The Intensive Search for Bible John and the Many Mistakes Made
Who was Bible John, Scotland's Famous Murderer?
Bible John was the nickname given to a Scottish serial killer who police never caught. In the late 60s, he was responsible for the murder of three women who were beaten and strangled. All had slightly different modus operandi, yet what connected them was the last place they had been seen, dancing in Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow. Witnesses would state that he told women his name was John and would often quote scripture; hence the media labelled him Bible John.
The case is unique in history for the social climate that spawned a serial killer and the groundbreaking lengths the police went to, in order to catch him. To date, the case is still open, yet it seems unlikely authorities will ever convict anyone of the killings.
Glasgow in the 60s
In the 60s, Glasgow was a dark place of scarcity and poverty. Many of the buildings still held the damage from the war. It was largely considered a city in collapse. Some houses did not have running water, causing scarcity for many families. Drains were often open; excrement would flow the streets.
The only escape from poverty and hardship was dancing. People would meet in a variety of clubs and forget the world. Some would even forget their name, as anonymity was high amongst the dancers. Married men would rush to the toilet to twist off their wedding rings and enjoy a variety of company. One of the most popular of these halls was Barrowland.
By the late 1960s, a movement was working to rid the city of its slums. Unfortunately, this happened with no concern for the inhabitants. The physical changes to the city meant that many lost their sense of community. This, mixed with reports that a serial killer was loose, led to a level of anxiety unknown.
The victims on Bible John
The first victim was found on 13th February 1968; she was a twenty-five-year-old nurse and a single mother. Her body was found yards from her house; she had no bag or clothes with her. Several months later, on 15th August 1969, a second body was found. Jemima McDonald was thirty-one and a mother to three children. Her body was found dumped in an old tenement building. The last known sighting of her was with a red-haired man.
It was not until the third body, on Halloween 1969, that police connected the murders and realised they had a serial killer in their city. Helen Puttock was found in her back garden. The contents of her bag had been scattered around her, but the bag was missing. She had been bitten, beaten and strangled with her stockings. From examining the scene, it appeared that Helen had fought with her attacker and nearly escaped, only to be hit over the head and dragged back to her death. It was this case that caused panic amongst the people of Glasgow.
Helen Puttock had gone dancing with her sister Jeannie Williams. Williams turned out to be an excellent witness. She spoke of dancing in the ballroom when a man approached her called John. Slightly later, they were joined by a second man, also named John, who started dancing with her sister. She described the man with her sister as having red hair, being smartly dressed, and well-spoken.
At the end of the evening, the four of them left. On the way out, the suspected killer went to the cigarette machine, which was broken. Jeannie stated that she saw red hot anger in the man's eyes. It was a glimpse at the violence he had within him.
Once outside, the man she had been with left to catch the bus home, leaving the three of them to get a taxi together. John spoke of religion and quoted several passages from the bible, none that Jeannie could recall. When the taxi dropped Jeannie off at her house, it was the last time she saw her sister alive.
Police now had one of the most prominent cases in Scottish history to solve; they would go to extraordinary lengths to find the killer.
Jeannie Williams provided detectives with a clear description of the man; they had their first lead. To get more information from Jeannie, the police would use the unique method of hypnotising her. During which she provided them with more details of the killer.
She had asked the killer whether he supported Celtic or Rangers. At the time, the football club you supported determined which religion you practised. When the man answered that he was agnostic, she did not know what this meant. She also stated that the man had crooked front teeth with one missing at the back.
Jeannie then worked with a police artist who drew a portrait of the man. Jeannie concluded that the likeness was exact. Although, for some reason, the picture showed the man with his mouth closed, it did not show the teeth. Police circulated this to the media.
Hundreds of new leads came in, which police followed. They interviewed barbers for the killer's distinctive haircut, tailors about his suit and dock workers about their colleagues. Overall they collected in excess of fifty thousand statements. None led to Bible John.
Working on the assumption the man was religious, they attended church services, Sunday schools and religious establishments again; these provided no leads.
In 1970, they used the new technology of efits to compile a picture of Bible John. Again this was released to the public, which police had never done before. More leads came in; none provided an identity to the killer.
