Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Heirens


"And I looked, and behold, a pale horse..."

-- The Bible

Chicago in advent of 1946 had fallen prey to an almost self-indulgence of relaxation, shuffling off the coil of wartime now past and determined to live the good life, nothing more. The Gotterdammerung had ended. Hitler had blown his brains out in a bunker, Mussolini had been strung up by his betrayed cumpari, and Hirohito shivered under the blast of atomic fallout. Chicago any big city in America, for that matter was sick of violence and bedrought of tears; no more sons and brothers and fathers would be marching to a Guadalcanal. Peace had come, if you may, with a vengeance.

When the crime rate escalated immediately after the war, due in part to returning soldiery unable to procure lawful employment, the city's people found themselves disgruntled. Hollywood was chucking out goodwill all around (The Best Years of Our Lives and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were smash hits), literature adopted only the highest of morals (The Yearling ran months on the best-seller lists); so why couldn't Chicago, they asked, conform? The public dreaded another battleground like the one it had endured during an earlier time, Prohibition, when Al Capone ran the city like a war zone. With the Axis powers overseas defeated, Chicago would damn itself first before reverting to the domestic rat-a-tat-tat that was.

Downtown Chicago, mid 1940's (Chicago Historical Society)
Downtown Chicago, mid
(Chicago Historical Society)

Chicago remained in part, after the war, "a city in conflict," according to Lucy Freeman, author of Before I Kill More..., "caught between the wish to be sophisticated and yet remain a pioneer town. It (possessed) some of the virtues of the larger city and some of its vices, some of the virtues of a village and some of its vices."

Nevertheless, its police failed to reduce an obvious and sudden criminal flow, and the public was fit to be tied. This made the politicians nervous. It made Mayor Edward J. Kelley nervous. It made State's Attorney William J. Tuohy nervous. It made Police Commissioner John C. Prendergast nervous.

The word went out, and the word was (in plural, mind you) ARRESTS.

But, solutions came hard and the city police seemed unprepared to dam the flood of rising crime. The Chicago Police Department's operations director, Virgil Peterson, came out rather defensive and simultaneously smug by reminding Chicagoans that, "We've been warning the public for four years that there would be a crime wave after the war. There has been one after every war."

Dolores Kennedy in her book, William Heirens: His Day in Court, writes,"Peterson placed the responsibility on a letdown in moral standards during and after the war years, the coming of age of juvenile delinquents developed during the war, and the return of millions of persons to civilian status from the armed services. J. Edgar Hoover, chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, reinforced the finding, stating that murders (in America) had increased an unprecedented 32 percent since the previous year. During the first ten days of December (1945), Chicago reported 109 robberies, 265 burglaries, 109 stolen autos, 4 rape cases and 8 murders." These were horrific numbers for the era.

In the City of Big Shoulders, Chicago, testimony to crime was tangible. "In the 1940s, syndicate tavernsconcealing slot machines and games of '21'and 'B-girls' hustling customers for drinks in the Randolph Street dives were a public nuisance and an embarrassing eyesore in the very shadows of City Hall," explains Richard Lindberg in Return to the Scene of the Crime Chicago. "These petty forms of vice gradually gave way to an even more unsightly aggregation of all-night pinball arcades."

* * * * *

Three terrible murders took place between the months of June, 1945, and January, 1946, to startle not only Chicago, but the rest of the country as well. They shocked even the old-timers who remembered the midnight sounds of machine guns during la regime

d' Alfonso Capone and shattered a public trust in the local law enforcement departments. More than that, the killings rather, barbarisms rattled many a belief in the stability of Mankind itself. Crimes like this, they said, couldn't happen even in Chicago.

Josephine A. Ross, Victim
Josephine A. Ross,

Josephine Ross, 43 years old, thrice-divorced and unemployed, lived with her daughters Mary Jane (Blanchard) and Jacqueline (Miller) in a small Kenwood Avenue apartment in the Edgewood District, Chicago's North Side. 

