Having played the ultimate old school copper in Life on Mars, Philip Glenister is on more sensitive form as the host of new true crime series What the Killer Did Next. Bringing in psychologists and criminologists, the show looks at how murderers behave in the hours after their dark acts – from covering up the evidence to calmly having dinner.
One of the most mystifying figures profiled in the series is Daniel Seggie, who in 2017 was handed a life sentence for murdering his own father, Geoff, at their home in Derby. This was no calm, dispassionate act, but a frenzied attack, involving a knife and a hammer. The question is, why? Why would Daniel turn on his father out of the blue, with such apparent rage?
It’s a question that brings to mind previous patricides and the mysteries that surrounded them. One glance at the history of this particularly distressing crime confirms that the true motivations can be unclear and open to debate, even in seemingly open and shut cases.
Take the case of Erik and Lyle Menendez, who notoriously gunned down their own parents in their swanky Beverly Hills home in 1989. The story had all the ingredients for a media maelstrom: a wealthy family, a pair of strappingly handsome killers, and the compellingly repellent greed that made them do it. Because surely Erik and Lyle purely and simply wanted to get their hands on their parents’ money, right? Open and shut.
Except that the brothers still insist the real reason was revenge. According to Erik and Lyle, their primary target was their father, who had allegedly doled out years of sexual abuse. This, they maintain, is why they lashed out with such rampant fury, wielding shotguns rather than dispatching their parents in a more subtle way. Or perhaps the use of shotguns was just an attempt to make it look like a mob hit, and the lavish, gleeful spending the brothers embarked on following the murders gives away the real reason they committed such a warped act.
If the brothers are indeed lying about the abuse, they’re playing on the natural confusion that parent-killing arouses in people: the way that this particular crime oversteps the boundaries of logic in most of us. No matter how much money is at stake, we can’t quite believe greed can be motivation alone – there must be, MUST be, another more profound reason, such as years of bitterness and revenge over hidden abuse.
Of course, some cases really are as simple as they first appear. Take the example of Victorian painter Richard Dadd, whose surname was given an aura of tragic irony when he murdered his father in an abrupt attack while they were out walking together. Dadd, whose depictions of fairies and supernatural scenes are highly rated by critics today, had come to suffer from intense delusions, thinking the Egyptian god Osiris was speaking to him.
Richard Dadd murdered because he was mad. There’s no ambiguity in the matter. Similarly simply, Jeremy Bamber – serving a whole life sentence for slaughtering his adoptive father, mother, sister and her children at their Essex farm in 1985 – did it to get his hands on the family’s fortune (though he vehemently maintains his schizophrenic sister was the real killer).
But for every readily explicable case of a person killing their father or parents, there are many more than are open to interpretation. The most infamous of all is the case of Lizzie Borden, whose alleged crimes were immortalized in a poem:
There’s also the theory that her father had been sexually abusing Lizzie since the death of his first wife.
Lizzie Borden took an axe/ And gave her mother forty whacks/ When she saw what she had done/ She gave her father forty-one.
The deed was done in 1892. Though she was eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence, it’s generally thought Lizzie was indeed the murderer, and her possible reason for the bloody act has aroused theories and legends in countless films, books and TV shows ever since. Indeed, the enduring mystery of her motive has helped her become a figure of American folklore.
There’s also the theory that her father had been sexually abusing Lizzie since the death of his first wife (Lizzie’s mother), eventually causing Lizzie to snap. Or there’s the other hypothesis that Lizzie had a lesbian relationship with their housekeeper Bridget, causing a violent confrontation with her scandalized father.
The fact is nobody – not even expert historians – will ever know the truth of what thoughts had swirled through Lizzie Borden’s head that day in 1892, just as experts today are mystified by what led Daniel Seggie to turn so violently on his father. The two cases, separated by well over a century, both exemplify the strangeness of this particular crime, and the messy human impulses that could be the cause.