On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 6, 1925, Welsh-born steel worker Samuel J. Hares of South Jefferson Street in New Castle, Pennsylvania, was out looking for wild ducks and other game animals in a secluded area just north of West Pittsburg. The expanse of area between West Pittsburg and the busy rail yards at New Castle Junction, located in Taylor Township, was a swampy nightmare long referred to by locals as “Hell’s Half Acre.” It was bordered on the east by the railroad tracks of the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie (P&LE) and Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) and on the west by the Beaver River. The area was dotted with murky pools, tangled underbrush, and slime covered bogs. About the only people who braved the area were local hunters familiar with the few passable trails through it. The area closet to New Castle Junction was once a popular area for the local steel mills to dump slag, an unwanted byproduct in the steel making process.
During his outing Hares spotted what looked like a human corpse partially buried under a log. He immediately made his way to West Pittsburg and alerted longtime Lawrence County Constable Walter G. Bannon. Before too long a host of officials, including County Detective Jack M. Dunlap and his deputies and County Coroner James P. Caldwell, arrived on scene to investigate.
The officials were baffled by the discovery. It was determined the partially decomposed nude corpse was that of a white male, and had been decapitated with some precision. The victim had obviously been killed at another location – probably about two or three weeks prior – and then dumped at this location within the last week. The remote and desolate site was about three-fourths off a mile from the nearest navigable road and the body had to have been carried a great distance. A search got underway of the area and continued for several days. Missing person reports also starting flooding in as various police agencies and concerned citizens from around the region sought to see if the body might be a match. The New Castle News reported, “The gruesomeness of the murder has attracted much attention and caused considerable discussion. All sorts of theories are being advanced.”
Two days later, on Thursday afternoon, October 8, the search effort proved rewarding. The New Castle News reported it like this, “Shortly before 3 o’clock Detective (C. W.) Hicks was standing near the log where the body was found, when he noticed that there was a stronger odor than on the day before. He started to explore under the log with a shovel, and uncovered the head. It was badly covered with loose earth and was lying immediately under where the feet of the body had reposed. The head had evidently been buried in a hole scooped out by human hands, and before the body had been shoved up against the log. The head was lying-face upward. The earth, which had become wet, clung to the face and hair, so that the features could not be clearly seen.” Meanwhile, a hat, a length of rope, and a pile of burned clothing were discovered in separate locations nearby. It seems the killer had attempted to burn the victim’s clothing.
The New Castle News reported in detail about the head being photographed, “Coroner J. P. Caldwell was summoned. He took with him Clark Rutter of the Rutter Studio, who took a picture of the head as it lay under the log. It was then removed, carried to a nearby pond and an effort made to wash it off, but with not very good success. A box was then secured from West Pittsburg. The head mounted on it and pictures of it taken. It was dark by this time, illumination being furnished from the headlights of two automobiles. The head was then brought to the Offutt morgue, where it was examined and two other photos taken by Mr. Rutter. It is hoped to identity the victim by the means of the photos.” The photographs were put on public display at Rutter Studio on East Washington Street for the public to view, but no positive identification resulted from it.
Things were quiet for over a week when on the late afternoon of Saturday, October 17, 1925, four teenage boys from West Pittsburg out duck hunting found a partially hidden human skeleton near the site of the earlier discoveries. The skeleton was partially clothed, but once again the skull was missing. A folding penknife was also found. Local authorities were soon on site and searched the immediate area for the missing skull with no results. It was determined by the coroner that the remains were those of a male, in excess of six feet tall, who probably died at least four months ago. The head had also been removed with some precision. The news of a second victim shocked the local community and people grew terrified that a serial killer may be on the loose. The area north of West Pittsburg became flooded with sightseers and curiosity seekers as well.
It was not long before another discovery was made. At about noon on Monday, October 19, during a search of the area authorities found a human skull and another bundle of men’s clothing. It was initially assumed they had found the skull of the skeleton discovered two days prior, but the coroner determined the new skull was of a third victim – possibly (but not definitively) belonging to an elderly woman. It also appeared this victim had been deceased for over a year. The bundle of clothes apparently belonged to the skeleton of the man found on Saturday.
A huge search, assisted by the Pennsylvania State Police, was undertaken of the swamp the following day. A throng of hunting gear-clad volunteers met just north of West Pittsburg about noon, spread out, and searched the swamp until darkness set in. The New Castle News of October 21, 1925, reported the results of the search: “Close to where the skull of the third victim was found, was found the lower jaw, which had been missing, two sections of vertebrae, about 15 small bones which might have been fingers or toes, a strip of dried human flesh, a blood clotted mat of hair and a dark blue cap.” Officials had hoped to find the skull of the second victim but it was not to be.
