Cover image for Killer in the attic
Killer in the attic
Bellamy, John Stark.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cleveland : Gray & Co., [2002]

Physical Description:
298 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Smithereen Street: the West 117th Street explosion (1953) -- Friday on his mind: the Spanish fly killer (1948) -- Gangsters' gangster: the improbable story of "Big Jim" Morton (1884-1960) -- Cuyahoga death trip: the Willow Bridge scow disaster (1896) -- The man with the twisted life: the sad saga of Ernst Watzl (1929-1930) -- "They'll never take me alive!": the Mary Sheperd slaughter (1906) -- Death in the deep pit: the terminal tower tragedy (1928) -- A quiet, middle-aged man: the assassination of Dr. Alfred P. Scully (1930) -- A most unquiet grave: the Sarah Victor Story (1868) -- Paddle wheel deathtrap: the G.P. Griffith disaster (1850) -- When monsters walk: Mary Jane Brady & the Collins twins (1943) -- Killer from the attic: the Reichlin murder (1903) -- Sooner or later: the Thompson trophy tragedy (1949) -- Jazz age hit-skip: the Alice Leonard story (1928) -- "I am settling for all past wrongs . . .": William Adin's cross-town bloodbath (1875) -- Damn the torpedoes: the fireworks factory horrors (1902-1903) -- "No mother, nor no mother, nor nothin'": the death of Alfred Williams (1900) -- Death of the dancehall girls: the Anna Kinkopf/Eva Meyer murders (1905) -- Burning ... burning ... burning river: the Cuyahoga river fires of 1912, 1922, 1930, 1948, 1952, and 1969 -- Three distaff poisoners: Elsie Bass (1917); Anna Kempf (1928); and Dorothy Kaplan (1956) -- Orville's "little boy blue": the melvin Horst mystery (1928) -- The body in the harbor: Samuel Smith's fatal jetsam (1904) -- A victorian scandal: the Thomas Axworthy affair (1888) -- Shot in his own bed: the murder of David Skinner (1868) -- Rampant criminality: the legend of Shondor Birns (1906-1975) -- When nature frowns: the Lorain tornado (1924).
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Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV6795.C5 B447 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HV6795.C5 B447 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"Fascinating and yes entertaining . . . often in a bizarre way that leaves the reader feeling guilty for being so entertained."-- Medina County Gazette

The fourth volume in John Stark Bellamy's classic Cleveland crime and disaster series features 26 more gruesome, horrible, tragic, and despicable--but true--tales, including:

* Love-crazed Clark Hill, who warmed up his teenage girlfriend with an overdose of Spanish Fly in her milk shake;

* The chilling Cuyahoga River scow disaster, in which 16 clinging, drowning men fought so desperately to stay afloat that they dragged each other to the dark bottom of the river;

* Doomed workmen Patrick Toolis and Patrick Cleary, buried alive in the very concrete that became Cleveland's celebrated Terminal Tower;

* Not-so-friendly Dorothy Kaplan, who deposited shards of glass in her neighbors' milk in hopes of helping slow the "noisy" couple down a bit;

* Mafia legend Shondor Birns, whose high-profile life of crime came to an explosive end when he started up his Lincoln Continental one fine day;

And other detailed and compelling accounts of the unspeakable.

Author Notes

John Stark Bellamy II is the history specialist for the Cuyahoga County Public Library and a freelance writer and critic. He comes by his taste for the sensational honestly, having grown up reading stories about Cleveland crimes and disasters written by his grandfather, Paul, editor of The Plain Dealer, and his father, Peter, who wrote for The Cleveland News and The Plain Dealer. He is the author of three other collections of Cleveland crime and disaster stories



Smithereen Street

The 1953 West 117th Street Explosion

All Cleveland disasters are not created equal. Especially, it would seem, if they happen on the West Side. You don't believe it? Consider, then, the 1953 West 117th Street disaster. In just a few seconds of unexpected violence it destroyed an entire mile of a heavily industrialized Cleveland thoroughfare. It killed one person and put 64 more in hospitals. The force of its explosions catapulted at least a dozen cars high above the street, along with their stunned occupants. It lifted hundreds of huge concrete slabs into the air and then rained them down on terrified motorists and pedestrians. It bounced 100 weighty manhole covers into the sky, whence they descended to penetrate vulnerable homes and apartments. It smithereened 5,000 feet of road, damaged and disrupted two railroads and a trolley line, not to mention pulverizing the water, sewer, and gas infrastructure along the border of two cities. It caused $5 million in damage and stimulated half that amount again in lawsuits. And the odds are that, if you don't hail from the West Side, you've never heard of it.

