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Issue Date: August 2006 Issue


Notorious Cleveland 3


Edited by Erick Trickey & Jim Vickers

James “Big Jim” Morton
Bank robber, charmer

Peak of notoriety: 1919-1950
“Big Jim” Morton’s armed bank robbery career peaked in 1919 with a $65,000 heist, but his real talent was charming his way out of prison. He got one conviction overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court, got caught again, talked Gov. Vic Donahey into a pardon, ended up back in prison, was paroled for heroism during the 1930 Ohio Penitentiary fire, returned to safe-cracking and went back in for 12 more years. Upon his release, Morton befriended Cleveland Press Editor Louis B. Seltzer, who helped him get his life story published in the Saturday Evening Post.

The Line: In a list filled with charming criminals, Morton may get lost in the shuffle.


Robert Steele
Wife-killing judge

Peak of notoriety: 1969
A municipal judge in Euclid, Steele was on the fast track to become the city’s next mayor. The public didn’t know that he had an allegedly irrepressible sexual appetite, and certainly couldn’t have guessed he would take out a hit on his wife, Marlene. It took prosecutors eight years to make a case against Steele, who was eventually convicted of having his wife killed in their home in the winter of ’69.

The Line: Secrets, murder and high-profile local politics are a lethal combination.


Wendy O. Williams
Lead singer, The Plasmatics

Jan. 21, 1981
The late punk-rocker made headlines when she performed at the Agora with her breasts covered in shaving cream. Williams remained technically decent when the shaving cream dissolved (thanks to artfully applied electrical tape), but the singer was arrested for pandering obscenity the next day at a downtown hotel. Williams, who appeared in court in skintight red pants, stiletto-heeled boots and her trademark Mohawk haircut, was acquitted the following April.

The Line: Provocative, but nothing to get in a lather about.


Art Modell
announces "The Move"

November 1995
The end of the 1995 Browns season was sad and surreal. That fall, whispers and rumors had hinted the Browns might leave the city. Still, it was a shock to hear Art Modell on the radio, rambling about “having no choice,” as I drove to work on Saturday, Nov. 4. I was in total disbelief, like when a girlfriend finally leaves after countless threats. The Browns can’t leave Cleveland, I thought. They are Cleveland!

I went to the game against the Houston Oilers the next day. The crowd’s mood was ugly. Everyone seemed mad, confused and helpless. “Art Lied” signs were everywhere. Expletives were being hurled toward his empty luxury box. The fans still rooted for the Browns, but they lost. My friends and I drowned our sorrows in the parking lot.

My father and I decided the Nov. 26 Steelers game would be our last at Cleveland Stadium. The first Browns game we’d attended together, in November 1972, was a 26-24 Browns victory over the Steelers, and we liked the symmetry.

Outside the stadium that day, fans were hanging Modell in effigy, handing out fliers asking people to fax the NFL in protest and selling “Muck Fodell” T-shirts for $10. Inside, the huge black scoreboard was void of its usual Marlboro Man and Coca-Cola ads. Advertisers had covered up all their banners and billboards, lending the already bleak stadium a tomblike feeling.

My father and I rooted hard for the Browns, but they lost again. We took one last lap around the cavernous concourse to say goodbye. I had worked in its warehouse in high school and college; I’d met my first girlfriend at the stadium; and, one Sunday after a game, I’d played touch football on the field with the grounds crew. Walking the concourse, it felt like part of my life was over.

On Dec. 17, I sat in my apartment watching the final home game against the Bengals on TV. I couldn’t get myself to drive downtown. My friends called me from a pay phone and said it felt like a funeral. I don’t like funerals, so I stayed away.

Security guards let my friends in for free. They didn’t want Modell to make any more money off Clevelanders. My friends carried saws, hammers and wrenches so they could rip their seats out. Some still have rows of seats in their garages or basements today.

The Browns won, and the players said goodbye in the Dawg Pound. Hugs were exchanged and grown men cried. It was the death of something truly special. That’s why Art Modell will never be forgiven in this town. Browns fans built the Dawg Pound themselves, and it was taken from them, along with their hearts.

The new stadium is nice and games are fun again, but nothing can really replace the feeling of old Municipal Stadium — Pandemonium Palace, as Nev Chandler would say. It was an extraordinary place.

The Line: Easily the darkest days in Cleveland sports history. Tough to beat.


Harvard Club
Gambling den

Peak of notoriety: 1930-1941
The Harvard Club in tiny Newburgh Heights, one of the biggest gambling houses between New York and Chicago, packed in 500 to 1,000 craps shooters, poker aces, slot players and roulette bettors per night. Limos ferried gamblers from downtown. The gambling was illegal, but the town’s mayor and county sheriff didn’t care. New Cleveland Safety Director Eliot Ness helped the county prosecutor raid the place in 1936, but it reopened down the street. A determined judge finally shut the place down in 1941.

