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Stranger In The House

My cousin Stephen leads me out to the brick extension behind his home in Kingsgrove, opens a cupboard. Before us is a pile of bulging plastic bags, old style foolscap ledger books and stacks of newspapers tied with string. There’s a heavy duty industrial plastic bag (it says ‘ICI Alkathene’), stuffed with foolscap folders, loose papers and photographs, with a label stuck on the outside, written in an old man’s spidery scrawl, ‘CRIME PHOTOS USED FOR TEACHING’.

‘Well, this is it,’ he says. We take the stuff into his living room, spread it out on the table. The photographs range from tiny prints and snapshots to large stills. Many are unambiguous: corpses, homicide scenes, car accidents. Others are cryptic: a kitchen cupboard stacked with bottles wrapped in newspaper; a blown-up fibro cottage, close-ups of a piece of lino, possibly bloodstained. There are mug shots of the famous jail escapee Darcy Dugan and his accomplice Mears; shots of the Cliff Rescue Squad men scaling the rocks at the Gap; a 1960s motor cycle cop, stony-faced and grim, in the sort of heroic pose which now seems slightly camp. There are horrors which border on slapstick: a dead woman with a huge dagger thrust through her skull, her body propped against a pile of hessian bags (which seem to be labelled ‘Parramatta’). There are a dozen tiny snapshots of women in 1950s era evening gowns, with dazzling smiles, posing in bedrooms, or at fancy dress balls. (Confiscated pics of blokes in drag, actually, which was high priority cop business back then.) Open graves, bodies in advanced decay, a corpse cut up in geometric patterns. A kitchen table, set for breakfast, a bowl and a packet of Weet Bix visible.

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Photograph: Peter Doyle.

And there are photographs of the compiler of the archive, Detective Sergeant (later Senior Assistant Commissioner) Brian Doyle, Stephen’s father, my uncle, who died in 2002. In one we see him boarding a plane, looking manfully into the distance. In another he’s leading the ‘Kingsgrove Slasher’, David Scanlon, into court.

Stephen helps me take the stuff out to my car. We stand there chatting for a few minutes in the late morning sunshine. Stephen has had this stuff around him all his life – his father was a public figure – and seems neither especially interested in it nor indifferent to it – it’s part of his history, as much as the well-tended streetscape in which we’re standing. We shake and I drive away. I’m eager to start examining the material. It’s my kind of stuff.

In the early 2000s I was invited by the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney to curate an exhibition using pre-war police crime scene photographs. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time with forensic photos, and more recently I’d been looking at forensic records of 1950s and 60s Sydney. Although my father’s younger brother Brian had been a distant figure in my childhood, his name had been coming up with ever greater frequency.

Stephen had offered me the loan of his father’s papers to browse at my leisure, to use whatever caught my interest. As it turned out, I found the Doyle documents difficult to get into. Cops narrate criminal matters in great detail – that’s their job. But it means every police file is potentially a major research project of its own. The Doyle papers included a number of fat, meticulously-detailed homicide investigation folders, as well as loads of ephemera: receipts, shorthand notes, diagrams, floor plans, uncaptioned photographs, and even a few non-forensic documents (such as instructions on how to ring-bark a backyard gum tree). They were at once too dense and too sketchy for casual browsing.

But I was curious about one, more or less self-contained matter included among the Doyle papers. The ‘Kingsgrove Slasher’ case, with that very memorable name, had been a huge thing in the late 1950s, but is now little known by anyone who wasn’t around then. I’d heard more than once that it had been in fact been something of a beat up, that the ‘Slasher’ was really just a prowler who cut up garments on clothes lines. And it’s true, despite the lurid name, that no homicide involved. I wondered whether the case was one of those history-blips that is so much of its time and place as to be almost quaint, in that the-past-is-another-country way. (Fine by me: I’m always on the lookout for suburban weirdness.) Or does the case lay bare enduring contradictions of psyche and society? It’s the basic question anyone interested in forensic histories encounters: is the story really, at base about then or is it about now? Is it them or is it us?

