British Monsters Volume 1

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Peter Manuel

The Beast of Birkenshaw

“I am the foulest beast on earth... A reptile in disguise.” - Peter Manuel

Peter Manuel is Scotland’s most notorious serial killer, a brutal psychopath who claimed at least 8 victims (and possibly as many as 18) in an orgy of violence between 1956 and 1958. A habitual criminal from the age of 11, Manuel graduated from burglary to rape to murder, killing male and female, young and old with equal alacrity. “You can have various aspects to a psychopathic personality,” Dr. Richard Goldberg of Aberdeen University said in discussing his case. “What is really fascinating about Manuel is that he ticks every box.”

Manuel was born in New York City on March 13, 1927, the second of three children. His parents, Samuel and Bridget, had immigrated to America in the 1920s. But his father’s ill heath had forced them to return to Scotland in 1932. On their return they settled briefly in Motherwell before moving south of the border to Coventry.

Manuel struggled to fit in at school and was in trouble from an early age. In 1938, aged just 11, he broke into a chapel and stole money from the collection box. Later that same year he was caught burglarizing a shop and a house. Those offenses landed him in a reform school, but he habitually escaped to commit burglaries in the area. In October 10, 1941, he broke into a house and threatened the householder with an axe. A year later, during yet another break-in, he struck a woman on the head while she slept, causing concussion and hemorrhage. The woman was hospitalized for some time, while Manuel simply shrugged his shoulders and pled guilty.

By now, the education system was at a loss as to what to do with Manuel. At age 15, he was already a habitual criminal and no amount of punishment seemed to have any effect on him.

His next offense was more serious than breaking and entering, he was charged with indecently assaulting the wife of one of the school staff. After hitting the woman on the head with a stick of wood, Manuel dragged her into some trees where he ripped off her clothes and tried to rape her. She was found later in a semi-conscious state. She’d suffered a concussion and required eight stitches to her head. Her nose and collarbone had also been broken in the attack.

Manuel again pled guilty. He was also charged with housebreaking and malicious damage to property after it was discovered that he’d burgled a house and destroyed bedding and clothing by cutting. He’d also scattered foodstuffs and cigarette butts around the scene, something that would become a trademark of his future crimes.

After these latest offences Manuel was held for a month in Leeds Prison. His father requested that he be transferred to a reformatory in Scotland, but this was refused. Instead, he’d be incarcerated for two years at a juvenile detention center in Yorkshire. Yet even now, he was unrepentant. He continued to abscond, continued to commit crimes. The school was glad to see the back of him in 1946.

Manuel, now 18, moved to Lanarkshire, Scotland, where his parents lived. He was immediately in trouble again. In February 1946, he was caught breaking into a house. While out on bail for that offense, he assaulted three women, raping one of them.

On June 25, 1946, he was sentenced to eight years in Peterhead Prison for the rape. While incarcerated in Peterhead, Manuel expressed his disgust at the way he’d been treated by the courts. He asked to be supplied with various law books and spent much of his time reading up on the Scottish legal system.

But Manuel didn’t spend all of his time reading. He was a persistent troublemaker described by prison officers as a ‘very unpleasant type of prisoner.’ After an incident in 1950, in which he smashed 30 windowpanes and threatened two officers with glass shards, he was examined by a psychiatrist who concluded that he was an ‘aggressive psychopath.’ The doctor went on to add: “It is doubtful whether, even at the beginning of his sentence, any constructive work could have been done with him.”

Nonetheless, Manuel was released from his sentence a year early and returned to the family home in Birkenshaw, Lanarkshire. For a while, it looked as though he was trying to go straight. He found a job as a laborer with the Scottish Gas Board and in the autumn of 1954 started dating a girl named Anne O’Hara, a conductress on the bus he took to work. The following year the couple got engaged, but the relationship floundered and eventually ended over Manuel’s refusal to attend church.

Shortly after Anne called off the engagement Manuel was in trouble again, this time for indecent assault. He defended himself at trial, and was acquitted. Not long after, he graduated to murder.

