Richard Benjamin Speck was born in the town of Kirkwood, Illinois, the seventh of eight children of Benjamin Franklin Speck and Mary Margaret Carbaugh Speck. The family moved to Monmouth, Illinois, shortly after Speck’s birth. Speck and his younger sister Carolyn (b. 1943) were much younger than their four older sisters and two older brothers. Speck’s eldest brother, Robert, died at the age of 23 in an automobile accident in 1952. Speck’s father worked as a packer at Western Stoneware in Monmouth and had previously worked as a farmer and logger. Speck was very close to his father, who died in 1947 from a heart attack at the age of 53. Speck was six years old at the time.
A few years later, Speck’s religious, teetotaler mother fell in love with a traveling insurance salesman from Texas, Carl August Rudolph Lindberg, whom she met on a train trip to Chicago. The hard-drinking, peg-legged Lindberg, with a 25-year criminal record that started with forgery and included several arrests for drunk driving, was the opposite of Speck’s sober, hardworking father. Speck’s mother married Lindberg on May 10, 1950, in Palo Pinto, Texas. Speck and his younger sister Carolyn stayed with their married sister Sara Thornton in Monmouth for a few months so Speck could finish second grade, before joining their mother and Lindberg in rural Santo, Texas, 40 miles west of Fort Worth, Texas, where Speck attended third grade.
After a year in Santo, Speck moved with his mother, his stepfather, and his sister Carolyn to the East Dallas section of Dallas, Texas, living at ten addresses in poor neighbourhoods over the next dozen years. Speck loathed his often drunk and frequently absent stepfather, who psychologically abused him with insults and threats. Speck, a poor student who needed glasses for reading but refused to wear them, struggled through Dallas public schools from fourth through eighth grade, repeating the eighth grade at J. L. Long Jr. High School, in part because he refused to speak in class because of a lifelong fear of people staring at him. In autumn 1957, Speck started ninth grade at Crozier Technical High School, but failed every subject and did not return for the second semester in January 1958, dropping out just after his 16th birthday. Speck started drinking alcohol at age 12 and by age 15 he was getting drunk almost every day. His first arrest, in 1955 at age 13 for trespassing, was followed by dozens of other arrests for misdemeanors over the next eight years.
Speck worked as a laborer for the 7-Up bottling company in Dallas for almost three years, from 1960 to 1963. In October 1961, Speck met 15-year-old Shirley Annette Malone at the Texas State Fair. She became pregnant after three weeks of dating him. Shirley married Speck on January 19, 1962, and initially moved in with him, his mother, his sister Carolyn, and Carolyn’s husband. Speck’s mother and stepfather had separated, and his stepfather had moved to California. Speck stopped using the name Richard Benjamin Lindberg when he got married and began using the name Richard Benjamin Speck. When Speck’s daughter, Robbie Lynn, was born on July 5, 1962, his wife did not know that Speck was serving a 22-day jail sentence for disturbing the peace in McKinney, Texas, after a drunken melee. In July 1963, Speck was caught after he forged and cashed a co-worker’s $44 paycheck. He also robbed a grocery store, making away with cigarettes, beer and $3 in cash. The 21-year-old Speck was convicted of forgery and burglary and sentenced to three years in prison. He was paroled after serving 16 months from 1963 to 1965 in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas.
One week after his parole, at 2:20 a.m. on January 9, 1965, Speck was wielding a 17-inch carving knife when he attacked a woman in the parking lot of her apartment building. He fled when the woman screamed. The police arrived within minutes and apprehended Speck a few blocks away. Speck was convicted of aggravated assault, given a 16-month sentence to run concurrently with a parole violation sentence, and returned to prison in Huntsville, but due to an error he was released from prison just six months later on completion of his parole violation sentence on July 2, 1965. After his release from prison, Speck worked for three months as a driver for the Patterson Meat Company and had six accidents with his truck before he was fired for failing to show up for work. In December 1965, on the recommendation of his mother, Speck (who was by then separated from his wife) moved in with a 29-year-old divorced woman, an ex-professional wrestler who was a bartender at his favorite bar, Ginny’s Lounge, and needed someone to babysit her three children.