It was the height of the Cleveland rush hour and the traffic light at West 117th and Madison was about to turn red when the first blast came at exactly 5:15 p.m. on September 10. Investigators later pinpointed its genesis at the intersection of Detroit Avenue and West 117th. Owing to the nature of the explosion, however, the upheaval from the blast instantaneously transmitted itself both north and south on West 117th via the six-foot sanitary sewer that ran along the western edge between Lake Avenue and Berea Road. Finding additional fuel as it raced through the disintegrating sewer, the blast reached the peak of its destruction at the intersections of West 117th Street with Berea Road, Madison Avenue, and Lake Avenue. The first and most obvious result was that much of the surface of West 117th was suddenly thrust upward several feet with incredible force, trampolining at least a dozen cars into the air. The second, and more lethal, effect was the shattering of the adjacent sidewalks and retaining walls, especially in the area by the New York Central Railroad overpass (the current site of the West 117th Street RTA station). What goes up must come down, and even as the first automobiles crashed to the street, airborne concrete chunks--some of them as large as 20 feet by 10 feet--began to descend. For those unlucky humans on the scene, it became an instant hell on earth.

Charles Flickinger's experience was typical for motorists in the area. Waiting for the light at Clifton Boulevard and West 117th, he heard a "sudden bang." The next thing he knew, he was lying in the street, looking at his car smashed into a bus. Worse yet was the ordeal of Robert Hudson. He heard "a big explosion and saw a pink flash," the pyrotechnic prelude to having his car thrown 15 feet into the air, where it collided with another auto and then crashed down. And there were several drivers who shared the fate of Herman Heppner, who remembered it this way: "I heard an explosion and everything went black. The next thing I knew my car was upside down on top of another car and four men were chopping my windshield to get out."

It could have been worse--and it was for Katherine Szabo, 42, and Eleanor Rinaldi, 24. Katherine, driving in a borrowed car with her brother Robert, had just cleared the New York Central overpass when the street exploded. Her car, at the epicenter of the catastrophe, was one of the first hurled into the air and probably the first to be crushed by the concrete fallout from the blast. Seconds later, the car caught on fire. Robert managed to crawl out of the wreckage and the fire was soon extinguished. But Katherine didn't make it, dying of her injuries shortly after she was taken to St. John's Hospital. Amazingly, she was the only fatality of the rush-hour disaster. But Eleanor Rinaldi came close to joining her in death. She was motoring with her husband, Angelo, when the first blast caught them by the overpass, and she was trapped when a huge concrete slab smashed through the car roof and crushed the dashboard area into her legs. While firemen desperately labored to extricate her smashed body, Father James O'Brien, a priest from the nearby Sts. Philip and James parish, consoled the still-conscious Rinaldi and administered the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to her. Astonishingly, Rinaldi survived her ordeal and could not remember anything after her car cleared the underpass.

Things weren't much better for the hapless pedestrians in the five-block explosion area. Margaret Calvey was waiting for the bus at Berea Road when "the ground shook and the sidewalk rose up and struck me in the face. I was blown right out of my shoes." Joy Moore was leaning against a delicatessen window when she heard the first blast and then watched in stupefied horror as a rain of bricks, pavement, and streetcar tracks began to fall around her. One of the most seriously injured was Joyce Bauer, 22, who was standing with two other women in front of the Glidden Company plant at West 117th and Berea Road when the street detonated. Caught in the sudden shower of concrete and miscellaneous debris, she finished her day in critical condition at Lakewood Hospital.

Among those who endured a different kind of fright were Sue Townsend of 1497 West 117th and Edwin Hood of 11708 Detroit Avenue. As they abruptly learned, the force of the multiple explosions had sent 100 heavy metal manhole covers temporarily skyward. Townsend was preparing dinner in her second-floor flat when she heard a noise like an auto crash. As she ran to the window, a manhole cover came through the kitchen ceiling and smashed halfway through the floor. About the same moment, another bored through the top of Hood's fourth-floor apartment, took off his living room door, and drilled into an unoccupied third-floor apartment.

There were at least four explosions in all, although the worst of the violence and damage was wrought within the first few seconds at 5:15 p.m. Within minutes, safety forces poured into the stricken area. Much of the locale was flooded by broken water mains pouring millions of gallons into the ruins, a torrent that threatened to aggravate the public health peril of the wrecked sanitary sewer system. East Ohio workers began capping gas lines exposed by the blasts, and Red Cross workers began distributing water and sandwiches. Indeed, for the most part, the disaster spectacle over the next 48 hours was a showcase of Cleveland at its finest, with the terrors and challenges of the tragedy bringing out the best in all. All except, naturally, the crowds of thousands of unappeasable spectators, who continually impeded safety forces. After touring the ruins, Mayor Thomas Burke, in high dudgeon, vented civic spleen: "I was disgusted when I saw men and women taking little children into the explosion area. It was undoubtedly thoughtlessness on their part but they blocked rescue work."

Within a week, the sewers were rebuilt, roadway repairs were under way, and most of the victims had left the hospital. The cities of Cleveland and Lakewood, which shared the West 117th Street boundary, were now free to concentrate on discovering what exactly had occurred there. As is typical of Cleveland disasters, they didn't succeed very well.

