On October 18, 1955, two weeks before Halloween, the naked, dead bodies of three boys, two brothers aged eleven and thirteen, and another boy aged fourteen, were found in the forest preserve near the border of the city’s Northwest Side. They had been bound, gagged with tape, sexually assaulted and murdered. Little more than a year later, the naked, frozen bodies of two sisters, aged fifteen and thirteen, were found in a wooded creek bed just outside of Chicago’s Southwest Side. While the city had seen its share of crime, it had been largely confined to gangsters or in ethnic enclaves. Both crimes were committed in neighborhoods known for quiet bungalows. Not only were the children murdered, the two crimes were sexual in nature. Despite massive investigations where an estimated 4,300 people were interviewed, the killers from both crimes remained at large. Doors were locked. Shades were drawn. Children who had previously played in the streets were kept inside. Chicago’s land of “Leave It to Beaver” became “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” Perhaps the first time in its history, the average Chicago family lived in fear.
“These areas on the Northwest Side, Norwood Park, Jefferson Park, gave people, most often second-generation ethnics, a sense of refuge from the turmoil of the inner city,” Richard Lindberg, who co-authored the book, “Shattered Sense of Innocence, The 1955 Murders of Three Chicago Children,” says. “Life revolved around the parish, Little League and bowling. Doors were unlocked, there was no fear of urban crime. After the Schuessler Peterson murders that changed. ”
“After those boys got killed it was different.” Henry Albertz, who grew up blocks from the male victims and was sixteen at the time of the murders said. “Everybody locked their doors. Children had to be in before dark. It changed everything.”
The abduction of all five victims occurred after what was considered a safe, all-American activity—going to the movies. For Robert Peterson, Anton and John Schuessler it was at the Loop Theater to see the Walt Disney True-Life Adventures film, “The African Lion.” The last time the boys were seen alive was at the corner of Milwaukee and Lawrence where bus driver Bruno Mencarini said he dropped them off at 8:52pm. That was October 16. Two days later, a worker eating a sandwich in Robinson Woods near Lawrence and East River Road saw three naked bodies lying in a ditch.
Peterson had been taped across the eyes, nostrils and mouth and been strangled. His head was covered with eleven slash wounds, allegedly caused by a pitchfork or rake. John Schuessler, the elder brother, died from what was described as a “sharp, judo-type blow to the neck.” Also a three-inch piece of skin had been carved out of his body. Investigators stated that Anton had been beaten and choked to death. The neighborhood, Chicago, and eventually the nation reeled in shock.
In the following months, an estimated three-thousand suspects were questioned. Despite the massive manhunt, there were no arrests and the suspect remained at large. The Northwest Side lived in fear.
“There was a creeping fear and cynicism,” Lindberg, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended high school with Tom Peterson, the victim’s younger brother, says. “Kids were told not to get into cars. Doors started getting locked. My mother used to tell me, ‘be careful, you don’t want to end up like the Peterson boy.’”
For Barbara and Patricia Grimes, aged fifteen and twelve, the movie was the latest Elvis Presley release, “Love Me Tender.” The film was playing at the Brighton Theater, 4223 South Archer, about a mile from the sisters’ home at 3634 South Damen. They were expected home by 11:30pm, but as their older sister waited for them at the Archer Avenue bus stop, nobody came. As December 28, 1956, turned into December 29, it became obvious something was wrong. But while the bodies of the three boys were found after a mercifully short period, the disappearance of the Grimes sisters led to a protracted period of waiting. Almost from the beginning there were reports of their sightings. School friends, CTA drivers, security guards and waitresses reported seeing them from Englewood to Lawrence and Central to a restaurant a block from their house to Nashville, Tennessee. In the meantime there was a massive investigation where 15,000 flyers were distributed and 2,000 potential suspects were interviewed. Even Elvis Presley made a plea over the radio stating, “If you are good Elvis Presley fans, go home and ease your mother’s worries.”
But the girls did not appear until January 22, when the nude, frozen bodies of the sisters were found in a ditch in a wooded area near German Church and County Line Roads. Barbara’s face, head and body was covered with narrow stab wounds, resembling those made by an ice pick. Patricia’s body was bruised and strangled. Both bodies had been chewed by rats or other animals. Perhaps as a sign of the times, it was at first stated that the girls had not been molested. Later reports disclosed that the older sister, Barbara, had been sexually assaulted. A media frenzy followed as headlines became rumors and vice versa. The girls’ wake, held at the Wollschlager Funeral Home at 3604 South Hoyne, continued this lurid circus as hundreds of people lined up around the block for two days.
A host of suspects were arrested, including Edward Lee “Bennie” Bedwell, a twenty-one-year-old drifter who resembled Elvis Presley. Bedwell confessed to the murder and said that he and another friend had gone on a two-week drinking spree before murdering the girls. A toxicology report stated that the girls had died hours after the movie and his confession was thrown out. Max Fleig, a seventeen-year-old, and Walter Franz, a fifty-two-year-old self-described “psychic” who described the scene in detail were also prime suspects. But without any hard evidence they could not be charged. Habits changed. One neighborhood girl was forbidden to go to the Brighton Theater. A boy who lived across the street was not allowed to play outside. The Southwest Side continued to live in fear. The case is still unsolved.
Across town the Northwest Side’s most gruesome murder case dragged on. It wasn’t until August of 1994 that Kenneth Hansen, who worked at the Idle Hour Stables near where the bodies were found, was brought to trial for the murder. In 1995, Hansen, then sixty-one, was convicted based mainly on the secondhand testimony of stable hands and others who had been around Hansen. His first conviction was overturned, but Hansen was convicted at a second trial in 2002. With no eyewitnesses, physical evidence and almost fifty years of time passed, many have doubts that Hansen was the only killer.
“I believe Hansen did not act alone,“ Lindberg says. “Part of it is that he was five-foot-six-inches tall and very thin, making it physically impossible for him to overpower three boys, and other facts just don’t jibe. My theory is that Curtis Hansen, his muscular older brother, helped him to subdue the boys and may have killed them around the barn at the Idle Hour Stables.”
Lindberg says others may also have been involved. “The Chicago Police Department had many suspects who were part of a pedophile ring on the Northwest Side. One in particular was a man named Charles Dahlquist, who was six-foot-six-inches, and already under indictment for molesting a boy at the Caldwell Woods forest preserve, but they were all let go. The whole case is a riddle wrapped in an enigma.”
The book, “Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer,” by Tim Cahill and former NBC5 Chicago reporter Russ Ewing explored the theory that a thirteen-year-old John Gacy committed the murders. Gacy’s childhood home was about three-quarters of a mile from where the Schuessler and Peterson boys lived. All four boys bowled, and the three victims had visited two bowling alleys the last day they were seen. Yet as a sickly boy of thirteen, it is unlikely Gacy could have overpowered three boys and driven them to the forest preserve. What is plausible is that the young Gacy repeatedly heard the lurid stories of strangulation and rape. This planted a seed in his mind. A seed which thirty years later led to an unprecedented killing spree where Gacy strangled and raped at least thirty-three young men at his adult home, which was a little over half a mile from where the Schuessler/Peterson boys were raped and strangled. For another generation, Chicago lived in fear.