Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Men and Supermen: The Nietzsche Syndrome

The Great Manipulator

In Manchester, David Smith reported to the police that he had witnessed a murder. His sister-in-law, Myra Hindley, had a boyfriend, Ian Brady, who had smashed open a man's head with an axe and asked David to help them hide the body. The police went to the home in question—where an elderly woman lived—and found the victim's body in an upstairs room. They arrested Brady and Hindley on the spot.

A search of the home resolved another mystery: what had happened to ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey, who had disappeared in December 1964. The police found pictures of her and a tape-recording of her voice in which she begged to go home. They also turned up plans for another murder of a twelve-year-old boy, also missing. It seemed that Hindley had lured the children to the moors for picnics, where Brady would kill and bury them. Police suspected them in several other disappearances of children in the area, but they refused to confess.

Ian Brady & Myra Hindley
Ian Brady & Myra Hindley

Nevertheless, Brady was a true postmodern nihilist. Inspired by Dostoevsky's ideas in Crime and Punishment, the Marquis de Sade's sadomasochistic writings, and Nietzsche's philosophy of the will to power and the master morality, he believed that certain men can rise above society's moral standards and do as they pleased. A loner with a criminal record, he had enlisted 18-year-old Myra in his plan to commit the perfect murder. She had fallen for it and had come under his influence, changing her personality and adopting his ideas.

Their first victim in 1963 had been a sixteen-year-old girl. Brady would later publish a book, The Gates of Janus, to express his philosophies. For him, killing was an exciting venture for the solitary explorer, "consciously thirsting to experience that which the majority have not and dare not." Killers like himself are "unavoidably a failure in many normal walks of life." Such a person lacks patience, he wrote, and eschews the boredom that others accept. "The serial killer has chosen to live a day as a lion, rather than decades as a sheep." Once he has committed homicide, he wrote, he accepts his acts become "normal," and the rest of humanity becomes "subnormal."

Book cover: The Gates of Janus
Book cover: The Gates of Janus

Before meeting him, Hindley had been a simple girl who loved children. She worked with Brady and became infatuated with him. According to her diary, he convinced her that morality was relative. Soon she hated people as much as he did. He proposed that they enrich themselves through a life of crime, to which she agreed. Like Bonnie and Clyde, they worked together to excite themselves over another person's pain.

In 1966, both were sentenced to life in prison, and each would eventually accuse the other as the instigator. Their case renewed demand for capital punishment. Brady wrote his book while in prison to discuss other serial killers, such as John Wayne Gacy, Carl Panzram, and the Hillside Stranglers. He points out that the practices of many societies are as destructive as individual killers and that they are practicing the same form of moral relativism.

In his chapter on Panzram, he writes that, paradoxically, some serial killers place more value on human life than do "many of their ostensibly more principled brethren." Carl Panzram, he says, was among those killers who made his victims more personal in order to draw out the excitement: "No pleasure in killing unless you value life." The taking of each life then becomes an "act of cosmic significance," a way to defy the universe. That sounds like many killers who utilize Nietzsche as their inspiration. While Panzram did not say that about himself, he does appear to be unique even among serial killers for his bold ability to kill as he pleased and defy anyone to stop him. So let's see what kind of "overman" Panzram was. He tells his tale in his own journals.

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