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Sid and Nancy: a Punk Rock Murder Mystery

A battered leather jacket
Image: | Above: A stock photo of an old-school punk-rock leather jacket

On the morning of the 12th of October 1978, a twenty-year-old woman lay on the bathroom floor of room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. She was slowly bleeding to death from a single stab wound to the abdomen. In the bedroom, a young man was out cold after taking a titanic quantity of barbiturates the night before. He was completely oblivious to what was happening in the bathroom. The girl’s name was Nancy Spungen. The man’s name was John Ritchie, though the world knew him by another name – Sid Vicious.

Born in Philadelphia in 1958, as a young girl Nancy Spungen possessed an above-average intelligence, but also a vicious streak. She attacked and bullied her siblings, threatened her babysitter with a pair of scissors and even attacked the psychiatrist trying to treat her.

Spungen was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of fifteen. By sixteen, she had graduated high school early and earned herself a place at university. However, an arrest for dealing marijuana as well as being caught with stolen property in her dorm room led not only to her expulsion from the University of Colorado but also from the entire state of Colorado.

By age seventeen, this troubled young woman was living on her own in New York City. She made ends meet by working as a stripper and a prostitute. It wasn’t long before she was embroiled in the New York punk scene, attending gigs, sleeping with musicians and supplying band members with drugs. Here was a new type of groupie – opinionated, sharp-tongued, not conventionally pretty, slightly overweight and happy to tell anyone who would listen that she worked as a prostitute. In a scene that prided itself on playing by its own rules while offending as many people as possible, the foul-mouthed hooker with the bad attitude fit right in.

In 1976, Spungen headed for London to check out the blossoming British punk scene and hopefully ingratiate herself with the New York Dolls drummer, Jerry Nolan. Instead, she met the Sex Pistols.

Formed in 1975 by the flamboyant Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols were fronted by the cocky Londoner, John Lydon. Known as Johnny Rotten, Lydon helped propel the band to worldwide fame, primarily off the back of the Pistols’ 1976 Hit single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’.

After falling out with the band’s original bassist, McLaren and Lydon hired a young man named John Ritchie to fill the gap. Lydon and Ritchie had been friends since 1973 when the pair attended Hackney Technical College. They eventually ended up living in a squat together, and it was during this time that Lydon gave Ritchie his stage name after Lydon’s pet hamster, Sid, bit Ritchie and he exclaimed, 'Sid is really vicious!'.

Sid Vicious was born.

Vicious was drafted into the band in 1977. That he couldn’t actually play bass was not seen as a problem. Sid Vicious wasn’t in the Pistols because they needed his incredible musicianship. He was there because he gave the band attitude.

Nancy Spungen originally tried to ingratiate herself with Johnny Rotten when she first encountered the band in 1977. When he shunned her affections, she turned her attention to the striking-looking bass player. Vicious and Spungen soon fell for each other. It would prove a match made in hell.

It was a tumultuous relationship, marred by bouts of domestic violence.

Spungen was hated by the other members of the band, who even went so far as to ban her from their forthcoming 1978 tour of the States. Vicious couldn’t get enough of her and the pair soon moved in together. It was a tumultuous relationship, marred by bouts of domestic violence. Both heavy drug users, it wasn’t long before the couple became addicted to heroin, leading to Vicious often appearing sluggish and unresponsive on stage. A rift was already growing in the band between McLaren and Lydon in the early months of 1978, and Vicious behavior only made things worse. It came as no surprise to anyone when the Pistols fell apart during their disastrous US tour.

Following the breakup of the Sex Pistols, Vicious and Spungen moved into room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in August. There they carried on their out-of-control lifestyle of heavy drug abuse, partying, furious arguments and domestic violence. All sorts of unsavoury characters could be seen coming in and out of room 100 for the three chaotic months the couple lived at the Chelsea.

On the evening of the 11th of October 1978, Vicious downed at least thirty Tuinal tablets. Tuinal is a strong barbiturate and witnesses who were present that evening say the tablets knocked Vicious out cold.

During his initial interview, he confessed to the crime, but later retracted this confession.

The following morning at 7:30 a.m., hotel guests began reporting the sound of a woman groaning from room 100. At 10 a.m. Vicious called down to reception telling them he needed help. When staff got up to the room, they found Spungen’s lifeless body under the sink. She had died from a single stab wound to the abdomen.

