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"For heavens sake, catch me before I kill more, I cannot control myself"
This was the message scrawled, in lipstick, on the walls of Frances Brown's Chicago apartment when her body was discovered by a cleaning woman on December 10, 1945. Brown, a 32-year-old divorcee had been shot in the head and had a knife lodged in her neck, The knife came from Brown's own kitchen and had been driven in with such force that it had penetrated her neck completely and partially protruded from the other side. Her killer had apparently gotten in by climbing an eight-foot fence and jumping onto the fire escape. While police initially believed the murder to have been committed by a burglar who had been interrupted, no valuables had been taken and a bloody fingerprint was discovered at the scene of the crime. It was the bizarre message that would later earn her murderer the nickname of "the Lipstick Killer."
Even more disturbingly, the characteristics of this crime closely matched another murder that had occurred in Chicago earlier that year. The body of 43-year-old Josephine Ross was found by her daughter. The woman's pit bull terrier was found whimpering and cowering under a couch. Ross had been repeatedly stabbed and her throat was cut. The body had then been bathed and a nylon stocking had been wrapped around her neck. Though dark hairs had been found in her hand, presumably after a struggle with her killer, there was little the police could do with such evidence in a pre-CSI era. Despite evidence of a "dark-complexioned man" who had been spotted near the scene of the crime around the time of the murder, police had no real leads. All that had been stolen from the apartment was about $12 in cash.
There were other incidents occurring at about the same time, including attempted break-ins in which three women were injured. One was shot in the shoulder while another was struck in the face when she interrupted someone burglarizing her apartment. A thir woman was grazed by a bullet fired from across the street from her apartment. They were the lucky ones.
After Frances Brown's death however, the possibility of the deaths might be linked first began to be raised. Still, it was the kidnapping of six-year-old Suzanne Degnan on January 7, 1946 that would generate national headlines. Degnan was the daughter of a senior executive of the Office of Price Administration and his daughter's disappearance was assumed to be linked to the political unrest that was taking place at the time. As well, police found a crudely scrawled ransom note (Chicago's mayor, Edward Kelly received a note as well). An anonymous tip later led police to Suzanne Degnan's head in a storm drain near the family home. Other body parts were found in different locations throughout the area.
According to the coroner, Suzanne had been killed on the day of her kidnapping and the dismembered body was a "very clean job with absolutely no signs of hacking." There was also speculation that the killer had been someone with medical training or at least experience in cutting up bodies, perhaps a butcher or a meat packer. Though police concluded that her body had been dismembered in the laundry room of a nearby apartment building, finding whoever had been responsible for Suzanne Degnan's death seemed impossible. More than 170 suspects received polygraph testing and police received numerous tips, most of which went nowhere.
Considering the pressure the police faced to solve the crime, it is probably not surprising that they decided to take "shortcuts." One suspect, 65-year-old Hector Verburgh, was accused of the murder since he was a janitor in the building where the Degnans lived. Police were so determined to extract a confession fromm Verburgh that he was severely beaten, an experience which left him hospitalized. He later sued the Chicago Police for a substantial sum (at least in 1946 dollars).
Police did manage to solve the mystery of who had placed several calls to the Degnans claiming to be the kidnappers and demanding a ransom. Unfortunately, the two teenagers involved turned out to have no real knowledge of who killed Suzanne. They had learned about the crime from overhearing police officers discussing the case and simply decided to pretend to be the kidnappers so they could collect the ransom.
After months of investigating, and the newspapers demanding an arrest, the police had little to show for their efforts. They had questioned hundreds of suspects and checked out countless false leads, including several false confessions that were later recanted. Everything changed on June 26, 1946 when 17-year-old William George Heirens was arrested on burglary charges.
A Chicago resident with a history of property offenses, Heirens had actually managed to turn his life around and enroll in a special program at the University of Chicago at the age of sixteen. Unfortunately, his parents couldn't afford the cost of his tuition and his dormitory and his part-time job as an usher wasn't enough. As a result, he began burglarizing local apartments to get the money he needed to stay in school.
Heirens had been caught at the scene of a recent burglary and had actually pulled a gun on police officers hoping that he could intimidate them into letting him go. Although some accounts suggest that he actually pulled the trigger only to have the gun misfire, he was arrested without further incident and taken into custody. Heirens was then subjected to round-the-clock questioning for days, including various physical interrogation tactics such as beatings and being deprived of food or water. He was also not allowed to speak to a lawyer until six days after he was arrested.
During his interrogation, some disturbing details of Heirens' life began to emerge. Though he was was a promising student of above-average intelligence, there were some signs that he was experiencing emotional problems that went largely unnoticed by friends and family. He explained away his burglaries as being a way of having fun and relieving tension. He also kept a diary which attracted intense scrutiny following his arrest. Though the diary entries largely reflected his own self-doubt and plans for the future, there included details of his various "plans" for the future (which he referred to as "plots", many of which involved crimes that he planned to commit).
These plans tended to be very methodical as he described, in step-by-step detail, how he would carry out each burglary, including what he planned to do afterward to avoid being caught. None of these plans involved physical violence however, though they were often rather grandiose in nature. Police were still obliged to link Heirens to the three murders, something they had difficulty doing.
Heirens had stood up to the brutal interrogation tactics of the Chicago police, now it was time to try something else.
To be continued.
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