In 1959, when I was in third class in primary school, suddenly my father’s younger brother Brian was in the newspapers. There he was, front page, bringing in the notorious ‘Kingsgrove Slasher’, later on, day after day during the trial, when he was chief prosecution witness. The whole extended Doyle family was very exercised by it – and I remember my grandmother sniffing with both pride and general disdain at it all. I had only the vaguest idea of what the Slasher actually did, who, what he was, but I did know my uncle and his family happened to live in Kingsgrove – we’d visited once or twice (although it was fair hike from Maroubra, where we lived, and our family didn’t own a car then). Same house that his son lives in still.

Kingsgrove is an austerity-era suburb in Sydney’s south, a train stop or two past the dull, middle class suburbs of Earlwood, Turrella, Bardwell Park and Bexley. But it was on the right side of the rougher settlements further along the line: Herne Bay, Bankstown, Peakhurst, Milperra. Kingsgrove was and is a rather homogeneous lower middle class suburb with a modest shopping centre, a railway station and, nowadays, an on-ramp to the nearby M5 Motorway. The houses are the local 1950s derivative of the California bungalow style. The slightly grander, dark brick between-the-wars version is found in nearby Bexley and Earlwood. The dressed-down asbestos fibro version, often, back then, with an iron ‘Mexican Siesta’ number plaque by the front door is found in those burbs west of Kingsgrove. The neat pale brick cottages of Kingsgrove itself, often dressed up with a few modest ‘features’ – angular wrought iron trimmings, picture windows, porches and carports – are as middle as you could get in Sydney in the fifties. And as typical: Kingsgrove was pretty much indistinguishable from hundreds of square miles of new suburban sprawl encircling Sydney.

The Slasher case begun in early 1956, when a cluster of disparate reports of prowler activity, break and enters and assaults on sleeping women were registered in the Kingsgrove and Beverly Hills area. The attacks increased in number, then dropped off, then spiked again in late 1958, and continued until an arrest was made in April 1959. The Sydney papers, particularly the afternoon tabloids Sun and Daily Mirror went large on the ‘Kingsgrove Slasher’ case right from the beginning, and much to the annoyance of police, that term stuck. The perpetrator, one David Joseph Scanlon, was ultimately charged with eighteen counts of break and enter and assault. The trial was a media sensation, and Brian Doyle, arresting officer and leading prosecution witness, went from being an obscure suburban detective to a national media figure.

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Photograph: Peter Doyle.

Among Brian Doyle’s keepsakes are two neatly collated foolscap folders, their spines respectively hand-labelled SLASHER BRIEF and SLASHER SUNDRIES. Slasher Brief is the carbon copy of Doyle’s submission to the prosecutor, and Sundries contains Doyle’s various submissions and reports. The two folders contain three separate narrations of the whole affair: the prosecutor’s brief, Doyle’s report to the Superintendent of Detectives, and a supplementary overview, also to the Superintendent of Detectives, requesting that he, Doyle, be considered for the Peter Mitchell Prize, a police award. The papers together represent a single, unified summation of the whole police project. They make terrific reading.

Slasher Brief is a carbon copy of the document handed to the Police Prosecutor. The evidence. The case. There are individual statements by four of the police who made the arrest, followed by a transcript of Doyle’s first interview with Scanlon. Then follow details of the eighteen charges. Statements by victims and witnesses are matched up with Scanlon’s unnervingly deadpan commentary about each matter. ‘…I got in through a back window. It was closed but not locked. I went into a bedroom. There was a woman in bed with her husband. I remember cutting the buttons on her pyjamas and cutting her pyjama cord. I cut the sleeves of her pyjamas and also cut her.’ Or ‘I jabbed a penknife into her breast to wake her up.’ Speaking of one particular attack on a sleeping adolescent, in which he squeezed the sleeping girl’s breast, growled like a dog, then, after she’d woken hit her repeatedly the lump of wood he’d found in the backyard, Scanlon says simply, ‘That is one of the bad ones.’

