Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer… The United States of America, the spiritual home of the serial killer, has - unfortunately - produced an almost countless number of lone-wolf murderers. Aileen Wuornos, Gary Ridgeway, Henry Lee Lucas, Ed Gein, HH Holmes, Richard Ramirez, the list goes on and on.
While the UK is no stranger to the idea of the solitary slayer, some of our most infamous serial killers (the two Rippers apart) come in pairs. In Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and Fred and Rose West, Britain’s most evil killers hunted in packs of two.
How much did this duo of duos have in common, though? Surely being lovers who stalked, kidnapped, tortured, sexually abused, murdered and buried together, they must have been extremely similar...?
Between July 1963 and October 1965, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley took the lives of five young people aged between 10 and 17. The twenty-something couple snatched, tortured, beat, sexually assaulted, raped, slashed throats, strangled and buried on the moors of Saddleworth with grim abandon. The murders were Brady’s idea and the Scotsman did most of the slaughtering of their innocent child victims. Hindley, for her part, enabled, encouraged and assisted her twisted lover.
Although Fred had raped and even killed before he got together with Rosemary Letts in 1969 (he was 27, she was 15), it was only when the two perverse characters met and began a relationship that the true carnage began. Abuse, incest, rape, murder… by the time the police arrested them in August of 1992, their kill count was in double figures. Fred was eventually convicted of 12 counts of murder, Rose 10. The true figure is thought by some to be as high as 16 or more.
Both killer couples targeted vulnerable victims. That’s not unusual in serial killers, of course. Brady and Hindley lured and thrill-killed children and very young adults. The West sexually abused and murdered family members, hitchhikers and young local women.
Though the Wests were married and in a much longer-term relationship than Brady and Hindley, there are many similarities between how the couples operated intimately.
Both relationships were highly sexualised, something which bleeds heavily through into their crimes. Each pair had a ‘stronger’ personality, a driving force. It was that dominant personality who would push the boundaries of the couples’ depravity.
How did that dynamic work, though? Well, to find out, we need to ask a very important question...
Collusion or Coercion?
The question that dogs every two-person killing team is whether or not both parties were innately inclined to murder or not. The assumption is often that there is one driving force and the other person merely acquiesces. Generally, there is a dominant partner. This isn’t exclusive to killer couples. Any pairing - be it romantic, business or criminal - will have some form of hierarchy.
‘Folie à deux’ is a psychiatric syndrome whereby a delusion or psychosis is shared by two people. Had one of the four killers had shown remorse or tried to avoid the gorier side of their murders, it might be reasonable to claim that folie à deux was not at play here. But given the barbarity shown by all parties, it’s highly likely that the ‘madness of two’ was in full effect. If not, it was quite a coincidence that such depraved people found each other.
Both couples worked together to carry out their crimes. The division of labour in Hindley and Brady’s relationship was as one might expect. Myra was used to help lure and appease the children, Brady’s role was more hands-on. It’s undisputed that Brady was the real force behind ‘The Moors Murderers’ and their foul canon of work. Hindley colluded but only after coercion.
The case of the Wests played out rather atypically, however. Male/female couples that kill almost always see the men pulling the bloodied strings. Not so at 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester. Frederick Walter Stephen West was a rapist and a murderer, no doubt. But he wasn’t the primary figure in the dozen murders he and his wife were responsible for. Far from it. Rose’s sadistic tendencies and bloodlust far outweighed Fred’s. Again, collusion and coercion were at play. The crucial difference with the Wests was that the gender roles were reversed.
Make no mistake, though. Fred West was a violent and sadistic character that was more than capable of murder.
If we were to generalise, we could quite easily separate the two deadly couples by their intelligence. Brady and Hindley were clever, the Wests less so. That’s mostly true, but there’s a little more to it than that. But only a little.
Myra Hindley was smart. Perceptive, quick to learn and manipulative, hers was a natural intelligence which manifested itself in a way that others often perceived as arrogance or aloofness. She wasn’t interested in most men but was struck by Brady’s confident use of language, ideas and high-brow’ concepts and philosophies.
Anyone who has read Ian Brady’s highly controversial but surprisingly well-written and insightful book The Gates of Janus will know that he was a man of serious intellect. Capable of writing both academically and yet in captivating and often quite beautiful prose, he was a man unafraid (and pretentious enough) to casually and easily quote the likes of de Sade, Nietzsche and William Blake.
Fred West, however, was more likely to quote Blakey from On the Buses. In fact, his IQ of 86 and general intelligence was so low that he was deemed as lacking capacity after arrest and assigned an appropriate adult to help him understand the legal situation he faced. Rosemary West was not a learned woman by any stretch of the imagination, but she was still intelligent. What she lacked in book smarts, she more than made up for in street smarts. By her own admission though, Rose thought that Myra was the brighter of the two. 'You have to watch Hindley,” she once said of her. 'She is very manipulative. Oh, she's clever, all right. She's flippin' dangerous, that one.'
Somewhat incredibly, Rose West and Myra Hindley were briefly lovers in prison. The relationship was short-lived, but during a spell in HMP Durham in the mid-1990s, the two women were involved with each other.
Both women adapted quite well to prison, accepting their fates and assimilating. Hindley died in November 2002 of pneumonia after a brain aneurysm. Rose West remains in prison and is even said to thrive behind bars. She’s said to have ‘found a strange contentment in prison,' according to her former solicitor Leo Goatley.
The two men fared quite differently. Brady died in 2017 after five years spent on hunger strike and being fed via a nasogastric tube. He’d spent more than five decades inside warring against guards and other inmates. Fred never even made it to prison. On New Years Day 1995, he hanged himself in his jail cell before his trial could even begin. Perhaps how the four coped in jail says less about Brady/Hindley and The Wests as couples and more about the pragmatism and adaptability of men and women given life sentences.
Media and Public Perceptions
How the public regard serial killers is mostly a product of the atrocities they’ve committed. Evil, though, appears to be on a sliding scale. Whether we like to admit it or not, media portrayals can have quite the weighty impact on how we consider notorious killers as a society.
How the press reacts to women who kill in the manner of Hindley and Rose West is fascinating. Depressing, but fascinating. Brady and Fred West were easy to depict. They were callous, violent and cold-blooded killers. Just like any number of other serial killers. But Myra and Rose? They were truly evil, apparently.
Sociologist and criminologist Frances Mary Heidensohn calls it the 'double deviance theory'. The media, and then the public, apply twice the scorn on women that break societal taboos as extreme as sexual abuse or child murder. The women who commit such crimes are not only guilty of the crimes themselves, they're also guilty of deviating from the norms of society. In effect, one might expect violence from a man, but from a woman? It's unthinkable.
Cynics can scoff and dismiss Heidensohn’s ideas as merely the stuff of feminist theory, but think about the case of Maxine Carr and Karen Matthews. Both were responsible for reprehensible (albeit very different) crimes. Neither, however, killed. In Carr’s case she merely perjured herself, in all likelihood within the context of an abusive relationship.
The scorn and hatred is hardly undeserved, but one thing these two degenerate couples did seem to have in common is that society seemed much more interested in vilifying the woman.
These two murderous couples are separated by so many different traits, ideas and drives. There’s one thing that they all share in common, however. Each and every one of them was touched by evil