In January 1966, Speck’s wife filed for divorce. That same month, Speck stabbed a man in a knife fight at Ginny’s Lounge. He was charged with aggravated assault, but a defense attorney hired by his mother was able to get the charge reduced to disturbing the peace. Speck was fined $10 and jailed for three days after he failed to pay the fine. This was the last time Speck was in police custody in Dallas. On March 5, 1966, Speck bought a 12-year-old car. The following evening, he robbed a grocery store, stole 70 cartons of cigarettes, sold them out of the trunk of his car in the grocery store’s parking lot, and then abandoned the car. The police traced the car to Speck and issued a warrant for his arrest for burglary on March 8. An arrest (his 42nd in Dallas) would mean another prison term, so on March 9, 1966, Speck’s sister Carolyn drove him to the Dallas bus depot, where he took a bus to Chicago, Illinois.
Speck stayed with his sister Martha Thornton and her family in Chicago for a few days, and then returned to his boyhood hometown of Monmouth, Illinois, where he initially stayed with some old family friends. Speck’s brother Howard was a carpenter in Monmouth and found a job for him sanding plasterboard for another Monmouth carpenter. Speck became angry when he learned his ex-wife had remarried two days after she was granted a divorce on March 16, 1966. He moved to the Christy Hotel in downtown Monmouth on March 25 and spent most of his time in the downtown taverns. At the end of March, while Speck and some acquaintances were on a bar-hopping trip to Gulf Port, Illinois, they were detained overnight by police there after Speck reportedly threatened a man in a tavern restroom with his knife. On April 3, Mrs. Virgil Harris, a 65-year-old resident of Monmouth, returned home at 1:00 a.m. to find a burglar in her house brandishing a knife. He was a 6-foot-tall white man who was “very polite” and spoke “very softly with a Southern drawl.” The man blindfolded her, tied her up, raped her, ransacked her house, and stole the $2.50 she had earned babysitting that evening.
A week later, Mary Kay Pierce, a 32-year-old barmaid who worked at her brother-in-law’s tavern, Frank’s Place, in downtown Monmouth, was last seen leaving the tavern at 12:45 a.m. on April 9. She was reported missing on April 13, and her body was found that day in an empty hog pen behind the tavern. She had died from a blow to her abdomen that ruptured her liver. Speck had frequented Frank’s Place, and the empty hog pen was one of several he had helped build in the preceding month, so Monmouth police briefly questioned him about Pierce’s death when he showed up to collect his final carpentry paycheck on April 15 and asked him to stay in town for further questioning. When police showed up at the Christy Hotel on April 19 to continue questioning Speck, they discovered he had left the hotel a few hours earlier, carrying his suitcases and saying he was just going to the laundromat. He had instead left town. A search of his room turned up a radio and costume jewellery Mrs. Virgil Harris had reported missing from her house, as well as items reported missing in two other local burglaries in the past month.
On April 19, 1966, Speck returned to stay at his sister Martha’s second-floor apartment at 3966 N. Avondale Ave. in the Old Irving Park neighbourhood on the Northwest side of Chicago, where she lived with her husband, Gene Thornton, and their two teenage daughters. Martha had worked as a registered nurse in pediatrics before she was married and her husband Gene worked nights as a railroad switchman. Speck told them an unbelievable story about having to leave Monmouth after refusing to sell narcotics for a “crime syndicate” there. Gene Thornton, who had served in the U.S. Navy, thought that the U.S. Merchant Marine might provide a suitable occupation for his unemployed brother-in-law, so on April 25 he took Speck to the U.S. Coast Guard office to apply for a letter of authority to work as an apprentice seaman. The application required being fingerprinted and photographed, and having a physical examination by a doctor. Speck found work immediately after obtaining the letter of authority, joining the 33-member crew of Inland Steel’s Clarence B. Randall, an L6-S-B1 class bulk ore lake freighter, on April 30. Speck’s first voyage on the Clarence B. Randall was brief, since he was stricken with appendicitis on May 3, and was evacuated by U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hancock, Michigan, on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where he had an emergency appendectomy.
