Are people a product of their upbringing and environment? Or can they be born to kill?
This is the question posed on the History Channel as they investigate and provide fascinating insight into the characters of six of the most infamous murderers of the last 30 years and the crimes that made them the icons of evil they are today.
Three programmes have already aired where the lives and crimes of Fred West, Myra Hindley and Harold Shipman were analysed.
What’s especially fascinating about this series is that the subject is taken to further dimension with expert analysis from psychologists and a psychological profiler who research the path that each individual took from childhood to adulthood and investigate what may have turned them into the killers they became. Wherever possible, people who knew the killers also comment and recount their memories, which gives a very realistic aspect to the programme.
The series started off with an investigation into Fred West and many people may have heard of him because of the infamous house on Cromwell Street which was eventually raided and was found to have contained a torture chamber and many skeletons. Literally. He had no qualms about burying his victims in the house and throwing a concrete floor over them. In fact, he killed one of his daughters and buried her under the patio.
Basically Fred was born into a family where there were incestuous relations and
he had an accident at the age of 17 that left him comatose with serious head injuries, and a metal plate in his head that, it is claimed, may have affected his impulse control. Another head injury incurred when falling off a fire escape at a local youth club caused additional injury, and possible permanent brain damage.
The one thing that was prevalent with him is that he had a voracious sexual appetite and was involved with many incidents of a violent sexual nature such as rape, impregnating minors etc, but somehow managed to avoid the authorities for most of them. He married a woman whom he impregnated but she eventually left him and he refused to give up the child. Eventually he finally met and married Rose Letts who was also from an incestuous family and went on to become his accomplice in crime.
It was horrific to see the lengths that these two depraved individuals went to, to indulge their unconventional sexual appetites. Rose earned extra money as a prostitute (often while West watched) and Fred had an insatiable appetite for bondage and violent sex acts on underage girls. He fitted out the cellar at No 25 Cromwell Road as a torture chamber, and his 8-year-old daughter, Anne-Marie, became one of its first occupants, subjected to a horrifically brutal rape by her father whilst her stepmother held her down. This became a regular occurrence, and she was threatened with beatings if she told anyone of her ordeal.
Their orgy of sexual violence also extended outside of the family circle and they employed a nanny who was also subjected to rape and torture in the chamber. Strangely Fred let her go and she reported it to the authorities but Fred West managed to convince them that the nanny had been a willing participant. From then onwards, the Wests made sure that anyone who they picked up for their sick fun and games was murdered. The modus operandi was for them to pick up hitchhikers, take them back to the dungeon, have their sick way with them and kill them.
In the meantime Rose continued to have children and these children were ultimately abused by Fred as well. One must remember that this continued over a period of twenty years. One child, Heather resisted his attentions and, in 1986, committed the cardinal sin of telling a friend about the goings on in the house. The Wests responded by murdering and dismembering her, and burying her in the back garden of No 25, over which they eventually built a patio. Ironically it was Fred and Rose’s constant threats to the other children that if they did not comply they would end up with Heather under the patio that led to their arrest. One child let it slip at school and it came to the attention of a police inspector who took it further. The house was eventually dug up and they found evidence of at least 12 bodies.
On 13th December 1994, West was charged on twelve counts of murder, and he was taken into custody at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham, pending trial where, on 1st January 1995, like all ‘brave’ mass murderers he hanged himself in his cell with knotted bed sheets.
What was extraordinary about this programme is that they actually had the first nanny who had been subjected to the rape and torture way back in the 70’s, but had escaped with her life, on the show, and she was able to give her memories,impressions and first hand accounts of Fred and Rose.
It was determined by the experts that Fred West was definitely born to kill.
Myra Hindley who went on to become one of the most reviled women of the
twentieth century, came from a very ordinary and loving background. She seemed a sensible girl in every way but the drowning death of a close male friend when she was fifteen affected her deeply, and she left school shortly after his death. She converted to Roman Catholicism but seemed very unsettled after that, trying out various jobs, seeking out excitement until she met Ian Brady, a recently released jailbird . Her life was transformed forever after that.
He quickly indoctrinated her in his extreme political views, taking her to see the film “The Nuremburg Trials” on their first date, and encouraging her to read works by Hitler and de Sade.
Brady was her first lover, and she was soon completely under his control, dressing and styling herself to please him, accepting his extreme political views, and even posing for pornographic pictures. Encouraged by her unquestioning acceptance, Brady’s ideas became even more outrageous, culminating in his instruction to her that murder and rape were the “supreme pleasure”.
