Open scene: a smoggy city along the banks of the River Clyde, one half historic sandstone tenements on quiet leafy lanes; the other, dilapidated high-rises scarred by the effects of economic decline. Welcome to Scotland — 1960s Glasgow, to be specific, a city split between the glory of its ship-building past and the misery of its contemporary condition.
This one-time jewel of imperial Britannia had lost its sheen after going through something of a rough patch following the Second World War. By the latter days of the mid 20th century, drugs, alcoholism, and crime were rampant — sectarian gangs roaming the streets at night, with knives and straight-razors tucked into their waistbands.
But aside from being one of the most likely places to get head-butted in all of Europe (a move charmingly nicknamed the Glasgow Kiss), it was and still is, one of the best places to party too. This was the swinging 60s after all. Anyone who didn’t fancy getting in a machete fight or developing a taste for heroin could instead pass their evenings in one of many thriving dancehalls.
Chief among them was The Barrowland Ballroom — a beacon of youth culture on the east side of the city center. Its iconic neon sign shone technicolor light down upon revelers from all over Scotland, who came half for the music, and half for the seedy reputation which the place had garnered over the years.
Remember that scene from Star Wars in the dodgy alien cantina? Well, just imagine that with slightly less comprehensible accents. And just when the concerned parents of Scotland thought that “The Barras” couldn’t stoop any lower, this hub of boozing, dancing, fighting, and sleazing became the primary setting for one of the most shockingly violent stories ever to unfold on the streets of this troubled city.
I’m talking of course, about the murders of Bible John…
The 22nd of February, 1968. It was a Thursday evening — a prime night for those who wanted to get a head start on the weekend by heading out on the town, or “gaun up eh dancin’” as the locals would say (if there are any Glaswegians listening, please excuse the terrible accent).
On the south side of the city, a young nurse named Patricia Docker was getting ready to join them. The south side of Glasgow has always had a relatively rough reputation, so it’s pretty fitting that Patricia’s neighborhood was literally called Battlefield, despite actually being one of the nicer parts.
Here she was living on Langside Place with her mother and father — the Wilsons — who no doubt pestered her over where she was going that night, and who with. She told them she was off to The Majestic Ballroom, but in fact, she would never end up making it through those doors at all on that fateful evening…
Not for any nefarious reasons, mind you — have some patience, we’ll get to that. It was just because she actually ended up going to The Barrowlands for ‘over-25s night’ instead. This was probably a pretty common white lie among young Glaswegian women; your ma and da were much less likely to let you go have fun in peace if they knew you were headed to the most notorious single’s spot in the city — or rather, a spot where people went to act like they were single, whether or not that was really the case.
This was actually Patricia’s situation, although she was technically separated from her husband, and divorce seemed like a foregone conclusion. She had recently returned to her Glasgow home after her five-year marriage had fallen apart. Her soon-to-be-ex-husband Alex was a corporal in the RAF, and father to their only son who shared his name.
By 1968, little Alex was four years old, and left in the care of his grandparents while mum went out on the town. Patricia doted on her wee boy, but at only 25 years old herself, she needed a chance to go out and live her own life every now and then.
As she put on her yellow minidress, slung her grey duffle coat over her shoulders, and put on her lipstick and mascara, she would have imagined a very different night than the one which was about to unfold. A good laugh, a few drinks, maybe a handsome young guy to dance with. As a hard-working single mother, she was due all that and more.
And so after giving her wee boy a kiss goodnight, she stepped out into the chilly late-winter air, and made her way towards the center of town.
The next time any of her family saw Patricia was at the city morgue, laid out on a slab for identification. That Friday morning, a local of Battlefields named Maurice Goodman had walked over to his garage down a lane less than a minute from the Wilsons’ house, to find the poor young woman naked and dead in the entranceway.
The officers who responded to Goodman’s 999 call — DS Johnstone and DC MacDonald — arrived just after 8AM. MacDonald later recounted:
There had been a heavy frost that night. We […] stopped the car at the Overdale Street end of the Lane. The body was lying with the head towards us. […] She was completely naked, and there was no sign of her clothing. She was lying on her back, with the head turned to the right.
At this stage, there was little to go on. All the officers could do was cross their fingers and hope for a report of some suspicious person running through the city holding a bundle of woman’s clothes. After a short while, the forensic pathologist arrived on the scene, ducking under the cordon tape and joining the two inspectors, their icy breaths merging in the air above the body.
