Tag Archive for Pennsylvania

The Body in the Baggage

Francis Ballem

There is a curious subset of homicide called “trunk murder” that never fails to fascinate some of us who follow this sort of thing: The murderer commits the crime and for some reason thinks the best way to dispose of a body is to put it into a suitcase or traveler’s trunk and deposits the proof of the corpus delicti in the left luggage room.
Sometimes the body is left intact, but frequently investigators are presented only with portions of the body and are left to wonder where the rest of their victim may be stored. The method has fallen upon disfavor among killers these days as unattended luggage often attracts the unwanted interest of police quite quickly. Back when people traveled by train, however, trunk murders were relatively common.
In April 1954 Philadelphia joined Paris, Los Angeles, Brighton, England, and who knows how many other cities where bodies in the baggage have been discovered when the decomposing body parts of a man were found in boxes wrapped in several rain coats and stuffed into a green-and-black, brass-trimmed footlocker. The trunk was found at the Sharon Hill trolley station on Chester Pike and Brainerd Boulevard outside of Philadelphia.
The footlocker was first noticed at the stop around 7 a.m. on April 27, 1954, by trolley operator Benjamin Bowers. About 90 minutes later another operator called his dispatcher to report the unusual abandoned luggage and police were summoned.
Unfortunately, according to the Chester (PA) Times, “the message became garbled in transmission and the police looked for a truck instead of a trunk.”
At 3:45 p.m., a patrolman who was just wrapping up school traffic duty was dispatched to pick up the trunk, which was brought back to police HQ. At first the police were willing to let some civilians lead the investigation, the Times reports:

At police headquarters, Sharon Avenue and Spring Street, two youths helped carry the foot locker inside…The youths tried to open the trunk with hairpins, but this and other attempts failed. A locksmith, Lewis Santa, was called and he opened the foot locker after trying three skeleton keys.

