Does she belong in this company?
The world has been waiting for a woman serial killer. Does Rosemary West fit the bill? By Joan Smith
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 26 November 1995
Where Hindley looked a woman of her time in the famous police mugshot, hard as nails and icily sexy, Rosemary West was plump and homely, someone who wouldn't attract attention in a crowd of mothers waiting at the school gate. Unlike Hindley's picture, which played a key role in forming her demonic public image, West's photograph is unpromising material for anyone trying to understand how this 41-year-old mother of eight came to take part in the murder of 10 women and girls.
It does not sit easily with the story that unfolded over the eight weeks of West's trial, which was a sickening catalogue of abduction, calculated sexual abuse, torture and mutilation. But then West herself is at first sight an enigma, a perplexing addition to the familiar litany of our century: John Christie, Neville Heath, Peter Kurten, Albert DeSalvo, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Peter Sutcliffe, Dennis Nilsen, John Wayne Gacy, Carlton Gary, Henry Lee Lucas, Michael Lupo, Kenneth Erskine, Jeffrey Dahmer, Colin Ireland. The list includes only the most notorious cases but what they obviously have in common is that they are all men.
So what are we to make of Rosemary West, convicted of 10 killings to Myra Hindley's two? Has Britain finally achieved the dubious distinction of having a female Jack the Ripper?
THE Whitechapel murders of 1888 had a lasting influence on our understanding of serial killing, so much so that they're widely agreed to have ushered in what the author Colin Wilson has called the "age of sex crime". Although Jack the Ripper was never caught and we know almost nothing about him, many of our theories about how people become serial killers are drawn from the lurid supposition the case attracts.
Serial killers, according to this model, are loners who prey on strangers by stealth - the personification of Chaucer's "smyler with the knyfe under the cloke". They are cunning and elusive, melting into the shadows after their horrible crimes, leaving no trace but their bloody handiwork. Because Jack the Ripper's victims - and those of subsequent high-profile killers such as the Boston Strangler and the Yorkshire Ripper - were all women, a simple Freudian theory was advanced about the killers: they were men who lived with, or had lived with, smothering mothers whom they hated so much they felt compelled ritually to destroy them over and over again, using other women as surrogates.
This theory has an obvious flaw, as David Canter has pointed out in his book, Criminal Shadows: Inside the Mind of the Serial Killer. Professor Canter, who is head of the Liverpool University investigative psychology unit, asks rhetorically: "Why do we get no women serial killers living with their over-indulgent, elderly fathers?" The truth is that while the numbers of serial killings have been increasing exponentially - from 644 individual murders in the US in 1966 to 4,118 in 1982, according to FBI estimates - their motivation is still poorly understood.
Faced with a criminal such as Rosemary West, who deviates in almost every respect from the prevailing notion of a serial killer, such theories are worse than useless. She is the wrong sex and not a loner but a married woman living in an unusually populous household. But another factor complicates the case, perhaps fatally damaging our chances of gaining an insight into how she became a killer, and that is the suicide in prison of her husband, Frederick West.
Because she stood trial alone, the case of Rosemary West can be manipulated to foster the myth not of the lone female serial killer - a figure barely known to criminal history - but of a murderous partnership between a man and a woman in which the latter is the driving force.
Colin Wilson confidently asserted on Radio 4's Today programme last week that Rosemary West had gradually become the dominant force in the couple's relationship, a claim echoed by the Daily Telegraph, which characterised her as "the strategist behind her moronic, doting husband". The evidence for this is pretty thin, particularly when you consider that immediately after Frederick West's death the Crown Prosecution Service expressed public doubts about whether there was sufficient evidence for the case against the widow to proceed. The Telegraph's own post-trial analysis admitted that the West case was "a prosecution brought without any direct evidence of the defendant's part in the crimes with which she was charged".
