‘THERE’S A KILLER ON THE ROAD, HIS BRAIN IS SQUIRMING LIKE A TOAD…’
‘Through the 1960’s Beatniks, Hep Cats and lovers of Soul Music would go ‘jigging’ until dawn’s early light. But, by the early months of 1968, god had had enough.
Upon this environment of loud devilish music and lax moral fibre, he brought
down his hammer. He sent forth… Bible John!’*
Pain is the blade. Sin is real. A thing of flesh.
And this morning you wake up, wise up and know it’s got to stop. Someone has to stop it. There are those of us who embrace annihilation. And others who dance their risk-sex, fast-car, debt-drowning, drink-craving dosey-doe with death. Indulging their damnable liver-rot lung-tar sin in those piss-stinking, butt-strewn places. Demented. Disturbed. This dirty town is burning down in my dreams, it’s in my mouth, my hair, seeping into my skin. These feelings are maggots that squirm in your gut, a stomach-full of rats. A bitter migraine of the soul. This is like being eaten alive by a thousand-million shivering holes. But when you’ve fall from grace. Fallen down to where heaven won’t help you. When you’ve lost everything. This is what you must do, in spite of yourself. We are frightened animals ripped by terrors we fear but can never understand. Supernatural forces that lie deep. Survival instincts. Psychotic reactions of immense repulsion and disgust. I don’t understand any of it, but understanding was never an option. For this is the bad end we both dread and invite. Ruin becomes us. Ruin. To hurt, but not yourself to break, to bring tragedy yet through it, to overcome, to run but not run away, to fight for what you once believed.
It begins with Patricia Docker. ‘Pat’ is twenty-five and married, although her estranged RAF corporal husband is stationed somewhere southward, in England. She’s the mother of a toddler, so she’s been shacked-up with her parents on the south-side Langside Place, while working as a nursing auxiliary at the Victorian Mearnskirk infirmary. Her parents baby-sit while she’s out partying. Her mates say she deserves a break, a night-out. So trace her footsteps through this Thursday, 22 February 1968, the last night of her life… as she shrugs her grey duffel-coat on over her lacy yellow crochet mini-dress. Brown shoes with matching handbag. First she calls into the packed ‘Majestic’ in Hope Street. This is where she’d told them she’d be. It’s a swinging place for fun and a little innocent flirting, but tonight is over-25’s night at the ‘Barrars’. So she pitches off to the rival venue. A bad decision. A fatal move. Who she dances with there, what she says, is irretrievably lost round the time-bend. But when she leaves, she doesn’t leave alone.
First thing next morning cabinet-maker Maurice Goodman ambles to work through Carmichael Place towards his lock-up, when he’s distracted by something he half-sees bundled alongside the doorway of a garage in an otherwise deserted back lane. It’s a frozen chill morning, the plumes of his breath so cold he can see them as he investigates. To find her sprawled, naked. Dead for several hours, raped, throttled to death by her own tights, barely two-hundred yards from her parent’s home. Her clothes are missing. Never found, although Police search nearby Queen’s Park green-space, and as far as the White Cart river some way away. They conclude it’s likely she was killed somewhere else, then dumped here. Investigations flounder through leads that go nowhere. They waste man-hours at the ‘magic stick’, before making the link to the ‘Barrars’. A neighbour hints she might have heard vague cries for help sometime around midnight, maybe later, not sure when, perhaps not. A journalist down the way was hosting a party for some colleagues that same night, surely trained observers and fact-finders should have noticed something? no, they haven’t. The radio plays chart hits ‘Mighty Quinn’, ‘Tin Soldier’, ‘Pictures Of Matchstick Men’. A photo of a policewoman dressed similar to Pat’s are circulated, frogmen drag the river. No response. ‘Nobody knew. Nobody’. The situation drifts, unresolved.
