Childhood & Early Life
William Heirens was born on November 15, 1928, in Evanston, Illinois to George and Margaret Heirens. His paternal grandparents were Luxembourgish immigrants. Growing up in the 1930s Chicago, he was well familiar with poverty and crime. His home did not provide a refuge either. His parents argued endlessly and to avoid listening to it, he would often leave the house and roam around the neighbourhood.
It was during these wanderings that he began to steal. He would later state that his early crimes were mostly for fun and to relieve tension. At 13, he was arrested for the first time after police caught him with a loaded gun. The authorities searched the Heirens house, finding a considerable amount of stolen weapons in an unused shed on the roof of a building in the neighbourhood. As he never sold the stolen goods, the rest of the loot was discovered there as well.
He pleaded guilty to 11 counts of burglary charges and spent the next few months at the Gibault School for wayward boys. Soon after, he was arrested a second time for theft/larceny and was sent to St. Bede Academy, a youth correction facility operated by Benedictine monks, where he spent the next three years of his life. In the institution, he proved his academic merit by excelling in mathematics, biological science, and social science.
Seeing his impressive test scores, his teachers encouraged him to apply for the University of Chicago’s special learning program. He received his acceptance letter right before his release and at 16, he started his classes in the 1945 fall term.
In the beginning, he used to live at his parents’ house and commute to the university. But he realised it was not a sustainable option and relocated to the University’s Gates Hall. Heirens worked as an usher or as a docent at the university to support himself. Bright, intelligent, and handsome, Heirens soon became popular among both the students and professors. However, he returned to the life of crime, committing a series of burglaries in homes near the university.
Continue Reading Below
The three murders that Heirens confessed to, and was later convicted of, were of 43-year-old Josephine Ross, 33-year-old Frances Brown, and six-year-old Suzanne Degnan.
Ross’ body was discovered on June 5, 1945, in her apartment at 4108 North Kenmore Avenue, Chicago. She had multiple stab wounds on her torso and her head was wrapped in a dress. The investigators suspected that she had accidentally confronted an intruder, who, on being surprised by her presence, had ended up killing her. They found dark hair in the clutches of her hand and concluded that she had struggled with her assailant before her death.
Ross’ then fiancé, former husbands, and boyfriends all had alibis. The police began searching for a dark-haired man who had been wandering in the area but could not locate him.
Brown was found dead on December 10, 1945, in her apartment at 3941 North Pine Grove Avenue, Chicago. She had a knife lodged in her neck and a bullet wound on her head. There was a message written in lipstick on a wall of the apartment. It read, “For heavens / Sake catch me / Before I kill more / I cannot control myself.”
On January 7, 1946, Degnan’s family realised that six-year-old Suzanne was missing from her first-floor’s bedroom at 5943 North Kenmore Avenue, Edgewater, Chicago. The investigators found a ransom note with the following written on it, “GeI $20,000 Reddy & wAITe foR WoRd. do NoT NoTify FBI oR Police. Bills IN 5's & 10's”. On the back of the note, there was an instruction, “BuRN This FoR heR SafTY”.
Degnan’s father was a senior Office of Price Administration (OPA) executive and in the mid-1940s, the organization was considering the extension of rationing to dairy products, infuriating the meatpackers who were on a strike at the time. Several other executives had already received threats against their children.
Edward Kelly, the then Mayor of Chicago received a note that read, “This is to tell you how sorry I am not to not get ole Degnan instead of his girl. Roosevelt and the OPA made their own laws. Why shouldn't I and a lot more?” The authorities initially thought that one of the meatpackers had kidnapped the girl.
The authorities received an anonymous phone call that told them to look in the sewers near the Degnan home. Following the instruction, police found the disembodied head of the girl in a storm-drain a block away from her home. The rest of her body parts were gradually discovered, with each part found in the sewer located further from her house than the last.
