Thursday, January 06, 2011

January 7, 1946

The Division Street Princess
By Elaine Soloway
Chapter Five (Condensed from the original.)


On January 7, 1946, in the early hours of a Chicago morning, a six-year-old girl on the northwest side of the city was the victim of a horrific crime. When it happened, I was only one year older than that little girl, and was so traumatized by the case, that I never forgot her name, details of the investigation, or other piercing events of that year.

Before news of the crime hit the streets and airwaves, the scene that Monday in our Division Street flat was typical for a wintry day: The temperature outside was only ten degrees, so Mom fixed a breakfast of hot Malt-O-Meal for me and my 10-year-old brother Ronnie. After insisting on adding leggings to my school outfit of corduroy skirt and knitted pullover, Mom walked us downstairs where Dad was warming up the car.

If it was snowing, raining, or the weather was at all lousy, Dad would pack as many neighborhood kids that could fit into his four-door Buick, and deliver or fetch us from school -- four long city blocks away. This day, when a patrol boy spotted a half dozen of us -- bundled in fat coats, knitted caps, and neon mittens -- spilling from the Buick, he nudged a kid nearby and exclaimed, “Look--it’s just like the clown car at Ringling Brothers!”

After spending an uneventful day in second grade, I exited the school’s double doors at 3:15 and was delighted to find Dad and his Buick waiting at the curb. My father drove the same herd back home and parked in front of our store. He sent the kids to their appreciative parents, Ronnie to Deborah Boys Club, then took my mittened hand in his to enter the store.

I was on my way to my mother to get my after-school kiss when something in the Chicago Daily News caught my eye. “You don’t need to read that,” my mother said when she saw me halt at the newspaper that was spread open on her counter. I was staring at a page in the afternoon Red Streak that displayed a picture of a little girl. The headline read: Kidnap Girl 6 From Bed Here. The story under the black-and-white photograph said that six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was asleep in the first-floor bedroom of her parents’ apartment on North Kenmore Avenue, when through a window left open a few inches, someone climbed into the bedroom, kidnapped the little girl, and left a ransom note demanding $20,000 for her safe return. As I studied the girl’s photo and absorbed the report, my heart was beating so loud, I was sure customers in our store could hear the thumping.

“Climbed into the bedroom,” I repeated to myself. I slept close to the window -- just like the little girl in the story. Maybe I should switch sides with Ronnie who slept closer to the door. Back then, I never thought twice about a boy and girl sharing the same bed. In fact, I felt safer with my brother’s solid shape nearby. Anyway, other families in our cramped, immigrant neighborhood had similar arrangements: Kids would get the one bedroom, while adults took the Murphy Bed or a couch that opened for two. This worked well for my family, because once my parents tucked us in, they were free to stay up late, listen to the radio, and quarrel.

The girl in the newspaper photo -- who slept all alone in her bedroom without a big brother at her side -- had a cute round face, something like mine, and she was smiling.

She was wearing a dress with a Peter Pan collar, like the one Mother bought for me at Mandel Brothers. Under the girl’s snapshot was this description: “Hair-Reddish blond, bobbed. Eyes-Blue. Weight-74 pounds and plump. Height-52 inches. Clothing at time of abduction-blue pajamas. Disposition-Cheerful and fearless.”

As my trembling fingers held the newspaper, I studied the little girl’s picture and wondered how my parents would describe me if I were the one snatched from my side of the bed near the window. They’d say, “Black wavy hair, green eyes, 40 pounds, 40 inches (that’s what the doctor measured at my last visit), pink pajamas.” That part was easy. But certainly not “cheerful and fearless.” “Good little girl and a scardy cat” was more like it.

“Vez meir, the poor parents,” Mrs. Schwartz said, as she craned over my shoulder to read the print, and at the same time place a package of Rinso soap powder, a bottle of Fleecy White bleach, and a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes on Mom’s counter. In a fur hat that was balding in spots, a man’s long coat, and galoshes, Mrs. Schwartz looked like a Cossack stripped of his rank.

“They’ll find the little girl,” my mother said, tilting her head in my direction and shaking it side-to-side to prevent Mrs. Schwartz from going any further. “Once the kidnapper gets the gelt, he’ll let her go.”

