Peter Manuel mug shot
13 March 1927|
New York City, United States
|Died||11 July 1958
HM Prison Barlinnie, Glasgow, Scotland
Cause of death
|Other names||The Beast of Birkenshaw|
|Height||5 feet 4 inches|
|Conviction(s)||Murder, rape, sexual assault|
Span of killings
|2 January 1956–1 January 1958|
|13 January 1958|
Peter Thomas Anthony Manuel (13 March 1927 – 11 July 1958) was an American-born Scottish serial killer who was convicted of murdering seven people across Lanarkshire and southern Scotland between 1956 and his arrest in January 1958, and is believed to have murdered two more. Prior to his arrest, the media nicknamed the unidentified killer "the Beast of Birkenshaw". Manuel was hanged at Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison; he was one of the last prisoners to die on the Barlinnie gallows.
Manuel was born in 1927 to Scottish parents in New York; the family moved to Detroit before migrating back to Britain in 1932, this time to Birkenshaw, North Lanarkshire. During his childhood, he was bullied. By the age of ten, he was known to the local police as a petty thief. At the age of sixteen, he committed a string of sexual attacks that resulted in his serving nine years in Peterhead Prison. In 1955 he successfully conducted his own defence on a rape charge at Airdrie Sheriff Court.
Manuel was tried in 1958 for the murders of eight people. One case against him was thrown out of court; another, committed in England, was attributed to him.
Anne Kneilands: 17. On 2 January 1956, Kneilands was stalked onto an East Kilbride golf course, where she was raped and bludgeoned to death with a length of iron. Although he was questioned by police about the murder and would confess to it two years later, Manuel escaped arrest when his father provided him with an alibi. He was charged with this murder in 1958, but the case against him was dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Marion Watt, Vivienne Watt and Margaret Brown: 45, 17 and 41. Marion, her daughter Vivienne, and her sister Margaret were shot dead in their home in Burnside, Glasgow, on 17 September 1956. At the time of the murders, Manuel was out on bail for a burglary at a nearby colliery and was suspected by officers in charge of the manhunt for the Watts’ killer. However for a time the main suspect was Marion’s husband, William, who had been on a fishing holiday in Ardrishaig, but was suspected of driving around 90 miles through the night, faking a break-in to his own house, murdering his family, and driving back. The ferryman on the Renfrew Ferry claimed to have seen him on the ferry during the night (although this was not the most direct route) and a motorist claimed to have passed him on Loch Lomondside. Both witnesses picked him out at an identity parade. William Watt was arrested and held on remand in Barlinnie Prison, he was released two months later after the police realized that they could not quite make the case against him stick, and the ferryman seemed confused about what type of car he had been driving. The police did not find any serious motive which might have led Watt to murder his family, although it came out that he had had a number of affairs during his marriage. Police frogmen searched the Crinan Canal next to the hotel where he had been staying, looking for a murder weapon and bloodstained clothing, but the weapon was actually in another stretch of water further south. It was established that the level of petrol in Watt's car had not fallen during his alleged overnight drive, so the police questioned petrol stations along the route to see if he had refueled, and even speculated that he might have had a secret cache of petrol, and searched the route for it. William Watt remained the main suspect until the Smart family murder just a few miles away, when the police realized that there was a serial killer on the loose. At Manuel's trial the defence still argued that Watt had committed these murders.
The legal system could have come fairly close to a miscarriage of justice in Watt's case (who would very likely have been hanged if convicted) and the evidence of these two witnesses is still not easy to explain even now. However one possible explanation is that the ferryman was a fantasist who had already seen Watt's picture in the papers, although he claimed not to. The other admitted that he did not get a clear look at Watt but identified him based on the way he held his cigarette.
Sydney Dunn: 36. Manuel is believed to have shot and killed his fifth victim, taxi driver Sydney Dunn, on 8 December 1957 while looking for work in Newcastle upon Tyne. Dunn’s body was found on moorlands in Northumberland soon after, by which time Manuel had already returned to Lanarkshire. Manuel was never tried for this murder, as it took place in a different legal jurisdiction, but 17 days after he was hanged a coroner's jury found that Dunn was murdered by him, after a button found in Dunn's taxi was matched to one of his jackets. This verdict has been accepted in most accounts of the case, but some doubts have been expressed. There are a few indications that the murderer might have been a local person, or he might have come off an Irish boat train which had recently arrived at Newcastle station. Two witnesses who spoke to the apparent killer picked out Manuel at an identity parade, but these identifications are not always decisive (see the Watt case above). One of these witness initially said that the apparent killer had a local accent, but when it was suggested to him that the killer might have come off the Irish boat train he said that he had an Irish accent, and Manuel had a Scottish accent. Manuel definitely did attend a job interview in Newcastle two days before this murder, but it is not clear that he hung around in the area, he could have just gone home to Scotland.