The attacks are narrated with a dry minimalism, but Doyle’s summation of the psychological aftereffects, telegraphic in their brevity, communicate much. Of the adolescent mentioned above, Doyle writes

Mother says girl was bright cheerful and jolly. Now nervous quiet and sombre. Nerves not good. Has fears and apprehensions. Slept badly ever since… BROKE DOWN COMPLETELY HYSTERICAL AT POLICE COURT.

Of another he says:

Girl has not settled down and is worry to parents. MOTHER GOT IN TOUCH WITH ME IN MIDDLE OF NIGHT WHILE ON THIS DUTY TO TRY AND SETTLE DOWN THE WHOLE OF THE CHILDREN. FOUND HER HIDING BEHIND SETTEE…Three other smaller children. Mother on her own.

And yet another, who was only seven-years old at the time of the attack:

No physical injuries. BUT VERY SERIOUS MENTAL DISTURBANCES TO THE GIRL.

Three years later she is ‘still receiving nervous treatment’. But of yet another victim, Doyle writes ‘AFTER EFFECTS: none serious. Very level headed girl.’

That ‘just-the-facts’ prose suggests victims’ continuing pain in ways that more detailed clinical notes perhaps never could. The report here struggles – partly succeeding but mostly failing – to come to terms with what it apprehends, but there’s a potency in the stumbles and silences.

Reading the Slasher papers, the modern observer is struck by how much it’s a blokes’ business. The suited men doing the investigating, the chasing, the arresting, accusing, reporting, judging, analysing, speculating on the perpetrator’s actions and motives. The violence is all against women and girls, but except for victims and a few eyewitnesses, women are mostly excluded from the procedure. There’s a stark absence of theories or gender politics, or even speculation as to the rage and animus being played out. But a shocked incomprehension resonates in the official documents, and Doyle’s terse reactions to the injuries and the lingering after-effects, basic as they were, informed the entire court case.  For the first time in Australian legal history, a court accepted ‘mental damage’ as constituting grievous bodily harm within the terms of the Crimes Act.

In the two in-house reports to the Superintendent of Detectives, Doyle dilates on the sensational, mass panic aspects of the case. ‘The Kingsgrove Slasher has become a legendary figure in the minds of the people of the whole district,’ Doyle writes.

On one night I witnessed the spectacle of about 2,000 men, women and children scantily clad in night attire, lining the streets in the vicinity of Tabrett St Banksia, where an alarm had been raised.

… [P]eople were prepared to stand out of doors all night. Many of the men seen that night, including boys of 12 and 14 years of age started a stampede around the district with rifles, going through parks, canals etc, in numbers, searching or pretending to search for some ghostlike figure of whom they knew nothing.’

Reporters and photographers, tuned into police radio, also patrolled the area.

They whipped up a state of near mass hysteria by the publication of concocted and exaggerated reports… [so] as to convey the impression that he was a phantom-like and maniacal will-of-the-wisp who struck in dozens of places nightly, whereas in actual fact he made his attacks sparingly, and at infrequent and unpredictable times and places.

The investigation was also much complicated by a number spurious attack claims. Reading the inflammatory press reports, says Doyle, caused

neurotic woman all over Sydney [to] claim that the Slasher had attacked them, whether the Slasher was a male escort, an illicit lover, or a myth. We investigated every one of them.

Some of the false victims, apparently, ‘were so intent on being ‘slashed’ that they staged appropriate acts and called the police.’

Doyle reports how he was assigned to the case late in the piece, in early November 1958, following the recent resumption of attacks. The papers had been criticising the police, and assigning Doyle was intended to reinvigorate the investigation. (Although as Doyle notes in the reports, the number of police actually on the case was continually being reduced, and by the time of the arrest it was down to a small handful.)

November saw a number of ever more vicious attacks. A girl in Kingsgrove was bashed so badly that she nearly choked to death on her own dislodged teeth. Her bedding and clothing were shredded.

