Exploring the 1978 stabbing death of Nancy Spungen
It’s a story of fame, lust, addiction, greed and violence. Sid Vicious, bass player for the punk band the Sex Pistols, charged with stabbing and killing his girlfriend at New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel.
Warning: crime scene photos will be included in this article.
Nancy Spungen, a 20-year old bleached-blonde originally from Philadelphia, had lived with British punk star Sid Vicious (formerly of the Sex Pistols) at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City for several months. Sid was in New York to launch a solo career, with Nancy acting as his manager. But the couple soon spiraled into heroin addiction and in October 1978, Nancy was found in the bathroom of their hotel room, deceased, with a single stab wound to the abdomen.
Sid reportedly told police, “I did it… because I’m a dirty dog.” He was arrested, bailed out, arrested again after assaulting a man with a broken beer bottle, sent to Rikers Island, released to stand trial and died late that same night of a fatal heroine overdose.
Sid and Nancy
Nancy Laura Spungen was born February 27, 1958 in Philadelphia, the eldest daughter of a middle-class Jewish couple. At birth, doctors realized that the infant was being choked by her own umbilical cord, nearly dying of oxygen deprivation. Doctors determined though that the baby had not suffered brain damage.
Nancy was an incredibly bright but disturbingly angry child. She screamed throughout her infancy, leading one pediatrician to prescribe barbiturates at three months of age. As she grew older, she began to demonstrate acts of violence against her younger sister and once threatened a babysitter with a pair of scissors. Her first suicide attempt occurred at the age of fourteen.
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A year later, Nancy was diagnosed with schizophrenia but soon accepted to the University of Colorado at Boulder, at just 16 years of age. During her first year of college, she was arrested twice — for storing stolen property in her dorm room and purchasing marijuana from an undercover cop. She was booted out of school, and her father came to take her back to Philly.
At 17, Nancy left home for New York City where she immersed herself in the fledgling punk/alternative music scene. She met Debbie Harry of Blondie, Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls and other rock stars, while supporting herself as a stripper and sex worker. When Nolan and his new band, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, took off for a tour of London, Nancy hopped on a plane and moved to the U.K. to be near her idol. Nolan reportedly wanted little to do with Spungen however, so she set her sights on another band: the Sex Pistols, undisputed court jesters of England’s riotous punk scene. A flirtation with singer Johnny Rotten went unrequited, which led Nancy to take up with the band’s bass player, Sid Vicious, instead.
Sid Vicious was born Simon John Ritchie on May 10, 1957 in London. His father was a jazz musician who worked as a guardsman at Buckingham Palace, and his mother was in the army. When Sid was an infant, his mother Anne took him to Ibiza. Her husband failed to join them so she divorced him and married another man, Christopher Beverley. Just six months later, Sid’s stepfather died of cancer.
Anne, who was already using drugs by that point, began to deal. She turned her son into a tiny drug mule, smuggling hard narcotics between Spain and England hidden on the child during several trips. Eventually, mother and son moved to a flat in East London. Sid not only witnessed his mother’s drug use and that of her friends, but he may have done drugs as a teen with Anne.
Young ‘John Beverley’ (as he was known) attended Kingsway College of Further Education in Holborn (Central London) where he made friends with three other Johns: John Wardle (later known as bass player Jah Wobble), John Grey, and a working class kid from North London named John Lydon.
Lydon gave John Beverley his famous nickname, ‘Sid Vicious’, coining the name after his pet hamster (who was apparently a rather vicious little critter). John Lydon, under the name Johnny Rotten, later became the singer of the fledgling band the Sex Pistols, one of the first punk bands in the U.K., managed by raconteur Malcom McLaren. The Sex Pistols had a legit bass player but apparently the other guys in the band thought he was too ‘straight’ looking to play the punk clubs. So in 1977 they booted him out (with McLaren’s urging) and hired Sid instead.