Once it was opened, Sgt. William Malloy took charge of the trunk and and made the gruesome discovery.
“I felt a bundle and it seemed soft and fleshy,” he said, adding that once investigators detected the odor of decaying flesh, the trunk was moved to a cell where body parts of a 160- 165-pound white man who had been dead for some time were revealed.
The murderer had been prepared for the job. The two packages — the first contained the torso, and the other held the head, arms and hands — were wrapped in 5 plastic raincoats from which the killer had removed any tags. They were sealed shut with transparent tape and were held inside a cardboard box. The killer treated the inside of the raincoats with camphor flakes and powdered lime, investigators said, which would promote decomposition while reducing the stench somewhat.
The body, from slightly above the hips downward, was missing.
The autopsy revealed that the corpse, which at the time was believed to be that of a 60-year-old man, had been burned before it was dismembered; the right arm was particularly damaged, the report shows. The victim’s internal organs had been removed, “the lower jaw was destroyed and most hair had been eaten away by the lime,” the unusually graphic, above-the-flag article in the Times states.
“A few gray and black hairs were left on the head and several red hairs on the chest,” the anonymous reporter continues. “The dismemberment was described by (Delaware County Coroner Joseph) Tercha as “not that of an amateur.”
The article quotes Earle H. Allen, chief of detectives, as saying murder was “a definite possibility.” Allen was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but a quick survey of funeral parlors and the area hospitals to ensure that all other corpses could be accounted for was still necessary.
At first it looked like Allen would have his work cut out for him as the initial autopsy disclosed no bullet or stab wounds in the upper torso or skull and nothing indicating blunt force trauma.
“At this stage of our investigation we cannot determine how he met his death,” Allen told the press.
Not surprising, the autopsy was a particularly gruesome affair.
Medical examiner Dr. John Turner III said the victim was about 60 years old, 5-feet-7, between 160 and 170 pounds.
“All parts of the body had been burned,” he said. “The head and fingertips were so badly charred that they were almost unidentifiable.”
Turner eventually located a bullet wound caused by a .38-caliber pistol and assigned that as the cause of death. His autopsy made it clear that the victim was dead before the dismemberment began.
While some detectives were trying to identify the victim, others were tracking down the source of the brown carton which contained the body parts and the trunk, which appeared to be new. Other flatfoots canvassed the trolley line talking to anyone who rode that route, hoping for a break.
That break came the next day when an unidentified commuter told police he had seen a “studious-looking man with an alpine hat accompanied by a uniformed man” carrying a trunk at the trolley station. Cops posted the description in every taxi garage in the city and environs and soon veteran Yellow Cab driver Nanis Gaither came forward and said he picked up a fare in Philadelphia who matched the description. Gaither said the fare stopped at the man’s house in Sharon Hill where they loaded up the trunk. Gaither said he dropped the man at the trolley stop.
Gaither remembered the man quite clearly, not only because of the hat, but because his cab was third in line at the stand when the man walked up. The man passed over the first two cabs and asked Gaither to drive him to his home. When Gaither asked why the man did not pick one of the first cabs, he replied that he was “allergic to radios” and did not want to ride in a cab that was equipped with a two-way radio.
Meanwhile, evidence from the crime scene confirmed Gaither’s story: Police had discovered that a name and address matching the one where Gaither picked up the trunk were written on the cardboard box containing the victim’s head.
The house was identified as belonging to Francis X. Ballem, 28, a mechanic in an industrial plant. Ballem, while not known to police, was notorious in his neighborhood for his odd behavior. He had a fondness for alpine hats (the one you see on Germanic stereotype characters) and for quoting Shakespeare. He was not known to be violent, and was considered quite intelligent.
Police rushed to Ballem’s house and assuming they were dealing with a deranged killer, kicked in a window and entered that way. Although the house was described as cluttered and flithy, it was clear Ballem was trying to clean up signs of the crime. Trash was burning in the fireplace, and someone had tried to wash the blood from the living room floor. Ballem, however, was nowhere to be found.
When he heard the police bust in the window, Ballem had grabbed the suitcase containing the victim’s legs and abdomen and fled to the attic. When the searchers got to the attic, Ballem stood up with his hands raised, dressed only in his undershorts.
“Don’t shoot,” he said.
Sadly, no one today will be shocked in the same way the folks in the 1950s were when they found out about Ballem’s arsenal: “In the house were found five revolvers, a shotgun, a rifle, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two black Halloween masks, a bullet-proof vest that comes in sections, and two modern-type gas masks. A safe deposit box yielded another two pistols and other articles,” wrote CTimes reporter Mitch Rosenfeld.
