“THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE SODDER CHILDREN” and More! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: One of the most haunting mysteries to ever occur in West Virginia – and perhaps even in America – began during the predawn hours of December 25, 1945. The fire that occurred at the Sodder home that night was the key to the mystery, but whether it was a vanishing, a kidnapping, or a mass murder has never been determined. *** Plus, even though a young man was tried, convicted, and died in prison for the murder – along with two others – there are many who believe that Suzanne Degnan’s murder was never actually solved. And that may be the reason that Suzanne’s spirit has never rested in peace.
SOURCES AND ESSENTIAL WEB LINKS…
“1945: The Missing Children” (The Christmas Disappearance of the Sodder Children) and “1946: Waite For Word” (The Bloody Murder and Ghost of Suzanne Degnan) written by Troy Taylor from the book “Suffer the Children: American Horrors, Homicides and Hauntings”: https://amzn.to/3vRRzL1
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Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
One of the most haunting mysteries to ever occur in West Virginia – and perhaps even in America – began during the predawn hours of December 25, 1945. The fire that occurred at the Sodder home that night was the key to the mystery, but whether it was a vanishing, a kidnapping, or a mass murder has never been determined.
Plus, even though a young man was tried, convicted, and died in prison for the murder – along with two others – there are many who believe that Suzanne Degnan’s murder was never actually solved. And that may be the reason that Suzanne’s spirit has never rested in peace.
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, enter contests, to connect with me on social media, plus, you can visit the Hope in the Darkness page if you’re struggling with depression or dark thoughts. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
And this month we’re celebrating Weird Darkness’ birthday… this month makes seven years of Weird Darkness as a podcast. And to recognize our birthday, every October we ask you to make a donation to our Overcoming The Darkness fundraiser. Every dollar we raise through donations and the Weirdling Woods painting auction will go to organizations that help people who struggle with depression. You can learn more about the fundraiser and what we’re doing with it on the Hope in the Darkness page at WeirdDarkness.com.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: 1945, THE MISSING CHILDREN==========
The shrill sound of a telephone ringing woke Jeannie Sodder from her sleep. As she stirred in her bed, she was confused at first about the sound and where it was coming from. Her husband, George, slept soundly beside her. Across the room, in a small bed, her youngest child, Sylvia, snored peacefully. Jeannie’s head cleared, and she realized it was the telephone in her husband’s office at the other end of the house. Not wanting the clanging sound to awaken everyone in the house, Jeannie quickly got out of bed and hurried to the office. Her knee bumped hard into the desk as she reached for the receiver.
“Hello?” she spoke into the handset. From the earpiece, Jeannie could hear music and several voices, as if someone was calling from a party. There was a rustling on the other end of the line, as if the caller was having trouble holding onto the receiver.
Then a woman’s voice spoke, asking for a man that Jeannie didn’t know. “I’m sorry,” Jeannie replied. “There is no one here by that name. I’m afraid that you have the wrong number.”
The woman on the other end of the line laughed. Jeannie later said that her tone was very “strange.” It was a laugh that would haunt her for many years to come. The line went dead, and Jeannie hung up the telephone.
Jeannie closed the office door behind her and walked back toward her bedroom. As she was crossing the living room, she saw her 17-year-old daughter, Marian, was asleep on the couch. The family had celebrated Christmas a little early with presents that Marian had brought home from work and the living room was left in a chaotic state. The window shades had not been drawn and the front door had been left unlocked when everyone had gone to bed. Jeannie quietly turned the lock on the door, pulled down the shades, and pulled Marian’s blanket up to her chin. It was chilly in the house at night.
Minutes later, Jeannie was back in bed and soon, had dozed off, the unusual telephone call largely forgotten. Later, she would have no idea about how long she had been asleep when she was awakened again. Her sleep was broken by a loud thump followed by what sounded like a ball rolling across the roof and off the side of the house.
Years later, the driver of a passing bus reported that he had “seen balls of fire being tossed on the roof of the Sodder house” that morning.
Jeannie thought about waking George but decided to go back to sleep. But she awoke once again a short time later. It wasn’t a sound that awakened her this time, though, it was the smell of smoke.
She sprang out of bed and ran into the hallway to try and get to the office telephone, but she saw flames were already burning in that part of the house. The path to the telephone was blocked. She screamed for her husband and ran to wake Marian, who was still sleeping on the couch. She told her to get Sylvia from the bedroom and go out the front door and wait. Jeannie pushed past her and shouted up the stairs for the rest of the children.
By now, George was awake and struggling to get into his clothes. He ran outside to the water barrel that stood near the house.
John and George, Jr., the two oldest Sodder boys at home appeared at the top of the stairs and ran down them. The fire was roaring along the wall and both of them received minor burns as they fled from the flames. John had shouted for his younger siblings – or he had gone into the bedrooms to awaken them, according to one of his statements to the police – and thought he heard them respond. The boys fled outside, where Marian, Sylvia, George, and Jeannie were shivering in the cold.
Realizing that the rest of the children were still inside, George tried desperately to get them out of the house, but the front of the house and the staircase were now engulfed in flames. The water barrel had been frozen solid, so George used it as a step to try and climb up the side of the house. He quickly fell. So, he smashed a window, badly slicing his hand and arm, but the fire was too hot, preventing him from getting inside.
George called frantically toward the upper floor of the house, pleading with his children to come to the window. He then remembered the ladder that he kept at the side of the house and ran to where it should have been – it was gone.
Panicked, he came up with another idea. He would drive one of his trucks up to the house and then climb on top of the cab so that he could reach the upper windows. He ran to the nearest truck, climbed into the cab, and cranked the engine. It wouldn’t start. He jumped down and ran to his other truck. He tried to start this one, too, but the motor wouldn’t turn over. Both trucks had worked perfectly the day before.
While George was struggling with the trucks, Marian had handed Sylvia to their mother and had run to a neighbor’s house to call the fire department. She pounded on the door until a light appeared in the window. She quickly explained what was happening and begged to use the telephone. Marian clicked the receiver, but no operator answered to put the call through. It was a shared party line, and no one was on duty during the early morning hours of Christmas Day.
Around 1:00 a.m., another neighbor spotted the fire and ran to a local tavern to call for help. He was also unable to get an operator on the line, so he drove two miles into Fayetteville, West Virginia, to wake up the fire chief, F.J. Morris.
And then came the next delay. Morris had to find firefighters to help with the blaze because he was unable to drive the fire truck.
At the Sodder home, the fire continued to burn unchecked, while the family and a scattering of friends and neighbors crowded around. Later, everyone who was there that morning agreed that they never saw a child’s face in an upstairs window and never heard a cry for help.
The house burned. The onlookers saw the lights in the house go out and saw the Christmas lights in the window flicker and then go dark. It took only 30 minutes for the Sodder house to be turned into a pile of smoldering brick and wood.
One of the most haunting mysteries to ever occur in West Virginia – and perhaps even in America – began during the predawn hours of December 25, 1945. The fire that occurred at the Sodder home that night was the key to the mystery, but whether it was a vanishing, a kidnapping, or a mass murder has never been determined. What is known is that five children of George and Jeannie Sodder were apparently lost in a mysterious fire that destroyed their home. But how were they lost? Their bodies were never found in the ruins and the children were later spotted in various places, creating a puzzling, complex, real-life mystery that is more baffling than anything that can be found in fiction.
What happened to the Sodder children? Did they die in the fire, or were they kidnapped for unknown reasons? And if they were, why has no trace of them ever been found?
It was the holiday season in the West Virginia countryside near Fayetteville. A light snow was on the ground and all seemed right with the world. George Sodder, Sr., and his wife, Jeannie, were the proud parents of 10 children and lived in a new home outside of town. George, a 50-year-old Italian immigrant had recently started the Dempsey Transfer Company, a new coal-trucking firm that he ran from an office in his home. It was already prospering. He owned two trucks and two of his sons were working for him. Another Sodder son, Joe, was in the army, but because World War II had ended several months earlier, he was out of danger. The rest of the children were at home with their parents, celebrating the season with gifts, food, and family.
Life was good for the Sodders and the new year promised to be even better.
