Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Heirens

More Clues, More Inquiries

"The way to procure insults is to submit to them."
- William Hazlitt

In less than a week, the state's attorney's office had built up an almost impenetrable case against Bill Heirens. With the evidence mounting against him, the accused was refused permission to speak to his lawyers until six days after his arrest. He didnt know much about lawyers, and of his counsel he knew only their names. There were three: the two Coghlan brothers, John and Malachy, a pair of the smartest criminal lawyers in Chicago, and Rowland Towle, a whiz in civil law. On July 1, they petitioned to have Heirens, who was looking quite the worse for wear, released from the custody of the Chicago Police and transferred to the sheriff's office.

Exhausted at Cook County Jail (CORBIS)
Exhausted at Cook County Jail
(CORBIS)

The lawyers met with him the next day, also, to represent him at his arraignment, where he was charged with a large number of burglaries and the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown and Suzanne Degnan. Bail was set at $270,000, and the Coghlans saw that he was safely transported from the city's police headquarters downtown to the county jail under the wardenship of Frank Sain. After signing in at his destination, he collapsed from fatigue at the admissions desk. He was hospitalized for ten days.

That Bill had grown despondent and was falling deeper into a chasm of depression is no understatement. The cards, he knew, were stacked fully against him, he the joker against an ace in the hole. Police had raided his room at Gates Hall, the University of Chicago, and located certain incriminating items.

One of these was the surgical kit that Heirens had planned to use to scratch off the serial numbers from the stolen War Bonds. Had this, they wondered, been used to cut up Suzanne Degnan? Lab tests immediately ruled out the instruments as ever having been used on any human being, but the newspapers had gotten hold of the discovery and were having a field day. Headlines such as DISSECTING KIT FOUND! blackened the front pages.

Worse for Heirens, the police uncovered a scrapbook on Nazi soldiers and a copy of a book on sexual deviation entitled Psychopathia Sexualis. Both items, Heirens claimed, were things he had picked up in North Side apartments during robberies; he thought they looked interesting and took them, nothing more. The police even agreed that the Nazi book was circumstantial that many boys might find photographs of the fighting German Luftwaffe and Panzers interesting; after all, Heirens, as he said, was studying German in college and studying a foreign language often meant better understanding the culture of the people who spoke it.

But, the other article, the sex book, they found less comprehensible. Psychopathia Sexualis, written by social crimes historian Richard von Krafft-Ebbing, is a history of dark fetishisms and sexual oddities; it includes tales of famous dismemberments and other sadomasochistic crimes. If the press went wild with the revelation of the surgical kit, it absolutely flipped all which ways over the presence of that particular book. Heirens metamorphosized as Mr. Hyde at his most devious, full of lasciviousness and larceny.

During the phone interview conducted in preparation for this article, activist Dolores Kennedy defends Heirens' having that book in this way: "It was a lark, something that college boys would have gotten a kick out of, much as teenagers pass around a Playboy today. I've seen the book, there are pictures in it that, I imagine, would titillate a young man's fancy. But, there are no instructions on how to dismember young girls or kill available bachelorettes! Everyone at that time seems to have turned it into some kind of an instructional how-to-murder thing."

Still, in light of the what happened to Suzanne Degnan, Psychopathia Sexualis was the worst possible keepsake for anyone accused of her death to have had in his possession.

Simultaneously to the raid on his dorm room, lawmen also converged at the Heirens parental home in Lincolnwood. They rounded up drawers- and closets-full of Heirens' clothing and trinkets. According to Margaret Heirens, the suspect's mother, "Policemen...asked me which items belonged to Bill, and they took everything of his. They also took the hunting guns which belonged to George (her husband) and the boys...The next place I saw our belongings was at the assistant state's attorney's office shortly before I was taken to see Bill. Two officers were inventorying the articles...There was a small instrument case, about four inches long, containing scissors, tweezers and scalpels. Later on these instruments were suspected as being the ones used in the Degnan murder. This notion was ridiculous because the tools were so small and delicate that a person would not have been able to dissect a chicken with them. Bill used them in his study of insects and in mounting various species of butterflies that he collected."

The prosecution team worked overnight to find victims' hairs or bloodstains on Heirens' clothing, but could detect nothing. States Attorney Tuohy understood that so far even the macabre sex book was circumstantial evidence; he needed more to convince the public of the boy's guilt.

"The state admittedly needed an eyewitness (for instance) someone who had seen Bill in the vicinity of the Degnan home at the time of the killing," explains Kennedy. They found that persona in 25-year-old George E. Subgrunski, a soldier on furlough.

Supposed getaway path of murderer from the Degnan home (POLICE)
Supposed getaway path of murderer
from the Degnan home (POLICE)

Subgrunski, the day after the Degnan tragedy, had testified he had seen a man carrying a shopping bag and moving toward the Degnan home at 1.00 a.m. on the crucial night; the figure he saw was, according to his statement, "about five feet, nine inches tall, weighing about 170 pounds, about 35 years old, and dressed in a light-colored fedora and a dark overcoat". Because the street was dark, he could not accurately give testament to the man's facial features.

When shown a photo of Bill Heirens on July 11, Subgrunski, said the Chicago Daily News, "was unable to identify the man as Heirens." But, reports Kennedy, only five days later at a criminal hearing, "Subgrunski pointed a finger at Bill and said, 'That's the man I saw!" the testimony and evidence continued to pile up, Heirens knew the end was near. He knew that the state's attorney office and the police already had condemned him and were expecting a confession; and the five metropolitan newspapers were literally at war scrambling over each other for the first to run the confession story when it came.

Of his treatment by the police and public media during his case, Heirens later told author Lucy Freeman, "They had a boy without any rights to stop them from painting just what they pleased...The police and prosecution made statements that they were convinced of my guilt something the law doesn't even allow them to do in court...I didn't have the money to hire my own fingerprint expert to make an independent examination...Anyway, it didn't make any difference to the newspapers. They printed everything the prosecutor told them and when the prosecutor ran out of words the press fabricated their own."

Craig Rice (Right) with state's attorney Tuohy
Craig Rice (Right) with state's
attorney Tuohy

The Chicago Herald-American had, like its four newsy competitors, prematurely decided Bill Heirens was guilty and hired popular female mystery writer/researcher Craig Rice to produce a series of analytical articles about the murders. For a week, night and day, she poured over records, interviewed the principles (including State's Attorney Tuohy and Heirens himself) and then, to the chagrin of the newspaper that hired her, responded: "Let's think about Billy Heirens. I've seen him. I've talked to him (and) I believe him innocent." Her subsequent articles questioned the fingerprints and other major strong-points of the state's case; according to Time magazine's city editor, Harry Reutlinger, "She's working like a sonofabitch to prove his innocence."

Inferring the prosecution's strong-arm tactics, Rice wrote, "I could sit down in any newspaper office in the nation right now, get a box of clippings from the reference room, and write a convincing confession story about Bill Heirens which would include (his taking part in) the St. Valentine's Day Massacre..."

But, Rice's voice was a cry in the wilderness.

Within days, Bill Heirens, on the advice of his lawyers, would accept a plea bargain offered by the office of the state's attorney. The police, he felt had found him guilty; the newspapers advertised his guilt and hammered it home with a fiery eloquence. He would confess to the three murders to avoid the electric chair.

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