Even at that late stage police still had no description of the attacker. They had fingerprints but these had no match in the records: he was a first offender, a ‘squarehead’. Thousands of men had been fingerprinted, and a large number of factories, clubs and business houses had been visited. Medical and psych records had been scanned. Seven hundred different suspects had been closely investigated. Every itinerant or derelict, every humpy in the area – there was still a ‘Happy Valley’ settlement in Wolli Creek then – had been checked out. Anyone at all who moved around in the daily course of their work was questioned. The list of trades and professional people investigated makes a near perfect snapshot of 1950s workaday Australia:

…PMG linesmen, Water Board workers, electricity linesmen … milkmen, grocers delivering, bakers, butchers delivering, time payment collectors, dry cleaners, electrical repairers, painters, plaster repairers, plumbers, house repairers, television demonstrators…[indecipherable]… telephone mechanics, lino and carpet layers, doctors calling, electricity meter readers, furniture delivery men, insurance collectors, rent collectors, fumigators, gas appliance men, ambulance collectors, laundry collectors, lawn cutters, radio repairers, upholsterers, vacuum cleaner repairers, visitors from church bodies, and clergy. And so on.

So, writes Doyle, it was concluded that the Slasher would only be caught in the act, at night. The so called ‘Slasher Patrol’ was formed, comprised of selected young men from 21 Division (the tough flying squad of the time), the Vice Squad and a few others, with Doyle in charge. After another couple of weeks without result, Doyle suggested to his superiors that Patrol would have to shift their focus to the ‘scrub, swamp, pipelines, sewer pipes, storm water gullies, etc.’ in which the Slasher himself was obviously so at home.

The bosses agreed and Doyle went on permanent night duty. By day he explored the bush, creeks and drains of ‘Bexley Gully, Turrella, Undercliffe, Arncliffe, right across to Banksia and Kyeemagh.’ Much of the time he was guided by a local named Eardley, father of two of the attack victims, but also a nature lover and bird watcher, who had lived in the area for 50 years. Eardley drew a map of one central Slasher prowl zone, known as Nanny Goat Hill, and he and Doyle drafted a chase plan. ‘As it transpired,’ writes Doyle, ‘it proved to be a plan of the entire action of the night of the arrest… it was just as if the plan had been prepared months in advance of what was to happen.’

The three month stakeout was hard going. The patrol was divided into groups. The larger Slasher territory, a seven-mile long, three-mile wide stretch of gullies through which flow the Wolli Creek and Cooks River was, and is, simultaneously industrial edgeland, transport corridor and residual wilderness. It’s the very area that the first whitefella visitor Joseph Banks fell so deliriously in love with. But it’s difficult terrain, both rocky and swampy, infested with snakes and bugs.

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Photograph: Peter Doyle.

The men of the Slasher Patrol were sent out in pairs, driving and on foot. One team, ‘The Lovers’, haunted remote laneways, posing as a young couple (with one of the pair in drag). The most agile young men, seconded from 21 Division and Vice Squad were referred to as ‘the Commandos’. (They weren’t fond of the gig, called it ‘Siberia’.) That summer saw heavy rain, and the men spent many nights drenched, tortured by mosquitos. At one point the creek waters rose so high the whole patrol was withdrawn. In April the weather turned very cold.

The police in cars cruised with headlights off, kept in constant walkie-talkie communication, and developed fast collective responses. They would abruptly abandon their cars and take off into the bush and swamps, which they came to know as intimately as the Slasher himself. It was a kind of counter-prowling.

It was a very highly organised and efficient band of constables, working in shirtsleeves mostly, moving with clocklike precision, with positive plans and precise action…and not just aimlessly wandering about idling away the nights in secluded places.

For Doyle it was an especially hard work. At first he alternated days and nights, then in February 1959 he went on permanent night duty. By day he did the admin work associated with the case, explored the scrub with Eardley. When he tried to catch up on sleep – hard enough in a hot bright Sydney summer’s day – he was disturbed by incessant phone calls ‘from members of the press and radio, from local residents, clergy, aldermen, business people…and from Departmental officers, all seeking information, making criticisms, and asking questions.’ His wife had been in hospital, he had five children at home. Eventually he disconnected the phone, hired a housekeeper, slept next door. He lost two stone in weight.