The Sodder children opened their presents on Christmas Eve, including toys that had been purchased by Marian from her job at the dime store in Fayetteville. George went to bed early that night and so did the older boys, John, 23, and George, Jr., 16, who worked for their father in the coal-hauling business. The other children — Maurice, 14; Martha, 12; Louis, 10; Jennie, 8; and Betty, 6 — all said they were too excited to sleep, but finally went to bed around 10:00 p.m. The upper floor of the Sodder house was divided into two large rooms with one for the boys and the other for the girls.
Jeannie went to bed soon after the children did, taking two-year-old Sylvia into the bedroom she shared with her husband. She was looking forward to a good night’s sleep before the holiday festivities of the next day.
But Jeannie didn’t get a good night’s sleep – not that night, or for any night for the rest of her life.
Jeannie was roused from her sleep three times that night – by the ringing telephone, the unusual sound on the roof, and finally by the fire. In the confusion, half of the family made it out of the house, but five of the children sleeping upstairs never came out.
George tried to get into the burning house, but the stairs were engulfed in flames. He searched for the ladder to reach the upper floor, but it had vanished. The Sodders later found it 75 feet from the house and thrown down an embankment. The coal trucks — each of which had run perfectly on Christmas Eve – refused to start.
Attempts to call the fire department failed but, eventually, Fayetteville Fire Chief F.J. Morris was reached. But even after that, the fire department did not arrive until 8:00 a.m. – seven hours after the blaze began. The lapse was explained by the department’s lack of manpower during the war and by the chief’s inability to drive Fayetteville’s fire truck. Morris had to wait until he could track down a qualified driver and Fayetteville didn’t have a fire alarm in 1945, so they had to rely on a “phone tree.” An operator would call one firefighter, then another and another. But with no operators seemingly on duty, the calls took hours to complete. By the time the firefighters arrived, the Sodder home had been reduced to a crumble of ruins over a smoking, ash-filled basement.
There was little the firefighters could do, other than hose down the few smoldering embers that remained in the debris of the house. A brief search of the ruins ended at 10:00 a.m. on Christmas Day, with Chief Morris telling the Sodders that no trace of the children could be found. He suggested that the fire was hot enough to completely cremate their remains and he suggested that they keep some of the ashes to create a memorial for the lost children. The fire department and the police authorities left, saying that they would return for a more thorough investigation of the site.
Jeannie, Marian, and Sylvia – who had been staying with Jeannie’s sister – returned home and the family set up a make-shift apartment in an outbuilding on the farm. The Red Cross and members of the local Board of Education visited them, offering food and any assistance the Sodders needed.
Meanwhile, the official investigation was continuing. A quick coroner’s inquest was held, and the six-man jury took little time to decide that the fire was caused by faulty wiring. A report from the State Police agreed. How Trooper F.E. Springer, who wrote the report, came to this conclusion is unknown. He also stated that it was his belief that the fall of the house’s two chimneys would have had enough heat and weight to destroy any corpses inside – the first of many explanations of why no human remains were found after the fire. There would also be rumors spread that George had stored significant quantities of oil and gasoline in the basement, something that George would always deny.
Even if he had, it would not explain the missing bodies. What we know today – that was not known in 1945 – is that the fire, which leveled the Sodder home in about half an hour, never reached the temperature required for the total cremation of human remains. That would have taken two to three hours and would have required a temperature of 1,400 to 1,800 degrees. In fact, various household appliances found in the burned-out basement were still recognizable. But George and Jeannie didn’t have that information. They were heartbroken, believing the jury’s verdict that their five children had died in the fire. George could not stand to look out the window of the outbuilding where they were living and see the hole where his house used to be – and where he believed the ashes of his children remained. On December 29, he obtained a bulldozer and covered the basement with five feet of dirt, explaining that he planned to plant flowers and preserve the site as a memorial to the children.
On December 30, death certificates were issued for the five children. As far as the authorities were concerned, the case was now officially closed.
But was it really?
That’s the real question here. Because there were strange things happening to the Sodder family – before and after the fire they make even the most skeptical among us take notice. There was something very unusual at work in their lives but what it may have been, no one can – or is willing – to say.
More of our story, “The Christmas Disappearance of the Sodder Children”
The weird events began in late 1945. Jeannie and some of the children had noticed a strange man parked on the road near the house each day, around the time that the children returned home from school. He did not get out of his car or approach the children in any way. He simply sat and watched the younger children walking home. Jeannie grew concerned but before she could confront him, he was gone and didn’t return.
Another day, a man approached George in the yard asking about possible work around the farm or with George’s trucking company. George didn’t have anything to offer the man but as the stranger was turning to leave he pointed out a new exterior fuse box that had been recently upgraded for an electric oven the family had installed. He warned George that the new fuse box could “cause a fire someday.”
In October 1945, George turned down an insurance policy that had been offered to him by a local salesman. The man flew into a rage and warned him that his house would “go up in smoke” and his children would be destroyed over “dirty remarks” that George had made about Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, who had been lynched in April 1945. Interestingly, the same insurance salesman was a member of the coroner’s jury that decided that the fire at the Sodder house was accidental.
A newspaper report also stated that, just before the holiday season, a woman and three men had shown up at the Sodder house and asked Jeannie if they could “see their babies.” The newspaper didn’t make a note of Jeannie’s reaction, but I’m willing to guess that she closed the door in their face.
Then, on the night of the fire – while the house was still burning – a man was spotted breaking into the Sodders’ garage and stealing an auto block and tackle. The man, identified in the newspaper as “Johnson,” was later tracked down and arrested. Strangely, he was never investigated as to any involvement with the fire itself.
When a telephone repairman came to the Sodder home site to install service to the outbuilding where the family was living, he told them that the telephone line that had been running to the house had not been burned through, but rather had been cut 14 feet off the ground and two feet from the nearest utility pole. This meant that it had been cut between the time of the laughing lady’s call on Christmas Eve and the fire itself. Later, Johnson, the block and tackle thief admitted to cutting the telephone wire, allegedly mistaking it for the power line. He would have needed a ladder to get to where the line was cut, which might explain why the Sodders’ ladder was not found in its usual spot next to the house. But why would he cut the electrical line into the house so that he could steal tools from the garage? It’s possible that he had other reasons for wanting the house to be without lights. What Johnson was really doing that night was just another of the unanswered questions in the case.
There turned out to be a lot more. The inquest verdict that the fire had started because of a blown electrical box made George and Jeannie question the things they had seen on Christmas morning. Based on the jury’s findings, the electricity in the house should have gone out immediately. But the Sodders – as well as their neighbors – remembered the lights being on while the house was burning. They had seen the Christmas lights in the window go out long after the blaze started.
They were doubting the official version of events but before they could go to the authorities, they decided to do some investigating on their own. Jeannie put chicken and pig bones in a metal container and set them on fire. After burning for a few minutes, the fire went out, leaving scorched but intact bones behind. She also read a newspaper article about a nearby house fire. The house had also burned completely to the ground. Seven people had been trapped inside and after the fire, all seven bodies were easily identifiable.
The Sodders also learned about the late-night bus driver who reported seeing unknown persons throwing “balls of fire” onto the roof of their house. In March 1946, Sylvia Sodder found a green, hard-rubber object near the ruins, which some believed was some sort of firebomb. The Sodders later claimed that the house had burned from the roof downward, rather than from the ground floor up, but no evidence remained to prove their story. However, the idea of firebombs being thrown onto the roof might explain the strange noise that Jeannie heard when she was awakened a short time before the fire started.
George and Jeannie had now started to believe that the children had somehow been removed from their house before the fire. But how? If the children had seen a stranger, surely, they would have called out. How could kidnappers have not disturbed John and George, Jr., who shared a room with two of the missing children? And how could strangers have gotten the children out of the house without anyone noticing?
Despite these questions, they took their suspicions to the authorities – who had no interest in reopening the case. The Sodders were told that they needed to accept the jury findings of death by accident. It was a tragedy, they were told, but their children were dead, and they needed to find a way to move on.
But George and Jeannie refused to go along with the official conclusions. They hired two private detectives, C.C. Tinsley and George Swain, and began using their own money to pursue an investigation. The two men went to work, not only trying to run down information about the children, but also looking to see who might have hard feelings against the Sodders and if any possible enemies might have had something to do with the fire or with kidnapping the children. Things would soon become even more confusing and convoluted.
