A Horror Story
In the psychotherapeutic worldview to which all good liberals subscribe, there is no evil, only victimhood. The robber and the robbed, the murderer and the murdered, are alike the victims of circumstance, united by the events that overtook them. Future generations (I hope) will find it curious how, in the century of Stalin and Hitler, we have been so eager to deny man’s capacity for evil. Every now and again, however, a case arises that stirs a faint memory of this capacity—forgotten soon afterward.
The case of Frederick and Rosemary West is an example of this phenomenon. It began with public levity, passed through a brief stage of appalled disgust, and is now principally a commercial opportunity for publishers and tour operators. But rightly considered, it reminds us of what men are capable, once all restraints are removed; and because the Wests’ crimes were so much worse than can be explained by their personal circumstances, the case reminds us also of what should be obvious, but alas is not, that no conceivable perfection of society will ever render redundant all external restraints upon human conduct.
As soon as the police had dug up the first human remains in the backyard of Number 25, Cromwell Street, Gloucester, in February 1994, bookmakers all over the country started to take bets on how many bodies would eventually be found there. There is nothing that lifts English national morale as effectively as a really gruesome murder, and murders do not come any more gruesome than those that took place on Cromwell Street.
In the end, nine sets of human remains were uncovered at that address, including those of the daughter of the proud houseowners, Mr. Frederick and Mrs. Rosemary West (born in 1943 and 1953, respectively). The remains of their stepdaughter were found at their previous address, Number 25, Midland Road, Gloucester, while those of Mr. West’s first wife, Rena, and those of one of his mistresses—pregnant at the time of her demise—were discovered in two fields near Mr. West's birthplace, the picturesquely named village of Much Marcle. As Agatha Christie once so perceptively remarked, there is a deal of wickedness in an English village.
Before he hanged himself on New Year's Day 1994, in Winson Green Prison, Birmingham, Mr. West confessed to a confidante—who has since been offered more than $150,000 to relay the confidences, as yet unpublished, to a newspaper—that he had killed at least 20 others. It is difficult, however, to place much credence in his confession, for Fred was never very good at figures and, according to members of his family, could never remember exactly how many children he had, or their names. I have heard a rumor that the true number of his victims was nearer to 60 than 20. Admittedly, the bearer of the rumor was a man with reason to be nervous: he was a doctor whose office extension had recently been completed by Fred, a small-time builder. Fred had obligingly offered to prepare the foundations for the extension while the doctor was away on vacation: a thoughtfulness that, in retrospect, may have been motivated by more than a mere desire to spare the doctor the noise that building works inevitably entail.
Another acquaintance of mine turned down Fred's offer to build him a conservatory: the builder's manner put him off. Indeed, there was something distinctly odd about the murderer's appearance: he looked like an intermediate stage in the transformation of man into werewolf. Extremely hirsute, he was short and had a limp from an early motorbike accident; he had the traditional bad teeth of the English working class, but his eyes glittered brightly, and there is no doubt that, despite his poor education, bucolic accent, and limited vocabulary, he was able to exert a hypnotic charm over susceptible and inexperienced young women.
Rosemary's appearance was rather more ordinary. She put on weight early and looked matronly before her time. There was nothing in her face or bearing that suggested a voracious sexual appetite or uncontrolled sadism. While she was in prison awaiting trial, she looked every bit the fond grandmother who knitted socks for her grandchildren.
It is unlikely we shall ever know for certain how many lives Fred and Rose cut short: an entire county would have to be dug up, and since the relatively limited excavations so far undertaken by the police, comprising 200 square yards at most, have already cost $2.25 million, a really thorough investigation would bankrupt the nation. Whatever the true number of victims, the Gloucester of the Wests is now as firmly etched onto the national consciousness as the Whitechapel of Jack the Ripper. Rose’s trial monopolized the attention of the public as 0. J. Simpson's trial had done in America, though only through the medium of the press: cameras (quite rightly) not being allowed in British courtrooms, to preserve whatever little remains of the majesty of the law.