The Line: Our all-time most notorious nightclub.


Elecia Battle
Lottery loser

Peak of notoriety: January 2004
Elecia Battle initially told the Ohio Lottery Commission she had lost the winning ticket to the $162 million Mega Millions jackpot. When the real winner came forward, Battle even sued to prevent her from collecting the cash. But her credibility plummeted when prior convictions for attacking a store clerk and making charges to a customer’s credit card came to light. Battle ultimately apologized for the ticket “inconvenience” and was sentenced for making a false police report. Then, she took up boxing.

The Line: No doubt a big-money fight, but not a true contender.


E.W. Scripps
vs. Henry Chisholm

1879-1881
When the Penny Press reported the arrest of a Stewart Chis-holm for striking a woman in August 1879, industrialist Henry Chis-holm was furious. His son and nephew were both named Stewart, and his nephew had been arrested, but he felt the article had made it seem his son was the misbehaving Stewart. So Chisholm not only sued the Press, he also had thugs tear open the reporter’s shirt and douse him with black paint. Owner E.W. Scripps fought back, printing the same story, “Chisholm’s Infamy,” for a solid month. Chisholm dropped his suit, paid the reporter $5,000 in damages and died in 1881. Some blamed the stress from Scripps’ avenging pen.

The Line: We love it, but then, we’re journalists.


May Day Riots

May 1, 1919
When communist and socialist protesters were asked to lower their red flags as they marched through Public Square during a May 1, 1919, rally in support of jailed socialist activist Eugene Debs, they refused and chaos resulted, leaving two dead, 40 injured and 116 arrested.

The Line: Reconstruction of the Berlin Wall has a better chance.


Fred Kohler
Mayor, police chief, sheriff

Peak of notoriety: 1913-1926
When Police Chief Fred Kohler got fired in 1913 for an affair with a married woman, he vowed revenge, promising he’d lead a police parade down Euclid Avenue one day. He ran for mayor, won, celebrated his inauguration with the promised parade, had almost all city buildings painted orange and black and balanced the budget by not paving the streets. Next, as sheriff, he spent less than one-sixth of the funds budgeted for feeding prisoners. When he died, his safety deposit box held a mysterious $500,000.

The Line: Our greatest political cad.


George “Jiggs” Losteiner
Gangster

Peak of notoriety: 1918-1920
George “Jiggs” Losteiner had everything a well-appointed gangster needs: moxie, style and a psychotic, hair-trigger temper conducive to impulsive cruelty and unnecessary murder.

After a criminal apprenticeship in purse-snatching and graduate studies in larceny, highway robbery and armed heists, Jiggs hit the big time in 1918. He and fellow thug John Grogan robbed a $22,834 factory payroll and wounded two Cleveland policemen in the ensuing shootout. More confrontations followed, including the killing of East Cleveland policeman Patrick Gaffney on Dec. 19, 1918.

Grogan was soon captured, but Jiggs recruited new confederates and became more brutal and brazen, hitting banks in Cleveland, Michigan and New York and living loud and large with his gang and their molls in an East Side apartment.

But on Oct. 21, 1920, Jiggs and his gang tried to hold up the Cleveland Trust branch in sleepy Bedford. Concerned citizens, well armed and alarmed by his recent rash of small-town robberies, were waiting for him. Jiggs and his gang were mowed down as they exited with the swag.

Surviving the wounds, Jiggs eluded the death penalty at his trials, and on Nov. 26, 1926, Jiggs masterminded a prison break, stabbing and bludgeoning several guards and escaping with 13 others before being recaptured. Unrepentant and vicious to the last, Jiggs died in prison in 1937.
— John Stark Bellamy II

The Line: Heartlessly cruel and cold blooded, Jiggs is a tough competitor.


Myth-Busters

The bullet in Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s bar wasn’t fired by Eliot Ness.
There really are bullet holes in the front room, and one, in the tiger mahogany bar, has a .38-caliber bullet in it. But the legend that the famous gangbuster and Cleveland safety director fired the bullets is “probably more folklore than fact,” co-owner Pat Conway says. His mother, who was Ness’ stenographer, says Ness didn’t carry a gun. Retired judge Blanche Krupansky, whose family owned the bar in the ’30s and ’40s when it was the Market Tavern, says the bullet came from a bartender’s failed suicide attempt.

The Torso Murders

Peak of notoriety: 1935-1938
by James Jessen Badal

Whisper “Kingsbury Run,” and Clevelanders hear distant echoes of the horror that swirled through the city 70 years ago. If there are ghosts in Cleveland, they wander the emptiness of Kingsbury Run, the industrial wasteland where a phantom butcher, known as the Torso Murderer, left some of his naked, decapitated and otherwise dismembered victims. Legend puts the body count at 12, dispatched between September 1935 and August 1938. Legend also maintains that the killer eluded capture and was never identified.

