The Vicious Death of Nancy Spungen

Fatally stabbed in New York’s Chelsea Hotel in 1978, to date no one knows who killed Nancy

Nancy Spungen, ca 1978, Fair Use Image courtesy of If They Should Ask

“I won’t live to be 21. I’m never going to be old. I don’t ever want to be ugly and old. I’m an old lady now anyhow. I’m 80. There’s nothing left…” — Nancy Spungen

When Nancy Laura Spungen was born on February 27, 1958, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, her mother, Deborah, instantly knew that something was different about her baby. During the delivery, Nancy’s umbilical cord prolapsed, which deprived the infant of oxygen. She came out blue and limp, with persistently elevated bilirubin levels. After an eight-day hospital stay, Deborah and Frank excitedly brought their daughter home.

The mood in the Spungen home shifted from excitement to apprehension when Nancy didn’t stop crying. According to Deborah’s memoir, And I Don’t Want to Live this Life, Nancy didn’t merely cry, she screamed. And she didn’t stop.

Deborah brought her baby, several times, to the pediatrician. They tried various soothing and coping mechanisms, including the “cry it out” method, but nothing worked. Then, when Nancy was three months old, the doctor prescribed Phenobarbital. Just a few drops on her tongue, as needed. Thus began Nancy’s love affair with substances.

Nancy needed frequent drops on her tongue. The dose would keep her asleep for a few hours. But when she woke up, she was in a constant state of agitation and motion. Her parents were hard-pressed to keep up with the baby. Nancy had no interest in slowing down and would stiffen up when touched. Deborah suspected Nancy suffered a neurological birth injury. Unfortunately, this diagnosis didn’t exist when Nancy was born.

Nancy was precocious — she spoke in sentences before her first year ended. No one knew quite how to deal with Nancy, so they subdued her with medication.

At age 11, Nancy was expelled from school for truancy and being generally incorrigible. She continued her education at Devereux Manor High School, a school for troubled girls. Part of the trouble was that Nancy possessed a superior intellect. She’d later claim to have an IQ of 172, but this is likely overshooting a bit. When she was 15-years-old, doctors diagnosed Nancy with schizophrenia. This same year, Nancy graduated high school.

At age 16, Nancy enrolled at the University of Colorado and began using heroin. Once again, Nancy found herself arrested and expelled after buying drugs from an undercover cop. Nancy’s dorm room was full of property stolen from other students. After the Colorado fiasco, Nancy attempted suicide and spent time in a mental hospital.

Nancy’s parents did everything in their power to save their daughter. Meanwhile, they had two very typical children who were often on the receiving end of Nancy’s violent outbursts. Frank and Deborah did their best for Nancy. Eventually, they had to do the best thing for themselves and their other children and let Nancy go her own way.

Nancy decided with her parents that the best thing for her was to go to New York City, where she became acquainted with the punk scene. She was only 17-years-old but got a job as a stripper to support herself and her growing drug habit. To that end, she sometimes turned to prostitution.

Nancy developed an infatuation with Jerry Nolan of The Heartbreakers. Most girls that age crush on their favorite celebrities. Few abandon their lives in hot pursuit of a relationship.

Nancy planned to do whatever it takes to insert herself into their world. She became a fixture at New York venues such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.

Until this point, Nancy was a hum-drum kind of girl with mousy brown hair and a few extra pounds. Not unattractive, but she didn’t have the same look as other groupies, and she didn’t want it.

In New York, Nancy began her metamorphosis from a frumpy wannabe into a punk legend. She became a poof of bleach blonde hair and smeared makeup clothed in torn fishnets and gaudy animal print. Finally, Nancy looked the way she felt inside. Although she was barely out of her teen years, Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten would later describe Nancy as “..a vicious old cow.”

Nancy surrounded herself with people who looked and spoke as she did, but she didn’t find the acceptance she craved. The New York crowd thought Nancy tried too hard and found her personality too intense and even stomach-turning. They dubbed her “Nauseating Nancy.”

England

When The Heartbreakers went to London, Nancy followed. Unfortunately for her, Jerry Nolan made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in her. Nancy so enjoyed being part of the London crowd that she decided to stay anyway.

Nancy was all things quintessentially punk rock — unapologetic, abrasive, opinionated, prone to fits of violence. The London punk scene never asked Nancy to stop raging against life. They didn’t entirely accept her either. She didn’t have the same gritty and impoverished upbringing that her UK counterparts shared. Her family was an upper-middle-class, affluent, Jewish-American family. She was obnoxious and loud, with a terrible pretended British accent.

