William Heirens: Background
William Heirens was born 15th November 1928 to parents Margaret and George Heirens. He was raised in Chicago and was born into numerous family problems, all caused by financial difficulties. This was of course soon to be exacerbated by the Great Depression. Both Margaret and George worked constantly to provide an income, and when they were at home William Heirens only vividly recalled their constant arguments. Sourced from an interview in Talking with Serial Killers - Christopher Berry-Dee, Heirens reported “As long as I could remember, money was the source of all arguments...I became conscious of money when I was small. It became the “root of all evil” - evil if you didn’t have it...Ours was not a very happy home.”
In seventh grade, prompted by boredom and a desire for escapism, Heirens turned to theft. He discovered how easy this was when he accidentally short changed himself during a grocery delivery; which led to him stealing clothes, jewellery and other valuable objects. Heirens admitted he found the adrenaline of this much more exciting than his home life. A few years later, William’s exceptional intelligence was recognised and he was offered a place at the University of Chicago at just sixteen years old. During his time on campus Heirens never felt the urge to steal, however whenever he returned home to his toxic environment this desire came right back. Going into his second year at university, Heirens began thieving more frequently in order to fund his university fees. He also found he became interested in girls and dating, so sought the money to be able to go on dates. This very habit led to a day that would change William Heirens’ life forever. Wednesday 26th June 1946, the day William Heirens earnt his name as The Lipstick Killer.
The First Murder
Let’s rewind the case a little to where things really began on 5th June 1945 when Josephine Ross was tragically murdered in her own apartment. Josephine Ross was a single mother and widow and had recently got engaged to fiance Oscar Nordmark. Like many cases, Tuesday 5th June 1945 started off as any normal day for Josephine. She made breakfast for daughters, Mary Jane and Jacqueline, and then went back to bed as the girls headed off to work. When Jacqueline returned home for her lunch at around 1:30pm, she found their entire apartment had been ransacked; and to her complete and utter horror, her mother was lying on the bed with brutal stab wounds, her throat gashed and blood sprayed all around the walls, and her head had been tied in a red dress and a stocking. Bizarrely, Josephine’s killer had dressed her wounds using adhesive tape. In the bathroom she found Josephine’s clothing in a pool of bloody water. Only a couple of dollars were missing. The police were called immediately, however a thorough investigation found no evidence alluding to the killer’s identity. Oscar Nordmark had an extremely clean alibi, leaving the case with extremely limited leads. Police believed Josephine was not targeted, but that this was an opportunist crime, as two witnesses saw a male with dark hair and a white sweater aimlessly roaming the building earlier that day - potentially seeking an unlocked door. This man could not be identified leaving the case somewhat cold. This was until December 10th 1945, when the killer struck again.
"For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself."
At 9:30pm on 10th December 1945, Frances Brown returned to her apartment less than a ten minute walk from Josephine Ross’. She was told by the night receptionist that a man had been looking for her earlier that day and left without leaving a name. It appeared Brown was expecting a visit as she was in no way alarmed, and simply headed back to her apartment. On this particular night Frances Brown would be sleeping alone as her roommate, Viola Butler, was spending the night at a friend’s house, so she decided to have an early nights sleep. At 9am the next day an apartment housemaid, Martha Engels, peered into Frances’ room to see why the radio was playing so loud - and was met by a scene she would never forget. Eerily similar to the case of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown was found laying over the bathtub with pyjamas wrapped around her head, with several stab and shot wounds, blood splashed all around the walls and a bullet penetrating her skull and shoulder. The apartment had been ransacked and no money had been taken. This time the killer had written on the living room wall using a red lipstick “For heaven’s sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.” This had potential to be a hugely significant piece of evidence, and encouraged the title of “The Lipstick Killer”. However following forensic investigation, no fingerprints or identity clues were retrieved from this scene.
The police believed that Josephine Ross and Frances Brown’s killers were in fact the same person/people, due to the striking similarities between the scenes. The night receptionist reported a sighting of a man between the age of 35-40 around 5’6 who stumbled out of the lift at around 4am, shortly after other witnesses heard gunshots, looking extremely nervous and sketchy. This description in no way fits 17 year old William Heirens; however it did match a man called George Catraboni who actually confessed to the murder of Frances Brown. George Catraboni was a butcher and was already under arrest for thirteen murders. However, the police eventually decided that Catraboni told too many lies that they could not trust anything he said - so they rejected his confession and removed him from the suspect list. An extremely questionable move in my opinion...
“Get $20,000 ready and wait for word.”
Only a few weeks later on 7th January 1946, six year old Suzanne Degan was found missing from her family apartment in Edgewater, Chicago. The police found a ladder against Suzanne’s window, which bizarely showed no evidence that it had been used for entry, and a ransom note reading “Get $20,000 ready and wait for word. Do not notify the FBI or police. Bills in 5’s & 10’s. Burn this for her safety”. That same evening, investigators found Suzanne’s body parts scattered in various sewers - all body parts wrapped in a rag and placed in a bag. Toxicologists revealed her body was cut in a way that only a skilled butcher would know how to do, reinforcing the confession of Catraboni. If not a butcher, the perpetrator was predicted to be an embalmer, a physician or a medical student - all professions with absolutely no relevance to Heirens. Over 800 suspects were questioned, with 170 recieving lie detector tests. 7,000 sets of handwriting were compared to the ransom note. There was even a critical sighting reported by several neighbours of two men who had previously tried to get Suzanne into their car a few months ago, only escaping after neighbours came to Suzanne’s screams. What is strange is that Suzanne’s family never reported this attempted abduction; and crucial information with this sighting is that Heirens did not have a car at this time. Additionally, witnesses heard Suzanne say she was “still sleepy” around the expected time of abduction. To be calmly speaking rather than screaming in fear, it might be hypothesised that Suzanne knew the abductor(s). There were absolutely no links between Suzanne and William Heirens, further questioning his association.
