Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Heirens

Psychoses, Fingerprints and Truth

"There is no person who is not dangerous for someone."  - Marie de Sevigne

Bandaged at Bridewell
Bandaged at Bridewell

The first thing Heirens became aware of when he awoke in Bridewell, cranium bandaged, were a couple of words.... "Heirens... suspect... child... Degnan" ...whispered near his ear. Bridewell was the hospital attached to the Cook County Jail. His eyes still closed, he could feel his fingertips being forcibly pressed down, one after another, onto a cold ink pad, then onto the crinkle of paper. It was a sensation he recognized even half-conscious.

People into his room, people out. Voices fading, voices lingering into a monotonous undertone saying nothing. He wasn't sure, but he thought he felt himself being wheeled from one room to another...a jarring movement under his mattress...the squeak of bed wheels...interns in white coats...something about taking x-rays of his head...then a voice saying something like, "Now rush him back to the examining room where everyone's waiting"....then being wheeled once more down fuzzy hallways with fuzzy overhead lights...and into a room with more fuzzy overheads where many voices mixed together, chaotically this time, into an orgy of babbling....terse voices most of them...loud voices...and faces, too, blurred and twisted, fat noses shoving into his, glaring eyeballs nearly tapping his own.

He felt hands, meaty hands, shoving him while he lay in bed and now he became aware he was strapped in and the shoving continued. Big hands with fingers and thumbs like little logs pushing his shoulder, pinching his elbows, pounding his hips and jabbing his rib cage, and the more he woke the harder they pushed and pinched and pounded and jabbed.

It soon became apparent to Heirens that he was being accused of more than break-ins. He listened to their questions and, under  duress, he slowly realized they, the police, were blaming him for killing the Degnan girl. They were asking questions about her and asking why he loved to cut up little children. The more he protested, he said later, the more they beat him. Hour after hour, the grilling persevered until it heated red-hot. At one point, a patrolman slammed his fist so hard against his testicles, he nearly vomited.

Alleges Dolores Kennedy in William Heirens: His Day in Court, "One shift of policemen left and another took their place...'Aren't you sorry, Bill?' his tormentors continued. 'Tell us how you did it. You know how you did it and God knows you did it...Confess, Bill, and save yourself...We know you're guilty. You killed her, you sonofabitch. The game's over. You're guilty. Now tell us how you did it. Tell us, Bill.'"

Gruelling questions and threatening accusations drummed without let-up over and over and over the first few days he was in Bridewell. Whether it was day outside or night didn't matter to either the suspect nor the inquisitors. When fully conscious, Heirens found himself strapped spread-eagled onto his cot with each arm and leg tied down. A policeman whose name he thought was Hanrahan picked up where other interrogators had left off, asking the same questions, hurling the same accusations, but walloping harder physically than any of the others.

The small examining room where he lay was, at any given time, packed with scowling men in uniforms blue, silent eyeballs sunken in umbrage under detective Stetsons, inquisitive brows that spoke strange lingo like doctors would speak.

Two psychiatrists who introduced themselves to Heirens as Doctors Haines and Grinker told him that they were going to put him to sleep. On the table over his bed they placed two vials, one containing an amber liquid, the other a white powder. The police around Heirens' cot stepped back and, like Heirens, watched silently as Dr. Haines mixed the two solutions together, then watched in equal awe as Dr. Grinker loaded the needle.

Curt, Heirens replied, "Leave me alone. I can go to sleep on my own."

The doctors, both, only smiled unaffected, and resumed their business with the nonchalance of a family physician taking a patient's temperature. They pricked the boy's right bicep with the needle and asked him to count backwards starting with 100. Kind of like the old song, "One-Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall," Heirens thought, and smirked to himself. They watched him smirk until he, at number 94, drifted off into the subconscious depths that only sodium pentothal (truth serum) could induce.

Now begins the first of many unanswered questions surrounding the weeks of interrogation and investigation of Bill Heirens, weeks that led to his ultimate confession as the slayer of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown and Suzanne Degnan. While it is not this story's purpose to defend or accuse the title subject, it will examine the central elements of the case as closely in a chronological order as possible. In doing so, keep in mind the verse of author Celia Green in The Decline and Fall of Science: "The way to do research is to attack the facts at the point of greatest astonishment."

The Truth Drug

According to authorities, Heirens, under the power of the serum, spoke of a strange alter-ego, a shadow named "George" who committed his crimes for him. The figure of which he spoke was reflective of Robert Louis Stevenson's character, Edward Hyde, who haunted the illimitable Dr. Henry Jekyll. George, according to those who were present at the interview, slipped in and out of Heirens' life uncontrollably, a hoodoo relentless and deadly and void of conscience. In short, Heirens showed strong indications of being psyhcotic, living two personalities within a flesh and blood shell called William Heirens.

