The Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation

The Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation


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"One of the finest true crime books ever written…. This book hits you like a locomotive, detailing how Speck's crime shattered our innocence….Go out and buy The Crime of the Century as soon as possible."—Rick Kogan, author, Everybody Pays

On July 14th, 1966, Richard Franklin Speck swept through several student nurses’ townhouse like a summer tornado and changed the landscape of American crime. He broke in as his helpless victims slept, bound them one by one, and then stabbed, assaulted, and strangled all eight in a sadistic sexual frenzy. By morning, only one young nurse had miraculously survived. The killer was captured in seventy-two hours; he was successfully prosecuted in an error-free trial that stood up to appellate scrutiny; and the jury needed only forty-nine minutes to return a death verdict.

Here is the story of Richard Speck by the prosecutor who put him in prison for life with a brand-new introduction by Bill Kunkle, the prosecutor of the infamous John Wayne Gacy Jr.

In The Crime of the Century, William J. Martin has teamed up with Dennis L. Breo to re-create the blood-soaked night that made American criminal history, offering fascinating behind-the-scenes descriptions of Speck, his innocent victims, the desperate manhunt and massive investigation, and the trial that led to Speck’s successful conviction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510708860
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 354,095
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Dennis L. Breo, a Florida author and journalist, is the former national correspondent of the Journal of the American Medical Association. His cover story on the Speck murders, published in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, won an award for exemplary journalism from the Chicago Headline Club.

William J. Martin was named Chief Prosecutor in the prosecution of Richard Speck and, with tremendous support from his Office, stayed with every aspect of the case. He has lectured nationally on the Speck case and is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

Christina Delaine is a SOVAS Voice Arts Award and multiple AudioFile Earphones Award-winning narrator who has recorded over 100 audiobooks. She is also an Audie Award nominee. An accomplished stage and voice actor, Delaine has appeared on stages across the country and has voiced scores of commercials and video games.

Read an Excerpt

Crime of the Century

Richard Speck and the Murders that Shocked a Nation

By Dennis Breo, William Martin

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2016 Dennis L. Breo and William J. Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5107-0887-7


The Chicago thermometer hit 98 degrees on Sunday, July 10, 1966. It was the eleventh day in the past two weeks that the heat had been 90 degrees or higher, and the city was wilting from the oppressive stickiness.

In July 1966, the median annual salary in Chicago was $8,000. Truman Capote's best-selling story of the brutal murder of a Kansas family in their quiet farmhouse, In Cold Blood, could be bought for $5.95 — in hardcover. The sporty car of the hour was the gas-guzzling Pontiac GTO designed by John DeLorean and sold for $3,000. The big stories on Sunday were the widening war in Vietnam and the growing race rift in the United States. American soldiers chased Vietcong units into Cambodia and reportedly killed 238 elite enemy troops. The Reverend Martin Luther King pinned a list of fourteen demands for racial equality on the City Hall door of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. The action followed a freedom rally that attracted a crowd of thirty thousand to Chicago's Soldier Field. King warned that there would be "many more marches this summer," and that "We'll fill up the jails, if that's what it takes to get black people out of the slums."

Meanwhile, Richard Speck was spending a quiet Sunday with his brother-in-law, Eugene Thornton, and his older sister, Martha Speck Thornton. Gene Thornton was a railroad switchman who worked nights and who had once served in the U.S. Navy. Speck's sister Martha was a registered nurse who had worked in pediatrics before her marriage. The Thorntons had two teenage daughters and lived on the northwest side of Chicago in an apartment described by neighbors as "disgustingly neat." The Thornton home was a second-floor apartment at 3966 North Avondale, in a working-class neighborhood just west of the Kennedy Expressway and not far from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. The apartment was decorated with expensive furniture and Martha Thornton's crystal collection. The small apartment was cramped, and Speck was forced to sleep on his sister's sofa.

Speck had been living with the couple on and off since he had boarded a bus for Chicago from Dallas, four months earlier. Since then, Gene Thornton had tried to satisfy Speck's drifting life-style by arranging for him to stay with relatives near Monmouth, Illinois, and by helping him find a commercial ship on which to sail. At six feet one inch tall and weighing 160 pounds, Speck was a muscular, outdoorsy type who had arms as hard as a baseball bat. He had slicked-back dirty blond hair, light blue eyes, and a pale, angular face with a prominent aquiline nose. Some women found him attractive, and he might have passed as moderately handsome were it not for the deep pockmarks that pitted the sides of his face, and his occasional habit of staring stupidly into space with his mouth half open. He often appeared to be in a fog.

