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Serial Killers: Part Two

In our second and final instalment we continue our look at some of history’s most notorious serial killers

Written by . Published on November 3rd 2011.

Serial Killers: Part Two

 Fred and Rosemary West

Life and crimes: The West’s killing, torture and abuse of countless young women are some of the most horrific and depraved crimes to be committed in the UK.

Fred West grew up in a background of incest. A family environment where it was acceptable to sleep with your mother and sister from an early age. His father told him that it was normal to sleep with young girls and that everyone did it. When Fred openly admitted to getting his sister pregnant he asked the police, “Doesn’t everybody do it?”    

Similarly, Rose Letts was brought up in world where incest was the norm having sexual relations with her father and her brothers. Her parents both had serious mental problems.

With such sordid upbringings both Fred and Rose quickly developed unhealthy obsessions and addictions to sex. By the time they met randomly on a bus both had already lived deeply promiscuous lives. Fred had already raped several women as an adolescent.

The infamous Cromwell Street in Gloucester where the Wests lived would be the scene of some of the pair’s worst crimes. It was here that the couple would torture, rape and kill young girls including their own daughter. The extreme acts of sexual depravity that the Wests carried out had virtually no boundaries. There are around a dozen murders attributed to them but the real number could run much larger as many bodies linked to them have not been found.

Verdict: The West’s upbringing must have caused serious psychological damage, which would have contributed to what they were to become. Their childhoods had been characterised by sex and violence – associated with patterns of dominance and submission. Sex was ultimately about power and satisfaction where the hunted became the hunters (Anna Gekoski).

Authors and historians Dietz, Warren and Hazelwood defined the West’s sexual sadism as ‘a persistent pattern of becoming sexually excited in response to another’s sufferings’.



Colin Ireland

Life and crimes: Colin Ireland’s father left before he was born and his early years would be punctuated by constant upheaval as he and his mother had to move around. At school he had few friends and was verbally abused and bullied. He also had a number of experiences with older homosexual men who tried to take advantage of him. When his mother had another child he was put into care, eventually  becoming a drifter who was in and out of prison.

Ireland married twice when he was in his twenties, but after the second marriage failed he found himself destitute. A friend recalled how Ireland, who was approaching 40, had felt he was a failure. When he walked into the Coleherne pub on Brompton Road on that fateful March night in 1993 he was to be a nobody no more. It would be the first of five occasions that Ireland would hook up with another man resulting in his victim’s death. The common characteristic of his victims was they all liked to be gagged, tied up and abused.

Inspired by crime and FBI books that he had read he would play the part of careful killer turning up prepared with gloves, rope and even a change of clothes. Killing was not enough though, he craved attention taunting the police and newspapers with what he had done. When police released an image gained from CCTV footage of Ireland and his last victim, he coolly walked into a station to say it was him in the picture but he was not the killer. However, for someone who had been so meticulous in planning and covering his tracks he had left a fingerprint at the house of his fourth victim.

Verdict: There has been debate over the consequences of Ireland’s early experiences. His own remarks that he ‘bottled out’ and that he ‘may have considered the offer’ referring to him being propositioned by men when he was younger are seen by Freudians as denial and his unconscious desires. Ireland himself said that he was not gay or had any beef with homosexuals just that they were easy to target. With no overt sexual motive it’s entirely possible that Ireland killed purely to obtain the power of taking a life.



Dr Harold Shipman

Life and crimes: Dr Harold Shipman is one of most notorious serial killers in modern times. He is thought to have killed hundreds – and some say maybe nearer a thousand – which earned him the tag of ‘Dr Death’.

Shipman was born in Nottingham in 1946. His mother Vera was very aspirational and from an early age was pushing those virtues on her son. She completely controlled his life, dressing him and telling him what to do. The young Shipman showed no resistance to his mother’s influence. But wearing a shirt and tie and lugging around books singled him out for derision from his peers at an early age. He grew up without any friends.

When Shipman’s mother was found to have terminal lung cancer he became her full time career. While at university Shipman married Primrose Oxtoby after she became pregnant at seventeen. It was as trainee doctor in 1974 that Shipman would claim as his first victim, a four-year old girl. After being kicked out of his first job as a GP for abusing drug prescriptions, he later returned to practice at Hyde in Manchester. It was here that Shipman would carry out killings on a massive scale. He was considered a pillar of the small community while all the time he was killing patients by administering lethal dosages of drugs. He was finally caught when a daughter of one of his victim’s challenged her mother’s death as evidence pointing to a forged will surfaced.

Verdict: Shipman’s case is an extreme example of god-like complex, a belief in the right to take another’s life. Christopher Berry Dee suggests that Shipman acted due to his over controlling mother who he believed had ‘stolen a healthy childhood’ from him. At the heart of Dee’s analysis is that Shipman’s contention was love and hate for his mother. In the end, did he get sloppy in forging a victim’s will because he wanted to be found out or by then had he become so convinced of his invincibility?


Conclusion: What makes a serial killer?

Today there is a considerable body of research into how the brain works, genetics and anti-social behaviour. In the nature versus nurture debate, scholars are split in their verdicts. How a child is brought up and his environment will be a major factor in their personal development. Simply put, the brain can be wired up wrong in early development if a child is subjected to abuse or neglect. Scientists have discovered that there are strong genetic roots for poor behaviour in children that show signs of psychopathic traits, such as lack of remorse or understanding for the feelings of others.

A faulty gene on its own would not be sufficient enough explanation, it would need external factors to put it into play. Some babies are born with a tendency to be irritable, impulsive and insensitive. Unless there is early prevention or later intervention, a lack of emotional development can be susceptible to social or environmental ‘triggers’. A trigger can send a serial killer to satisfy a powerful urge be that sexual, violent, the need for power or a combination of all three. And therein lies the key to what motivates these killers.

Click here to read part 1 of this this 2 part series

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AnonymousNovember 3rd 2011.

Why are we all so obsessed with serial killers? It seems a bit sick... what's the psychology behind that?

Sav D'souzaNovember 4th 2011.

It is a weird fascination. Don't really get it myself.

Apparently it’s down to trying to understand what drove them and why they did it. Women seem to buy books on serial killers as much as men which has always puzzled me.

Also some men on death row get lots of letters and Peter Sutcliffe 'Yorkshire Ripper' got tons of marriage proposals! Psychologists have put this down to sympathising with 'outsiders' on one level to even admiring brutality and strength and living outside of societies’ bounds and rules in the case of Sutcliffe. Very bizarre.

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