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A tale of two killers


2017 saw the deaths of two notorious killers. In the US, Charles Manson died aged 83. In the UK, Ian Brady went at the age of 79. The different paths of these two tells us much about the transatlantic cultural divide.

The cult of the celebrity mass murderer has been with us since at least the days of ‘Jack the Ripper’. Jack has morphed from being a terror on London’s grimy back streets in the 19th century, one who ripped open the abdomens of women, into an entertainment bogey man feeding movies, TV series, and countless books. With the passing of the years the raw edges of sadistic insanity seem to have a habit of rubbing away. The brutal awfulness of the act of drawn-out murder is gradually forgotten; public interest shifts from the horror of the acts, to vain attempts to try to represent and understand what defies comprehension – to get inside the mind of the murderer. We have had two cases in point in 2017 – Charles Manson and Ian Brady.

One of the most notorious of post-war killers in the UK was John Christie, who confessed to seven murders and was hanged in 1953. It took 18 years for anyone to think that Christie’s story was worth a movie. 1971 saw the release of 10 Rillington Place, the address of Christie’s London flat where he strangled his victims.

You won’t have to wait 18 years to get your frisson of second-hand shivers from the life and activities of Charles Manson.

Richard Attenborough played Christie and justified it by arguing it was a “devastating statement on capital punishment”; Timothy Evans, a tenant at 10 Rillington Place, was wrongfully found guilty and hanged for the murders of Beryl, Evans’ wife, and their baby daughter Geraldine, with Christie, the actual murderer, a key prosecution witness.

You won’t have to wait 18 years to get your frisson of second-hand shivers from the life and activities of Charles Manson. Quentin Tarantino is reportedly working on what says will be his penultimate film, about the Manson ‘family’ murders of the pregnant Sharon Tate and others. It’s due for release on 9 August 2019, the 50th anniversary of the murders. Manson ordered his core “family”, many of whom are dead or are in prison, to murder several people. The heavily pregnant Sharon Tate, wife of the alleged rapist and film director Roman Polanski, was the most well-known victim; but Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, Steve Parent, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger were also stabbed or shot to death.

These murders have been the subject of and helped sell millions of books by others, particularly Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi (and later made into a movie) who prosecuted Manson. That book reportedly sold more than seven millions copies. But the allure of a Tarantino movie will raise the interest in Manson – ‘canonise’ him perhaps – beyond all previous efforts.

While there have also been numerous books about Ian Brady somehow I don’t think there will be any Tarantinoesque movies about him and his girlfriend and murder assistant Myra Hindley. Together they carried out the murders of five children aged 10 to 17 between 1963 and 1965, burying their victims on Saddleworth Moor, close to Manchester. Hindley died in prison in 2002 aged 60. Marcus Harvey created a vast portrait of her in 1995, building up a mosaic from casts of an infant’s hand prints  to reproduce on a grand scale the iconic black-and-white police photograph of her. The portrait caused an outrage when exhibited at the Royal Academy in London – not least from the mothers of those children that Brady raped, sexually assaulted, and then strangled with bits of string while Hindley, if nothing else, looked on. At Brady’s trial in 1966 the jury listened to a 16 minute tape that Brady had made of Lesley Ann Downey in the moments before her death. She was then 10: on the tape she can be heard screaming and at one point said “I want to see Mummy”.

Rather than dwindle into justified obscurity, the media continually reminded us of Hindley and Brady’s existence. It hung on every word that ushered from them during their incarceration in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Their actions were horrible; their self-justifying pronouncements no less so; and the media obsession explicable only by the belief (or the acceptance) that we all – even the non-sadistic – have a fascination with sadism. The contradictions of their personalities were many. When he was in prison Brady, a man whose contempt was boundless for human beings he regarded as lesser, transcribed many books into Braille for the blind, a fact that is not blazoned on the books’ list of credits.

The contrast between what has happened after Brady’s death and that of Charles Manson offers a study in two different cultures.