Quickly Dr Imrie ascertained that Patricia had been dead for at least a few hours, and that her neck showed signs of strangulation — possibly by a belt, due to the patterns of the friction marks left on the skin. To make matters worse, it seemed she was beaten before being murdered, and there were signs of sexual assault. The post-mortem later confirmed all of this, as well as a minor circumstantial detail, the significance of which would only become apparent many months later: Patricia had been on her period.
When the ambulance had come to transport poor Pat to the mortuary, one of the EMTs on board was able to throw the investigators a bone: they recognized the victim. She had worked as a nurse at Mearnskirk Hospital, where they could go to find out her name, meaning they were able to make the call to her family on Saturday.
The next step was for the detectives to interview the grieving Wilsons. They told police that their daughter had been wearing a brown handbag, a wristwatch, and a ring given to her by her grandmother — all of which were now missing. ‘Where had their daughter been going that evening?’ the detectives asked. Well, she was heading up to The Majestic — the ballroom up on Hope Street.
And with that, this initial investigation was pretty much screwed. The detectives went about interviewing the doorman and staff at the complete wrong place, which as you can probably guess didn’t yield any case-breaking bombshells. So the trail went cold, and the murder of this young mother faded into obscurity — a minor story in the pages of newspapers filled with a litany of other violent tales.
Now, we’ve briefly talked about the crime that blighted Glasgow at the time, but perhaps this is a good time to take a closer look. Sure, the ballrooms had a well-deserved reputation for young lads fighting over pretty girls, and hands creeping up skirts in the corners, but at the end of the day that would all probably seem pretty tame compared to what goes on in nightclubs nowadays.
The real danger was on the streets. This was the domain of the ‘neds’: a term which was popularized around the same time as our story, used to refer to small-time football hooligans and street gang members. As well as being divided along geographical boundaries, these gangs were also divided by religion.
With a huge influx of Irish immigrants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Glasgow had a much larger Catholic population than most cities in the historically protestant UK. If you’re unfamiliar with the significance of the Protestant/Catholic divide, all you need to know is that there’s a bloody history between the two spanning centuries. In Glasgow, this primarily manifests in football: the so-called Old Firm teams of Celtic (the catholic team) and Rangers (the protestants).
Even today, die-hard protestants march through the streets celebrating battles from centuries ago, and hardline Catholics sing IRA anthems at Celtic games. But all of that is relatively tame compared to the violence of the 1960s neds, who were quite happy to pull a blade on anyone who wasn’t from the right religion, gang, or even just housing estate.
These disaffected youths were even known to hide some heavy-duty weapons like hammers and hatchets in the lining of their jackets. In 1965 alone there were over 850 arrests for carrying offensive weapons like these.
Okay, I know to our American listeners who have probably seen people walking around Walmart with AR-15s, a few axes and knives might sound like child’s play. But when you’re dealing with dozens of slashings, cracked skulls, and chopped fingertips every week, it’s kind of a big deal.
I mean, Glasgow had a murder rate more than twice as high as London for much of the latter 20th century, and was once dubbed The Murder Capital of Europe. As you can imagine, in this sort of climate, the body of a young woman turning up in a garage entryway wasn’t the biggest shock in the world…
Glasgow is a much nicer place these days, but I do have one safe travel tip if you’re planning on visiting. If someone on the street asks you your favorite football team, they are not trying to be your friend. And whatever you do, do not say Rangers or Celtic — that’s a coin toss that could end in disaster.
The safest move is to tell them you’re a Raith Rovers fan, and go on your way. Never heard of Raith Rovers? It doesn’t matter — nobody’s ever been stabbed over Raith Rovers either…
Anyway, now you have a better idea of the setting for our very own real-life Tartan Noir drama. The lead detectives started by barking up the wrong tree, only figuring out that the victim went to The Barrowlands after their initial public appeal went out, and it looks like the case was set to go as cold as the frost on that February morning in Battlefields.
So I guess there’s nothing for it. Rather than worrying ourselves, how about we go for a drink? It’s Friday, August 15th 1969, we’ve paid our four-shilling entry fee, and we’re stepping into The Barrowlands. The cavernous, smoky room is buzzing with activity — hundreds of dancers whirling around under the disco ball to the sound of the band. The lucky ones are coupled up along the sides.
That’s where we’re standing now, backs to the wall, but we’re not coupled up — sorry, I don’t see you in that way, I think we should just be friends. Instead we’re just clutching our drinks to our chests, and trying to buck up the courage to ask someone to dance (this feels like uni all over again…).
So we scan around, looking for a likely candidate, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone looking for a fight. It’d help if we could head out on the dance floor, but I have absolutely zero idea how to foxtrot, do you? Didn’t think so.