‘THIS CHARMING MAN…’
‘This story is full of howling space, to be occupied by dark conjecture…’
People believe there’s such a thing as order. Such a thing as natural justice. The imposition of law. There’s a reassuring lie intent on persisting that belief. Detective fiction is structured mathematically around an algebra of clues and motives. Cop Buddy-movies and TV-dramas where crimes unravel within the neat confines of fifty-minute programme schedules. There’s an inexorable plot-momentum that ignites with the crime, and leads to the punishment. This is Sudoku word-maze puzzler crime, a series of cryptic word-clues or numbers on a neatly completed grid. You absorb that subliminal pattern of repetitive fictions until you’re fooled into believing that’s the way it functions in the world. It doesn’t. Most crimes are messy, opportunistic, perpetrated by idiots on stupid impulse in confusion, and fear. Most are never sufficiently investigated, adequately reported, let alone ‘solved’. Shit has its own reasons. We relate to each other one-to-one on the understanding that we understand. Words are poor vehicles. But they’re good at hiding, euphemising, avoiding. ‘Truth’ is a word. ‘Justice’ is another. Neither relate to naturally occurring forces. Both are theoretical constructs that bear no relation to what is. Yet all this massive super-structure of State, legislation and logic is built on it.
On a visceral level, we know this. That’s why the fascination with lurid death. That’s why there are books ‘making money from ghouls and the curious’. The perverted Moors murders which are the subject of Emlyn Williams ‘Beyond Belief’, the Yorkshire Ripper murders spawning such graphic works as Gordon Burns’ meticulously researched ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’ and Nicole Ward Jouve’s esoteric ‘The Streetcleaner’. Then there’s Brian Masters’ ‘Killing For Company’ which gains access to the outpourings of Denis Nielsen as he struggles to comprehend the murder of young men whose bodies he’d kept in his flat as ‘friends’. And ‘Bible John’…
There are dozens of ballrooms in Glasgow for the dancin’ and the jiggin’. He targets just one. There’s a big frightening city of mucky derelicts and weirdos reflected in the nightblack store-windows as you pass. Streets of shame, with the stench of disappointment, an easy area to get lost in. Until you move in beneath an illuminated concrete slab of awning, under an out-loud frontage luminous with a luring fantasia of high-slung animated neon. There are huge pulsing constellations, a curving whoosh of ornate lettering, with light that cascades down over you, falling from the stars. You stride past the door managers. And into Scotland’s leading dancehall. This is ‘Barrowlands’, near Glasgow Cross. A place that opened in 1934, located in what is more properly called ‘Glasgow Barrowland street market’, across from the mercantile east end of the city centre. The ‘Barrars’ is a building-block that includes spacious street-level shopping-malls and weekend markets, with the sizeable hall above. And from the moment of its inception it was pulling in capacity crowds of 2,200. The centre of the world. Bragging pristine acoustics imperative for unamplified penguin-suited dance-orchestras, this is where the big bands once came to grace its stage. It got largely gutted by flame in 1958, but rebuilt, it re-opened on Christmas Eve 1960.
Saturday night out. Weekdays are good too. But Saturday’s are busiest. Other cities have their ‘Local Palais’, their Mecca’s, their Locarno’s, their Gaiety’s where mirrorballs spin like planets come adrift, strobing light detonations. But this is ‘The Barrowland Ballroom’. There are clubs and discos for the Mods and Soul-Boys. This is different. Special. They all come here. Everyblokes hunting ‘talent’, their hair Brylcreem slicked-back, no-brainers and shop-girls, factory girls, office girls in high-heel slingbacks, your aunt. Adulterous cheating wives who pocket their wedding rings. Sluts and strumpets. Hussies and trollops. Cheap tarts. Some birds dozy-like in a tipsy haze, some so hard they want your cods as souvenirs. Short skirts, and even shorter skirts, so you can see their kecks when they bend over, particularly if you’re looking. Like prozzies, they wear tights, not stockings. Supping rum-&-coke with their gossip and ciggies. Floosies hypnotised to the mirror before they make their appearance. Shadowed to panda-eyes carefully copied from ‘Rave’ colour-plates. Blusher. Lip-gloss. Eye-liner. Eye-brow pencil. Layered nail-varnish. Mascara. Pins and heated curlers (‘Which twin has the Toni?’). A haze of hair-spray settling into a brittle shell.
