It has been over 50 years since a man known only as Bible John terrorized the Scottish city of Glasgow with a two-year-long killing spree. A club known as the Barrowland Ballroom was his exclusive hunting ground – he picked up women, danced with them, and, when the night was done, he would take them home and strangle them just meters from the safety of their homes.
His crimes were followed by the largest police operation in the history of Glasgow. Over 100 detectives worked the case, collecting over 50,000 statements and questioning 5,000 suspects to try and identify the killer. All of this proved to be in vain. Bible John simply disappeared once his murder spree had ended, never to be heard from again. Who he was, why he did what he did, and why he stopped remain mysteries to this day.
The year was 1968 in Glasgow, Scotland. Patricia Docker was a 25-year-old auxiliary nurse who had taken her young son and moved in with her parents while her husband was stationed at the Royal Air Force base near Digby in Lincolnshire, England.
On February 22, Patricia decided she wanted to let her hair down a little. Things weren’t going too well for her. Her relationship with her husband was on the rocks, and the couple had already talked about getting a divorce. Her job got pretty intense, as Pat worked night shifts at one of the busiest hospitals in the city. That was why for one night, she wanted to put all her problems aside and enjoy some “me” time. That Thursday evening, Pat had the day off so she left her four-year-old son in the care of his grandparents. She dressed up in one of her most fashionable outfits – a yellow mini dress, accessorized with a brown handbag to match her shoes. All of this was covered by a large duffle coat with a fur collar – fashion is nice and all that, but this was still a winter’s night in Scotland. Once she was ready, Pat hit the town for a night of dancing, drinking, and maybe even some casual flirting. Little did she know that she would become involved in the largest manhunt in the city’s history.
Back then, if you were young and you were looking for a good time in Glasgow, you went to the Majestic. That’s where Pat’s parents thought she was going, but it is not where she actually went. She might have stopped there originally but, for reasons that remain unknown, she ended up at the Barrowland Ballroom, which was hosting an “Over 25s” night. One dance hall is as good as another, right? Well, unfortunately for Patricia Docker, this dance hall was the hunting grounds for a violent predator, and he was there that night, looking for his prey.
Once she was inside the dance hall, it becomes pretty much impossible to track Pat’s movements, as she became just another figure in the crowd, vibing to the sounds of the Swinging Sixties. She said hello to a few friends, danced with a few people, had a few drinks – what you would expect to happen on a night out. But at one point, she did meet a man. He was in his mid-to-late 20s, well-groomed, with either reddish or light brown hair, and handsome enough to catch Pat’s attention. The two talked a little, danced a little, and they left Barrowland together. That was the last time that anyone saw Patricia Docker alive.
The following morning, a cabinetmaker named Maurice Goodman left his house and was walking the short journey to the lock-up garage where he kept his car when he came across the ghastly sight that would haunt him forever. It was the body of Patricia Docker, partially naked, beaten and bruised, lying in the doorway of the garage. Goodman rushed to call the cops and two detectives were soon on the scene. The police pathologist arrived shortly after them and he provided the first clues of the investigation. Based on rigor mortis, Pat had been murdered hours earlier, most likely a short time after leaving the Barrowland Ballroom. She had been hit in the face and head mercilessly, although none of those injuries would have been life-threatening. Instead, she was killed by strangulation, most likely with a belt or pantyhose. The murder weapon was never recovered, and neither were the rest of Pat’s clothes. The medical examiner noted that Pat Docker was menstruating at the time of her death, although no importance was placed on that fact yet.
Police began canvassing the neighborhood, but did not turn up any useful leads. One neighbor thought they heard a cry for help during the early hours of the morning, but they didn’t bother to get up and check, so it was a dead end. Police did ID the body pretty fast, as one of the ambulance men recognized Pat as a nurse who worked at Mearnskirk Hospital. Her parents were alerted to the tragedy and her father made the official identification.
