Horror isn’t always about make-believe monsters. True crime stories have provided the inspiration for dozens of horror movies. Sometimes, the killers who stalk the night are just ordinary people. Sometimes, the killers are real.
Chicago is something of an epicenter for notorious crime. The early part of the 20th century brought with it labor riots, bootlegging, and mafia crime, including the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre; by the 1980’s, gang violence was making headlines. But for all of the dark spots on its history, Chicago remains a proud and thriving city; the people soldier on, seemingly able to forget the violence of their collective past. In spite of this, however, the remains a singular crime that so horrified the populace that it shook the city to its core. It happened in 1966.
By the time Richard Speck arrived in Illinois as an adult, he had racked up a record of 41 arrests and one outstanding warrant in his adopted home state of Texas. His previous arrests had been primarily for theft, drunkenness, and barroom brawls, but the troubled man’s violent streak took an even darker bend after he got the news that his estranged wife remarried only two days following their divorce decree. Perhaps spurred by his anger at the former Mrs. Speck, his criminal career began targeting women. During the month Speck spent living in Monmouth, Illinois, two violent rapes occurred, the victim of the second dying from her injuries. By the time police zeroed in on Speck as a suspect, he was gone, having escaped them by mere hours. Perhaps if they had detained him the first time he was questioned – some days earlier – the horror to come could have been avoided.
Speck stayed with his married sister, a former nurse herself, and her family in Chicago, and was taken under the wing of his brother in law, who went out of his way to get Speck involved in a respectable career with the National Maritime Union. In and out of work, due in part to an emergency appendectomy as well as another drunken quarrel, Speck became acquainted with a nurse who had worked at the hospital where he had received his surgery. Though his prospects had seemed to look up, a bevy of near-misses situated Speck for the crime for which he would become infamous. He missed out on a spot on a ship to Vietnam, and time later grew angry at having missed another position on another ship. Put out of his sister’s house, he stayed at the NMU dormitory – mere blocks away from the townhouses that held the South Chicago Community Hospital senior student nurses’ dormitories.
The far left townhouse is the former nurses’ dormitory.
Late into the night on the 13th of July, 1966, Richard Speck broke into a townhouse that served as the nurses’ dormitory. What happened next both turns the stomach and twists the mind. There were nine women in the dormitory that night, eight who lived there and another who was just spending the night. Carrying only a knife, Speck rounded up the nurses into a single room, and drew them out, one by one, to be raped, stabbed, and strangled. Though he later claimed his intent had only been to burglarize the dormitory, he methodically killed every woman he found – eight, in total. Eight had lived there, and eight had died. But that night, they’d had a friend visiting; there were nine in the house, and one survived. Many believe Speck knew of the eight that lived there, and expected to find only eight that night. Perhaps it was his planning for only eight – for in spite of his claims, many believe the entire murder spree had been premeditated – that allowed the lone survivor to live.
One body was left in the living room. Seven more were left on the upper floors of the house, in bathrooms and bedrooms. Seasoned police officers ran from the scene to vomit after what they had witnessed. How anyone might have survived the slaughter, they could barely understand. Cora Amurao told them: She had hidden beneath a bed, waiting for him to leave, then crawled out onto a window ledge, screaming for help.
Some were strangled with bed sheets. Some were gagged. Some had their necks broken, or their throats slit. One had her eye put out by the knife. Some were stabbed through the heart. One was stabbed more than eighteen times. Another had a cut so deep on her throat that her voice box was completely bisected. They were strewn about like broken dolls, some piled atop one another, perhaps forced to stare at the corpses of their friends as they themselves were abused and murdered.
The city had seen nothing like it before, and was put on edge. As the manhunt ensued, young women waited in terror for the perpetrator to be caught, locking their windows and some even barricading doors at night in fear that they may be targeted. Four days of terror ensued before Speck was finally targeted and arrested, following a suicide attempt. He had been identified by his tattoo; it read ‘Born to Raise Hell’.
Speck was eventually sentenced to death, though legislative changes in the years following his sentencing commuted the sentence to life imprisonment with possibility of parole. His chance at parole was continually denied, and he died in custody in 1991, the day before what would have been his 50th birthday. Subsequent autopsy found strange malformations in his brain, but the samples were later lost and further study could not be made.
Though controversies would surface years later with apparent in-prison video of Speck engaging in drug use and sexual activity, it was only a footnote in the true legacy of Speck’s rampage. The deaths of eight young women may have been prevented with a national network of criminal records and open communication between cities and counties even within the same state. Though this would be rectified in years to come, the havoc wrought could never be undone, or forgotten.