It was a pleasant area of small water-fountain parks where nationality-conscious neighbors still clung to their own and partied with their own. Separating the Irish from the Germans and the Lithuanians from the Poles were freight yards and viaducts and a diversity of factories (now called industrial parks). Church steeples pricked the low skyline here since not long after the Chicago Fire of 1871. 

The resident North Side claimed rows on rows of family-run markets on the main thoroughfares; Chicago Surface Lines streetcars that rattled along the electric tracks; vendors' carts that clattered, horse-drawn still, over the cobbles of geometrically square blocks of latticed front porches and bungalows' bay fronts. 

Single-family dwellings were brick and tile-roofed with a dormer, and the apartment buildings varied in size and shape mostly brick from two-flats to three-flats to six-flats and more with decorative foyers. Back yards sprouted oak trees and sometimes fence-bottom gardens. Wooden fire escapes clung to each apartment, overlooking gravel alleys that divided the blocks into neat cubes. Along those alleys, private garages stored one or two family automobiles. Most families by 1946 claimed one car.

Josephine Alice Ross spent most of her time attending movies, visiting fortune tellers and fighting her last husband's insurance company for a policy they said wasn't valid. She had been planning to open a local restaurant with the money, but, financially, things looked bleak. Strapped for real income, she had set her eyes on a new husband named Oscar. Attractive, she secretly had two interested suitors.

June 5, 1945, dawned with no apparent apprehension felt by any of the three women who occupied the apartment. Josephine had had a fortuitously good reading the day earlier at the psychic's. The daughter had gone off to work by 9 a.m., their mother decided to sleep in. She had risen early, chatted briefly with her children and then, after they left for their respective jobs, returned to bed.

Her body was discovered at 1:30 that afternoon when Jacqueline came home, as she usually did, for lunch. Finding the apartment aclutter drawers pulled out, chairs knocked over, newspapers unfurled across the floor she hurried to her mother's bedroom where she found a horrendous sight. Josephine was sprawled across her bed, her throat gashed by multiple stabbings, her head wrapped in a dress; blood had spewed across the room onto the walls, the drapes, the furniture, and it soaked the mattress. In the adjoining bathroom, several articles of the woman's clothing and undergarments lay in a pool of bloody water in the tub. Only change money was missing from the premises.

No fingerprints were found, fiancée Oscar Nordmark had an airtight alibi, and the police were stumped. A pair of witnesses, the building's custodian and a fellow tenant, both described an unfamiliar swarthy, dark-haired male in white sweater and dark trousers whom they had seen, seemingly without purpose, wandering through the building. Janitor Elmer Nelson estimated the stranger to weigh in at about 190 pounds; lodger Bernice Folkman called him slender.

Eight weeks after the incident, Police Captain Frank Reynolds admitted that the department had, to date, drawn a blank on motive and culprit, but that the investigation would continue.

Meanwhile, the murder and murderer-- faded into forgetfulness.

* * * * *

Frances Brown, Victim
Frances Brown, Victim

Honorably discharged U.S. Navy WAV, Frances Brown was petite, brown-haired and demure. She lived in Room 611 at the Pinecrest Apartment Building on Pine Grove Avenue not far from where Josephine Ross had lived and was home alone the evening of December 10, 1945. Roommate Viola Butler was spending the evening at a friend's house and Miss Brown, arriving home late, about 9:30 p.m., was told by a desk clerk that a man had entered the foyer earlier inquiring about her. When informed that she was out, he left. According to the clerk later, Frances seemed to have been expecting the caller.

She continued up the elevator to the sixth floor and spent what remained of her quietude relaxing and arranging her next-day's wardrobe. She called her mother to say she'd be visiting for Christmas, then showered and retired to bed. Outside, a winter wind blew quietly and coldly. The streets were glazed with ice. It was a good night to stay indoors.

Author Richard Lindberg describes Brown:." A homespun girl from Richmond, Indiana...she attended business school, worked hard, and eventually landed a good job with the A.B. Dick Company. When the War came, she enlisted in the WAVs and put her office skills to good use as a telegrapher. She spent three years in the service, then returned to her old job after the Japanese surrendered in August, 1945."