So the final few songs roll around and we’re still glued to the wall, starting to feel like the kids who get picked last for dodgeball. It’s then that we spot a woman standing nearby, fresh off the dance floor. She’s pretty — looks about late 20s, early 30s, dressed in white, with wavy brown hair down to her shoulders.
She’s only standing alone for a few seconds before a guy comes to join her: a tall guy, about 6 foot, dressed in a blue three-piece suit, with a strong Glasgow accent. Over the next few minutes, we hear a few snippets of their conversation in the breaks between songs. They’re chatting about the music, the dancing, their lives. But one thing stands out as strange — the guy likes to slip bible quotes into the chat every now and then.
We shoot each other a look— bible bashing isn’t exactly the best pick-up strategy; try it next time you’re on Tinder, you’ll see. So we start paying more attention to the two of them. We’re waiting for this nightclub preacher’s patter to go down like a lead balloon.
But wait a minute… it looks like it worked. They’re leaving together now, heading to the cloakroom to collect their coats. Curveball. So that’s where I went wrong in my uni days — not enough fire and brimstone in my pickup lines. I should’ve studied my Old Testament.
Anyway, I think it’s about time we called it a night. You win some you lose some.
In this scenario, we would’ve been one of quite a few witnesses who woke up a few days later to see the pretty young woman from The Barrowland Ballroom plastered on the front of the papers. Her name was Jemima McDonald, Glasgow native and single mother of three. And she was dead.
Much like Patricia Docker 18 months prior, she had left her children with her family before heading out for a night to herself. Jemima’s sister Margaret was the one trusted to look after her wains (that’s Glaswegian for ‘kids’, by the way). When her sister failed to come home on Saturday morning, Margaret was concerned, but she still expected Jemima to turn up with a wild story sometime later that day. But then Sunday came, then Monday, and still no sign of her.
Some ominous rumors had begun to drift around the housing estate over that weekend; local boys were heard trading tales of a body in an abandoned tenement. With three kids in her house crying for their mother, these rumors only fueled Margaret’s anxiety. So much so that on the Monday morning she went to investigate herself.
Walking through the hallway of the derelict old building, treading over smashed glass and cigarette butts, she found the exact thing she had been dreading: her sister lay in the middle of one of the rooms, just another discarded thing in this barren and abandoned place.
Jemima was clearly dead — heavily bruised, still clothed, but with her stockings thrown down beside her. The medical examiners discovered that one of them had been used to strangle her to death, after a horrible ordeal of beatings and rape. She was just 32 years old.
All of this begs the question, why the hell didn’t those kids tell an adult! It took a full 30 hours to get the police on the scene thanks to those youngins’ laissez faire attitude to corpses. If you think that video games are to blame for desensitizing the youth to violence, remember that it’d be another three years yet before the first one was released, and that was Pong…
Despite the delay, the police were actually able to gather quite a significant amount of evidence from the scene, including DNA from the stockings. On top of that, since they knew exactly where Jemima had been on the night of her murder, they were able to collect a healthy amount of eyewitness reports which placed her in the company of our silver-tongued bible lover from before.
From the descriptions, a photo fit was produced with the image of the killer. He was a slim-faced, smirking young man, with his short reddish-brown hair combed neatly to the right. A very public manhunt ensued, with police releasing their image of the suspect to the newspapers for the first time in Scottish history.
Whether this was a brilliant idea or a fatal misstep is up for debate, because this was the first step in turning the story of a tragic murder into a fully national nightmare…
But despite all that, no significant progress was made in catching the killer. The minor media frenzy produced no real leads, and the police resorted to staking out The Barrowlands with a crack team of undercover dance cops instead. And before you even ask, I’ve already trademarked the name “Undercover Dance Cops” for my upcoming screenplay, so back off.
It must have been a pretty strange beat, just dancing the night away and waiting for some guy to come chat to you with his best Noah impression, but it was a short-lived thing at any rate. I don’t know if you realize, but when undercover cops start roaming around a notoriously seedy bar famous for fights and one-night stands, it tends to kill the vibe, so the owners started demanding an end to it.
While some of their colleagues were off dancing the night away, however, the less fortunate investigators of Glasgow City Police had begun to draw some tentative connections between this case and a similar one from the year before. One key detail suggested a pivot from a simple murder investigation to a potential serial killing with a recurring motive: Jemima had been on her period at the time.