Excitement grew as police authorities now had three victims on their hands, which were killed over the course of twelve months’ time. It was about this time that the name “Murder Swamp” was coined and graced the local headlines, but not much attention was given outside the New Castle area. Details about the clothing found and the description of the three victims were well publicized in the hope that someone would recognize something.
Officials had little to go on but believed the killings were possibly committed by a lone man, who killed the victims at a different location and then dumped them in the swamp afterwards. No motive was established but the decapitations seemed to indicate the killings were well planned and not crimes of simple opportunity (such as robbery). There was also no evidence of any deviant sexual behavior associated with the killings. Examination of the victims seemed to be contradictory as to whether they might be fringe members of society such as hobos or vagrants, but the fact that nobody came forward to identify them was puzzling.
Police surmised the following facts about the killer (or killers): He was strong, he was extremely skilled with a knife or saw, he knew the swamp, and he was not worried about the discovery of the bodies. The victims had been dragged a great distance into the swamp indicating the murderer was a strong and able-bodied man. The victims had been decapitated with some skill indicating a medically trained person or a well seasoned hunter was involved. The killer had a good knowledge of the swamp and if he didn’t live locally (now or in the past) he was possibly a railroad employee familiar with New Castle Junction. Each victim had only been partially hidden or concealed indicating the killer was really not too concerned about the remains being discovered.
Investigators were bombarded with reports about missing persons, supposed leads on suspects, and all sorts of outlandish theories concerning the motive(s) behind the killings. Some people speculated that the killings were done by a crazed surgeon or nurse, while others suggested that gangland thugs connected to the mob were dumping victims in the swamp. It was suggested that the killings may be connected to the bootlegging wars afflicting the region. Despite all the clues and press coverage the case went cold before too long. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months and the murders remained unsolved. And worse yet none of the three victims were identified. And that is how the case sat for the next nine years.
On the evening on Monday, October 16, 1934, two young men were running dogs through the swamp north of West Pittsburg and discovered the badly decomposed remains of a man. They alerted local constable Walter G. Bannon, but due to the coming darkness the area was secured until daylight. In the morning a swarm of officials, including County Sheriff Edward P. Pritchard and County Coroner Orville Potter, descended on the area to investigate. The nude body – with the skull attached – was partially buried in a shallow grave, on a bluff overlooking the Beaver River. The New Castle News of October 16, 1934, reported that the body, “…had been buried face downward, and only partially covered with the sandy soil common to the surrounding area, just at the lower edge of the swamp.” The article went on to say that photographs were taken of the remains “…in the hope of developing some clue which might lead to unraveling the latest chapter in the gruesome mystery of this illicit burying ground.”
It was soon determined that the remains had been buried about four months prior. Underneath the body was discovered a whisky bottle and a large iron spike. A search of the immediate area revealed no clothing or any other clues. Due to the decomposed state of the body, and the fact that no unusual damage was discovered on the skeleton, and exact cause of death was not determined. The story was publicized in the local newspapers but once again the victim went unidentified and the case went cold.
At the same time the nation was enthralled with the latest developments in the “Crime of the Century,” the kidnapping and murder of the twenty-month-old son of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh in March 1932. Authorities in New York City had arrested German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann in September 1934 and were preparing to bring him to trial for the crime. Hauptmann was later convicted of the crime and then executed in April 1936.
Things were quiet until the afternoon of July 1, 1936, when two P&LE workers at New Castle Junction were inspecting a string of old boxcars that had been idle in the yards for about five years. They noticed one of the boxcars had an open door and upon further inspection they found the badly decomposed remains of a headless corpse inside. Police were summoned and soon learned that the remains were of a nude male covered with a large burlap sack. It was estimated the victim had been killed several months ago and then placed in the boxcar. Underneath the corpse they found a pouch of tobacco and remnants of three bloodstained newspapers from late July 1933 – two from the Pittsburgh Press and one from Cleveland Plain Dealer. Investigators wondered if the location of the newspapers under the body was just a coincidence or somehow related to the murder. A search of the immediate area revealed no skull or clothing or any additional clues.
It was after this murder that police authorities in Cleveland, Ohio, took a keen interest in the case. Cleveland was in the midst of a highly publicized series of murders committed by a serial killer known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run (or the Cleveland Torso Murderer), who preyed on Depression-era transients generally living in shanty towns on the east side of Cleveland beginning in 1935. Eliot Ness, the famous ex-federal agent known for taking down Al Capone, was overseeing the effort as the city’s Director of Public Safety. The cases in New Castle and Cleveland were similar in that the victims were usually beheaded, only some of their heads were found, all were generally castoffs from mainstream society, and were often burned after being wrapped in newspapers.