You take shit all week, this is what makes it worth enduring. The jive-spot for the young ‘uns. The smooch when the lights go down, and if you ain’t pulled by then you’ll be going home alone. Then the hokey-cokey wind-down. A land of make-believe that you don’t believe in. That doesn’t believe in you. A domain of complications where your mind refuses to travel. Into the filth. Ray Davies knows the game, ‘in the hallway, in anticipation,/ he didn’t know the night would end up in frustration./ He’d end up blowing all his wages for the week / all for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek’ (The Kinks “Come Dancing”).
You watch her take a turn around the floor. See her sat by the bar, arse-cheeks hung on stool-edge, leaning in, giggling to her mate in low voices as you pass by. As you’d noticed her arriving, fixing her hair, sitting on the crowded bottom deck of the bus, glimpsed through the rain-wet window-streaks. Your interest more than casual. Hoping she won’t turn around and catch you grokking her. Watching the skirt you start to flirt. Make a move. Do it. Try it out in the privacy of your head, they’re no better than prozzies, those ‘working girls’ who don’t realise the primal ferocity, the depth of disgust and repulsion they’re evoking. To them each man is quick cash coerced and hurried as quickly and with as little contact as possible. There’s no complicity. This is more personal. You look deep into her eyes, anticipate, rehearse the moment, the gradual application of pressure. Messy, but more visceral, more personal. Pain is the blade. Sin is real. A thing of flesh. Each thrusting penetration is a stabbing, injecting viral sperm directly into the darkest well of her.
Causes are complex. Dark sides are seldom immediately obvious. More insidious, they relate to subliminal and scarcely understood attitudes. Eros and Thanatos elide in the grey mush of the brain. Something born in there. Something out of hell. To enter such a mind-set is not pleasant. And frequently repellent. Yet to deny its existence is to perpetrate a dishonesty. Women are desirable. Women are also frightening. They bleed. They become pregnant. Their vaginal secretions smell funny. They draw you in – moist, fleshy, alien – and make you lose control, they overwhelm you. They’re unpredictable, with violent mood-swings that demand your reactions, even when you don’t know how to react. They mock you and ridicule you when you’re unable to measure up. They have the power to make you feel weak, inadequate – and dirty. Human bodies are infested with organisms that devour and feed. Bodies pulse with offal. They ooze mucus and fluids. They fart and belch toxic gases. They excrete and expectorate snot, drool and sputum. Blood and bloody matter is evacuated from the cloacae in lunar phases. It unleashes howls of hormonal dissonance.
At some point you must make life-choices. Women have the most valuable possession you can ever hope for. The purest, the most holy gift of them all. The one you want so badly you ache from your intensity of yearning. The one thing that will make your life complete. They have the gift of transcendental beauty which they bestow, or withhold on the merest of whims. Which they squander on the most unworthy men. They trade it like a commodity. They devalue it in ways that mock and humiliate you. They coldly and calculatingly give it to rich old men. They get drunk and give it to silly young creeps who neither value or deserve it. And they laugh in your face. Reducing it to barter. To money. This way lies madness…
A year and a half passes. Eighteen long months. Then – Saturday, 16 August 1969, unwed Jemima ‘Mima’ McDonald turns up in a derelict building. A 32-year old, she’d left her three kids – the oldest one just eleven, with sister Margaret O’Brien across the landing for a snatched night-out at the ‘Barrars’. According to researchers Alan Crow & Peter Samson she travels twenty minutes across the city from Bridgeton in high expectation. Headscarf drawn in tight to preserve her elaborately lacquered dyed-brown bouffant hairstyle. She wears a black kimono-style pinafore dress over a frilly white blouse, off-white sling-back high-heels and a patent-leather handbag. Once there she bee-lines for the ‘Powder Room’, hurriedly extracts her curlers, makes last-minute fine-tuning to her make-up, before hitting the dance-floor. She loves to dance in the adrenalin-swirl of moving bodies, people say she spends a lot of time dancing with this tall blue-suited man, late 20’s, maybe early 30’s, a slim, neatly dressed guy. He sports a military-styled wristwatch, has fair-to-auburn hair cropped untrendily short, and blue-grey eyes. And yes, she pulls. She leaves with this ‘lumber’, they’re seen walking away into the night through Bain Street towards London Road as-close-as-this. The following morning, it’s chill and clear, but sister Margaret is already concerned over her non-appearance. She overhears neighbourhood kids yakking. They lead her to their grisly discovery. Mima’s body is slumped face-down in a nearby condemned tenement, just thirty yards from her Mackeith Street room-&-kitchen flat. Fully clothed, her coat half-torn off, she’s been strangled by her own nylons, and her handbag, the brown purse inside it, and her headscarf are gone.
