The Murder Swamp

Years before the decapitated bodies began popping up around Cleveland, Newcastle, PA had their own murder mystery on their hands.

murderswamparticleIn 1921, an elderly woman was found decapitated within her own home. None of the woman’s personal possessions had been disturbed and there had been no evidence of a home invasion except for the woman’s mutilated body. Her house had been located between two sets of railroad tracks, The B&O and P&LE, overlooking an area later known as “The Murder Swamp”.

In 1923 another body had been located floating down the river near the Murder Swamp. This time the victim was a young girl and like the others she had been decapitated and dismembered.

In October of 1925, while walking near an area of the Murder Swamp used as a slag dump for the nearby steel mills, a man hunting for wild ducks stumbled across what appeared to be a body hidden beneath a log. Startled by his discovery, the hunter immediately made his way back in order to alert the authorities.

Like the bodies discovered later in Cleveland, the victim had been decapitated. After a several day search was conducted within the area, a head was found buried in a hole underneath another log, as well as a hat, some rope, and burnt clothing, which presumably belonged to the victim. Local news covered the find extensively and photos of the man’s head were put on public display, but no one ever came forward to offer any clues on the identity of the deceased white male discovered in the Murder Swamps.

Around a week later, a group of boys, again out duck hunting, stumbled across human bones near the same area the unidentified man had been discovered. Everything except for the skull was found. Investigators continued to dig, hoping to locate the skull belonging to skeleton. In total, seven more fragmented human skeletons were unearthed from the grounds, all had been decapitated. None of the victims were ever identified nor was the killer.

Nine years passed without incident. Though the case went cold, the murders became a facet of local lore in New Castle. Some say that it was bootleggers tied to the mob, knocking people off and leaving their bodies in the swamps. Others believed that it was the work of a mad doctor or nurse stealing people’s heads for bizarre experiments, and later some came to believe it was the work of the Mad Butcher who terrorized Cleveland’s East Side.

On October 16, 1934, Almost a month after the discovery of the Lady of the Lake on the shores of Euclid Beach, another body was discovered in the murder swamps. Two men with their dogs came across the body of a badly decomposed man. Unlike the others, however, his head was still intact. Along with the body, an empty whiskey bottle and an iron spike was found buried within the man’s makeshift grave. Like the others, the man also went unidentified.

1939, five years after the last discovery, a man was found in a pile of burnt debris. Another John Doe whom would never be identified. Skeletal remains continued to be uncovered within the area of the Murder Swamp and the nearby Beaver River until the 1970s. It is unknown exactly how many bodies were dumped in the area and whether they were all connected or unrelated cases.

The Murder Swamp murders were never officially considered to be part of the torso murders in Cleveland, though some believe that the crimes may have been part of the Mad Butcher’s early killing career. However, one key distinction between murders in Cleveland and the Murder Swamp victims was that the men found in the swamp had their genitals intact, leading to the theory that there were multiple killers decapitating people around the same time and it was mere coincidence that they all occurred in routes easily accessible by the railroad.

No mention of a possible connection between the bodies found in the Murder Swamp and the Mad Butcher were ever insinuated until 1940 when the Mckees Rocks Boxcar Murders occurred.

McKees Rocks Boxcar Murders

An aerial view of the New Castle Junction where some of the Murder Swamp victims were found in train cars.

An aerial view of the New Castle Junction where some of the Murder Swamp victims were found in train cars.

On May 3, 1940, a couple of P&LE workers noticed a particularly foul odor emanating from an old rundown boxcar marked for demolition. This, along with eight other train cars, had recently arrived from Youngstown, OH, located approximately 76 miles Southeast of Cleveland, and 66 miles North of McKee’s Rocks. The men notified their supervisor and together they went to investigate the strange smell, thinking that perhaps an animal had met its end within the retired train car. What they found was much worst than the men could have ever have imagined.

Within the open boxcar a body was found. The victim had been diced into seven pieces and wrapped in a burlap sack underneath an old newspaper. The victim’s head had also appeared to be missing. The men set out to search the other train cars in the area.

A female body turned up in a similar state as the first body found. The third body was completely intact with the exception of the man’s head, but unlike the others, this one bore a distinctive message. The word “NAZI”, with letters approximately five inches high, had been carved into the victim’s chest. The Z had been purposely written backwards for some inexplicable reason.

Detective Peter Merylo went undercover as a hobo, believing that the Mad Butcher frequented the railways.

Detective Peter Meyerlo went undercover as a hobo, believing that the Mad Butcher frequented the railways.

Detective Peter Meyerlo, lead investigator for the Cleveland torso murders, was quick to assume that the Boxcar Murders had to be connected to the Mad Butcher. Meyerlo’s theory was that the Butcher road the rails in order to pick up victims and to make a quick getaway. This theory would also offer an explanation on why the killer often chose areas located near the railroad tracks to use as dumping grounds for his victim’s bodies. Meyerlo went undercover as a hobo and traveled the rails hoping to catch a glimpse of the Butcher, but his efforts proved to be unfruitful. No concrete evidence was ever found to support Meyerlo’s claims that the two murders were connected.