I DID NAZI THAT COMING: Torso Etchings of the Third Reich

Posted: August 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

Clinton Hill Brooklyn; January 17th, 1947.

New York is a tough town, as the autopsy results of eighteen-year old Anthony Trabasso attest.
His skull and right hip are fractured and internal injuries abound,
but the Pratt University freshman’s least-grave injuries are his showiest: the letters N-A-Z-I, five inches high, have been sliced into his chest above a four-inch swastika;
the letter “A,” significance unknown, has been etched into the flesh of his abdomen.
The wounds are not deep but they are fresh,
still weeping blood when he was discovered—barefoot and clad in underpants and blue striped pajamas—crumpled on a sidewalk half a block from his Ryerson Street rooming house.

A search of Anthony’s ransacked living quarters revealed National Socialist graffiti in a more conventional medium:
NAZIS AT PRATT had been painted on a wall above his bed,
his mattress pushed off its box spring into the middle of the room.
The slogans NAZIS AT PRATT HELP ME and HITLER SUPRESSES MASSES had been scrawled onto a notebook and large piece of tissue paper, respectively.
Anthony’s landlord would later tell investigators she’d passed by his apartment in the wee hours; his radio was playing softly and she noted no sign of disturbance or Wehrmacht operatives.


The child of Poughkeepsie tavern owners,
Anthony told his family he was enjoying his studies at Pratt though he mentioned some friction with his classmates,
most of whom were returning veterans on the GI Bill.
NYPD detectives could find only one associate with information which might explain the Nazi trappings of Anthony’s demise:
longtime friend Norma Elwell informed investigators she and Anthony had attended a YMCA dance
six weeks before his death
and during intermission he’d shared a strange tale about a recent squabble with a Third Reich sympathizer.

According to Anthony
his National Socialist encounter
had begun in Grand Central Station.
While walking through the concourse he witnessed an elderly gentleman who appeared to be blind stumble and fall.
Rushing to the man’s aid,
Anthony ushered him into a taxi and accepted his offer to share the fare to Brooklyn.
The two made idle chitchat until Anthony noticed his new acquaintance was wearing a swastika ring;
World War II had ended less than two years before
and at the time Nazi jewelry was not simply a fashion faux pas—it was treasonous.

When asked about the ring the elderly gentleman deflected Anthony’s questions and instead began to mock him for his good intentions, implying only weaklings and fools offer to help others without remuneration.
Eventually the man smiled and revealed he’d been conning Anthony all along:
“I’m not even blind, sucker,” he reportedly said.
Although it’s unclear exactly why the codger was trolling—for the 1940s version of lulz,
I suppose—Anthony was incensed by the ruse and the oldster’s unpatriotic accessories.
After directing the driver to pull to the side of the road Anthony ejected the aging trickster from the vehicle.
As the cab motored off the old man swore he would one day make Anthony pay for his rudeness.

Is it just me or is headline-writing a lost art?

Although I only recently learned his name I first heard the rough details of Anthony’s death from a former Pratt student in the 1980s; informed of my interest in true crime
a friend of a friend mentioned rumors of an unsolved Nazi mutilation murder near the school’s Brooklyn campus.
In the pre-internet era it was nearly impossible to verify this sort of urban legend—the former Pratt student remembered neither Anthony’s name nor the year of his death
and sifting through microfiche without a timeframe is a pointless endeavor.

Despite the passage of decades and scarcity of specifics the Pratt Nazi murder lodged in my brain;
and a few weeks ago while compiling You Must Dismember This I encountered a crime so similar I was taken aback:
on May 3rd, 1940—six and a half years before Anthony’s death—an employee of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad noticed a foul stench emanating from the rail yard in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.
Subsequent investigation revealed three corpses rotting in three separate rail cars.
The trio of remains had been beheaded and two had been dismembered.
The victims’ severed heads had been taken from the scene but the hewn limbs were scattered nearby.

Corpse placement at McKees Rock Railyard

In addition to appendage excision one of the bodies had undergone further mutilation; the letters N-A-Z-I—the “Z” inverted—was carved in five inch-tall letters across the chest of one of the torsos,
and it was this flourish that called to mind the murdered Pratt student of urban legend lore.
The railway victim with the chest mutilation would eventually be identified as James David Nicholson, age twenty-nine,
a convicted burglar and sometime male hustler.
The remains of his two unfortunate fellow-travelers have never been identified.

Though discovered in Pennsylvania the McKees Rock railyard victims are usually attributed to the Cleveland Torso Killer,
an unapprehended serial killer who murdered and mutilated a dozen victims in the late 1930s.
Also called The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run,
the Torso Killer preyed upon alcoholics and down-and-outers of both sexes;
his whereabouts after 1940 are unknown although some crime writers believe him to be responsible for several subsequent high-profile mutilation murders including the slaying of the Black Dahlia.


Certain the murders of the Pratt student
and James Nicholson must be linked,
I began scouring the internet for more information
about the student’s slaying.
The alumnus I’d spoken with said the Pratt victim’s ghost was rumored to haunt the school’s campus
and thus I assumed his identity would be easily ascertained;
I was wrong.
After googling infinite versions of “Pratt-student-Nazi-murder” I finally found the information I sought
tucked away in a subscription-only archive;
I also learned why I’d had such difficulty unearthing Anthony’s identity—the former Pratt alumnus had omitted one important detail.

Broken hips are far more common in impact injuries than assaults,
the pathologist who performed Anthony’s autopsy
informed the detectives on his case;
investigators therefore began to theorize Anthony had not been beaten but instead pushed from a roof or window.
Further investigation unearthed a single set of rooftop footprints leading from Anthony’s residence
to the building abutting the sidewalk where his unconscious body was found. Anthony had died barefoot and the soles of his feet were covered with the same black soot blanketing local rooftops.
Detectives also discovered a bloody etching implement in Anthony’s back yard, located directly beneath his window.

Anthony, investigators determined, had staged his own murder.
Feeling marginalized by his World War II veteran classmates, detectives theorized,
the depressed commercial arts major had fashioned a suicide scenario making it appear he’d been slain by Nazi sympathizers in a bid to gain the GIs respect.
He’d planted the (probably bogus) background story of the angry Grand Central Nazi with his friend Norma Elwell,
and the night of his death he ransacked his room, carved the National Socialist messages into his own flesh
and then clambered across several rooftops before jumping to his death.
Although his parents and some detectives remained skeptical Anthony’s death was ruled a suicide,
and the physical evidence seems to support the official verdict.

Although it’s possible Anthony had read about the mutilation of James David Nicholson—both N-A-Z-I torso carvings measured five inches tall,
an unlikely yet still theoretically possible coincidence—their deaths were not linked.
I don’t know where the Cleveland Torso Killer went after 1940 but he wasn’t filleting art students on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus.

Today’s blog post doesn’t have a moral but it does have a theme: disappointment. I’m disappointed I failed to discover a heretofore unknown crime of the Cleveland Torso Killer.
I’m disappointed Anthony Trabasso felt compelled to take his own life—he possessed an epic flair for the dramatic, and the world always needs more fearless creative types.
Furthermore, on a related note,
Nazis are having a resurgence in America at the moment and this also disappoints me.
A few weeks ago we were reliving the civil unrest of the 1970s and now we’re rehashing the merits of World War II.
2017 is destined to be a time-lapse montage of all the unpleasant events of US history, apparently.
Not only does this disappoint me but it frightens me as well.
I suppose I should start looking for blog topics relating to the Civil War as that’s clearly the next cataclysm on the agenda.

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