Nancy made no bones about the fact she was a prostitute and junkie. Heroin was her drug of choice, and it wasn’t readily available in the UK as it was in New York. Nancy spent her first six months in London dope sick and staying at a friend’s house.

When she eventually secured a drug dealer, she used heroin to wiggle her way into the inner circles. She couldn’t do it using sex, so she brought the drugs. If she couldn’t be what the men wanted, she became what they needed.

Around this time, Nancy began to follow an established English band called the Sex Pistols and met the great love of her life, Sid Vicious.

Sid Vicious

In the mid-1970s, The Sex Pistols repulsed parents and captivated their fans across the UK. On the bass, was punk rock poster boy, Sid Vicious. Sid was born John Simon Ritchie on May 10, 1957, in the South London borough of Lewisham.

Sid’s childhood contrasted starkly to Nancy’s. Sid’s father was a guard at Buckingham Palace, and his mother was a drug-smuggling hippie named Anne. Nancy’s parents spent her wonder years proactively trying to save her life. Sid’s father vanished, and his mother took him on trips to Spain, where she would hide hashish the child’s diaper to sneak it over the border. When Sid was a teen, Anne was more of a drug buddy to Sid than a mom.

When fate placed Sid and Nancy in each other’s paths, it spelled death for them both. Most of the band members despised Nancy, but Sid found her brand of realness and grit appealing. He was already strung out as much as Nancy was, and the pair became joined at the hip. By midsummer, they moved into Sid’s mother’s apartment together.

Sid and Nancy forged a passionate relationship, peppered with bouts of violence and abuse from both parties. Even so, Nancy taught Sid about making love and the art of being vicious. Sid brought out a quality in Nancy that baffled those who knew her best; she became nurturing, in her own twisted way.

Holiday in the Sun

The Sex Pistols’ tour of America began in early 1978. Their manager, Malcolm McLaren, made it clear; Nancy was not welcome, and she was furious. Nancy was persona non grata amongst Sid’s friends, and she didn’t know anyone else. People only tolerated Nancy because Sid was around, and now he was in her home country, and she in his.

Sid didn’t think much of the US at first. It was boring. Their manager, Malcolm, in his infinite wisdom, booked them in the most unlikely of locales. Specifically, Malcolm had the band tour the deep south, Bible belt, and Texas, eventually ending up in San Francisco. These American crowds were not fully ready for the angsty, distorted sound the band made famous in the UK. The entire tour was a series of shit shows that usually ended in brawls.

By the time they made it to the west coast, Sid had found the one thing he had enjoyed about the US — really good heroin. Sid’s addiction became a sore point with his band members, who were surprisingly straight-laced in this regard. Without Nancy around to do so, they had to babysit Sid, and that alone was a full-time job.

The Sex Pistols played their last show on January 14, 1978, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Sid, who never could play his instrument, showed up high and acting arrogant. Singer Johnny Rotten abruptly closed the concert with one question, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and stormed off stage. The Sex Pistols officially disbanded shortly after.

Nancy appointed herself the manager of Sid Vicious, solo artist. As his manager, she thought Sid would get more work in the states than he could in London. She tried to rebrand him, and she didn’t do a terrible job. Sid couldn’t play bass, but he could carry a tune.

Sid and Nancy moved into room 100 at the Chelsea Hotel, former residence of such greats as Arthur Miller and Mark Twain. They holed, and attempted to go straight, sort of. The room became their love nest as well as a drug den where all manner of dealers and users congregated. They located a methadone clinic and took their medicine. Unfortunately, they didn’t stop taking street drugs, including heroin and other opiates.

Death

On October 12, 1978, the switchboard operator at the Chelsea Hotel received a phone call from an outside line. “There’s trouble in room 100,” the caller declared and hung up. A second call came in before the bellman could make his way to the room. “Someone is sick. Need help.”

The night before, Sid recalled falling asleep around 1 AM. He last remembered Nancy sitting at the edge of the bed, toying with a knife. They just had a fight that included Sid hitting Nancy and Nancy hitting Sid. Witnesses say he ingested copious amounts of the strong sedative Tuinal and passed out.

Sid woke from his Tuinal stupor around 10:30 that morning. He initially thought he urinated on himself but quickly realized the wetness he felt was blood. He stumbled to the bathroom and found Nancy sitting on the floor beneath the sink with a stab wound in her belly. According to Sid, she was still breathing at that time. He didn’t think she was dying, so he went to the methadone clinic. Nancy bled to death while he was away.