Sid Vicious had done a little drumming (he played drums for Siouxsie and the Banshee’s first gig in September 1976) but had to learn to play the bass, which he never really did that well. Really, Sid’s role in the Sex Pistols was his look and his attitude. From his self-cut spiky black hair, to his edgy clothing (courtesy of Sex, the punk boutique owned by McLaren’s girlfriend Vivienne Westwood) including studded belts and Nazi emblems, to the in-your-face attitude he presented both onstage and off, Sid was certainly something to behold. At times he appeared to be an enthusiastic jokester, at other times he seemed downright mentally disturbed.
But when Sid and Nancy got together, they created an especially dangerous and combustible cocktail. Nancy, like Sid’s mother Anne, was an addict who used highly addicting opiates like heroin. Sid began using heroin with ‘Nauseating Nancy’ (as the British press dubbed her) and his public performances began to degenerate. During the Pistols only American tour (January 1978), Sid was completely wasted, missing Nancy (who McLaren banned from joining them on tour) and made an utter fool of himself. He spat blood on one concertgoer, struck another audience member in the head with his bass guitar, attacked a photographer and a security guard, and carved the words “Gimme a fix” on his chest using a safety pin.
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The other Sex Pistols were sick of Sid sucking up all the attention (and being a lousy musician, to boot) and kicked him out of the band.
Vicious then recorded three songs for McLaren’s film “The Great Rock & Roll Swindle” (about the Pistols) including a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” He and Nancy soon flew to New York to begin working on his solo career.
Nancy managed to get Sid booked for several gigs at Max’s Kansas City. There was plenty of interest in Vicious, but not much revenue coming in from those gigs. To supplement their income, Nancy returned to sex work while they waited for royalties from his ‘Swindle’ songs to pay off.
They finally received some of that that money on October 11, 1978 — the day before Nancy’s dead body was found in their hotel room.
The Chelsea Hotel
The Chelsea Hotel (or Hotel Chelsea as it was officially known) opened in 1885 between Seventh and Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, New York City. The red brick 12-story hotel (described alternately as ‘Queen Anne Revival’ or ‘Victorian Gothic’) offered both nightly and long-term occupation rates. It was once the prized jewel of New York’s theater district, but economic distress in the region shuttled the theaters to the Broadway area and left Chelsea bankrupt and forlorn. The hotel closed for several years and reopened in 1905. Since its’ reopening, the Chelsea Hotel became known as a home to many of the most notable creative talents of the last century, particularly writers: Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs all resided for a time at the Chelsea. By the 1960s, the music crowd discovered the Chelsea Hotel. Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Marianne Faithful each took up residency there.
But so did the drug addicts, pimps, dealers and grifters who wanted these celebrities attention.
Sid and Nancy rented Room 100. This small room (with a bedroom area, a little kitchenette and a bath) was on the first occupancy floor, one floor up from the lobby. Socialite Edie Sedgwick famously set fire to Room 105 just down the hall, although that was more than a decade before the punk couple checked in. Sid and Nancy spent most of their time using drugs, trying to score, occasionally practicing music, and fighting with each other during the months they lived at the Chelsea. Their drug use had spiraled into depression and they frequently made suicide pacts, promising to kill themselves together, if it got too bad. Nancy even bought Sid a knife, known as a 007 knife (one that Sid had also seen on rocker Stiv Bators and admired).
Nancy had been calling McLaren in London for months, screaming about Sid’s royalties from “My Way” (the only one of the three singles released thus far from the “Great Rock & Roll Swindle” soundtrack). Finally, on October 11th, she received a check from London and cashed it. She and Sid bought a large quantity of Tuinal (barbiturates) and other drugs before returning to the Chelsea. Nancy kept the money close, wrapped in a purple hair tie.
At 9:45 that evening, Sid and Nancy went to Room 119 to visit friends Cathi O’Rourke and Neon Leon (Webster, a musician who played with Sid at Max’s). Nancy told the couple to come to their room and enjoy some of their new drugs. She and Sid left Room 119 around midnight.
Leon and Cathi did not come to Room 100, but other friends stopped by to party. Several noted that Sid was passed out on the bed, unconscious. He’d taken too many Tuinal. They also remembered Nancy holding that wad of cash wrapped in the purple hair band. One of their friends remembered seeing a man named Michael, a gay club kid with long hair, hanging around at the time. Hours later he saw Michael again at the Chelsea, with what appeared to be a purple hair band, or scrunchie.
