Grave Truth: James Badal Explores Cleveland's Darkest Mysteries
Tri-C English and journalism professor brings a passion for fact-finding and suspenseful narratives to his books, and into his classroom
Many people know author James Jessen Badal as the leading expert on Cleveland’s infamous Torso Murders — a “scholar of evil,” if you will. But to English and journalism students at Cuyahoga Community College’s Eastern Campus, he’s just Professor Badal.
“I don’t think most of my students know that I publish,” he said. “If it comes up, I’ll mention it.”
In the past two decades, Badal has published three books on the Torso Murders of the 1930s and one on the 1951 disappearance of 10-year-old Beverly Potts. A new book, focused on 1908’s Collinwood School Fire, is due out this year.
Badal excels at taking a series of facts and shaping them into a compelling narrative. “Facts” is the key word here, as the sort of high-profile unsolved cases he deals in tend to inspire folklore and breed misconception that he, as a writer and researcher, feels a responsibility to disprove.
“Part of my job is to clear away the debris,” he said. “This is what we know. This is what happened.”
Badal considers crime an essential arm of historical research, as the very nature of crime – how it’s committed, why it’s committed and how it’s investigated — all depends on time and place.
Take the Torso Murders, for example. With the definition of “serial killer” still 40 years in the future, authorities — including public safety director Eliot Ness — found it exceedingly difficult to identify potential suspects.
“In the 1930s, the theory was that murder victims were killed by people they already knew, for understandable reasons like greed or anger,” Badal said. “They couldn’t get their arms around the notion that there was somebody who was targeting people he didn’t know, for his own twisted reasons.”
Badal’s interest in Cleveland crime began in eighth grade, when his American history teacher read an article about the Torso Murders aloud in class. The piece, which appeared in the November 1949 issue of Harper’s Magazine, stuck with him.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” he said. “I remembered all of the names, all the places. I honestly don’t know why.”
More than 40 years passed before Badal began research on In the Wake of the Butcher, his first book about the murders. Published by Kent State University Press in 2001, with a revised and expanded version released in 2014, he considers it his magnum opus.
Students in Badal’s classes examine the Torso Murders, as well as the Beverly Potts case, from a historical perspective. He encourages them to consider how the media’s treatment of this sort of lurid subject matter has evolved through the years.
Aspiring journalists also receive valuable career advice from someone who has been where they are.
“I tell them, ‘Write any way you can, even if you have to do it for free,’” Badal said. “You’ve got to get into it somehow.”
Given his affinity for the macabre, it’s somewhat surprising to note that Badal began his own career writing about a completely different topic: classical music.
He freelanced for many years, penning music criticism for local publications including Fanfare Magazine and contributing to underground newspapers Cleveland Edition and Cleveland after Dark. His first book, Recording the Classics: Maestros, Music and Technology (1996), came out of a series of interviews with major orchestra conductors.
But Badal doesn’t regret making the switch to true crime.
“I’ve found my calling,” he said. “Every so often I’ll pick up one of the books and flip through it and think, ‘Wow, this is actually pretty good.’”
And he’s not the only one who thinks so. Badal has won several awards for his writing, including the Ohio Genealogical Society’s Henry Howe Award for Twilight of Innocence. In 2013, famed forensic psychologist and true crime writer Katherine Ramsland praised Hell’s Wasteland in an article written for Psychology Today — a recognition that Badal considers “a major reward.”
We may even see the Mad Butcher come to life on screen someday. Cleveland-based production company Zodiac Features has optioned all three of Badal’s Torso Murder books with the hope of turning them into a cable TV series.
Should it come to fruition, Badal hopes that Zodiac’s interpretation will remain faithful to the historical facts of the case.
“When it comes to the murders themselves,” he said, “you don’t have to sensationalize a thing.”
July 17, 2019
Beth Cieslik, 216-987-4538 or firstname.lastname@example.org