The Moors murders 50 years on: how Brady and Hindley became an awful ‘celebrity’ template

Police search for human remains on Saddleworth Moor in 1965. PA/PA Archive

Manchester is the world’s first modern industrial city. It has reinvented itself as a financial, media and creative centre and recently was included by Lonely Planet in its list of the top 10 cities in the world to visit. But 50 years ago, Manchester was the focus of the world’s media for rather different reasons as Ian Brady and Myra Hindley – who subsequently became known as the Moors murderers – were sentenced to life imprisonment on May 6, 1966.

The case has become a tragic template for the way that the media responds to such awful crimes – including giving the killers a nickname. The Moors murderers have been an almost constant feature of the news cycle since their arrest – and, yes, this article is part of that process. One of the more bizarre aspects of our current “celebrity” culture is that the term is so broad that it includes sexually sadistic killers such as Brady and Hindley, as well as Harry Styles from the band One Direction.

Lives behind bars

The nature of the crimes that Brady and Hindley committed, combined with the fact that a young woman was involved, mean that the murders and the search for the victims continue to fascinate the public.

Brady and Hindley were convicted at Chester Assizes for the abduction, sexual assault and murder of Lesley Anne Downey (10), John Kilbride (12) and Edward Evans (17). The bodies of Lesley Anne Downey and John Kilbride were buried on bleak, unforgiving Saddleworth Moor. Two other children, Pauline Reade (16) and Keith Bennett (12), went missing in Manchester during the period, too. It was always suspected that they had been murdered by Brady and Hindley but searches at the time were unable to find the bodies.

In 1985, however, Brady and Hindley confessed to the murders. A huge police operation saw both taken separately to the moors in an attempt to locate the bodies. Pauline Reade’s body was found in the summer of 1987 and her family were finally able to lay her to rest. Keith Bennett’s body has never been found.

Hindley remained in prison until her death in 2002, while Brady was in prison until his transfer under provisions of the Mental Health Act to Park Lane – now Ashworth – Special Hospital in 1985. He is now the UK’s longest serving prisoner. He has been force fed for a number of years as he has been on a hunger strike in an attempt to force a return to prison.

In 2013, he appeared via a TV link at a mental health tribunal arguing that he was not mentally ill so should be returned to prison. He believes that he would not be force fed in prison and so would be allowed to end his life there.

Ian Brady appearing via video link at a tribunal in 2013. Elizabeth Cook/PA Archive

Popular fascination

There have been numerous books, plays and TV documentaries about the murderers, from the publication of Emlyn Williams’s seminal 1967 book Beyond Belief to ITV’s superb 2006 drama See No Evil, in which Maxine Peake played Hindley. The focus overwhelmingly has been on the motivations of the killers and the minutiae of the offences themselves. The suffering and pain of the victims’ families rarely are examined in depth.

It is not just the brutality of the crimes that is behind the media fascination. Brady and Hindley were arrested just as the future of the death penalty was being debated and it was effectively abolished while they were on remand. The case became a conduit for debate on questions about crime, punishment, the nature of evil and other social issues such as the role of the press.

In the immediate aftermath, the crimes were seen by some commentators as a consequence of the more liberal social attitudes of 1960s Britain. The novelist C P Snow in The Sleep of Reason argued that “permissive attitudes” were the “earth out of which this poisonous flower grew”. The continued search for the bodies of Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett, the peer Frank Longford’s campaign for Hindley’s parole, and Brady’s hunger strike have all fed the media’s voracious interest in stories about the murders.

American literature scholar Mark Seltzer has argued that public culture has become addicted to violence. He uses the term “wound culture” to refer to this fascination with the public display of defiled bodies.

Families tormented

The Moors murders have become an archetype for the symbiotic relationship between the media and what the late academic criminologist Keith Soothill called “the serial killer industry”. TV and film dramas are awash with disillusioned police chasing serial killers. As Brady showed at his tribunal, he was very aware of the media interest. He has sought to manipulate this for many years – giving hints that he might reveal more details, including the whereabouts of Keith Bennett’s body. We are simultaneously drawn in and repulsed.

There is a macabre form of celebrity attached to murder, which is extended to families in high-profile cases. The result is that the suffering of the victims’ families is largely marginalised. When The Independent carried an obituary of Winnie Johnson, Keith Bennett’s mother, in 2012, it said she was: “an ordinary mother whose life became defined by the tragic death of her son”. In remembering the awful events of this case, this should be the real focus of our concern – the pain and suffering endured by the families of the victims.

Manchester is the home of many firsts of the modern age, from splitting the atom to the first programmable computer. Unwittingly, it was also the site of the creation of two of the UK’s most notorious celebrity serial killers.

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