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Revisiting the horrors of the infamous Moors Murders

Re-reading Fred Harrison’s book against the backdrop of Ian Brady’s death and the inevitable flurry of obituaries and articles about his crimes, it is impossible not to see the value in this investigative work.

Mug shots of the "Moors Murderers" in October 1965. [Wikipedia]

May has been a busy month in Britain for journalists. With a snap election around the corner, the news has been dominated by election manifestos, polling predictions and the jostling of the major parties for the nation’s attention. In the midst of all the political clamour, however, a name has come back to haunt the British public, five decades after his crimes left families shattered and a nation in shock. Ian Brady, one of the most reviled men in Britain, died behind bars; unmourned and apparently unrepentant to the last.

For those readers unfamiliar with Ian Brady’s crimes, he and his partner Myra Hindley (who predeceased him) are infamous in Britain for the torture and murder, from July 1963 to October 1965, of five children whose bodies they buried in the desolate Saddleworth Moors, earning them the nickname, ‘the Moors Murderers’. Brady, with his slick rocker hairstyle and surly expression, Hindley with her beehive hairstyle, the epitome of sixties chic, came to symbolise the moral degeneration of the age. Controversially, the couple were charged just weeks after the death penalty had been abolished in Britain and for many, they ‘cheated the hangman’, spared a death sentence they richly deserved.

Suffice to say, Fred Harrison’s book Brady and Hindley: Genesis of the Moors Murders is enough to give any parent nightmares. Originally published in the 1980s when the Moors Murders were still within living memory for a significant proportion of the population, Harrison’s book was re-issued last year with a new introduction, in which he gives the background to his original investigation; the introduction he was given to Ian Brady by lawyer Lord Longford, his desire to help the mothers of Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett, whose bodies had never been found, leaving them with the desperate hope that they might be still alive somewhere, even after twenty years. Pauline Reade’s body was eventually found on Saddleworth Moor but Keith Bennett’s final resting place has never been discovered and his mother died without having fulfilled her wish to give her little boy a Christian burial.

When I first read Harrison’s book, I initially decided against writing a review, on the grounds that the subject matter was just too harrowing and that Brady and Hindley had enjoyed far more publicity than they ever deserved. In some respects, the steady stream of books, articles, and documentaries about the Moors Murders and the insatiable public appetite for such material, has given this couple a level of power over the public consciousness that should never have been permitted. There is a good argument for saying that two people who did so much harm should have been allowed to vanish into prison without a whimper of publicity, sparing the victims’ families the torment of constantly hearing their names mentioned and their faces splashed across the newspapers.

However, re-reading Fred Harrison’s book against the backdrop of Ian Brady’s death and the inevitable flurry of obituaries and articles about his crimes, it is impossible not to see the value in this investigative work. If you read nothing else about the Moors Murders (and I would strongly recommend that you do not) then this is the definitive book to read on the subject. Unlike many treatments of serial killers, Harrison (perhaps because of his communication with the victims’ families) avoids sensationalising what happened or wallowing in the gruesome details. This is not to say that he avoids the full horror of what Hindley/Brady did and readers should be warned that some passages are extremely distressing to read, especially the gruesome murder of Edward Evans and the final moments of Lesley Ann Downey – both murders are described in considerable detail because one was witnessed and the other recorded, whereas the final moments of the other victims are unclear to this day.

The book does an exceptional job of recreating the world in which these terrible events occurred, the working class districts where families had become interconnected with their neighbours over a period of sometimes five or six generations. Before the slum clearances destroyed these communities forever, replacing them with “a brave New World of skyscraper blocks and sterilised council estates,” children played in the street together like members of an extended family, and individual families grouped together to form factions with their own loyalties, codes and rivalries. But it was also a world of intense poverty and deprivation, where many homes lacked basic amenities and children slept six to a bed and delousing was part of the domestic routine.

The book follows the stories of the major characters, not just Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, but David Smith, the petty criminal and street fighter who witnessed the last of the Moors Murders and called the police; Pauline Reade, one of the victims, a convent girl her friends remembered as “very quiet” and “very frightened” of the world around her. We see Myra and Maureen as young girls with their friends, enjoying all the fashions and emerging pop culture of the late fifties. The book also sets the story within the global context: Martin Luther King’s campaigns, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the early days of the space race.

A major problem with the book is that because it was written so much closer to the time of the murders, it is difficult for a reader who does not remember the case to follow the many different narratives of the book. It needed more than a new introduction to make the book entirely intelligible to the modern reader and the text requires close reading with regular referencing back to earlier chapters to keep the details entirely clear.

More interesting is Harrison’s fearless exploration of the evil that led Brady – and then Hindley – to commit their horrific crimes. Ultimately, it is impossible to make sense of evil on such a scale but Harrison looks in detail at Brady’s obsession with Nazi ideology, his anti-Semitism and hatred of religion, his accumulation of recordings of Hitler’s speeches, which he listened to over and over again. The author also examines the psychological phenomenon of the Folie a Deux or ‘psychological contagion’ in which a person is drawn into the psychotic world of a lover or close friend, for example, a husband becoming convinced by the delusions of his schizophrenic wife. The cult of death Brady created and shared with Hindley makes for chilling reading. Brady, a militant atheist, suffered the occasional torment of the reality of a Higher Power, which interfered with his own personal cult. Harrison describes one of Brady’s trips to the Moors where his victims were buried. “Beneath him were the graves of children. He raised his fist and blasphemed the heavens. ‘I was laughing and crying at the same time,’ he [Brady] said. ‘I was supposed to be an atheist, but I was in fact saying, “Hey, you b*stard” which was acknowledging that there was something higher.’

This book offers the clearest possible insight into one of the darkest chapters in British criminal history, but I would add a further recommendation than simply reading the book. Read the book, but once you have read it, pray. Pray for the innocent victims and pray for their surviving families who have said that Brady’s death can never end the nightmare with which they still live. Pray for the police officers and jurors who were shattered by their contact with Brady and Hindley and most of all, perhaps, pray that Keith Bennett’s final resting place will one day be found and his family can have the small comfort of bringing him home to rest after half a century of searching.

Brady and Hindley: Genesis of the Moors Murders
by Fred Harrison
Open Road Media, first published 1986, new edition 2016
256 pages

About Fiorella Nash 25 Articles
Fiorella Nash is a researcher and writer for the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and has over ten years' experience researching life issues from a feminist perspective. She makes regular appearances at both national and international conferences and has appeared on radio and in print discussing issues such as abortion, gendercide, maternal health and commercial surrogacy. Fiorella is also an award-winning novelist and has published numerous books and short stories under the nom-de-plume Fiorella De Maria. Her fifth novel, We’ll Never Tell Them, will be released in the Fall of 2015 by Ignatius Press.

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