Glasgow had become a city of fear and paranoia. If a man quoted the bible, he was dragged to the police station as a possible suspect. If a man looked similar to the efit, his neighbours accused him. In the end, it became so bad the police would issue cards to men stating, 'I am not Bible John.' Throughout the investigation, they staged over three hundred identity parades; nothing helped find the killer.
Desperate for leads, the police hired the services of a clairvoyant called Gerard Croiset. Croiset compiled a detailed dossier on Bible John. Croiset stated which area he thought the killer lived in. He also said he saw him with old engines on hills of green and that he was a military man. Unfortunately, none of these provided any help to solve the case.
Problems with the investigation
The problem the police had was that they relied too heavily on Jeannie Williams's statement. Witness statements are not always accurate. The fact that Bible John had quoted scripture sent them in the direction of a religious man, which could have been entirely wrong. Many leads confused the investigation.
Initially, it took them several weeks to identify the Barrowlands as the connection between the women. Had they identified it earlier, they could have caught Bible John whilst hunting for another victim.
It is also possible that all three murders were not connected and that they should have been looking for three separate killers.
The era that the investigation happened would not have helped apprehend a suspect. The case might have been solved much quicker if the murders had occurred in today's psychological profiling and DNA testing climate.
Witnesses within the club were hard to find. Married men frequented there to meet women; they would not likely come forward and admit this even to catch a killer. John, who had danced with Jeannie Williams, was never located despite extensive searches.
Bible John Suspects
These mistakes do not mean that there were no suspects for the murders. One of the most likely suspects that appeared in 2007 was Peter Tobin; Tobin was in Glasgow at the time and had been convicted of raping and killing women. However, there were problems with this suspect. He was in Brighton when the first two murders were committed and he didn't have red hair. Although, many would say a younger Tobin looked very similar to the efit. Finally, he was ruled out of their enquiries as his DNA did not match the small amount recovered from Helen Puttock.
Fred West was also found to be in Glasgow at the time of the killings. However, he was also ruled out of the enquiries on DNA evidence.
Author Paul Harrison suggested that the killer was a former policeman; he said he knew his identity but was unwilling to reveal his name. This theory seemed more likely as bouncers at the Barrowland remembered a fight breaking out during the abductions and said a stranger broke it up using his warrant card.
Jeannie Williams recalled the man in the taxi showed her what looked like a warrant card. At the time, this perpetrator would have seemed out of the realm of possibility; with the murder of Sarah Everard, many think differently now.
All of these suspects, though, did not provide any answers to the victims' families.
What we do know about Bible John
At the time, profiling was in its infancy; the evidence was taken to a psychiatrist Dr Robert Britton in July 1970; many of the predictions he made are remarkable accurate to what a modern profiler would surmise. Dr Britton had worked at many institutions, including Broadmoor, so he had a wealth of experience to base his findings on. He identified Bible John as a sadistic murderer; he stated he was a loner who would have started deviant behaviour early. He stated that Bible John strangled his victims to prolong the pleasure. In today's society, we would say that he was a sadistic sexual killer; at the time, this terminology did not exist.
People were reluctant to admit 'normal' people could do these killings; instead, it was easier to think of them as monsters.
The few facts that we know are that Bible John was five foot ten had red hair, parted on the right. He was smartly dressed with crooked teeth. All three of the women had been menstruating at the time of the killing. Did the killer have an issue with this, which sent him into the rage to kill?
More questions than answers
The case has more questions than we have answers. First, there is still uncertainty that the three cases are linked. Could the police have been hunting a serial killer that didn't exist? Another question to consider is, were there more victims? The thinking that this killer may be Peter Tobin or Fred West is clearly a possibility the police considered.
If this was the work of one man and there were no other victims, why did he stop? Could he have been locked up for another crime, died or moved away? Moving area could support the claim he was a military man.
To date, the story still hangs over Glasgow. It has become part of the folklore of the city. Bible John has become a bogeyman that mothers threaten their children with if they are late home. Who was Bible John is a question we may never get an answer to.
Next article, I will look in detail at the crimes of Peter Tobin.