Richard Speck


In the wake of the second recent mass-shooting event—the Sikh temple shooting in Milwaukee, which the Journal-Sentinal is doing an excellent job on—I've seen this tweet a lot, and similiar sentiments:

This has to be weighed against perceptions of crime which, as Matt Yglesias has written, have in recent years become "unmoored from reality." Crime has dropped; the perceived rate of crime has not. Is the same possible for rare cases of mass murder? Grant Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of corrections and author of (to my knowledge) the only longitudinal book-length study of mass murder in America, suggests it is: "the 1966 massacre committed by Charles Whitman in Austin, Texas marked the onset of a wave of mass public shootings that lasted until the end of the 20th century. Although it may seem that mass public shootings are still on the rise, the data show that 26 occurred between 2000 and 2009, a significant drop from the 43 cases in the 1990s."

Without minimizing individual incidents, it's worth considering the perspective of perception. The sentiment above, and the seeming certainty that the Sikh temple shooting was the work of a man deeply engaged in a racist subculture, reminded me, oddly enough, of Arnold Hirsch's Making the Second Ghetto and the changing perceptions of racial violence in Chicago during the 1940s and 1950s.

It's not a totally off-the-wall connection. Chicago was the scene of frequent, racially motivated domestic terrorism during the period, according to Hirsch: "Beginning in January 1945 there was at least one attack every month (save for March 1946), and twenty-nine of the onslaughts were arson-bombings. At least three persons were killed in the incidents." Yet coverage in the daily press was anemic.

What changed? In part, it was the media, specifically its form. The three-day Cicero riot in July 1951 required the presence of the National Guard—Chicago refused to commit cops to its black-sheep suburb—lending a perception of severity that larger riots within the city had not received. Nonetheless, the local press held off, but the dam broke:

The riot occurred July 10-12, 1951, and, for the first two days, the Chicago dailies remained silent. It was not until the afternoon of July 12 that the Daily News responded with page-one headlines, photographs, and two full pages of articles. The Tribune and the Sun-Times waited until the morning of July 13 before giving the disorder the same extensive treatment. The city's editors apparently had intended to treat this riot as it had the others, but several novel factors rendered a continued silence impossible…. [T]he Cicero riot was the first racial disturbance covered by local television. Most Chicagoans viewed the uprising in Cicero from the comfort of their living rooms before they read about it in the papers. Whereas the people on the North Side of Chicago had no knowledge of events in Fernwood, Park Manor, or Englewood, the intrusion of the electronic media exposed a serious, but decidedly second rate, disturbance for the world to see.

Not everything that bled, in the post-war period, led. The immediacy of electronic media changed that.

The framing of violence—how it is covered and categorized—effects our perceptions of its frequency and origins. In the past season of Mad Men, it looked back to one of the most notorious incidents in Chicago history to frame a period in American history:

[I]n the Richard Speck murders, one of the most disturbing details was that the one nurse who survived found refuge under a bed. This notion of her cowering in her confined hiding space while violence consumed every other room of the house is, perhaps, a metaphor for the topsy-turviness of America in 1966. Riots, strikes, and murders are in the news, and there’s a sense that violence and wildness have been unleashed into formerly safe expanses—that refuge is hard to find.

In his book, Duwe cites Speck as the first mass murderer: not the first person to kill multiple people at once, obviously, but the person for whom the category was created:

Looking back on the rampage twenty-five years later, criminologist Thomas Petee said in a 1991 newspaper article that "the Speck case represents the first truly high-profile multiple murder case that we see." While the present study shows there is little truth to this claim, it is clear that his crime attracted an extraordinary amount of attention. It dominated the headlines both at home and abroad.


These comments were based not only on the relatively high body count, but also on the notion that mass murders were exceptionaly rare in the U.S. before 1966…. The apparent paucity of mass killings in the U.S. before 1966 conveyed the impression that the Speck massacre was among the nation's first. Indeed, criminologist James Alan Fox said in 1991 that "mass murder was not something that was in our vocabulary until Richard Speck."

Duwe contends that "mass murder was nearly as common during the 1920s and 1930s as it has been over the last forty years," but because these were familicides and felony-related mass murders (Wikipedia's list of American familicides is extensive), they received far less media attention. By the 1960s, mass media gave Americans much more immediate access to local events; in the 1980s and 1990s, the advent of cable and 24-hour news stations allowed for more immersive coverage; in the past few years, electronic and social media have filled in the cracks—anywhere there's a computer or phone, there's coverage. If mass murders seem more frequent now than 20 years ago, consider the framing effect of media now versus media then.

But it's not necessarily an argument for the media to pay less attention to such crimes. Duwe suggests that one cause for the decline in mass public shootings in the past decade—a small sample size, as anything having to do with mass murder will inevitably be, but also a substantial drop over the 1990s—is awareness:

The recent drop in mass public shootings is also likely due to better recognition, assessment, and management of those who pose a legitimate threat of committing this type of violence. If there are any lessons that can be learned from the recent American experience with school shootings, it’s that promptly notifying authorities in response to violent threats can make a difference.

When considering any crime, it can't be done in a vacuum. There are sliding scales of demographics, societal conditions—Duwe makes an interesting case that mass shootings follow broader crime trends, as the drop from the 1990s to now implies—and perception to consider in the context of the event's horror. Which is not to say that a slow-motion civil war does not exist, but perhaps it's much slower than the idea suggests.


Image: Chicago Tribune