On the afternoon of January 4, 1956, the body of 17-year-old Anne Knielands was found in woodland adjacent to a golf course at East Kilbride. She’d been brutally battered about the head and evidence suggested that she’d been chased for some distance before her killer had eventually caught up with her and bludgeoned her to death. Although she hadn’t been raped, semen stains on her clothing suggested that her killer had masturbated over her corpse.

As they initiated their enquiries, the police learned that a team of Scottish Gas Board employees had been working in the area over the last few days and that one of them had scratch marks on his face. That man was Peter Manuel, already known to officers as a violent offender. Manuel was questioned and items of his clothing taken away for forensic examination. He denied any knowledge of the crime, claiming he’d gotten the scratches in a bar fight and had been at home on the night of the murder. Manuel’s father corroborated his alibi, and when the tests on his clothes came back negative, the police began focusing their attention on other suspects. One officer though, Chief Inspector William Muncie, continued to regard Manuel as the man most likely to have killed Anne Knielands.

Two months after the Knielands murder, the police got a tip-off that a robbery was going to take place at a colliery in Blantyne. Manuel was named as one of the two men involved. A trap was laid and although Manuel managed to escape, he left incriminating evidence at the scene and was soon under arrest.

He was arraigned at Hamilton Sheriff’s Court where he was granted bail. While Manuel was awaiting trial, the police were called to the scene of two burglaries, both bearing Manuel’s unique signature - food and cigarette butts scattered across the scene.

Then, on the morning of September 17, officers were called to a bungalow in Fennsbank Avenue, High Burnside, close to the scene of the two earlier break-ins. Inside they found the bodies of Marion Watt, 45, her 16-year-old daughter Vivienne, and Margaret Brown, Mrs. Watt’s sister. All three had been shot dead at close range.

There was spilled food and discarded cigarette butts at the scene, leading police to immediately suspect Manuel. Detectives were dispatched to his home with a search warrant, but they turned up nothing incriminating. Manuel also refused to answer any of their questions and the officers left frustrated.

There’d soon be a new suspect anyway, Mrs. Watt’s husband, William. He’d been away on a fishing trip in Argyll at the time of the murders, but the investigators suspected he had driven home from the hotel where he was staying, committed the murders, and then returned to Lochgilphead to continue his holiday. There were plenty of flaws in the theory, but on September 27, Watt was arrested and charged with the murders of his wife, daughter and sister-in-law. He would be held at Barlinnie Prison for 67 days before being released when detectives eventually admitted they had the wrong man.

Also incarcerated at Barlinnie during that time was Peter Manuel, just starting an 18-month sentence for the attempted robbery at the Blantyre Colliery. Manuel seemed very interested in the Watt case, even asking William Watt’s solicitor for a meeting at which he claimed to know the identity of the killer. He refused to give a name, but it was soon obvious that Manuel knew more than he should about the murders. The solicitor passed his suspicions on to the police, but while they now believed that Manuel was their man, they had no hard evidence against him.

Manuel was released from Barlinnie in November 1957. Within days of his release, he moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, ostensibly to find work. On December 8, 1957, a 36-year-old taxi driver named Sydney Dunn was found dead in his cab on a desolate stretch of moorland in Northumberland. He'd been shot at close range and his throat had been slit. Manuel had been in Newcastle at the time of Dunn's death but had returned to Scotland by the time the body was found. Some doubt exists as to whether or not Manuel killed Dunn. He never confessed to the murder. However, two weeks after Manuel's execution it was revealed that a button matching one of his coats was found in Dunn's cab.

On December 29, 1957, the police received a report that 17-year-old Isabelle Cooke, from Mount Vernon, had disappeared. The teenager had left home the previous evening to attend a dance and was supposed to meet up with her boyfriend at a bus stop near her Glasgow home. She never arrived. The police mounted a hunt for Isabelle and found various items of her clothing. However, there was no trace of the missing girl.

A week later, the police were called to the scene of another triple homicide. The bodies of Peter Smart, his wife Doris and the couple’s 11-year-old son Michael were found in their home in Uddingston. All three victims were still in their beds. They’d been shot in the head at point blank range, apparently while they slept.

