William Heirens Was 17 When He Was Convicted For Beheading A 6-Year-Old Girl — But Did He Do It?

Published December 5, 2018
Updated December 12, 2018

William Heirens was without a doubt a skilled burglar, but was he really responsible for the three murders for which he was sentenced to life?

William Heirens Behind Bars

Getty ImagesThe 17-year-old suspect, Heirens, behind bars on Dec. 10, 1945. Heirens was under constant surveillance at the jail.

“For heaven’s Sake, catch me Before I kill more I can not control myself” read a note scrawled in lipstick across the living room wall of Frances Brown’s apartment. Police had found the woman dead with a bread knife lodged in her neck. The note was the first clue police found in what would become a string of murders, sensationalized by the Chicago press, and committed by an elusive and mysterious predator dubbed “The Lipstick Killer,” who may have been a one William Heirens.

William Heirens’ Early Life

William George Heirens’ early life gave no indication that he would grow up to become a murderer, much less the gruesome Lipstick Killer. Though he had been a petty thief since he was a child, Heirens had no record of violence. Born in Chicago, Ill. on the eve of the Great Depression in 1928, William Heirens had grown up in a poverty-stricken home with parents who argued more than they didn’t.

As an escape, young William Heirens took to wandering the streets in search of entertainment which often came in the form of petty theft.

While working at a grocery store at the age of 12, Heirens accidentally shortchanged himself with a customer. To make up for it, he stole a single dollar bill from an apartment by reaching through the crack in a chained door. From there, he graduated to stealing larger sums, and later personal items.

Eventually, Heirens had himself a small collection of pilfered items that ranged from the expensive to the mundane, like cameras, cocktail shakers, guns, and even handkerchiefs.

At 13, he was arrested breaking into a local building’s basement, the first in a long string of arrests that would garner him a reputation with the Chicago police as a nuisance – though not yet as anything more. He described his theft as a “hobby,” something that kept him busy while his parents were fighting.

He was eventually sent to a boy’s semi-correctional school in Indiana. However, his time there proved ineffective, as he was arrested again afterward. This time, the court recommended he be sent to a private institute in central Illinois.

While ineffective at curbing his crime streak, the schools were good for one thing. At both institutions, Heirens proved to be an impeccable student and earned top grades in all subjects.

So good were his grades, in fact, that before he even turned 16 he qualified for courses at the University of Chicago as part of a gifted students program. In 1945, by the time he was 17, he had enrolled in courses and was hoping to become an electrical engineer.

Lipstick Note

The note found scrawled in Frances Brown’s lipstick at the scene of her murder.

However, not even advanced courses, involvement in extracurricular activities, rising popularity or a string of girlfriends could supposedly stop William Heirens from reverting to his childhood “hobby,” and eventually evolve into someone far more sinister.

The Lipstick Killer

Though the murder of Frances Brown was the most popularized because of the lipstick message and gruesome crime scene, it was actually the second murder supposedly committed by William Heirens.

The first came six months prior, in June of 1945, and didn’t even make the front page of the local papers.

43-year-old Josephine Ross had been found in her home, dead from multiple stab wounds to the neck. A skirt had been wrapped around her neck and her wounds had been taped shut. Police interviewed her fiance and several ex-boyfriends, all of whom had alibis.

It was determined that Ross was killed by an intruder, likely one who was there to burgle her but who had been surprised to see her before they were able to complete the robbery. As nothing was taken, police assumed that after killing Ross, the suspect had fled.

However, that was the end of the assumptions, as nothing further had been found at the scene. There were a few dark hairs found clutched in Ross’s hand, though they only led police far enough to guess they were looking for a dark-haired suspect.

As there had been no suspicious characters reported at the scene, no witnesses, and no noise disturbances reported, it seemed for the time being that the Ross murder would go unsolved.

That is, until six months later, when William Heirens committed his second murder, the one that would become the hot topic of Chicago, and kick the police investigation into high gear.

William Heirens Before Trial

Joe MigonWilliam Heirens outside court after his attempt to commit suicide by hanging himself in his cell with a bedsheet.

On Dec. 11, 1945, 32-year-old Frances Brown was discovered savagely murdered. Like the Ross murder, Brown’s head was wrapped, this time in towels. Also, like the Ross murder, there was a startling lack of evidence. In the apartment, the police had found no fingerprints, no evidence of a burglary, and no hint of who the murderer could have been.

There was, however, one glaring clue left for police – the strange message scrawled on the living room wall in Brown’s own red lipstick. Immediately the media picked up the case and splashed it across the front page, branding the culprit as “The Lipstick Killer.”

Of course, thus far, the Lipstick Killer was nameless, an unidentified man (or woman, as the police once insisted) on a silent rampage through the streets of Chicago.

For just short of one month, the city was held in a sensationalized state of terror, egged on by the Chicago newspapers which waited with bated breath for the next horrific crime scene to be discovered. Within the first week of 1946, it finally came, when William Heirens, still an unknown and unsuspected, committed his final crime.

Heirens’ third murder was without a doubt the most brutal.

Around 7:30 on the morning of January 7, James Degnan discovered that his six-year-old daughter Suzanne was missing from her bedroom. Police swarmed the home and immediately began a search of the upscale, Chicago neighborhood.

In the Degnan’s home, a crumpled ransom note was discovered in Suzanne’s room which demanded $20,000 from the family. It also listed orders not to involve the police and claimed more orders would follow. As police doubled their search, they discovered the ransom note was nothing more than a ruse. Twelve hours after she was reported missing, young Suzanne Degnan was found dead.