Pinecrest Apartments
Pinecrest Apartments

Her nude body was discovered the following morning by Martha Engels, the housemaid. Curious as to why the tenant's radio was playing so uncharacteristically loud at 9 a.m., and why her door was ajar, Engels peeked into Room 611 to find Brown's bed splattered with blood and a trail of it leading to the bathroom. There, she found the tenant stretched over the bathtub, her head wrapped in her pyjamas, a butcher knife rammed into her neck and a bullet hole in her skull.

Lipstick declaration (POLICE)
Lipstick declaration (POLICE)

Starkly written on the living room wall, in letters of lipstick, were the words: For heavens sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself. >As in the Ross apartment, the place was ransacked. No valuables were missing. But, this time they had one fingerprint a bloody one smudged on a doorjamb. This fingerprint would prove to be an important factor in the months to come.

George Weinberg, a neighbor, had heard what sounded like gunshots around 4 a.m. Night clerk John Dedrick told police that at about that time a man had emerged from the down elevator, looking very nervous, fumbled at the front door, and left. By description, he was about 35- to 40-years-old and weighed about 140 pounds. Police determined he had entered through the fire escape into the victim's apartment.

Suspects were meagre. One theory was that the message-writing killer might have been a woman since the term, "For heaven's sake," was more feminine than masculine. A local butcher named George Carraboni confessed to the crime, but his story changed so many times that the police didn't take him seriously. "Despite the fact that Carraboni was under investigation for thirteen murders in Cleveland, Ohio, in which men and women had been beheaded and dismembered, the police were unable to hold him," exclaims Dolores Kennedy.

Again, the police were baffled. Suspicions came and went until they seemed to tire, then dissipated beneath the merriment of a city celebrating the first Christmas in peacetime since 1940.

* * * * *

            The very worst was yet to come.

Suzanne Degnan, Victim
Suzanne Degnan,

Rosy-cheeked, tow-headed six-year-old Suzanne Degnan went to bed Sunday evening, January 6, 1946, with visions of sugar plums still dancing in her head from the holiday season. She died that night, a horrible death.

Jim and Helen Degnan bore a happy family, living at Thorndale and Kenmore in the Edgewater District. With their two daughters, Suzanne and Betty, they shared a huge turn-of-the-century home with another family. The Degnans occupied the first floor and the Flynns lived upstairs. Mr. Degnan worked for the Office of Price Administration (OPA) and had recently been transferred from Baltimore, bringing his family with him.

Good at his job, his salary nevertheless barely afforded him the necessities of life, but he had managed to show his children a happy Christmas just the same.

January 6 had been a busy Sunday for the Degnans. They had been out all day, not returning until late, at which time Helen made sandwiches for both her daughters and shuffled them off to bed. Tomorrow both would return to Sacred Heart Academy, the holidays ended.

During the night, the only sounds the household heard were the momentary barking of the Flynn dogs, a disturbance not out of the ordinary, and some men talking in the street. Cecilia Flynn thought one of the men had said, "This is the best-looking building around." Mrs. Degnan, at one point, sat up in bed, waking her husband beside her in the process. She explained that she thought she had heard Suzanne crying. The couple listened a few more minutes, heard nothing more, then returned to sleep.

In the morning, Jim went to wake his daughters for school. He thought it odd that Suzanne's door was closed the child was much too afraid to sleep in the dark. Peering in, he saw that her bedroom window was fully raised, the curtains blowing in the ice cold breeze, and the girl was nowhere to be seen. The rest of the family scoured the quarters closets, window seat, even outside on the fire escape then woke the Flynns and asked them to search their premises. Panic emerged when it became apparent Suzanne was gone.