The jury was aware of this unusual feature of the case. On Wednesday morning, as they deliberated over the remaining seven verdicts - Rosemary West had been found guilty on three counts the day before - the jury members returned to court to ask the judge: "Is the total absence of direct evidence other than the presence of the remains linking the victims to 25 Cromwell Street an obstruction to bringing in a guilty verdict?" The judge advised it was not, provided the jury could draw the necessary inferences on the evidence put forward by the prosecution.
None of this excuses Rosemary West, whose character was comprehensively destroyed in court and whose brutal treatment of surviving victims such as Caroline Owens beggars belief. But as long as she continues to protest her innocence, it is hard to come to any reliable conclusion about the role each of them played in their terrible crimes. What evidence there is from previous cases - and they form a minute sub-section in the documented history of serial killers - is of a pattern in which a young and impressionable woman falls under the influence of a dominant older man.
"Typically in these events, the man is the leader and the woman is playing to that," David Canter said last week. Helena Kennedy QC makes the same point slightly differently in Eve Was Framed, her book about women and British justice: "On the few occasions when women have played a role in serial killings, as in the Moors and Manson murders, they have functioned as hand maidens to a master."
It was broadly accepted at the Moors murder trial in 1966 that Myra Hindley was the junior partner in a malignant partnership with Ian Brady. Brady, who was originally convicted of three murders to Hindley's two, has all but disappeared from the public's consciousness; Frederick West's suicide has opened the way for a similar change in perception of the Cromwell Street murders - in decades to come we will remember her as the horrific killer and not him. Yet the notion of Rosemary West as the scheming wife, with Frederick as her dupe, sits uneasily with the fact that he had committed at least one murder, and possibly two, before he met her.
THE chronology, like much else in the case, is not entirely clear. But Frederick West's first victim, Anne McFall, was last seen in the summer of 1967, two years before he met Rosemary. At the time of her disappearance, Anne, who had worked as a nanny for West and his first wife, Rena, was heavily pregnant with his child. Anne's body, along with the bones of her unborn baby, was later found by police in Fingerpost Field, Much Marcle, the village where Frederick West grew up. Rena West disappeared some time after Anne McFall and her remains were also found near Much Marcle.
David Canter pointed out last week that the first murder in a series of killings often involves a member of the family or friend who is killed for relatively mundane reasons such as anger, frustration, jealousy or to conceal a crime - a pattern to which the murders of Anne McFall and Rena West apparently conform. West's reckless disregard for the law is reflected in his initial dealings with Rosemary, who was only 15 and below the legal age of consent when he picked her up at a bus stop and began a sexual relationship with her in 1969.
Indeed there is a striking parallel between Rosemary Letts, as she then was, and several of the girls and young women who were to become the couple's victims. Like them, she was a vulnerable adolescent from an unstable background - she, her mother and her brothers and sisters were beaten by her father even for minor transgressions.
At the time of their first meeting, Frederick West was 27, nearly twice Rosemary's age; it is hard not to construe his relationship with her as abusive. "We couldn't understand what a man with two children wanted with a 15-year-old child," said Rosemary's mother, Daisy, displaying astonishing naivety. Rosemary later claimed she had already been raped twice by strangers when she met Frederick. Within months she was pregnant; her parents put her into care and urged her to have an abortion but her 16th birthday intervened and she moved into a cramped, dirty caravan with Frederick and his daughters.
The couple's first child, Heather, was born in Midland Road, Gloucester, in 1970, by which time Frederick and Rosemary were already picking up teenage girls and taking them home for sex. David Canter suggested last week that the couple probably told each other their victims enjoyed the sexual ordeals which eventually led to murder: "My guess is that the Wests would have discussed it with themselves along the lines of everybody having a good time," he said.
Given that detectives may not yet have uncovered the full extent of the Wests' crimes, it is quite possible that they killed together before Frederick West was sent to prison for nine months in November, 1970. But while he was away, Rosemary murdered her seven-year-old stepdaughter, Charmaine. When Frederick was released from prison, he helped her dispose of Charmaine's body and the couple's murder spree got going in earnest, sometimes involving victims who had been drawn to the lodging-house-cum-brothel in Cromwell Street, sometimes girls picked up away from the house.