Now that they had their suspect in custody, the police were free to focus on learning the identity of the dead man. Ballem was little help in that regard except that he was able to describe him as “a man between 35 and 40 years old, with ruddy complexion, brown hair and employing good English.”
Again luck was on the side of the police when a missing persons report was filed by the restaurant where World War II veteran John Dopirak was working as a dishwasher.
Dopirak was a strange (his family said he was “addicted to dying his hair”) but harmless man who had flown bombing missions over Germany during the war and returned to Philadelphia where he was born and raised bearing a Purple Heart. His family said John, 35, was a “happy-go-lucky wanderer” who just never settled down. Following the war he worked occasionally as a merchant seaman, but it appeared from his police record that Dopirak had trouble with alcohol. He had a pair of convictions for disorderly conduct and public drunkeness.
Once police showed him a photograph of Dopirak, Ballem responded, “Oh, yes, that’s the man; I’ll never forget that smile.”
Dopirak’s brothers identified him from a scar on his forearm.
Ballem confessed to the crime almost immediately upon his arrest.
He had been living alone in the house for the past several years after his parents died and his wife left him, he said. According to his wife, who would later testify at Ballem’s trial, he became enraged when she informed him she was pregnant and told her he never wanted children. This, combined with his eccentric behavior, ended the marriage, but the divorce had not been finalized.
After Ballem’s wife left him he lived with his elderly parents until they died, leaving him the house, some other property in Philadelphia and $20,000 in liquid assets (in current dollars that’s almost $200k). The fact that Ballem’s parents died within months of each other piqued investigators’ interest at first, but their deaths were not suspicious.
Ballem told police he met John Dopirak at a bar and that they shared several drinks together.
After a long drinking bout where they bar-hopped around the city, the men decided to take a trip to New York City. Ballem said they went to his home so he could get clothes for the trip.
Ballem said he never intended to go to New York, but that going back to his home was a ruse for him to get Dopirak alone so he could rob him.
“I started going through his brown coat which was on the chair in the living room, for the purpose of finding his wallet which he had given me the impression was full of money,” Ballem told police. “I was very drunk but I knew what I was doing with reference to robbing this man of his money.”
Just at that time Dopirak walked into the room, and said: “I am going to kill you, you thieving…”
Ballem said he saw Dopirak going through his late mother’s jewelry and then pick up a gun from an open drawer, so he also picked up a gun and confronted Dopirak.
“Well, you asked for it,” Ballem said, pointing the pistol at Dopirak and pulling the trigger. He went over to check on the condition of his victim.
“I listened for a heartbeat and didn’t hear it,” Ballem said. “I didn’t want to hear it.”
Most likely there was a failed sexual overture by one of the men. Any number of scenarios that begin with misunderstanding and end in murder come to mind.
Regardless of his motivation, Ballem began the awful task of corpse disposal. He fixed himself another drink and then dragged Dopirak’s body to the basement where he removed all of the clothes, burning them in the incinerator.
Still drinking, Ballem, who was described by doctors as having a high IQ, did research in how to get rid of a murder victim.
He purchased lye and placed it on the hands and over the face, but it did not destroy the features. He then applied a blow torch, attempting to cut the body apart that way. After several hours he decided the torch was not working successfully and he went upstairs and got drunk all over again. After he sobered up, he cut up the body with a saw. He tried unsuccessfully to burn the cut up portions of the body, piece by piece, in the furnace. Then he flushed the ashes down the drain in his basement.
He then bought plastic raincoats and wrapped therein other portions of the body, some of which he placed in the trunk. Other parts he placed in a suitcase which he hid on the third floor of his home. He took other parts of the body, with the raincoats wrapped around them, and rolled them into a creek known as Naylor’s Run, Upper Darby, which was four or five blocks from his home.
Ballem then cleaned and re-loaded his gun so if it was found no one would know it had been recently fired.
Naturally, following his confession, Ballem was packed off to a psychiatric hospital for a plethora of tests. It took almost a year — during which Ballem had a tumor removed from his breast — for the shrinks to concur that Ballem was ready and able to assist in his defense.
Not surprisingly, Ballem’s defense was one of insanity, while the Commonwealth was going for the death penalty. Over the course of a one-month trial, witnesses testified to his mental state, and although there was obvious mental illness present, Ballem was not criminally insane. The jury convicted him of murder and he was sentenced to death.
The sentence was later commuted to imprisonment for life, which for Ballem ended in 1971.