18 months apart, two married women attended the same dance hall, both of them on their period, both found dead in quiet corners of the city, beaten and strangled, with their handbags missing. The theory that these two crimes might have been connected held a small place on the lower corner of the investigative pin-board, still considered tentative at best.
But in October of 1969, one final tragic event would blow that doubt right out of the water, and cement the killer’s place in infamy for decades to come…
On October 31st 1969 at around 9pm, two sisters entered the Trader’s Tavern on Kent Street, in the market area at the back of the Barrowland Ballroom. Jeannie Langford was the older of the two, wearing a dark-green coat with a shirt and blouse. Her little sister, 29-year-old Helen Puttock, sat across from her in a short-sleeved black dress.
Normally a pair of women dressed up to the nines would be an unusual sight in a run-down old man’s pub, but on a Friday night like this there were always quite a few scattered around the place, loading up on as much alcohol as possible before closing time while waiting for the ballroom to heat up.
That’s exactly what the sisters sat doing now, while chatting about their lives and the men in them. Earlier that day, Helen had got into a pretty fierce argument with her husband — a military man on leave from his post in Germany. He wasn’t too happy about Helen going out on the town with her sister while he was left to look after their two kids. If there’s one thing you should know about Glaswegian women it’s that they can be… strong-willed, so she got her way in the end.
As 10 o clock crept up, the barman rang the bell for last orders. Young dancers and scowling market traders alike finished their drinks, then filtered out into the night air. It was a short walk to the Barras, where the women made their way from queue, to cloakroom, to dance floor. As they did so, they passed a dire omen posted on the notice board in the hallway alongside flyers and band listings: a police sketch of a certain slim-faced man.
Inside the main hall, the familiar energy was radiating off the dance-floor, and the girls were keen to get stuck in. Jeannie was the first to land a dance partner — John, from Castlemilk on the south side. He wasn’t exactly the best looking guy in the world, but he was a good enough talker and dancer to win her over until closing time.
Helen watched her sister disappear into the crowd, but was only left on her own for a few minutes before she was approached herself. Her lad was also called John, because apparently that was the only name allowed for Glasgow men born in the 1940s. We’ll call them Castlemilk John and Handsome John, for simplicity. I’ll let you guess which one is secretly the psychopath.
When the song stopped, the two sisters met at the side, and introduced their partners. Handsome John was incredibly well turned out. He wore a well-ironed suit and shirt, with nicely combed hair — this wasn’t your usual Barrowlands bachelor b y any means. Jeannie took a long hard look at this strange young man by her sister’s side — good enough that she would be able to describe his face in vivid detail over and over in the days, months, and years to come.
Have you guessed which John is the murderer yet?
Good, I’m glad. But you have to ask, why hadn’t anyone else guessed? I mean, his face was literally hanging on a wanted poster in the hallway for Christ’s sake! Well, yes and no — it wasn’t really his face — not the face of the man stood in front of Jeannie now.
The photo fit hadn’t done his good looks and clean complexion justice. His hair was much more red than previously described, and at any rate the printouts were in black and white. He must have stood about 5’10” tall — because his mouth was at eye-level, revealing two overlapping front teeth whenever he spoke.
Closing time rolled around, and the group jostled towards the exit, stopping at the cigarette machine on the way. Jeannie put her money in to buy a pack, but the machine jammed up, swallowing her cash. This was when the first crack in the calm demeanor of Handsome John showed. The previously soft-spoken and refined guy snapped — he made a show of shouting for a manager and laying into the staff with an over-the-top rage.
At this point, Castlemilk John decided he’d had enough, this was not a battle he had any interest in fighting. While the others went off to queue for a taxi, he said his goodbyes and caught the last bus home, never to be heard from again. Meanwhile, Handsome John was ranting about how his father called dancehalls ‘dens of iniquity’: a phrase which was incredibly old-fashioned even back in the 60s.
With the good vibes starting to sour, the two sisters stepped into the taxi while this suave young guy held the door, then followed them inside.
The scene we’ve just witnessed was the exact nightmare imagined by the sisters’ mother, also called Jean, before they went out for the night. She had reminded them about the ballroom killings, but Helen had just comforted her old mum with jokes. Really? Who’d dare try anything with her, with sharp nails like these? A Glasgow girl through and through, she had a fighting spirit and wasn’t afraid of anyone.
The evidence at the scene confirmed as much: grass stains on the soles of her feet, cracked nails, tracks in the dirt on a railway embankment from an attempted escape, a deep bite mark on her thigh… Helen had fought to the very end, but ultimately wasn’t able to make it to safety.