From then on, it was slim pickings for investigators. The time they saved with the ID, they lost by making inquiries at the Majestic, since that was where they thought Patricia Docker went that night. Eventually, they found out that she ended up at the Barrowland Ballroom instead, and that she left with a young man who was, most likely, her killer, but that was about it. Nobody seemed to remember anything remarkable about him and those who did might not have been too eager to talk. You see, the Barrowland was the kind of place where many guests took off their wedding rings “by accident” and forgot that they were married for a few hours. Which could potentially explain why Pat Docker and, probably, many others preferred to tell their loved ones that they went somewhere else to spend their evenings.
Truth be told, the crime might not have been the police’s highest priority at the time. Glasgow was quite a violent place back then, with a murder rate that was over double that of other big cities like Edinburgh or London. Police thought this was a straightforward and isolated crime of passion – a man picked up a woman in a club and, when she rebuffed his advances, he attacked her. They did not know yet that they were investigating the first murder of the man who would become Scotland’s most notorious unidentified killer, so, when the leads dried up, they moved on to another case. That is, at least, until he struck again…
Almost a year-and-a-half passed before the killer claimed another victim. By that point, most of Glasgow had quietly forgotten about the murder of Patricia Docker, and nobody yet suspected that the city had a vicious serial killer in its midst. But then, on August 16, 1969, a familiar scenario occurred to remind everyone of the dangers that lurked within the shadows of Glasgow.
Jemima McDonald was a 32-year-old mother-of-three who liked to let loose every now and then, just like Pat Docker. When the time came for a little carousing, she left her children with her sister and went to the Barrowland Ballroom, where she was somewhat of a regular. Because of this, several people spotted her at the dance hall that night, and they also noticed that she was getting very friendly with a guy whose description matched that of Pat Docker’s final companion – a tall man in his late 20s – early 30s, slim build, well-dressed and well-groomed, sporting a blue suit and reddish hair. Witnesses also said he spoke with a Glaswegian accent and overheard him make several biblical references, which would ultimately end up giving him his unique moniker in the press. They even had a first name for him – John, although it was, most likely, an alias. It appeared that Jemima McDonald was quite infatuated with her new consort, and the two left Barrowland together shortly after midnight.
The following morning, her sister Margaret got worried when she saw that Jemima had not returned home that night. Her worry soon turned to panic when she heard the local scuttlebutt that some neighborhood kids were going around telling everyone that they had discovered a dead body in an abandoned tenement building just yards from her house. Margaret went there to check if the rumor was true or just kids being kids, and her findings confirmed her worst fear – the body was real and belonged to her sister.
Jemima McDonald had been ferociously assaulted and then strangled to death. Just like with Patricia Docker, her body was found close to her home and her handbag was missing, although, unlike the first victim, Jemima McDonald had not been stripped naked.
Even though the attack was eerily reminiscent of the one on Patricia Docker, the police were not quite ready to attribute them both to the same culprit since two different murderers frequenting the same nightclub within a year-and-a-half time span would not have been unheard of. That being said, they also did not rule out the possibility, so they stepped up their efforts to find him this time. They sent undercover officers to the dance hall. They had one policewoman dress up as Jemima McDonald and retrace her last known steps, to see if it jogged anyone’s memory. They even released a sketch of the suspect to the public which was a first for a Scottish murder investigation, since back then these were only circulated among police organizations.
All of this effort turned up nada. Police did not get any closer towards catching their man although, to be fair, the culprit did not wait around too long before he killed again.
This time, only a couple of months had passed before the mysterious killer decided to paint the town red once more. It was October 31, 1969 – Halloween night so, unsurprisingly, there were quite a few parties taking place throughout Glasgow. Many people hit the town to celebrate and among them was Helen Puttock, a 29-year-old mother-of-two. Her husband volunteered to stay home with the kids so his wife could enjoy her night out, although he was a bit apprehensive. By that point, the idea that there was a killer among them, stalking the streets of Glasgow at night put some of the locals on edge.
“But no need to worry, though,” Helen reassured her husband. She was going out accompanied by her sister, Jean, and the two of them would look after each other. So, with that matter settled, Helen got dressed up and went out. Her destination – the Barrowland Ballroom.