The case caught the attention of both the media and the public. There were several suspects, including a 65-year-old janitor named Hector Verburgh, and a recently-discharged marine named Sidney Sherman. Both Verburgh and Sherman were eventually cleared with the former successfully suing the Chicago Police Department for the torture he had been put through during his interrogation.
Continue Reading Below
There were also two significant confessions. Vincent Costello, a local teenager, confessed that he had killed the girl and made calls to the Degnan home at the day of the incident, demanding ransom. However, he later revealed that he had made the calls after overhearing police officers discussing the case. He had nothing to do with the murder.
The second confession came from Richard Russell Thomas, a nurse who had been once suspected of molesting a child. He readily told the police that he had murdered the girl. But by then, there was a new suspect that the authorities were interested in. Heirens had been apprehended by the police while he was trying to flee a burglary scene. He had a gun and allegedly pointed it at one of his pursuers. Thomas later recanted his confession, but the media was already focused on Heirens.
Arrest & Interrogation
After his arrest on June 26, 1946, Heirens was interrogated rigorously. He later claimed that he was questioned for six days straight, was regularly beaten, and not given any food or drink. Dr. Haines and Dr. Grinker, psychologists with the police, administered sodium pentothal to him without a warrant or an explicit consent from either Heirens or his parents.
In the next three hours, according to the authorities, Heirens talked of an alternate personality who he called “George.” He reportedly said that it was George who had committed the murders.
He never gave George’s last name to the police. When asked, he stated that he could not remember and that it was “a murmuring name”. The authorities presumed it was “Murman”; the media sensationalised it as “Murder Man”. Later, in 1952, Dr Grinker would state that Heirens had never implicated himself in any of the murders.
He was administered lumber puncture without anaesthesia on the fifth day since his arrest. They had to reschedule his polygraph test after concluding that he was in too much pain. When he did undergo the test, the results were inconclusive.
During this period, the press played an instrumental role in controlling public opinion on Heirens, even allegedly affecting the investigation itself. George Wright, a staff reporter with Chicago Tribune wrote an article on the murders on July 16, 1946. He conjured up details and cited questionable sources to blame Heirens for the three murders and reported that he had already confessed. Soon the rest of the news outlets in Chicago were convinced that Heirens was the murderer.
His defence team was convinced that he was guilty. So when the prosecutor offered him a plea bargain, which would save him from execution if he confessed to the crimes, they began pressuring him to accept the deal. Thus 17-year-old Heirens and his parents signed a confession. While the initial deal was for one life term with a few minor charges, after Heirens appeared uncooperative at a news conference, it was extended to three life terms.
One of the hard evidences gathered during the investigation was a smudged fingerprint that the authorities at first stated did not match Heirens’, but that statement was eventually retracted and it was confirmed that it did belong to Heirens. A knife, which he admitted of using to cut up Degnan and throwing it on the subway track near the scene of the murder, was also discovered.
Trial, Conviction & Sentencing
Following his arrest, his parents and younger brother changed their last name to Hill. On August 7, 1946, Heirens confessed to the murders before the court. Prompted by the prosecutors, Heirens re-enacted his crime in the Degnan home.
On the night of 4 September, he tried to commit suicide but was discovered by the guards. He later revealed that despair had led him to attempt suicide.
He was sentenced to three life terms. When asked by Sheriff Michael Mulcahy if the girl had suffered, Heirens replied that he did not know; he had not murdered her. He further requested Mulcahy to tell the girl’s father to take care of his other daughter as the killer was still out there.
Life in Prison & Death
Immediately after his sentencing, William Heirens recanted his confession. He was housed at Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois till 1975 and then moved to the minimum-security Vienna Correctional Center in Vienna, Illinois.
In 1988, he requested to be transferred to the Dixon Correctional Center minimum security prison in Dixon, Illinois. Throughout his life, he continued his unsuccessful efforts to gain clemency.
He died on March 5, 2012 due complications caused by diabetes , at the University of Illinois Medical Center.