On true mercy

“Stop me before I kill more,” was the famous line left on a victim’s apartment wall by the Lipstick Killer. This was in Chicagoland, back in the 1940s. Or rather, the message was, “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself”; but I prefer the crisper, edited version.

It is some time since I looked into the case of William Heirens (1928–2012), the gentleman who, for at least three grisly murders, was arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for sixty-five years. Nevertheless, I remember it in outline. Alas, the cops made such a bungle of everything they touched at the scene of each crime, and were so fiendish in their methods of interrogation, as to cast doubt on the confession they extracted from the man. Later, he tried his luck (unsuccessfully) by retracting it. The police evidence would fail on multiple technicalities, today. The contemporary press added details, sewn from whole cloth. They provided a Jekyll and Hyde retelling, and various other gratuitous psycho-thriller story lines, to enthrall their bug-eyed readers.

The cops probably had the right man, however. His own defence attorneys thought he was guilty, and (corruptly) helped the prosecutors get a conviction. In what seems to have been a farce of a trial, in which the police compounded the mess they had made, a compromise was hashed out, in which Heirens was put away in gaol “forever,” but not sent to the electric chair.

He was an interesting case; the perfect antinomian, had it not been for such traces of conscience as the lipstick message. Not a cold-blooded killer, as it were, but an idealistic one: perversely attracted to crime as “a calling.”

The product of a broken home, like most criminals, Heirens had begun wandering the streets to stay away from his feuding parents. Neither showed much interest in him, or what he got up to. He stole plenty, but never benefited from his crimes. He sold nothing he took, took nothing that he wanted, and often hid his loot where he could not retrieve it.

Caught young, he was sent to a reformatory run by Benedictine monks. They discovered that he could pass academic tests at the genius level, so on release at age sixteen he was waived through high school and sent as a student to the University of Chicago. He was, by one account, quite popular, especially with the girls: a first rate ballroom dancer, and when he wanted to be, a charmer.

Formal learning bored him, however, and soon he was off marauding again. He had a flair for this, avoiding easy marks. I’ve met such people, including one some decades ago who burgled a refrigerator. He didn’t need one, but was excited by the challenge. It was all a game. He had started as a book-thief, culminating in the theft of a complete encyclopaedia. He could not help boasting of his skill and prowess. I wonder, today, what he did next; he thought hot-wiring cars would be too easy. (I tried to turn him in, but failed for want of evidence.)

By age eighteen, Heirens’s remarkable criminal career was over (thanks to his final arrest), but till then he was blossoming as an infernal artist, taking on ever more daring and ambitious schemes.

Doubts cast on his commission of the three murders (and suspicions of several more), began with their nature. They did not look like the acts of an interrupted burglar; no valuables had been taken when he left each scene, apparently at leisure. But they were not sex crimes, or otherwise conventionally psychopathic, even though Heirans was discovered to have the works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his small but impressive home library. For again: it seemed all of his increasingly monstrous crimes were committed as ends in themselves; as “art for art’s sake.”

A kind of Raskolnikov in this respect. He thinks the moral law does not apply to him, only to other, lesser souls. He is above it, a “special case,” a Napoleon not bound by any received rules. Like Raskolnikov, he might decide that he is serving some higher cause; yet also like Raskolnikov, he cannot settle on a higher cause to serve.

My curiosity about the Lipstock Killer was aroused by that line, “Stop me before I kill more.” As a friend suggested, it is the cri de coeur of the modern liberal. He does things to see if he can get away with them, and when he finds that he can (individually or collectively) he tries to get away with something bigger. Yet he is an “altruist,” in the sense that he isn’t doing anything for himself. He is snobbishly above crass, material self-interest.

Often — given a society increasingly unable to recognize evil acts as objectively disordered — he succeeds. He has some real and growing impact on other people’s lives, for he is objectively inverting their moral order. He expects pushback; expects to fail, eventually. But this never seems to happen. It is as the Lipstick Killer scrawled: he cannot help himself. A tiny remaining glint of conscience perceives his ultimate destination: Hell. Secretly, he wants someone to care enough to stop him before he arrives there.

And this, not for the sake of his future victims, but for his own sake.

We misunderstand this mindset, because we assume it has some conscious end in view. Surely, Hell cannot be a conscious destination. I have found in my own conversations, that the liberal, however smart, can articulate no final end. It is as if the answer doesn’t matter; he has never really thought about it; about what the consequences would be if he actually got everything he wanted. He finds that an irritating question; it is beneath his intelligence, to identify some arbitrary point at which he would be satisfied. There is no such point, for a “progressive.” The next day he would have to “move on.”

Similarly, when I compare liberal demands of the 1960s, with those of today, I can account for them in no other way. It is like a Sisyphean pushing of the envelope. We have already surpassed the wildest dreams of the social and political idealists of that time, half a century ago. Disaster has followed each of the liberal advances; and yet the resistance of society to what I call “criminal idealism” is less and less.

It is important to note that a Lipstick Killer, or liberal, can never be happy. I mean by this that he will never derive pleasure from his accomplishments. Instead, each makes him more bitter, and leaves him with more scores to settle, against the people who failed to stop him. As the writing on the wall explained, he actually wants to be stopped, by some maternal, or better, “patriarchal” authority. But like his own parents, they always let him down.

Perhaps some amateur psychologist, such as myself, could say it all started with his parents, who couldn’t be bothered to restrain the lad, their attention having been entirely absorbed in their own “issues.” The kid is just a nuisance: let him find his own way.

It is — not always, of course, but usually — the unhappy childhood that makes the liberal. He campaigns with such passion to destroy the “traditional family,” and replace it with something strange, partly because he resents his own upbringing; and partly from the instinctive desire to replenish liberal ranks. For busted families mean more unhappy, disoriented children, who will grow up demanding political action; or at least, more crime to afflict the contented and well-adjusted, who characteristically resist “change.” It’s not about the money; it’s about the pain. The ideal of “equality” is to spread it around.

But we should care; and as the Catholic Church has so long taught, it is not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the liberal’s own soul. True mercy requires that he be stopped.