The Story Behind the Story, by Lisa Black
In September of 1935, two boys were passing over the train tracks in a valley known as Kingsbury Run on the edge of Cleveland, Ohio, when they encountered a man. A very dead man, wearing nothing but a pair of socks and missing a head, not to mention a few of his more personal parts. Another victim lay about thirty feet away, this one missing even his socks. The heads of both men were found buried nearby, with just their hair sticking out among the weeds and grass. This killer wasn’t making any effort to hide his work; quite the contrary, he seemed to be making a statement which no one has ever been able to decipher, or perhaps just creating an extremely bizarre example of performance art.
Neither man had been murdered at the scene; in fact, the second had already been dead for at least a week. The fresher corpse was one of the very, very few victims ever identified–as a local ne’er-do-well, but a thorough investigation of his life never did lead detectives to the killer.
The police and the coroner’s office, lacking all the tricks of today’s CSI trade, examined every loose hair, every cut, every pollen spore, every scrap of debris found near the bodies, talked to every man, woman and child who frequented the area and those who knew the one identified victim. The citizens followed every bit of this. They had no internet to distract them, no five hundred cable channels to take their minds off the situation. Virtually no one had a television and many people didn’t have a phone. So they pored over the paper, discussed every detail, and worried.
In 1935, Cleveland was the seventh largest city in America. The Depression was out in full force, with men riding the rails from coast to coast. They stopped in Cleveland to ask for jobs at any of its many industrial centers, but these businesses had been decimated by the economic collapse, and the inner city began to collapse as well. Eliot Ness, ofUntouchables fame, was the safety director for the city, the chief over both the police and fire departments.
Still a young man, he had already cleaned up Chicago, then went to work for the feds, got bored and wanted to get out from behind a desk. He did a great deal to rid Cleveland, and specifically the police department, of the organized crime groups who had taken over the city during Prohibition, but would prove to have much less success with the man who came to be called The Torso Killer. The Torso killer was anything but organized. He had no logical goal in mind, like running numbers or collecting protection money, and so the usual methods of crime fighting didn’t apply.
Serial killers had existed, of course, throughout history, but each incidence was considered an unholy eruption of madness and not a recurring phenomena. It had not been studied in any methodical way. Investigators assumed that anyone who would perform such atrocities had to be insane, therefore they combed the city for cases of insanity. The fact that the victims were emasculated put them on the trail of “perverts”, meaning anyone connected with any sort of sexually oriented crime. This included homosexuality and interracial marriage.
Fast forward about eighty years. Anthony Sowell is caught after murdering 11 women and burying them in and around his house. He did not fit anyone’s idea of a crazy person. He had a low-level job that allowed him to scrape by. He had a brief police record, served his time and got out without major drama. Neighbors and even ex-girlfriends considered him a nice enough guy. It doesn’t surprise us, in this day and age, that he was not a slobbering, obviously raging monster, because after decades of study and hours of watching Criminal Minds we know that serial killers present a lot more like Jeffrey Dahmer than Vlad the Impaler. But in 1935, no one had ever heard of DNA, Blackberry Pearls, ‘profiling’ or the term serial killer.
The Torso Killer went on to murder at least twelve people, possibly twice that. He was never caught.
Today, we would know that the serial killer would be likely to keep a low profile. Today, his victims would leave a trail of photographs, medical and dental records, computerized missing person reports and maybe fingerprints to help identify them. Today, when these bodies arrived at the coroner’s office where I used to work, I could analyze the fibers found on them and compare the hairs. With an infrared spectrometer I might be able to identify the chemical used on the skin and the glue used in the bushel baskets and spray ninhydrin on the pieces of newspaper to develop fingerprints.
These are all the techniques that my character, forensic scientist Theresa MacLean, uses in Trail of Blood. In the book, Theresa is called to an abandoned building where a decapitated body has been found in a walled-up space. When she finds change in his pocket from the 1930’s, Theresa realizes that the body has been there for much longer than any of them had guessed. When she finds a badge in his other pocket, she realizes that their desiccated victim was a police officer. Theresa, knowing her Cleveland history as she does, realizes that this could be a previously unfound victim of the Torso killer–which is interesting, but not particularly frightening–until the series of murders begin over again With the bodies piling up it doesn’t take her too long to convince the police detectives that this new killer is following a plan, and she needs to use both science and history to stop him.
Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist at the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed DNA, hairs, fibers and gunshot residue. Now she works as a certified latent print examiner at a police department in Florida. Her books have been translated into six languages. This is her fifth novel.