Speck had spent the weekend moping around his sister's house. Martha Thornton, like Speck's four other sisters and one brother, was a religious teetotaler, and Speck was not allowed to drink in her house. Able to blend into his surroundings, Speck always conducted himself as a perfect gentleman while staying with the Thorntons. A fastidious man, he indulged his daily habit of taking several showers and going through several changes of shirts. He left the house that weekend only to get a Saturday haircut, and to shoot a few games of pool in a nearby saloon. Speck had great dexterity with his strong hands, and he tinkered with his sister's TV set and used his carpentry skills to build her some wooden household furniture.

That Sunday another one of Speck's sisters, Erma Speck Holeman, and her husband, Kenneth, brought their son to Chicago to enroll at the Judson Bible College in Elgin, Illinois. The Holemans visited the Thorntons for Sunday dinner, and Speck was on hand, neatly dressed in black pants and a white short-sleeved shirt. He was mild-mannered and quiet, but preferred reading comic books to engaging his family in much conversation. He read with some difficulty, since he needed reading glasses, but he was too vain to wear them. All he offered in conversation was that he had his heart set on buying a new car. He told his two older sisters that he was going to ship out to make enough money to buy a new car.

Monday morning began with a bang. At one A.M., a heavy thunderstorm with tornado-force winds lashed through the Chicago metropolitan area, slashing a wide swath from the northwest to the southeast. The winds reached eighty miles per hour in suburban McHenry and at fifty miles per hour rattled the windows of the downtown Loop skyscrapers. Savage and vicious bolts of lightning lit up the night sky. Hail the size of marbles pelted the city and several funnel clouds were sighted, though none touched down. The torrential rains pounding down on Lake Michigan created a seiche, and tidal waves reaching six feet crashed against the lakefront, which had to be closed. The temperature dropped from 82 to 71 degrees in the two hours between one and three in the morning. Then, as the storm spent its fury, the sun rose and the heat began to build toward an eventual high of 93 degrees.

The Thorntons' hospitality and patience with Richard Speck were running out. Speck had spent most of the past two weeks with them, usually holding court on the back porch and telling tall Texas tales of how tough he was to the teenage suitors of his two nieces, Kendra and Tennessa. He kept a large hunting knife hanging in a sheath from his belt. His switchblade was always in his pocket and he often brought it out to flash the three-inch blades. Eugene Thornton, a brisk, no-nonsense man, and his bright, animated wife had seen enough of the lazy ways of their young visitor. On Monday morning, Speck was asked to toss his entire wardrobe into a tan vinyl suitcase and a small red-and-black plaid carrying grip. He had an assortment of polo and sports shirts and wash-and-wear slacks, and his sister had washed and neatly folded all his underwear shorts and T-shirts. Gene Thornton also gave Speck a black corduroy jacket. Speck left behind a souvenir of his stay: On a backyard tree, he had carved the year "1966" and his initials, "R.S." He added a few flourishes designed to resemble the logo of a gang to which one of his teenage buddies belonged.

Promptly at eight A.M., Martha and Gene Thornton loaded up their car and drove Speck to the National Maritime Union Hall (NMU), a hiring center for merchant seamen. The union building was located at 2315 East 100th Street, about an hour's drive from where the Thorntons lived. The hiring hall was only a few doors east of three nursing residences. Because of a dormitory-room shortage, nearby South Chicago Community Hospital had rented three small, boxlike, two-story town houses at 2311, 2315, and 2319 East 100th Street for its senior nursing students and for a few Filipino exchange nurses. The three town houses rented by the hospital were part of a row of six town houses fronting on the south side of East 100th Street. The other three were private residences, scattered between the nurses' quarters. In the middle town house, at 2315, the hospital had placed a housemother, to whom the nurses were required to report. The easternmost town house, 2319, was directly west across Crandon Avenue from the union hall, and the comings and goings of the "ladies in white" were a common sight to the seamen.

