jobs to keep himself busy while wondering if he could have done more to catch “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.”
American Demon: Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper
By Daniel Stashower
Published on September 6, 2022