Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Grimes Sisters' Murders

I wrote this as a ''Guest Essay'' for the Doings-Weekly of Burr Ridge, an online paper which is part of the  Sun Times Media group. Some of my old friends in Chicago will remember this time gone by.

By the time I was 8 years old, growing up in the far western suburbs of Chicago in 1955, I was already an avid reader. At that tender age, I already had a small book library of my own, and my aunts and uncles used to subscribe me to youth periodicals. Newspapers were a daily treat, with Sunday being the biggest of them all. I would lie on the living room rug, reading each section from front to back.

That year, in October, a story appeared reporting the apparent murder of three young boys. The Schuessler-Peterson murders, as they would soon be known, were the precursor to what would soon become the loss of innocence for our family, and actually for an entire city.

According to reports at the time, two days after their disappearance, the boys' naked and bound bodies were discovered in a shallow ditch about 100 feet east of the Des Plaines River. A salesman, who had stopped to eat his lunch at the Robinson Woods Indian Burial Grounds, spotted them and called the police. The coroner stated that the cause of death was "asphyxiation by suffocation.

The three boys had been dead about 36 hours when they were discovered.

The mental picture of the bodies of three young boys, naked and thrown in a ditch in the neighboring county, wormed its way into my young mind. It was probably then that the stories of what can happen when a child "accepts candy from a stranger" started to make sense to me. I know I had been counseled even prior to that time -- particularly by my mother -- but I think parents began to intensify their warnings after that event.

A little more than 15 months later, another tragic discovery would shock the city.

On Jan. 22, 1957, the frozen, nude bodies of Barbara and Patricia Grimes would be found 25 days after their disappearance. Three days after the Christmas of 1956, the girls went missing after going to the movies to see Elvis in "Love Me Tender" for the 11th time. During the next weeks, even Elvis himself made a plea for the missing girls to return home, based on the assumption that they had run away. The hope was that the sisters, both avid fans of Elvis, would be moved by his personal message.

Runaways or not, they would never return home again. There were a number of conflicting stories and unverifiable sightings in the weeks following the disappearance. But no matter what, the actions of the girls after leaving the theater somehow put them in harm's way and brought about a tragic end less than four weeks later. 

At 9 years old, I followed the story with a deeper awareness than I had followed the Schuessler-Peterson murders. My younger brother, not quite 7 years old at the time, had been killed in an auto accident just eight months before the Grimes sisters' bodies were discovered. Death now had a new meaning for me, and I was probably still in shock over my own loss by the time I read about the girls' bodies being found.

The phrase "nude, frozen bodies" became like a dark, evil mantra that stuck in my mind. It still affects me today.

Up until that time, I can recall coming home from school to an unlocked house -- my lunch on the kitchen table -- and returning to school alone, not bothering to lock up behind me.

Those days ended abruptly. 

I'm sure that the Grimes sisters' murders erased any vestiges of trust in humanity that my parents might have had. I'm equally sure that most of the other Chicagoans of that day reacted in much the same way.

If there was any innocence left in the mindset of the City of Chicago regarding the possibility of horrible crimes against children, I think it died with two teen-aged sisters early in 1957.


  1. Innocence lost is like a dream questioned .

  2. I wrote a short book about the Grimes sisters. I was impressed with your mention of your brother's death relative to this event. I think it stuck in my mind because, not only did I live in the McKinley Park neighborhood in 1956, but my mother was victim of a hit-and-run accident in front of our house in Pennsylvania when I had just turned nine. Death was real.