It wasn't for lack of resources or expertise. Coroner Sam Gerber was put in charge of the official probe, and he immediately recruited Dr. George W. Barnes, Dr. Leon W. Weinberger, and Professor George Blum from Case Institute of Technology. These appointments augured well, especially as Barnes had headed the probe into the 1944 East Ohio Gas Company fire, and the team enjoyed additional resources provided by experts from the U.S. Bureau of Mines. But the formal report of the Gerber team, issued in March 1954, failed to answer the question of exactly who and what were responsible for the disaster. Ruling out escaping natural gas (either from East Ohio lines or the numerous abandoned gas wells that dotted--and still dot--the West 117th area) or sewer gas (which had caused two East Side explosions just previous to the West 117th blast), Gerber's probers focused on the evidence of flammable industrial waste and gasoline found in the shattered sanitary sewer lines. Their conclusion was that area plants had been illegally dumping such hazardous wastes for some time before they ignited on September 10, 1953. What had pushed them to critical mass was a hot, dry summer, which curtailed the normal flushing action of the sewers. By September 10, it was just a disaster waiting to happen. In all probability, a chance friction spark or a carelessly thrown cigarette had triggered the initial explosion. Gerber's report further noted that there were 194 area plants using flammable substances, but it refused to speculate on the exact origins of whatever blew up five blocks of city street.

The last word about the tragedy, inevitably, belonged to the lawyers. Gerber & Co. may have embraced a masterly ambiguity about the source of the explosions, but the lawyers who brought the 91 personal injury lawsuits filed were uninterested in such coyness. Lawyers for injured plaintiffs brought suits totaling $2.5 million against Sun Oil, Shell Oil, White Sewing Machine, Union Carbide, Ferbert-Schorndorfer, and the cities of Cleveland and Lakewood. The five firms were accused of dumping flammable substances that caused the disaster, and the cities were held liable for permitting such illegal practices. In the end, however, four years later, the plaintiffs got little for their troubles. Under the persuasive aegis of Common Pleas Court judge William K. Thomas, attorneys reached an out-of-court settlement in June of 1957. With both cities agreeing to pay a third apiece and the five firms dividing the last third of the payment, the victims settled for a total of $205,000. One of the smallest amounts, $3,000, went to Julius Szabo, who had suffered the greatest loss of all, his wife Katherine. No fault whatsoever was admitted by any defendant. And so ended one of the West Side's worst, and undeservedly obscure, disasters. Let us hope that the present guardians of our public safety are more alert than those caught snoozing on September 10, 1953.

[Excerpted from The Killer in the Attic, © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved. Gray & Company, Publishers.]

Excerpted from Killer in the Attic: And Still More Tales of Cleveland Woe by John Stark Bellamy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. 9
Prefacep. 11
1 Smithereen Street: The 1953 West 117th Street Explosionp. 17
2 Friday on His Mind: The 1948 Spanish Fly Killerp. 23
3 A Gangster's Gangster: The Improbable Story of "Big Jim" Morton (1884-1960)p. 29
4 Cuyahoga Death Trip: The 1896 Willow Bridge Scow Disasterp. 43
5 The Man with the Twisted Life: The Sad Saga of Ernst Watzl (1929-1930)p. 49
6 "They'll Never Take Me Alive!" The 1906 Slaughter of Mary Sheperdp. 63
7 Death in the Deep Pit: The 1928 Terminal Tower Tragedyp. 69
8 "A Quiet, Middle-Aged Man" The 1930 Assassination of Dr. Alfred P. Scullyp. 75
9 A Most Unquiet Grave: The Sarah Victor Scandal (1868)p. 81
10 Paddle Wheel Deathtrap: The 1850 G. P. Griffith Disasterp. 111
11 When Monsters Walk: Mary Jane Brady and the Collins Twins (1943)p. 117
12 The Killer in the Attic: The 1903 Reichlin Murderp. 131
13 Sooner or Later ...: The 1949 Thompson Trophy Tragedyp. 139
14 Jazz Age Hit-Skip: The Alice Leonard Story (1928)p. 147
15 "I Am Settling for All Past Wrongs ..." William Adin's 1875 Cross-Town Bloodbathp. 153
16 Damn the Torpedoes: The Fireworks Factory Horrors (1902-1903)p. 173
17 "No Mother, Nor No Mother, Nor Nothin'" The 1900 Death of Alfred Williamsp. 181
18 Death of the Dance Hall Girls: The 1905 Anna Kinkopf/Eva Meyer Murdersp. 187
19 Burning, Burning, Burning River: The Cuyahoga River Fires of 1868, 1912, 1922, 1952, 1969, andp. 199
20 Three Distaff Poisoners: Elsie Bass (1917), Anna Kempf (1928), and Dorothy Kaplan (1956)p. 205
21 Orville's "Little Boy Blue" The 1928 Melvin Horst Mysteryp. 219
22 The Body in the Harbor: Samuel Smith's Fatal Jetsam (1904)p. 231
23 A Victorian Scandal: The 1888 Thomas Axworthy Affairp. 237
24 Shot in His Own Bed: The 1868 Murder of David Skinnerp. 253
25 Rampant Criminality: The Legend of Shondor Birns (1906-1975)p. 237
26 When Nature Frowns: The 1924 Lorain Tornadop. 289
Photo Creditsp. 299