William Heirens

Most Notorious Serial Killers

The Lipstick Killer

Early life

Heirens grew up in Lincolnwood, a suburb of Chicago. He was the son of George and Margaret Heirens. George Heirens was the son of immigrants from Luxembourg and Margaret was a homemaker. His family was poor and his parents argued incessantly, leading Heirens to wander the streets to avoid listening to them. He took to crime and later claimed that he mostly stole for fun and to release tension. He never sold anything he had stolen.

At 13 years of age, Heirens was arrested for carrying a loaded gun. A subsequent search of the Heirens' home discovered a number of stolen weapons hidden in an unused storage shed on the roof of a nearby building along with furs, suits, cameras, radios and jewelry he had stolen. Heirens admitted to 11 burglaries and was sent to the Gibault School for wayward boys for several months.

Not long after his release, Heirens was again arrested for theft/larceny. This time, he was sentenced to three years at the St. Bede Academy, operated by Benedictine Monks. During his time at the school, Heirens stood out as an exceptional student excelling in all subject areas including but not limited to: mathematics, biological sciences, and social sciences. His test scores were so high he was urged to apply for the University of Chicago's special learning program. He was accepted into the program just before his release and asked to begin classes in the 1945 fallterm, allowing him to bypass high school. He was 16 years old.

Heirens returned home to live and commuted to the university, but this was impractical, and he eventually boarded at the university's Gates Hall. His parents were unable to afford either the tuition or boarding, so Heirens worked several evenings a week as an usher and at the university as a docent to pay his way. However, he also resumed his serial burglary, even as he studied at the University of Chicago.

University of Chicago graduate Riva Berkovitz (PhD 1948) reports that Heirens was quite popular in the ballroom dancing class that they had together:

"I remember the most popular boy in my class, who was handsome, smart and a good dancer. We all wanted to dance with him - the foxtrot, tango or a waltz. It didn't really matter."


Josephine Ross

On June 5, 1945, 43-year-old Josephine Ross was found dead in her apartment at 4108 North Kenmore Avenue, Chicago. She had been repeatedly stabbed, and her head was wrapped in a dress. She was presumed to have surprised an intruder, who then killed her. Dark hairs were found clutched in Ross' hand, indicating that she had struggled with the intruder before she was killed. No valuables were taken from the apartment.

Ross' fiancé had an alibi, as did her former boyfriends and ex-husbands, and police had no other suspects. They looked for a dark-complected man who was reported loitering at the apartment or running from the scene, but were unable to identify or locate him.

Frances Brown

On December 10, 1945, Frances Brown, a divorced woman, was discovered with a knife lodged in her neck and bullet wound to the head in her apartment at 3941 North Pine Grove Avenue, Chicago, after a cleaning woman heard a radio playing loudly and noted Brown's partly open door. Brown had been savagely stabbed, and authorities thought that a burglar had been discovered or interrupted. No valuables were taken, but someone had written a message in lipstick on the wall of Brown's apartment:

For heavensSake catch meBefore I kill moreI cannot control myself

Police found a bloody fingerprint smudge on the doorjamb of the entrance door. Also, there was a possible eyewitness to the killer's escape. An "eye-witness", George Weinberg, heard gunshots at about 4 am. According to John Derick, the night clerk stationed in the lobby of the building, a nervous man of 35-40 years old and weighing approximately 140 pounds got off the elevator, fumbled for the door to the street and left.

Four days after the murder, the Chicago Police announced they had reason to believe the killer was a woman.

Songmakers Gloria Sklerov and Harry Lloyd may have referred to this murder in their song Hollywood Seven.

Suzanne Degnan

On January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was discovered missing from her first-floor bedroom at 5943 North Kenmore Avenue, Edgewater, Chicago. After searching the apartment and not finding the girl, her family called the police.

Her disappearance attracted significant publicity, and police vowed to find whoever was responsible. Police found a ladder outside the girl's window, and also discovered a ransom note which had been overlooked by the family. The note read:

GeI $20,000 Reddy & wAITe foR WoRd. do NoT NoTify FBI oR Police. Bills IN 5's & 10's 

On the reverse of the note was written,

BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY 

A man repeatedly called the Degnan residence demanding the ransom, but hung up before any meaningful conversation could take place.

Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly also received a note:

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?

At the time, there was a nationwide meatpackers strike and the Office of Price Administration OPA was talking of extending rationing to dairy products. Degnan was a senior OPA executive recently transferred to Chicago. Another executive of the OPA had recently been assigned armed guards after receiving threats against his children and, in Chicago, a man involved with black market meat had recently been murdered by decapitation. Police considered the possibility the Degnan killer was a meat packer.

Police questioned the Degnan family's neighbors, but few had seen anything unusual. Someone later telephoned police anonymously, suggesting that police look in the sewers near the Degnan home. Police did, and discovered the young girl's head in a storm-drain sewer that was in an alley a block from the Degnan residence. In the same alley, they discovered the girl's right leg in a catch basin, her torso in another storm drain and her left leg in a drain in another alley, each location progressively further from her home. Her arms were found a month later in a sewer on the other side of the Howard elevated train line more than three blocks from the Degnan residence. All the drains were capped with circular cast-iron manhole covers, yet no one had heard them being lifted or replaced. Searches of an apartment building near where her head was found uncovered a basement laundry room with four tubs that contained evidence indicating she had been dismembered there. The killer had mopped the floor, but blood was found in the drains of all four tubs. The press called it the "Murder Room" although the autopsy showed that she had been alive when taken from her home, murdered at a second location that was never identified, and then taken to the laundry room.

