Throughout the 1960s, suited, booted and elaborately coiffed Glaswegians would come to the Barrowlands, the city’s biggest ballroom, to escape the humdrum via a boozy combination of colour, glitter, dancing and debauchery. By the end of the decade, though, a shadow was cast over the venue, after three women’s bodies were found on the streets, on each occasion within hours of them leaving the dancehall. Glasgow was – and is to this day – haunted by the man believed to be their killer: Bible John.
“The city that loved dancing was suddenly living in fear of a killer who was picking his victims on the dancefloor,” says Glaswegian Audrey Gillan, who was two weeks old when the first victim was murdered. “They saw an artist’s sketch of him and thought, ‘That’s the guy at the corner shop.’ Or, ‘I see him walking his dog in the park.’ It changed the way women felt – and children like myself grew up thinking he was a bogeyman.”
Gillan, a former Guardian journalist, knows more than most about the man behind the mystery: she’s just released a podcast series, Bible John: Creation of a Serial Killer, on BBC Sounds. But far from just being morbidly fascinated with the killer, the podcast explores the little told stories of the three women – Patricia Docker, Jemima McDonald and Helen Puttock – while also dismantling the misogyny their murders were met with by the press, police and public. Gillan says she shares the shame for this treatment, having previously covered the story for a Scottish paper 26 years ago.
While cutting her teeth as a reporter, she published an exclusive claiming that – after new DNA findings and an exhumation – Bible John had finally been identified. In the end, that turned out not to be the case. But that’s not what Gillan is trying to rectify. “The story I did was about this guy, and the women were just a sidebar,” she says, her voice clearly full of regret.
During lockdown, Gillan decided to go back over all the documents she had acquired about the case. “Being older,” she says, “and now having a different perspective, I looked at them and thought, ‘These are so awful!’ It was so misogynistic.” It was time to re-examine the story. On the Ground, Gillan’s thrilling and disturbing 2020 podcast about being embedded in Iraq for this paper during the war, was nominated for a Foreign Press Association award. Gillan felt Bible John would fit the podcast format perfectly, its freedoms allowing her to dig deep and include more voices in the story, as she had to great effect in On the Ground.
According to Gillan, the police made notes on how the victims “liked the company of men”, labelled them as “promiscuous” and described one as “an only child and rather spoilt”. All the women were on their periods when their bodies were found. Their used sanitary products linked the murders, but they also prompted a general outcry of: “Imagine having the audacity to go out dancing while on your period!” They were judged for that, Gillan says. “Imagine if the victim was a man – the notes would not be written in that way. I think that was a big failing.”
Bleak as it all sounds, Gillan lets light into the series by vividly painting the people of Glasgow and celebrating the community, as well as focusing on the three women: Pat, Jemima and Helen. “I wanted to know what these women were like. What colour lipstick did they wear? What did they sing in the shower?”
To find answers, she handed the mic over to family members to talk about their loved ones’ lives rather than their deaths. A bonus episode is given over to Alex Docker, son of Patricia, who was too young to properly remember his mother, but recollects memories from his father and aunt. He talks about family time spent in Cyprus with the pet dog, his parent’s separation, bath times in the two-storey tenement above a shop, and his mother’s laughing face.
Inevitably, we are also told what’s known about the killer, which actually isn’t much. The name was coined because witnesses said they heard him quoting passages from the bible. But any gripping true crime podcast needs to come with a bombshell revelation, and from the first episode, Gillan talks about a “dynamite parallel” story that she may have missed at the time she covered the case. “I can’t tell you about that,” she says, explaining that more will be revealed in further episodes. “I don’t want to spoil it for you.”
Can there ever be a satisfactory end to the story, given that the killer has never been found and is probably long dead? “People might feel frustrated,” says Gillan. “But they will find out more about these women than they’ve heard before. It’s not our job to solve these murders. I’m a journalist. I’m not a detective.”
• Bible John: Creation of a Serial Killer is available now on BBC Sounds