And then the sightings began. First, the manager of a motel that was located halfway between Fayetteville and Charleston, West Virginia, claimed that he saw the five Sodder children there on Christmas Day. A resident of Charleston later said that he saw four of the children – Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty – with four unknown adults, about one week after the fire. The adults spoke Italian and were never identified.
And there would be more to come. In 1947, a church minister from Fayetteville named James F. Frame told the Sodders a strange story. While Fire Chief Morris had stated that no remains were found at the fire scene in 1945, he privately claimed to have found “a heart” in the ashes, which he placed in an empty dynamite box and buried at the scene without reporting the discovery. The clergyman said that Morris did it in secret because he didn’t want to make the Sodder family more upset. He said that he’d hoped they would find the organ in the ruins of the house and call off their private investigation. George and Jeannie eventually persuaded Chief Morris to show them where he had buried the box. They dug up the box, took it straight to a funeral home, and asked the director to open the box and examine it. When he opened the box, he found what looked like a decayed beef liver. It was untouched by the fire, meaning that it had been placed there after the blaze.
A few days later, C.C. Tinsley went to the funeral home to retrieve the liver and get an official statement about the mystery organ, but it had disappeared from the mortuary. The mortician said that since they did not have cold storage equipment on the premises, he had left the liver just sitting on his back porch until Tinsley could get there to claim it. Maybe it had been thrown out with the trash, he suggested.
What was the behind the buried liver? Morris’s actions make no sense. If he had wanted the Sodders to find the liver to “put their minds at rest,” as he explained, how did he think they would find it, locked in a box and buried under several feet of dirt? And wouldn’t the fact that it was in a box indicate that someone had purposely placed it there? Even the fire marshal stated there was no clear reason for Morris’s “peculiar actions.” This led the newspaper that covered the story to say that it was obvious the case had not been investigated thoroughly enough and that more should be done.
But the authorities were not interested. They again urged the Sodders to move on with their lives.
But George and Jeannie refused to give up. They sent letters to the FBI, trying to get them involved with the investigation. The bureau declined, saying they considered “the matter related appears to be of local character and does not come within the investigative jurisdiction of the bureau.” The FBI did eventually investigate the case as a possible kidnapping but found no new leads.
In August 1949, the Sodders managed to convince Washington, D.C. pathologist Oscar B. Hunter to do a thorough search through the dirt and ashes left at the site. The local fire marshal rejected the idea of a further search of the spot where the house had stood. He believed that the initial search had been good enough and there were no new clues to find. But the dig went ahead – and added more confusion to the case.
In the middle of the search, four spinal vertebrae bones were found. State authorities refused to examine the bones, so Tinsley sent them to the Smithsonian Institution and experts there determined that the bones belonged to a male between the ages of 19 and 22 – an age range that did not match any of the missing children. Published reports stated that Tinsley later traced the bones to a cemetery in Mount Hope, West Virginia, but no explanation was available concerning their theft from an unidentified grave or how they managed to end up at the Sodder fire scene. That’s just one of the many lingering mysteries in this story.
Despite the evidence that the vertebrae did not belong to any of the missing children, private investigator George Swain formally left the case. He issued a statement that said he considered the case to be closed and his agency would not be “taking part in pursuing this matter further.”
The Sodders quickly replaced him with Troy C. Simmons of the West Virginia Merchant Police. He brought a new enthusiasm to the investigation, saying that he believed the children were killed in a “grudge murder,” hinting at organized crime. He also believed that the five missing children never left the county. He and his men planned to search abandoned wells and coal mines in the area. He also added that he felt confident that arrests would be made in the “next few days.”
But no arrests were ever made. While Simmons was going to work searching the coal mines in the region, the Sodders used the Smithsonian report to interest the FBI in their case. In 1950, the bureau opened a file on the Sodder children as a possible interstate kidnapping, but they only pursued it for two years with no results. Around that same time, the West Virginia State Police also looked into the case, but with the same amount of success – or lack of it.
Nothing happened but the family clung to hope. They ran newspapers ads and promised rewards and then in 1952, they erected a billboard near Ansted, West Virginia, that displayed photographs of the missing children with a $5,000 reward for information leading to their whereabouts.
The test of the billboard read: “On Christmas Eve, 1945, our home was set afire and five of our children (ages five through fourteen) kidnapped. The officials blamed defective wiring, although lights were still burning after the fire started. The official report stated that the children had died in the fire. However, no bones were found in the residue and there was no smell of burning flesh during or after the fire. What was the motive of the law officers involved? What did they have to gain by making us suffer all these years of injustice? Why did they lie and force us to accept those lies?”
The billboard was a visible manifestation of the lingering hopes of the Sodder family that their missing children would someday come home. Sadly, it brought no useful tips. It did, however, generate a lot of speculation. Rumors were constantly spread and included lurid stories of Italian fascists, mafia gunmen, and orphanages who snatched children and sold them to childless couples.
George and Jeannie continued to be frustrated by the authorities, who refused to reopen the investigation. But as the years passed, they still refused to give up. They sent photographs of the five children to every possible resource, which continued to generate rumors, vague stories, and alleged sightings from all over the country.
A woman in Charleston reported seeing all the children once and Louis a year later, both times in the company of unknown adults. An anonymous letter writer claimed the children were living in Florida. The Sodders traveled there to find out but school records and birth certificates proved that none of the children in Florida were the missing children. Another letter claimed that Martha was living in a convent in St. Louis. Someone in Texas claimed to have overheard men talking about a fire that happened in West Virginia on Christmas Eve. A letter sent to a local sheriff in Santa Cruz County in California claimed the missing children were living in the town of Davenport. They weren’t.
Once, George saw a newspaper photo of young students at a New York Children’s Aid Society ballet school and insisted that one of the girls in the photo was his daughter, Betty. He drove to Manhattan in search of the child, but her parents refused to let him see her. Unable to come up with a plan to get another look at her, he drove home disappointed.
In 1966, a woman in Texas contacted the Sodders to say that she had overheard a conversation between two men, one of whom identified himself as Maurice Sodder. George traveled to Texas but by the time he got there, the man was long gone.
The most promising lead in nearly two decades came in 1967, when Jeannie received an anonymous envelope through the mail. It was postmarked in Central City, Kentucky, and contained a photograph of a young man about the age her son Louis would have been. Written on the back was a cryptic message:
I love brother Frankie ilil Boys
A90132 or 35
While George and Jeannie were convinced that the photo was an older-looking likeness of their missing son, they could not interpret the cryptic message on the back or trace the sender of the photograph.
They rushed the photo and envelope to the West Virginia Attorney General’s office – convinced this would reopen the investigation – but officials there were not convinced of the photo’s authenticity. Frustrated but not defeated, they hired a new private detective to go to Central City and find out what he could. He took their money and was never heard from again.
Heartbroken once again, George and Jeannie had the photograph enlarged and framed and placed it on their fireplace mantel with photographs of their other children. They were sure that it was Louis. They even had the new photograph added to the billboard with new text: Picture No. 6, received in 1967, Louis (one and the same) now in another state.
George Sodder died in 1969, still hoping for a break in the case. Jeannie fenced in their property and rarely left it. George’s obituary stated that he was survived by his wife and five remaining children. No mention was made of Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, or Betty.
The story remained alive, even though no new leads materialized. In 1984, Jeannie asked her son John to paint over the text on the billboard promising a reward, as she no longer had the money to pay if someone should eventually claim it when the children returned home. She died five years later, still convinced that her children were out there. Somewhere. The billboard in Ansted remained in place until her death, when it was finally taken down.
Today, the youngest surviving family member, Sylvia Sodder Paxton, keeps the family’s haunting story alive with help from her daughter, pursuing leads on the internet or wherever information might come from.
Law enforcement officials still continue to refuse to reopen the case.
Even though a young man was tried, convicted, and died in prison for the murder – along with two others – there are many who believe that Suzanne Degnan’s murder was never actually solved. And that may be the reason that Suzanne’s spirit has never rested in peace. That story is up next.
STORY: 1946, WAITE FOR WORD==========
January in Chicago was always brutal. The winter of 1946 was no different. Freida Meyer lived on the first floor of an apartment building on North Winthrop Avenue in the Edgewater neighborhood. She’d lived there for years – she’d forgotten how long – moving in not long after her husband had died. It wasn’t fancy, but it was just fine for her simple tastes. It was a nice neighborhood and she had a few friends – mostly widows like she was – who went to the movies, played cards, and went shopping together on Saturday mornings.
