Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 16 May 2017
They look like a young couple on a day out in the country, his arm slung casually over her shoulders. They’re obviously working-class, the man in his shirtsleeves, the woman with peroxide-blond hair and a fashionable full skirt. The 1960s are in full swing and they could be anybody, enjoying the new freedom that’s arrived with the Beatles, Twiggy and the decline of deference.
But the man is Ian Brady, the notorious serial killer who died on Monday at the age of 79, after spending 51 years in prison. With his accomplice Myra Hindley, he tortured and murdered five young people, ranging in age from ten to 17, in a series of crimes so horrific that they ripped a gaping hole in the optimism of post-war England. The scar remains to this day and the death of this elderly serial killer, while hardly unexpected, still made headlines.
Back in 1966, when the details that emerged at their trial shocked the nation, things were supposed to be getting better after a long period of austerity. A Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, had come to power two years earlier promising a ‘new Britain’ forged in the ‘white heat’ of technology. Yet the actions of this apparently unremarkable couple from Greater Manchester exposed a human capacity for savagery that people didn’t want to think about after the horrors of the Second World War.
The couple made a recording of the screams of their youngest victim, ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey, as she pleaded for her life. They became so cocky that they tried to enlist Hindley’s brother-in-law, David Smith, in the axe murder of their final victim, 17-year-old Edward Evans. The traumatised young man – Smith was the same age as the butchered victim – went to the police, leading to the couple’s arrests in October 1965.
A police mug shot of Hindley, with dyed blond hair showing dark roots above fierce black eyebrows, has become one of the most instantly recognisable images of the 1960s – the face of ‘the most evil woman in Britain’. The direct gaze, and the full lips that speak of a kind of sensuality, invite endless speculation. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, Hindley looks recognisably modern, a woman of her time, yet her crimes hark back to the calculated cruelties of the Marquis de Sade.
The 1960s were a turbulent decade, in which class barriers and traditional sexual morality were both breaking down. Many people thought that was a good thing but the Moors murders stopped them in their tracks. What kind of society had produced this amoral young couple, whose flouting of social norms had turned into an unprecedented killing spree? It is important to remember that when Brady and Hindley were arrested, serial killers were a relatively new phenomenon. Everyone had heard of Jack the Ripper but most of the notorious cases, such as Peter Sutcliffe or Dennis Nilsen, were some years in the future. Nor did serial killers feature in traditional crime novels.
This was a new type of crime, involving child victims and killing for the sake it, and it caused a sensation. The idea of a female serial killer went against every notion of womanhood, and that police mugshot, with its pitiless stare, appeared to confirm that the woman had been the dominant partner.
In reality, this goes against every bit of evidence we have about the relationship between Hindley and Brady, which shows conclusively that he was the prime mover. But within no time at all Hindley had been pushed into the foreground, so much so that a huge painting by Marcus Harvey, based on the mugshot, was the controversial star turn in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition by Young British Artists in London in 1997.
Of course the fact that Hindley was the junior partner does not excuse her or reduce her culpability in these terrible murders. But if, as seems likely, the killings would not have happened had Brady and Hindley never met, it is vital to understand the dynamics of their relationship. That is true of Fred and Rose West as well, and in both cases the evidence suggests that the man was the instigator.
Hindley was only 18, four years younger than Brady, when they met in 1961 at the firm where she was a typist. She came from an impoverished background in Gorton, a working-class area of Manchester, and a household where domestic violence was rife. Conditions were so cramped that she initially had to share a bedroom with her abusive parents, including a father – an alcoholic ex-soldier – who regularly beat her.
We know now that children who grow up with extreme domestic violence are at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators themselves. Hindley would become both. With a predator’s instinct, Brady seems to have recognised her vulnerabilities, understanding her need for affection and manipulating it. ‘I am in a bad mood because he hasn’t spoken to me today,’ she wrote in one of many naïve entries in her diary.
She wanted him to marry her but he had other ideas, introducing her to two of his obsessions, the Marquis de Sade and accounts of atrocities committed under the Third Reich. She was too unworldly to see through his crackpot theories about cruelty and the master race, becoming drawn into a sado-masochistic relationship in which she would do anything to please him. Photographs exist of Hindley kneeling on the floor, naked, with the marks of a whip visible on her body.
Brady needed an accomplice and it had to be a woman; he couldn’t drive and he knew that his victims were more likely to get into a car if they saw a woman in the driving seat. Once he had Hindley entirely under his control, they abused the trust of vulnerable children, presenting a monstrous inversion of the normal parental relationship. Decades later Rose West, who also witnessed domestic violence as a child, would play a similar role, reassuring young women who were uncertain about accepting a lift in her husband’s car.
At the Moors murders trial, Brady was convicted of three murders, Hindley of two. He didn’t admit the full extent of their crimes until 1985, when he confessed to the murders of 16-year-old Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett, aged 12. Brady died this week without ever revealing where on Saddleworth Moor they buried the body Keith Bennett, prolonging the ordeal of his family. Greater Manchester police say that while they are not actively searching the moor, the case remains open.
Brady’s death means that two of the most notorious murderers of the 20th century are no longer with us. At the time of their trial, people knew little about either of them, and their instinct was to focus on Hindley. She and Brady had done unimaginably awful things and deserved no sympathy, but the public reaction to Hindley was skewed by beliefs about how women should behave.
Now they’re both dead and we have the gift of perspective. Myra Hindley grew up in a violent household where she witnessed and experienced beatings, and that made her easy pickings for a psychopath who wanted an accomplice. Perhaps it’s time to re-assess that original analysis, putting aside the notion of Hindley as some kind of demon.
Heaping most of the blame on the woman in such relationships is the easy option,but it doesn’t make much sense. It is vital to recognise the pattern – and the key role played by domestic violence. It took two people to set this terrible train of events in motion, and the clear light of history tells us that Brady needed Hindley – and they were as culpable as each other.