The police arrived on the scene on the first of November to find her partially clothed, laying next to a drain pipe at the end of the garden of her Scotstoun flat. She had been raped, beaten and strangled. Just like the other victims, her handbag was missing, and she was found to be on her period at the time of the attack.
The detectives informed the family, and spoke to a distraught Jeannie the same day. Despite her raw grief, she was able to recount everything about the previous night, down to the finest detail. This gave them an invaluable foothold in their investigation. They knew what the killer looked like, how he spoke — they even knew the colour and pattern of his tie.
She told the investigators about everything which had happened during the tense taxi ride home. After Johnny boy had calmed down about the cigarette machine, he still didn’t seem quite right. The two women tried to engage him in conversation, but he was snappy and short. He insisted on heading to Jeannie’s house first to drop her off. In the 20 minutes it took to get there, Jeannie and Helen tried all sorts of avenues to warm the atmosphere.
All they could get out of their new companion were a few short remarks about how his cousin had recently scored a hole-in-one at golf; how he was neither a Celtic or Rangers man but an agnostic (a word which was alien and intimidating at the time); how he was teetotal and prayed rather than drank at New Year; how he detested married women who went to ballrooms. And all of that with a smattering of old-testament judgement for flavor.
Perhaps strangest of all was when Jeannie asked for a cigarette. John reached into his jacket and grudgingly produced a half-finished pack of Embassy’s which he had been reluctant to share with them earlier on. At this point, she was sick of this self-righteous, cigarette-hoarding bible-basher, and glad to hop out of the taxi as soon as they got near her home.
Now, all of these juicy details are the stuff policemen’s dreams are made of. Jeannie’s statement really hammered home the religious angle which until now had been a minor footnote of seemingly little consequence. Crucially, they were now convinced without a doubt that they were dealing with a fully-fledged serial killer.
Under the guidance of Joe Beattie, one of Glasgow’s top detectives at the time, Jeannie actively joined the hunt for the man who killed her sister. The police produced a new photo fit for the killer, this time made up of one woman’s detailed testimony rather than a patchwork assembled from dozens of half-remembered accounts.
But there’s another type of person who also thrives on this kind of vivid, violent detail: journalists. The press went wild for the story of the silver-tongued killer, and his freshly-reworked face was on the front of every paper in Scotland. One major tabloid ran with the headline “THE DANCE HALL DON JUAN WITH MURDER ON HIS MIND”, which is far catchier than it has any right being. A pretty good line for Bible John: The Musical, if anyone is ever tasteless enough to write it.
As all the details began to emerge, the entire city of Glasgow let out a collective gasp of terror. Parents demanded their daughters stay home past sunset; thousands of concerned citizens rang the police stations claiming their neighbors or workmates fit the description. It was the kind of all-pervading, irrational fear that you can surely only understand if you’ve lived through that kind of thing before.
And as you’ll probably know already as a fan of true crime, the media don’t exactly go out of their way to calm down that kind of hysteria. It’s their bread and butter, after all. Here they had a ready-made sensation with the kind of idiosyncratic details that really capture the imagination. So the journalists of Scotland ran with the story. They invented a nickname which virtually everybody in the country will recognize, even to this day.
So what was it? The Bible-Bashing Ballroom Bastard? Satan’s Strangler? The Demon of the Dancehall? Well, actually, the tabloids were just a little more tasteful in those days, so they went with the comparatively restrained moniker ‘Bible John’.
Before we go any further, it’s worth saying a word about the holy holy aspect of this case. This was what would eventually capture the terrified imagination of this religiously charged, volatilely sectarian city. After all, the idea of a violent misogynist named John justifying himself with the Bible was nothing new, especially in Scotland.
This is the homeland of John Knox, the protestant reformist who founded the Church of Scotland about 500 years ago. He wrote a work titled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Although it sounds like the title of a pinned post on an ‘incel’ internet forum, this was actually a deeply prejudiced theological book arguing against female monarchs.
Scotland produced another John of questionable character around the same time: John Calvin. Another preacher of the reformation, Calvin was not a fan of criticism. When one of his peers named Jaques Gruet accused him of hypocrisy, Jonny boy is said to have had him tortured and executed, and his house burned down.
Even his Roman-Catholic-hating buddies weren’t completely safe from this treatment, as the Spaniard Michael Servetus found out when he was tried for heresy then burned alive. The court decreed that fresh green wood would be used, to draw the whole affair out as long as possible: an agonizing 30 minutes all in.