This time, investigations are scaled up at the old Partick cop-shop, and bizarre connections made. Yet if it’s the same felon, why the eighteen month gap? There’s no predictable pattern. A cooling off period? A lying low pause while shock-waves subside? There are odd facts, Pat Docker had head injuries. Mima was punched in the face. Like Pat, Mima was menstruating the night she died. Their sanitary towels removed. Mima’s six siblings scratch together a not-inconsiderable £100 reward for information. The radio plays chart hits ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Give Peace A Chance’, ‘In The Ghetto’. There’s a reconstruction with a policewoman mocked up like the victim, repacing her last known steps. Two nights later – the evening of the 19th, Police dramatically suspend the music to make an official appeal from the stage for dancers to volunteer information. Little is forthcoming. He must have spent hours here with his unsuspecting victims. Hundreds of potential witnesses must’ve clocked him. Yet he’d escaped detection. It’s complicated. Too many guilty secrets, many revellers are married, shouldn’t’ve been there, they’d told trusting spouses they’re otherwise engaged, too compromised by illicit liaisons to dare admit what they suspect. Yet, from what little they grudgingly get, for the first time they’re able to piece together a Lennox Patterson art-sketch of the suspect, and take the innovative then-unprecedented step of releasing it to the media. Later Glasgow School of Art create an updated colour version. A mild, slim face, a personable – almost enigmatically shy smile, it generates some 4,000 responses when it appears in the press. Yet still ‘it was his play, they were waiting for him to slip up’, through overconfidence, or boredom. The knowledge of right and wrong, or a simple desire to be caught. Instead – soon, too soon, there will be another death. But this time – a living witness who’d shared a taxi with both victim, and killer.
In these late sixties, Glasgow – a city laid out in an American-style grid system, was busy reinventing itself. Knocking down old slums, knocking up their concrete equivalents around the outskirts. New roads, bridges, m-way links. An enormous building site sitting astride the River Clyde. Its rich industrial past might have bequeathed university and cultural sites, but bright lights cast dark shadow. A violent history of razor-gangs and bare-knuckle bouts. The Scottish murder rate was twice that of England. A record fifty-two indictments that same year. Statistics that renew the braying debate on capital punishment. The city-newspaper archives rewind a blur of microfilm, fast-tracking the years, dusting off old theories that conceal a lurid criminal history. What writer Russell Leadbetter calls ‘(no) shortage of thugs… murderous villains… and petty thieves’. There was young Madeleine Smith as long ago as 1857. She was released under the unique Scottish ‘not proven’ verdict of poisoning her foreign lover Emile L’Angelier. He’d threatened to go public on their affair, inconveniently threatening her prospect of marrying another wealthier suitor. Her explicit love-letters to him were read out during the trial, causing a juicy tut-tutting scandal. Then, in July 1865, Dr Edward Pritchard achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the final Scot to be publicly executed when an anonymous letter provoked the exhumation of his recently deceased wife and mother-in-law. Post mortems prove the fatal illness afflicting them both was actually the result of lethal antimony he was prescribing to them. A crowd of 80,000 turn up for the execution. Later, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle campaigns to clear the name of Oscar Slater, jailed for twenty years before being cleared of bludgeoning an elderly woman to death in 1908.
