It’s one of the oldest questions in forensic psychology: are serial killers born that way, or somehow warped and twisted by their circumstances? New series Making a Monster takes a deep dive into this question, with some of the world’s leading psychologists coming together to analyse the lives and crimes of notorious murderers. In a TV first, each individual case will also feature insights from the lead psychologist who dealt with the killer in question.
Among those under the microscope is Robert Maudsley, currently locked away in solitary confinement as one of the longest serving prisoners in British history. His CV sets him apart from the majority of other serial murderers. For one thing, most of his killings actually occurred when he was already in prison. For another, his crimes were not sexually motivated, or committed out of an urge to control or dominate or inflict pain for the simple sadistic pleasure of it.
In the words of forensic psychologist Dr Richard Walter, 'He rationalises his murders almost as vigilante executions' – a sense of righteous fury stemming from an anguished upbringing. Born in 1953 in Liverpool, Maudsley was one of 12 children – the sheer size of the family meant he and some of his siblings had to spend their earliest years in an orphanage run by nuns. This was a relatively happy time, with his brother Paul later recounting how they were well looked after.
If I had killed my parents in 1970, none of these people need have died.
But then they were returned to the 'care' of their parents, and the abuse began. 'It was just the old fella who hit us, with his fists, belt and sometimes a stick,' Paul said. 'But our ma instigated half of it.' Robert himself said: 'All I remember of my childhood is the beatings. Once I was locked in a room for six months and my father only opened the door to come in to beat me, four or six times a day.'
Eventually, he was removed from the family and placed in a foster home. 'I couldn’t understand why they picked on him to be fostered out,' Paul pondered.
Maudsley eventually ran away to London, where he got into drugs and began working as a rent boy to scrape by. He tried to kill himself a number of times, and told a psychiatrist that he felt murderous rage towards his parents. The simmering fury finally exploded out of him in 1974, when one man who picked him up for sex boasted of abusing children. Maudsley garrotted him there and then, and was sentenced to life for the crime. It’s said that he was nicknamed 'Blue' because that was the colour his victim’s face had turned when he was being killed.
But things were about to get worse. In 1977, while being held and treated at Broadmoor Hospital, he and another inmate conspired to hold a third prisoner, a convicted paedophile, hostage. In what has gone down as one of the most infamous incidents in British prison lore, they tortured him for nine hours before killing him. As the notorious story goes, the victim was found with his head cracked open 'like a boiled egg', and there were media reports that Maudsley had actually eaten some of the man’s brain. This was later disproved, but Maudsley’s moniker as the real-life Hannibal Lecter stuck.
Transferred to Wakefield Prison, Maudsley struck again the very next year. This time, he murdered two inmates on the same day. He killed one in his cell, hid the corpse under his bed, then stalked out onto the wing to find another victim to dispatch. He then casually walked over to a prison officer to announce the next roll call would be two short.
Maudsley’s frenzied rampage meant he could no longer be considered an ordinary prisoner. A special, glass-fronted cell was created for him in the basement of Wakefield Prison – a strange, self-enclosed world which bears an uncanny resemblance to Hannibal Lecter’s dungeon in the movie The Silence of the Lambs. Maudsley’s taste for classic music and art have added to the Lecter-ish aura, burnishing his notoriety.
'The prison authorities see me as a problem, and their solution has been to put me into solitary confinement and throw away the key, to bury me alive in a concrete coffin,' he once wrote. 'It does not matter to them whether I am mad or bad. They do not know the answer and they do not care just so long as I am kept out of sight and out of mind.'
In more recent years, it’s been reported that Maudsley passes his time contently playing video games and writing letters to friends and family. 'He’s much better now that he’s outlived most of the wardens who hated him,' his nephew Gavin told The Sun newspaper in 2017.
Ultimately, what makes Maudsley almost unique among serial killers is that he can be seen as more tragic than evil – a man driven to terrible acts (solely against sex offenders and other criminals) by the very real demons of his past. As he once said: 'When I kill, I think I have my parents in mind. If I had killed my parents in 1970, none of these people need have died. If I had killed them, then I would be walking around as a free man without a care in the world.'