By mid April it was looking futile. Nothing had been heard of the Slasher since late February, and it appeared he’d again gone into hiatus. Doyle’s superiors wanted to wind down the patrol, and take Doyle off night duty. He begged for more time. One more strike might do it, he argued.

It did. On the night of 30 April, at 10.30 pm an Earlwood woman saw a hand lift the venetian blind on her bedroom window. She screamed and the hand was hastily withdrawn. A little later a man one street away saw a pair of legs disappearing over a side fence. Those streets backed onto the Wolli Creek bush – Doyle had long assumed that the Slasher entered and left the district via the Wolli Creek valley, so when the sighting report came in he instituted the Nanny Goat Hill plan, the one he and Eardley had drawn up months before. It involved quietly sealing off every track and possible exit from the scrubby gully, bottling the suspect up, herding him towards a footbridge which crossed the creek into the neighbouring suburb of Turrella – a natural escape route for a man on foot. Doyle had two men crouch in the swamp next to the bridge, while the others carefully closed in from the Earlwood side to the north of the creek. The entire team of eleven men was involved, closely coordinated by Doyle. The dragnet was tightened with perfect coordination.

The suspect was deftly nudged downhill towards the two commandos hiding by the bridge. At the last moment he spotted them, darted off the other way, but they chased and tackled him. They had him. The entire team was there was within seconds.

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Photograph: Peter Doyle.

The man was young, strong, dark haired. He offered, without prompting, ‘I’m the man you’re after. I’m the Kingsgrove Slasher.’ He gave his name as David Joseph Scanlon. The Scientific Branch man present examined the suspect’s fingertips under torchlight. He recognised the prints straight off. He took a proper sample, with ink and paper, confirmed this was the man. They took him to Kogarah Police Station and charged him. He admitted to everything, and over the next couple of days made 27 separate statements.

Scanlon himself turned out to be something of an anti-climax. He was indeed a Kingsgrove lad – he’d grown up not so far from where Brian Doyle and his family lived, in his parents’ neat house (not dissimilar to Doyle’s), in one of those tidy streets with nature strips clipped to regimental standard. Now he was living in a flat in Arncliffe, with his wife of two and a half years. Yes, that accounted for the hiatus: he’d more or less desisted from the attacks when he got married. He was fit, a local champion sprinter and long distance runner. He was agile, and, as Doyle remarks, ‘silent as the night itself’.

Scanlon held down a good job as a clerk and warehouseman with an electrical merchant in the city, on a modest but for the time reasonable wage of £16 a week. He’d worked there since leaving school, was regarded as intelligent and capable by the firm. He didn’t drink or smoke, was not ‘an associate of prostitutes, criminals or undesirables’. His wife (‘a very decent type of young person’) worked in the ladies shoe department of David Jones. Police believed she knew nothing of his doings, and bits of evidence later affirmed that.

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Photograph courtesy of the estate of Brian K. Doyle.

Scanlon was keen to help police distinguish his actual attacks from the spurious claims and cases of self-harm. (Doyle notes with some satisfaction that Scanlon confirmed all the police hunches about real and phony attack stories.) But Scanlon himself, the man, and his particular psychopathology, remains shadowy in the reports, and in his own statements. A peeping tom, who graduated to sadism, cruelty and perversion is Doyle’s summation, which he puts in about as many words as I just did. Experts testified in court, not very helpfully, that psychiatric records worldwide held no similar cases. Scanlon was evasive when questioned by Doyle about his motives, possibly embarrassed about whatever kicks he got from his activities: he claimed repeatedly that it was simply the thrill of being chased, of outrunning the cops or irate householders. When Doyle pointed out that actually, he had only been chased once or twice, and even then not so much, he just shrugged.

