The Old West’s Ted Bundy
Well-spoken serial killer elicited headlines 100 years before Bundy.
Posted January 18, 2018
Ted Bundy was caught in 1978. He seemed like an educated, affable guy who defied common notions about murderers. He drew plenty of attention, in part because he was handsome, magnetic and verbally gifted.
A century before him, another charismatic serial killer commanded similar attention. Those who study extreme offenders have heard of “The Nebraska Fiend,” but few accounts offer enough details to show what was fascinating about him.
I recently revisited Stephen D. Richards to write Murder Alley, about shocking Nebraska crimes for the Notorious USA series. (And some are mind-blowing.) When lawmen took Richards by train to Nebraska for trial, a reporter covering it was intrigued with Richards’ calm demeanor in the face of certain hanging.
In this way, he wasn’t like Bundy, who resisted his execution. Bundy killed mostly college woman, was sexually compelled and had many more victims, while Richards had no particular victim type and killed when it seemed to his advantage. But like Bundy, Richards roamed widely, charmed people, sought renown once caught and had no remorse. The reporter found Richards to be affable and courteous, talking easily and at length.
“He is a good reasoner, a fluent talker, uses on the whole very fair English, has a soft, melodious and well-modulated voice, a rare amount of personal magnetism over all with whom he is brought in contact, and is as lithe, graceful and stalwart a specimen of physical manhood as ever strode a prison cell… A constant smile plays over his face...”
Richards would speak only to polite reporters. He had smart comebacks for many questions and would freely discuss his crimes if the questioner showed respect.
“He talks of murders as openly and with as little concealment as of the most trifling matter,” the reporter wrote. “He insists that none of the last five were committed in passion, but with a motive which he will not reveal, and were planned deliberately. He promises revelations in a day or two on matters here which he has kept silent about, which he says will astonish the whole western country as nothing has for years.”
Like Bundy, Richards was grandiose. He thought a book should be written about him and considered writing it himself. Instead, he selected the Omaha Herald as his exclusive instrument for fame.
Born in West Virginia in 1856, Richards’ family moved several times. As an adult, he went to Iowa to work as an attendant on the violent ward at a lunatic asylum. “That took away to some extent my feeling and sympathy for mankind,” he stated.
He considered himself to be “well-raised” and had no history of criminal offenses. However, he’d suffered a serious head injury not long before he started to kill. (This could be a factor.)
In the spring of 1877, Richards arrived in Nebraska. He’d been traveling for a couple of weeks with a young man whom he regarded as uneducated and “a poor writer,” although “a first-rate young man” who liked to talk about religion. They’d settled into a camp for the night and woke up “in good reason,” but then Richards said something that annoyed his companion. They drew guns and the young man lost.
When Richards did a brief stint in jail, he attracted the attention of a woman who had 3 children and a house. Richards visited several times and was offered the chance to purchase her property. He devised another plan.
“It struck me that it would be just as well for everybody if the whole family were of the world. I thought the matter over, thought of the best way of disposing of the bodies, the chance of discovery, and made up my mind the scheme was a good one.” He dug a mass grave and then killed them all. Richards later said he had no more feeling about it than if he’d slaughtered some jackrabbits.
Then, a neighbor meddled, so he had to go, too – with a hammer.
Law enforcement got Richards to admit to three more murders. Although he denied that he’d set out to become a notorious killer, “I always made up my mind that I was hard to beat at anything I put my mind to, in whatever direction it was; [I] had a rather mean, contemptible disposition as regarded matters of that kind.”
He rejected legal representation (like Bundy) and was hanged on April 28, 1879, at the age of 23.
Richards was not "America's first serial killer," but he comes before the likes of H. H. Holmes and others who’ve been posed as such. But Richards was more than just a common outlaw. I think he should have more visibility, so I was happy to include him in this collection.
Ramsland, K. (2017). Murder Alley: Nebraska fiends and felons. Notorious USA.