According to Jean, she and Helen paired off with two men who both introduced themselves as “John” and spent most of the night dancing with them. When it was time to go, all four of them left together. The harmless John traveled on foot to a nearby bus station, while the sisters and the evil John got into a taxi together. The following experience was either innocuous or sinister, depending on who you ask. I mean, in hindsight, it was definitely sinister – the two sisters were sharing a ride with a serial killer, after all. But according to one book on the subject, the three of them spent the time mostly talking about trivial things, and when Jean was the first to reach her destination, she felt like she was leaving Helen in safe hands. Another book, however, paints a much darker picture and says that John was morose, even upset during the whole trip, resenting Jean’s presence. He spent the time talking about the evils of “dens of iniquity” such as the Barrowland Ballroom and chastised the women of loose morals who frequented such places.
Even so, John’s off-putting behavior wasn’t enough to raise any serious alarm bells, so when Jean got out of the cab and waved goodbye to Helen, she had no idea that would be the last time she would see her sister alive.
Helen Puttock’s body was found the next morning by a man walking his dog. She had been dumped in a courtyard, once again close to where she lived. She had been strangled, her clothes had been ripped, and her handbag had been taken. Like the previous two victims, Helen was menstruating at the time of her death. Police had noticed this with the other women but thought it was simply a coincidence. Now, however, the killer took the time to make a clear reference to this fact by taking one of her sanitary pads and placing it under her armpit. Could it be that this was some kind of trigger for him that unleashed his murderous rage?
That wasn’t the only difference between the crime scenes. There were a few other signs that, as the killings continued, the culprit was starting to either get more careless or was losing his ability to control his violent urges. He left a deep bite mark on Helen’s body and also a semen stain on her clothes. Nowadays, those would be valuable forensic clues, but it was still the 1960s, so there wasn’t a lot that the police could do with them. Even so, the investigators preserved the evidence, in the hopes that it would become more useful in the future.
With three murders of similar victims, who were all picked up in the same place, most likely by the same man, there could be no more doubt – Glasgow had a serial killer on its hands. The press picked up on the murderer’s habit of quoting Scripture and gave him his notorious sobriquet – Bible John.
This kicked the police investigation into high gear and, with all hands on deck, everyone was hopeful that Bible John would soon be behind bars. After all, he left plenty of witnesses behind, including Helen’s sister, Jean, who spent a whole cab ride with him. And there were other people who spotted him at Barrowland, as well. The official description provided by the police to the press described Bible John as a man of medium build, around 6 feet tall, 25-to-30 years of age, with short light reddish hair and blue-grey eyes, with one tooth in the upper-right corner of the mouth overlapping another tooth, and sporting a military-style watch. Investigators even circulated a detailed color portrait of the killer, made by an artist from the Glasgow School of Art.
Unsurprisingly, the sketch opened the floodgates and the tips started pouring in at a torrential speed. Over 4,000 people contacted the police just in the days that followed, claiming to know someone who resembled the portrait. Eventually, investigators began issuing special cards to the innocent men who had been questioned and cleared of the charges, just so they could prove to their loved ones and co-workers that they weren’t Bible John.
A profile compiled by a psychiatrist in 1970 described John as a sex killer who appeared and acted like the sort of young man that a mother would want her daughter to bring home. He was good at hiding his evil side from those close to him and, on the exterior, he appeared shy and harmless. He was a loner, who preferred solo activities, opting to go alone to the cinema over going out with a group to drink or to watch a game. He possessed many of the traits often found in compulsive sex killers, such as tidiness, vanity, high intelligence, effeminacy, and a dislike of smoking, drinking, and vulgar language. He probably still lived with his mother, who saw him as nothing but her “sweet, little boy,” even though he secretly harbored a hatred of women which compelled him to exert his power over them and, ultimately, murder them.
For a while, there was this belief that the killer attended clubs even when he didn’t murder anybody. Then, on certain nights, something happened that triggered his compulsion to kill. Therefore, sixteen officers were assigned to dance duty – every night, they would go out undercover at the Barrowland and other dance halls, and boogie until the wee hours of the morning, in the hopes that they might run into Bible John on the dance floor.
Another strange lead came from a witness who remembered having a casual chat with the killer about golf, where John mentioned that his cousin had recently scored a hole-in-one. This was all the info the police had to go on, but they still reached out to all the 400+ golf courses in Scotland, to see if anyone remembered such a feat being celebrated recently.