Gloucester is a small cathedral city of about 100,000, where the city council has conclusively demonstrated that with the right combination of 1960s urban planning and an undiscriminating welfare policy, the degraded inner city conditions of much larger conurbations may be successfully reproduced in small country towns. The ancient but decayed medieval city center has been replaced almost in its entirety by concrete buildings that would have gladdened the hearts of another famous couple, the Ceausescus. As for Cromwell Street itself, once decent and even elegant nineteenth-century housing has degenerated into near-slum, where a shifting population of drifters rent dismal rooms by the week, and everything looks uncared for: the paint peels off the woodwork, the stucco crumbles, and litter-the packaging of junk food-flutters in the breeze. On the end wall of another terrace of houses nearby, a muralist has depicted the glorious march of the British masses from unemployment during the Depression to single parenthood in the nineties, headed by a Rastafarian with dreadlocks who holds aloft a banner saying “Give Us a Future”: by which is meant, according to the smaller banners held aloft behind him by the single mothers, more generous welfare payments. Next door to the Wests’ house is a mean little Seventh-Day Adventist Church, whose noticeboard offers passersby “peace and sanity in a mad, mad world.”
Number 25, Cromwell Street, does hold out promise of urban renewal, however. Some have suggested that it be turned into a memorial for the Wests’ victims. Others, more commercial-minded, have suggested that it be made into a waxwork museum, which would undoubtedly transform it into one of the principal tourist attractions of these islands, stimulating the economy of Gloucester as a whole. Some idea of Cromwell Street's touristic potential can be gauged from the fact that, even two years after the first uncovering of the bodies there, a steady and never-ending stream of the curious passes the house: this despite the windows' having been filled in by cinder block, and the doors securely fastened against entry, so that there is nothing whatever to see. Local storekeepers are now so accustomed to the prurience of strangers that they direct them to Cromwell Street even before they have opened their mouths to ask the way.
The revelations during the recent trial of Mrs. West (she was found guilty on three counts of murder on November 21, and on a further seven the following day) were deemed so deeply shocking that even the British gutter press, no enemy to sensation or salaciousness, unanimously declined to print the grimmer details. The jurors were offered psychotherapy after the trial, and some of them may have accepted; the crime reporters present rejected a similar offer with contumely. This solicitousness on the part of the authorities for the emotional welfare of witnesses to the trial was in marked contrast to their previous indifference to the evidence that the Wests were murdering their way through a multitude, almost—but not quite—unmolested for a quarter of a century.
The Wests committed their murders both for practical reasons and for sexual gratification. At first, Fred killed alone. The dismembered body of his pregnant mistress, who was last seen alive in July 1967 (when Fred was 24), was discovered buried in a field in June 1994. As far as is known, she was the first person he had killed-apart from a three-year-old child whom he had, accidentally, run over in a van and crushed to death in Glasgow. He killed his mistress because his first wife, a prostitute and petty criminal from Glasgow, with whom he lived only intermittently, was becoming jealous.
He then killed, dismembered, and buried his first wife in 1970. By this time, he was living with Rosemary, who was 15 when they had first met at a bus stop. Her parents had been so alarmed by her liaison with a man ten years older than she (though her father had himself sexually abused her) that they delivered her up to the care of the local social services department, which, however, permitted her to continue to see Fred. Aged 16, she gave birth to their daughter, Heather, whom they were jointly to murder 16 years later.
In 1971, Rosemary West killed Charmaine, the eight-year-old daughter of Fred’s first wife by an Indian bus driver in Glasgow, who lived with the Wests when she was not in the care of the local social services. Fred was then serving a prison sentence for minor property offenses. “Darling, about Char,” Rosemary wrote to him in prison. “I think she likes to be handled rough. But darling, why do I have to be the one to do it. I would keep her for her own sake, if it wasn’t for the rest of the children.” The rest of the children, at that stage, were Fred’s own daughter by his first wife (Charmaine’s mother) and the Wests’ first child.
When Charmaine no longer appeared at her school, the teachers and her friends (one of whom had witnessed Mrs. West beating her severely with a wooden spoon while her wrists were tied behind her back with a leather belt) were told that she had been taken away by her real mother—who by then had been decomposing for two years in a field. No further efforts to trace Charmaine were ever made: a child had simply vanished without trace.