If there was anything about her life that she would change, Frieda would wish away her arthritis. The pain wasn’t usually too bad. It wasn’t often that an aspirin or two didn’t do the trick. But winter was especially tough. The temperatures had been frigid, and Frieda’s knees had been acting up. She’d even had to postpone her regular shopping trip with a friend that morning. And now, here it was, practically the middle of the night and Freida was still awake. She’d warmed up a heating pad for her knees, but it wasn’t doing much good. She just wanted to sleep, but her arthritis wasn’t cooperating. Perhaps she’d put the kettle on and have a cup of tea with some milk. That might just do the trick.
Freida gingerly got up from her chair, where she had been listening to the radio, and walked toward the kitchen. She glanced at the clock. Oh my – it was 3:40 a.m. My goodness, she thought, I’m going to be tired tomorrow. Or rather today, she shook her head.
Freida had just entered the kitchen when she heard a loud bang from downstairs. That’s odd – the only thing below her apartment was the laundry room. What would someone be doing down there at this hour? Her curiosity got the better of her and she went to the window and peered out of a narrow gap in the curtains.
The noise she’d heard had been the outside door to the laundry room being pushed open. She saw a man go inside. The light from the laundry room spilled out into the space between her building and the one next door. A pale yellow glow splashed against the brick wall, and then was gone. The door was closed again.
Freida shrugged. It seemed an odd time to be doing laundry, but it was none of her business. She put the tea kettle on the stove and opened a bottle of aspirin while she waited for the water to boil.
In the time that it took her to make tea, the man downstairs apparently finished his business. She heard some rustling about and, still curious, she looked out the window again. She couldn’t see him very well, but he was wearing a gray hat and a tan overcoat. He was probably in his 30’s or 40’s. She didn’t recognize him.
Freida settled down into her chair and a few minutes later, heard a sound downstairs. The man – whoever he was – had returned. The basement door creaked open and she could hear someone moving around. She pulled herself up from her chair again and pulled back the curtain. The same man in the gray hat and tan coat was hurrying away down the alley.
What in the world? She thought to herself. She was still at the window when he returned a third time, only a few minutes later. This time, he only stayed for a moment – she wasn’t even sure he went inside – and then he was gone. This time, he didn’t come back.
With the evening’s excitement finally over, Frieda’s eyelids began to droop. The tea and aspirin had served their purpose. She switched off the radio, turned off the light, and went down the hallway to bed. A few minutes later, she was asleep.
Freida was still sleeping the next morning when it was discovered that a little girl named Suzanne Degnan – who lived just a block or so away – had disappeared during the night.
Suzanne was never seen alive again. She had been murdered and butchered, her body scattered in pieces throughout the neighborhood. The news sent a tremor of terror throughout Edgewater and residents closely watched the newspapers as the police investigation announced the discovery of the girl’s missing pieces.
Then, just steps away from where her head was found, the police uncovered what the newspapers would dub the killer’s “murder room.” It was the basement laundry room on North Winthrop Avenue – right below Freida Meyers’ apartment.
Who killed the girl? That remains a matter of some debate, even after all these years. Even though a young man was tried, convicted, and died in prison for the murder – along with two others – there are many who believe that Suzanne’s murder was never actually solved.
And that may be the reason that Suzanne’s spirit has never rested in peace. On the hot summer day of June 5, 1945, the body of 43-year-old Josephine Ross was found in her apartment at 4108 North Kenmore Avenue, a building that overlooked Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. Her body lay in bed, as though it had been posed. Investigators found that she had been repeatedly stabbed – and her throat had been cut – but her body had been washed. Her killer had then tried to put her flesh back together with adhesive tape. Her head was then wrapped in a skirt, perhaps to shield her eyes from the face of the man who took her life.
The murder had been reported by Josephine’s daughter, who had to pass a lie detector test to convince detectives that she had not staged the unusual crime scene. The investigators had never seen anything like it. It would soon become obvious that they were completely out of their element.
Although Josephine’s body had been washed, investigators still found dark hairs clutched in her hand, presumably from the killer. Several of her former boyfriends and an ex-husband were questioned but leads quickly fizzled out. The case turned cold.
Six months later, on December 10, the body of 32-year-old Frances Brown was found slumped over her bathtub in her home at 3941 North Pine Grove, which was only five blocks from the Ross apartment. Her apartment door was open, and a cleaning woman heard her radio playing loudly and went inside. She quickly called the police.
Frances had been shot in the head and a butcher’s knife had been driven into her throat with such force that it came out the other side of her neck. Her body had been stripped naked and – just like Josephine Ross – she had been washed clean of blood. Her head was wrapped in towels.
Again, just as was the case with Josephine Ross, police assumed that she had surprised an intruder, but nothing had been taken from the apartment. Instead, this time a note was left behind. It had been written on the living room wall with Frances’s lipstick:
For heaven’s sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself
This note earned the murderer the name “Lipstick Killer.” Fortunately, the killer left behind a bloody fingerprint smudge on the door jamb into the apartment – along with a witness to his escape. George Weinberg reported hearing gunshots around 4:00 a.m., and John Derick, the apartment building’s night clerk, reported seeing a nervous man – age 35-40 and approximately 140 pounds – get off the elevator and walk to the door to the street before leaving on foot. And yet four days after the murder, Chicago Police announced they had reason to believe the killer was actually a woman.
Newspaper reporters had flocked to the scene, anxious for a story about a multiple killer. Headlines suggested that a new “Jack the Ripper” was stalking the city and promoted the name of the “Lipstick Killer.” The police investigation went in circles. Detectives began rounding up sex offenders, deviants, and mental cases, but made no progress. The bloody fingerprint smudge was examined. It didn’t match anyone on file and the case quickly died. It looked as though the only chance the authorities might have to catch the killer was if he committed another murder – and made a mistake.
A month later, the “Lipstick Killer” was replaced in the headlines by a missing child case. A little girl named Suzanne Degnan, age 6, had vanished from her family’s home at 5943 North Kenmore Avenue. Her first-floor bedroom window was open, and a ladder was placed beneath it, outside the apartment. Police also located a scrawled ransom note on the property. It read:
Get $20,000 Reddy & wAITe foR WoRd. Do NoT NoTify FBI oR Police. Bills IN 5’s & 10’s.
On the reverse of the note was written:
BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY
On the morning after it was discovered Suzanne was missing, a man telephoned the Degnan apartment several times, demanding the ransom, but he always hung up before any details could be arranged.
Shortly thereafter, the mayor of Chicago, Edward Kelly, also received a note: “This is to tell you how sorry I am not to get ole Degnan instead of his girl. Roosevelt and the OPA made their own laws. Why shouldn’t I and a lot more?”
This note changed the course of the investigation – at least for a short time – and sent the police in search of a meat packer. There was a nationwide strike by meat packers taking place and workers were angry with the OPA (Office of Price Administration), which at the time was considering extending wartime rationing and price and wage freezes. Suzanne’s father, James, was a Midwest official of the OPA and had recently moved his family to Chicago. Another executive of the OPA had just been assigned armed guards after receiving threats against his children. Also, recently, a man involved in black market meat sales had been decapitated and killed.
The meat packers meant business.
However, that part of the investigation led nowhere. Was the note sent to Mayor Kelly merely a threat by a disgruntled worker, or was it sent by a legitimate suspect in the kidnapping? We’ll never know. The police never got anywhere with the lead.
Meanwhile, neighbors of the Degnan family were questioned, but most had nothing useful to report. That is until police received an anonymous telephone call, suggesting that the police look in the sewers near the Degnan home. Officers and volunteers scoured the neighborhood and just after dark that evening, a policeman made a gruesome discovery. Behind a building on the west side of Kenmore – about a block from the Degnan home – he saw a storm drain sewer that appeared to have been tampered with. When he lifted the lid and peered inside with his flashlight, he found Suzanne’s severed head floating in the water. A blue ribbon was still tied in her blond hair.
Soon, more body parts began to turn up. Suzanne’s right leg was found in a catch basin in the same alley and her left leg in an alley east of Kenmore. Her torso was discovered in a storm drain at the northwest corner of Kenmore and Ardmore. Each piece had been found a little further away from the family home.