As Mom added the column of grocery prices she had pencilled on a brown paper bag, Mrs. Schwartz interrupted her, “Put it in the book, bubbalah, okay? I forgot to bring my purse.” She spread her two palms before my mother, showing them empty, as if she was a thief proving her innocence.

I watched my mother’s face dim as she removed her ledger book from the shelf where it was hidden.

Oh, oh, another credit customer, I thought -- that’s bad for business. I moved behind the counter to put my arms around my mother’s waist, comforting her and me at the same time. “Are you sure he’ll let her go, Mommy?” I asked, warmed in the cosmetic fragrances that masked food remnants hugging her apron. Camay soap, Halo shampoo, and Max Factor makeup battled daily against garlicky deli meats and cheeses. I was grateful the perfumes had won out.

“Of course he’ll let her go,” she said, as she imprinted her red lips on my forehead and combed my hair from my face with her fingers. She turned the newspaper upside down and said, “I heard on the radio that hundreds of detectives are searching all over her neighborhood. Now go in the back and do your homework. Forget about the paper.” Calmed by her words, I walked towards the kitchen, but could hear Mrs. Schwartz, who had righted the paper, say, “It says they’re looking in boiler rooms, alleys and hallways and under porches. Gevalt!”

On my way to the kitchen I smiled a “hello” to Mrs. Friedman who was standing at my dad’s meat counter, thumping her hand on the glass. “Hurry up already, Irv,” Mrs. Friedman said. “I need a pound of ground beef for dinner.” A lantsman from the old country, Mrs. Friedman was more Americanized than the other customer. Like my mother, she was attractive, stylishly dressed in a fitted woolen coat and matching hat, and never left her apartment without makeup and high-heeled shoes.

“Hold your horses, I’ll be right there,” Dad said. “I had to pick up my princess from school. You want she should walk in this weather?” I stayed to watch my dad because I knew he was about to perform his magic act and didn’t want to miss a step. With his thick coat still on, Dad entered the walk-in freezer, returned with a slab of beef he had grabbed from its hook, and placed it on a wooden cutting board. Then, he tossed his coat to me and rolled up his sleeves. Like a spellbound assistant at the edge of a stage, I stared as Dad wiped his hands on his apron. With his twinkling dark brown eyes; and the white fabric covering his short, round body, Dad reminded me of the snowman some kids had sculpted in the schoolyard that morning. But my dad was powerful and protective. He’d never melt away at the first burst of heat.

Hugging his coat to my small body, I smelled the cigarette smoke that clung to its fibers and I flicked away ashes that fell like snowflakes onto the sawdust floor. I watched as Dad picked up a shiny cleaver and used it to chop the raw beef into chunks. With his two stubby hands, Dad scooped the pile up, then dropped it into a metal grinder. He rotated the machine’s handle with one hand, and with the other, shoved the beef through the funnel until the chunks became red braids, which dripped onto the butcher paper below.

As Dad wrapped up the ground beef, completing his act, I made my way to the kitchen in the rear of our store. When I reached the radio, I turned up its volume. The dial was set to WGN, and R.F. Hurleigh was saying how worried Mr. and Mrs. Degnan, the parents of the kidnapped girl, were. Oh no, she’s still missing, I thought. I sat down, still wearing my winter coat and leggings, still carrying Dad’s overcoat, as I was unwilling to shed their warmth from my shivering body.

The newscaster said Suzanne’s parents “were trying to raise the ransom to satisfy the abductor and regain their child safe and unharmed.” Mr. Degnan spoke, too. He was crying, and said, “I’ll do anything to get my child back. All we want is Suzanne back.”

Where would my parents ever get $20,000 if they had to buy me back? Would my aunts and uncles chip in, my Zadie? Often, I heard my parents bickering about money. Some weeks Daddy couldn’t even pay the delivery drivers, how could he find money to rescue me?

On the radio, Mr. Hurleigh said the police believed Suzanne was taken between 1 and 2 a.m. because that’s when Mr. Degnan was awakened by the sound of his neighbor’s two boxer dogs barking and the voice of his daughter saying, “But I’m sleepy. I don’t want to get up.” Her father thought Suzanne was talking in her sleep, so he did not go to her bedroom to investigate. Suzanne’s mother said she thought she heard moaning or a soft cry coming from either Suzanne’s or her 10-year-old sister Elizabeth’s room. She went to the hallway and listened at both bedroom doors and when she did not hear anything, returned to her own bed.