Fred and Rose were married in 1972, Fred describing himself in the marriage register as a bachelor. Soon thereafter, they first sexually assaulted Charmaine’s half-sister, Anna Marie, then eight years old, Fred’s daughter by his first wife. They took her down into the cellar, her hands already tied and her mouth gagged; Mrs. West sat on her face while Fred raped her. They told her that she should be grateful to have such caring parents and that it had all been for her own good. They kept her out of school for a few days and told her that if she informed anyone of what had happened, she would receive a severe beating. Thereafter, she was repeatedly and regularly strapped to a metal frame, erected in the cellar by Fred, so that his wife could indulge in lesbian sexual acts with her. At school, Anna Marie would often refuse to participate in sports, lest the injuries inflicted by her parents on her be revealed; but no one realized that anything was wrong or thought to intervene.
It was in late 1972 that Fred and Rose first abducted a young woman from the streets. The presence of a woman in the cruising car reassured their victims that nothing was amiss with the offered ride. Their first such victim was sexually assaulted in the car by Rose, then punched unconscious by Fred, then tied up in masking tape, then dragged into the cellar of Number 25, Cromwell Street, then further assaulted by Rose, then raped by Fred (while Rose was upstairs making a cup of tea for them all, a peculiarly English touch to the story), and finally released on condition—to which she assented—that she return in the near future for more. Instead, she went to the police.
The police convinced her that it would be better to charge the Wests with indecent assault rather than with kidnap and rape: that way, the Wests would plead guilty, and she would not have to make a traumatic appearance in court. In the event, the Wests were fined $75 each, a leniency of sentencing that even the most ardent of liberals would, I trust, find unfortunate in the light of subsequent events.
It was after their lucky escape that the Wests got down to some serious killing, deciding that if their sexual playmates were going to go to the police, it would be better to dispose of them altogether. They abducted a number of single girls—six at the very least—whom they sexually tortured, binding them up with masking tape (and, in one case, inserting plastic tubes into her nostrils so that she could continue to breathe—a technique they learned, most probably, from a pornographic magazine later found in their possession), finally killing, dismembering, and burying them in the cellar that was later used as their children’s bedroom.
These were by no means the Wests’ only activities. They took in lodgers, to many of whom Mrs. West, with her husband’s active encouragement, made love, and some of whom heard the nocturnal screams of the tortured downstairs; they refrained from intervening, however, because they accepted the Wests’ explanation that the screams arose from their daughter’s nightmares. Occasionally, the police would raid Number 25 and would prosecute some of the lodgers for possession of small quantities of marijuana—an ironic attention to detail, under the circumstances.
The Wests also ran a brothel (patronized by the local police, according to rumor), in which Mrs. West was the sole prostitute. The Wests repeatedly placed advertisements in local magazines seeking W.E.—i.e., Well-Endowed—West Indian Males for Sex with Housewife. (Of Mrs. West’s eventual eight children, only four were by Fred, and four by her clients, three of them being of mixed race.) Initially, Mrs. West entertained men only for pleasure, both her own and her husband’s; but with so many mouths to feed, she soon turned professional. Fred enjoyed watching and listening to his wife at work, and installed an intercom system so that he could hear her wherever he happened to be in the house. He also installed spy holes and videotaped his wife on many occasions, later showing the films to his children on one of the seven video machines in the house (all of them stolen, for Fred was a petty thief as well as a mass murderer, with 11 convictions for theft). He also offered tapes of women being tortured to the local video store, but the store owner declined the offer and went to the police instead, who, anxious in the then-new permissive moral climate to demonstrate that they were as broad-minded as anybody, did nothing.
This was far from the only missed clue that something strange was going on at Cromwell Street. The Wests’ sadistic treatment of their children led to 31 attendances at the emergency department of the local hospital, for conditions as disparate as peculiar puncture marks on the feet to female genital injuries allegedly caused by having to stop suddenly while riding a bicycle. One daughter, age 15, attended the hospital with an ectopic pregnancy (Fred was the father, of course), but although this meant that, legally speaking, a rape must have taken place, the age of consent being 16, no one thought to investigate further or even to ask the simple question as to who the father was: for to have done so would have been regarded as implicitly judgmental.
Rosemary was so angered by her son one day that she grabbed him round the throat and throttled him nearly to unconsciousness. There were bruises on his neck afterward—clearly finger marks—and the blood vessels had burst in the whites of his eyes; but when he was asked about these signs at school, he said that he came by them while playing in a tree with a rope around his neck, when he accidentally fell. This was regarded as a perfectly adequate and acceptable explanation. He regularly appeared in school covered in bruises.