It took investigators an additional month to find her arms, which were in a sewer drain on the other side of the Howard elevated train line – more than three blocks from the Degnan home. All the drains had been capped with circular cast iron manhole covers, weighing more than 100 pounds, yet no one heard them being lifted or even slid back into place.
The newspaper luridly reported each new development in the startling case. The public was outraged and called for vengeance. The Chicago Police Commissioner and State’s Attorney both personally appeared at the Degnan home and vowed to capture whoever had carried out such a horrific crime and bring them to justice.
The search of an apartment building at 5901 North Winthrop Avenue – near the spot where Suzanne’s head was found – uncovered a basement laundry room, with four tubs containing evidence that she had been dismembered there. The floor had been mopped but blood was found in the drains of all four tubs. The press began referring to this as the “murder room.” It was easy to see why. It was dark, dingy, and grim, and the photographs of the dented laundry tubs was enough to send a chill up the spine of any newspaper reader. The unpleasant moniker was likely inaccurate, however. An autopsy would show that Suzanne was likely alive when she was taken from her home, was murdered at a secondary location, and then taken to the laundry room.
Dr. Kearns from the coroner’s office reported that a very sharp instrument had been used to dismember the body. He noted that it was carried out by “either a man who worked in a profession that required the study of anatomy or one with a background in dissection. Not even the average doctor could be as skillful; it had to be a meat cutter.” Another doctor agreed, stating that it was a “very clean job with absolutely no signs of hacking.”
As excitement about the crime continued to build, more witnesses came forward. The police gave over 170 polygraph tests, trying to root out the truth from the stories and eyewitness accounts.
Ethel Hargrove, the tenant who lived in the apartment above the Degnan family, reported hearing loud male voices downstairs and dogs barking when she arrived home at 12:50 a.m. Another tenant corroborated her story.
Freida Meyer also came forward to tell the police about the man who entered the laundry room during the early morning hours. She provided a time for the man’s visits and her story was corroborated by Marion Klein and Jake DeRosa, who had looked out their window around the same time and saw a man in a gray hat and tan overcoat. They said that they saw him start to go into the laundry room – this was the third visit reported by Freida – but he ran away, as if something had disturbed him.
Another neighbor, George Subgrunski, went to the police shortly after the murder and reported seeing a man walking to the Degnan home around 1:00 a.m. He described the man as being about five-feet, nine-inches tall, approximately 170 pounds, and 35 years old. He added that the man was carrying a bag and wearing a light-colored hat and a dark coat.
The most puzzling testimony came from Robert Reisner, a cab driver, who saw a woman behind the Degnan home at 1:30 a.m. She had a bundle under each arm and got into a car that was driven by a gray-haired man. Missy Crawford, who lived across the street, said that she saw a car with a man and woman driving up and down the street at 2:30 a.m. Were they the same man and woman that Reisner saw?
After sifting through the testimony, the police had a description of the killer. He was likely male, between 35-40 years of age, weighing between 140 to 170 pounds. He was under six-feet tall, and strong – strong enough to lift heavy manhole covers that weighed more than 100 pounds. He would have a background in anatomy or dissection since the dismemberment of Suzanne was done with skill and precision. He was likely an angry meat packer, with reason to be upset with the OPA. He might even have a female accomplice.
The first man the police arrested was 65-year-old Hector Verbaugh, a janitor in the building where the Degnan family lived. They theorized that his job might get him access to the laundry room and the state of the ransom note suggested that it had been written by a dirty hand – just like a janitor would have. The problem was that the Belgian immigrant didn’t remotely fit the profile that the police had already put together. Tenants in the building called him a kindly old man. He had no surgical knowledge nor skill as a butcher. He was hauled away to the Summerdale District police station anyway, where investigators spent 48 hours trying to beat a confession out of him. They even pressured Verbaugh’s wife to implicate her husband in the murder, but she refused.
Verbaugh was badly beaten during his ordeal. He later said, “Oh they hanged me up, they blindfolded me… I can’t put up my arms, they are sore. They had handcuffs on me for hours and hours. They threw me in a cell and blindfolded me. They handcuffed my hands behind my back and pulled me up on the bars until my toes touched the floor. I no eat, I go to the hospital. Oh, I am so sick. Any more and I would have confessed to anything.”
Verbaugh refused to admit that he had anything to do with the crime. On January 10, lawyers from the Janitor’s Union managed to free Verbaugh and it was later determined that he could not write English well enough to have penned the ransom note. He ended up spending 10 days in the hospital after he was released. He sued the police for brutality and was eventually awarded $20,000.
Following another potential lead, investigators looked at Sidney Sherman, a recently discharged Marine who had served overseas during the war. Police reported finding blonde hairs in the back of the Degnan apartment building, near a wire that they suspected could have been used as a garrote to strangle Suzanne. Nearby was a handkerchief with a laundry mark name – S. Sherman.
Detective searched military records and found that a Sidney Sherman lived at the Hyde Park YMCA. When they went to question him, they found that he had left his room without checking out and had even quit his job without collecting his final paycheck.
Sherman was found four days later, in Toledo, Ohio. He explained that he had eloped with his girlfriend and denied that the handkerchief was his. He was given a polygraph test and passed.
The police did eventually find the owner of the handkerchief. It belonged to Airman Seymour Sherman, of New York City – but he had an airtight alibi. He was out of the country when Suzanne was murdered. He had no idea how his handkerchief ended up in Chicago.
In February, another discovery in the case was made – Suzanne’s arms were found by sewer workers. Her body had already been buried by this time.
Weeks passed with more dead ends and false clues and the case grew colder. Investigators followed up on the ransom calls that had been made to the Degnan house on the morning after Suzanne had vanished. The investigation led them to a neighborhood hoodlum named Theodore Campbell, who, under questioning claimed to know who had killed Suzanne. He told officers that the killer was Vincent Costello, another neighborhood punk who lived only four blocks away from the Degnans. According to Campbell, Costello told him on January 7 that he had kidnapped Suzanne, killed her, and disposed of her body. He pressured Campbell into calling the Degnans to try and get ransom money from them.
The police knew about the strange calls that had been made to the family that morning, so they had no reason not to believe the story. Detectives were also aware of Vincent Costello. He had attended a local high school until he was convicted of armed robbery at 16 and sent away to reform school. Now, he was out and in trouble again.
News spread, and the Chicago Tribune announced that the case had been solved – it hadn’t.
Costello was arrested and interrogated overnight. By morning, the story had fallen apart. Both boys were given polygraph tests, and it soon became clear that they knew nothing about the murder. Eventually, they admitted they had overheard police officers talking about the case on the morning after the abduction and thought that maybe they could make some easy money off the Degnans by pretending to be kidnappers.
Neither of them would ever be accused of being smart.
The mystery of the telephone calls had been solved, but investigators were no closer to finding the killer. By April, more than 370 suspects had been questioned and cleared. The press was becoming increasingly impatient, criticizing the police’s inability to catch the monster that killed Suzanne.
In June, another suspect emerged. His name was Richard Russell Thomas and he was a nurse, living in Phoenix, Arizona. He had been in Chicago at the time of Suzanne’s murder and a handwriting expert for the Phoenix Police Department informed Chicago officials of “great similarities” between Thomas’s handwriting and the writing on the Degnan ransom note. He had been accused of writing an extortion note and many of the phrases that he used in it were similar to the ransom note. In addition, he had medical training as a nurse, which matched the profile suggested by the police.
While in Chicago, Thomas had lived on the South Side, but he had frequented a car yard across the street from where Suzanne’s arms had been discovered. When questioned by police, he openly admitted to the murder – they were again sure they had their man.
But all that changed when a new suspect came along – a college student who was caught fleeing the scene of a burglary. When Thomas suddenly recanted his confession, the police let him go.
They were convinced that they finally had their killer – and they’d do anything to prove it.
On the afternoon of June 26, 1946, William Heirens, 17, was on his way to the post office to cash $1,000 in savings bonds, purchased with stolen money from a series of small-time burglaries. He had a date with his girlfriend later and needed cash. Heirens stuck a revolver in his pocket before he left home, nervous because he would be carrying such a large amount of cash. When he arrived at the post office, it was closed, but he still needed money – so he decided to steal some.
