"A lot of times, it was the kids who found the bodies," says Nickel, who grew up in East Cleveland in the 1950s and now lives in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Actually, they found body parts. From 1935 to 1938, neatly severed heads and meticulously decapitated torsos littered the area just south of Cleveland's Flats. The killer's handiwork terrorized the city and baffled Safety Director Eliot Ness, who was famous as leader of the "Untouchables," the band of law-enforcement agents who brought down Chicago gangster Al Capone.
It's been more than 60 years since the last victim -- "torso number 12" -- was discovered, but interest remains high. Ongoing speculation about the case prompted Nickel to rerelease his 1989 book, Torso: The Story of Eliot Ness and the Search for a Psychopathic Killer.
"The Butcher was probably one of the first serial killers in America," Nickel says. Often compared to London's Jack the Ripper, Cleveland's Butcher preyed on hobos and transients who camped alongside the Cuyahoga River during the Depression.
Nickel became interested in the case while researching Ness for American History magazine. "Ness became popular in Cleveland, a symbol of law and order, and then you had this faceless phantom operating in the city and leaving body parts all over the place. It was almost like a competition between the two of them, like the killer was taunting him: 'Catch me if you can.'"
The Butcher's identity remains unknown, though Nickel speculates that he was a sexual deviant with ties to the railroads. "I think it will remain an unsolved mystery," he says, "and maybe it should. For me, it remains more interesting that way."