In the UK, the legal system exercised a very tight control over the disposal of Brady’s body. An initial coroner’s hearing on 16 May 2017 wanted assurances on three issues before Brady’s body could be released: that the person who asked to take over responsibility for that funeral had a willing and able funeral director – there was an understandable reluctance to deal with Brady; that there was a crematorium willing and able to cremate Brady’s body; and that when Brady was cremated his ashes would not be scattered on Saddleworth Moor. This intervention by the coroner was contested by Brady’s long-time solicitor, Robin Makin.

Brady’s remains were placed in a weighted biodegradable urn, said to be of Himalayan salt, which was designed to dissolve in water within a short time.

In October the High Court handed down a judgment and ruled that in the case of Brady “the deceased’s wishes are relevant, but they do not outweigh the need to avoid justified public indignation and actual unrest”. The court also ruled that it would be “dangerous and inappropriate” – an interesting choice of words – “to allow Mr Makin to dispose of the deceased’s ashes.” The judge ruled where and when the body would be cremated; that there should be no music played during the cremation” (Brady had wanted the Dream of a Witches Sabbath, part of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique to be played); that there would be no ceremony before during or after the cremation; that there would be no flowers and no photography before during or after the cremation; and that the disposal of the ashes at sea was to be attended only by the local authorities and the police – no one else, including his solicitor. Brady’s remains were placed in a weighted biodegradable urn, said to be of Himalayan salt, which was designed to dissolve in water within a short time.

Contrast how Brady’s demise has been handled with that of Charles Manson, where the litigation over his estate started the moment he dropped dead. In the land where money is king and you can merchandise anything, Manson gear is easily available. On amazon.com you can find – besides a slew of books about and by members of his cult following – tee-shirts, hip flasks,  available, stickers, patches, CDs, sweatshirts…even a cookie cutter. Manson himself did not profit much from any of this stuff – in 1993 he was getting 10 cents out of $17 being charged for a tee-shirt with his image on the front and the slogan “Charlie Don’t Surf” on the back – but the point is that this business, based on the image of an insane man responsible for grisly murders, is entirely legal. To exploit the image of Brady in such a way in the UK may also be entirely legal: but a storm of media and public protest would come down on anyone who tried to do so.

Who stands to gain from whatever Charles Manson left? There may be three people – an anonymous person he corresponded with from prison; his self-proclaimed son, Matthew Roberts; and his grandson, Jason Freeman. It’s an estate that could be rich pickings, as it leaves his image rights and personal possessions, as well as a music back catalogue: Manson for a while was associated with Dennis Wilson, founding member of the Beach Boys. Freeman has reportedly appointed the lawyer Dale Kiken to administer Manson’s estate. According to Kiken: “I think a lot of the items he [Manson] has may have a value far beyond their intrinsic value just because of his notoriety.”

In the UK, money counts but in the end taste rules. In the US taste matters – but money rules in the end.

Quite. While Brady died without any heirs – or at least none who wish to step forward and be associated with him – Manson has at least one person with an apparently legally robust claim over the property he left behind. There are several interesting points about this study in contrasts. Both Brady and Manson were regarded as mad and monstrous; both had supreme contempt for the mass of humanity and the media; both were intuitively gifted at manipulation of others; and both justified to themselves, to the end, what they did. They both will also be consigned to an anonymous scattering of ashes, thanks to the law.

The big difference between them comes down to the image that survives them, over which there can be no legal ruling, only a matter of public taste. While it’s impossible to imagine Brady appearing on a tee-shirt or beer mat, the market and the ability of America to turn anything into a quick buck means that Manson has already made a fortune for some, and will make another one for others. While alive, Brady had a rather insignificant value (and certainly no income as a consequence of his crimes); now dead, that value will diminish over time. While alive, Manson had a tiny income resulting from his criminal notoriety; now dead, whoever comes to be legally regarded as his heir stands to profit from licensing and controlling his image, and will have eager lawyers assisting in the defence of that control.

In the UK, money counts but in the end taste rules. In the US taste matters – but money overrules everything. Jason Freeman – or someone – is already licking their lips.