July 14, 1966 is an infamous day in the annals of American crime. In fact, some argue that Richard Speck’s murderous rampage in Chicago – which claimed the lives of 8 nurses in one night – was the first random mass murder of the 20th century, changing the country forever.
When I was growing up, I heard stories from my mom about the Speck case. She was in nursing school in New Jersey during the summer of 1966, and the murders in Chicago terrified her and her fellow nursing students. They were told to lock their windows when they went to sleep at night and to always walk in groups after the sun went down. In the days the killer remained at large, no one knew whether or not someone was specifically targeting nurses.
The crime was so culturally significant, the hit TV show Mad Men even referenced the infamous case in a 2012 episode.
So who was Richard Speck? And what exactly happened during the “Crime of the Century,” fifty years ago?
Richard Speck was born on December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. You could say it was a fitting coincidence, as Speck led a tumultuous life that brought pain and misery to the people around him. Young Speck was very close to his father, and his early years living in small-town Illinois were relatively innocuous. But when Speck was only 6-years-old, his father passed away, and his life took a sharp left turn.
A few years after his father’s death, Speck’s mother married a hard-drinking Texan with a rap sheet a mile long. Together, they moved the family down to the Lone Star State. Speck was a poor student, and he ended up dropping out of high school at the age of 16. Like his stepfather, Speck developed a drinking problem and became a petty criminal, getting arrested dozens of times in Dallas. From 1963 to 1966, Speck was in and out of trouble for forgery, burglary, and assault, even spending time in the penitentiary. In March 1966, Speck fled Dallas for Illinois after he robbed a store and the police issued a warrant for his arrest.
Speck traveled to Monmouth, Illinois – the town he had lived in as a boy – where some of his family still resided. He found work as a carpenter, but left Monmouth abruptly the next month for Chicago, where one of his sisters lived. Speck left in such a hurry because he knew the police were looking to question him for the second time about the unsolved murder of a woman in town. If you haven’t caught on yet, everywhere Richard Speck went, trouble followed.
Speck landed in Chicago in April 1966 and moved in with his sister. His brother-in-law suggested he become an apprentice seaman with the Merchant Marine. Speck spent some time working on cargo ships on the Great Lakes, but he was kicked off in June for fighting with a ship’s officer. Speck tried to find work on another vessel, eventually traveling to Indiana where he had been promised another job. He was enraged when he arrived only to find his job had been given to another man. That was one day before the murders.
Speck traveled back to Chicago’s South Side, this time to visit the National Maritime Union Hall, where he often went to look for work. Only 150 feet away was an apartment building that housed a number of nurses who worked at the South Chicago Community Hospital. It is probable that Speck had seen nurses coming and going from the building during his previous visits to the Union Hall.
Speck spent the day of July 13, 1966 drinking in taverns near his rooming house, not far from the Union Hall and the nurses’ apartment building. At some point during the day, Speck threatened a 53-year-old woman with a knife and forced her to go to his rooming house with him, where he raped her and stole her handgun. Later that night, Speck made his way to the apartment building near the Union Hall.