[MysteriousHeartland.com] German Church is a nondescript avenue running between Willow Springs Road and County Line Road, just a half-mile north of Healing Waters Park. The area is sparsely populated and two streams, Flag and Devil’s Creek, gently wind their way through the nearby woods. During the 1950s, not very many people had a reason to venture out to that particular edge of Cook County, but it was along an isolated stretch of German Church Road near Devil’s Creek on a cold day in January 1957 when a passing motorist discovered the remains of Barbara and Patricia Grimes. The two sisters had been missing for three weeks before a Hinsdale man named Leonard Prescott noticed their nude bodies lying on the outside of the guard rail just before the culvert leading down to Devil’s Creek. Upon identifying the girl’s remains, their father, a truck driver named Joseph, exclaimed, “I tried to tell the police my daughters didn’t run away, but they wouldn’t listen to me.”
It was the end of a long and exhaustive search, but only the beginning of a case that would shock and fascinate Chicago for decades to come. Many writers have declared that moment to be the end of innocence, but it was, in fact, only one in a series of similar incidents stretching back a decade. The deaths of the Grimes sisters were preceded by the murder of three Chicago-area boys whose nude bodies were found in Robinson Woods in 1955. Three other boys disappeared near Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1950. They were dramatic instances in a long and painful string of child murders around the Midwest. At the time of the discovery of the Grimes sisters, none of these crimes had been solved.
In the decades since the girl’s remains were found, many strange stories have been told regarding that lonely stretch of German Church Road. Some involved the ruins of a nearby house the owner abandoned soon after the murders, and which has since been torn down. The other stories concern eerie sounds and phantom automobiles that seem to reenact the day Barbara and Patricia were dumped along the side of the road. None of those experiences can be properly understood, however, without first delving into the circumstances surrounding the unusual case of the Grimes sisters.
It was the end of 1956. Dwight D. Eisenhower had recently defeated Adlai Stevenson in the US presidential race, and the Suez Crisis ended as British and French troops withdrew from the Suez Canal. Barbara and Patricia Grimes, ages 15 and 13, left their Chicago home on December 28, 1956 to watch Love Me Tender at the Brighton Theater on Archer Avenue. Patricia was a fanatical fan of Elvis Presley, who starred in the movie. No one knows if the girls even made it to the theater, although a friend of Barbara’s told police she had last seen the pair at the intersection of Archer Avenue and Hamilton Street. Their mother, Loretta Grimes, reported them missing after they failed to return home. Loretta and her husband Joseph had divorced 11 years earlier and had four other children besides Barbara and Patricia. By all accounts, the girls were happy and gave no indication that they planned to run away.
When their bodies were finally discovered along the roadside it was after a warm period that melted the snow, leading police to believe that the bodies had laid there for several days, perhaps even more than a week. The initial autopsy only deepened the mystery. The examining pathologist did not find any outward signs of violence that would explain a cause of death, nor did he find any signs of rape. Dr. Jerry Kearns, one of the examining physicians, told the Daily Tribune, “it was the first time in his memory that the cause or evidence of death was concealed so well on victims known to have met a violent end.” Patricia, however, was found to have several puncture wounds on her chest three-fourths of an inch deep. While not mortal blows, the wounds would have been painful and might have been signs of torture. Additionally, “the condition of the bodies led [police] to believe the bodies were not kept in a warm place for any length of time between the hour of death and the time they were dumped alongside German Church Road,” the Tribune reported.
In a bizarre twist, the first suspect in the case, a man named Walter Kranz, made an anonymous call to the police two weeks after the disappearance saying that he knew where the girl’s remains would be found. After Leonard Prescott stumbled upon the actual dumping site, police tracked down Kranz and administered a lie detector test. Kranz passed. He denied having killed the girls and said their final resting place had appeared to him in a dream. His prediction hadn’t been too far off—he told police the bodies of the girls were located in a park a mile and a half south of where they were eventually found.
With practically the whole of Chicago on the lookout for the Grimes sisters between December 29 and January 22, police were inundated with possible sightings that came in from far flung areas of the city. There were tens of thousands of young girls who matched the description of Barbara and Patricia. In fact, 12 other girls were reported missing in Chicago during the month of January, all between the ages of 12 and 16. Every lead had to be followed and every possible suspect interrogated, but none seemed to bring investigators any closer to solving the crime. Then, on January 27, the district attorney formerly charged Edward Bedwell, an illiterate 21 year old ne’er-do-well, with the murder of Barbara and Patricia Grimes. Bedwell signed a 14 page confession and reenacted the crime for the police, but portions of his confession were contradicted by the autopsy, which showed that one of the girls had an empty stomach while Bedwell claimed both had consumed alcohol and hotdogs shortly before they died.
Bedwell’s confession chronicled how he and a man named Frank picked up the girls and took them to various taverns and hotels before ultimately knocking them unconscious and leaving them on the side of the road. “Frank” turned out to be William Cole Willingham, who swore that he never saw the Grimes sisters. Furthermore, he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had been working at the time Bedwell claimed they stayed at hotels with the two girls, and that he was an alcoholic who hadn’t driven a car for over a year. Just days later, Bedwell’s confession unraveled and he formally recanted. “I was getting scared of getting roughed up then,” he told the press. “I didn’t know what to do… so I decided I better tell them what they wanted to know.” He accused the Chief of the Sheriff’s Police of beating him into making the confession. The Sheriff denied abusing the subject and stood by his personal conviction that Bedwell was the murderer.
