In my last blog, I covered the case of Mollie Olgin and Kristine Chapa. In June 2012, an attacker shot both young women in a Texas park. Only Kristine survived. This week, we learn about the Lipstick Killer, a murderer who terrorized Chicago in 1946.
The Lipstick Killer Strikes
The Lipstick Killer’s first victim was 43-year-old Josephine Ross. She was found dead in her Chicago apartment on June 5, 1945, with multiple stab wounds. In her hand, she clutched some dark hairs. Her assailant didn’t take anything from the apartment. Witnesses reported seeing a dark-complected man running away, but police couldn’t identify him.
The next attack occurred on December 10, 1945. The body of Francis Brown was discovered with a knife stuck in her neck. She also had a bullet wound in her head. Again, the intruder didn’t take anything, but he left a message scrawled on the wall in lipstick. It read: “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself.” The message in lipstick led the press to dub the unknown assailant “The Lipstick Killer.”
A month later, on January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan went missing from her first-floor bedroom. She and her parents lived in the tony Edgewater neighborhood north of downtown Chicago, which didn’t see much crime. Suzanne’s father found a note demanding $20,000 for his daughter’s return. A man called the Degnan home several times, insisting the parents pay.
Later, an anonymous tip led police to find Suzanne’s remains scattered in several sewers and storm drains. Her autopsy revealed that her killer strangled her shortly after he abducted her. Investigators deduced from the dismemberment of the body that the killer was either a surgeon or a skilled meat cutter.
The Hunt for the Lipstick Killer
Police were under tremendous pressure to catch the Lipstick Killer. They soon arrested Hector Verburgh, 65, a janitor in the Degnan’s building. Cops held Verburgh for 48 hours, subjecting him to the “third degree.” Investigators determined that Verburgh, a Belgian immigrant, couldn’t write English well enough to have written even the crude ransom note. He was released without charges and spent ten days in a hospital recovering. He and his wife later sued the Chicago Police Department and received a $15,000 judgment (almost $230,000 in 2013).
Another suspect, ex-Marine Sidney Sherman, emerged when police found a handkerchief with a laundry mark “S. SHERMAN” near the abduction scene. Sherman had left his room at the YMCA without checking out and quit his job without picking up his last paycheck. A nationwide manhunt ensued. Sherman surfaced four days later in Toledo, Ohio. He explained that his quick departure was because he eloped with his girlfriend.
Investigators found that the handkerchief belonged to Airman Seymour Sherman of New York City. They cleared him because he was out of the country when Suzanne Degnan was abducted and murdered.
Yet another suspect was Richard Russell Thomas, a nurse who had moved from Chicago to Phoenix, Arizona. He even confessed to killing Suzanne, but police were hot after a new suspect. By then, also, Thomas had recanted his confession.
Police Arrest the Lipstick Killer
On June 26, 1946, cops arrested 17-year-old William George Heirens after they caught him fleeing from a burglary. He quickly moved to the top of the Lipstick Killer suspect list.
Two psychiatrists administered sodium pentothal, a so-called “truth serum,” to Heirens. They had neither a warrant nor Heirens’s or his parents’ consent. During the questioning, which Heirens later said he couldn’t recall, he allegedly spoke of an alternate personality named “George” who committed the murders. When asked for George’s name, Heirens replied that it was “a murmuring name.” Police quickly translated this to “Murman,” which the press was delighted to claim was a mashup of “Murder Man.”
This interrogation is problematic for three reasons. First, police questioned a drugged Heirens without a legal basis (no consent or warrant). Second, the transcript of the session disappeared in 1952. Third, one of the psychiatrists, Dr. Grinker, said Heirens never implicated himself in any of the killings.
At a subsequent interrogation, Heirens indirectly implicated himself by blaming the killings on “George.” Investigators tried but could not find any such person as “George Murman.” Psychologists explained “George” as an alter ego that Heirens could blame for his antisocial actions.
The Lipstick Killer Cops a Plea
Despite the confession and some physical evidence, convicting Heirens for the three Lipstick Killer murders wouldn’t be a slam dunk. Instead, State’s Attorney William Tuohy offered Heirens’s lawyers a deal: plead guilty and avoid the electric chair.
On September 4, 1946, with his parents and the victims’ families looking on, William Heirens admitted his guilt on the murder and burglary charges. That night, he tried to hang himself in his cell during the guards’ shift change. He survived.
The following day, September 5, Chief Justice Harold G. Ward sentenced Heirens to three life terms.
William Heirens spent the rest of his life in prison, dying at age 83 on March 12, 2012.
He began claiming his innocence almost as soon as he finished pleading guilty. While it’s common for criminals to deny their guilt, Heirens had some points in his favor. For one, he made his first confession in a drugged state. For another, there were questions about how police handled—and maybe fabricated—evidence. Given the immense pressure on police to solve this case, it’s conceivable that they cut some corners.
Regardless, Heirens stayed in prison.
During his incarceration, Heirens took numerous college courses and set up an entire educational program when he transferred to Vienna Correctional Institution. He also helped other prisoners with their GED diplomas and their legal cases.
Several true crime and serial killer anthologies include the Lipstick Killer case.
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