However, Eliot Ness, Cleveland’s safety director from 1935 to 1942, left behind a tantalizing story about the Torso Murders before his death in 1957. He alleged the existence of a “secret suspect” — someone he steadfastly refused to identify. For decades, Ness’ tale haunted the city. Some argued he was a myth fabricated by a famous lawman who could not admit he worked a case he could not solve.

But the myth turned out to have a name: Dr. Francis Edward Sweeney. The son of immigrant Irish parents, Frank Sweeney served as a medic during World War I, attended both Western Reserve and John Carroll universities and earned his medical degree at St. Louis University’s School of Medicine. Then, the gradual onslaught of paranoid schizophrenia drove him to alcoholism, drug abuse and — if Ness was correct — murder.

The public record of the Kingsbury Run investigation is littered with references to an unnamed mad surgeon, someone who could disarticulate a corpse with the precision noted in the autopsies. In April 1938, coroner Sam Gerber acknowledged the existence of such a suspect; that October, radio newsman Walter Winchell broadcast the rumor about “a fanatic, a medical man with great skill.”

Finally, in 1983, Ness confidant David Cowles revealed that Cleveland police secretly apprehended Sweeney in 1938 and that Ness had interrogated him and forced him to take a lie-detector test (which he flunked), then cut him loose due to lack of evidence. Lead investigator Peter Merylo identified Sweeney by name as a suspect in a police report. In 1997, Ness associate Arnold Sagalyn recounted having been assigned to tail Sweeney around downtown. Ness’ papers include jeering postcards Sweeney bombarded him with while committed to the Dayton veterans’ hospital in the mid-1950s, including one addressed to “Eliot Head Man Ness.”

Francis Sweeney died in 1964. There is no doubt that he was Eliot Ness’ “secret suspect.” Only the ghosts of Kingsbury Run know whether he was guilty.

James Jessen Badal is the author of “In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders” and “Twilight of Innocence: the Disappearance of Beverly Potts.”

The Line: A grisly mystery, a secret suspect, a legendary lawman — enough said.


Jane Campbell’s
Adopt-A-Can Program

Peak of Notoriety: January-March 2004
Nothing says a city’s finances are on the skids quite like the mayor considering the removal of 1,300 public trash cans. But Jane Campbell’s inexplicably strange “Adopt-A-Can” proposal in 2004 aimed to solve the budget crunch by asking local businesses to maintain one garbage can for one year — emptying it, cleaning the lid, everything. When the idea grew into a political punch line for Campbell, it was dumped and city workers were ordered to empty the cans. Imagine that.

The Line: The concept stinks, but it doesn’t stand much of a chance in this crowd of political foibles.


10-Cent Beer Night

June 4, 1974
Here’s an idea: Get a stadium full of Indians fans drunk and see what happens. When the front office proposed 10-Cent Beer Night — as revenge against the visiting Texas Rangers, whose fans had doused Indians players with beer earlier that season — they probably didn’t imagine the drunkest among the 25,000 in attendance getting naked, stealing bases (literally) and tossing beer, batteries and even chairs onto the field. The Indians forfeited the game and American League president Lee MacPhail banned any future beer nights for the Tribe, declaring, “There was no question that beer played a part in the riot.” Um, yeah.

The Line: We love beer, but we can’t support alcohol-induced idiocy.


Prostitution
Peak of notoriety: 1800s-2000s

It's always entertaining to find out your town used to have whorehouses. Here's a history of Cleveland's official and unofficial red-light districts.

1850s:
Prostitutes catering to sailors work in red-light districts near the waterfront and the Haymarket area (now Gateway), while farmers and food vendors see prostitutes near where the Innerbelt Bridge is now.

1880s:
Red-light district moves to aging homes at the north end of downtown, roughly around today’s malls. Police raid the whorehouses but don’t close them.

1910s:
City shuts down the red-light districts, now on East Sixth and on Hamilton Avenue. A councilman protests closing the “places of indoor amusement”; others in town complain prostitution will spread citywide.

1930s:
Whorehouses, speakeasies and gambling houses fill the city. Ardell Quinn’s Hollywood Royal Club brothel on East 84th Street is raided in 1932 after 20 years in business; Quinn moves the club to South Euclid until the FBI arrests her in 1936.

1940s:
Cleveland Safety Director Eliot Ness orders vice squad to raid brothels.

1970s:
Streetwalkers work Prospect Avenue and other East Side thoroughfares. Plain Dealer reporters expose the Sterling Hotel at Prospect and East 30th as a hooker haven.

1990s:
Prostitutes move from the streets to the back pages of Scene and Free Times.

The Line: With no madam's little black book recently exposed, this one may not make the Sweet 16.

Notorious Cleveland 1
Notorious Cleveland 2
Notorious Cleveland 4
The Notorious Cleveland Tournament

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