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.
Speck forced his way into the nurses’ residence and, during the early morning hours of July 14, methodically murdered 8 nurses who lived there. The nurses were all held in one room, and Speck took them, one-by-one, to another room where the unbelievable carnage took place. Speck left the apartment building, but he didn’t realize he had made a mistake…one of the nurses, 23-year-old Corazon Amurao, managed to hide under a bed and went unnoticed by Speck during his rampage.
The following morning, Amurao emerged from her hiding spot and discovered the 8 bodies. She described the man to police as having a pockmarked face, and a tattoo on his left arm that read “Born To Raise Hell.” A composite sketch of the killer was splashed on the front page of Chicago’s newspapers. For a few days, the nation was on edge as a manhunt ensued.
Three days later, on July 17, an ambulance transported a man from a sleazy hotel on Chicago’s “skid row” to the hospital. The man had slashed his wrists with a broken bottle in a suicide attempt, and his arms were covered in blood. As he was cleaning dried blood from the man’s left arm, the attending physician noticed a tattoo and immediately realized who his patient was. The tattoo read “Born To Raise Hell.” He had found Richard Speck, the most wanted man in America.
Speck was found guilty and sentenced to death at his 1967 trial. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, so Speck was re-sentenced to life in prison. The man who committed the “Crime of the Century” died in prison in 1991, one day short of his 50th birthday.
That seemed to be the end of Richard Speck’s story…until 1996, when a bizarre videotape of the imprisoned Speck, apparently filmed in 1988, surfaced. The video showed Speck wearing panties, snorting cocaine, and performing oral sex on another prisoner. Speck had been taking female hormones, so his appearance had drastically altered by the time the video was shot; he had by then developed breasts. In the video, Speck can be heard to say, “If they only knew how much fun I was having in here, they would turn me loose.”
Ugh, creepy on all levels.