While many people know Crime Library as the Internet’s 15-year-old repository of crime, its founder Marilyn Bardsley has a very different understanding of the stories it houses. Many of them she investigated personally, including the very first story ever published on the website—the 1938 Cleveland Torso Murders, committed by a horrific serial killer who would later be dubbed “the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.”
Bardsley, who describes herself as having been an “armchair historian” when she began the website in 1998, sent the Daily Dot an extraordinary set of emails detailing the “unvarnished truth” of her own real-life murder investigations.
Bardsley’s amateur sleuthing led her to stumble upon a wasp’s nest: a half-century of political scandal and coverup over the murders involving the legendary Eliot Ness. Bardsley was able to discover the criminal and bring the case to Crime Library, and the Internet, two decades later—though not without several very sinister encounters, including veiled threats, surveillance, and mysterious break-ins along the way.
We present her tale in its entirety.
It’s important to understand that I was an telecom/Internet executive for much of my career, and I really didn’t know anything about crime, with the exception of the very unusual experience in the early 1970s of personally investigating the “unsolved” Kingsbury Run Murders and exposing—at some real personal peril from the nephew of the killer who was running for a major office in northern Ohio—the actual serial killer who Eliot Ness put in a veterans hospital in August of 1938. His solution to the case never went to court, but did stop the murders and was a very closely held secret among a very small group of elderly secret-holders who were dying off.
In 1970, my ex-husband and I wrote an entire screenplay on a rainy Labor Day weekend called The Future Tense. It was about the violent overthrow of a country like the U.S. by a revolutionary group modeled after groups like The Weather Underground or the SDS. Barry Diller then was head of ABC’s Movie of the Week and one of his producers really liked our work, but it was too violent for TV. He asked us to submit one-page pitches for future ideas. All I could think of was the Kingsbury Run case, which was far too violent for TV and, consequently, my husband wasn’t interested. I had already found out from Dr. Royal Grossman, the court psychiatrist in the 1930s in Cleveland, that Eliot Ness had actually solved the case, but he wouldn’t give me the name of the killer.
To say that I was becoming obsessed with this case is an understatement. I was at that time the editor of several business reference publications, which was not exactly exciting. At that time, my ex-husband was the administrator of an after-school program at Cuyahoga Community College. Unbeknown to my ex-husband, I put a personals classified ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that read “Wanted, Evidence to convict Kingsbury Run Killer” and put my ex-husband’s office telephone number. He played it cool that whole day the ad had run in the morning paper. That evening he told that the only call was a reporter and that we were going to be interviewed the next morning. We had a very large article with photos and we stated that we knew from good authority that Ness had quietly solved the case. The article brought two phone calls from friends of Ness who told me that I was right about Ness solving the case (which I later further confirmed by a telephone call to Ness’ third wife and widow) but [the source] had been sworn to secrecy about the name of the killer, and a former burglar who said he knew who the killer was and agreed to meet with us later in the week.
A few nights later, my girlfriend and I went out for drinks at a nice Shaker Heights restaurant with a bar. An older man came in shortly afterwards and sat opposite us across the bar. He stared at us constantly and creeped us out. We decided to go across town to Mayfield Heights to a place [with] a live band.
When we got to the bar, it was empty since the band wasn’t go to begin for over an hour. We sat at the bar alone and talked. The telephone at the bar rang and the bartender answered and turned around to look at us. When he hung up, he brought each of us two free drinks. Well, I can’t drink like that, so I gave my two freebies to my girlfriend who was an experienced drinker. Some 15 or so minutes later, a man in a suit came in the bar and sat right next to me. At that point, I wished that we’d sat at a table instead. The first thing out of his mouth is, “You look familiar. Weren’t you in the paper a few days ago?”
I told him I was, and when he asked me why I was writing about this old case from the 1930s, I told him we were trying to sell what we learned either as a book or movie. Then he asked if the Republicans had put us up to this. I told him I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he quietly threatened me with words to this effect: “You don’t fool around with Bob Sweeney and get away with it. My advice to you is to drop it before you’re sorry.”
I didn’t know Bob Sweeney from Adam, but at least now I had a name to go back to Dr. Grossman and Ness’s two friends. All three confirmed that the killer was Dr. Francis Edward Sweeney, whose nephew Bob Sweeney was running for Cuyahoga County Commissioner. Bob Sweeney was the lawyer son of powerful Congressman Martin L. Sweeney who was an antagonist of Eliot Ness and the Republican administration of Mayor Harold Burton in the 1930s.
There were many threats directed towards me—phone calls, putting a former lawyer in my office as a supposedly free translator of German newspapers, and even breaking into our typist’s home and stealing the first few chapters of our manuscript. Finally, we called the Cleveland Heights Police and they recommended that my ex-husband go on TV (he was a cameraman for the 11 o’clock news at that time) and give out the name Sweeney as the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run,” which was what the Sweeney campaign was trying to suppress. It worked. While they tried to dispute a relationship to the good doctor, too many people knew it was a lie. Sweeney dropped out of the campaign, although I don’t know if our revelation had anything to do with it, and we were never threatened again.
I had collected so much information on Sweeney, most of which is in my Crime Library story. The rest I gave copies to my high school and college friend, James Jessen Badal, who wrote at least one book on the story. Jim has a fascination with grim photos, so if you want chapter and verse, you can find it on Amazon.
Illustration by Fernando Alfonso