In a panic, Sid washed the knife of blood and attempted to clean Nancy up also. When he couldn’t clean her, he called for help. He wasn’t there when the bellman came up and found Nancy lifeless and clad in black bra and panties. The police later found him pacing the halls confused and seemingly unsure of the events leading up to this point. Police promptly arrested Sid.

The Chelsea Hotel, Wikimedia Creative Commons, Courtesy of user Velvet

Theories

Nancy was an addict; this is an indisputable fact. She was also mentally ill, abrasive, even nauseating, but she was human and deserved justice. So did Sid. The police saw Nancy’s death as an open and shut case. Nancy is dead on the bathroom floor, and Sid is in the other room. It is easy to say Sid did it. Reporters spoke of her death with a “junkies will be junkies” attitude. Still, Nancy had the right to a thorough investigation, and that never happened.

The most prominent theory is that Sid killed Nancy in the night. He was arrested that morning and charged with 2nd-degree murder. At times, he admitted to the crime. Other times, he denied it completely or claimed amnesia.

If we accept Sid’s guilt as fact, more questions arise. On the night Nancy died, the couple had no heroin. Instead, Sid took copious amounts of the strong sedative Tuinal. Witnesses present that evening claim Sid ingested at least 30 tablets. If this is true, Sid would scarcely be able to lift the weight of his own hand, much less thrust a hunting knife into Nancy’s abdomen.

Sid wasn’t the only questionable character in the room that night. A man called Rockets Redglare was there too. All night long, Rockets freely came in and out of the unlocked room. He was Sid and Nancy’s bodyguard and drug dealer, the same person who provided the Tuinal. At around 1 AM, After Sid knocked out, Nancy begged Rockets for an opiate pain killer called Dilaudid. Police never questioned him. They never questioned anyone of the identified six people who left their fingerprints at the crime scene, except for Sid.

Others claim a man named Michael also came into and out of the room. No one seems to know his last name, only that Michael was also a resident of The Chelsea. Interestingly, Rocket’s actual name was Michael Morra.

Before Rockets died of drug-related illnesses in 2001, he openly bragged that he killed Nancy. Some say Rockets was being flippant and had a habit of telling tall-tales. But Rockets also had a wad of cash bound with Nancy’s purple hair tie. Sid and Nancy’s money, as much as $25,000, was inexplicably missing when Nancy died.

Everyone who knew Nancy knew she was on a death trip. She often claimed she would die young, before age 21. Could it be that Nancy stabbed herself?

This theory sounds extreme, but Nancy was an intense person with a history of self-injury. In her teen years, Nancy once inserted a coat hanger into her vagina with enough force to puncture her uterus because she falsely believed she was pregnant. Nancy made several suicide attempts, and some of them were nearly successful. In light of those facts, Nancy might have created a single stab wound to the abdomen and died.

Nancy could have been saved that night if anyone had the presence of mind to help her. She bled slowly, for hours, before her injury became fatal. During this time, neighbors claim to have heard moans coming from the room. But this was Sid and Nancy’s place. Moaning would be a welcome change from the yelling, fighting, and lovemaking they’d typically hear.

Why didn’t Nancy scream? She had been screaming and fighting since babyhood. Instead, after the stabbing, Nancy roamed around the little room. She didn’t call for help, and she didn’t try and wake Sid.

Aftermath

Unfortunately, we will never know who killed Nancy Spungen. Sid died at age 21 on February 2, 1979, of a heroin overdose while out on bail. Had he lived and gone to trial, he could have been cleared of the crime because there was not enough investigation and way too many variables.

Today, fans think of Sid and Nancy’s story as some romantic tale reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. There is nothing romantic about dying a slow, preventable death. Nancy’s family did everything they could, and addiction still won. There was a lack of awareness in the medical community, then regarding mentally ill children, birth injury, and addiction treatment. We’ve come a long, long way. For Nancy, it was too late. She was just 20 years old.

Nancy is buried in a family plot at King David Memorial Park. When Sid died, his mother asked to scatter her son’s ashes on Nancy’s grave. Nancy’s mother politely declined. Rumor holds that she spread them there anyway. Nancy’s headstone reads, “Your odyssey is over — sleep in peace.”

Further Reading

And I Don’t Want to Live This Life, Deborah Spungen

England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, Jon Savage

Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk, Phil Strongman

Welcome readers! Heather Monroe is a genealogist and writer who resides in California with her partner and their nine children. •True Crime• History• Memoir•

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