Moors Murderer Ian ‘Brady’ Duncan Stewart was born – illegitimate, 2nd January 1938 in Glasgow to grow up in the Gorbals slums. We all know what grotesque horrors he perpetrated with Myra, how he committed his five squalid confirmed child torture-murders in the Manchester conurb, between July 1963 and his arrest 7th October 1965. How, inspired by mutated misreadings of Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche he even wrote a book exploring the existential compulsion to kill – ‘The Gates Of Janus’, published with an introduction by Colin Wilson (Feral House books 2001 – ISBN 092291-5733). While sociopath Peter Manuel further embraced death by running the final few steps to the gallows for his execution 11th July 1958 aged just 32, guilty of some eight brutal murders, numerous burglaries and vicious assaults. Skilled at dissembling and misdirection he’d even ensured the innocent widower of one of his victims got temporarily jailed on suspicion of the murder, then – after a New Year killing spree that left a family of three dead he took to returning regularly to their home to rest up, even feeding the family cat during his visits.
Later still there’s Glasgow-born ‘killer butler’ Archibald Hall. A working-class bi-sexual thief, he reinvented himself as ‘Roy Fontaine’ to become a debonair, audacious and plausible rogue – ‘A Perfect Gentleman’ according to his autobiography. But also a charismatic conman, and confidence trickster. Moving between spells as high society butler, to periods in prison for his meticulously conducted scams and heists, his pent-up psychopathic tendencies first erupted in 1977 when he blasted his former cellmate-lover David Wright to death, precipitating a cold-blooded killing spree that left a trail of bodies across Scotland. He butchered the elderly former Labour MP Walter Scott-Elliot and his wife Dorothy. He killed his hooker-girlfriend Mary Coggles when she objects to him pawning stolen jewellery she’d rather wear herself. He even slaughtered his own brother when he became too inquisitive.
Of course, we know less about ‘Bible John’ than we do about such a crime-litany. Because he was never apprehended. Never identified. Never interrogated…
‘BLACK & WHITE’
‘Bible John meant the end of the sixties for Scotland: he’d soured the end of one
decade and the beginning of another. For a lot of people, he’d all but killed whatever
dribble of peace and love had reached this far north…’ (Ian Rankin)
It’s ten weeks later. Twenty-nine year-old Helen Puttock is determined to get an early start for Halloween. Thursday, 30th October ’69. Her soldier husband is stationed in Germany but – home on leave, he agrees to stay in, baby-sitting for their two sons. By now there’s a panicky buzz in the air. People have started picking up on the bad vibes. But she’s going to be fine, course she is, she’s going with sister, Jean Langford. They bus-ride into town, her ocelot coat warm over her black woollen dress, black shoes that click-clack click-clack up Gallowgate as they check out the shop-windows. Then stop off for a few drinks in the ‘Trader’s Tavern’. Researchers take different angles on what happens next, but it’s agreed that at the ‘Barrars’ a man helps Helen deal with a fouled-up cigarette machine. They strike up conversation. John, he says he’s called John. In fact, there are two men, both called John. Helen dances smoochy-close to her John most of the evening. He’s kind-of dishy in a clean-cut precise way – smart, but not trendy. Brown suit, three-button single-breasted jacket, white shirt, diagonally-striped tie, cutaway suede shoes. He’s teetotal, but smokes ‘Embassy’, a fair dancer too. Even your mum would approve. And as things break up Jeannie’s John hops a late-night bus for Castlemilk. So Helen’s John, in knee-length gabardine coat now, offers to see them home in a taxi. Can’t be too careful, know what I mean? Lots of scum out there, dangerous for two girls to walk home unescorted, not right, not proper. Jean lives closer, so she gets out first at the Kelso Street roundabout, but it’s a brief cab-ride that’ll haunt her for the rest of her life. As she watches the taxi pull away again, taking Helen and John off into the chilly early hours of Halloween, that farewell glimpse through the windscreen is the last sighting she’ll get of her sister alive. The years since have frozen that moment to absolute clarity. Helen’s fully-clothed body is found the next day, less than 100yds from home. Her gold chain snapped. A man walking his black Labrador stumbles across what looks to be a heap of rags. It’s no heap of rags…