So what I’m saying is, if you’re a sadistic guy named John in Scotland who want to commit some faith-infused misogyny and murder, you weren’t short of role models. Faith has quite a patchy history there, dating back to long before the gang wars of neds or the red cards of Old Firm derbies.
Criminal profilers believe Bible John had appointed himself as a religiously-justified judge above the basic worldly law. According to his twisted sense of morality, he was dishing out well-deserved punishments to the depraved and dirty of the world. To him, this meant adulterers and women on their periods (he was a total psycho, after all).
Which leads us to one question which could have potentially cut the pool of suspects in half: which side of the sectarian divide did Bible John fall on, exactly? Well, when asked about his favorite football team in the taxi he had claimed that he was neither Catholic nor Protestant — a shame, as Glasgow was so divided into sectarian boroughs that this information could have really targeted the search.
Regardless, things still seemed to be going well. With all of the eyes of Glasgow peeled for a sight of this mysterious murderer, the police were optimistic. There was a solid chance he would be spotted the moment he set foot outside wherever he was holed up recovering from his wounds. Helen had given him a fair few for his trouble: most significantly a deep gash underneath one of his eyes, spotted as he fled the area on a bus.
100 detectives were assigned to the case, with 50,000 statements collected through witnesses and call-ins, and a total of 1000 potential suspects. Hoping that one of the minute little physical details would be the key to it all, the police interviewed hundreds of barbers, dentists, and tailors hoping that one would be able to give them a name.
Meanwhile, the crack team of Detective Beattie and Wee Jeannie carried out over 300 identity parades. He would first check the teeth, after which she would take a good look at the men and score their likelihood out of 100. But she never got that same feeling of repulsive recognition as when she saw the sketch the police artist had made from her description.
As the days and weeks went by, the investigators failed to identify any highly likely culprits. There were too many half-baked leads to handle. Officers even took to drafting in psychics and spiritualists in an attempt to whittle down the possibilities. After all, the filing cabinets had burst apart and normal admin procedures became powerless to keep up.
As it looked like all this hype might fizzle out without a conclusive arrest, the police caught a major break. A man who bore a striking resemblance to the police sketch had just gotten into a shouting match with a young woman at the Barrowlands — jackpot, the idiot had returned to the scene of his crimes!
Officers arrived to investigate, and questioned the man outside. They compared the photo and description with the individual in front of them. Red hair, check. Well put together, check. Slim face, check. Everything seemed to match up, so they cuffed him and threw him in the back of a police wagon, right?
“Wait wait, hang on a minute,” one of the policemen presumably said. “This man is innocent!”
“Well, how so?” his partner must have asked.
“The teeth, the teeth are all wrong. It clearly says ‘overlapping front teeth’, but this guy’s are as straight as a Hollywood film star’s. It can’t be him.”
“Oh yeah, you’re totally right. The teeth don’t match, so there’s literally no way this could be the culprit despite the fact that he otherwise totally looks like him and was screaming at a woman like a maniac. Sorry to trouble you sir, you’re free to go.”
At that point Bible John, if it really was him, must have immediately stopped sweating and tried his hardest to contain his amazement. The records don’t state what happened to the two officers, so we just have to assume they quit the force to pursue their true calling as
When the news of this close call reached the Strathclyde Police precinct, it reminded one officer of a similar individual he had arrested several months before for getting into a fist fight outside the ballroom. The man had given a fake name and address at first, before changing them later. The officers had driven him to the hospital to get stitches in his head, where again tried to use his fake name, then escaped out of a window into the night.
Despite potentially coming painfully, agonizingly close to capture, it seemed Bible John was done committing fatal indiscretions. Instead, he simply disappeared. Amid a continuing storm of hearsay which overwhelmed the investigators, the trail went cold once again. Over the following year, their gigantic list of names was boiled down to nothing.
With that, Bible John became almost like an urban legend — a myth haunting an entire generation of partygoers, which parents would recount to bring their daughters home early from nightclubs. These same stories were passed down the generations as a warning — a murderous ghost which lingered in the imaginations of every Scottish parent who ever watched their child walk out the door for their first night on the town.
And that brings us to the end of today’s episode… No, I’m only joking, I wouldn’t leave you without a little closure. The story haunted not only the popular imagination, but also the entire criminal justice apparatus of Scotland, which found its eye turned back towards the case time and time again over the following decades.
The hope of a tidy resolution dwindled thinner and thinner until it seemed like a pipe dream. It would be another 14 years until any substantial lead would come along, which happened in the form of a phone call in 1983. The man on the line claimed that he had grown up with Bible John in an area of Glasgow called Cranhill. The two had spent plenty of nights down the Barras in the 60s, and he was convinced that his best bud was the infamous strangler himself.