Suicide by Person or Persons Unknown

The Feely Family

The universe teaches us that most often the simplest explanation is the correct one. It does not always work out that way, but more often than not it does.
This philosophy, commonly known as Occam’s Razor, can be seen in murder investigations where detectives start by looking at those closest to the victim and working their way out in an ever-widening net.
So in 1936, when Pittsburgh police announced that the deaths of Eleanore Feely and her two young children came about as the result of a murder-suicide, most rational people who looked at the evidence scratched their heads in wonder at this official explanation.
On July 20, 1936 — the day after the Max Schmeling/Joe Louis fight where the German knocked down the Brown Bomber — another story featured just as prominently on a number of front pages: the discovery of Eleanore, 30, and her two children, Robert, 5, and Janice, 3, violently slain in the children’s playroom in their first-floor apartment. All had been attacked with an ice pick, but the actual cause of death in each murder was strangulation. The Feelys’ landlord discovered the family slain in their locked 7-room apartment, which was undisturbed.
Eleanore’s husband and the father of the children, Martin Feely, a professor of phys ed at the University of Pittsburgh, was at a boy’s summer camp in New Jersey about 320 miles away at the time and was quickly cleared of any involvement. Eleanore and the children were scheduled to join him in a few days.
The two children each suffered a stab wound to the left temple and were strangled, apparently with a tourniquet that was still wrapped around Eleanore’s neck. The killer had used a hammer to twist the tourniquet around her throat. A single thumbprint from what was assumed to be a man based on its size was found on the hammer, but there were no other fingerprints.
Eleanore also suffered a stab wound to her left temple but also had ice pick-inflicted wounds to her chest. There were no signs of sexual assault or robbery, which pushed police to look at other scenarios. The one they chose — and the semi-official explanation on the books to this day — was that Eleanore killed her children and then took her own life.
Detectives theorized that Eleanore, “nervous and distraught after nursing the boy through a serious attack of scarlet fever, strangled her two children with a rope, stabbed them with an ice pick, stabbed herself by throwing her body against the ice pick which she held handle first against the wall, and then strangled herself,” according to Lead Detective Samuel E. Wheeler.
“I have talked with physicians who claim it is perfectly possible for Mrs. Feely to have killed the children and herself,” Wheeler said.
There are many problems with this theory, not the least of which is that it is incredible and far-fetched. Regular readers of the Register know that truth is stranger than fiction, so we cannot discount the police theory out of hand. Detectives were presented with what was essentially a locked-room mystery without any visible clues and it appears that they gave up trying to solve the puzzle without expending much effort.
We must also content ourselves with the description of the crime scene that was featured in the press. There were no descriptions of any kind of blood spatter which might have led the cops to believe the murder-suicide angle was correct. In addition, no mention was made of any fingerprints on the ice pick. However, reporters were quick to point out the thumbprint on the hammer (which was later determined to have come from an investigator), so it is likely that neither Eleanore’s prints nor anyone else’s were on the pick.
As an example of how silly the police theory is, consider that Eleanore was right-handed, so it is not plausible that she would attempt to kill herself with an ice pick using her weaker hand. It is easy to accomplish, but a person who has just stabbed and strangled two children would be pretty much operating on autopilot in some sort of psychotic break, so it would be muscle memory, not calculated thought, that would determine how wounds were inflicted. A right-handed person will use their right hand in such a situation. The police theory also never explained how Eleanore managed to wipe her prints off the hammer after she was dead. On the other hand, the integrity of the crime scene appears to have been compromised considering that an investigator’s print was the only one found on the hammer.
We will not even discuss the absurd theory that she held the ice pick against the wall and ran into it several times before giving up and strangling herself.
Not surprisingly there were strong differences of opinion about Eleanore’s mental state. Her husband and other members of the family were adamant that Eleanore was of completely sound mind and would never even consider hurting her children or herself. They described her as “cultured and intellectual, a brilliant student in school at Springfield, Mass.,” where she met her future husband.
“I don’t know what the cause could have been,” said her grief-stricken husband. “But I’m sure she didn’t do it herself. I am positively convinced my family was murdered and I intend to push the investigation.”
Martin also stated that the hammer and ice pick were not his.
Pressed by the family, Mayor William N. McNair told Eleanore’s brothers, Robert and Richard Buckley, that the case “would not be dropped until a definite solution is found.”
Eleanore’s kin were not alone in thinking the official explanation was a crock. An investigator for the Coroner’s Office was convinced that someone else was responsible.
“John Artz, special coroner’s investigator, stuck doggedly to his theory that the three were victims of a cold-blooded killer who left no clues,” wrote the New Castle (Penn.) News.
“I don’t care what the police say,” he told reporters, “Someone — some ghoul — killed this mother and her children.”
During a 3-day coroner’s inquest in November 1936 the conflicting theories were aired before a jury, which rejected the murder-suicide theory in favor of criminal homicide by person or persons unknown.
This was little more than a moral victory for the survivors, as a coroner’s jury, like the grand jury, does not try cases. Essentially the jury’s verdict states who died, what manner of death (i.e., accident, suicide, homicide, natural, unknown.), when it happened, and where the death occurred. A finding of homicide by a coroner’s jury can lead to an investigation, but the police and prosecutor are not bound by the verdict and are free to pursue or not pursue an investigation. Usually this is seen when the jury returns a manner of death of unknown or when the facts in possession clearly indicate a mistake by the jury.
The Pittsburgh police grudgingly reopened the investigation, but with the head of detectives still convinced that Eleanore killed her children and herself, it was an investigation in name only. To them, the case was de facto solved.
In 1937, saying he was disgusted with the Pittsburgh police and hopeless of ever solving the case, Martin Feely quit his job at Pitt and moved back to Massachusetts.
The case remains open or closed depending on your point of view.