At 2:30am, Nancy called ‘Rockets Redglare’ (true name Michael Morra, a drug addict and character actor) to ask him to bring Dilaudid (synthetic morphine) along with hypodermic needles. She and Sid then went down to the hotel lobby to wait. They returned to their room before Rockets arrived.
At 3:15am Rockets Redglare arrived at the Chelsea and went to Room 100. He found Nancy there, wearing a long t-shirt over black underpants, and Sid, asleep on the bed. Redglare did not bring the drugs and paraphernalia Nancy requested, and he left before 5am. During the roughly 1 hour 45 minutes he spent in Room 100, Nancy was reportedly very agitated about not getting drugs, and occasionally Sid would rouse himself from his drug-induced stupor. Nancy and Redglare also discussed him becoming a body guard on Sid’s upcoming tour.
Down in the lobby, Rockets made a phone call from the front desk where he saw a man he knew as ‘Steven C’ walk in from the street. Steven, Rockets knew, regularly dealt Quaaludes and Tuinal to Sid and Nancy. After his call, Rockets left the Chelsea Hotel.
At 5am, the guest in Room 228 phoned the front desk to complain about a man knocking at his door, waking him. The bellhop went up to the 2nd floor to investigate and found Sid, wandering around. Vicious seemed agitated and unruly, but rather dazed. He tried to punch the bellhop, who wrestled him down the ground, subdued him. Sid, with his mouth bloodied, then headed to the stairs, presumably to return to his room.
Just before 7:30am, the guest in Room 102 (next to Sid and Nancy’s) heard moaning sounds coming from next door. It was a woman’s voice. The guest later said it sounded like the woman was alone. The sounds stopped after a while and the guest returned to sleep.
At 9:30am, the front desk received a call from outside the hotel warning that there was trouble in Room 100. The staff member who took the call then sent the bellhop up to the room to investigate.
The bellhop did not immediately go to Room 100. At 10am, someone called the front desk from the room and a man’s voice said, “Someone is sick — need help.”
At 10:45, ambulance and police arrived from the nearby 10th Precinct. They discovered Nancy’s body in the bathroom, slumped against the wall between the toilet and sink. An autopsy noted that Nancy had several bruises and contusions on her body including two bruises on her face (friends claimed Nancy told them that Sid beat her over the head with a guitar). But the cause of death was blood loss due to a single, penetrating knife wound to the abdomen.
Warning: the following image is a crime scene photo of the deceased.
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Nancy had been stabbed and then apparently staggered to the bathroom, where she fell down. A trail of blood led from the bed to the bathroom. The floor around the victim was also covered in blood.
Forensic evidence gathered at the scene included drugs and paraphernalia, as well as several knives. One of those knives — a Jaguar K-11 folding knife with a 5" blade — was later determined to be the murder weapon. This was not the knife that Nancy bought Sid weeks earlier. Neon Leon later identified the Jaguar knife as one that Sid bought the day before, for his protection.
Sid Vicious was not in Room 100 when the bellhop arrived and called police. He was found, instead, staggering around outside in the hallway, crying. He was very clearly still high from the previous night’s drug binge. When police began to question him, he initially said that Nancy “must have fallen on the knife.”
Sid was escorted out of the Chelsea Hotel by police and taken to a local precinct for questioning. He allegedly told them that he killed Nancy, and that he did it because he was “a dirty dog.” After being questioned for several hours, he was arrested.
But police did not investigate the stories of other people visiting Room 100, including the many other fingerprints that would have been easily acquired. Some of Sid and Nancy’s guests that late night included known drug dealers and others with criminal records, who would have been easy to identify by fingerprint.
Instead, investigators were satisfied that Vicious alone had stabbed Nancy. After all, they shared the hotel room, the murder victim belonged to him, and he not only seemed to know that Nancy was dead but even admitted to them that he did it. There were also multiple statements from associates that Sid had been abusive with his girlfriend.