Lynda Gough, 19, vanished in April 1973 after babysitting for the West children. Fifteen-year-old Carol Ann Cooper, who had been taken into care by Worcestershire County Council, was last seen getting on a bus in November that year. Lucy Partington, a 21-year-old student, disappeared a month later after visiting a friend in Cheltenham. Therese Siegenthaler, a Swiss student, vanished in April 1974 after setting out to hitch-hike to Wales and take a ferry to Ireland.
Fifteen-year-old Shirley Hubbard disappeared in November that year after leaving the Debenham's store in Worcester where she was doing work experience. Juanita Mott, 18, lodged at Cromwell Street and was not seen again after April 1975. Four years later, 17-year-old Alison Chambers, who visited the Wests in Cromwell Street, failed to turn up for work. The couple's own daughter, Heather, disappeared in June 1987 when she was 16. The final victim was Shirley Robinson, 18, who vanished in May 1988. The remains of all nine were found at Cromwell Street.
HOW do we perceive all this? The natural human reaction to the account of what happened to these girls and women that emerged in Winchester Crown Court is one of sick horror. Many people simply stopped reading reports from the trial, unable to stomach the picture that was emerging.
The West case also proves to us, if proof were needed, that serial killers are not charismatic characters like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs or the fiendishly cunning Temple Brooks Gault in Patricia D Cornwell's best-selling forensic thrillers.
The term serial killer is in itself something of a misnomer. As David Canter points out, it is not the fact that they repeat their crimes that marks these criminals out; most lawbreakers, from burglars to credit-card fraudsters, operate in a cycle of repetition. Indeed there is a sense in which murder, for these killers, is merely a by-product of, or an attempt to conceal, the purpose for which they selected their victims in the first place. For instance, Peter Sutcliffe's purpose in striking his victims on the head with a hammer was to disable them; the mutilations to the torso that followed were almost certainly the true focus of each attack.
What distinguishes serial killers is a catastrophic inability to make healthy adult relationships. Unable to see other people as fully human, they treat them as objects to be used, exploited and disposed of at will. The mutilation which follows death, as well as aiding disposal, is a graphic illustration of the way in which the victims have been dehumanised. This is the real, abiding horror of the serial killer: chronically insecure, they enjoy the sensation of having others in their power. In the West case the couple seem to have kept their victims alive, bound and gagged, for days at a time.
Peter Sutcliffe, who came from a stridently masculine family in which to be a "cissy" was the worst insult, projected the weakness he feared in himself on to women's bodies and ritually destroyed them. Jeffrey Dahmer, a lonely white man, murdered and occasionally ate the black and South- East Asian men he picked up in bars in Milwaukee, thus literally incorporating the feared and desired "other". But the sense of power they gained from subduing and exploiting their victims was only temporary. For serial killers all their relation-ships end in death, a chilling reminder of their underlying inadequacy. This explains why men such as Frederick West and Ian Brady seek a partner in crime.
What the women get out of such relationships is a feeling of being elevated above the rest of their sex, presumably a heady sensation for a disturbed 15-year-old such as Rosemary Letts. "Some women," writes Helena Kennedy, "feel strangely flattered at being chosen by such men, as though they had been singled out from the ordinary run of womankind."
Popular culture sometimes represents male serial killers as criminal geniuses or almost as heroes. The Rolling Stones song "Midnight Rambler" is notoriously a re-enactment of one of the murders of Albert DeSalvo, while the rock band Thin Lizzy recorded a song in 1980, around the time Sutcliffe was arrested, that was a violent fantasy glorifying Jack the Ripper.
Female serial killers, though, are a race apart. They offend against popular notions of womanhood as protective and nurturing, so they are turned into white devils like Myra Hindley. Rosemary West doesn't look the part - yet. But it's a fair bet that in 30 years' time the story of Fred and Rose, that innocuous sounding couple, will have been rewritten as the moment Britain's most notorious female killer emerged on to the public stage.
Joan Smith is the author of 'Misogynies', published in 1989, which includes a study of the Yorkshire Ripper.
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