The Richard Speck Murders: The Most Horrifying Mass Killing You’ve Never Heard Of
You know what they say: Every non-murder is alike, but every murder is horrifying in its own way. The murder of eight student nurses by Richard Speck on July 14, 1966 is uniquely chilling because it seems to have been a completely random atrocity. Speck didn’t know any of his victims, there wasn’t any inciting incident, he wasn’t some kind of frothing anti-nurser -- he just wandered in and started stabbing. That might be why so many people have done their best to pick it apart over the last fifty-plus years.
In 1966, Speck was a 25-year-old drifter and alcoholic who’d been arrested 41 times, mostly for theft and fraud. Still, he only served a total of a few years in prison, thanks to a computer error that resulted in his early release on an assault sentence and lawyers who, on one occasion, argued a stabbing down to “disturbing the peace.” It’s good to be a white guy.
He Wasn’t Terribly Bright
Just a few months before the mass murder that made him a national boogeyman, Speck stole 70 cartons of cigarettes from a grocery store and then started selling them in the parking lot. It didn’t take a master detective to connect the dots, leading Speck to flee Texas, where he’d lived most of his life, for Chicago.
Escalating to Murder
Though his violence had previously been mostly limited to his ex-wife and whatever sorry son of a bitch found themselves in a bar fight with Speck, he escalated in Chicago to rape and murder, first assaulting a 65-year-old woman while robbing her home and then (probably) murdering a local barmaid and hiding her body in a hog house he’d built. The items stolen from the robbery victim were later found in a hotel room he’d abandoned, though he was never conclusively connected to the barmaid’s murder (but come on).
The Day Before
On July 12, Speck showed up for a job he was expecting to get on an oil tanker and found that someone else had taken his spot, so he did what most of us would do in the face of such frustration and disappointment: went to the bar. Unlike most of us, hopefully, after drinking most of the day and the next, he lured a woman from the bar to his hotel room, where he raped her and stole her gun, then apparently wandered the streets until he found a house that looked like good robbing.
The Richard Speck Murders
Just before midnight on July 13, Speck broke into a townhouse, intending to burglarize it but deciding on a whim to kill all the student nurses who were using the house as a dorm. He tied the hands of the six students who were at home with strips of fabric, locked them in a room, then brought them out one by one to stab and/or strangle them. He was interrupted a few times by other students returning home from a night out at the worst possible time, killing a total of eight women.
When she realized what was happening, one of the students rolled under a bed to hide. With most psychopaths, this probably would have been a fairly fruitless plan, but it was all she had, and luckily, dumbass Speck seemed to lose count of how many victims he started with. She stayed there for several hours to make super sure he’d left, then freed her hands and called for help.
Police Ignored a Tip From a Drifter
Within two days, police had shown enough people the sketch based on the survivor’s description of the killer to identify him as Richard Speck, and so had Claude Lunsford. He found himself drinking on a hotel fire escape with Speck and later saw his photo in the newspaper, probably freaked out a lot, and called the police to let them know where to find him. Incredibly, they ignored this phone call, and Speck wasn’t tracked down until he realized he’d been caught, attempted suicide, and was taken to the hospital, where he was identified by the type of person police believe (that is, a doctor).
A Surprise Cameo By the Miranda Rights
Police were initially unsure what to do with Speck, as the Supreme Court case establishing Miranda rights was decided only a month before the murders and they really, really didn’t want this one thrown out if they made a constitutional oopsie. As a result, Speck was held for three weeks without questioning, which is a little constitutionally sketchy itself.
But He Did Get a Speedy Trial
It turns out they didn’t need to trick a confession out of him. With an incredibly convincing eyewitness and, oh, also a ton of fingerprint evidence at the scene, it took a jury only 45 minutes to convict Speck of eight counts of murder.
The XYY Myth
Around the time of Speck’s trial, scientists were developing a theory that men born with an extra Y chromosome were more prone to violence, so his lawyers explored that as a possible defense. It turned out Speck didn’t have an extra chromosome and “XYY syndrome” doesn’t really exist, but that didn’t stop his lawyers from (unsuccessfully) arguing that on appeal.
Organic Brain Syndrome
What Speck did have, according to one psychiatrist who treated him in prison, was organic brain syndrome stemming from a fall from a tree as a child that led to an intolerance to alcohol and caused him to fly into uncontrollable rages when he was drunk. This squares with earlier statements from a probation officer, who said “When Speck is drinking, he will fight or threaten anybody, when he’s sober or unarmed, he couldn’t face down a mouse,” and it’s probably the best explanation we’ll ever get for his actions. Of course, this psychiatrist was subsequently dismissed from Speck’s defense and his job when it came to light that he was writing a book about Speck, so he had some incentive to uncover a mindblowing explanation, but let us have this.
Speck’s lawyers took his case all the way to the Supreme Court but only succeeded in getting his death sentence overturned because it was revealed that potential jurors who opposed the death penalty got to get away without doing jury duty. Instead, he was sentenced to 50 to 150 years for each count, to be served consecutively, meaning he was on the hook for 400 to 1,200 years. If he ever wanted to see the sky again, he’d have had to discover the secret to immortality.
The End of a Life Sentence
Spoiler: Speck failed to discover the secret to immortality. He died in prison in 1991 at the age of 49 from a heart attack, and when nobody claimed his body, prison officials unceremoniously scattered his ashes. His sister later said she feared, probably extremely correctly, that any grave he had would be defaced forever.
An American Horror Story
The Richard Speck murders inspired several movies and episodes of TV crime procedurals, but they were probably most famously portrayed in the first season of American Horror Story, though their version of Speck only kills two women in a comparatively less gruesome manner. Yes, American Horror Story actually classed something up.
This Weird Prison Tape Situation
In 1996, Illinois lawmakers gathered to watch a video of Speck snorting cocaine, discussing his crimes way too casually, flaunting breasts that he’d grown after taking smuggled hormone injections, and having sex with another man in prison. It’s not clear why -- they were already aware of corruption in state prisons and taking action against it, and Speck had been dead for five years at that point. It just sounded real weird, you know?
Top image: Dallas Police Department/Wikimedia Commons