Because of the nature of the crime, a child's disappearance, and because of the heat it had been taking over unsolved crimes, the police department dug into this case with fervor. The new police commissioner, John C. Prendergast, became personally involved. The Degnan apartment, according to Dolores Kennedy, was immediately "filled with police from the area, eager to resolve the disappearance of little Suzanne Degnan." On the floor of the girl's bedroom, they found what at first appeared to be a discarded tissue but turned out to be a ransom note. Probably blown from the bed by the wind, which gushed through the open window, it read: "Get $20,000 ready & waite (sic) for word. Do not notify FBI or police. Bills in $5's and $10's." On the backside was a warning: "Burn this for her safty (sic)."

Outside the apartment, police found a seven-foot ladder that, when held upright, reached to the sill of the girl's window. The ladder, police learned, had been stolen from a nursery several blocks away. Investigators spread throughout the area, searching, asking questions, hoping to find witnesses. An anonymous call suggested they check surrounding sewers.

That evening, January 7, detectives Lee O'Rourke and Harry Benoit did just that. Noticing that a sewer cover on nearby Winthrop Avenue looked misplaced, they shone their flashlight into the well and found what looked like the head of a golden-haired doll. But, it was no doll's head. An alarm went out. Before the evening ended, the rest of Suzanne Degnan her legs and torso were found scattered in the debris of adjacent sewers. (Her arms were found several weeks later.) A basement washtub below an apartment off Winthrop Avenue proved to be the place of dismemberment. Blood, pieces of human flesh and blonde hairs were found in its drain.

"Chicago's greatest manhunt, and perhaps one of the most intensive ever conducted in the nation, was on. Police had the task of trying to pluck the killer out of a city of four million," writes Lucy Freeman. "They worked around the clock, often driving their own cars and using their own time...Police worked day and night questioning suspects. They interviewed more than 800 persons suspected of the crime; gave lie detector tests to 170. The crime laboratory compared 7,000 sets of handwriting with the ransom note. A total of 5,250 were received from all over the world offering clues or theories; 3,153 were investigated."

Police believed that the kidnapper-killer must have driven a car the few blocks to the place of dismemberment; that carrying a 74-pound child through the streets would have drawn too much notice. After all, the streets were not exactly empty, even for the bewitching hours. Witnesses had seen a woman in the vicinity carrying a large bundle in both her arms in the vicinity of the Degnan home. She got into what seemed to be an awaiting automobile where a balding man sat behind the wheel. Another witness, a serviceman on furlough, saw a large dark man carrying a shopping bag. But, the phantom couple and the man with the bag were never identified.

States Kennedy: "The most promising suspects were arrested, and, upon those arrests, States Attorney William J. Tuohy and Chief of Detectives Walter G. Storms would tell the press that this time they had found the killer. Inevitably, the suspect passed the lie detector test, or came up with an alibi, or the police were forced to admit that the fingerprints did not match."

Each fizzle was a blow to William J. Tuohy, reportedly a man with high political ambitions and his eye on the circuit court. Mayor Kelly's right-hand-man, or enforcer of Chicago laws, could not afford to fail after so many successful stepping stones up. Under Tuohy's thumb, the police were hard-pressed to find the killer.

The battered Hector Verburgh (court evidence)
The battered Hector
Verburgh (court

Under his dictum, they often plied ahead zealously. Hector Verburgh, the janitor at the Winthrop Street apartment which housed the depository washtubs where the Degnan girl was cut up, became for a while the chief suspect. Although of impeccable reputation, the 65-year-old man suffered two days of physical battering at the hands of policemen. He was beaten so badly that he had a shoulder separated. Upon his release, he was hospitalized for ten days due to the abuse thrust on him. Immediately following his recuperation, he filed a $15,000 lawsuit against the department. After an investigation, the Verburghs were awarded $20,000.

As winter turned into spring, the police had theories galore, but not one concrete lead. The ransom note had been sent to the FBI laboratories where fingerprints were found. Most of the prints belonged to family members and policemen who had handled the paper, but a few unidentified smudges of prints were discovered. Thomas Laffey, the Chicago Police Department's expert, spent many months matching the latter against thousands on file. And was drawing blanks.

The search seemed impossible that is, until a college student named Heirens turned up out of nowhere and the spotlight of suspicion was turned on him with full force.


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