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America’s First Mass Murderer

America’s First Mass Murderer


The very public transformation of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner initiated a fierce global debate. Viewed as an important milestone for the transgender community, it also presented an opportunity for increased understanding and awareness. Just as former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner had appeared across America on the cover of Wheaties, Caitlyn debuted on the July 2015 cover of Vanity Fair wearing a custom-made, silk, strapless bodysuit (Bissinger, 2015). 


That single event unleashed immediate controversy, triggering a circus-like atmosphere on the garish pages of supermarket tabloids. People were angry: “Over ten thousand people signed a petition calling for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to revoke the sixty-five-year-old former Olympian’s medal” (“Caitlyn Jenner allowed,” 2015). Jenner had competed in the 1976 Olympic Games as Bruce Jenner and won the coveted decathlon. 


Demonstrating courage and common sense, the IOC stood its ground, allowing Caitlyn Jenner to retain her medal. Still, the media continued to pursue the story. Interviewed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Jenner addressed her decision by saying, “I’m me. I’m a person. This is who I am. I’m not stuck in anybody’s body. My brain is much more female than male. For all intents and purposes, I am a woman” (Kornowski, 2015). 


The public has witnessed this intense scrutiny before. Richard Raskind, a successful ophthalmologist and internationally known amateur tennis player, underwent a sex change operation in 1975. At age forty, the 6’2” tall Raskind became Renee Richards.


Initially treated as a curiosity, she created heated media frenzy. Richards sued the United States Tennis Association for banning her from playing at the US Open as a transsexual. Richards won that verdict and was viewed as a pioneer for transsexual rights (Goldsmith, 2007). She played tennis professionally until 1981. 


Later her appeal and stature diminished, as she became yesterday’s news. Both of her memoirs, including No Way Renee (2008), disclosed a deep-rooted sadness. The book touched upon emotional abuse from her sister and mother and the use of female hormones. Richards did not regret having the sex change operation, but revealed that she still felt incomplete. She said, “Better to be an intact man functioning with 100 percent capacity for everything than to be a transsexual woman who is an imperfect woman” (Wadler, 2007). 
First Mass Murder


Decades earlier, under different circumstances, another individual had initiated a sex change procedure. But this individual represented something far more sinister. Richard Speck, labeled as our nation’s first mass murderer, assumed a notoriety reserved only for the most depraved and soulless of criminals.


Like many social outcasts, Richard Speck had a difficult childhood. He was born on December 6, 1941, in Kirkwood, Illinois, the seventh of eight children. His father died when Speck was six. The siblings were raised by their mother and abided under “strict religious rules,” including abstinence from tobacco and alcohol (Montaldo, 2014). 


After his mother married an insurance salesman, Carl Lindbergh, in 1950, the family relocated from Illinois to Dallas, Texas. That event traumatized the family as Lindbergh was prone to violent drunken episodes. Young Richard Speck became victimized by his stepfather’s physical and emotional abuse. He became a “poor student and juvenile delinquent prone to violent behavior” (Montaldo, 2014). He carried a switchblade knife and demonstrated a lack of interest and aptitude for academic studies. He quit school in the ninth grade and left his family. Additionally, at age twenty he married fifteen-year-old Shirley Malone. Theirs was a relationship filled with violence and devoid of love. Speck regularly abused both his wife and mother. He violated his wife sexually at knifepoint, reportedly several times a day. 


Speck, a tall, pock-faced man with a southern drawl, proudly displayed a “Born to Raise Hell” tattoo on his forearm. It was a symbolic message. By the age of twenty-five he had over twenty arrests, including burglary and assault. He was an angry alcoholic, petty criminal, and predator. Most of his life was spent on the other side of the law. His rap sheet included thirty-six arrests in Dallas and two stays in prison. After attempting to rob a woman at knifepoint, Speck was sentenced to fifteen months in jail. Upon release, he became an invisible transient. He relocated from his sister’s Chicago home to low-rent hotels and skid row bars, periodically working on cargo boats traveling the Great Lakes (“A mass murderer,” 2013). 


Organic Brain Syndrome


On a steamy, nondescript July evening, around 11:00 PM, Speck knocked on the door of a nursing student’s dormitory. The eight students who resided there all worked at nearby South Chicago Community Hospital. The townhouse was located in a neat middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Intruding into the dormitory, Speck tied up nine women, and then systematically tortured, raped, and murdered eight of them. The one survivor hid under a bed, and Speck missed her during his homicidal rampage (Noe, 2006). A massive manhunt ensued. With the dragnet tightening, Speck attempted suicide. He was captured several days later, arrested and charged with the murder of eight nurses. 


While awaiting trial, Speck participated in twice-weekly sessions with Dr. Marvin Ziporyn, a part-time Cook County Jail psychiatrist. Ziporyn’s discharge summary identified 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, after which hostility developed. He also diagnosed organic brain syndrome resulting from the cerebral injuries suffered earlier in Speck’s life. 


The psychiatrist concluded Speck 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. This conflicted with an impartial panel of five psychiatrists and one general surgeon who determined that Speck had not been insane at the time of the murders (Breo & Martin, 1993). 