The Wests switched from male to female lodgers. Mrs. West, being bisexual, found them as much fun to be with as men; and Mr. West (who, incidentally, had often boasted of his ability to perform abortions and may actually have performed a few) regarded them as more reliable payers of rent than casually employed males, especially if the girls were single, pregnant, and in receipt of welfare.
But most of the Wests’ victims were picked up by the wayside. The majority of them—though not quite all—were rebellious and difficult teenagers from broken homes, who had either run away from home or had been in the care of the social services. One, however, was a university student of medieval English, the niece of the novelist Kingsley Amis, while another was the daughter of a well-to-do Swiss businessman, hitchhiking her way to Ireland. Extensive searches by the police failed to find them: there was nothing to connect them to the Wests.
More typical were the cases of Lynda Gough and Juanita Mott. Lynda was a rebellious and headstrong girl from Gloucester who suddenly left home, leaving behind a note for her parents: “Please don’t worry about me. I have got a flat and will come and see you sometime.”
Three Saturdays later, having heard nothing from her daughter, Mrs. Gough managed to trace her via her friends to Cromwell Street. By then, Lynda had been tortured, raped, cut up, and buried. Rosemary West came to the front door wearing Lynda's slippers; moreover, Mrs. Gough recognized her daughter’s clothes hanging on the washing line. Mrs. West told Mrs. Gough that her daughter had departed for the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare, leaving her belongings behind. After a further lapse of time, Mrs. Gough and her husband searched Weston for Lynda but of course did not find her. They sought the help of several organizations, including the Salvation Army, but never reported her as missing to the police. Thereafter, they made no further efforts to trace their daughter: perhaps they did not really care, or thought that their daughter, who had attended a school for the mentally backward, had the right and duty to make a life for herself, at the age of 19 (the age at which she disappeared), untrammeled by parental guidance.
Juanita Mott was the daughter of an American serviceman whose parents split up when she was very young. She left both school and home at age 15; three years later, having already lodged with the Wests earlier, she accepted a lift from them and was abducted by them, suspended from the beams in their cellar, and then murdered. She, too, was never reported as missing.
As the number of the West children grew, and as they matured, it became more difficult to conduct burials at home. The abuse of the older children, however, escalated, so that their son, then age 13, ran away from home and stayed for a while with friends. When he returned home, he was beaten and told that he would soon be old enough to have intercourse with his mother (the normal thing for a boy, his father told him). Heather, the eldest daughter, then age 16, vehemently rejected the advances of her father, and was told that this meant she was a lesbian. She was then tied up, raped, killed, and buried in the backyard rather than the cellar. The eldest son was asked to help with the digging, under the impression that it was for a fishpond. The Wests explained Heather’s disappearance to the other children as her decision to work away at a holiday camp. She was the last person to be buried at 25 Cromwell Street, and her parents set up the family barbecue precisely over the site of her grave.
Five years later—and probably many murders later—the Wests were arrested for the rape of a 14-year-old girl. The court case collapsed because the girl ultimately refused to testify in public; but during the police investigation, an immense quantity of pornographic material, including 99 homemade videos, was found at Cromwell Street. The police destroyed the videos, apparently without ever having watched them; they may well have contained recordings of the murders.
The detective in charge of the investigation (who was later officially reprimanded when she tried to sell her story to a publisher for $1.5 million) had by now uncovered evidence of terrible abuse and wanted urgently to interview Heather. No one, however, knew her whereabouts, though one of the children had told a social worker that there was a family rumor that she was buried under the patio. The social worker did not think to inform the police; but in any case, the detective was by now highly suspicious. She attempted to convince her superiors that there was a good case for searching—indeed, excavating—the West house, but they procrastinated for more than a year, worried about the expense of it. Meanwhile, Fred had gone from Gloucester Prison, where he had been held on a charge of rape, to a bail hostel in Birmingham (where, he later boasted, he had killed a woman), to complete freedom after acquittal in court. It was not very long, however, before the game was over, this time for good.
