The Degnan Murder - 65 years later
By: LeRoy Blommaert
Some Chicago murders pass without much notice; others become gripping tales that are remembered long after the terrible event and become etched into the collective memory of those alive at the time. Some are known by the name of the perpetrator, especially when the murder was a serial killer. John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck come readily to mind. (Their multiple victims do not.) Others are known by the name of the victim or victims. This is generally the case when the murderer was never apprehended. The Grime sisters and the Schuessler and Peterson boys fall into this category. But before these victims and the victims of Gacy and Speck, there was a murder that persons born after it occurred might not have ever heard of, but those Chicagoans five years old or older at the time will never forget. The victim was Suzanne Degnan. She was a blue-eyed, blond 6-year- old girl who was abducted, not on her way to or from school or the store, but from her bedroom! And she lived in Edgewater.
It is difficult today to imagine the terror this abduction and murder struck into the minds of children of the time, to say nothing of their parents. The date was Monday January 7, 1946. The United States had just a few months earlier defeated the last of her enemies in a world war, and while that war saw many terrible things happen, for most Americans those things were far away. It was a time of national unity and purpose – and at least on the home front – a sense of innocence. The murder of this little girl was a shock and shattered that sense of innocence. This was true even though the crime rate increased after the end of the war and Chicago itself saw at least two gruesome murders before the Degnan murder. But they were adults, and Suzanne was a child – a very young child. And there is something about the murder of a child that is more shocking and repelling than that of an adult.
However, it was not the murder itself that caused the shock – it was what happened afterwards that kept it on the front page of newspapers for weeks. After Suzanne Degnan had been abducted and murdered, the murderer dismembered her and placed her body parts in different sewers and drains around the neighborhood. On the same day as she was reported missing, a detective on a hunch ordered a search of all the sewers and drains in the immediate neighborhood. It was a good hunch – they first found her head; then in succession they found her torso and legs (each in a different place). An alternative story is that the search was a result of a phone call suggesting the police look in the neighborhood sewers, but this was never confirmed.
They did not find her arms until several weeks later (February 20th) and she was buried without them. The funeral was held January 11th at St. Gertrude’s Church. An estimated 1300 were in attendance.
Suzanne Degnan lived with her parents (James and Helen) and 10-year-old sister Elizabeth in a rented first floor apartment in a large two flat building with attic rooms at the northeast corner of Thorndale and Kenmore (see figure 2). Suzanne and Elizabeth were both students at Sacred Heart Academy. The building was at 5943 Kenmore and no longer stands. It was demolished in 1974 and later replaced by a four-story building for seniors. But the sewers and drains remain, as does also the 12-unit building at 5901-03 N. Winthrop, in the basement of which the dismemberment took place.
To say the least, it was a high profile case, constantly before the public, thanks to extensive coverage (and competition) by Chicago’s newspapers, and the police were under considerable pressure to find the murderer. The first suspect was the 65 year old Belgian-American janitor of the building where the dismemberment took place. He lived with his wife not in that building but directly across the street from the Degnans on Thorndale in a basement apartment. He was kept in custody and “interrogated” for 48 hours despite the lack of any evidence linking him to the crime. Fortunately for him, he was a member of the very strong Chicago Flat Janitors Union which “went to bat for him.” Upon his release, he went into a hospital, where he remained for several days. He and his wife later successfully sued the city for abuse and won a judgment of $20,000 (about $180,000 in 2010 dollars). A number of other suspects were questioned in that first month, but all were released when it was established that they were elsewhere on the morning of the abduction or that a physical disability would have prevented them from carrying out the abduction.
On January 24th, over 400 persons gathered at the Swift elementary school to protest alleged police inefficiency and brutality, according to a Chicago Tribune story the next day, demonstrating that community activism in Edgewater is not just a recent phenomenon.
After being a major story in January (on 20 days it was a Chicago Tribune front page story), it gradually faded from the public spotlight, but was never really forgotten. In February, there were 29 articles on 22 days in the Chicago Tribune, of which 4 were on page 1; in March there were 25 on 23 days with none on the front page. April saw a drop off with only 6 articles on 5 days (none on page 1), followed by May with 8 articles on 7 days, of which 2 were on page 1. In most cases the articles were short and related to suspects who were questioned but then found not culpable. An article on April 7 indicated that the police had questioned 375 persons in connection with the crime. A May article on the 4-month anniversary recounted the investigation efforts to date and concluded that the abduction-murder was no closer to being solved.
June started out very much like May, with only four articles between the 1st and the 25th. Then on June 26th, it was front page headlines again. An ex-convict by the name of Richard Russell Thomas, in an Arizona jail on charges he molested his own daughter, had “confessed” to the Degnan kidnap-killing. Arizona authorities notified Chicago police and the next day detectives flew down to investigate. There were elements of his confession that comported with the known facts, but there were others that did not, such as the allegation that he disposed of a part of the body in a south side dump (all the body parts had been accounted for in sewers and drains in the neighborhood). Chicago police were somewhat skeptical and, several days later, he recanted his confession.