Cabbies and bus drivers in Glasgow were all tracked down and questioned if they recognized the portrait. Dentists were asked if any of them could identify Bible John based on the overlapping tooth. An appeal was made to the armed forces since the killer’s wristwatch and short hairstyle suggested he could have been a military man. One by one, each lead was pursued, and one by one, each lead hit a dead end. Although, at first, police were hopeful that identifying and catching Bible John was only a matter of time, that hope was dwindling with each passing day.
Who Was He?
It’s probably not much of a spoiler to tell you that the police never caught Bible John. The killer seemingly vanished after the murder of Helen Puttock and was never heard from again. He became a boogeyman, a distant memory of a terror that once lurked in the shadows, similar to other notorious killers such as Jack the Ripper or the Zodiac.
But although the Bible John murders became a cold case, it was never officially closed. Obviously, the 100 detectives who once worked on the investigation were reassigned once the clues had dried up, but they still pursued new leads whenever they appeared. Helen’s sister Jean still came in whenever there was a new suspect to look at. She never publicly discussed her sibling’s murder, but she was available whenever the police needed her. Jean made around 250 such trips to the station, but none of them ever ended with her pointing a finger at a suspect and saying “That’s him. That’s the man who killed my sister.”
There was some renewed zeal in the investigation during the 1990s when DNA analysis became the new forensic darling. Glasgow police still had semen samples from the Puttock murder, but the samples on their own would be useless without something to match them against. Police wanted to test the DNA from one of their strongest suspects, a man known back then simply as “John M,” who had committed suicide in 1980. He seemed like a good fit – he had a very strong resemblance to the Bible John sketch and he used to serve in the armed forces as part of the Scots Guard. As the investigation continued through the years, he kept popping up at the top of the suspect pile, so in 1996, the police obtained an exhumation order for his body.
The operation was supposed to be discreet, but the name of the suspect leaked out and, all of a sudden, the Scottish press were all over it, deeming John McInnes to be Bible John before the results even came in. On top of that, the police were pressured to justify why exactly the exhumation and DNA test ended up costing over a million dollars, and, overall, the whole thing turned into one big PR nightmare. Then, the coup de grâce was delivered when the results came in and they cleared John McInnes of any involvement, leaving the Crown investigators with a lot of egg on their faces as they issued a very prolonged and public apology to the McInnes family for the way they bungled it.
So one of the main suspects in the case was off the table but, even worse, the debacle caused the authorities to be a lot more apprehensive about trying it again. The sad reality was that the murders of Bible John had long been replaced by newer, even more horrifying crimes, so it was a matter of allocating resources where they would be most effective. That being said, there were rumblings around 2005 that Glasgow police had collected DNA samples from a new family in order to match them. That time, however, their name didn’t get out and, since no public statements on the matter were ever made, we can only presume that the results were negative.
But let’s get to the main event – Peter Tobin. If you are familiar with the Bible John case at all, then that name will already be known to you. For the last 15 years or so, he has been presented by many people as the best candidate to be Bible John. Let’s start with the obvious here – Peter Tobin is a convicted serial killer, who murdered at least three young women between 1991 and 2006. But since he was already in his mid-40s by the time he committed his first known murder, police suspected there might be earlier victims.
Thus Operation Anagram was born in 2006, with the goal being to track Tobin’s movements as far back as possible to see if there were links to any previous murders. That’s when the Bible John connection popped up since it was revealed that Tobin lived near Glasgow at the time of the Barrowland killings and would have been in his mid-20s. He moved to England the same year the murders stopped, after marrying for the first time. Furthermore, Tobin came from a strict religious family and his first wife said he once attacked her after becoming enraged because she was menstruating.
A lot of fingers were starting to point in Tobin’s direction, but DNA couldn’t help us anymore. By the time of his arrest, the samples from the 1960s became too degraded to produce conclusive results. To this day, plenty of people are still convinced that he is Bible John. Unfortunately, the detectives who worked on Operation Anagram are not among them, and they say that they have eliminated Tobin as a suspect pretty conclusively, insisting that he wasn’t in Glasgow at the time of some of the murders. So, for now, Bible John remains just as elusive as ever.