Throughout the long, unseasonably cool night of July 13, 1966 — a cultural moment poised smack between the 1963 JFK assassination and the 1969 Manson murders—24-year-old maritime steel worker and lifetime criminal Richard Benjamin Speck raped, tortured, and slaughtered eight student nurses from South Chicago Community Hospital. It is as notorious a crime as exists in the American consciousness and, over 50 years later, it remains distinctly unshakeable.
Speck’s early life sounds like a sadly typical mass-murderer backstory. He grew up in a large, vehemently religious family in rural Illinois, where he suffered severe child abuse at the hands of his alcoholic stepfather. By the time he was a teenager, Speck discovered alcohol himself and committed crimes that escalated as he got older from petty theft to violent assault to what some observers believe was a series of rapes and murders for which he was never convicted.
Circumstances connected the adult Speck to numerous atrocities, including home invasions that ended in sexual assaults and at least one fatal beating, along with the disappearance of three girls in Indiana, and the deaths of four Michigan females ranging in age from 7 to 60.
Each time, Speck managed to elude having the crimes pinned on him, in part because of his work at sea. Once authorities closed in, Speck would hop a ship and take off. His tattoo reading “Born to Raise Hell” seemed a grotesque understatement.
Finally, on that dreadful July evening, Speck used a pistol he stole from a woman he is believed to have raped to force himself into a Chicago townhouse, a residence that served as a dormitory for student nurses. One by one, Speck subjected his eight victims to the most heinous degradations imaginable before beating, strangling, or stabbing them to death.
A ninth nurse in the house, Corazon Amurao, managed to hide under a bed after Speck entered and escape out a window. Her screams alerted neighbors to call the police, but it was too late. Fortunately, she remembered one distinguishing trait of the killer: his “Born to Raise Hell” tattoo. Police managed to take three fingerprints from the crime scene and then faced a series of uphill battles in tracking down the culprit.The Speck murders occurred during an exceptionally tumultuous time in U.S. history overall and in Chicago, in particular. On the day after Speck’s rampage, for example, the Windy City exploded in race riots. Shootouts between police and civilians claimed multiple casualties. Cops arrested 118 people during the citywide melees. Public fear over mass violence was suddenly amplified by a rampaging maniac on the loose.
Complications piled up from there. After teaming with the FBI, local cops linked Speck to fingerprints from a previous arrest in Dallas, but fearing complications from the recent institution of the Miranda Warning law, they held the suspected killer for three weeks before even fully interrogating him. Furthermore, an airline strike that took effect four days prior to the crime and lasted into late summer slowed the investigation even further.
Speck went to trial on April 3, 1967. Twelve days later, a jury found him guilty and the presiding judge sentenced him to death. After the abolition of capital punishment in Illinois, Speck’s sentence was commuted to 50 to 100 years without parole. He died from a heart attack in 1991, just one day shy of his 50th birthday.
A video made in 1988 and released eight years later compounded the “geek show” element of the saga. The tape depicts Speck sporting sizable breasts that resulted from him taking female hormones. He laughs about killing the nurses, brags about being happy in prison, and has sex with another inmate. Public and governmental outrage over the video was immediate.
Time has done nothing to diminish the horror of Speck’s spree. In fact, some observers theorize that America’s collective consciousness never fully recovered from scope and sadism of the crime.
“Before July 13 ,” said chief Speck prosecutor William Martin, “Americans were willing at times to leave their windows open at night, maybe even leave their doors unlocked. When they were in their homes and in their beds, they felt complete security, because we had not experienced the phenomenon of a random killer … with that on the national consciousness, it shattered our innocence.”
Along with Gloria Davy, Suzanne Farris, Merlita Gargullo, Mary Ann Jordan, Patricia Matusek, Valentina Pasion, Nina Jo Schmale, and Pamela Wilkening — the nurses who fell prey to Speck’s ghastly rampage — one final victim may have been any last traces of our nation’s post-WWII optimism and upbeat outlook. Fear, mistrust, and anger would haunt the country’s character, to various degrees, forever after. And so would human monsters, more and more often, on the order of Richard Speck.
To learn more about this case, watch the “And Then There Was One” episode of Investigation Discovery’s A Crime to Remember on ID GO now!
Main photo: Richard Speck mug shot [Illinois Department of Corrections]