The previous Friday, Thornton had taken Speck to the NMU to obtain a seaman's card and to register him for a berth on a ship. For a few moments, Speck and Thornton had gotten their hopes up that Speck would be able to hire out on the Flying Spray, a cargo ship scheduled to sail to Vietnam, but the coveted berth had gone to a seaman with greater seniority. Speck was only a deckhand with temporary sailing papers. Now, Speck was back to renew his search for a job. He was embarrassed, though, to have to go into the hall carrying all his clothes in the two bags, and he pleaded with his brother-in-law to help him find a room. Thornton, however, was adamant, insisting that they try the NMU first. The two entered the building together and learned that two ships were listed on the hiring board. Thornton assured Speck that he would be able to hire out on one of them. Speck cajoled, "Well, if I don't ship out today, I'll just sleep on the beach." Thornton gave Speck twenty-five dollars and left him on his own.

Alone, Speck was a gathering storm ready to break. Unknown to the Thorntons, he was on the run from police in two states. Speck was the bad apple of a good family. His father died when he was only six, and Richard spent his formative years with a hard-drinking, hell-raising stepfather whose behavior he chose to mimic. While his six older siblings put down family roots near Monmouth, Illinois, the town 215 miles southwest of Chicago where Richard Speck was born, Richard and his younger sister, Carolyn, were shuttled off to Dallas to live with his mother and her new husband. In twelve years, the nomadic family would live at ten different Dallas addresses, all of them in poor neighborhoods. Speck's stepfather, Carl August Rudolph Lindberg, was a Swedish traveling salesman and professional drunk who had lost his left leg at the knee in an accident, and was forced to walk on crutches. His drunken tirades were in stark contrast to Speck's mother, the religious Mary Margaret Carbaugh Speck, who did not drink and who had raised her older children not to drink. Lindberg despised young Richard, told him often that he couldn't stand the sight of him, and refused to adopt him. Speck's mother was largely unsuccessful in trying to shelter her youngest son from Lindberg's drunken physical abuse.

Richard took his first drink of whiskey at thirteen after breaking into the secret liquor cabinet Lindberg kept hidden from his wife. On many occasions, he threatened to take Lindberg's crutches "and bash his head." Aping his hated stepfather, Richard dropped out of school at sixteen to work at various odd manual jobs. During his youth he ran with a fast crowd of older men, spending most of his time bragging, drinking, lying, and whoring. Along the way, he acquired a variety of cheap tattoos, usually drawn while he was dead drunk. During his Dallas days, he was arrested forty-one times for break-ins, burglaries, forged checks, robberies, and violence against women, spending almost two years in the penitentiary and many other nights in local jails. In the meantime, he had married at nineteen, fathered a daughter, and divorced four years later. He had been physically violent toward both his ex-wife and his ex-mother-in-law. His probation officer had once described him this way:

"When Speck is drinking, he will fight or threaten anybody — as long as he has a knife or gun. When he's sober or unarmed, he couldn't face down a mouse."

Although a young man, Richard Speck was, by July 1966, a total loner who usually sought out a twilight world inhabited by older hard-drinking men and women who, like him, were aimless and ambitionless. He was mad at the world and always looking for a chance to hit back. The Thorntons' Chicago home was a temporary sanctuary for him — a place in which the police were not yet chasing him.

In Dallas, the police were looking for Speck in connection with the burglary of a grocery store he had broken into on March 6. If caught, this would be Speck's forty-second arrest in his adopted home state, and would send him back to prison. The warrant for his arrest had forced him to pack all his worldly belongings into the large tan suitcase and the small red-and-black bag and board a bus for Chicago. His mother and his younger sister, his only protectors, had taken him to the bus station. They would no longer be around to take care of him, give him money, and bail him out of trouble. A return to his boyhood home of Monmouth was also out of the question, since Speck was a leading suspect in both the burglary-rape of an elderly woman and the murder of a thirty-two-year-old barmaid whose body was found in an abandoned hoghouse. Both crimes had been committed in April, and Speck had slipped out of town on April 19, arriving back at the Thorntons' Chicago home with the wildly fabricated story that a crime syndicate had forced him out of town.

Lying was a Speck specialty. He had an uncanny ability to give the events of his life a fictional twist that would keep him out of danger, and although his formal IQ tested at only 90, which is barely low-normal for an American adult, his criminal skills were much more highly developed. He had the natural gifts of animal cunning and charm. Speck's secret weapons were his gentle eyes and soft-spoken southern drawl, a disarming combination that usually put his male rivals at ease and his female victims off guard.

When he walked into that Chicago hiring hall on July 11, 1966, Speck had a growing hatred in his heart from his dismal status in life. Broke, friendless, homeless, and jobless, he was self-conscious about his disfiguring acne and suffering from low self-esteem. A loser in the major tests of maturity — failing to complete an education, find a job, and maintain a marriage — he was now separated from his family in Texas, Monmouth, and Chicago. Worse, he despaired of ever improving his propects.

