Speck, Richard Benjamin

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Speck, Richard Benjamin

(b. 6 December 1941 in Kirk-wood, Illinois; d. 5 December 1991 in Joliet, Illinois), mass murderer whose brutal slaying of eight student nurses transformed the popular perception of murder in America.

The seventh of eight children born to Benjamin Franklin Speck, a farmer and logger, and Mary Margaret Carbaugh, a homemaker, Speck was raised in a strict Presbyterian household. After his father’s death in 1947, Speck’s mother married Carl August Lindberg, a hard-drinking Texan who worked in the insurance business. Together, they moved with her two youngest children from Monmouth, Illinois, to Dallas, Texas. Prone to violent rages when drunk, Lind-berg regularly beat his wife and abused Speck physically and psychologically. A poor student and social outcast, Speck struggled through grammar school and enrolled in Crozier Technical High School, dropping out in 1958 after one semester. He began running with a gang of older delinquents and soon settled into a life of petty crime. By the age of twenty-four, Speck had been arrested forty-one times and had served several stints in jail. He also had held various menial jobs such as working at a 7-Up bottling plant and driving a truck for a meatpacking company.

On 19 January 1962 Speck married fifteen-year-old Shirley Annette Malone. A cruel and irresponsible husband, Speck habitually beat his wife and often forced sex upon her. The couple had already separated and Speck was serving time for disorderly conduct when their daughter was born in 1962. While in jail he acquired a crude tattoo on his left forearm—the infamous “Born to Raise Hell.” Following a felony burglary conviction, Speck was sent to the Texas penitentiary at Huntsville from September 1963 to January 1965. Two days after his parole, Speck was arrested for assaulting a woman with a knife and returned to Huntsville until his release in July 1965. In March 1966, the same month Shirley was granted a divorce, an arrest warrant was issued in Speck’s name for the burglary of a supermarket. Fearing another prison sentence, he fled to Chicago.

Speck arrived at the home of his sister and her husband and soon traveled to Monmouth, Illinois, where he visited family and friends but spent most of his time loafing in bars and steeping himself in crime. In April 1966 Speck allegedly entered the home of a sixty-five-year-old woman and, after raping her at knifepoint, absconded with money and jewelry. Speck was also a suspect in several burglaries as well as the murder of a barmaid, Mary Kay Pierce. Fearing that the police were closing in, Speck abruptly returned to Chicago. He landed a job as a deckhand with the Inland Steel Company aboard the Clarence B. Randall but was soon fired for assaulting an officer. On 11 July 1966 he sought work at the National Maritime Union’s hiring hall on Chicago’s shabby South Side, but no berths were available.

Disgusted, jobless, and broke, a furious Speck continued drinking heavily, and on the night of 13 July he entered the back door of a townhouse at 2319 East 100th Street near the union hall. The townhouse was the residence of eight student nurses from nearby South Chicago Community Hospital. Corazon Amurao, an exchange student from the Philippines, was the first to encounter Speck. Brandishing a switchblade and a pistol, Speck discovered five more nurses—Merlita Gargullo, Valentina Pasion, Pamela Wilkening, Patricia Matusek, and Nina Schmale—and herded them into a large bedroom, where he bound each with strips torn from a sheet.

Assuring the frightened nurses that he intended no harm, he pocketed their cash, explaining that he needed it to go to New Orleans to ship out. A sixth nurse, Gloria Davy, returned from a date and was likewise bound. Speck chatted aimlessly with his captives until 12:30 in the morning when two more nurses, Suzanne Farris and Mary Ann Jordan (a friend planning to spend the night), returned. When they resisted Speck, his response was swift and brutal. He plunged the knife into Farris’s chest and stabbed Jordan eighteen times before strangling her with a stocking. His bloodlust aroused, Speck began dragging the other nurses one by one to different rooms before stabbing and/or strangling them. Only Amurao survived the slaughter by hiding beneath a bed until Speck left.

Amurao was able to provide police with a detailed description of Speck—six feet tall and 160 pounds with slicked-back blondish hair, a severely pockmarked face, a slow Southern drawl, and a “Born to Raise Hell” tattoo on his arm. With the help of a composite sketch, police traced Speck to the union hall and were able to match his fingerprints to those found at the crime scene. Now the target of a massive manhunt, Speck fled to Chicago’s Skid Row with the vague hope of hopping a freight train out of town. Instead he checked into the Starr Hotel, where on the night of 17 July 1966 he slashed his arms with a broken wine bottle in a suicide attempt. Bleeding and near death, he was taken to Cook County Hospital where he was arrested after an intern recognized the telltale tattoo.

On 15 April 1967 Speck was found guilty of eight counts of murder. The conviction was due largely to Amurao’s dramatic courtroom identification of Speck. Although he was sentenced to die in the electric chair, Speck’s life was spared when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in June 1971. He was resentenced to Stateville Correctional Center at Joliet, Illinois, for fifty to one hundred years for each murder. On 5 December 1991 Speck suffered a massive heart attack and died at nearby Silver Cross Hospital. His body, which was unclaimed, was cremated and the ashes scattered at an unknown location. Speck never admitted his guilt, steadfastly maintaining that his mind was so clouded by alcohol and drugs he had no memory of that bloody night. A prison-made videotape uncovered in 1996, however, showed a grinning and unrepentant Speck describing the murders in grisly detail.

Richard Speck forever changed the face of modern crime. The sheer brutality and senselessness of the slayings shocked a nation from its complacency and imprinted upon the popular imagination the terrible pockmarked face of a tattooed drifter as the symbol of unbridled evil. A certain American innocence and assurance died along with the eight student nurses. If those innocents could be slaughtered by a stranger for no apparent reason, then henceforth no one could be safe, no security assumed. Richard Speck’s legacy was the beginning of America’s chilling age of modern mass murders and serial killings.

An account of Speck’s life and six months in prison awaiting trial, Jack Altman and Marvin Ziporyn, M.D., Born to Raise Hell: The Untold Story of Richard Speck (1967), presents an intriguing, though slightly sympathetic, psychological portrait of Speck gleaned from numerous interviews. Dennis L. Breo and William J. Martin, The Crime of the Century: Richard Specif and the Murder of Eight Student Nurses (1993), is the best and most thorough account of the life and crimes of Richard Speck. Martin was the assistant state’s attorney who prosecuted Speck. Biographical videos include Great Crimes and Trials of the 20th Century: John Wayne Gacy/Richard Speck (1993); Biography: Richard Speck (1998); Investigative Reports: Richard Speck (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (6 Dec. 1991).

Michael Mclean