What if my parents thought that sounds coming from my bedroom would be Ronnie and me horsing around, and then ignore the noise of an intruder? My brother would surely wake if somebody climbed in through our window, wouldn’t he? Even if I couldn’t yell because my voice froze like it sometimes did in nightmares, Ronnie could feel the cold air. He’d save me, wouldn’t he?

That night, I searched for a star in the murky winter sky and when I found one, recited my star light, star bright prayer. I asked God to keep little Suzanne alive. I prayed the kidnapper didn’t tie her up, like in the movies. I prayed my mother was right, and that as soon as he got the ransom money, the kidnapper would let Suzanne go back to her worried-sick parents.

But the next morning, on January 8th, the headline read, Kidnapped Girl Found Slain, Dismembered, Hid in Sewer. As I read the story under the headline, I felt as if I was going to throw up: “The head, torso, and legs were found in four different catch basins near her home. Early this morning, only the arms of the victim were missing.”

“No, no!” I cried, tears falling from my eyes to the newspaper. My parents both left their work counters and ran towards me, each blaming the other for leaving the paper where I could find it. “Sshh, sshh,” my mother said, wiping tears from her eyes as she hugged and tried to soothe me. “The police will find the terrible man who did this.”

“Poor Suzanne, poor Suzanne,” I kept saying, as I buried my face in her apron. This time, with the grisly details of the murder imprinted in my brain -- as vivid as the lipstick stain my mother had planted on my forehead the day before -- my mother’s words and warmth could not console me. I continued to sob. Some tears were for that cheerful and fearless little girl with reddish-blonde, bobbed hair, and others for me, the dark-haired child who slept close to the window that opened onto frigid, nightmarish Division Street.

“Is it closed tight?” I asked my father that evening.

“The window is locked,” he said, and proved it by trying and failing to pull up the sealed window frame. “See? You have nothing to worry about.”

“Can you leave the bedroom door open all the way?”

“Change places,” Ronnie said. “I’ll sleep near the window.” In size and shape, with black hair and a boyishly handsome face, and wearing long pajamas, my brother resembled Robin in the Saturday serials we watched at the Vision Theater. But to me, his chivalry that night turned him into the bigger, braver Batman. I’m not certain why Ronnie wasn’t as shattered by the crime as I was. Perhaps because he was a boy, four years older than the victim, and more daring than I, he couldn’t imagine something like that happening to him.

It was easy to switch places and surrender my Division Street scene and my nightly search for stars, for I figured no one was in heaven listening to my prayers. Now, with my big brother between me and a possible ladder, with light from the kitchen and the voices of my parents’ drifting into our bedroom, I tried to erase thoughts of poor Suzanne.

In school the next day, one of the girls raised her hand to ask the teacher about the newspaper story. Miss Green rose from her chair, smoothed creases from the lap of her long-sleeved dress, then leaned back against her thick oak desk with her brown-spotted hands gripping its edge. “It was a terrible, terrible thing that happened,” she said, “but all of the police in the city are looking for the evil man who did this. They will find him -- maybe even before you get home from school today -- and put him in jail. You’re all safe here and in your homes. Now, let’s get on with our work.” My gray-haired teacher’s words were reassuring, but her troubled look was not.

As Miss Green turned to the blackboard, I looked around my second grade classroom. Because I was the shortest girl in the group, and the teacher’s helper, I sat in the first row first seat. My feet -- which barely touched the floor -- swung back and forth. I smelled pencils and chalk dust and studied the strips of perfect penmanship streaming along the wall above the teacher’s head. The bulletin board on my right was filled with compositions on lined paper -- two were mine, gold stars adorned their corners. Everything looked the same as before Christmas vacation, except the Santa Claus and snowmen drawings were gone. But the room felt different: bare, cold, and as colorless as the wintry view from the classroom’s enormous windows.

The afternoon Chicago Daily News bore the headline, Killer’s ‘Butcher Tub’ Found, Janitor Quizzed. Why did they have to say “butcher?” I asked myself as I read the paper someone had stuffed in the trash. Daddy’s a butcher; he’d never chop up a little girl.