He was also a potential killing machine, with his trademarks already written into the criminal ledgers of two states: He was an expert at breaking and entering, usually with the aid of a screwdriver or the sharp edge of a knife, and he always had one or the other with him. He had threatened women with knives before, often attempting or completing a rape, and he usually spoke gently and softly, assuring the women he meant no harm.


Boredom ruled at the National Maritime Union, as the seamen whiled away the hours in the cavernous warehouselike building, waiting for a ship. The commercial shipping center of Chicago was only two miles east, at Calumet Harbor in Lake Michigan. In 1966, the Calumet Harbor area boasted many steel mills and shipping and ship repair docks. Times were good, and the area was a melting pot of nationalities; factory time clocks were often explained in eleven different foreign languages. The ethnic enclaves were noted for their wide-open saloons and nonstop, around-the-clock heavy drinkers. When the workers or their families needed medical care, they were usually referred to South Chicago Community Hospital, which was located one mile north of the union hall.

Richard Speck had been in this neighborhood before. In April, after his flight from Monmouth to the Thorntons, Speck had been driven by Gene Thornton to the Chicago headquarters of the U.S. Coast Guard, in the heart of the Calumet Harbor area. In order to apply, he was required to be fingerprinted on all ten fingers and to provide a two-inch-by-two-inch passport photo, which he obtained at a photography studio around the corner. In addition, Speck had supplied a statement from a physician under contract to the Coast Guard, documenting that he was physically competent to perform his shipboard duties. Once his application had been accepted, Speck was given a letter of authority allowing him to be employed as an ordinary seaman on any U.S. merchant vessel weighing one hundred tons or more and engaged in trade on the Great Lakes. His application carried the name "Richard Benjamin Speck," his birth name, although he usually preferred to be known as Richard Franklin Speck. Both middle names came from his late father, Benjamin Franklin Speck.

Armed with the application, Speck was driven to the National Maritime Union on April 30 and found a ship right off the bat. He signed on as a deckhand with temporary papers aboard Inland Steel's ore-carrying ship, the S.S. Clarence B. Randall. The Randall sailed the Great Lakes with a crew of thirty-three, picking up ore to return to Inland Steel in Calumet Harbor. Ports of call included stopovers in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Canada. Within four days of his enlistment, however, Speck had suffered an acute attack of appendicitis and had been taken by the Coast Guard to a hospital in Hancock, Michigan, for an emergency appendectomy. Once recovered, he had rejoined the Randall on May 20 and worked steadily until the night of June 14, when he was fired for getting into fights when drunk and for assaulting a ship's officer. His twenty-six days of continuous employment with Inland Steel were the longest he had worked in a year. His discharge papers were short and sweet:

"Steady drinker — warned on two occasions, but continues drinking. When drunk, is looking for trouble."

After his firing, Speck had spent a week living in a fleabag hotel in the seamy Calumet Harbor world before returning to the Thorntons. The men and women inhabiting the bars and transient rooming houses of the Calumet Harbor area in 1966 constituted a demimonde, a shadowy world in which ambition and time had little meaning. Most were blue-collar workers or unskilled laborers who slid seamlessly from flophouse to flophouse, bar to bar, drink to drink, and sexual partner to sexual partner. Usually, they were either looking for work, about to begin a new job, or freshly fired from an old job. They made just enough money to finance the next drinking bout, and in their own way they hung together. Speck felt completely at home. He took a room at the St. Elmo, named in honor of the patron saint of seamen. It was a Southeast Side version of Chicago's fabled Skid Row flophouses. The downstairs bar, Pete's Tap, was a dirty hillbilly dive where police were called regularly to break up fights. This joint reeked of stale beer and cloudy cigarette smoke that hung permanently in the air. It was Speck's favorite hangout.


Excerpted from Crime of the Century by Dennis Breo, William Martin. Copyright © 2016 Dennis L. Breo and William J. Martin. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction-A Scream of Terror 1

Part I The Murders 5

Part II The Manhunt 77

Part III The Investigation 133

Part IV The Trial 333

Part V The Aftermath 473

Part VI A Portrait of Evil: Speck's Confession 503

Postscript-Expert commentary William J. Kunkle John Wayne Gacy 517

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