Florence Genevieve Polillo

One of the most infamous crimes in Northeast Ohio were the Torso murders of the mid-1930s, also known as the Kingsbury Run Murders. Still unsolved, the killings were committed in Cleveland, Ohio. The gruesome crimes were the talk of the decade, challenging Cleveland’s safety director Eliot Ness and the Cleveland Police for years.

Erie was not only interested in the crimes, but shared a connection to the killings in Florence Genevieve Polillo, the third victim of the torso killer in 1936.

Florence’s body was found on the 26th of January in 1936, when a woman discovers about half the body of a female neatly wrapped in newspaper and packed in two half bushel baskets. The baskets were left alongside the Hart Manufacturing building on Central Avenue near East 20th Street in Cleveland. In the following month, upon another discovery made on February 7 by a young mechanic, everything except the head was recovered in a vacant lot on nearby Orange Avenue. The cause of death had been decapitation, but for some reason the killer had waited for rigor mortis to set in before disarticulating the rest of the body. Fingerprints allowed the identification of one Florence Genevieve Polillo, waitress, bar maid, and prostitute. At the time of her death, she resided at 3205 Carnegie Avenue, right on the edge of Cleveland’s Roaring Third Street, which at the time was the red-light district of Cleveland.

The official number of murders credited to the Cleveland Torso Murderer is twelve, although recent research has shown there may have been more. The twelve victims were killed between 1935 and 1938. The victims were usually drifters. Four of the victims were identified, the identities of the other eight were never determined.

The Torso Murderer always beheaded and often dismembered his victims, sometimes also cutting the torso in half; in many cases the cause of death was the decapitation itself. Most of the male victims were castrated, and some victims showed evidence of chemical treatment being applied to their bodies. Many of the victims were found after a considerable period of time following their deaths, sometimes a year or more. This made identification nearly impossible, especially since the heads were often not found.

During the time of the official murders Eliot Ness held the position of Public Safety Director of Cleveland, a position with authority over the police department and ancillary services, including the fire department. While Ness had little to do with the investigation his posthumous reputation as leader of the Untouchables has made him an irresistible character in modern torso murder lore.

Born Florence Genevieve Sawdy, December 6, 1891, in Ashtabula County, Ohio, Florence spent her early youth, sometime around 1900, in Erie’s 4th ward with her mother, Nellie Eliza (Robinson) Sawdy; and father, Fred Othello Sawdy. The family resided at 236 West 3rd Street. Florence’s family, on her father’s side, originates from Platea, in Erie county; Florence, her father, and other family members are all interred at the Platea Cemetery.

Florence’s mother worked at home, while her father freelanced as a day laborer. Her father’s employment was never steady, which kept the family on the move. The Sawdy family was in flux, moving to Buffalo, New York, then back to Erie; to Cleveland and Ashtabula, Ohio, and back to Erie again. Not much is known about Florence’s youth. Records for the Sawdy family are sparse and spread throughout three states.

By the 1920s, Florence is an adult and more records can be found, which describes her as an alcoholic who had a history of abuse by paramours. She was a prostitute and her associates were at the very bottom of the social class, they were pimps, bootleggers, and prostitutes. She was also believed to be emotionally unstable.

Around 1922 to 1923 Florence meets Andrew Polilla, a Postal Worker from Buffalo, New York. The couple marries and continue to reside in Buffalo for the next 5 to 6 years until 1928 when Florence (Florence Genevieve Polillo) tells her husband that she is leaving for two weeks to Ashtabula to visit her mother to straighten herself out. Two weeks later, having not return home, she is spotted in the company of a man at Charles Restaurant in downtown Buffalo by her husband. The next night she packs her clothes up and leaves their apartment. Florence agrees to a divorce and moves back to Erie in 1928. That same year in August she is arrested for solicitation. Except for the arrest, the two years that Florence spent in Erie was uneventful.

In 1930 Florence shows up in Cleveland, Ohio, and is arrested for soliciting. The following year on June 14, 1931, Florence is arrested again in Cleveland for renting a room for immoral purposes.

On May 2, 1934, Florence makes a radical departure from her normal pattern of activity and travels to Washington, D.C. where she is arrested for soliciting. The authorities agreed to drop the complaint against Florence if she agrees to leave the capitol and never return, which she did.

Florence resurfaced in Cleveland in October of 1935, where she is arrested for selling liquor at 1504 St. Clair Avenue.

A few months later, in January of 1936, Florence would become victim number three in the Cleveland Murders.

Florence Genevieve Polillo
Florence Genevieve Polillo.

Hart Manufacturing building on Central Avenue near East 20th Street in Cleveland
Florence’s partial remains was found on the 26th of January in 1936 along the side of the Hart Manufacturing building on Central Avenue near East 20th Street in Cleveland.