Police tracked down the individual to the Netherlands, but unfortunately found nothing to conclusively link him to the murders. That means it was either an embarrassing misunderstanding, or a pretty intense prank. The next time you need a good laugh, just call up the police and tell them your mate is the Zodiac Killer. No, actually please do not do that, it’s very highly illegal…
The second time that the investigation gathered a head of steam was another 13 years later, in 1996. There had always been a suspicion that Bible John might have been a military man, who killed at intervals whenever he returned home to Glasgow on leave. That’s just one reason why ex-Scot’s Guard soldier John McInnes was of interest to the police —years ago he had admitted to being at the Barrowlands on the night of the third murder, after all.
But they had trouble getting a confession out of him in 96 though. He had been dead for 16 years, after committing suicide in 1980. In lieu of words, the police took DNA samples from his remains using techniques not available in the 60s. On a frosty February morning not unlike the one on which the first Bible John victim was found, they dug down into the frozen earth with pneumatic drills. First they removed the body of McInnes’ mother, who was buried above him, then exhumed the man himself.
The small sample DNA from the tights, collected way back in the 60s and frozen for posterity, was compared to the new sample from his body. Police were so sure that they had finally got their guy. But the evidence had deteriorated, and the results were inconclusive. McInnes was ultimately cleared due to a lack of evidence.
Now, I know I’ve teased you with a few dead ends, but this next one’s legit, I promise. Just stick with me…
In 2006, Glasgow was shaken by another terrible crime — one which sounds like something out of a Dan Brown book. 23-year-old student Angelika Kluk was staying in a residence attached to the St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in the Anderston area of the city. Originally from Poland, she worked as a cleaner at the church to help fund her studies.
After going missing for several days, her body was found on the 29th of September, concealed beneath the floor of the church. She had been badly beaten, maniacally stabbed, and raped. The last person to have seen her alive was the handyman of the church, a 60-year-old man named Pat McLaughlin, who was now missing.
His face was circulated on national TV, which is when the investigators discovered that wasn’t his real name at all: he was actually Peter Tobin, a registered sex offender from Glasgow, who had previously spent over a decade in prison for the violent rape of two young sisters. By moving home, he had managed to drop off the police radar at the end of 2005. They managed to track him down at a hospital in London, where he was admitted under another false name.
Now, even if you don’t know or remember his story there’s a chance the name Peter Tobin still sent a shiver down your spine. This is another one of the most recognizable names in the UK serial killer lineup — as morbidly iconic as Ted Bundy in these parts. And yes, I said serial killer, because this wasn’t the first body which Tobin had buried, far from it.
A search of his past homes revealed the missing bodies of a 15-year-old and 18-year-old buried in a garden in Margate. He was convicted for all of these murders, and is currently serving the maximum sentence possible under UK law at Saughton Prison in Edinburgh. His fellow inmates have claimed that Tobin boasted of killing a total of 48 victims across his grisly career.
Now, this story is all very horrible and depressing, but I brought you here for closure, not some fresh nightmare fuel. So let’s bring it all full circle. Could this killer, who was born in Glasgow and frequented the ballrooms of the city in the 60s, be the man we’re looking for?
You only need take a look at the photos side by side to pique your curiosity. The oldest image available of Tobin, taken in his twenties, bears a striking resemblance to the photo fit of Bible John— not completely the same, mind you, but these things rarely are.
There was another eerie echo of the Bible John murders in Tobin’s crimes. His 18-year-old victim, Dinah McNicol, had been hitchhiking back from a music festival with the killer. Her friend was dropped off first and McNicol, of course, was never seen again. The young guy later reported during the trial that Tobin had told them he was teetotal, and that he had a cousin who once scored a hole in one at golf…
It was enough to draw the attention of criminologist Professor David Wilson anyway, one of the UKs leading experts on serial killers and their motivations. Almost exactly 50 years after the very first Bible John murder, he reported on his own independent investigation. As part of a three-year effort, Wilson travelled to Glasgow and retraced the steps of the killer, filling the dark alleyways of the city with all the grisly details with which he was intimately familiar.
He noted how carefully the killer had managed the crime scenes to minimize evidence, and agreed with police that he would’ve needed a lot of local knowledge to pull it all off without witnesses.
There was clearly an element of pride to the killings, he thought. The way he had laid the bodies out plainly, without shame. The way he had beat their faces. The fact he had expressed a hatred for married women who went out to find one-night-stands. All of it suggested a sense of vindication, as if he felt he had dealt out the proper punishment for his victims’ sins.
