An odd stench caught the attention of a worker in the sprawling yards of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad near McKees Rocks one Friday morning in early May 1940. He notified his supervisor who, along with another worker, climbed into an aging boxcar scheduled to be demolished.
In the dark corners of the car, the two men made a gruesome discovery — a body carved into seven pieces. Wrapped in burlap or stuffed under newspapers were a torso, two arms, two legs and two thighs. The head was missing.
A search of other cars in the yard turned up two more bodies, also headless. One had been carved, like the first, into seven pieces. The other was intact, except for the missing head. The word “NAZI” had been crudely carved in 5-inch letters into the chest. Oddly, the letter “z” was backward.
Investigators quickly determined the bodies were most likely the work of what newspapers called the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” or the “Cleveland torso murderer.”
The killer is officially credited with twelve murders, though some experts believe the number to be much higher. Bodies — or parts of bodies — began turning up in Cleveland in 1935. Victims were drifters and the working poor who lived in shanty towns near what’s known as Cleveland’s Flats. Most were never identified.
Victims were decapitated and dismembered— sometimes even the torso was cut in half. Many died as a result of the decapitation itself.
In Cleveland, a sort of unease became a public outcry as the body count increased. Police raided shanty towns and searched every building in a 10-square-mile area. Leading the investigation was newly appointed Cleveland Public Safety Director Eliot Ness, who’d made a name for himself by heading a small group of law-enforcement agents called “The Untouchables.”
Investigators said the murderer was skilled with a knife and had some knowledge of human anatomy. Perhaps he was a physician, a butcher or a hunter.
Detectives in Pittsburgh determined the victims found in the boxcars were between 30 to 40 years old. Only one was identified. A fingerprint match revealed the victim with “Nazi” carved into his chest to be David Nicholson, a 30-year-old convicted burglar from Illinois.
Though officials in Pittsburgh and elsewhere believed the bodies found in McKees Rocks were the work of the “crazed butcher,” an official link was never made. The killer’s identity remains a mystery.