He went to a building in Edgewater – where he had stolen things before – and slipped into an unlocked apartment on the third floor. Heirens was unlucky on this day. A tenant spotted him in the hall and confronted him. He fled, out and then up the back stairs of another building, but a resident spotted him and called the police. He tried to escape down a staircase and was cornered by two police officers. He pulled out his gun.
According to Heirens, he turned and attempted to run, which resulted in a struggle and an off-duty police officer – Albert Cunningham – dropping three clay flower pots on Heirens’s head from the top of the stairs, knocking him unconscious.
The police officers told a different story. In their version of events, Heirens charged both of them with his gun, firing twice, but the gun misfired both times. After that, he tossed the gun away and fought with them until the flower pots were smashed on his head.
William Heirens was taken to the police hospital at Cook County Jail, where he was stitched up, bandaged, and strapped to a bed. He drifted out of consciousness but heard someone say that he was a suspect in the Degnan case and felt his fingerprints being taken.
How did a small-time burglar end up being linked to not only the sensational murder of Suzanne Degnan, but also to the two murders committed by the “Lipstick Killer?”
That is a confusing, complicated, and very ugly story.
William Heirens was born in 1928 and was raised and attended school all over Chicago’s North Side. His parents grew flowers in a greenhouse on Chase Avenue, just east of Western, until the Depression put them out of business. His father, George, tried his luck at a small flower shop downtown and when it failed, went to work as a security guard. William attended several Catholic elementary schools as a child, including St-Mary- of-the-Lake Catholic School at 4200 North Kenmore – a half-block away from where “Lipstick” victim Josephine Ross was murdered.
When William was a teenager, the Heirens’ neighbors began noticing that women’s undergarments had started disappearing from clothes lines and, later, from dresser drawers. Apparently, William was hiding them away to enjoy later. He outgrew his fascination with women’s undergarments but did not outgrow his need to commit burglaries. He began breaking into houses, stealing cash, jewelry, guns, and any kind of valuables he could get his hands on. By the time of his first arrest, he had a collection of about $3,500 in stolen items. He was examined by a psychiatrist for the Juvenile Court and he determined that William had a compulsion for theft. He called it “neurotic stealing.”
Many of the burglaries that William committed forced him into death- defying acts, jumping from one building to another, several stories above the street. He climbed into apartment windows on high floors without fear and had a talent for scaling walls that seemed impassable at first glance. During some robberies, he started fires or defecated on the floor, unable to control the strange urges that seized him.
William was arrested for the first time in June 1942. The police had been staking out a building on Sheridan Road that had been burglarized several times and caught him in the act. William was only 13-years-old and in eighth grade. He confessed to 10 other burglaries – only a fraction of the real number that he’d committed – and the newspapers called him a “one-boy crime wave.”
Instead of being sent to a reformatory, William was allowed to attend Gibault, a privately-run Catholic school in Indiana. He stayed there for the next year. He was a model student and was sent home in June 1943. His family moved to 1020 West Loyola Avenue – six blocks from where Suzanne Degnan was later kidnapped and murdered.
The Catholic reform school had little effect on William. On August 8, 1943, he was caught inside of a nearby apartment building. According to police, eight or nine apartments had been robbed before William was discovered. The young boy was arrested again.
William’s mother, Margaret, pleaded with the judge in the case and convinced him to send William to the St. Bede School, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. Even though the school did not normally admit students with a criminal record, they made an exception, believing that they could help him. William was there until 1945 and was, again, a model student. After his court supervision was ended, he returned to Chicago.
After his second arrest, William’s parents decided that a more rural neighborhood – with fewer houses to rob – would benefit the young man. They rented a farmhouse at Touhy and Keeler Avenues and George Heirens helped his son get a summer job as a laborer for the Illinois Central Railroad in downtown Chicago. He traveled to work each day by catching a bus at Keeler and taking it to the train station in Rogers Park. From there, he took the train downtown.
On June 5, 1945, William left home but never made it to work. The next morning, the newspaper reported the mysterious murder of Josephine Ross – whose apartment was very close to the train line that William took to work.
In the fall, it was time for William to return to school. Although the court didn’t require it, Margaret Heirens wanted William to return to St. Bede to finish high school. William was adamant about staying home, however. He heard about a special program at the University of Chicago that allowed selected students to enter college early by taking a special exam. He scored well and in September 1945, entered college as a 16-year-old freshman. His grades were above average during the first semester, when he was also committing burglaries for spending money.
But burglary may not have been all William had on his mind. On October 5, 1945, an Army WAC named Evelyn Peterson was assaulted in an off-campus apartment on Drexel Avenue by an attacker who broke in through a skylight. The attack was interrupted when her sister knocked at the apartment door and the burglar fled. The sister later told police that she had seen a suspicious stranger in the building earlier that day. In July 1946, she picked William Heirens out of a police lineup.
A little over two months later, on December 10, Frances Brown was found murdered in her apartment at 3941 North Pine Grove. The killer – unable to control himself, or so he said – wrote a message asking for help on the wall with Frances’s lipstick.
After William was arrested on June 26 – for attempted burglary and assault on the policemen – officers searched his University of Chicago dorm room. They found loot from an estimated 25-50 burglaries, including cameras, jewelry, thousands of dollars in bonds – and a scrapbook that was filled with photographs of prominent Nazi officials. The scrapbook turned out to be a war memento that was brought home from Germany by a former soldier named Harry Gold. It had been stolen from his apartment at 5959 North Kenmore Avenue during a burglary that had occurred on January 5, 1946. This placed William Heirens on the same block where Suzanne Degnan had been kidnapped just 24 hours before she was taken.
It was the first nail in William Heirens’ coffin. Of course, none of the officers who searched William’s dorm room had any idea about that. They were simply carrying out a warrant on a burglary charge. They inventoried everything they found and estimated its value. The scrapbook, they believed, was worth about $1.
Soon after those items were taken to the precinct, a whole series of events was set into motion. When the Degnan ransom note had been found in January, the Chicago crime lab had been unable to lift any fingerprints from it, but the FBI, using more advanced techniques, managed to lift one print that was clear. Before William’s arrest, fingerprint expert Sergeant Thomas Laffey had compared it to 700 other prints with no luck – but that changed on June 28. It was announced that they had a match – the fingerprint on the ransom note belonged to William Heirens. His prints also matched those found in the off-campus apartment of Evelyn Peterson.
And there was more. Sergeant Laffey was initially unable to match William to the bloody fingerprint found in the apartment of “Lipstick” victim Frances Brown, but when a more complete sent of prints was taken – which included the joints of his right forefinger – a match was made. The FBI confirmed the match on July 13.
The police also revealed some circumstantial links between William and his victims after detectives began investigating his background. They learned that William had lived near the Degnan home, as well as the Ross and Brown apartments. Although Francis Brown and the Degnan family lived nearly three miles apart, William had burglarized homes on both of their blocks. To the detectives, it seemed impossible that this was a coincidence. State’s Attorney William Tuohy believed that they finally had the infamous “Lipstick Killer,” as well as the killer of little Suzanne Degnan.
Now they just had to get William to admit it.
More of the story, “The Bloody Murder and Ghost of Suzanne Degnan” is up next on Weird Darkness.
As soon as the police informed William that he was being investigated for the three murders, he denied everything. He was interrogated around the clock for six days. He was beaten by the police and refused food and water. He was not allowed to see his parents for four of those days and was refused a lawyer for six. William was subjected to interrogation for three hours under the influence of sodium pentothal, popularly known as “truth serum.” The drug was administered without his parents’ consent – and without a warrant – by two psychiatrists, Haines and Roy Grinker. While under the influence of the drug, William spoke of an alternate personality named “George” who had actually committed the murders.
After the truth serum wore off, William spoke with Captain Michael Ahern and State’s Attorney Tuohy with a stenographer in the room. He again told them that his alter ego, “George,” might have committed the crimes. He also said that “George” – his father’s first name and William’s middle name – had given him the loot to hide in his dorm room. Ahern and Tuohy pressed for “George’s” last name but William said he couldn’t remember. He said it was a “murmuring name.” The police translated this to “Murman” and the newspapers took it, twisted it around, and said it was “Murder Man.”
Investigators questioned William’s family and friends about this “George” but learned nothing. None of them had ever heard of his alter ego. What William actually said during this interrogation is in dispute and can’t be confirmed because the original transcript has disappeared.