After he was discharged from the hospital, Speck returned to stay with his sister Martha and her family in Chicago to recuperate. On May 20, he rejoined the crew of the Clarence B. Randall on which he served until June 14, when he got drunk and quarreled with one of the boat’s officers and was put ashore on June 15. For the following week, Speck stayed at the St. Elmo, an East Side, Chicago flophouse at E. 99th St. & S. Ewing Ave. Speck then traveled by train to Houghton, Michigan, staying at the Douglas House, to visit Judy Laakaniemi, a 28-year-old nurse’s aide going through a divorce, whom he had befriended at St. Joseph’s Hospital. On June 27, after Judy gave him $80 to help him until he found work, Speck left to again stay with his sister Martha and her family in Chicago for the next two weeks. On June 30, Speck’s brother-in-law Gene drove him to the National Maritime Union (NMU) hiring hall at 2335 E. 100th St. in the Jeffery Manor neighbourhood of South Deering, Chicago to file his paperwork for a seaman’s card. The NMU hiring hall was one block east of five attached two-story brick townhouses, three of which were occupied by South Chicago Community Hospital senior student nurses and Filipino exchange registered nurses. Eight of these nurses lived in the easternmost townhouse at 2319 E. 100th St., just 150 feet from the NMU hiring hall.
On Friday, July 8, 1966, Speck’s brother-in-law Gene drove him to the NMU hiring hall to pick up his seaman’s card and register for a berth on a ship. Speck lost out that day to a seaman with more seniority for a berth on the SS Flying Spray, a C1-A cargo ship bound for South Vietnam, and returned to his sister Martha’s apartment for the weekend. By Monday, July 11, Speck had outstayed his welcome with his sister Martha and her family. After packing his bags and again being driven by his brother-in-law to the NMU hiring hall to await a berth on a ship, Speck stayed the night at Pauline’s rooming house, a mile away at 3028 E. 96th St. in the Vets Park neighborhood of South Deering, Chicago. On Tuesday, July 12, Speck returned to the NMU hiring hall. In mid-afternoon, he received an assignment on Sinclair Oil’s tanker SS Sinclair Great Lakes, which was a 30-minute drive away in East Chicago, Indiana. When he arrived there, he found that his spot had already been taken, and he was driven back to the NMU hiring hall, which was then closed. Speck did not have enough money for a rooming house, so he dropped his bags off six blocks east at the Manor Shell filling station at 9954 S. Torrence Ave. and slept in an unfinished house just off E. 103rd St.
On Wednesday, July 13, Speck picked up his bags and checked in at the NMU hiring hall. He was angry for being sent to a non-existent assignment, and he talked for 30 minutes in the car with his sister Martha and her husband Gene, who had driven down to visit him at 9 a.m. They parked on E. 100th St. next to Luella Elementary School, across the street from the townhouses where the nurses lived. At 10:30 a.m., he was tired of waiting at the NMU hiring hall for a job. Speck had $25 that his sister had given him, and he left and walked a mile and a half east on E. 100th St. to check in at the Shipyard Inn at E. 101st St. & S. Avenue N; the inn was an East Side, Chicago rooming house. Speck spent the rest of the day drinking in nearby taverns before he accosted Ella Mae Hooper at knifepoint; she was a 53-year-old woman who had spent the day drinking at the same taverns that Speck had patronized. Speck took her to his room at the Shipyard Inn, raped her, and stole her black $16 mail-order .22 caliber Röhm pistol. After dinner at the nearby Kay’s Pilot House, Speck returned to drink at the Shipyard Inn’s tavern until 10:20 p.m., when he left dressed entirely in black, armed with a switchblade and Ella Mae Hooper’s handgun, and walked a mile and a half west on E. 100th St. to the nurses’ townhouse at 2319 E. 100th St.