Years later, Heirens told author Lucy Freeman, who wrote Before I Kill More..., that he woke up remembering very little of what he said under the eminence of the serum. Upholding his innocence, he nevertheless recalls one thing in particular: "After the use of the hypnotic drug I had the strange compulsion to take the blame for all the charges pressed against me. It must have been a post-hypnotic influence." And he attested, "In the beginning, it didn't have much effect, but later it overcame my own will and judgment of my innocence for these crimes."

When Heirens, under the drug, was asked George's last name, he supposedly told the examiners he wasn't quite sure, that it was "a murmuring name". According to Heirens, the police translated it to Murman and the press, afterwards, dramatized it to "Murder Man".

But, what happened in the examining room that day is debatable, even today. That there was a drug-induced interview there is no doubt, but the facts are unsettled chiefly because the transcript of the interview taken questions asked, answers given has disappeared. In fact, it was never produced for public consumption. "There is no trace of it," says Dolores Kennedy.

The aggressive State's Attorney William Tuohy
The aggressive State's Attorney
William Tuohy

Further complicating the issue is the confusion over who ordered it and why. Doctors claimed that the test was commissioned by State's Attorney Tuohy. Tuohy, after the interview, announced he had seen the transcript but that it was not ready to be released. Yet, he later denied any knowledge of the examination at all. Stranger still, the state's attorney stated he was not present at the interview "or I would have liked to have asked him questions" but witnesses have testified he was very much present at the event.

Of the drug sodium pentothal, experts claim that answers given under its effect could easily be "suggested" in advance by subtly, strategically formulated questions. A well-known psychiatrist inferred that the drug also digs into the layer of the subconscious in such a way as to surface pre-injected thoughts and re-fashion them as something valid: "Suppose for one or two days someone repeats to you that you are a monkey's uncle. 'Are you a monkey's uncle? Aren't you a monkey's uncle?' Then suppose you are given truth serum...You may very likely say, 'I am a monkey's uncle.'"

All of this is conjecture and cannot be defended nor argued, that is in reference to the Bill Heirens interview, since the transcript vanished thereafter. One revelation by Dr. Grinker did, however, emerge in 1952 when he admitted that, despite the allusions to an evil alter-ego, Heirens, during this interview, never did directly involve himself in any crime.


Immediately after Heirens' arrest, the police began to wonder if the boy they had in their custody, this boy who admittedly had been so adept at climbing in and out of high apartment windows to steal and who, in all likelihood, might have butchered the Degnan youngster had also killed Josephine Ross and Frances Brown.

He was being uncommunicative and, outside the ramblings of a "George Murman" fantasy character, had withstood their torrents of punches, kicks and taunts to leave them highly suspicious, yes, but still guessing.

Pressure was certainly put on the lab to find the one incontestable piece of evidence against Heirens: a fingerprint. And the police had at their disposal two sources from which to decipher a possible Heirens print.

Fingerprint expert Sgt. Laffey
Fingerprint expert
Sgt. Laffey

One was the ransom note. (So far, fingerprint expert Sergeant Thomas Laffey, who had been comparing prints on the note to thousands of others on file, had come up ahem! shorthanded.

The other was the doorjamb from Frances Brown's apartment, where a "bloody smudge" was found.

While Heirens was still prone in the Bridewell hospital bed, the Chicago Police Department announced that a print made by a small left finger on the corner of the ransom document matched that of Bill Heirens'. Fingerprints are measured by "loop patterns," 65 percent of the public bearing the same pattern, and by so-many "points of comparison" between one's exclusive print mark and the print pattern found on an object. The loop pattern of Bill's fingerprints was of the most common pattern found (that of the majority of the populace), but in points of comparison, nine points matched the print on the note.

Heirens' supporters at that time, however, were quick to allude to the FBI Handbook, which stated that "twelve (not nine) identical points will suffice."

Nevertheless, the department believed it had its man and, with renewed glow, their eyes turned to the evidence left at Miss Brown's death scene. "On June 30, Captain Emmett Evans had told newspapers that Heirens had been cleared of suspicion in the Brown murder as the fingerprint left in the apartment was not his," Dolores Kennedy avers. "In addition, the night clerk, who had seen a man leaving the hotel shortly after the time of the murder, viewed Bill at Bridewell Hospital and announced, 'He is not the man.' Twelve days later, Chief of Detectives, Walter Storms, revealed to the press that the 'bloody, smudged' print on the door of the victim did, after all, belong to Bill."

Chicagoans remembered the case well, the Navy WAV who was maimed and mutilated and upon whose walls had been written in red lipstick, "Catch me before I kill more..." At that point, Bill Heirens became the author of that message and from then on  was known as "The Lipstick Killer," a hellish moniker he would carry into infamy.

With the alleged confirmation of his fingerprint at Miss Brown's place, Heirens was removed from his jail cell and put into solitary confinement where he was watched around the clock. His attitude was despondent and a confession seemed imminent. He may have been in higher spirits had he realized that doubt still lingered in the minds of many citizens, many professionals.

States Attorney Touhy felt that one more job was inevitable, therefore, to link Heirens to Brown's and Degnan's murders before moving on to the Ross killing. He needed to prove that the ransom note and the scarlet words on Brown's walls really were penned by Heirens.