The newspaper said the police were questioning a janitor about Suzanne’s murder because they found “the dissection chamber” in his building: “The police were encouraged because they found bits of flesh, blood and hair in the drains of three of the four washtubs. The police then realized this was where Suzanne was hacked and sawed into five or six pieces after being strangled.”

Hacked, sawed, strangled -- these were not second-grade words, but I knew what they meant. It was as if a Grimms’ villain had escaped from his fairy tale page and was running loose in Chicago -- wicked beyond even the authors’ ghoulish imaginations. The next day’s paper -- that I snuck a look at when my parents weren’t nearby -- reported that the janitor was no longer a suspect and the police released him from custody. Suzanne’s killer was still at large, maybe even looking for his next little-girl victim.

That night, long after Ronnie had fallen asleep, I lay awake and imagined Suzanne’s terror. My heart was beating so loud, I was surprised it didn’t wake my brother. Despite the cold night, I sweated as I envisioned the killer hacking Suzanne into pieces. I squeezed my eyes tight to erase his hand lifting a meat cleaver above his head, then slamming it down on Suzanne’s 52-inch body. I scooted to the foot of the bed, slid down, and padded to the bedroom door. I could hear my father’s heavy snoring. If I climbed into my parents’ bed now, I’d surely wake them. They needed their sleep for work, I thought. Stop being such a baby. Go back to bed. Try being fearless for once in your life.

My parents must have been as frightened as I was, because every day the killer was at large, they’d ask, “Where are you going? Who are you going to play with? What time will you be home?” I wasn’t allowed to play outside -- which was fine with me -- but I still was terrified at night.

One evening, I could hear the radio playing in the kitchen. Above my parents’ usual squabbles, I could hear Mr. District Attorney about to begin. But when the announcer said, “The Case of the Three Steps to Death,” I heard footsteps bolt to the radio. Then, Eddie Cantor came on.

As days passed without the killer being found, the newspapers reported that, “frightened and angry parents were demanding action from the police. Mayor Kelly and Chief of Detectives Storms promised to stay on the case until little Suzanne’s slayer was apprehended.”

Suzanne Buried While Flowers Dance In Wind was how the Chicago Daily Tribune described her funeral on January 12, 1946: “Somehow, the flowers seemed symbolic of the pretty, little, blonde-haired child who had fallen into the hands of a butchering criminal last Monday morning.” My parents had given up trying to shield me from the news because that was all people were talking about anyway on Division Street. As I looked at the newspaper pictures of Suzanne’s small coffin about to be lowered in the ground at All Saints’ Cemetery, I burst into tears. What if that was me shut in a box, buried deep in the frozen dirt of Jewish Waldheim? What if I never saw my mother, father, or Ronnie ever again?

Snow melted, winter turned to spring, and still no breakthrough in the case. Finally, on June 29, a newspaper headline read: U.C. Sophomore Seized as Burglar; Surgeons Tools Found in Room. Five-and-a-half months after Suzanne Degnan’s kidnapping and murder, the police matched “husky six-footer” William Heirens’ fingerprints with those on the ransom note left in her bedroom and arrested Heirens for the little girl’s murder. Along with two sets of surgical instruments, the police found guns, and items stolen from two women whose homes had been burglarized in 1945 -- one woman’s throat had been slashed, the other had been smashed in the head.

In Heirens’ parents’ home, the police found in the attic “40 pairs of women’s underwear and a homemade scrapbook of Nazi leaders.” The police also linked Heirens to the murder of 33-year-old Frances Brown. After he had shot and stabbed the woman, the killer took a tube of her lipstick and wrote on the wall above her bed, “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.” Fifty days after his arrest, and to avoid the electric chair, Heirens confessed to three murders, including Suzanne’s. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. The next day’s paper read, “Walking the streets at night is now a bit safer, now that the werewolf is in chains.”

(William Heirens, accused of the murder of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan, is photographed by police. Photo by Bill Knefel, July 3, 1946. As published in the Çhicago Sun-Times, Inc. Çopyright 2005. Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. Reprinted with permission.)

1 comment:

Elizabeth Crane said...

Wow, Elaine. Beautifully written. I relate, as a kid growing up in NYC in the sixties and seventies, there were constant stories like this that I knew of, read about, some very close to home, and they haunted me as well.