The problem with the interrogation is that most scientists believed subjects under the influence of sodium pentothal can be easily influenced, causing statements that are not entirely the truth to come out. By the 1950s, most scientists had declared truth serums to be invalid, and most courts ruled that any testimony gained through their use was inadmissible. Unfortunately for William Heirens, these scientific and legal opinions about truth serums were still a few years away – as were the revelations about the interrogation that eventually surfaced. In 1952 – after William had been convicted – William Tuohy admitted under oath that he not only knew about the sodium pentothal procedure, he had authorized it and paid the Grinkers $1,000 to do it. That same year, the Grinkers admitted that William never implicated himself in any of the killings.
On his fifth day in custody, William was given a lumbar puncture without anesthesia, and then driven to police headquarters for a polygraph test. They tried to administer the test right away, but ultimately had to reschedule it for several days later because William was in too much pain to cooperate. There has never been an explanation for why he was given a lumbar puncture. Typically, the procedure – a spinal tap – is conducted to diagnose diseases and is performed under local anesthesia.
When the polygraph was finally administered, the results were inconclusive. Oddly, though, John E. Reid and Fred E. Inbau published the findings of the polygraph test in their 1953 textbook, Lie Detection and Criminal Interrogation, and stated:
Murderer William Heirens was questioned about the killing and dismemberment of six- year-old Suzanne Degnan. On the basis of the conventional testing theory his response on the card test clearly establishes as an innocent person.
There was no such statement made about the “Lipstick Murders.”
George and Margaret Heirens didn’t have much money, but they managed to hire a team of well-connected attorneys, the Coghlan brothers, to defend their son. They began taking a look at the evidence that had been collected against their young client.
Handwriting analysis could not link William’s handwriting to the “Lipstick” message or the ransom note. However, the police claimed his fingerprints matched the bloody smudge on the doorjamb of France Brown’s apartment. More troublesome, though, was the claim that his left little finger matched the print on the ransom note – but with only 9 points of comparison. According to the FBI handbook, regarding fingerprint identification, there must be 12 points of comparison to indicate a positive identification. In this case, all of William’s points of comparison were all loops, which could be easily matched to 65-percent of the population.
The Degnan murder might have been in question, but William’s attorneys were convinced that he was guilty of the “Lipstick Murders.” They decided to make it their goal to keep the young man from dying in the electric chair. State’s Attorney Tuohy, unsure that he could get a conviction, sought out cooperation from the defense counsel. Tuohy offered William a plea bargain. The agreement stated that in exchange for confessing to the murders of Josephine Ross, Frances Brown, and Suzanne Degnan, William would serve a single life sentence. The Coghlans urged him to accept the agreement. With good behavior, they told him, he would likely only spend about 25 years in prison and be out by the 1970s.
With help from his attorneys, William began to write his confession. He used the Chicago Tribune as a guide saying, “As it turned out, the Tribune article was very helpful, as it provided me with a lot of details I didn’t know. My attorneys rarely changed anything outright, but I could tell by their faces when I had made a mistake. Or they would say, ‘Now, Bill, is that really the way it happened?’ Then I would change my story because, obviously, it went against what was known in the Tribune.”
William and his parents signed the confession and a date was set for William to make an official statement. On July 30, William and his attorneys went to Tuohy’s office, where several reporters were assembled to ask questions. This turned out to be a lot different than using a newspaper as a guideline to tell a story – William tried to cooperate, but he got confused and gave the reporters noncommittal answers. He suddenly claimed that he couldn’t remember anything and then got angry. As William later said, “I asked him if he really wanted the truth. He assured me that he did. Tuohy had made a big deal about hearing the truth. Now, when I was forced to lie to save myself. It made me angry… so I told them the truth, and everyone got very upset.
Tuohy withdrew the previously agreed sentence of one life term and made a few minor changes. It stated that it would now be three life terms to run consecutively. William could escape execution, but he would never get out of prison. He told William that if the case went to trial, Tuohy would seek the death penalty.
On the advice of his lawyers, William accepted the new plea agreement. A public forum was once again held in Tuohy’s office and this time William spoke and answered questions. He even went so far as to reenact parts of the murders that he had confessed to. He later stated, “I confessed to save my life.”
But was he innocent of all the murders? Captain William Ahern – a man who had known William for many years and had even gotten him out of deeper trouble after his early arrests – later said that he never believed that William was the “Lipstick” killer – until he saw how familiar he was with Frances Brown’s apartment. Ahern could never get past that.
On September 4, with Chief Justice Harold G. Ward presiding, William admitted his guilt on the burglary and murder charges. That night, he tried to hang himself in his cell – timed to coincide with a shift change by the guards – but he was discovered before he died. The following day, Judge Ward formally sentenced him to three life terms in prison. As he waited to be transferred to Stateville Prison in Joliet, Cook County Sheriff Michael Mulcahy asked William if Suzanne Degnan had suffered when she was killed.
“I can’t tell you if she suffered, Sheriff Mulcahy,” William answered. “I didn’t kill her. Tell Mr. Degnan to look after his other daughter, because whoever killed Suzanne is still out there.”
William Heirens continued to proclaim his innocence for the next 65 years. There is no denying that there were many problems with William’s arrest, treatment, and confession. He was beaten, prevented from seeing a lawyer, and subjected to what amounts to torture by the police. He also managed to pass a lie detector test, but that was not enough to get him off the hook. All the evidence against him was circumstantial, including the fingerprint evidence, which didn’t hold up to the standards set by the FBI. It’s believed by many historians that William was nothing more than a convenient scapegoat, easily framed by the police, who were harassed by the public and the press to find a killer. Many legal experts don’t believe that William would have been convicted today. I find it hard to believe that he would have been convicted in 1946, but we’ll never know – he was pressured into confessing by his attorneys.
But just because the investigation was poorly carried out does not mean that William Heirens wasn’t guilty of something. It’s very likely that William was the so-called “Lipstick” killer. Those two murders were obviously the work of one man – an experienced burglar who committed murder when he found the apartment that he was robbing was occupied. Neither of the women were raped but both were found naked. It might be recalled that William’s first burglaries involved the stealing of women’s underwear. If he had masturbated at the “Lipstick” scenes, this might explain why the bodies had been washed. He had previously left behind evidence of his compulsions when he defecated at burglary scenes. Did he wash away evidence of another compulsion?
It’s very possible that William killed twice and may have been overwhelmed with guilt after the murder of Frances Brown, which caused him to leave the lipstick message on the wall. He probably would have killed again – in the case of Evelyn Peterson – if his attack had not been interrupted by her sister’s arrival. His guilt may have been the reason that he actually confessed to the murders that sent him to prison.
But did William Heirens kill Suzanne Degnan? The abduction, murder, and dismemberment of a little girl is a completely different method of murder than that used by the “Lipstick Killer.” If all three crimes had not been blamed on William, no one would have ever believed they were related. I think it’s very possible that William was initially framed for Suzanne’s murder – which the police were under great pressure to solve – and detectives accidentally realized they had captured the “Lipstick” killer instead. But, with no other suspects at hand, why not send him to prison for all three? Suzanne’s murder, by that time, seemed unsolvable.
It wasn’t hard to pin it on William. He had been in the neighborhood around the time the little girl was kidnapped, as evidenced by the burglary at the nearby apartment. However, this was probably a coincidence. William didn’t live far away, and Edgewater was essentially his favorite neighborhood for break-ins.
There was little to link him to the crime – other than the smudged fingerprint that should have never been accepted by the FBI laboratory and a very questionable eyewitness. The man who later claimed to see William near the Degnan home was a 25-year-old soldier on furlough named George E. Subgrunski. On the day after the kidnapping, he had been the one who told the police that he’d seen a man – described as 170 pounds, about 35-years-old, carrying a shopping bag, and wearing a light-colored hat and a dark overcoat – walking away from the house. It was dark, so he could not make out the man’s facial features. When he was shown a photograph of William Heirens on July 11, the Chicago Daily News said that he was unable to identify the man as Heirens. Five days later, though, at a criminal hearing, Subgrunski pointed a finger at William and said, “That’s the man I saw!” The police, anxious to find someone who could put William at the scene of the crime, decided to ignore the fact that Subgrunski was initially unable to identify William – they went with the new identification instead.