To date, says Richard Lindberg in Return to the Scene of the Crime Chicago, "Detective John Sullivan, a seasoned Chicago police investigator who was always willing to cooperate with the press, theorized that the killer (of Miss Brown) was a woman (because) 'It would be out of the ordinary for a man to pick up a piece of lipstick and write a message with it...Others believed a sleazy crime reporter scribbled the message on the wall for a cheap headline...(As well) Handwriting experts who later compared the ransom note allegedly written by Heirens to the family of the little girl with the curious lipstick message on the wall in Room 611 found no connection. This opinion was affirmed by Charles Wilson, head of the Chicago Police crime detection laboratory."

George W. Schwartz, a handwriting expert, was summoned. After comparing both samples of the killer's writing note and wall to term papers Heirens had written at the university, he declared, "The individual characteristics in the two writings do not compare in any respect."

Another professional opinion was sought. This time, Tuohy hired Herbert J. Walter, the fellow whose handwriting analysis had cornered the killer of the Charles A. Lindbergh baby twenty years earlier. For four weeks, Walter poured over available Heirens-authored school papers. Finally, he announced that not only was that University of Chicago student the scribe of the ransom note, but also had scrawled the lipstick bravado. Despite some attempts to "disguise" his natural hand, Heirens undoubtedly had authored both, he said.

"But, in early January, not long after the Degnan crime and long before Heirens appeared on the scene, a reporter from the Herald American newspaper asked Walter if he thought the ransom note and the lipstick message matched," says Kennedy. "Walter's response was that he doubted they were done by the same person; there were a 'few superficial similarities and a great many dissimilarities."

Lie Detector Test

On the fifth day in custody, a nurse and doctor lay Bill in a foetal position and ordered him to remain so  until they were done with what they needed to do. What they planned was a spinal tap, drawing fluid from Heirens' spine. According to Kennedy, "This was done with no anaesthetic preparation, apparently to rule out any possibility of brain damage," but for the patient the pain was excruciating.

Normally after this procedure, a patient is left on his or her back for several hours, giving the pressure in the spine time to equalize. But, after 15 minutes, Heirens was yanked from his bed, strapped into a chair and dropped into an awaiting patrol wagon. Says Heirens, "The ride to the detective bureau was pure hell as the police van travelled a street with a streetcar line on it. The tracks were lined with cobblestones and each jolt to my body set off a new wave of pain."

At the bureau, officials carted him into a small den where they told him to take a lie detector test. Heirens was in such physical agony that the test was rescheduled for four days later, at which time it was administered. Test results were, said State's Attorney Tuohy, "inconclusive". In 1953, John E. Reid and Fred E. Inbau, inventors of the instruments that measured Heirens' responses, published test findings in the textbook, Lie Detection and Criminal Interrogation. According to them, the test was not inconclusive: "Murderer William Heirens was questioned about the killing and dismemberment of six-year old Suzanne Degnan...On the basis of the conventional testing theory his response on the card test clearly establishes (him) as an innocent person."

"Why did the powers-that-be hide these findings?" asks Kennedy. "Obviously, if released, they would have put a strong doubt on the guilt of Bill Heirens and would have made mincemeat of the confession that State's Attorney Touhy was hoping to get."

The Return of George

Capt. Ahern (POLICE)
Capt. Ahern

Before the lie detector test, but not long after the truth serum fiasco, Bill Heirens asked to see Captain Michael Ahern, one of the few policemen who had showed him some kindness. He told Ahern that he had more to say about his alter-ego, George. Ahern sent for the state's attorney, Touhy, and a stenographer, in front of whom Heirens admitted a kinship to his shady other half.

He admitted that there was a George he talked to, who did things for him, who may have been responsible for the crimes that were being tacked to Bill Heirens. It was George who stole those guns, who may have crawled into Suzanne Degnan's window, and who may have killed those other women.

Tuohy remained skeptical and wondered if it were perhaps Heirens' attempt for an insanity plea. However, word of George (with the "murmuring" last name) leaked out and the public press made the most of whatever information they had. It was journalistic melodrama in high prose, and the memories of Suzanne Degnan's terrible death re-arose to terrify a reading public all over again. The Jekyll-Hyde concept made good headlines and columnists chewed into it with the fervor of a baseball pitcher with a wad of snuff. One newspaper ran two photos of Murder Man Heirens top-to-bottom, one taken as he looked before his arrest hair combed, placid expression ---and the other as he appeared during his ordeal hair a mess, mouth askew and encased them in a box tomb stoned DUAL PERSONALITY.

In an interview conducted over the phone with Dolores Kennedy, part of which was to clarify Heirens' reasons for suddenly resurrecting the George fallacy, Ms. Kennedy answered, "Bill was tired, he saw the cards stacked against him, he was in pain, and he wanted rest. He didn't want to confess to the charges of murder because he knew he was innocent, but he thought if he could mislead the police he might, perhaps, buy a little time. In short, he hoped to make them all go away."

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