At 11:00 p.m. on July 13, 1966, Speck broke into the 2319 E. 100th St townhouse in Chicago’s Jeffery Manor neighbourhood; the townhouse was functioning as a dormitory for student nurses. He entered and, using only a knife, killed Gloria Davy, Patricia Matusek, Nina Jo Schmale, Pamela Wilkening, Suzanne Farris, Mary Ann Jordan, Merlita Gargullo and Valentina Pasion. Speck, who later claimed he was both drunk and high on drugs, may have originally planned to commit a routine burglary. Speck held the women in a room for hours, leading them out one by one, stabbing or strangling each to death, then finally raping and strangling his last victim, Gloria Davy. One woman, Corazon Amurao, escaped death because she crawled and hid under a bed while Speck was out of the room. Speck possibly lost count or might have known eight women lived in the townhouse but did not realize a ninth woman was spending the night. Amurao stayed hidden until almost 6 a.m. Fingerprints found at the scene were matched to Speck.
Two days after the murders, Speck was identified by a drifter named Claude Lunsford. Speck, Lunsford, and another man had been drinking the evening of July 15 on the fire escape of the Starr Hotel at 617 W. Madison. On July 16, Lunsford recognized a sketch of the murderer in the evening paper and phoned the police at 9:30 p.m. after finding Speck in his (Lunsford’s) room at the Starr Hotel. The police, however, did not respond to the call although their records showed the call had been made. Speck then attempted suicide, and the Starr Hotel desk clerk phoned in the emergency around midnight. Speck was taken to Cook County Hospital at 12:30 a.m. on July 17. At the hospital, Speck was recognized by Dr. LeRoy Smith, a 25-year-old surgical resident physician, who had read about the ‘Born To Raise Hell’ tattoo in a newspaper story. The police were called. Speck was arrested. Concerns over the recent Miranda case that had vacated the convictions of a number of criminals meant Speck was not even questioned for three weeks after his arrest.
Felony Court Judge Herbert J. Paschen appointed an impartial panel to report on Speck’s competence to stand trial and his sanity at the time of the crime — a panel of three physicians suggested by the defense and three physicians selected by the prosecution, consisting of five psychiatrists and one general surgeon. The panel’s confidential report deemed Speck competent to stand trial and concluded he had not been insane at the time of the murders. While awaiting trial, Speck participated in twice-weekly sessions with part-time Cook County Jail psychiatrist, Dr. Marvin Ziporyn. These continued after Speck’s transfer from Cermak Memorial Hospital (inside Chicago’s House of Corrections) on July 29, 1966, until February 13, 1967, the day before Speck was transferred to Peoria to stand trial. Ziporyn prepared a discharge summary with depression, anxiety, guilt, and shame among Speck’s emotions, but also a deep love for his family. It went on to note an obsessive-compulsive personality and a “Madonna-prostitute” attitude towards women. Ziporyn maintained Speck viewed women as saintly until he felt betrayed by them for some reason, after which hostility developed. He also diagnosed organic brain syndrome, resulting from the cerebral injuries suffered earlier in Speck’s life, and stated he was competent to stand trial but was insane at the time of the crime due to the effects of alcohol and drug use on his organic brain syndrome.
Dr. Ziporyn did not testify for the defense or the prosecution, as both sides were troubled to learn before the trial Ziporyn was writing a book about Speck for financial gain. Ziporyn also earned the ire of the Cook County Jail, which fired him as its part-time psychiatrist the week after Speck’s trial ended. At some point during his interviews with Speck, Ziporyn had obtained a written three-sentence consent from Speck authorizing him to tell “what I am really like.” Ziporyn’s biography of Speck was published in summer 1967. Speck later claimed he had no recollection of the murders, but he had confessed the crime to Dr. LeRoy Smith at the Cook County Hospital. Smith did not testify, because the confession was made while Speck was sedated. Illinois Supreme Court Justice John J. Stamos, Cook County’s state attorney when Speck was tried, who knew of the hospital confession stated, “…we didn’t need it. We had an eyewitness.” Speck confessed to the murders for the first time in public when he spoke to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene in 1978. In a film inmates made at the Stateville Correctional Center in 1988, Speck recounted the brutal murders in detail. He again stated he was high that night, but then he undercut the idea that the drugs were a mitigating factor, asserting he could just as well have “done it sober”.
