Fifty-five years ago, a grisly scene was destined not only to be engraved on Chicagoans' memories but to alter our city's image.
The Tribune's headline screamed "FIND 2 LOST GIRLS SLAIN!" Actually, that was never proved. The saga of the Grimes sisters, Patricia, 13, and Barbara, 15 — whose nude bodies were found along a rural road in southwest Cook County on Jan. 22, 1957 — is the ultimate mystery story. There wasn't a Sherlock Holmes-like breakthrough. Even as other cold cases are solved by DNA evidence or other breaks, to this day it remains unsolved. Even the question of foul play was never confirmed.
The Grimes sisters' case broke between two gruesome murders of young Chicagoans: On Oct. 18, 1955, the nude bodies of three boys, John Schuessler, 13; his brother, Anton Jr., 11; and Robert Peterson, 14, were found in a north suburban forest preserve, and the dismembered body of Judith Mae Andersen, 15, was recovered from Montrose Harbor in August 1957.
Those killings were widely covered on national television, giving Chicago bitter respite from being identified with Al Capone. "Chicago, gangsterdom of the '20s, was a place now where someone went about killing teenagers, apparently with no motive," the Tribune observed.
Coming while parents still worried about kids getting polio — Jonas Salk's vaccine was announced in 1955 — the three cases shaped the childhoods of a generation of Chicagoans. "It isn't safe for children to be on the streets anymore," wrote Dorothy Peterson, Robert's mother, in a sympathy card to Loretta Grimes, Barbara and Patricia's mother. A lot of fathers and mothers had a similar foreboding sense that the age of innocence was over.
The Grimes sisters' story began as a missing persons case. On Dec. 28, 1956, they set out to see the Elvis Presley movie "Love Me Tender" at a neighborhood theater. The girls' Presley fan club membership cards arrived at the family home as the search continued. Their mother pleaded. "If someone is holding them, please let the girls call me." Her ex-husband enlisted fellow truck drivers in the search for the girls.
There were numerous supposed sightings. "A North Shore motorman reported seeing the girls on a train near the Great Lakes Naval Training center," the Tribune wrote. "No, the girls were south of Chicago, in a Blue Island restaurant eating chili and ice cream."
Equally wild speculation followed the discovery of their bodies. From the pulpit of their parish church, the pastor chastised neighbors spreading vicious rumors about the girls. Reportedly, they were seen on West Madison Street, the city's skid row, in the company of "Bennie" Bedwell, a lowlife drifter. That theory was stubbornly supported by Harry Glos, the coroner's chief investigator, until he was fired. "The scientists took the girls off Madison St. and put them into respectability," a bitter Glos told the Tribune, charging his ex-boss with a cover-up.
Bedwell actually confessed, but that undid the case against him because his account didn't jibe with the facts.
Coroner Walter McCarron threw up his hands in frustration, saying: "I'm going to take a vacation." He went to Florida, and the Grimes sisters' deaths became a cold case — never solved but never forgotten. Periodically revisiting a case that emotionally shaped a generation, the Tribune once noted: "The story goes on."
Editor's note: Thanks to Tribune reader Ray Johnson of Brookfield for suggesting this Flashback. Find him online at http://www.hauntdetective.com.
Grimes sisters' deaths, still unsolved, part of series that shook city in 1950s