Around 7 pm that evening, Suzanne’s severed head was found floating in a sewer near the Degnan home, the ribbons that had been tied in her hair that morning were still in place. Before long, her legs and torso were also discovered in nearby sewer basins.

Once again, Chicago was caught up in a horrific but captivating crime, though the police had yet to officially connect it to the murders of the Lipstick Killer. The public waited to see who would be arrested, but it would be almost six months before a likely arrest came.

William Heirens On Trial

As the Chicago police investigated the Degnan kidnapping and murder, along with the Ross and Brown murders, William Heirens enjoyed life as a young playboy at the University of Chicago.

As June 26 rolled around, Heirens was at the top of his game. He had recently celebrated an uncle’s safe return from the war, was taking a ballroom dancing class and had developed an interest in playing chess. He was even in the midst of a budding romance with a classmate, whom he planned to take on a date that night – he just needed some extra cash.

William Heirens originally planned to cash a savings bond for $1,000 at the post office (which he’d procured through theft). Unfortunately, the post office was closed when he arrived. This was no matter to Heirens. As had become second nature to him, Heirens reached into an open apartment door, in the same upscale neighborhood where Suzanne Degnan once lived.

But the tenant of the apartment spotted him. As Heirens fled, he was followed by two policemen. Cornered, he pulled a gun from the back of his jeans, one he claimed to have packed in case he was mugged while carrying the bond, and turned it on the two officers.

Discrepancies have been found between William Heirens account of his arrest and that of the two officers.

The officers claim that Heirens fired at them and Heirens claims that the police shot first. Whatever the case, shots were fired, and Heirens fled. A chase ensued which culminated in an almost comical apprehension: an off-duty police officer, still in his swim trunks from a day at the beach, stopped Heirens in his tracks by smashing a stack of flower pots over his head and rendering him unconscious.

While his arrest was unpleasant, William Heirens would come to realize being hit on the head with a flower pot was the most pleasant thing he would experience for a long while, as the next few days would prove to be some of the worst of William Heirens’ life.

After having his head stitched up, Heirens was transported to the hospital wing of the Cook County Jail. There he was subjected to a torturous interrogation, during which he slipped in and out of consciousness due to pain, drugs, and exhaustion.

After naming him as the suspected Lipstick Killer, the police searched Heirens room at the university, his parents home, and a locker he kept at a local train station. In the locker, they found evidence of his lifetime hobby of thievery, and after taking his fingerprints discovered that they were a 9-point match to those found on the Dengen ransom note – a fact that would later be disputed.

Despite these facts, William Heirens did not confess to any of the three murders, much to the police’s dismay. In an effort to get him to admit to at least one of them, police enlisted the help of several nurses and one doctor and reverted to sinister methods.

During one interrogation session, a nurse poured ether on Heirens genitals while he was strapped to a bed. During another, a police officer repeatedly punched him in the stomach while chanting details of the Dengen murder in an effort to spark recognition in Heirens.

Several days into his interrogation, a spinal tap was administered in an effort to force Heirens into confessing to being the Lipstick Killer. After the spinal tap, a polygraph was ordered, but Heirens was in too much pain for an accurate reading to be assessed. One doctor even injected Heirens with sodium pentothal, known to the layman as a “truth serum,” though it did nothing more than put him in a state of semi-conscious delirium.

After four torturous days, Heirens eventually began to mutter the beginnings of a confession. While under the influence of the sodium pentothal solution and hovering somewhere between excruciating pain and unconsciousness, Heirens spoke of a man named “George” who could potentially have committed the murders.

Police searched for a George and questioned Heirens’ friends and family, but ultimately came up empty-handed. The fact that Heirens’ middle name was George ultimately led police to believe the statement to be somewhat of a confession to being the Lipstick Killer.

A Lack Of Evidence And A Life Sentence

Old William Heirens Jail

Peter Thompson/Associated PressHeirens in prison in 2012.

Despite the fact that William Heirens’ handwriting did not match the note left on Frances Brown’s wall, and the fact that police only had nine of the FBI-required 12 points of identification necessary to deem fingerprints a 100 percent match, and the fact that Heirens “confession” was disputed by several nurses, police ultimately charged William Heirens as the Lipstick Killer.

On July 12, 1946, 17 days after his arrest, Heirens was indicted for assault with intent to kill, robbery, twenty-three counts of burglary, and three counts of murder. Despite the fact that the interrogation was clearly botched – not to mention that all of his places of residences and his locker had been searched without a warrant – Heirens agreed to a full trial, even though he risked being sent to the electric chair.

“The thing is, once you’re dead, there’s no clearing things up,” he said, looking back at his arrest in a 2008 interview. “When you’re alive, you still have a chance to prove that you weren’t guilty. So I was better off being alive than being dead.”

Ultimately, after the State’s Attorney offered him a deal of three consecutive life sentences, Heirens plead guilty to all three murder charges. Later he would recall that he only did so because he feared for his life, and was afraid of what would happen should he turn down the deal.

His decision may have saved him from the electric chair, but it ended up costing him the rest of his life.

For the next 65 years, William Heirens would be incarcerated and face a maximum-security lifestyle. The Lipstick Killer would attempt suicide three times. Heirens would maintain his innocence up until the day he died at age 83. When he died, he was Chicago’s longest-serving criminal.

After this look at the Lipstick Killer, read about Harvey Robinson, another teenaged killer who ended up on death row. Then, read about Mary Jane Kelly, Jack the Rippers most gruesome victim.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
Citation copied
Cite This Article
Serena, Katie. "William Heirens Was 17 When He Was Convicted For Beheading A 6-Year-Old Girl — But Did He Do It?." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 5, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/william-heirens-lipstick-killer. Accessed June 23, 2024.