This time there’s a solid lead. A live witness. Jean tells her tale in as much detail as she can recall. Sure, it was a brief taxi-ride from Glasgow Cross to Scotstoun, following a blurry night. You don’t necessarily pay close attention. He was interested in Helen, not her. Small-talk? He was polite. ‘I don’t drink at Hogmanay, I pray,’ he’d said that. Like dialogue from a slasher-movie. Was that ‘pray’, or ‘prey’? Depends, could be either. John had a sister, he’d said that much. They’d been raised in a strict religious household. So strict he could still quote entire biblical texts, specifically stories about Moses. Bulrushes, stuff like that. So, a scripture-bashing strangler, what else? He worked in a ‘laboratory’. He played Golf. He wasn’t much good, but his cousin once tapped-in a hole-in-one. More? Well, no… Crow & Samson detail the taxi-ride from a more nuanced perspective. John resents Jean being there ‘gooseberrying’ with them, he wants to be alone with Helen. Well, if he’s out to cop a feel, or a quick blow-job, that’s not unreasonable. But he gets into slagging off the immorality of the kind of women who frequent the dancehalls. ‘Dens of iniquity,’ that’s what his Dad called them. And he freezes Jean out, and won’t even speak to her as she steps out the cab. At least he lets her live. Why leave such a good witness to sprag? Why so reckless? Is he so confident… or vacillating, hasn’t he decided to kill, yet…? Or more, what if he’s deliberately feeding her misdirections…? Can it be he’s really that smart?
More material facts. Again, she’s been strangled with her own tights. Again, her handbag’s gone. He must be accumulating quite a souvenir-stash by now. Helen was having her period too. In fact – pre-Tampax, her sanitary napkin-towel had been removed and stashed under her armpit. Other evidence. A bite mark on her wrist. A cheap cufflink found nearby. Sperm splashes on her tights. Forensic science isn’t sufficiently advanced to take full advantage, yet, but the evidence is carefully retained, and will come into play later. There’s a report of a dishevelled man with a red mark under one eye glimpsed on a late-night bus heading back for the city. Suddenly, it’s a high-profile investigation. Undercover cops dance at ‘The Barrars’. A recreation is screened by BBC-TV. The radio plays chart hits ‘Bad Moon Rising’, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Oh Well Pts 1 & 2’. Helen’s husband makes an appeal for the killer to turn himself in, he offers most of his life savings as a reward. Later he attacks the press for portraying Helen as ‘a tart’. Column-inches detail all three victims found lying in door-ways, or corridors – taken so close to their homes, a sign of bragging confidence… or last-minute indecision? The first one naked, the second fully-clothed, one part-clothed. All strangled. Probably kicked or punched in the face, maybe after death. Three girls who never met, but are now forever linked. All three spent their last night alive at his ‘Barrowland’ hunting-ground. He meets his victims there. Stalks them there. Charms them there, quoting Bible-passages. Some say he even carries a bible, a field bible, the kind that soldiers carry. That’s when journalist-cum-boxing-expert John Quinn first starts calling him ‘Bible John’, and the sobriquet sticks…
Soon, crime-cracking pathologists and criminal psycho-profilers are theorising about a prudish loner into the Third Reich and sorcery. Or a woman-hating Mummy’s Boy. Or a shy loner, mild and anonymous, with a polite chameleon ordinariness that no-one notices. Not necessarily intelligent, but with an animal-cunning that enables him to mask his dark side – until it’s too late. A private bloodlust for sexually violent porn. Dental records get chased up for ‘overlapping’ teeth. Military connections, short disciplined hair? And golf clubs for that hole-in-one cousin. Hundreds of suspects are apprehended, interviewed, taxi-drivers, bus-drivers, Gents outfitters (his blue well-tailored hand-stitched Italian suit), even hairpiece suppliers (short hair, maybe it’s a wig?), a few dozen are DNA-tested. There are some 300 identity line-ups. Witness statements are cross-referenced to alibi testimonies. Helen’s sister endures being trundled around by police to vet cinema queues or factory-workers streaming home. Some men who bear a too-close resemblance to the identikit resort to carrying police disclaimer-‘I AM NOT BIBLE JOHN’-cards to escape a lynching.