Early in February, the Cook County Coroner announced that the Grimes sisters had died of exposure to cold. Even after weeks of testing, pathologists could not find one single piece of evidence that would indicate a violent end, nor did the girls appear to have been rendered unconscious before they wound up naked on the side of the road. Furthermore, the pathologists determined that two of the three wounds found on Patricia occurred post-mortem when her body was bitten by rodents. At one point, the Cook County Sheriff was heard arguing with the examining physicians. He insisted there had to have been some kind of foul play. “Those girls were found nude in the woods,” the Tribune reporter overheard. “They didn’t just walk there.”
Or did they?
A jury soon ruled that Barbara and Patricia were murdered despite the findings of medical experts. “We the jury are unable to determine how, when, where, or under what circumstances said body or bodies were subjected to conditions causing death,” they declared. “However, from the testimony presented, we the jury find said act to be murder.” The charges against Edward Bedwell were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence, and the case, like the bodies of Barbara and Patricia Grimes, went cold.
Soon after Patricia and Barbara were found, the family living in the house adjacent to the crime scene disappeared leaving everything behind, even their car. Whether they fled to avoid scrutiny in the case, the media circus, or because they couldn’t bear to live there after what had happened, no one ever found out. The property owners denied every interview request even as vandals and those with more sinister intentions slowly took over their home. In the 1970s, Richard Crowe went to what became known as the “Grimes girls house” to investigate the rumors he had heard as a teacher at Lourdes High School. “Visiting the spot with some of my students, I did find the ruins of a large home and evidence to back up this fascinating story,” he wrote. “There were pieces of furniture, children’s toys and appliances strewn about, and food in the kitchen. There was even a 1956 Buick convertible in the garage…”
After a while, the house was nothing more than a shell covered by graffiti—some of it Satanic. Vandals finally burnt down wooden part of the structure sometime in the 1990s, leaving a blackened foundation. Despite the destruction of the house, visitors continued to report strange encounters. In Haunted Illinois, Troy Taylor related that “while the owner never lived there again, people would occasionally see a tall, gaunt man roaming about the property in the spring and fall.” By the time I made it out to the property in 2003, there was nothing left but a pile of rubble and a weed-choked driveway. My friend and I thought it strange that a stone grotto was tucked away in the woods near Devil’s Creek, but otherwise the area seemed innocuous. All traces of the gruesome discovery 46 years earlier had vanished.
Not so, according to a number of eyewitnesses who have reported seeing or hearing phantom automobiles along German Church Road near the place where the Grimes sisters were found. In Windy City Ghosts, Dale Kaczmarek explained, “For those people living nearby it’s been a common occurrence to hear the sounds of a car screeching to a halt in front of the guardrails in the dead of the night. They hear the car open its doors, something landing in the weeds, the doors shut and then the car peeling away.” Ursula Bielski entertained the notion that these were auditory hallucinations brought on by previous knowledge of the case, but Richard Crowe retold a story in which the participants, on a trip to the abandoned house in 1982, witnessed a car come up the driveway without its headlights. The group scattered, only to discover that a metal cable was still strung across the entrance to the driveway, preventing any vehicles from entering.
From where do these ghostly manifestations originate? In his book Voices from the Chicago Grave, Scott Markus theorized that the killer’s guilt—whoever or wherever he might be—causes him to dwell on the murders to this very day. “As this event haunts him, it manifests itself in a visual or auditory form,” he explained. Like Mr. Markus, the witnesses to this ghostly phenomenon assume the Grimes sisters were murdered and then dumped onto the side of the road, but there is no evidence to support that notion. As pathologists reported at the time, the girls had no mortal wounds, nor had they ingested anything life threatening. They could have walked for at least a half an hour before they succumbed to the cold.
But what were the girls doing without clothes a few yards away from the border between Cook and DuPage County? How did they get there? This mystery, like that of the abandoned property near Devil’s Creek and the phantom automobiles along German Church Road, may never be solved. Until the one responsible for their disappearance steps forward, the deaths of Barbara and Patricia Grimes will remain a gruesome stain on the history of a region already haunted by the past.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 23 January 1957.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 1 January 1957.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 24 January 1957.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 25 January 1957.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 29 January 1957.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 31 January 1957.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 9 February 1957.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 12 January 1957.
Richard T. Crowe, Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural (Oak Park: Carolando Press, 2000, 2001), 244.
Troy Taylor, Haunted Illinois: The Travel Guide to the History & Hauntings of the Prairie State (Alton: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2004), 263.
Dale Kaczmarek, Windy City Ghosts: An Essential Guide to the Haunted History of Chicago (Oak Lawn: Ghost Research Society Press, 2005), 89-90.
Ursula Bielski, Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998), 144.
Scott Markus, Voices from the Chicago Grave: They’re Calling. Will You Answer? (Holt: Thunder Bay Press, 2008), 244.
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