Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Heirens

In The Shadow of Bill Heirens

"Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne

In August, 1946, 17-year-old University of Chicago student William George Heirens confessed to three brutal murders and closed a case that had enwrapped the full-time attention of the states attorney and the Chicago Police Force over many months. It had kept city readers glued to the front pages of their newspapers. Reports were lurid and tawdry, for they rang of depravity and reminisced of the darkest prose of Edgar Allen Poe. After one murder, the killer had left a note to the police, written on the wall with the victim's lipstick thus the name "Lipstick Killer"

According to his confession, he had, in the course of six months, murdered two women and dismembered a six-year-old child. When he confessed, relieved Chicagoans read in any one of their five dailies that walking the streets at night was now a bit safer, now that (as one circulation put it) "the werewolf was in chains".

Heirens (pronounced High-rens) had been a central suspect since he had been arrested some fifty days prior to his confession. An admitted petty burglar, he was apprehended, in fact, during one of his house-breakings. While in custody, he was targeted by authorities as the butcher of the three victims. Harshly interrogated, interviewed under the effects of a truth serum and brutally treated by law officers (it was the age before the Miranda Act), Heirens finally admitted to the murders in answer to a plea bargain that promised him immunity from death row. ("I confessed to live," he later said.) He was sentenced to prison for three life terms.

He lives today, still in prison, 53 years later. He continues to assert his innocence.

Opinions concerning his guilt differ. Both sides are equally headstrong. The official records uphold his conviction and the authorities, then and now, contend that Justice was adequately served. Social journalist Lucy Freeman has reported their side in her book, Before I Kill More..., and studies the synapses of his childhood that turned what should have been a normal college kid into a savage-destructive.

Bill Heirens 1953
Bill Heirens 1953

"To explain the method in Bill's killings," she writes, "two things must be considered what psychiatrists call 'the predisposition toward' the deed and the 'precipitating factor'...If the foundation of a life is one of excessive fear and anger which then pervades the whole life, a person may be said to have a  'predisposition toward' murder. The 'precipitating factor' is the straw that broke Bill's psychic back, allowing the anger to erupt into violence."

But, others, such as activist Dolores Kennedy, author of the investigative Bill Heirens: His Day in Court, alleges that the boy in custody was a scapegoat, that he was shaped to look like what she calls "a Jekyll-Hyde freak" to cover the inadequacies of a botched and ineffective manhunt by authorities. Kennedy, who heads a corps of lawyers, psychiatrists, handwriting experts and other professionals working for Heirens' release, says, "(He) was convicted by a sensation-seeking press (because) he had no legal protection from media excesses. There was to be no trial for Bill Heirens, no testing of state's evidence, no introduction of state's witnesses." While there is much damaging evidence against Heirens, Kennedy claims it was all created or "fixed," just as a particular damaging eyewitness testimony was altered to lean negatively on the boy.

The following report looks objectively at the major events in the Bill Heirens case: the murders, the background of Heirens himself, and the subsequent arrest, investigation, confession and conviction.

For this article, I referred to a number of sources (see Bibliography). As well, I was afforded a rare interview with Dolores Kennedy, who clarified some of the points she makes in her book. I would like to thank her for her time, the result of which makes this a more up-to-date and more thorough examination of Bill Heirens for the benefit of Crime Library readers.

The photos in this story, where not sourced, have come from various Chicago newspapers of the day.


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