Stories spontaneously proliferate. Just one example – there’s a man violently arguing with a woman he’s just picked up at the ‘Barrarrs’. He’s trying to take her… someplace, when police intervene. They haul him in, he tells the serious crime squad he’s ‘John White’. But it, and his given address – 28 St Andrews Street, soon prove false. He’s later tracked to the Gorbals where he lives with his mother. By now he’s well in the frame, a suspected killer. Very much later, as late as 2005, these investigations will still haunt now-retired Detective Chief Inspector Les Brown to the extent he divulges his doubts to a special ‘unsolved crimes’ unit. ‘John White’ was released – he says, against his better judgement. ‘We were told to let him go. What could we do?’ He matched circulated descriptions, up to a point. Polite, well-dressed, yet he’d been negatived ‘cos his front teeth ‘do not cross’. This is the ‘one upper-right tooth overlaps another’ identifier quoted by Helen’s sister. But there are related strands. It was late ‘69. After the arrest, the slayings stopped. Brown was alerted by another officer’s tale, an arrest outside that same ballroom who was rushed to hospital needing stitches to his head. But once hospitalised and out of handcuffs he was out the back door, and off on his toes. He also gave his name as ‘John White’. Brown talks-to-camera in ‘Unsolved: Getting Away With Murder’ for Scottish TV, fronted by ‘Taggart’ actor Alex Norton.
It skims the lustre off ‘Barrowland’s polished dancefloor. Attendance plummets. For a while. Until it recovers. After all, the scripture-quoting psycho has vanished, hasn’t he? Much later, with the decline of dancehall days, the ‘Barrars’ reinvents itself as a rock venue. Reverberating with ghost-echoes of Bob Dylan, REM, Jesus & Mary Chain, Franz Ferdinand, Björk, Garbage, and Blondie in every corner.
‘DON’T FORGET TO DANCE…’
‘Your good deeds are like dirty rags…’
an obscure Old Testament text Jean Langford recalls Bible John quoting,
used by Scottish Punk group the Nyah Fearties on their track “Raising Bible John”
Impossible to view those streets now, and see 1968. Hard to cop a feel of that lost era. Everything and everyone has changed. Torn down, rebuilt. But all murder is grotesque, even in echo. Even in old micro-fiche headlines, ‘THE DANCEHALL DON JUAN WITH MURDER ON HIS MIND: 100-DAY HUNT FOR LADYKILLER’. True crime is a grubby genre, sticky with pornographic relish. Pain is the blade. Sin is real. A thing of flesh. Who got sliced, who got fingered. And those who got away, identity unknown. Three victims spaced between February 1968 to October 1969. If they were the result of an escalation, were there previous rape assaults? If there was a pattern, were there other ‘Barrowland’ pick-ups who survived because they were sexually accessible? Murder, mystery, suspense. The devil, the details, and a collision of chemicals in the brain. To Ian Rankin ‘Bible John was the bedtime bogeyman made flesh, a generation’s scare-story. He was your creepy next-door neighbour; the quiet man who lived two flights up; he was the parcel courier with the windowless van. He was whoever you wanted him to be’. Stories alphabetised on the spines of box-files describe a six-foot-two well-spoken handsome man, dapper, disciplined sandy-red hair squared above the ears. ‘But witness evidence is notoriously uneven.’ And he disappeared as abruptly as he’d come. Is that reasonable? If you have killing for company, can you just… stop?