And that "supreme pleasure" was what they sought. Myra began offering unsuspecting young girls and boys lifts, or seeking assistance from them and then abducting them for Brady’s pleasure. Brady who was bisexual would rape, beat and stab them to death. Afterwards they would be buried on the Moors. Over a period of two years they abused and killed five children and it was Myra Hindley’s 17-year-old brother-in-law who eventually alerted the police to them. He arrived at Hindley and Brady’s home, one evening, to witness Brady killing the latest victim with an axe. After Evans was finally throttled with a length of electrical flex, Hindley and Brady joked about the mess, and also told Smith of other victims buried on the Moors. He immediately hotfooted it to the police and thankfully justice was served.
Hindley and Brady were arrested and Hindley admitted to her involvement in the five murders. Both were jailed for life, with a minimum recommendation of 30 years. She tried several times to get parole but it was denied and she finally died in prison of respiratory failure in November 2002.
What was particularly sad about this story was that while they found most the bodies of the missing children on the Moors, one body was never found, that of Keith Bennett. It was heartbreaking to see the anguish of the victim’s elderly mother, Winnie Johnson who some 30 years later, was still grieving at the loss of her 11 year old son and the lack of closure regarding his death. They showed her placing flowers on the fence at the Moors and she said, “I have no sympathy for Hindley even in death. The pair of them have made my heart very hard and really I just hope she goes to hell.”
The experts concluded that Myra Hindley was in fact not born to Kill but that she had been influenced and manipulated by Ian Brady who was evil incarnate.
Last week’s episode featured the notorious Doctor Harold Shipman who was the
favourite child of his domineering mother, Vera. She instilled in him an early sense of superiority that tainted most of his later relationships, leaving him an isolated adolescent with few friends.
Shipman’s mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and as a teenager he willingly oversaw her care as she declined, fascinated by the positive effect that the administration of morphine had on her suffering. After she died in 1963 he decided to become a doctor.
There was nothing special or odd about Shipman, he seemed like a normal average man, and that was probably what made him so dangerous and so successful in murdering people. What was apparent though was that many of his patients seemed to be dying at an unusually high rate, and exhibited similar poses in death: most were fully clothed, and usually sitting up or reclining on a settee. It appears that he made lots of housecalls, had a cup of tea with his victims and then administered a fatal dose before bidding them farewell. It seems he had a particular liking for the words, “Thank you, Doctor” which were probably the last words those elderly ladies spoke before dying. One has to wonder if by killing the old dears in this way, he was somehow recreating his mother’s memory.
One of the things that Dr Shipman always advised his patients about was to choose cremation over burial. This was obviously to cover up any traces of the real cause of deaths which could be determined years later with exhumation. It seems traces of morphine can still be found in the body years after death.
Hiding behind his status as a caring, family doctor, it is almost impossible to establish exactly when Shipman began killing his patients, or exactly how many died at his hand, and his denial of all charges did nothing to assist the authorities. His killing spree was only brought to an end thanks to the determination of Angela Woodruff, the daughter of one of his victims, who refused to accept the explanations given for her mother’s death.
A post mortem revealed she had died of a lethal dose of morphine administered by Shipman that coincided with the time he visited her. What was also strange about this particular death was that the victim’s will had been changed to include a hefty inheritance to her dear doctor. This seemed very unlikely to Angela Woodruff and it was later determined that the forgery to the will was done by Shipman.
Shipman kept very haphazard computer records and so the actual number of people he killed was never determined. He was charged for the murder of 15 people that the police were accurately able to determine but it is believed that the actual number of murders are upwards of 260 people over a period of 24 years.
Shipman always protested his innocence and eventually hanged himself in 2004 in his prison cell, while awaiting trial. No one will ever know the extent of his killing but the sheer numbers have made him the most prolific known serial killer in the world.
Experts determined that Dr Harold Shipman was born to kill.
Tonight’s episode features Ivan Milat, known as The Back Pack Killer, who was
Australia’s worst serial killer. He is now serving a life sentence for the murders of seven hitchhiking backpackers between 1989 and 1992.
Many questions remain unanswered and there is uncertainty about the full extent of Ivan Milat's crimes. Did he murder for entertainment? Some say his motivation lay in his family background and upbringing.
Ivan Milat grew up as one of 14 siblings, a close-knit family who didn't mix with others. They were surrounded by guns amidst an ethos of lawlessness and unbreakable family loyalty.
Did he kill alone? One of his siblings, Boris, broke the bonds of rigid family loyalty to speak out against the convicted killer. He said it is likely that there are more of his victims yet be found.
It should make for fascinating viewing.
*** Born to Kill airs on the History Channel at 23h10 on Tuesdays. It is repeated twice during the following day.