“Up in the Sky”—Behind the Story
I somehow had never heard of the infamous, and disturbing, Cleveland Torso killings until, in 1999, I stumbled upon fellow Clevelander Brian Michael Bendis’s graphic novel, Torso. Throw in the fact that Elliot Ness, Cleveland’s Public Safety Director who was fresh off the jailing of Al Capone, led the investigation, and I became a little low-key obsessed with this case. But, over time, I let it go, moved on to other interests.
But as the Mistakes by the Lake collection came into focus, and I needed a 1930s story, I was quick to re-engage this fascinating unsolved case. However, I didn’t want to approach this story from the points of view of the investigation, the Mad Butcher, or the many victims (at least twelve, but possibly twenty). I visited the Cleveland Police Museum in downtown Cleveland, viewed the various photographs and death masks, and read the historical information they presented. A bit about Ness raiding and wiping out numerous shantytowns (or “jungles” as they were also called) caught my attention. Digging into Press and Plain Dealer articles detailing how Ness stamped out these shantytowns helped me find my way into a story I wanted to tell. I thought about what the experience must have been like from the perspective of those living there. The fact that Superman, created by two Clevelanders, was introduced to the world around this time helped my fictional Jerry, and his fate, coalesce further. [Historical aside: Ness was criticized for the raids, but the murders did cease after he burned down the shantytowns.]
I rewrote this story a lot (even after it was published). I kept tinkering, I wrote various endings, wrote well past the current ending, before I finally settled on what I hope was the right beat.
This story originally appeared, in slightly different form, in El Portal.
“Up in the Sky”—Excerpt
Jerry was the youngest in the hobo shantytown of Kingsbury Run. The older men, the forty or fifty other homeless piled together like cordwood, treated him as an equal, mostly, called him Pint-Size.
And even though his grandma was long gone (the loss of the farm caused first a stroke then a fatal heart attack) and his father was long ago institutionalized (the loss of both farm and his mother caused first depression then mania), Jerry enjoyed his limited life. He ate almost every day; he had his own shanty in the gully of the Run (constructed from wood slats, cardboard scraps, and a tarpaper roof held in place by fragments of broken concrete); he had his drawings of men performing feats of derring-do covering one wall of his shack; and he had his own dog he called Shuster that, while it wasn’t really his, was his enough.
Jerry lay on his cot, an old cut-down barrel that no longer fit him, and read his worn copy of Action Comics for, likely, the seventieth time—and, truly, he only reread the first thirteen pages featuring Superman. The other stories, what with their cowboys and magicians and boxers, were interesting, but they just didn’t hold a candle to the sensational Superman. Come on, in those thirteen pages, Superman saved a woman from the electric chair, saved another woman from a wife beater, rescued Lois Lane from some rude gangsters, and revealed a corrupt lobbyist and senator. What’d that cowboy do? He was plenty rugged, but he got himself shot and thrown in a cell.
Jerry tapped the cover of Action Comics and smiled. Boys had created Superman. Boys! And one of the boys, the artist, was named Jerome, too! They were only a few years older than he, graduates of an East Side high school. OK, so he hadn’t graduated high school, nor, likely, would he ever, but his drawings weren’t half bad, Jerry thought. Even a few of the other ’bos, those who hadn’t laughed when he’d let them read his comic book, told Jerry his drawings were a sight to behold. That meant “good,” right?
Jerry’s dreams were simple: create and draw heroes who could overcome this Depression, who could demonstrate the best humanity had to offer, who could celebrate the human potential and, as it said in his comic book, “reshape the destiny of the world.” He already had a good start: he’d submitted a colored page of Chuck Dawson to the Action Color-Page Contest. It hurt a little to tear a page out, but Chuck Dawson was that silly cowboy who got himself shot.
Shuster growled and then slipped through the hole Jerry’d created for him in their shanty. Jerry tucked his comic between some newspaper blankets and peered out one of the many cracks where board and cardboard sometimes failed to meet.
Firefly-like flickers of light popped up and down the ravine of Kingsbury Run. Odd, he thought. He was used to some light this late at night—the glow from the nearby steel mill furnaces often lit the black sky—but this was something different. Near the top of the ravine he thought he saw the silhouette of a large truck, but he hadn’t heard anything, not since the last Rapid Transit train roared by an hour or so ago. Then he was blinded. A large light shone from that silhouette, caused him to pull back sharply from the crack, to rub his eyes. For a few seconds he could only see the afterimage of the light and the side of the hill, the shanties and lean-tos and jungleland huts that dotted its surface. Dogs barked—Shuster?—and men shouted.
Jerry thought of the criminals scattering on the cover of Action Comics, thought maybe the Mayfield Road Mob descended upon them all. Hadn’t Shimmy, that old gray-haired hobo who lived in a shack at the far end of the Run, bragged that he’d put one over on one of the bookie joints in the Flats? Jerry had heard they killed for less.
Shantytown Raid, Aug 18, 1938. © Cleveland Police Historical Society