Tag Archives: psychologist

People are strange – serial killers, comedians and criminal psychologists

Mary Ann Cotton - an efficient killer

I am interested in strange people’s psychology – stand-up comedians – people  like that. People who are different.

But, really, everyone is different. Drag the most ordinary, dull-looking person out of a bus queue, ask them the right questions about themselves and you will find they have had the most extraordinary life and are probably very strange in one way or another.

Yesterday, I went to a lecture by Professor Glenn Wilson at Gresham College in London about the psychological profiling of serial killers.

You know the sort of stuff – some bloke comes along and tells the police: “The man you are looking for is 6ft 3in tall, likes Royal Doulton pottery and anal sex, has few friends, a lisp and probably makes pasta in an Italian restaurant owned by a one-legged woman within a three mile radius of Hastings.”

Except that seems to be bollocks.

As far as I can make out, psychological profiling is smoke and mirrors.

Professor Wilson’s conclusion yesterday was that “while psychological profiling may reduce the size of the haystack in which the needle is sought” (the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry had to process 268,000 named suspects) it is much better at explaining serial killers after they are caught but much less impressive at finding and catching them.

Well, yes, in other words… it does not work.

Anyone can psychologically profile a serial killer after they are caught.

Serial killers are not the same as ‘spree killers’ who just rampage round Cumbria or attack a Jewish school in Toulouse or go onto a Norwegian island and simply kill everyone in sight. A serial killer is defined as someone who kills three or more people with intervals between – like Jack the Ripper or Harold Shipman.

I was fascinated to hear about Mary Ann Cotton, a Durham woman who poisoned at least 21 people in the mid-19th century – including her mother, three husbands, a lover, ten of her own children, five step-children and her best friend. Now there is an interesting woman though, even with high 19th century mortality rates, you have to question the general gullibility of the police and locals before she was suspected of murder.

The FBI put serial killers into two categories: Organised and Disorganised.

Organised serial killers leave few clues, follow their case in the media and are “socially adequate” with friends, lovers, wife and children.

Disorganised serial killers leave a chaotic crime scene, have little interest in the publicity and have few friends.

In other words, there is no ‘typical’ serial killer. They are not the cliché loner: the Yorkshire Ripper, like many others, was married.

As Professor Wilson understated yesterday, “Profiling has its limitations. Certain background details are said to be common in psychopaths (eg bed-wetting, fire-setting and animal cruelty) but these are widespread in the community, whereas serial killers are rare. Childhood abuse and neglect may lead to serious crimes but equally motivate others to rise above their difficulties and develop a brilliant career (Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin).”

In other words, everyone is different. As in general life, so in the serial killing community.

There is also the fact that the police and the press can prosecute and persecute innocent people based on the fact they sound like ’the sort of person’ who might have done it.

Colin Stagg was charged with the Wimbledon Common killing of Rachel Nickell after a ‘profile’ of the killer was given on BBC TV’s Crimewatch. The police charged him with obscenity after he admitted having sunbathed in the nude and, based solely on this, the tabloids then described him as a ‘sex offender’. He then spent a year in prison awaiting trial for the Wimbledon Common killing, but was released then persecuted for years in the press (encouraged by the police). It turned out he was not the killer.

In the case of Barry George, admittedly a bit of an odd man, he was wrongly convicted of killing TV presenter Jill Dando (I once worked with the person who found her body). It was said he kept news clippings about her at his home. In fact, he had a stack of old newspapers, a few of which mentioned her but none were clipped or highlighted in any way.

Now, the chief suspect in that killing appears to be an unknown Serbian hit man who is presumed to have killed her in revenge for the NATO bombing (a few days before) of the TV station in Belgrade which killed several journalists.

Who knows?

Real life is stranger – and much more varied – than fiction or psychological profiling would allow.

How about a vegetarian who hated anyone who was cruel to animals? That person could never be responsible for any deaths, could he? Yet that person was Adolph Hitler.

To quote William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade, “Nobody knows anything”.

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