After their final arrest, on February 25, 1994, the Wests chose different paths. Fred confessed—though only gradually and teasingly, with many different versions, no doubt to taunt the police—while Rosemary maintained a posture of injured innocence. When she was asked by the police why, if she were innocent, she had not reported her daughter as missing, she replied, “So I have to snitch on my own daughter now, do 1?”—thus revealing that, for her, to resort to the help of the police when a 16-year-old daughter was missing was a form of betrayal, rather than the natural response of a worried mother.
Both the Wests showed a sentimental streak, however, confirming Jung’s aphorism that sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality. Fred was writing his memoirs at the time he hanged himself, which he entitled “I Was Loved by an Angel”; and he gave his son advice in his letters from prison, letters that incidentally throw a lurid light upon the level of education in England: “Working all day and night like I did ... you cud end up in hear, all ways no What going on in your home pliase son all Ways spend as much time With your Wife and children as you can and love your Wife and children, there the most valuable thing you will ever have in your life so look after it son.” His suicide note included the following suggestion for the epitaph on his tombstone, as if his death had brought to an end a modern version of Romeo and Juliet:
In loving memory
FRED WEST ROSE WEST
Rest in peace where no shadow falls
In perfect peace he
waits for Rose, his wife
Rose, on the other hand, turned to poetry. From prison she wrote to her daughter, whom she had repeatedly beaten, raped, and abused:
I love you like the birds and bee’s
I love you like the flower’s sweet,
I love you like the deep blue sea’s,
And memories dear to keep.
It was as if the pair of them believed that the utterance of a cloying sentiment or two could establish the purity of their hearts, irrespective of their actions.
Of course, speculation began at once in all the British newspapers as to what social and psychological forces might have molded this extraordinarily depraved couple. For example, both of them came from large and poor families in which violence was commonplace. But none of their siblings approached Fred or Rose in their ferocity or cruelty, even if some of Rose's brothers were petty criminals. Fred was brought up in a rural cottage without electricity; at the age of nine, he was required to slaughter animals. His brothers were raised in similar fashion, however, and they did not end up slaughtering humans. And if the so-called cycle of deprivation explained everything, or indeed anything, how are we to account for the strong moral sense their eldest and worst-abused children appear to have developed?
No doubt there have always been deeply perverted people, and it was a mischance that two of them such as the Wests should have found each other. But reflecting on their story, it is difficult not to conclude that their path was smoothed by the increasing uncertainty during the last three decades as to the line between acceptable and unacceptable conduct, or even whether such a line exists at all. Increasing sexual permissiveness was taken by the Wests, whose libidos were a great deal stronger than their powers of reason, to entail a complete absence of limits; they told those whom they raped that what they were doing was only “natural” and therefore unobjectionable. And they operated in an atmosphere in which, increasingly, self-discipline was not accepted as a necessary condition of freedom—in which everyone's merest whim was law. Moreover, the majority of their victims were young people cast adrift without the guidance of adults, of whom they believed themselves to have no need, and of whom they were in any case highly intolerant.
The West case revealed how easily, in the anonymity of the modern urban environment, and in the midst of crowds, people may disappear; and how such disappearances are made all the easier by a collective refusal—in the name of individual liberty—of parents to take responsibility for their children, of neighbors to notice what is happening around them, of anyone to brave the mockery of libertines in the defense of some standard of decency. And the various public agencies—the police, the schools, the social services, the hospitals—proved no substitute for the personal concern that families were once supposed to have provided, but that, in a permissive climate in which tolerance all too often shades into indifference, many provide no longer. The failure of these agencies was not accidental, but inherent in their nature as bureaucracies: the state is not, and never will be, a substitute for an old-fashioned Mum and Dad.
I meet adolescents each day in my hospital whose conduct renders them vulnerable to any Wests who might present themselves. These adolescents think they are streetwise, but if so, they are streetwise, life foolish. Last week, for example, I spoke to the 14-year-old daughter of Indian parents, who had repeatedly run away from home because her parents insisted that she go out not more than one evening a week and return by ten at night.
“I want them to be like an English family,” she said to me.
“And what is an English family like?” I asked.
“They look after you till you're 16,” she replied. “Then you find a flat on your own.”
I sincerely hope she never meets her West: for were she ever to do so, no one would come to her rescue. All that is necessary for evil to triumph, said Burke, is for good men to do nothing; and most good men nowadays can be relied upon to do precisely that. Where a reputation for intolerance is more feared than a reputation for vice itself, all manner of evil may be expected to flourish.
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