Vicious was arrested and charged with the second-degree murder of Spungen. During his initial interview, he confessed to the crime but later retracted this confession, claiming he was asleep at the time of the murder. The colossal quantities of barbiturates he had taken the night before certainly suggested he was not capable of committing the crime, and this has led to a question mark hovering over the murder case ever since.

Vicious was subsequently released on bail. This was rescinded soon after following an attack by Vicious on Todd Smith, the brother of the singer-songwriter Patti Smith. Sent to Rikers Island prison and forced to undergo a brutal detoxification process, Vicious was eventually released on the 1st of February 1979 after Virgin Records raised enough money to pay his bail.

The night he was released, Vicious and a group of friends gathered at an apartment in New York City to celebrate his making bail. He arranged for a friend to bring him some heroin, and by midnight he had overdosed on the drug. He was discovered dead the following morning by his heroin-addicted mother, Anne Beverly.

Shortly after Vicious’ death, his mother Anne claimed her son and Spungen had entered into a suicide pact together

It had been just four months since Nancy Spungen had been found dead in the Chelsea Hotel, and now the principal suspect was also deceased. NYPD decided to close the case. As far as they were concerned, Sid Vicious had murdered his girlfriend on the evening of the 12th of October 1978 with a hunting knife. Case closed.

But was it?

Shortly after Vicious’ death, his mother Anne claimed her son and Spungen had entered into a suicide pact together, and that Nancy had, in fact, killed herself. Anne claimed to have found a note from her son shortly after he was cremated telling her that he was living up to his side of the bargain by dying and that he should be buried next to Spungen in his leather jacket and motorcycle boots.

Another advocate of the suicide pact theory is the D Generation bassist and friend of Vicious, Howie Pyro. He was there on the night Vicious died, and he is adamant that Nancy killed herself as part of a suicide pact. “To me, she just did it herself because that's what people like that do, like teenagers who cut themselves," Pyro claimed in the 2009 documentary, Who Killed Nancy?. Pyro believes Spungen was an attention seeker who stabbed herself thinking Vicious would come to her aid. Unfortunately, having consumed enough barbiturates to floor a bull elephant, Vicious was in no state to do so and so she ended up bleeding out on the bathroom floor.

So, was it suicide? With only the shaky testimony of Vicious’ heroin addict mother and the speculation of his friends, it’s certainly a hard one to prove conclusively. As far as the NYPD was concerned, it was a clear-cut case of murder, though with no thorough investigation ever being carried out, his friends and former colleagues have always refused to believe Vicious was responsible. 'She was his first and only love of his life,' wrote former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren in an article for The Daily Beast in 2009. 'I am positive about Sid’s innocence.'

So, was Nancy Spungen murdered by Sid Vicious, did she kill herself, or was she murdered by a third party?

McLaren and others have pointed out the large sum of money stolen from the hotel room on the night of Spungen’s stabbing. At the time of her death, Vicious was dripping in royalty money from his 1978 hit cover of the Frank Sinatra classic, My Way. His hotel room contained bundles of cash, yet the following morning, a substantial sum of this money was missing. The finger for the robbery and for Spungen’s murder was pointed squarely at the actor and stand-up comedian, Rockets Redglare.

Redglare was Vicious’ occasional bodyguard (as well as one of his dealers), and he was present on the night before Spungen died. At around 2:30 a.m. on the morning of the 12th of October, Spungen asked Redglare to get her some opioid tablets. In the book Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk, author Phil Strongman claims Redglare returned with the drugs, saw Vicious comatose on the bed and Spungen passed out and decided to help himself to their money.

Strongman alleges that Spungen woke up, saw what Redglare was up to and attacked him. She received a knife to the guts for her troubles. Redglare strenuously denied murdering Nancy Spungen and stealing from the hotel room for the rest of his life, even going so far as to try to deflect suspicion from himself by naming a rival dealer called ‘Michael’ as the culprit. Redglare insisted ‘Michael’ had also visited room 100 that night. Needless to say, ‘Michael’ has never been traced.

So, was Nancy Spungen murdered by Sid Vicious, did she kill herself, or was she murdered by a third party who was eager to get his hands on the couple’s money? With the case closed as far as the authorities are concerned, we will probably never know for sure. What we do know is that on the morning of the 12th of October 1978, a young, mentally-ill woman bled to death on the bathroom floor of a New York hotel room as her famous boyfriend slept just feet away. It was a tragic end to a short, chaotic life.