Award-winning poet, author and blogger John Guzlowski discusses the horrific murders of children in the city where he grew up, and how they relate to his new crime novel, Suitcase Charlie.
My novel Suitcase Charlie begins with a Prologue, a statement from an Associated Press wire report from October 18, 1955.
The bodies of three boys were found nude and dumped in a ditch near Chicago today at 12:15 p.m.
They were Robert Peterson, 14, John Schuessler, 13, and brother Anton Schuessler, 11.
They had been beaten and their eyes taped shut.
The boys were last seen walking home from a downtown movie theater where they had gone to see “The African Lion.”
As I wrote in my recent essay “Suitcase Charlie and Me,” the murder of the Schuessler brothers and Bobby Peterson is at the heart of my novel Suitcase Charlie. It’s what terrified me as a kid and haunted a lot of the other kids I grew up with. Until we got older and went to high school and learned that fearing something isn’t cool, we feared stuff, and one of the fears we most felt was the fear of the person who killed John, Anton, and Bobby.
There’s not a lot actually about their murders in Suitcase Charlie. The first murder in the novel is discovered about seven months after the Schuessler-Peterson murders. So the detectives in my novel worry that it may be the same killer. They talk about how the investigation of the Suitcase Charlie murders is or isn’t like the earlier investigation. Also, people in the neighborhood of the killings wonder about a connection. Like I said, there’s not a lot about the earlier murders in my novel. My novel isn’t about them.
But I know some readers are interested in the Schuessler-Peterson case. They’ve asked me about the novel’s Prologue, so I’m going to talk a little about the case that inspired my novel.
The day the boys disappeared, Sunday, October 16, 1955, they were seen in a number of places: some buildings downtown in the Loop and some bowling alleys near their home on Montrose Avenue. The cops figured that after seeing the movie The African Lion the boys hung out downtown until about 6 pm, wandering around, seeing stuff, probably doing the kind of goofing around I talk about in my “Suitcase Charlie and Me” essay. They were spotted on Montrose at a bowling alley around 7:45 pm. One of the men working there said some older guy was talking to them, some guy who seemed friendly. The boys left a little while later and started walking and hitching down Montrose Avenue toward home.
They were last seen alive about 3 miles away, getting into a car near the intersection of Lawrence and Milwaukee. That was at 9:05 that night.
Two days later, on Tuesday, October 18, their bodies were discovered outside the Chicago city limits, in a ditch in the Robinson Woods Forest Preserve, near the Des Plaines River.
A liquor salesman was taking his lunch in a parking lot there that day. When he looked up from his sandwich, he saw what he thought was a manikin. It turned out to be the body of a young boy, naked with his eyes and mouth taped shut with adhesive tape. Near him were two other naked bodies with eyes and mouths taped. All three boys had died the same way, asphyxiation.
What followed was one of the most extensive investigations in the history of the Chicago Police Department. Between the date the boys’ bodies were found and 1960 when the Chicago Tribune ran an article updating this cold case, more than 44,000 people with some kind of information about the murders were interviewed. More than 3,500 suspects were questioned.
None of it led to the discovery of the killer of the 3 boys.
However, what did follow were some additional murders, ones that seemed to share similarities with the Schuessler-Peterson case.
December 28, 1956, a little over a year after the Schuessler-Peterson murders, two young sisters, Barbara, 15, and Patricia 13, went to the Brighton Theater on Archer Avenue to see an Elvis Presley movie, Love me Tender. Four weeks later, on January 22, 1957, their naked bodies were found behind a guard rail on a country road in an unincorporated west of Chicago. Their bodies like those of the Schuessler-Peterson boys had apparently been thrown out of a car. Unlike the boys, the girls had not died of asphyxiation. Their deaths were thought to have been caused by secondary shock due to exposure. The investigation into the cause of their deaths led nowhere.
Over the years, a number of other murders in the area have been linked to the Schuessler-Peterson killings. John Wayne Gacy, the notorious “Killer Clown” guilty of murdering at least 33 young boys, was suspected by Detective John Sarnowski, one of the detectives working the Schuessler-Peterson cold case, of possibly being involved with the murders of John, Anton, and Bobby. Brach Candy Heir, Helen Brach was also linked with the Schuessler brothers and Bobby Peterson. She disappeared in February 1977 and was declared legally dead in 1984. One of the suspects in this case was a racketeer and stable owner Silas Jayne, a man also for a while a suspect in the deaths of the Grimes Sisters.
So who killed the Schuessler boys and their friend Bobby Peterson?
The best guess is Kenneth Hansen.
His name came up during a Federal investigation in the early 1990s of arson in horse racing stables around Chicago. A number of the people being investigated told the Federal authorities that Hansen had repeatedly over the years spoken about his involvement with the killing of John, Anton, and Bobby. Prosecutors at the trial proved that Hansen picked up the boys while they were hitching, abused two of them, and then killed all three when they threatened to tell their parents. He was sentenced to 200-300 years for his crimes and died in prison in September 14, 2007.
More on the Murders
About John Guzlowski
Born in a refugee camp after World War II, John Guzlowski came with his family to the United States as a Displaced Person in 1951. His parents had been Polish slave laborers in Nazi Germany. Growing up in the immigrant and refugee neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, he met hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead comrades, and women who had walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians. His poetry, fiction, and essays try to remember them and their voices.
His poems also remember his parents, who survived their slave labor experiences in Nazi Germany. A number of these poems appear in his books Language of Mules, Lightning and Ashes (Steel Toe Books), and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald (Finishing Line Press).
Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, reviewing the Polish translation of Language of Mules, for the journal Tygodnik Powszechny, said, “This volume astonished me.”
Connect with the Author