But did he murder her? If so, was it intentional or, in his drug-induced stupor, had Sid accidentally killed Nancy? Was this part of some twisted suicide pact, and he couldn’t finish the job? Or did the rock star wake up after a night of partying only to discover his girlfriend deceased?
Sid was booked and taken to jail but soon bonded out, thanks to a generous fifty-thousand dollar investment from Virgin Records owner Richard Branson, and a fancy attorney, whose legal fees were paid by singer Mick Jagger. Sid even got a few days in lockup to detox from the drugs, but when friends saw him at Max’s Kansas City after his release, he was again loaded to the gills and distraught. On October 22nd, ten days after Nancy’s murder, Sid attempted suicide using a broken light bulb and he was sent to Bellevue Hospital. During the ambulance ride, he kept screaming, “I want to die!”
After a few days at Bellevue, Vicious was released and staying with friends in the city. He met a young woman, Michelle Robinson, and the two began dating. But at a concert, Sid got into an altercation with singer Patti Smith’s brother Todd, and he smashed a broken beer bottle into Todd Smith’s face. His bond revoked, Sid got arrested again, and sent to Rikers Island maximum security jail where he spent the next two months.
When Vicious arrived at Rikers, he was immediately put into their drug detox program. But we also have recently learned that while at the maximum security facility, Sid was gang-raped. It is an important factor to consider, when you examine what happened next.
Sid was released from Rikers on February 1, 1979. He would still be facing a potential trial for Nancy’s murder, and he joined his girlfriend Michelle at her New York apartment. His mother Anne was also in New York, awaiting her only child.
That night, Sid and his friends gathered to celebrate his (temporary) freedom. Vicious was sober that day, having successfully completed his Rikers-mandated detox program. But within hours, a friend brought him some heroin. It was too much — his body was no longer used to the drug and those dosages and at midnight, Sid overdosed.
He got lucky: his friends were awake and they rallied around him and revived the musician. Allegedly, immediately after waking from the overdose, Sid begged for more heroin. It seems clear that he was tempting fate. Was he worried about the trial, fearing a guilty verdict and a life or death sentence? Or was he more afraid of being returned to a maximum security facility like Rikers, where he had been violently assaulted just weeks before?
During the night, he managed to get hold of more heroin. And he asked his mother, Anne Beverley, a seasoned addict, to help him.
She did. Anne gave her son another dose of junk just hours after he’d overdosed. It was enough to kill him.
Sid Vicious was found in the morning lying beside his girlfriend. He’d died during the night.
Anne Beverley, who killed herself in 1996, told a friend of Sid’s (Jerry Only, bassist for the punk band The Misfits) that she deliberately gave her son an overdose. She knew that he was terrified about being raped again in prison, and wanted to spare Sid the indignation of a trial, sentence and torture in prison. Jerry Only was also the one who drove Sid’s mother to pick up Vicious’s ashes after he was cremated days later.
Anne told Only and others that in the days after her son was cremated, she discovered a suicide note in his pocket. It confirmed to her that he did not want to keep living, justifying her decision to end his suffering herself.
Friends then took Sid’s ashes to the Philadelphia cemetery where Nancy was buried and, against her family’s wishes, sprinkled them over her grave.
We may never know the truth of how Nancy Spungen died. Was it murder-suicide, just suicide, an accident or intentional homicide? Was her death at the hands of the man she loved, or someone else?
We also don’t know what became of the money she collected the day before, the cash that was wrapped up in that purple hair band. It was not collected from her hotel room during the investigation. Police never questioned ‘Steven C’, the dealer seen in the lobby the morning Nancy died. And the man known as ‘Michael’ has never been identified.
Rockets Redglare did brag, however, to several friends that he was the one who killed Nancy. Rockets, true name Michael Morra, is also deceased now.
There are a couple of documentaries out now that explore the question of whether Sid was guilty of Nancy’s murder (“Who Killed Nancy?” — a 2008 documentary by director Alan G. Parker, and “Sad Vacation” by Danny Garcia, released in 2016). Other sources for this article include:
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