Police questioned hundreds of people regarding the Degnan murder, and gave polygraph exams to about 170. On several occasions, authorities claimed to have captured the killer, but the suspects were eventually released.

Heirens's first confession

After the sodium pentothal questioning but before the polygraph exam, Heirens spoke to Captain Michael Ahern. With State's Attorney William Tuohy and a stenographer at hand, Heirens offered an indirect confession, confirming his claim while under sodium pentothal that his alter-ego "George Murman" might have been responsible for the crimes. That "George" (which happens to be his father's first name and Heirens's middle name) had given him the loot to hide in his dormitory room. Police hunted all over for this "George" questioning Heirens's known friends, family, and associations, but came away empty-handed.

Heirens was attributed as saying while under the influence that he met "George" when he was 13 years old; that it was "George" who sent him out prowling at night, that he robbed for pleasure, and "killed like a cobra" when cornered. "George" related his secrets to Heirens. Heirens allegedly claimed that he was always taking the rap for George, first for petty theft, then assault and now murder. Psychologists explained at the time that, in the same way children make up imaginary friends, Heirens made up this personality to keep his antisocial feelings and actions separate from the person who could be the "average son and student, date nice girls and go to church..."

Authorities were skeptical regarding Heirens's claims and suspected that he was laying the groundwork for an insanity defense, but the confession earned widespread publicity with the press transforming "Murman" to "Murder Man".

Second confession

Heirens's defense attorneys "felt" he was guilty. Their task, they believed, was to save Heirens from the electric chair. Tuohy, on the other hand, was not certain he could get a conviction.

The small likelihood of a successful murder prosecution of William Heirens early prompted the state's attorney's office to seek out and obtain the cooperative help of defense counsel, and through them, that of their client. All the prosecution had in the Degnan case was a partial fingerprint on the ransom note. . . . And it was at this stage of the investigation that defense counsel moved forward in cooperation with my office. -State's Attorney Tuohy

Heirens's lawyers pressured him to take Tuohy's plea bargain. That deal, which was the topic of that closed-door meeting with Tuohy, stated that Heirens would serve one life sentence if he confessed to the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown, and Suzanne Degnan. With the help of his lawyers, he began drafting a confession using the Chicago Tribune article as a guide:

As it turned out, the Tribune article was very helpful, as it provided me with a lot of details I didn't know. My attorneys rarely changed anything outright, but I could tell by their faces if I had made a mistake. Or they would say, 'Now, Bill, is that really the way it happened?' Then I would change my story because, obviously, it went against what was known (in the Tribune).

Both Heirens and his parents signed a confession. The parties agreed to a date of July 30 for Heirens to make his official confession. On that date the defense went to Tuohy's office, where several reporters were assembled to ask Heirens questions and where Tuohy himself made a speech. Heirens appeared bewildered and gave noncommittal answers to reporters' questions, which he years later blamed on Tuohy:

It was Tuohy himself. After assembling all the officials, including attorneys and policemen, he began a preamble about how long everyone had waited to get a confession from me, but, at last, the truth was going to be told. He kept emphasizing the word 'truth' and I asked him if he really wanted the truth. He assured me that he did...Now Tuohy made a big deal about hearing the truth. Now, when I was being forced to lie to save myself. It made me angry...so I told them the truth, and everyone got very upset.

Tuohy withdrew the previously agreed sentence of one life term with a few minor charges, changed it to three life terms to run consecutively, and threatened Heirens with the death penalty if he went to trial. They threatened to charge him with another murder (Estelle Carey) even though Heirens was attending the Gibault School for Wayward Boys, a boarding school in Terre Haute, Indiana, at the time. Heirens's own attorneys were angry at their client for reneging on the plea bargain,  spurring the Chicago Tribune headline "Mute Heirens Faces Trial - Killer Spurns Mother's Fervent Plea to Talk." 

Tuohy announced that he would press ahead to try Heirens for the deaths of Suzanne Degnan and Frances Brown.

Heirens agreed with the new plea agreement. The public allocution was held again in Tuohy's office. This time, Heirens talked and answered questions, even reenacting parts of the murders he had confessed to. Ahern changed his opinion and believed he was culpable when he heard how familiar Heirens was with victim Frances Brown's apartment.

Heirens said later: "I confessed to save my life."

Guilty plea

Heirens took full responsibility for the three murders on August 7, 1946. The prosecution had him reenact the crime in the Degnan home in public and in front of the press. On September 4, with Heirens's parents and the victims' families attending and Chief Justice Harold G. Ward presiding, Heirens admitted his guilt on the burglary and murder charges. That night, Heirens tried to hang himself in his cell, timed to coincide during a shift change of the prison guards. He was discovered before he died. He said later that despair drove him to attempt suicide:

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...

On September 5, after further evidence was written in the record and the prosecution and defense made their closing statements, Ward formally sentenced Heirens to three life terms. As Heirens waited to be transferred to Stateville Prison from the Cook County Jail, Sheriff Michael Mulcahy asked Heirens if Suzanne Degnan suffered when she was killed. Heirens answered:

I can't tell you if she suffered, Sheriff Mulcahy. I didn't kill her. Tell Mr. Degnan to please look after his other daughter, because whoever killed Suzanne is still out there.


After being taken to the University of Illinois Medical Center on February 26, 2012, due to complications from diabetes, Heirens died on March 5, 2012, at the age of 83.

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