Scanlon certainly worked hard at what he did. When Doyle asked him how many houses he’d entered he said, ‘It’s hard to say. Many, many hundreds.’ ‘Thousands?’ asked Doyle. ‘Yes. Perhaps thousands.’ Some nights, he said, he ‘prowled around for as long as eight or nine hours’. There were streets – he named five in Earlwood and Bexley – where he had been into every single house or backyard, more than once, in some cases many times. He had spent hours on end inside some individual houses, entering and exiting through every doorway and window in turn, or silently staring at the sleeping residents. The most accomplished burglars and house breakers are prepared to spend literally hours climbing a set of stairs, or edging open a door, or walking along a hallway, moving so slowly that not a single floorboard creak, or thump, or footfall or hinge squeak wakes the sleeping residents. Scanlon was at that level. He came to know those houses, their layouts, their peculiarities, their unlocked windows and rusty screen doors better than the residents themselves. He would have known, in a sense, every member of those households as well – their different sleep patterns, whether they snored or mumbled, or had nightmares. How often they got up to go to the toilet. Likewise the topography, flora and fauna, the network of rills, culverts, sewer pipe, rail lines and tracks running through those converging gullies, which he could reach by walking a few hundred yards from his own front door.

One particularly grotesque attack attests to Scanlon’s stealth: a taxi driver and a woman passenger had stopped in a lovers lane, were on the front bench seat of the taxi, deep into lovemaking, and Scanlon managed to approach them, slash the woman on each breast badly enough that she later needed six stitches, then escape again with the pair being none the wiser until some moments later, when they found themselves covered in her blood.

The tabloids reported the September court case in detail, front page, day after day. With Scanlon pleading guilty, the trial pretty much followed the police-prosecution script. Scanlon’s bewildered wife Jean attended. Three different psychiatrists gave evidence, all of it vague and inconclusive. Scanlon was ‘mildly psychotic’ but ‘not insane’, and so notionally, he should have been able to control his impulses, which were kind of sexual but kind of not, in that he never attempted to sexually assault his victims. The defence shrink declared Scanlon to be in need of brain surgery ‘to relieve pressure on his frontal lobes.’ The ‘thrill of the chase’ motive was generally dismissed, but one of the shrinks was of the opinion that Scanlon himself believed it. The trial concluded with Scanlon getting an 18-year jail sentence – a lot more than the average manslaughter sentence of the time, more like a murder sentence.

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Photograph: Peter Doyle.

The day after the trial finished Mirror reporter Frank O’Neill went out to the Scanlons’ now empty house in Arncliffe, saw the withering vegetable and flower garden, spoke to the young landlady next door. ‘THE SLASHER’S PRIVATE LIFE/ Budgies…and sweet peas’, ran the heading in the Sunday Mirror. Sub headings running down the page made mild sport of Scanlon’s squarehead front: ‘HE TENDED THE BIRDS’, ‘HE SMILED AT EVERYONE’, ‘HE MOWED THE LAWNS’. (The sub-editors must have been having a laugh.) The landlady told O’Neill, ‘He used to wear white shirt, slacks and sandshoes. He always had a bright smile and a cheery hello for everybody.’ O’Neill spotted metal inserts on the Scanlons’ windows – put there by Scanlon as an anti-Slasher measure, at the landlady’s suggestion.

A jokey aside in Ray Castle’s column in the Daily Telegraph the next day said that Brian Doyle had drawn up a balance sheet of what the hunt had cost him: ‘1000 hours sleep. 350 hours overtime. £200 for a TV set to keep his wife happy while he was out hunting the Slasher.’

Doyle was awarded his Peter Mitchell Medal. Within a year he was in the newspapers again, on what was maybe Sydney’s crime of the century: the kidnapping and killing of schoolboy Graeme Thorne. That same year Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho was released, and a few years later came Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Slasher monsters from the suburban id would haunt the popular imagination thereafter. David Scanlon did his jail time and disappeared from view.

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Photograph: Peter Doyle.