Speck’s jury trial began April 3, 1967, in Peoria, Illinois, three hours southwest of Chicago, with a gag order on the press. In court, Speck was positively identified by the sole surviving student nurse, Cora Amurao. When Amurao was asked if she could identify the killer of her fellow students, Amurao rose from her seat in the witness box, walked directly in front of Speck and pointed her finger at him, nearly touching him, and said, “This is the man.” Lieutenant Emil Giese testified regarding the fingerprints that were matched. On April 15, after 49 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Speck guilty and recommended the death penalty. On June 5, Judge Herbert J. Paschen sentenced Speck to die in the electric chair, but granted an immediate stay pending automatic appeal. The Illinois Supreme Court subsequently upheld his conviction and death sentence on November 22, 1968.
In December 1965 and March 1966, Nature and The Lancet published findings by British cytogeneticist Patricia Jacobs and colleagues of a chromosome survey of patients at Scotland’s only security hospital for the developmentally disabled. Nine of the patients, ranging from 5 ft. 7 in. to 6 ft. 2 in. in height, were found to have an extra Y chromosome, the so-called XYY syndrome. Jacobs’ hypothesis, that men with XYY syndrome are more prone to aggressive and violent behaviour than males with the normal XY karyotype, was later shown to be incorrect. In August 1966, Eric Engel, a Swiss endocrinologist and geneticist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote to Speck’s attorney, Cook County Public Defender Gerald W. Getty, who was reportedly planning an insanity defense. He suggested, based on Jacobs’ unsubstantiated theory and Speck’s 6 ft. 1 in. height, that Speck might have XYY syndrome. A chromosome analysis performed the following month by Engel revealed that Speck had a normal XY karyotype. One month later, a court-appointed panel of six physicians rejected Getty’s insanity argument and concluded that Speck was mentally competent to stand trial. In 1968, biochemist Mary Telfer and associates published data from a genetic analysis, similar in design to Jacobs’, of subjects confined in psychiatric hospitals and penal institutions in Pennsylvania. Of the five XYY patients identified, four exhibited moderate to severe facial acne, leading the group to suggest that acne be added to the list of defining XYY characteristics. Subsequent research failed to substantiate this observation as well.
After Getty contacted Telfer to discuss her findings and their possible relevance to his client, Telfer wrote a speculative piece for the British journal Think in which she mistakenly reported that Speck had an XYY karyotype. That, combined with his extensive acne scarring, led her to describe Speck as “the archetypal XYY male”. In a three-part series on the XYY syndrome published in April 1968, The New York Times presented Jacobs’ unsubstantiated theory associating the syndrome with violent behaviour as an established fact, and noted that the karyotype had been cited as a mitigating factor by attorneys defending an XYY man charged with murder in Paris, and another in Melbourne. It also identified Speck as a “classic example” of an “XYY criminal” and citing Telfer and Getty as sources, predicted that XYY syndrome would form the crux of his insanity defense. Similar articles followed, again citing Telfer, in Time and Newsweek, and six months later in The New York Times Magazine. In May 1968, Speck’s chromosomes were karyotyped a second time by Engel, with the same result: a normal 46,XY genome. After Speck’s conviction and death sentence were upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court later that year and the appeals process moved to the Federal court system, articles continued to appear in the lay press reporting (or implying) that Speck’s supposed XYY genotype would be invoked as a mitigating factor.
In a review article published in the Journal of Medical Genetics in December 1968, Michael Court Brown found no overrepresentation of XYY males in chromosome surveys of Scottish prisons and hospitals for the developmentally and mentally disabled, and suggested that any conclusions drawn from study populations composed solely of institutionalized males were likely distorted by selection bias. In May 1969, at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Telfer and others reported that they had found no evidence of significant behaviour differences, on average, between men with XYY karyotypes and those with normal genomes, and that XYY males had been unfairly stigmatized by earlier unsupported speculation. Despite repeated efforts by Getty, Engel, and others to set the record straight regarding Speck’s erroneous association with XYY syndrome, he remains labeled as such in some textbooks, online sites, and other sources.
