Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Uptown's "Lipstick Killer" Dies In Prison

Often, when readers see photos from the 1930s and 1940s posted on Uptown Update's Facebook page, there are comments like "It looks so pretty! I wish I could have lived here then."

But the era had its own set of problems (Great Depression, anyone?) and the 1940s saw one of Chicago's most notorious serial killers perform his deeds in Uptown (Edgewater had yet to secede, so it all took place in what was then Uptown).  You may have seen in the paper today that William Heirens passed away yesterday at age 83, and was Illinois's longest-serving inmate.

Why do we care? Because back in 1945 and 1946, he was as notorious and scary as Richard Speck or John Wayne Gacy became years later. And Uptown was his turf.
  • On June 5, 1945, at 4108 North Kenmore (since demolished and replaced), Heirens, a 17-year-old serial burglar, panicked when Josephine Ross awoke while he was robbing her home (Apartment 510). He killed Ms. Ross with a knife.
  • On December 10, 1945, Frances Brown was found stabbed and shot in her room at the Pinecrest Apartments, located at 3941 North Pine Grove.  The building still exists today, just south of Park Place Tower.  On the wall was written in lipstick:  "For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself."  The murderer had apparently gotten in by using the fire escape.
  • Then on January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was abducted from her bedroom at 5943 N Kenmore (originally built as a mansion for William Murphy, inventor of the Murphy Bed).  You can see a great image of the mansion at the Uptown Chicago History blog.  Although a ransom note was left, the kidnapper had immediately taken Suzanne to a basement laundry room at 5901 N Winthrop and killed her there.  He left her body parts in various catch basins and sewers in the Kenmore, Winthrop, Ardmore, Thorndale area.

Chicago and Uptown were terrified. Women claimed to see murderers and suspicious characters on every corner (I'm looking right at YOU, Granny, with your oft-told story of having Heirens come to the door and ask if you had any odd jobs for him to do).  The massive manhunt ended on June 26, 1946, when Heirens was arrested after firing two shots at a police officer.  A fingerprint from the Pinecrest Apartments linked him to the sensational crimes.

He pleaded guilty in exchange for life in prison, as opposed to the death penalty.  Later, he recanted his confession and said it was made under duress.  He never wavered from his claim of innocence and had loyal supporters and detractors; among those who didn't believe him was the parole board, who denied him freedom over 25 times.  He was so feared and infamous that his family changed their last name to "Hill" to avoid being linked with him.

With Heirens' death yesterday morning, we'll never know the truth, but someone killed those women and dismembered that child. So remember, when you see the pretty sepia and black-and-white photos, life wasn't perfect in any era.


  1. Scary indeed. Thank you for sharing UU

  2. YIPES! And to think that one of the apartment buildings I visited when looking for a place to live back in the 70's was the Pinecrest! I know that it's illegal for a property owner or agent to discuss "notorious" happenings at a location but what if I had rented the crime-scene room and been haunted by cries in the night...

  3. Oh for crying out loud. People have died on every square foot of this earth, some more horribly than others. That includes where you live now, and where you work, and where you worship. Pinecrest is no more scary than your favorite restaurant or gym or your cousin's hipsta pad in Bucktown. My favorite Jewel? Built on the site where my grandmother was waked when it was a funeral home. Lincoln Park? Used to be the city's graveyard, and plenty of bodies are lying underneath where you barbecue each summer. If anyone at Pinecrest hears cries in the night, it's probably their neighbors having noisy sex. Life and death happen everywhere, no need to be all Girl Scout campfire about it.

  4. The shameful treatment of Heirens by police desperate to pin those murders on the most convenient suspect leads directly to the Burge Police Torture Scandals of the 1990s. There was far more evidence against Heirens having been the killer than there ever was against him.