Suffer Little Children: The Moors Murders in Memory & Song

October 1965: Police search Saddleworth Moor (photo: David Thorpe, Associated Newspapers, Rex Features)

October 1965: Police search Saddleworth Moor (photo: David Thorpe, Associated Newspapers, Rex Features)

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto to me; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
— Matthew 19:14

This post looks at a pair of songs inspired by memories of one of postwar Britain’s most infamous crimes …

Over the moor

Oh, Manchester, so much to answer for …
— The Smiths

Between 1963 and 1965, a pair of sadistic lovers murdered five children in Manchester, England, burying four of their corpses in shallow graves on nearby Saddleworth Moor. Four of the victims were sexually assaulted before they were killed, and the killers photographed and tape recorded the youngest (age 10) as she was tortured. Arrested, charged with, and convicted of the crimes were Ian Brady (28 when tried), a misanthropic, Scots-born stock clerk, and Myra Hindley (23), his masochistic typist girlfriend. Both came from broken homes and Hindley, at least, was abused as a child. In a familiar trope, something in their troubled backgrounds and insecure social statuses drew them together and, once a couple, sparked a combustible mix of eroticism and rage that soon erupted into serial murder. The killings became tokens of their bond and before their apprehension they ritually revisited their victims’ lonely graves for romantic interludes and picnics, taking scores of black-and-white photos which they jealously guarded.

Mugshots: Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (1965) (police photos; PA)

Mugshots: Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (1965) (police photos; PA)

Lost forever to their homicidal coupling were Pauline Reade (16), John Kilbride (12), Keith Bennett (12), Lesley Ann Downey (10), and Edward Evans (17). Most were lured by Hindley into the couple’s car, kidnapped, and later killed. All but Evans ended up on the moor; Bennett’s body, though presumed buried there, has never been found. The callousness of the murders stunned Britain, where to this day Brady (now a feeble 78) and Hindley (who died at 60) remain newsworthy, mostly tabloid figures – social pariahs mythologized to national boogeyman status with name recognition comparable to Bundy or Dahmer in the States.

Lost: Reade, Kilbride, Bennett, Downey, Evans (unsourced news photos)

Lost: Reade, Kilbride, Bennett, Downey, Evans (unsourced news photos)

Anyone growing up in the UK, let alone Manchester, in the mid-‘60s knew of the Moors Murders – heard adults discussing the crimes (if only in hushed tones), saw the stark mugshots of the sinister couple on television or the gray newspaper photos of police digging up the countryside. One such child, seven years old at the time of the arrests and trial, was Steven Patrick Morrissey.

Over the moor, take me to the moor

Dig a shallow grave and I’ll lay me down

Over the moor, take me to the moor

Dig a shallow grave and I’ll lay me down

The Smiths in 1984 (left to right): Morrissey, Andy Rourke, Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce (off-camera) (screen cap; YouTube)

The Smiths in 1984 (left to right): Morrissey, Andy Rourke, Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce (off-camera) (screen cap; YouTube)

In 1984, The Smiths’ pop star was ascendant. New darlings of the English music press, the Mancunian band’s well-crafted, riff-heavy singles – jangle pop lieder that updated mid-‘60s British rock with post-punk snarl and a coy pseudo-queerness like “Hand in Glove” and “This Charming Man” – had also made inroads to American listeners via the burgeoning “college” radio format. By the time their first LP, The Smiths, hit the stores that February, adventurous rock fans on both sides of the Atlantic were listening. The unlikely blend of guitarist Johnny Marr’s layered melodicism with single-name singer Morrissey’s baritone-cum-falsetto croon was ear-catching, and closer listening revealed ambitiously literate introspective lyrics. Yet for a debut album, The Smiths was a fairly gloomy affair. Beneath its surface sprightliness, themes of dread, alienation, and sexual confusion festered – predilections underscored both by murky sound and the LP’s striking but somber Warhol/Dallesandro cover art. Originally titled The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (after one of its most unsettling songs), childhood innocence lost and violated is a persistent subtext and the explicit subject of its most beautiful song.

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Comments

Suffer Little Children: The Moors Murders in Memory & Song — 2 Comments

  1. Hi, I’m a huge fan of “Love in a Faithless Country”, and I’m curious about the source of the quote at the top of Page 4? I’ve always known about the song’s inspiration, but was wondering when/where it was revealed.

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