A big difference was that the Cleveland victims (male and female) were often mutilated and then cut into pieces, and the males were usually castrated. Although it was withheld from the media some of the lead authorities in Cleveland generally believed their killer was bisexual and the killings were sexually motivated. It was also thought that the killer might have a “laboratory” of some sort due to the intricate work performed on the victims. Eventually, the Torso Murderer was officially credited with twelve victims from 1935-1938, although he is often linked or attributed to as many as forty victims from 1934-1950. No definitive evidence was established to link the killings in New Castle and Cleveland.
Things were quiet again in New Castle until Friday, October 13, 1939, when four boys from West Pittsburg, reportedly out looking for walnuts along the southern edge of the Murder Swamp, discovered the remains of a decomposing body in a thicket of tall grass. The police were summoned and learned that the headless body had been piled with newspapers and burned. The New Castle News of October 14, 1939, reported, “The slayer or killers apparently had taken the body to the woods, then built a fire of newspapers, one of which was the Youngstown Vindicator of September 28. The body was laid breast down then papers were set afire under it… Newspapers were placed in his hands then burned apparently to obliterate any attempt to take fingerprints, or else because the fingerprints were on file somewhere.”
It was initially thought that the victim, somewhat small in stature, was a female, but the coroner soon determined the remains were of a young male who was approximately eighteen years old. It was believed the murder took place on or just after September 28, the date of the newspaper found by the victim. Once again it was ascertained that the head had been removed with some skill. A search of the area revealed a pair of men shoes and a few items of clothing. Cleveland detectives were once again dispatched to New Castle.
It took a few days but on October 19 a P&LE worker at New Castle Junction discovered a dismembered head in an empty gondola car. The car was located on the “canal track,” the railroad track closet to the river. The head was covered in leaves and burrs similar to those located in the vicinity of the burned torso found about 700 yards away on October 14. It was soon determined the head belonged to that body. It was believed the killer committed the murder in the swamp – or at least cut the off head at that location – and then carried the head back towards the railroad tracks and dropped it into the gondola car. Once again authorities were stifled when nobody came forward to identify the victim. Looking for answers the police would later go undercover in the local “hobo jungles” of New Castle Junction and other rail yards, where scores of vagrants resided in tents and wooden shacks.
Excitement grew when on Friday, May 3, 1940, P&LE workers in the rail yards at McKees Rocks near Pittsburgh made a ghastly discovery. While inspecting a long string of boxcars two workers found the mutilated remains of a nude man covered with a large burlap bag. The victim had been cut up into about seven pieces with only the head missing. The alarm was sounded and within minutes two more victims were discovered in nearby boxcars. A decapitated man with the word “NAZI” carved into his chest and another man cut into five pieces and covered with a burlap bag. All three victims had been charred by fire to some degree and were estimated to have been killed where they lay about three to six months prior. The victim with the carving in his chest was identified as a known homosexual and a former convict from Wisconsin. These killings closely resembled the work of the Cleveland Torso Murderer and detectives believed the murders were committed in the rail yards at Youngstown.
There were many leads in the Cleveland case, where authorities rounded up thousands of suspects over the years and charged many with unrelated crimes. The most prominent suspect to this day is Dr. Frank E. Sweeney, a Cleveland physician who was known to perform amputations in the U.S. Army during World War I. Sweeney battled his own demons to include severe alcoholism and mental illness. Two days after a police interrogation in 1938 Sweeney voluntarily checked himself into a mental health institution and remained in one hospital or another until he passed away in 1964. Throughout his later years Sweeney wrote a series of rambling letters to Eliot Ness which seemed to implicate himself in the Cleveland murders. Ness’ memoirs also seem to imply that Sweeney, the cousin of U.S. Congressman Martin L. Sweeney, reached a secret agreement to accept incarceration in a mental institution in lieu of a public trial.
No evidence was ever uncovered to connect the killings in New Castle to those in Cleveland and McKees Rocks, but because no one was ever charged with any of those crimes they will forever be linked together. It was generally thought that the Murder Swamp killer road the trains along the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Youngstown-Cleveland route, and was possibly an employee of the railroads. The body found near West Pittsburg in October 1939 was the last known incident in the New Castle area. No prominent suspects were ever identified by police officials and the Murder Swamp case simply faded in memory as one of Lawrence County’s most famous cold cases.
The area on the southern edge of the Murder Swamp near West Pittsburg. (2009) Full Size
This photo depicts a small segment of the remote terrain of the Murder Swamp area to the southwest of the rail yards at New Castle Junction. The Beaver River runs at the left side of the photo. (c2008) Full Size
A view of the Murder Swamp area just north of the power plant in West Pittsburg. (Sep 2019) (Photo courtesy of Bill Cwynar) Full Size