William Heirens: Chicago's forgotten serial killer

William Heirens: Chicago's forgotten serial killer

Chicago has had its share of serial killers. Some of the more infamous people were psychopaths such as Richard Speck, who murdered 8 student nurses in their apartment on Chicago's southeast side. And, there was John Wayne Gacy, who murdered and buried  at least 33 male victims in the crawlspace of his home. The house was subsequently torn down so the neighbors weren't subjected to the memory of what went on in his house of horrors.

We also had in our neighbor state of Milwaukee, Wisconsin Jeffery Dahmer, who was the Hannibal Lecter of this generation. But what many people today may not know was there was one man, a forgotten serial killer whose crimes were centered in Chicago. He died recently without any fanfare.

I stumbled upon his obituary while researching his crimes in the Chicago Tribune and a Northbook, IL newspaper. His name was William Heirens; known as the "lipstick killer". He died on February 26, 2012 having spent 65 years in State of Illinois prisons for committing several heinous crimes.  I remember when they occurred.

By 1945 Heirens had already killed two women. Josephine Ross, 43 was fatally stabbed in her home. Six months later Frances Brown, 32 was shot and stabbed in her apartment. They were seemingly unrelated crimes at that time. However, he scrawled a message with lipstick in one of his victim's apartment. "For heavens sake, catch me before I Kill more. I cannot control myself".

In 1946 by the time The Chicago Tribune released the story on it's front page "HOW HEREINS SLEW 3", we had already read of his brutal attack on a sweet young girl whose name I have never forgotten: Suzanne Degnan whose body was dismembered and disposed of in city sewers.

In later years when I met my future wife we were both fully aware of that violent murder of Suzanne Degnan. Up until that point in 1946 she walked to and from her public school with some of her neighbors children. That stopped. Her parents, my future in laws started to drive her to and from school for a period of time. They, along with many other families who never locked their doors began to lock them for fear of the safety of their own children.

My three brothers and I were more closely supervised and at least two of us had to walk to school together with strict instructions to beware of what is known today as "stranger danger". World War II had ended one year earlier in 1945 and the world was settling down in post war America. And there we were, shaken to our core over the killing of Suzanne Degnan. It was seemingly so easy for Hereins to have committed this monstrous crime.

The Degnan family lived on North Kenmore Street in Chicago. They were asleep as Heirens snatched Suzanne out of her comfortable sleep and dreams. Those of a 6 year old girl with a promising future. Her dreams turned into an unimaginable nightmare. The rest of the details are frankly too disturbing for me to continue with this dark piece of Chicago history. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? That mystery has been pieced together to reconstruct the crime scene.

Heirens was a 17 year old student at the University of Chicago having lived in Lincolnwood, IL on the North Side of Chicago. In those years Lincolnwood could have been on the moon. In 1946 few people heard of the town and  there weren't highways or reasonable traveling routes to drive or take public transportation.

This article is written to enlighten our readers about this forgotten crime that has finally, at least, to the Degnans been given closure. His case is one that should be studied in law schools and maybe it is. I don't know. So to Suzanne Degnan, that beautiful child of 6 years, your killer has finally died. He served 65 years in prison and deprived you of what could have been a beautiful life.

Rest in peace.


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  • Good article. Some years ago, I was approached by folks from Northwestern University's "innocence project," suggesting that I do a column (I was a Sun-Times op-ed columnist then) saying that Heirens (they changed the pronounciation to HIGHERens) that the guy got railroaded. There had been quite a lot of effort to parole Heirens or to overturn his conviction. I extensively interviewed Thomas E. Epach Jr., the prospector in the case, Jim Degnan and the Jed Stone, the attorney pushing Heirens' case in the belief that he was innocent. My conclusion after these comprehensive interviews and a review of the documents, I believe they got the right guy.

    I've posted one of my Sun-Times columns on the case here: http://www.chicagonow.com/dennis-byrnes-barbershop/2012/03/no-tears-for-william-heirens-the-chicago-serial-killer-who-claimed-he-was-framed/

  • I appreciate your comment and thank you for posting this article on your page. It means a lot to me.

  • I was born in Chicago, raised in Skokie in 1936. Nine years old reading the Chicago Tribune, I was indeed familiar with a series of murders and break ins in the north side of Chicago. Finally, after taunting the police to catch him, he murdered and dismembered 6 Year old Suzanne Degnan. Heirens was a petty criminal at a very young age, breaking into apartment buildings walking down hallways until he found an open door.and stealing what he could. The older he became, it was inevitable that his exploits would lead him to serious criminal behavior. I've read two books on his strangulation and dismemberment of the Degnan child. He confessed and there was little doubt that he was guilty. He confessed to many of the people involved in the investigation and his plea bargaining to save him from the electric chair. He confessed to his parents. Fingerprint evidence showed him to be of guilt.There weren't any doubters at the time. They had the right guy.
    Having come from that time, it is shocking that there have been people defending and seeking parole for a killer they know nothing about, and a crime with which they are unfamiliar. I immediately lost all respect for the Innocence Project. If they brought forth trial error and such, that's one thing; but to raise the question of his having actually committed the crime causes me to question the validity of the organization. He did the crime and he finally served the time.

  • Finnlander: Thank you for your wonderful comments. There are some of us that remember and lived at that time in Chicago's history. Read Dennis Byrne's comment above. They are very interesting and speaks to your point about innocence project.

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