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Serial Killers

Part one in our two-part feature of the UK's most prolific murderers

Written by . Published on October 25th 2011.

Serial Killers

WHAT drives a man to kill? Outside of being a mercenary or paid assassin, or within the grounds of war, what is it that makes man deliberately take the life of another? In part one of our two-part instalment, we take a look at some of history’s most notorious serial killers and delve into their cases.


John Christie

Life and crimes: Immortalised in the chilling movie Ten Rillington Place, named after the Notting Hill flat where the atrocities took place, was the bespectacled figure of John Christie. Christie murdered at least eight women including his wife Ethel between 1943 and 1953. After gassing his victims he would typically strangle and rape them. He concealed the bodies under the floorboards, within the walls or in the garden.

Christie grew up in Yorkshire with four older sisters and his father was abusive towards his children. Even though an active kid, involved in sports, church and scouts, he had few friends. As a young adult, he was a very introverted and nervous individual. He had a number of different jobs including a stint  in the army as a special constable, a time when he was possibly happiest. He was taunted for his early sexual inadequacies, saw prostitutes, had affairs and was sent to jail on a number of occasions for theft and battery. Eight bodies including his wife’s were found in the house he vacated. He was convicted and hanged in 1953.

Verdict: In his book on Christie, Ludovic Kennedy postulates that Christie’s killings may have been down to his relationships growing up with his sisters, who dominated him, and an over protective mother. For Kennedy, it was revenge for their treatment: "He both loved and hated them because they aroused his masculinity and then stifled it." Sexual perversion was a more obvious explanation as Christie gassed and strangled his victims so they were dead or unconscious when he raped them, adding necrophilia to his long list of deviances. There are a number of motivations cited for necrophilia, but seeking self-esteem by expressing power over a homicide victim would seem appropriate given what we know about Christie.



Dennis Nilsen

Life and crimes: Born in Scotland, Dennis Nilsen was one of three siblings. He did not know his father as his parents divorced when he was young. An average student, he had few friends, but was aware of being attracted to other boys. He spent eleven years working as cook in the army. Settling in London, Nilsen would meet men in pubs and invite them back to his flat. The thought of men leaving him after they spent time together was too much for him. He would strangle them and sometimes push their heads under water in the bath to ensure they were dead. Nilsen enjoyed spending time with his dead victims as if they were alive, talking to them, dressing them, propping them up and watching TV or having sex with them. He would put the bodies under the floorboards, cut them up and burn them in bonfires or even try to flush them down the toilet, which would eventually be his undoing, when a man who came to fix a blocked drain found human flesh in the pipeline. Nilsen was convicted in 1983 and is thought to have killed at least fifteen boys and men. 

Verdict: Like Christie, Nilsen seemed to be have been affected by seeing his grandfather’s corpse at an early age. He could not bear loneliness and so needed someone close even if they happened to be dead. Christopher Berry says that for serial killers such as Nilsen the victims are ‘not like sexual partners.’  His form of necrophilia was the fantasy type. In the army he had asked a straight friend to act if he was dead. He admitted to seeing the dead state as ‘emotional and psychical perfection’.  Although he has given many interviews while in prison, Nilsen has proved too often to be a fantasist in some of his recollections and like Christie an unreliable witness prone to fabrications.



Ian Brady and Myra Hindley

Life and crimes: Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, often referred to as the Moors murderers, were two of the most vilified killers in the UK. Their killings and abuse of young children shocked the nation.   

Brady, born illegitimately, grew up into a harsh Glasgow environment until his mother gave him up for adoption. He had a more comfortable existence with his new family and his mother kept in touch, calling herself his Auntie Peggy. Although a bright kid, he soon distanced himself from others and become a loner. He developed a fascination with Nazi literature.

Hindley also had a somewhat unsettled early life. Due to a drunken father, who was abusive towards her mother, she was sent to live with her grandmother. Growing up, she saw her life and personality as dull and uninspiring and so at eighteen she was easy prey for the older brooding, motorbike driving, rebellious Brady. Her persona was quickly consumed and bent to Brady’s dark desires. She would act as an accomplice in luring and helping dispose of young children while Brady would carry out the killing and abuse. 

Verdict: Aided by a typically sensationalist tabloid press, any cases involving young children are portrayed as beyond redemption. When Hindley applied for release after many years in prison, citing that she was a changed woman, it was seen as unpalatable. Many have put forward the case that Hindley would have not played a role in the killings if she had not met Brady and could have gone on to lead a normal life. Brady took pleasure from humiliating, killing and abusing young children, which appears to be a manifestation of his frustrations and feelings of not belonging as an adolescent.



Peter Sutcliffe

Life and crimes: Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper, was the target of the biggest man-hunt and police inquiry in the UK’s history of criminal investigation.

Sutcliffe grew up in Bradford as the eldest of six children. A low birth weight baby, he was always seen to be smaller than the other kids around him resulting in him being bullied at school. His father used to drink and was known to hit both his mother and his children. Sutcliffe quickly became the kid who quietly stands alone in the playground. When he was eighteen, he worked as gravedigger and gained a fascination with dead bodies. Although a social person, as an adult he was shy and awkward around girls. His early failed sexual experiences were exacerbated, when he caught his first love, and later wife, with another man and found out that his mother, who he adored, was having an affair. In a five-year period, he killed fifteen women using extreme violence. He then mutilated the bodies. He eluded detection for so long for a number of reasons, some say the police bungled their inquiry (they had interviewed Sutcliffe nine times in the course of their investigations), but were hindered by an avalanche of paper data, which was a mammoth task to process before computers, and fake letters that were sent claiming to be the Ripper and putting them off the scent.

Verdict: Sutcliffe has been defined as a ‘lust killer’, gaining gratification from violence, mutilation and murder and not from intercourse. Robert Ressler, an FBI profiler, said that serial killers are not necessarily shy or introverted and can be gregarious and social with other men. Sutcliffe fits this profile as he enjoyed spending time with his friends. In fact, lots of people testified how nice and normal he appeared and found it hard to believe he was capable of his crimes. Unlike other serial killers, he also made no attempt to conceal the dead bodies and was surprised that it had taken so long for him to be caught. Far from popular folklore, which likened him to Jack the Ripper, he was not motivated by a mission to kill prostitutes, prostitutes were just easy prey.

Click here to read part 2 of this 2 part series


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