As a Roman Catholic, Tobin had a clear interest in religion, and his decision to hide Kluk’s body inside the flooring of an actual church was probably his biggest, most self-satisfied act of symbolism. Several times throughout his life, he used religious groups as cover to hide from police.
His attitudes to his conventional romances were also very warped and abusive, with all three of his ex-wives reporting that he started out as a charming, silver-tongued manat first. But after marriage, he became a sadist and rapist who terrorized them in their own homes. In particular, his wrath was greatest whenever they were on their periods…
Now, all of those similarities are very very intriguing, but was about some cold hard dates to back the story up. Luckily, those fall nicely into place too. Tobin lived in Shettleston, east Glasgow in 1968, and would leave the city for work regularly. His later crimes showed a habit of fleeing an area to avoid the heat, and a penchant for living under false names to avoid detection.
In 1969, he moved to England and married his first wife. Where did he meet her? At the Barrowlands of course…
And with that, I rest my case. Or, Professor Wilson’s case, I suppose I should say — I can’t take much credit. When he asked an investigator close to the Tobin aftermath investigation why the police weren’t willing to go public with all this damning evidence, the reply basically amounted to a reluctance to reopen that old can of worms.
The ghost of Bible John is relatively quiet these days, living mostly in the minds of the elderly generation, so nobody wants to be the one to fully bring it back to life. Is that negligence? Honest doubt? Or maybe there just isn’t enough hard and fast physical evidence to make the lengthy process worth the while when police funds are already wretched as is.
Tobin himself isn’t going to offer any answers, that’s for sure. He has ignored every interview request from Professor Wilson, meaning our story is sadly lacking the climactic showdown which would surely have Hollywood knocking on the door.
But you’re surely with me on this one nonetheless, right? I mean, if you’re not convinced it was Tobin, I’ll give you 1,000,000/1 odds on the suicidal soldier or the mystery man in Amsterdam — it’s your money to lose. Although, there is one other possibility, I suppose…
You see, I told you I was offering you closure, because that’s what a story like this cries out for. If we can’t have justice, if we can’t have safety, we demand at least that much. A tidy explanation distills a formless fear — a suffocating mist which can expand to fill the streets of a whole city — into something comprehensible.
Suddenly the universal terror of your loved ones being harmed is reduced down to something more manageable: a sealed-off story with a beginning, middle, and end — one which you can file away, one step removed from everyday reality.
There aren’t always tidy answers to give, however. In this case, that’s because the idea that all of the Bible John killings were committed by the same person is not accepted by all. Some investigators and academics say that the police were too quick to assume that was the case, and that the first killing could have been totally unrelated, or the final two may have been copycat killings inspired by it.
When the media gets hold of a story like this, it’s really hard to tell apart fact from fiction. Perhaps the public Bible John mania warped the investigation itself, and forced the police to give some easy answers which weren’t entirely backed up by facts.
At any rate, this still doesn’t feel like a closed case. It’s too deeply embedded in the psyche of Scotland to ever be truly closed. So I suppose the best we can take away from it is a warning to be wary and watchful for the Bible Johns that walk among us.
I know we like to take a lighter look at the dark sides of life here folks, but in all seriousness: keep each other safe out there! And if you see a stranger on a night out who might be in trouble, could you ever forgive yourself if you saw them on the news the next day? Keep that in mind, and you might well be the hero of a future episode. Here’s hoping.
1. If you’re grinding your teeth in frustration at Peter Tobin’s reluctance to offer up any information about his potential past victims, you’re not alone. In 2015, fellow inmate Sean Moynihan slashed Tobin with an improvised shiv, frustrated with his refusal to reveal where the bodies were buried (if they existed at all). The attack left a 20cm laceration down his face and neck. I hope you’ll join me in saying: ”ha ha, too bad”.
2. Chief Inspector Beattie feels that the military connection was a key angle left under-explored due to manpower limitations. They did make sure to circulate the police sketch around every UK military base at home and abroad. However, Tobin had actually served a short stint in the French Foreign Legion before deserting.
3. And finally, if you’ve ever felt like people on the street are staring at you, count yourself lucky you’re not this guy. One anonymous Glasgow man bore such close resemblance to the Bible John photofit that the cops were called wherever he went, even though he had proved his alibi a half-dozen times already. The police ended up making him a special “FOR THE LAST TIME I’M NOT A MURDERER” pass to save the trouble of booking him over and over.