William Heirens Arrest
Now let’s fast forward to the beginning of the case, where William Heriens’ life changed forever. A few months after Suzanne’s murder, on Wednesday 26th June 1946, William Heirens left his uni dorm and headed for the post office in Skokie. He was going to cash $500 as his university fees were due, so for the journey he stashed a loaded pocket revolver in his jacket. He later reported he wasn’t actually sure if the gun worked or not, and that he was solely carrying it for protection when carrying significant amounts of money.
When Heirens arrived at the post office at around 3pm he read a notice to say that it was closed. This was extremely frustrating for Heirens as he had just made a long journey there on a hot summer's day. Heirens needed the money desperately, not only for the university but also as he was soon to be taking a girl on a date, so he decided to turn to burglary. He was near the Wayne Manor apartments where he had targeted many times before, so he knew the ropes well. Heirens accessed the building and simply wandered around until he found an unlocked door,, this time on the third floor. He grabbed a wallet, took it outside to take any valuable contents, and then returned the wallet to the room. Richard O’Gorman, a neighbour, spotted Heirens going in and out of the apartment so told his wife to go and check on whether Mrs Pera (the apartment occupant) was home. O’Gorman’s wife ended up running straight into Heirens, causing a runaway tackle all the way down the stairs between Heirens, Richard O’Gorman and cleaner, Franis Hanley. Without thinking, William Heirens grabbed his gun as a threat to O’Gorman and Hanley, allowing for time to dart as far away as possible. When catching his breath, William was approached by Mrs Pauline Willett wondering about his distressed state. She fetched him a drink and told him to come inside for a sit down, where Heirens proceeded to explain that he had a heart problem so simply needed rest. Willett did not believe this story, so privately phoned the police whilst Heirens was inside her home. The police arrived and cornered Heirens immediately - so he decided his only option was to turn with his gun in hand towards the nearest officer. Heirens later reported he had absolutely no intention of firing, but hoped it would provoke the officers to move out of the way to allow for an escape. Instead, three flower pots were dropped onto Heirens’ head until he was unconscious, and he was arrested on suspicion of attempted burglary.
Whilst under arrest, Heirens reported violent questioning whilst he was slipping in and out of consciousness - he was later taken to Bridwell Hospital next to the Cook County Jail. He claims he was interrogated for six days, refused food and water, and was not allowed to see his parents for four days, nor speak to a lawyer for six days. Psychiatrist Doctor Haines and Roy Grinder dosed Heirens with sodium pentothal without a warrant or consent, in preparation for a three hour interrogation. Under this influence, Heirens reportedly confessed to all three murders through an alternate personality named George. Interestingly, this transcript has entirely disappeared - and in 1952 Dr Grinker admitted Heirens never actually implicated himself in any of the murders.
Despite previous investigations claiming no fingerprints were left at the scene, police now claimed that a bloody smudge left on Frances Brown’s door handle matched fingerprints of Heirens. On 30th June 1946, Heirens was then cleared from this suspicion as it was revealed the fingerprint did not actually match him, however twelve days later it was decided once again that it did belong to Heirens (a sketchy investigation if you ask me…). Additionally, a fingerprint from William Heirens left baby finger matched nine points of comparison in the ransom note. However, the notes of comparison were loops meaning 65% of the population could also match - and twelve points of comparison are required for a positive identification.
Strikingly, Mary Jane Blanchard, Josephine Ross’ daughter, actually commented that she “cannot believe that young Heirens murdered my mother. He just does not fit into the picture of my mother's death ... I have looked at all the things Heirens stole and there was nothing of my mother's things among them”. This was prompted by William Heirens denying any involvement in the murders, a few days after he had confessed. Not only did Heirens not match the picture according to Mary Jane, but 17 year old Heirens also looked far from the witness descriptions of a 35-40 year old man.
Despite this, William Heirens took full responsibility for the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown and Suzanne Degan on August 7th 1946. That same night Heirens attempted suicide in his cell. He later reported this was driven by despair that “Everyone believed I was guilty...If I weren't alive, I felt I could avoid being adjudged guilty by the law and thereby gain some victory. But I wasn't successful even at that. ...Before I walked into the courtroom my counsel told me to just enter a plea of guilty and keep my mouth shut afterward. I didn't even have a trial.” William Heirens remained incarcerated until he passed away due to health implications, March 5th 2012 aged 83.
This entire case blows my mind. It is extremely heartbreaking for all involved - but also so incredibly frustrating as I believe William Heirens was innocent. I believe there is very little evidence to suggest William Heirens was the killer in any of these cases; and he was likely taken advantage of due to his class background, and used as a scapegoat being pressured into a confession that would resolve three major cases. William Heirens was a thief, absolutely. But in terms of murder...I truly believe he was innocent.
Thank you so much for reading! I realise this was a much longer post than usual but there is just so much involved in this case that I felt needed to be shared. As always I would absolutely love to hear your personal opinions on the case, and do let me know if there are any other cases you would like me to cover in the future. Thank you so much for reading and I hope to have a discussion with you in the comments below!