Sixty years later, the Lipstick Killer on the U of C

A Grey City Preview: U of C second-year-turned-Chicago’s most wanted

By Christina Pillsbury

William Heirens turned 82 yesterday, but he couldn’t celebrate in his cell at Dixon Correctional Center. Heirens has been imprisoned for 63 years—longer than anyone else in the United States.

Hereins was 17 in January 1946, when a panic-stricken Chicago searched for the person who killed and dismembered six-year-old Suzanne Degnan, a crime linked to two other, equally brutal homicides. Written in lipstick on the wall next to one of the slain women: “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself.”

Heirens was beginning his second year at the University of Chicago. A burglar since his early teens, Heirens was caught in the middle of a Northside robbery that June. Police soon searched his Snell-Hitchcock room, uncovering valuables stolen from the murder victims’ homes.

Now the police’s chief suspect, Heirens was interrogated under the influence of sodium pentothal, thought at the time to be a “truth serum.” Heirens pled guilty to all three murders on September 4, 1946, but maintains he was coerced.

The first Illinois prisoner to earn a degree, he has spent years trying to clear his name. The Maroon sat down with Heirens at Dixon Correctional Center, in Dixon IL, last month to talk about his education and what he remembers about the controversy surrounding his life. A full profile of Heirens will appear in Grey City, the Maroon's magazine supplement, November 29.

Chicago Maroon: What attracted you to the University of Chicago over six decades ago?

William Heirens: A friend of mine got into the U of C and we were pretty close and I figured, “If he could do it, I could do it too.” So I applied for it and I was accepted… I was young at the time, only 17. I didn’t have any money and I had no prospects either. But the main thing I knew was that education is very important and I had the chance to go to the University of Chicago, and I took it. And it just turned out bad, that’s all.

CM: What do you remember of your interrogation?

WM: “[The police] ran out of [suspects] and they had me, so they started grillin’ me. They kept on at it…. They said “They’re going to kill you if they convict you,” because that was a horrible murder back in those days. Well, once you’re convicted in those days you went to the electric chair real quick. There were quite a few youngsters being put in the electric chair in Chicago. That was thrown in my face all the time. In fact when I went to see my attorneys, the warden took us past where the electric chair was.”

CM: You initially refused to confess. What changed your mind?

WM: When they made the plea bargain, they put me on the witness stand, they got all the high officials from the police force in the same room as us… They wanted a confession, they wanted all these police officials to hear what it is. And they asked me about the Degnan murder, and I said “I don’t know anything about it but what you people told me.’

When they got me back to my room… [My attorneys] said “you’re doomed for the execution now,” and I was—if the state’s attorney would’ve tried me, with everything going on the way it was, I would’ve been convicted just like that, and there’d be no appeals, so I changed my mind, I went along with them.

CM: You were a minor when you were arrested. Did this impact your legal process?

WM: [The U of C] had a youngster coming into the hands of the police and being grilled all the time, I don’t know why the U of C didn’t send some of their lawyers in to see what was going on. Nobody seemed to care, and I couldn’t hire a lawyer, I didn’t have any money.

CM: You were the first Illinois convict to graduate college from prison, after taking correspondence courses with universities across the country. What have been your academic interests?

WM: I took a logic course because I figured logic would help me get out of prison. It didn’t do me a darn bit of good. Well I never learned anything from it except that it’s just putting things together.

The U of C wouldn’t let me take any courses from them—they barred me. After I got arrested and convicted they just wouldn’t have nothing to do with me anymore. I wanted to go into philosophy with them, but they wouldn’t let me take it. They just didn’t want me.

CM: There are several alternative theories about who committed the Lipstick murders. How much have you or your lawyers looked into them?

WM: I looked into it all I could; just guess like anybody else was guessin’ back in those days. How could I look into them? I can’t be a detective run up and down and question everybody, put a gun to their head, say, “You either confess or I’ll blow your head off!” I can’t do that, and I didn’t do that, so there was no way I could hunt for them. It wasn’t my job.