Isabelle Cooke: 17. Cooke disappeared after leaving her Mount Vernon home to go to a dance at Uddingston Grammar School on 28 December 1957. Manuel stalked, raped and strangled her, and then buried her in a nearby field. He would later lead officers to the spot where he had disposed of her body. As with Dunn’s murder twenty days earlier, Cooke’s disappearance was not initially connected to Manuel.
Peter, Doris and Michael Smart: 45, 42 and 10. The Smarts were shot dead in their Uddingston home on 1 January 1958. After the murders, Manuel stayed in their household for nearly a week, eating leftovers from a Hogmanay meal and even feeding the family cat, before stealing some brand new banknotes that Peter Smart had been keeping for a holiday, and taking the family car and dumping it nearby. Manuel gave a lift in this car to a police officer investigating the disappearance of Isabelle Cooke, even telling him that he felt that the police were not looking in the right places.
Arrest, trial and execution
Although many police officers who were familiar with Manuel suspected him of carrying out these murders, they were unable to prove it until shortly after the Smarts’ murder, when some banknotes Manuel had been using to pay for drinks in east-end Glasgow pubs were found to be from the batch stolen from their household by the killer. After the police arrested his father he confessed to eight of these murders (but not Dunn) and provided incriminating information.
Manuel was tried for murder in a sensational trial at the Glasgow High Court. In a move that astounded many present, he sacked his lawyers and conducted his defence by himself. At one point William Watt was called as a witness, recently injured in a road accident he appeared in a stretcher. Although the judge, Lord Cameron, admitted that Manuel conducted his defence “with a skill that is quite remarkable”, the killer was unable to convince the jury of his innocence, and he was found guilty of all charges against him, except for that of Anne Kneilands, which had been dropped due to a lack of evidence. Even then, he might have had a halfway plausible case claiming that William Watt had carried out the Watt killings, and it is not clear that Manuel would have been convicted if he had been charged with the Watt killings in isolation. However his defence in relation to the Smart killings contained some highly implausible claims, e.g. that Peter Smart had gone on a spree and killed his family and then himself, and that Peter Smart was a friend of his who had given him keys to his house. On 11 July 1958, Manuel was hanged on the gallows at Barlinnie Prison, by Harry Allen. His last words are reported to have been, "Turn up the radio and I’ll go quietly".
Around the time of his trial and execution, some newspapers published claims that Manuel was responsible for several other unsolved murders in the 1950s, but the evidence for this is tenuous at best, and in some cases it can be shown that he was in prison at the time.
Contrary to what is sometimes believed, Manuel was not the last criminal to be executed in Scotland, but the third-last. Anthony Miller followed Manuel on to the Barlinnie gallows in December 1960, while Henry John Burnett suffered a similar fate at Craiginches Prison, Aberdeen in August 1963.
In 2009, a BBC programme Inside the Mind of a Psychopath argued that the authorities colluded to ensure Manuel was hanged, despite the fact that he was a known psychopath.
Some people at the time considered that the small Lanarkshire police force had been out of their depth, and noted that Manuel had been arrested only eight days after the City of Glasgow C.I.D. took over the case, leading to calls for the creation of a national police force. (A single Scottish police force was eventually created in 2013.) There may be similarities with later investigations where the police spent some time barking up the wrong tree: the Yorkshire Ripper, and the murders of Jill Dando and Rachel Nickell.
Johnny Bible, a serial murderer in Ian Rankin's novel Black and Blue uses the name Peter Manuel during his research into Bible John, a real serial murderer who inspires Rankin's fictional one.
MacLeod, Hector and McLeod, Malcolm Peter Manuel, Serial Killer
Nicol, Allan Manuel: Scotland's First Serial Killer (with an introduction by Donald Findlay)
Skelton, Douglas Glasgow's Black Heart: A City's Life of Crime
- Nicol Chapter 18 "Who Saw Watt?"
- Nicol Chapter 22 "Sidney John Dunn"
- Nicol Chapter 46 "The Cook and Smart Charges", Chapter 47 "Manuel's Evidence - An Appraisal"
- Nicol Chapter 55 "The Final Reckoning"
- BBC Radio Scotland Serial killer's voice to be heard
- Cox, Brian. Inside Manhunter: Interviews with stars William Petersen, Brian Cox, Joan Allen and Tom Noonan (Manhunter (DVD)).
- Craig Russell (25 April 2013). Dead Men and Broken Hearts. Quercus Publishing. p. 406. ISBN 978-0857381859.