William was never the main suspect in Suzanne’s murder – that was 42-year- old drifter Richard Russell Thomas, who was passing through town at the time of the murder. Just before William’s arrest, Chicago police were interrogating Thomas in Arizona. Police handwriting expert Charles B. Arnold, head of the forgery detail of the Phoenix police, noted similarities between the handwritten Degnan ransom note and Thomas’s handwriting. He had been the one who suggested that Chicago detectives investigate Thomas.
I believe that it’s very likely Thomas was Suzanne’s killer. Not only did he confess to the crime, but he had previously been convicted of attempted extortion, using a ransom note that threatened the kidnapping of a young girl. Many of the phrases in the extortion note were similar to those in the ransom letter. When he confessed to Suzanne’s murder, he was in jail awaiting sentencing for molesting his 13-year-old daughter. He also had a history of violence and had been arrested for beating his wife and molesting two of his three children.
He was a nurse who was known to pose as a surgeon and often bragged about how he stole surgical supplies from a hospital – all of which matched the profile the police had created. This was a man who certainly had the knowledge to dismember a body. He also spent a lot of time at the car agency in Edgewater that was right across the street from where parts of Suzanne’s body were found in a sewer.
But, when William was arrested, investigating officers were called off the Thomas case, treating his confession as the ravings of a madman. Thomas served time in Arizona, then faded into obscurity, eventually dying in Tennessee in 1974. His prison record – along with most of the evidence of his interrogation regarding the Degnan murder – has been either lost or destroyed over time.
But even if William did not kill Suzanne, he still deserved to go to prison for the other crimes he committed and to which he confessed. There were no additional “Lipstick Murders” after William went to prison, which makes him the likely suspect in those cases – no matter what he might have claimed later on. In 1954, the Illinois Supreme Court stated that the authorities violated William’s rights while conducting the investigation, but the court also said that he chose to plead guilty to avoid a possible death sentence when he could have challenged the violations. It was decided that his conviction and sentence would stand.
William Heirens never saw freedom, even though his sentence allowed for the possibility of parole. But in spite of being a model prisoner and the first in Illinois to earn a college degree behind bars, his parole was turned down more than two dozen times. In 1998, he was transferred to a minimum security prison in Dixon, Illinois, and moved onto the hospital ward. He was suffering from diabetes, which had limited his eyesight and forced him into a wheelchair. In 2002, a petition was filed on Heirens’ behalf seeking clemency. It not only cited doubts about his guilt, but also his model behavior while in prison. The appeal was eventually denied.
In 2007, his parole was denied again. A member of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, Thomas Johnson, made sure that William knew he would never be released from prison. “God will forgive you,” he said, “but the state won’t.”
William Heirens died in prison on March 5, 2013. He was the longest-serving prisoner in the history of the state of Illinois.
As far as Suzanne Degnan’s remaining family members were concerned, the death of William Heirens brought an end to a tragedy that had been haunting them for decades. They had always believed the police and had no reason to doubt the fact that William had killed the little girl. Jim Degnan, born 10 months after his sister had been killed, attended William’s parole hearings for 29 years – determined that he would never get out of prison.
Jim said that his parents never spoke about Suzanne when he was a boy. He didn’t learn about how she had died until a classmate told him about the murder when he was in fifth or sixth grade, prompting him to ask his parents about it.
Once he knew what had happened, things that he had seen throughout his life suddenly made sense. His mother had installed bars on his bedroom window when they moved into a new apartment several years after the killing. She had also never allowed him to buy black pants – she had always associated them with William Heirens because had had worn them everyday in court. Jim said that he began researching the case when he was in his 20’s, after William began claiming that he was innocent. After examining some of the evidence and speaking with the authorities and a retired judge, he was satisfied that Heirens was guilty. He said that William’s supporters had decades to prove his innocence, but never could.
Suzanne’s older sister, Betty, recalled riding to school in a police car for a time after the murder because of the attention that surrounded the case and fear of a killer at large. She never forgot her sister – or her murder – but always believed that William was guilty, no matter what he claimed. She wanted him in prison, although not for retribution. She helped to keep him locked up by attending his parole hearings out of fear that he might get out and hurt someone else. That was something that she just couldn’t live with.
Were those who believed William Heirens killed Suzanne correct, or was there more to the story than anyone knew? There is no question that many problems exist when it comes to linking William to Suzanne’s murder – not the least of which a much more believable suspect in Richard Russell Thomas. Did Thomas get away with murder? Has the killing of Suzanne Degnan remained unofficially unsolved after all these years?
Perhaps, because if the stories from those who claim to have encountered her ghost are true, the tragic little girl may not rest in peace.
I first wrote about Suzanne Degnan in 2009 when I was working on a series of books about Chicago crime and murder. The publisher of the series arranged several book signings for me around the city and I met a lot of interesting people, many of whom had stories to tell about incidents or people that were featured in the books. These books weren’t about ghosts – but yet sometimes the stories people came to tell me were about ghosts anyway.
And that’s how I first heard about Suzanne’s ghost. I was doing a signing at a bookstore in the Uptown neighborhood when a lady came in and purchased a book. She knew that most of my writings were about ghosts and hauntings and she told me that she had a ghost story about one of the cases that was in one of the crime titles. She explained that she had once lived in an apartment at 5901 North Winthrop Avenue, where the infamous “Murder Room” had been located. It was the place where the police believed Suzanne had been dismembered after her death.
When she had lived there, it was no longer a laundry room. The four, blood- stained basins had vanished long ago, but she did live on the basement floor, just down a hallway from the room. And months before she found out what had occurred there, she came to believe that the room was haunted.
It had started with the sounds. She said that on many nights when she came home from work – she was then a bartender in Uptown – she would hear banging noises coming from down the dark corridor that led from her apartment to the former laundry room. Sometimes, she said, they sounded like footsteps. She didn’t see anyone, though, and when she turned on the light in the hall, they usually stopped. She was willing to dismiss the whole thing to an overactive, late-night imagination – until she saw the little girl.
One night, she came home and was getting ready to open her door when she saw a movement down the corridor. The light was dim, but she could see a young girl standing there, looking at her. The girl had blond hair, a pale face with slightly chubby cheeks, and was wearing a pale, knee-length dress. She didn’t move, she didn’t say anything – she just stood there, staring.
The witness called out to her. She told me that she certainly didn’t think she was seeing a ghost. She assumed it was a neighbor’s child, but one that was wandering the apartment building halls long after she should have been in bed. With her keys dangling in the lock, the young woman started to walk toward the little girl.
And then the little girl vanished. Startled, the witness said that she let out a small scream and pushed through the door into her apartment, too terrified to look out into the hallway again. “I don’t know why I was so scared,” she told me. “It just upset me very much.”
The witness told me that she never saw the little girl again, but her terror over the sighting turned to curiosity. That’s how she found out what made her building – and the laundry room down the hall – so notorious in 1946. She was convinced by photographs that she found that the little girl in the hallway was Suzanne Degnan.
She only lived in the apartment building for another few months after that – her lease was up, she assured me, not because she was afraid – and she did sometimes hear the noises and the footsteps, but she learned to tune them out.
She never saw the ghost that she believed was Suzanne again, but she’d heard that others had. Her curiosity – and fascination – with the story of Suzanne’s murder never really went away and she spoke with others who had lived in the basement of the apartment building.
They were sure it was haunted because they had also seen the ghost of a little blonde-haired girl in the basement hallway. I wonder who she is, they sometimes asked the witness and she always replied with a tragic story of a little girl who died long, long before her time.
SHOW CLOSE, CREDITS, A LITTLE LIGHT, AND A FINAL THOUGHT==========
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All stories in Weird Darkness are purported to be true (unless stated otherwise) and you can find source links or links to the authors in the show notes.
Both stories, “The Christmas Disappearance of the Sodder Children” and “The Bloody Murder and Ghost of Suzanne Degnan” were written by Troy Taylor from the book “Suffer the Children: American Horrors, Homicides and Hauntings”. A link to the book is in the show notes, including an audiobook version narrated by Yours Truly!
WeirdDarkness™ – is a production and trademark of Marlar House Productions. Copyright, Weird Darkness, 2022.
Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” — Galatians 6:2
And a final thought… “The most beautiful things in life are not just things. They’re people and places, memories and pictures. They’re feelings and moments and smiles and laughter.”
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.