Speck’s psychiatrist assessment documented a “long history of trying to deal with his inner turmoil by a chronic, repetitive pattern of drinking, drug abuse, and fighting; by chronic self-destructive acts, including auto accidents, falling from trees (once he was knocked unconscious for several minutes), running into poles (again knocked unconscious), picking up gonorrhea five separate times, as well as syphilis, and his attempted suicide on July 16, 1966” (Breo, 1986). 


Cheated Death


It appears that Richard Speck cheated death. On June 5, 1967 he was sentenced to die in the electric chair, but, several weeks later, the US Supreme Court (citing their June 3, 1968 decision in Witherspoon v. Illinois) upheld Speck’s conviction but reversed his death sentence. According to Encyclopædia Brittanica, “When the Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972, Speck’s sentence was changed to eight consecutive terms of fifty to 150 years” (Doorey, 2015). 


Incarceration was the next phase of his criminal timeline and Speck easily adapted to life at the Stateville Correction Institute. He listened to music, collected stamps, and was allowed to keep a pair of sparrows. His nickname was “Birdman.” Speck seemed to be having the time of his life. It was later disclosed that he reveled in bootleg alcohol, drugs, and clandestine sexual encounters while behind bars.


Although Speck typically refused all media requests, he granted one prison interview to Bob Greene after reading Greene’s column in the Chicago Tribune. In this 1978 interview, Speck publicly confessed to the murders for the first time. Speck believed he would get out of prison “between now and the year 2000,” at which time he hoped to run his own grocery store business. He told Greene one of his pleasures in prison was “getting high” (Greene, 1984). 


When Greene asked him if he compared himself to celebrity killers like John Dillinger, Speck replied, “Me, I’m not like Dillinger or anybody else. I’m freakish” (Greene, 1984). Speck said when he killed the nurses 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” (Greene, 1984).  


Speck served nineteen years of his sentence. He died on December 5, 1991 from a massive heart attack. The autopsy revealed an enlarged heart and occluded arteries. His 220-pound body was bloated and his face covered with pockmarks. No one claimed the body. His cremated ashes were discarded in an unknown location. 


Speck’s wicked story should have ended there, in cold, unspoken silence. But there was more to be revealed. In May 1996, Speck was seemingly raised from the dead. Bill Curtis, news anchor at CBS in Chicago, received a videotape shot in Statesville Correctional Institute. It showed a bizarre, boastful Speck with women’s breasts—obviously from some hormone treatment—wearing blue silk panties and having sex with an inmate. Before the sexual exploit, he casually tells an off camera interviewer about the murders (“Richard Speck biography,” 2013). 


State legislators sat in a packed hearing room to view the two-hour tape of Speck cavorting with his prison lover. Purportedly filmed in 1988, three years before Speck’s death, the tape shows the two inmates snorting cocaine, rolling marijuana joints, brandishing a roll of $100 bills, and engaging in oral sex. “If they only knew how much fun I was having,” Speck deadpans to the camera, “they would turn me loose” (“Nary a speck,” 1996).


An off-camera voice questioned why he killed the women. Speck responded, “It just wasn’t their night.” He was asked how he felt about the killings, to which he replied, “Like I always feel. Had no feelings” (“Nary a speck,” 1996). He added he did not feel sorry. Throughout the video, he ingested and smoked drugs with bravado. He described in detail how it felt to strangle someone: “It’s not like TV . . . it takes over three minutes and you have to have a lot of strength.” 


The twenty-four-year-old sailor committed one of the most shocking crimes in American history. Speck’s horrific mass killing of eight innocent nurses remains his legacy. It gripped the city of Chicago and the nation in a state of fear. He is believed to have killed at least eight other women prior to the nursing student massacre. Speck was an alcoholic and predatory sociopath, but his title of “first mass murderer” is the one that people will always remember.







“1966: A mass murderer leaves eight women dead.” (2013). Retrieved from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-mass-murderer-leaves-eight-women-dead 
Breo, D. L. (1986). July 14, 1966. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-07-06/features/8602180461_1_susie-lives-younger-sister
Breo, D. L., & Martin, W. J. (1993). The crime of the century: Richard Speck and the murder of eight student nurses. New York, NY: Bantam Books. 
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Doorey, M. (2015). Richard Speck: American murderer. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Speck
Goldsmith, B. (2007). Transsexual pioneer Renee Richards regrets fame. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/02/18/us-richards-idUSN1619986120070218
Greene, B. (1984). American beat (pp. 58–62). New York, NY: Penguin.
Kornowski, L. (2015). Celebrities react to Bruce Jenner coming out as transgender. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/24/bruce-jenner-celebrity-reactions-to-diane-sawyer-interview_n_7108826.html
Montaldo, C. (2014) Richard Speck, born to raise hell. Retrieved from http://crime.about.com/od/serial/p/speck.htm
“Nary a speck of decency. A mass murderer’s video puts the lie to hard time.” (1996). Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,984604,00.html#ixzz2jdWqKZb8
Noe, D. (2006). “Supermale” in blue panties: The woman-murderer self-womanized. Retrieved from http://www.karisable.com/speck.htm
“Richard Speck biography: Murderer (1941–1991).” (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.biography.com/people/richard-speck-11730438
Richards, R. (2008). No way Renee: The second half of my notorious life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. 
Wadler, J. (2007). The lady regrets. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/01/garden/01renee.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print