On June 28, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court (citing their June 3, 1968 decision in Witherspoon v. Illinois) upheld Speck’s conviction but reversed his death sentence, because more than 250 potential jurors were unconstitutionally excluded from his jury because of their conscientious or religious beliefs against capital punishment. The case was remanded back to the Illinois Supreme Court for re-sentencing. On June 29, 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, so the Illinois Supreme Court’s only option was to order Speck re-sentenced to prison by the original Cook County court. On November 21, 1972, in Peoria, Judge Richard Fitzgerald re-sentenced Speck from 400 to 1,200 years in prison (eight consecutive sentences of 50 to 150 years). He was denied parole in seven minutes at his first parole hearing on September 15, 1976, and at six subsequent hearings in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 1987, and 1990.
While incarcerated at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, Speck was given the nickname “Birdman” after the film Birdman of Alcatraz, because he kept a pair of sparrows that had flown into his cell. He was described as a loner who kept a stamp collection and enjoyed listening to music. His contacts with the warden included requests for new shirts, a radio, and other mundane items. The warden merely described him as “a big nothing doing time.” Speck was not a model prisoner; he was often caught with drugs or distilled moonshine. Punishment for such infractions never stopped him. “How am I going to get in trouble? I’m here for 1,200 years!” Speck loathed reporters, and granted only one press interview, in 1978, to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene. During that interview, he publicly confessed to the murders for the first time, and said he thought he would get out of prison “between now and the year 2000,” at which time he hoped to run his own grocery store business. When Greene asked him if he compared himself to celebrity killers like John Dillinger, he replied, “Me, I’m not like Dillinger or anybody else. I’m freakish.”
Speck stated that at the time of the killings, he “had no feelings,” but things had changed: “I had no feelings at all that night. They said there was blood all over the place. I can’t remember. It felt like nothing … I’m sorry as hell. For those girls, and for their families, and for me. If I had to do it over again, it would be a simple house burglary.” Speck’s “final thought for the American people” was, “Just tell ’em to keep up their hatred for me. I know it keeps up their morale. And I don’t know what I’d do without it.” Interviewed by John E. Douglas of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, later referenced in Douglas’s book ‘Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit’, a disturbing incident with one of Speck’s pet birds is referenced: “he found an injured sparrow that had flown in through one of the broken windows and nursed it back to health. When it was healthy enough to stand, he tied a string around its leg and had it perch on his shoulder. At one point, a guard told him pets weren’t allowed. ‘I can’t have it?’ Speck challenged, then walked over to a spinning fan and threw the small bird in. Horrified, the guard said, ‘I thought you liked that bird.’ ‘I did,’ Speck replied. ‘But if I can’t have it, no one can.'”
In May 1996, Chicago television news anchor Bill Kurtis received video tapes made at Stateville Correctional Center in 1988 from an anonymous attorney. Showing them publicly for the first time before the Illinois state legislature, Kurtis pointed out the explicit scenes of sex, drug use, and money being passed around by prisoners, who seemingly had no fear of being caught; in the centre was Speck, performing oral sex on another inmate, sharing a large quantity of cocaine with another inmate, parading in silk panties, sporting female-like breasts (allegedly grown using smuggled hormone treatments), and boasting, “If they only knew how much fun I was having, they’d turn me loose.” The Illinois legislature packed the auditorium to view the two-hour video, but stopped the screening when the tape showed Speck performing oral sex on another man. From behind the camera, a prisoner asked Speck if he had killed the nurses. Speck responded, “Sure I did.” When asked why, Speck shrugged and jokingly said, “It just wasn’t their night.” Asked how he felt about himself in the years since, he said, “Like I always felt … had no feeling. If you’re asking me if I felt sorry, no.” He also described in detail the experience of strangling someone: “It’s not like TV … it takes over three minutes and you have to have a lot of strength.”
Speck died of a heart attack on December 5, 1991, the eve of his 50th birthday.
Speck’s sister feared that his grave would be desecrated, so he does not have a physical resting place. Speck was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in a secret location in the Joliet area.