The police were certain that Peter Manuel was responsible. Proving it, though, was another matter. Manuel had no motive and no links to the victims. No one had seen him enter the home and very little evidence was left at the scene. They decided to place Manuel under surveillance and detailed a twenty-man team to keep a watch on him. The surveillance team soon hit paydirt. They noticed that even though Manuel was unemployed, he was spending a lot of time drinking in Glasgow’s bars, paying with crisp new banknotes. Following up on this clue they managed to obtain a few of these notes and took them to Peter Smart’s bank. There they learned that Smart had recently made a large withdrawal to pay for a family holiday and that the banknotes Manuel was using could be positively linked to that withdrawal. Finally, they had the evidence they needed.

Early on the morning on January 14, 1958, a little over two years since the murder of Anne Knielands, Lanarkshire police finally moved in to arrest Peter Manuel. The raid on the family home in Birkenshaw turned up additional evidence - a Kodak camera and a pair of gloves, which Manuel had given to his sister and father as Christmas gifts proved to be from one of Manuel’s earlier break-ins. Manuel was arrested for housebreaking, his father for receiving stolen goods.

This was a deliberate ploy on the part of the investigation team. They knew that Manuel was very close to his family and that he would not want his father to get into trouble for something he had done. After leaving him alone in his cell for 24 hours, Manuel finally cracked. He offered detectives a deal - drop all charges against his father and he’d help them ‘resolve’ certain unsolved cases.

The officers eventually agreed and, with his parents present, Manuel started speaking, confessing in detail to the murders of Anne Kneilands, Marion and Vivienne Watts, Margaret Brown, and the Smart family. He also surprised officers by admitting that he killed Isabelle Cooke. That murder had not yet been connected to him. Manuel subsequently led officers to the ploughed field where he’d buried Isabel’s body. Asked where exactly the body was located he reportedly told officers: “I think I am standing on her.”

On May 12, 1958, Manuel stood trial for murder at Glasgow’s High Court. The trial was a sensation, with spectators queuing around the block for a seat in the public gallery. If they expected a spectacle, they were not disappointed with Manuel firing his lawyers and opting to conduct his own defense. All of those years behind bars studying Scottish law were put to good use as he filed a motion to have his confessions suppressed, claiming they’d been given under duress. Unfortunately for Manuel, the judge rejected his petition. The confessions stood and along with evidence about the banknotes stolen from the Smart residence, and a letter written to William Watt’s solicitor, served to build a strong case against Manuel. The jury deliberated for a mere two hours and 21 minutes before finding him guilty on all charges bar the Anne Kneilands’ murder (the judge had ruled that the jury should not find Manuel guilty in her case, due to lack of evidence).

Manuel was sentenced to hang and remanded to Barlinnie to await execution. Initially upbeat and chatty with the guards, in the days leading up to his execution his mental condition began to deteriorate. He refused to speak and barely ate, at one point refusing food for four days. He was found on occasion lying on his cot, limps twitching and froth coming from his mouth. He developed a shuffling gait, his body movements clumsy and ungainly. On other occasions he’d lie on his cot groaning and whimpering.

On June 24, the Appeals Court in Edinburgh rejected his final appeal. He was returned to Barlinnie where he kept up his charade, no doubt trying to convince the authorities that he was insane. Then, on July 10, the day before his execution, he underwent another transformation. The talkative, cheerful Manuel was back.

After a last supper of fish, chips, lettuce and tomatoes, Manuel met with the prison governor for two hours, during which time he is said to have confessed to as many as 18 unsolved murders. At around 8 p.m., he had a visit from his older brother David. After David left, Manuel lay awake for most of the night. At 6.50 a.m., he heard Mass and took Holy Communion. The prison governor and executioner entered the cell at 7:58 p.m. Manuel spoke briefly with the governor, thanking him and his staff. Then he turned to the hangman and said: “Turn up the radio and I’ll go quietly.”

A minute later he was escorted across the gallery to the hanging shed where he was executed at 8 a.m. exactly. Manuel was buried in the prison cemetery. He was 31 years old at the time of his death.

British Monsters Volume One includes 14 more riveting stories of Britain's worst serial killers