While this new wrinkle in the case was still a front page story, another story was reported that would soon overshadow it: A 17-year-old University of Chicago college student was apprehended in an attempted burglary of a Rogers Park apartment. He had resisted the policemen who sought to seize him and allegedly fired a pistol against one of them (without effect) before being subdued after one of the officers smashed three flower pots on his head. It was soon learned that he had been arrested before for burglary when he was age 13. His name was William Heirens. The Suzanne Degnan story shortly became the William Heirens story and remains so today – the two names forever linked. What began the link was a comparison of his fingerprint to that on the ransom note. Sergeant Thomas Laffey, the department’s finger print specialist, reported that one of the prints matched, and this was announced to the press. Had it not been for this action, the William Heirens story would have been a one or two day story at the most.
On September 5, 1946, William Heirens was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life imprisonment for three murders and an additional one year to life for burglaries and assaults; the next day he arrived at Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet. There was no trial either before a judge or a jury. He had submitted a written confession that included not only the murder of Suzanne Degnan, but also the earlier (and unsolved) murders of Josephine Ross (6/3/1945) and Frances Brown (12/10/1945) as a plea bargain. Each murder had occurred in the victim’s apartment.
From June 29 to September 4 (68 days), the story of William Heirens was absent from the Chicago Tribune for only three days, all in August. From June 29 through August 4, (37 days), the story was a page one story for all but five days. On many days, there was more than one item. The Chicago Tribune’s coverage was typical. As one person remarked, William Heirens had replaced the War as the main story for Chicago’s papers.
While there are still disagreements on certain events that took place between June 29 and September 5, the following have been well established: After he was apprehended he was taken to Edgewater Hospital where his head was bandaged. He then was taken to the hospital section of the Bridewell Jail. While there he was strapped down to a hospital bed and questioned almost non-stop for at least five days. He was also given an injection of sodium pentothal, the alleged “truth serum” and questioned while under its influence as well as given a spinal tap without anesthetic. Both actions were taken without his consent and before he had the opportunity to consult the attorneys his parents had retained.
His attorneys cooperated with the States Attorney in urging him to accept a plea bargain that included confessing to three murders and, at the sentencing hearing, the States Attorney publicly thanked the Defense for their cooperation, which his attorneys gratefully accepted. The States Attorney stated that without the Defense’s cooperation he doubted that he would have secured a conviction.
William Heirens responses to questions asked while under the influence of sodium pentothal were selectively leaked to the press.
On July 16th, the Chicago Tribune ran a front page story by Gilbert Wright that detailed how William Heirens murdered the three women – this before he actually agreed to the plea bargain and developed his confession.
He was given two lie detector tests. The authorities reported that the results were inconclusive, but the actual test results were never released. Several years later two academics cited one of the tests as a basis for questioning the reliability of such tests. They revealed that the test showed that William Heirens was innocent and concluded that, because he was guilty, the test couldn’t be considered reliable in all cases! Other suspects in the Degnan case had been released after they passed the lie detector test.
The police initially declared that the print on the door jam in the apartment of murdered Frances Brown did not match that of William Heirens; then later said that it did. There was no evidence presented linking him to the murder of Josephine Ross. The desk clerk who reported, after the murder of Josephine Ross, seeing a man leaving the building who appeared nervous, could not identify William Heirens as the man he had seen. In addition, the desk clerk of the hotel where Frances Brown lived who saw a man leaving the building shortly after her murder, viewed Heirens at the Bridewell hospital and said positively that he was not the man he saw.
There were no witnesses to the commission of any of the crimes.
A man who identified William Heirens as the man he saw near the Degnan home in the early morning of January 7th had earlier reported that he could not see the man’s face.
William Heirens attempted suicide in his cell by hanging on September 4, but was unsuccessful.
The plea bargain that the States Attorney offered was three life sentences to run concurrently for a public confession of the three murders of Suzanne Degnan, Frances Brown and Josephine Ross. William Heirens reluctantly agreed to the terms but, at a very public ceremony, balked when the States Attorney insisted upon the “truth” and answered many of the questions asked with “I don’t know.” After this embarrassment, the States Attorney changed the terms of the plea bargain to three sentences to run consecutively. William Heirens again reluctantly agreed to these terms but this time he followed through.
Three books have been written solely about the Suzanne Degnan case or, more specifically, about William Heirens. One by Lucy Freeman, Before I Kill Again (1955), accepts that Heirens was the murderer and argues that he was mentally ill; another by Dolores Kennedy, William Heirens: His Day in Court (1991), questions whether he was guilty and concludes that he was not. A third book by Lauri E. Kallio, Confess or Die, the Case of William Heirens (1999), follows a line of reasoning similar to Kennedy’s. In addition, there was a major article in the Chicago Reader Magazine (8/24/1989) by Robert McClory (available on-line) that also questioned his guilt and an ABC Prime Time TV program, hosted by Sam Donaldson that aired August 7, 1996, that likewise expressed doubt. An article by Adam Higginbottom in the May, 2008 issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly (also available on-line), followed a similar line of questioning his guilt.