Murder is a solitary obsession. But there are other serial killers. Ian Brady. Peter Sutcliffe. Fred West. Crimes Beyond Belief. We know them. We know their tabloid-familiar faces. But he’s different. He is ‘Bible John’ because he has no other name. He’s a construct of shadows, rumour, hints, guesses, Chinese-whispers, fear and fragments of myth stored in box-files with spring-hinges. A phantom presence made up of conjecture spun-out in print inches. Some detectives are less than convinced that a single killer is responsible for all three deaths, that ‘Bible John’ is a media-creation. Tom Goodall, who’d been there when Peter Manuel confessed. Detective Joe Beattie who sat with Jeannie during the enquiries, who retired in 1976, but stays gnawed by it until his death in 2000. But no hard truth other than dead girls, all menstruating at their time of death. What’s the significance of that? Can it be it’s only when their ‘unclean condition’ frustrates sexual access that he loses control, did they tell him before he raped them, or did he kill them because he found out while doing it – would the three victims still be alive if they’d not been on their periods? Strathclyde criminology draws only blanks. Not then. Not now, so many years on.
Although every now and then, there are ripples that shimmer across the silence. Renewed attempts to square conundrums. New breakthroughs. On-going. A Dutch psychic – Gerard Croiset, narrows detail down to a precise city grid-reference. In 1977 there’s a copy-murder, a girl who’d spent her last night in a Glasgow dancehall found strangled, minus her handbag. Coincidence? Then in February 1996 – John ‘M’ (McInnes) gets exhumed from the freezing ground of a Stonehouse graveyard in South Lanarkshire. A former Scots Guardsman cum furniture salesman, he’d suicided aged 41 in 1980. An original prime suspect, dismissed by Jean, there’s a media feeding-frenzy of speculation as his remains are DNA-matched to Helen’s bite-marks and semen-traces… until the ‘insufficient evidence-fix’ conclusion. No match. Call-girl Tracey Wylde, working Glasgow’s Anderston area, becomes the sixth prostitute to be slaughtered in six years when she’s found dead in her Barmulloch home, killed 25th November 1997. The culprit remains unfound, but hard ‘Bible John’ tie-ins are denied.
In late-2000 more information is passed to Ian Stephen, a leading criminal psychologist with a long-term interest in the case. ‘The Scotsman’ reports that the supposed leak came via the perpetrator’s extended family. Later, December 2004, a male suspect’s databased genetic fingerprint sample supposedly yields an 80% family-match (‘Sunday Mail’). No name is released, although the ‘relative of a British rock star’ is implicated. They’ve never given up. But this remains a story without resolution. There’s no neat end, no closure. No car-chase, shoot-out, arrest, no trial. No face to image-stream across the red-tops. But if he’s still out there now, one of Glasgow’s half-remembered half-forgotten sons, he’ll be late-50’s, encroaching early-60’s. Sat there now, reading this. No-one knows for sure. It’s increasingly likely no-one ever will. Despite chances that someone out there harbours suspicions too dark, too dread to contemplate, there’s still little more than urban myth, crime folklore.
Then ‘Bible John flew back into Scotland on a fine Friday morning.’ He’d emerged from hiding to hunt copy-cat killer ‘Johnnie Bible’ – his ‘spiritual son’. But no, this ‘Upstart’ impostor is just the premise used to ignite the plot of a 1997 Rebus case. Fife-born novelist Ian Rankin throws in the murder of a prostitute in Borneo too. His fictional Bible John – Ray Sloane, had disappeared by assuming the identity of ‘Ryan Slocum’ and accepting an uncle’s offer of a job in the States. Covering his trail by assuming the lifestyle of a married businessman. Until ‘Johnnie Bible’ opened his killing career, and the apex predator ‘didn’t want to feel close in any way to this brash pretender, this usurper. He wanted to feel unique.’ And that morning he woke up, and knew it had to stop. Not to give too much away plot-wise, he murders again, yet remains unapprehended as this highly readable novel closes. And Ian Rankin? ‘Bible John has yet to sue me for libel…’
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
illustration Nick Victor