Days before Christmas 1957, schoolgirl Isabelle Cooke went missing on the way to a dance. She was never seen alive again. And on New Year's Eve that same year the Smart family were found shot dead in their beds, their Hogmanay meal still on the table. All were victims of Peter Manuel, Scotland's sickest serial killer. And they weren't the only ones...
As a postman carried out his rounds in Fennsbank Avenue, High Burnside, Scotland, a woman came running out of a house.
‘There’s been a murder,’ she announced, before calling the police.
It was September 1956 and she was the home help for the Watt family. When the police arrived, inside the family home they found Marion Watt, 45, her 16-year-old daughter Vivienne and Marion’s sister, Margaret Brown, 41. All three had been shot at close range, and although she hadn’t been sexually assaulted, Vivienne’s clothes had been pulled above her head.
Suspicion initially fell on Marion’s husband, William, a former policeman and successful bakery owner, when it was revealed he’d been unfaithful. Though he was away on a fishing trip in Argyll at the time, sensationally, he was arrested and jailed, despite the impossibility of him driving back in time to cover his tracks.
Then, his lawyer started receiving letters from another inmate, Peter Manuel, sharing details of the Watt murders. However, as Manuel claimed another prisoner had talked of horrific killings, he let slip Margaret had been shot twice. A detail only the killer could know. William Watt was released after 67 days, and now suspicion fell on Manuel. Yet, a short time later, he was released, after serving time for burglary.
Days before Christmas on 22 December 1957, 17-year-old Isabelle Cooke left for a dance at Uddingston Grammar School. Only she never returned. Days later, on New Year’s Day 1958, Peter Smart, his wife Doris and their son Michael, 10, were shot as they slept in their home. Staggeringly, the depraved killer then helped himself to food, fed the cat and stole £20 in brand-new notes. It seemed a serial killer was on the loose in Scotland, and people were afraid.
In the following days, Manuel blew cash on cigarettes and alcohol. And as details of the Smart family murders emerged, a barman noted the mint-condition money Manuel paid with, and alerted police. They traced them back to Peter Smart and, on 14 January 1958, Manuel was arrested. The following day, he confessed to eight murders…
In January 1956, Anne Knielands, 17, a machinist, disappeared in East Kilbride. Her butchered body was found on the local golf course. She’d been battered to death with an iron bar, her underwear torn off. That September, the Watt family had been murdered. Then, the following December, Sydney Dunn, a taxi driver from Newcastle, was found dead on moorland in Northumbria. He’d been shot point blank and had his throat slit.
Later that month, Isabelle Cooke was murdered, before the Smart family was slaughtered. In the five days the Smarts’ bodies lay undiscovered, Manuel returned to feed their cat. He’d also stolen their car and drove it around, even giving a young police officer a lift to work in it one day. Ironically, the officer was helping investigate the disappearance of Isabelle. Toying with him, Manuel said he felt the police weren’t looking in the right places.
But the money trail from the Smart murders was his downfall, and Peter Manuel was arrested on 14 January 1958 at his parent’s home. The following day he confessed in front of his mum and dad…
‘I have done some terrible things,’ Manuel admitted. ‘I killed the girl Knielands at East Kilbride. And I shot three women in the house at Burnside.’
He also owned up to shooting the Smarts and murdering Isabelle Cooke, even taking officers to where she was buried, and to the exact spots on the banks of the Clyde where he’d ditched his guns. Yet, to everyone’s shock, he refused to plead guilty in court to the eight murders.
So, in May 1958, he appeared at what was branded ‘The Trial Of The Century’. As before, Manuel represented himself. Cleared of Anne Knielands’ murder due to insufficient evidence, he was, however, convicted of the seven others and given the death sentence.
After a failed appeal, on 11 July 1958, Peter Manuel, 32, hanged for his crimes. His last words – ‘Turn up the radio and I’ll go quietly.’
After his execution, Peter Manuel was pronounced guilty of killing Sydney Dunn. Finally, Scotland could sleep soundly again.