A Google search revealed approximately 61,200 hits for William Heirens and 113,000 for Suzanne Degnan.
William Heirens died March 5, 2012, at age 83. He had two major distinctions as an inmate. He was the first person in Illinois to receive a college degree while an inmate in its prison system and he was its longest serving inmate. Neither distinction is one he sought, particularly the second. Though he confessed to three murders he maintained that he did so only to avoid the electric chair, and very early sought to have his sentence overturned. That did not happen. He sought pardon and parole, but neither was granted, despite numerous attempts (nearly 30). By all accounts he was a model prisoner and created a number of innovative programs for fellow inmates. Later in his life he developed diabetes and, in his last years, was confined to a wheelchair. For several months prior to his death, he also suffered from dementia.
There remains after all these years a number of mysteries surrounding the kidnapping/murder. The number one, of course, is why anyone would do such a horrible thing. But then we know that terrible things have been done in the past and, alas, will be done in the future. But, besides the state of mind of the murder, there are other aspects of the case for which there is uncertainty.
One involves the ransom note: Was it for real or was it a cruel hoax? When was it written? Before the entry, while the perpetrator was still in the house or after the kidnapping, in which case the perpetrator would have had to return the same morning to put it in the room where it was later found? And why was it oily and crudely lettered and on a small piece of paper?
Another concerns the stolen ladder that was found next to the garage of the Degnan building: Was it used to enter the bedroom of little Suzanne? There was no evidence of the window being forced open; nor were there any marks on the window sill; nor was any dirt from the outside found in her room. And, if the ladder was used, did the murderer carry her down the ladder afterwards or did he exit the building through the front or back door? She was big for her age (52 inches tall and 74 pounds) and would not have been easy to carry down the ladder. And, if the murder used the ladder, why did he not just leave the ladder under the window. Why did he move it over to the garage (if indeed this was done). And if he did this, when did he do this? Just after he climbed down or afterwards.
Another uncertainty is when was Suzanne murdered? While in her room or afterwards? If she was strangled in her room, the murderer would have had to have carried her from her room and from the building. If she was murdered later, how did he get her to walk with him out of the room and out of the building without a struggle?
Still another uncertainty concerns whether the murder was premeditated. Related to the question was whether the perpetrator specifically intended to enter the Degnan apartment or whether it was a decision he made on the spot while looking for an apartment to enter. And was murder the intention or was it burglary and the murder happened because Suzanne woke up while he was searching her room?
One thing we do know is that there was a narrow window of opportunity. The Degnans came home in the evening and Mr. Degnan reported that about 12 midnight he and his wife walked Suzanne to the bathroom and back to her room, as was their custom. He also reported that he retired at 12:30 when he set his alarm. Dr. William McNally, after analysis of the child’s digestive tract, estimated that she was slain between 12:30 and 1 a.m. (although this might not have been exact.). Ethel Hargrove, the maid who lived in the Flynn apartment on the second floor, and whose bedroom was directly above Suzanne’s, reported hearing Suzanne mutter something like “Eh, Eh, I am sleepy” as well as the Flynn’s dogs barking at 12:50 a.m. Mrs. Mary Flynn Keegan and her husband, who occupied rooms on the third floor, reported that they heard the dogs bark between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. and went down to the second floor to quiet them. One tenant in the building where the dismemberment took place reported noise in the basement between 3 and 4 a.m.; another heard water running at 2:45.
And what of the report of the attempted kidnapping of Suzanne in the fall of 1945 in front of her home, or the report of the maid of the second floor inhabitants of hearing two loud male voices in the early morning, and the report of two persons who saw a grey-colored car with a man and a woman in it driving several times down Kenmore near the home at about 2:30 in the morning? Where these just coincidences, unrelated to the abduction and murder?
And was the presumption that only one person was involved correct? Might there have been two?
Another uncertainty was whether the person who killed Suzanne Degnan was the same person who earlier murdered Josephine Alice Ross and Frances Brown. Though there were similarities, there were also differences. While all three bodies were washed, only the body of Suzanne Degnan was dismembered.
And, of course, the key uncertainty remains: Did Bill Heirens do it? There was reasonable doubt that he did, even at the time, and there is even more now as a result of subsequent examinations of the evidence. There is also doubt of his innocence (perhaps even reasonable doubt), but that is not the standard of justice, is it?
What is beyond any doubt is that the abduction, murder and dismemberment of Suzanne Degnan was, and is, Edgewater’s most famous crime. It was a national, indeed international, story. Nothing before it or since comes even close, and nothing is likely ever to surpass it… Let us all hope.