On “Mad Men” and Serial Killers

When bad things happen people get scared. That seems obvious but Mad Men avoids a trap that many shows and movies have fallen into. When the Drapers watch the news coverage of the Kennedy assassination in season 3 they’re silent and confused. There aren’t any great, meaningful speeches in the office. Instead, Betty cries and everyone is just quietly tense. Don’s big moment is letting his kids watch TV instead of a rallying speech, a real life Don Draper wouldn’t know what to say. The show has handled the shifting America of the ‘60s with elegance and realism. Last night’s episode, titled Mystery Date, focused on Joan, Sally, and Don but the real life murderer Richard Speck was the main character.

Now, before we go any further I should point out that I have an unhealthy obsession with serial killers and depraved psychos of all kinds. The most interesting cases might be Ed Gein or the BTK killer but if I was drafting a team of all time serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer would easily be my number one pick. Jack the Ripper would probably be the chic pick because the killings are still unsolved and took place in the probably very rainy, Victorian London. But in the serial killer world, Dahmer is the quintessential superstar. He dissected animals during his youth as a loner, was a raging alcoholic with daddy issues, flashed little boys while he was living with his grandmother, picked up his victims in gay bars, raped them, and killed them with blunt objects (for the most part). Oh yeah, and he stored their corpses in their freezer and when he was arrested it was discovered he delved into cannibalism. To complete the story, he was killed in prison. Beat that Ted Bundy, you show off.

But anyways, while I probably know more than your average bear about some of the worst human beings who ever lived (no big deal…) I’d never heard of Richard Speck, the killer of eight nurses. Like I said, the crime provided the backdrop for last night’s episode and while he was no Dahmer (or even a Unabomber), Speck had his own issues.

Speck was a ne’er do well drifter who was an alcoholic at 15 and once he was an adult, bounced in an out of jail for petty offenses after knocking up a young teen. He lived all over the country and worked odd jobs between jail stints but his repertoire was starting to get more serious. Speck spent just six months of a 16 month sentence in prison after attacking a woman with a knife in a parking lot. When he was released he moved in with his favorite bartender before getting in trouble again for stabbing a man he got in a fight with. He was given a slap on the wrist for that too, just given a fine but Speck didn’t even pay it. Instead he went to jail for three days…for stabbing someone.

When he was released Speck caught the bus to Chicago to live with his sister and her husband. Speck was constantly trying to get on board a Naval ship headed for Vietnam. He had a fascination with the sea and with all the men needed now that Vietnam was starting to heat up it’s somewhat of a miracle (or tragedy when you consider what came next) that he wasn’t able to join. By July 13th, 1966 Speck had fallen out with his sister and failed again and again to board a ship headed for the South Pacific. That day, he barhopped around Chicago before he assaulted a 53-year-old woman at knifepoint. Speck took his victim, Ella Mae Hooper, to his hotel room and raped her. He also stole a .22 caliber pistol she owned. Around 11:00 at night on July 13th Speck broke into a boarding house where nine nurses were living. It started as a routine burglary but he led them out of a room one by one, raped them, then stabbed or strangled them to death. One woman survived because being drunk and high at the time, Speck lost count (Stan was right about that on Mad Men last night). She hid under a bed until the following morning, eventually yelling out the window, “All my friends are dead!”

Obviously, this is not the type of stuff you usually see referenced on major TV shows. It’s easy to understand why Sally couldn’t fall asleep at night and why the new secretary was nervous about going home so late at night, even in New York City. Somehow, Mad Men takes these brutal and disturbing events from the ‘60s and filters them through the characters that we love. It’s humanizing, these murders are more than an article on Wikipedia they really happened. We know this because Peggy Olsen acknowledged it.

Speck was arrested because two days after the murders he tried to commit suicide and the doctor who treated him in the hospital recognized a “Born to Raise Hell” tattoo, which was making the rounds in the media. Mad Men hasn’t yet and probably won’t get into what happened to Speck after he was arrested. During his trial sole remaining nurse was the star witness and when she was asked to identify her friends’ killer she got up from the witness box, walked across the courtroom, stood right in front of Speck and said “This is the man” with her finger right in his face. Guilty. Death Penalty. Nice knowin’ ya.

But it wasn’t over yet. After being convicted in 1967 (a year after the crime) his death penalty was reversed in 1972 to eight consecutive 150-year terms. He was denied parole in 1976 after a seven-minute hearing. In 1978, Speck granted an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s columnist, Bob Greene. At the time of the murders Speck told Greene he had no feelings but since then things had changed. He apologized repeatedly but told the American public to “…keep up their hatred for me…I don’t know what I’d do without it.” In 1996, news anchor Bill Kurtis (the host from American Justice, you know the guy) received a video in the mail from an undetermined lawyer. There were explicit scenes of prisoners using drugs and passing around money seemingly without any accountability. Speck appeared in the video dressed in women’s lingere and performing sex acts with other prisoners. He was asked of his feelings on the murders he committed and replied by saying he wasn’t sorry and that “…It just wasn’t their night.” Speck died of a heart attack in prison in 1991.

Anyways…hopefully Mad Men is a little bit lighter next week!

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2 Responses to On “Mad Men” and Serial Killers

  1. Pingback: Season Five of “Mad Men,” What Just Happened? | When You Put It That Way

  2. infinine says:

    I enjoyed your article on Mad Men which I’m a fanatic about and Richard Speck which happened a few miles from where i grew up and scared the bejesus out of me and all my friends when we were kids. It’s the first time that we were genuinely afraid and realized that the boogie man was real. He certainly trumped Stranger Danger. One thing I must point out though as a fellow aficionado of crime is this: Richard Speck was not trying to go to Vietnam as someone with a criminal record would not have been eligible for military duty. He was a merchant seaman and was waiting to catch a vessel out that monitored the oil rigs in the ocean. He kept getting put down on the waiting list for men with more seniority and I’m sure his frustrations over that added fuel to the rage that caused him to kill. It was a mixed treat to see this referenced on MM and brought back a chill as well. The townhouse where it happened is still occupied by tenants. I’d give my right arm to interview them as to how they are fairing living at the scene of so much negative energy.

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